Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Rembrandt's Self-portraits

Rembrandt at 22, 1628, Rembrandt van Rijn
There is hardly a painter alive who hasn't, at one time or another, attempted at least one self-portrait. As near as I can recall, I've done about five or six, the earliest being when I was about 14. The most recent one wasn't a painting but a colored pencil drawing. Sometimes artists paint themselves out of ego, sometimes out of boredom, sometimes because they simply lack an affordable model. Sometimes they can be very introspective, in other cases, very superficial and pretentious. Vincent Van Gogh, of course, is famous for his self-portraits. He painted over a dozen of them. That sounds like a lot, but the average for most well-known artists over a lifetime is about that. The only difference is, Van Gogh painted that many over the course of just two or three years. However, the world's champion self-portrait painter of all time was Rembrandt van Rijn.

Rembrandt Self-portrait at 23, 1629
Rembrandt, over the course of his lifetime, painted more than forty self-portraits, and this number reflects only those that have survived. It also doesn't count numerous drawings and etchings in which he used his own likeness to study facial expressions. There is some doubt as to the exact number because there are a few paintings of Rembrandt in which the actual painter is in doubt, and in other cases, paintings in which the painter is not in doubt but the setter is. (Is it Rembrandt or isn't it?) His earliest was done in 1628 when he was a young man of 22 (top). Much of the face is in shadow with the light coming from behind the figure indicating it was probably done as a study of light and color while he was still a student. Another, done a year later, exudes a quiet confidence, depicting, in its highly polished style, the work and demeanor of a rising young star in the art world of his time.

Rembrandt Self-portrait, 1669,
possibly his final one.
Rembrandt's self-portraits, taken as a whole, have an eerie quality to them. You can actually see the man age and evolved right before your eyes. His 1862 self-portrait, hanging in the Uffizi in Florence, is rich with impasto but sadly self-effacing. Painted at a low point in his career, only the richness of his colors rescues it from somber flaccidity. His last, painted in 1669 is apparently unfinished, but even at that, appears to be one of his best. It would seem to be a sort of last will and testament--how he wished to be remembered by posterity. In between his first and last are a wildly varying group of visual incantations ranging from the preposterous costumed works to highly dignified renderings consciously painted in the tradition of Titian and Raphael. There are even cases in which he used himself and his wife, Saskia, in disguise as models such as his 1635 painting, Return of the Prodigal Son (bottom). He appears to have used the money he saved in not hiring models to buy the expensive outfits they wear in the painting.

The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, 1635, Rembrandt van Rijn,
saving money on models.


Sunday, December 30, 2012


Dutch Man-of-War and Fishing Boats in a Breeze, ca. 1590, Hendrick Vroom
If you walk through just about any traditional art gallery on, you will find landscapes, often dozens of them. But the chances are (unless the gallery is within sight of the sea), you can probably count on the fingers of one hand (if that) the number of seascapes hanging from the same walls. You would think that 70% of the earth's surface was dry land, not the other way around. Yet the seascape has been around every bit as long as the landscape. I'm not talking, in either case, about the stylized, often symbolic landscapes and seascapes painted by ancient artists as mere backgrounds for other subjects. I mean the serious study of the land and the sea as separate, individual painting genres. In both cases, we look to the Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th centuries. Actually, the seascape came first. The Dutch painter Hendrick Vroom painted Dutch Man-of-War and Fishing Boat in a Breeze (top) around 1590. The Dutch landscape master, Jacob van Ruisdael, didn't begin his career until around 1650. Hobbema and van Goyen were still later than that.

The Wave, 1870, Gustave Courbet
It's not surprising that the Dutch were the first ones to "take to the sea," so to speak, with paint and canvas. Holland was a country virtually torn from the sea in the first place, and largely dependent upon it for its trade and defence as well. Not surprising either is the fact that they apparently found it more fascinating than the land from which they painted. The sea is very often more dramatic, and if you've ever tried to paint it, especially when it's having a "bad day," you know it's also far more challenging. Unlike the land, which is "rock solid," painting the sea is like dealing with a rambunctious child, it doesn't hold still. It's unpredictable, ever-changing, demanding, and immensely fascinating--even hypnotic in its power and majesty. Gustave Courbet's 1870 The Wave (above) is a tremendous example of this.

The Fighting 'Temeraire' Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1839, J.M.W. Turner
Artists' fascination with the sea only begins with the water itself. Being clear and reflective, it presents an opportunity to explore atmospheric color unlike any other natural phenomena with the possible exception of its frigid cousin, snow. Then there's the effect of weather--wind, clouds, rain, or all of the above as in a storm, stirring the almost unfathomable aquatic expanse far off toward the horizon. England's J. M. W. Turner with his classic The Fighting 'Temeraire' Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, (above, 1839) was one of the first to explore all these environmental marine elements inherent in the seascape.

The Sea I, 1912, Emile Nolde
Seascapes also present all kinds of composition challenges as well. They demand careful placement of the horizon, either high or low in the painting, some manner of land or vessel by which to gauge their scale, and a masterful painting technique in trying to render the feeling of depth without much help from the usual forms of linear perspective. Whether painting the placid waters of a Normandy resort beach as did Eugene Boudin in The Beach at Trouville (bottom, 1864), or man battling the wild turbulence of the churning sea as in Emile Nolde's The Sea I (left, 1912), there's no hiding an unfamiliarity on the part of the artist with either the sea or the paint used in rendering it. Yet, despite its challenges, despite its beauty, despite its long history at the hand of some of the most talented artists to ever wield a brush or brace an easel against and offshore breeze, seascapes are very likely outnumbered by landscapes ten to one on gallery walls. It doesn't seem fair.
The Beach at Trouville, 1864, Eugene Boudin

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Orovida Pissarro

Orovida Pissarro Self-portrait, 1913, age 20.
When two generations are involved in the same art form, we usually find one of two opposite scenarios. That is, either the second generation follows closely the first, or rebelliously rejects the parent's style outright. We see examples of this in the Pissarro family. Lucien Pissarro, the eldest son of French Impressionist Camille Pissarro, warmly embraced his father's Impressionist work and followed closely in his footsteps. On the other hand, we have Lucien's only child, a daughter, Orovida Camille Pissarro, born in 1893. Even though during her impressionable (no pun intended) teen years she studied oil painting exclusively with her father - as he had with his father - to Lucien's disappointment, when in her 20s, his daughter not only rejected the family painting style, but even the family name. The rest of her life she was known simply as Orovida.

With a family of artists as big and multi-generational as the Pissarros, a family tree helps.
Artists are listed in purple. After the first generation, the art gene appears about once
in each generation to follow.
Orovida was not the first Pissarro to strike out on her own in this manner. Her uncle Georges used the name Manzana (his grandmother's maiden name) to sign his work. Orovida was an independent spirit, though proud of the family's art legacy. She was the first of the family's second generation to become an artist. One might even argue she was the only painter of the second generation. She was 43 when her cousin, H. Claude Pissarro (who also became a painter) was born in 1935. He was the son of Paulemile Pissarro, the youngest of the first generation. In Orovida's rejection of Impressionism, and everything "Pissarro," was also a more profound rejection of Western Art. She saw it as competing with photography while Eastern art ran a much more independent course, far more to her own liking and personality.

A Family Picnic, Orovida Pissarro, plenty of models available.

However, there had always been an element of Eastern art running through the Pissarro family. Orovida's grandfather had also been fascinated with it, particularly Japanese prints. But Orovida preferred Mongolian horsemen, African dancers, Persian princes, zoo animals, and art from India. She studied with the Japanese painter, Tatuo Takayama, and was also influenced by her Uncle Manzana, who also had a taste for Eastern art. And, although she liked to observe wild animals in their natural habitat (if you could call the animal habitat of London Zoo in the early 1900s, natural), she preferred to render them from memory using delicate strokes of gouache or egg tempera on linen, silk, paper, and gold leaf. After 1914, she also took up the family art medium of etching as taught her by her uncle, Paulemile (only nine years older than she) in her grandfather's old studio at Eragny. In many ways, she was much more like her grandfather than her father where printmaking was concerned. Many of her works during this time are also reminiscent of those of her cousin Felix.
The Ambush, 1938, etching, Orovida Pissarro, the Asian influence.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Sculptural Media

Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, 1879-80,
(1922 casting in bronze), Edgar Degas
In discussing an item I wrote a several month ago (8-30-12) regarding Degas' Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, a reader, who had known of the sculpture all her life, didn't understand why it was considered such a disturbing work when first exhibited in Paris in 1881. Today, I suppose, that's not a surprising question. Having not been there myself, and from second-hand sources, I'd have to say critics were disturbed first because it represented a sudden change in media for Degas, something with which the French at the time, and sometimes even we today, aren't always comfortable. Sculptors then were supposed to have studied years to master their craft, and the idea that some untrained jerk of a painter could create something so touching kind of rankled the critics. Second, he was displaying it in wax, which was considered merely one step in creating a bronze sculpture; so it was as if the work were being exhibited unfinished. And third, of course, was the "mixed media" element in adding clothes, hair, etc., to his figure. It was as if he were "cheating" in not sculpting them. So, really, it was a combination of things, the least of which was the figure itself, which, by all accounts, was considered quite lovely even then.

The Cathedrale, 1908,
Auguste Rodin--so much more
than kissers and thinkers 
I think we should keep in mind that the art world was still pretty narrow-minded as to suitable sculpture media in 1881. There was stone and bronze, sometimes wood, and little else. Plaster, clay, and wax were considered merely a means to an end, and even wood was something you only carved. In fact, except for preliminary work in wax and clay, all sculpture at that time was created by means of the "subtractive" method (carving) or by casting, which was really neither. Even more than Degas, Rodin suffered from these preconceptions. Especially concerning academic training, it was felt a sculptor had to have studied under a master for years. Rodin flunked the Academic entrance exam to become a sculptor three times, yet went on to master stone, wax, clay, and become the greatest sculptor of the nineteenth century.

Queen of Air, Jenny Sparrow,
assemblage sculpture, Degas revisited

As I suggested a few months ago in discussing the portrait bust today, stone carving is practically a lost art. Conversely, the idea of the "assemblage" was a twentieth century concept growing out of a painting tradition rather than sculpture. Picasso and others developed it as their collages became more and more three-dimensional. Today of course, in one way or another, most sculpture is created by means of the highly forgiving "additive" method, and the list of possible sculpture media grows almost daily.
Rapunzel's Longing, 2008, Erica Zoe Loustau, mixed media installation.
Degas would have loved this.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sargent's Studios

Sargent's New York Studio
Next to an artist's painting style, nothing tells more about that individual than a peek into his or her studio. Mine is relatively small and looks something on the order of a home office (bottom). It's an image I cultivate as much for the IRS as for myself. There's the mat cutting department, the drawing department, the painting department, and the computing department where I tap out these daily missives; each occupying its own little corner of a room about the size of a small, one-car garage. It's me. It reflects not only who I am, but what I do, and how I paint. It's not the cleanest room in the house but it is neat and orderly--like myself. I've seen other artists' workspace. They vary in type from pig pens to parlors, and in ambiance from Andy Warhol factories to Martha Stewart chic. In every case, both the artists and their work are reflected quite accurately in their working environment.

Sargent's Tite Street London Studio.
I the early 1890s, John Singer Sargent set up shop in New York (top). He had a London studio (above) as well, which he also used when the mood struck him, though in truth, he worked wherever the money was. Being something of the "jet set" type, his lifestyle often involved several week-long transatlantic crossings per year aboard opulent ocean liners at a time when "getting there" was probably more than half the fun. The house at 33 Tite Street wasn't a mansion exactly, but it was large and comfortable. As befitted a socialite portrait artist, he held several invitation-only dinner parties to show it off and no doubt tempt wealthy, female, friends to engage his services. The biggest room in the house was the studio, of course, said to be over thirty feet in length. With its furnishing arranged neatly around the outside walls, which in turn were loaded down with shelves containing props and other tools of his trade, the room appeared somewhat sparsely furnished and even bigger than it really was. A large wooden easel dominated its center.

Sargent at work in his Paris studio as Madame X looks over his (and her) shoulder.
As they do today, the room reflected Sargent's painting manner. His wife described his approach as being more like fencing than painting as the artist moved slowly back from his easel, then deciding what to do, would suddenly bolt forward slashing at the canvas with a large, overloaded brush in an effort to capture a fleeting mental image before once more stepping back to judge his efforts. It was such an exciting spectacle, amateur artist would often come just to watch, which only seemed to heightened the artist's eccentric antics--shouting, whistling singing operatic passages--always animated and joyous. Only near the finish of each portraits did he work close to the canvas and even then, he seldom sat down. He claimed his approach allowed him to concentrate on the picture, not just the person. He once advised a student, "Do not concentrate so much on the features. Paint the Head. The features are only like spots on an apple." In this effort, by his own estimation, Sargent commonly racked up some four miles per day dashing about his spacious studio. I often stroll a few feet from one chair to another in cozy little nook; even though, inasmuch as they both have wheels and I could just as easily glide.
My own little corner of the world.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Is It a Portrait?

Adoration of the Magi, 1476, Sandro Botticelli
Let me ask you a question. When is a portrait not a portrait? In 1476, the Early Renaissance artist, Sandro Botticelli painted his famous Adoration of the Magi (above). The scene is set in a makeshift stable amid a backdrop of Roman ruins, the holy family seated high in the painting, while all around, approximately two dozen figures worship the new-born child. Tradition has it that Botticelli himself occupies the far right, while one of the magi bears the likeness of Cosimo de' Medici, another, that of his grandson, Lorenzo "The Magnificent." On numerous other figures are seen the faces of other Medici family members. Is this a portrait? Cosimo had been dead for ten years when the painting was done. The de' Medici were more than mere models, and their faces were well known by viewers seeing the painting for the first time. Could we say it was a group portrait at one time but no longer is because the faces and figures are now mostly speculation? Or was this not portraiture but merely a means by which the artist flattered his friends and patrons by asking them to stand in for his biblical characters?

Portrait of a Noblewoman (La Bella),
1537, Titian
In 1537, the Venetian painter, Titian, was commissioned by Francesco Maria della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, to paint Portrait of a Noblewoman (La Bella). It is a painting of a woman of great beauty who, even then, was probably unknown to the duke. Inasmuch as Titian painted her numerous other times, often as a nude, it's quite likely she was, in fact, a prostitute. It's a lavish image, easily appearing to be that of a queen, a princess, or a duchess. Was this a portrait? In a similar mode, Rembrandt, in 1632 painted A Man in Oriental Dress: 'The Noble Slav' (bottom). It appears to be the portrait of a Turkish potentate, richly robed, wearing a turban and striking a distinctly noble pose, though actually it bears the likeness of a Dutchman, very possibly Rembrandt's father, whom he often used as a model. Was this a portrait?

Place de La Concorde, (The Viscount Lepic and his Daughters), 1875, Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas, in 1875 painted Place de La Concorde, (The Viscount Lepic and his Daughters) (above). The painting depicts a Parisian street scene, the vast center of which is largely deserted, while an unknown figure, severely cropped, occupies the far left. The Viscount, his daughters, and their dog seem almost incidental, even accidental to the scene. Like so many of Degas' works, the composition suggests a snapshot, and not a very well composed one at that. Yet, there is a certain energetic balance to the painting that is as intriguing as it is disconcerting. Even though the figures in the painting are well known and well documented and the work was actually purchased by the Viscount and remained in his family for decades afterwards, was this a portrait?

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906,
Pablo Picasso
In 1906, Pablo Picasso painted his familiar Portrait of Gertrude Stein. It would be putting it kindly to say it doesn't look much like her (kind to both artist and model in that Gertrude was no great beauty). In fact, Picasso sat down and painted her "out of his head" after having earlier struggled through numerous settings with his friend and patron. She resembles a primitive Iberian sculpture Picasso had seen on a trip back home. When people complained it didn't look at all like Miss Stein, Picasso told them, "Never mind, in the end she will look just like it." He was right. He had captured her essence while ignoring her likeness. And to this day, when people think of Gertrude Stein, they think of Picasso's image of her. Was this a portrait?

There is no one answer in all of these instances because it all depends upon your definition of a portrait. If you have no other criteria than that of a painting bearing a physical likeness to an individual, then all but Gertrude's are portraits. If you demand to know the names of the individuals depicted, then only the Viscount's and Miss Stein's are portraits. But if you demand the artist having been commissioned to render the likeness and/or character of an individual, then perhaps all are portraits. Even if we divine the purpose for which the artist rendered each painting we're still left to ponder the question in several instances. Was it shrewd politics or merely convenience that the de' Medici are seen transposed back 1500 years to the birth of Christ? Were the commissioned paintings by Titian and Rembrandt simply generic figural paintings or insightful portraits? Can an artist paint a portrait then demand that the subject become like his image? Any portrait painter will tell you this, in fact, happens, though perhaps not to the degree Picasso demanded. There is nothing simple about painting portraits...or even defining them.

A Man in Oriental Dress: 'The Noble Slav', 1632, Rembrandt


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Art

Fantasy versus reality.
Over the many years in which I've been blogging, I've written Christmas items on Santa Claus, his great grandfather, St. Nicholas, his mother, Grandma Moses, nativities, annunciations...everything short of Seuss' Grinch and Grandmas mowed down by reindeer. However there is one Christmas art form I've never expounded upon which we all enjoy to some degree but which, for some reason, we seldom really think of as a form of art. Yet, like most art it's usually quite beautiful, often extremely creative, readily accessible in most areas, and seems to embody the very best and perhaps even the worst elements of what we term "the spirit of Christmas." I'm talking about the seasonal display of tiny little colored bulbs of glass we call holiday light decorations draped ceremoniously over everything from eave spouts and evergreens to mailboxes and garbage cans.

Safer than candles, though maybe not much--around 1893.
Christmas light displays were originally candles mounted on evergreen trees in Germany as far back the 18th century. Tradition has it fire extinguishers were first developed about the same time. Electrically speaking, we Americans have one Edward H. Johnson, a colleague of no less than Thomas A. Edison himself, to thank for the first Christmas display of colored lights, dating from December 22, 1882. He had a string of 80 cherry-size bulbs in red, white, and blue custom made, which he hand wired himself then strung over a Christmas tree at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The British in London may have utilized similar strings of lights a year or so earlier. Though too expensive for home use, businesses from that point on often utilized such lighting displays in their store windows or draped around entries.

If one burned out, they all went out.
Early light strings even included Florescents.

Though the National Outfit Manufacturers Association (NOMA) began large-scale sales of Christmas lights for home use as early as 1917, it wasn't until the 1930s that such lights became common. During the war years, rationing ended such sales and even curtailed the use of existing lights, but then with the social and economic optimism of the 1950s in the U.S., Christmas lights moved from indoor trees to those outside and from there spread over virtually every surface, nook, and cranny not likely to be trampled upon by Santa Claus. Moreover, it wasn't long before Santa himself was lit up along with Rudolph and his eight tiny reindeer friends. Christmas lights got smaller, cheaper, brighter, more dependable, and burned less electricity. Starting in the 1990s and  especially in more recent years, the LED and its tiny computer cousins have added the element of time and music to such lighting extravaganzas, in which private homes often surpass business displays both in size and creativity. Entire communities (and not just big cities) began to challenge Rockefeller Center (below) for the yuletide spotlight.

2012, Rockefeller Center, New York City
As with every art form, once the amateurs get involved, good taste, even common sense, often goes out the window, onto the sidewalk, and up the street. The good old American "bigger is always better/too much is not enough" mentality takes over. Traffic management becomes a headache, the neighbors complain, lawsuits arise, ordinances get passed, and St. Nicholas rolls over in his grave. I, myself, must plead guilty to having more lights than anyone in our neighborhood (mostly white with a little blue around the front door). It takes an entire afternoon to rig them up and a couple hours to take them down and store them away. Yet in some areas, my lighting would be modestly average at best. An over lit front yard visible a mile away has been known to cause traffic mishaps. An 80-foot 50,000 light tree in Rockefeller Center is a national Christmas landmark. The same tree at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac is the proverbial "nightmare before Christmas."
Christmas run amok!

Monday, December 24, 2012


Rubenesque figures
Those of us this week who will be hitting the Christmas ham, cookies, eggnog, fruitcake (yuck), and candies a little two hard may be well on our way to developing what has come to be known, both kindly and unkindly, as "Rubenesque" figures. My students in school used to get a hearty laugh when reviewing the work of Peter Paul Rubens and others at the "massive" proportions some of his nude female figures assumed. "Why'd he paint such fat women?" I was often asked.

The Three Graces, 1639, Peter Paul Rubens
Well, there are two, somewhat inter-related answers to that question. First, ideals of feminine beauty are notoriously fickle, even within the span of a few years (take the twelve-year period 1959 to 1971 for instance). Second, during the baroque period, and for centuries before, women with some "meat on their bones" also were women who could afford "meat on their plates". That is to say, they were born to some wealth, hence "upper-class". Thin meant poor and underfed as in peasantry. This is difficult for teens to understand in this day an age when exactly the opposite is true. Thin is "in" and takes more than a little effort on the part of those with the wealth and leisure to "work" at it. Fatty foods are cheap, plentiful, and their effects on our "Rubenesque" bodies the result of working our minds to the point we are too tired at the end of the day to work our bodies.

Hermes Bearing the Infant
Dionysus, ca. 364 BC,
The strange irony in discussing this subject is that with some minor exceptions (the work of Michelangelo for example, below) "Rubenesque" proportions don't seem to permeate the nude or semi-nude depictions of men down through the history of painting (or in Michelangelo's case, painting AND sculpture). Figures from Medieval art straight through the Baroque era and beyond have been almost rigidly modeled after male anatomical proportions hearkening straight back to the Greek statuary of Praxiteles (left) and Polyclitus. Is it merely sexism or is there some greater, perhaps ageless sociological factor at work here? 
The Last Judgment (detail), 1534-41,
Michelangelo, no Greek proportions here.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Rubens' Girls

Gibson Girl, ca. 1891
Charles Dana Gibson
Charles Sheldon's
Breck Girl 
During the early part of the 20th century, artist-illustrators sometimes came to be known for a particular "look." Charles Dana Gibson may have started it all with his "Gibson Girls" (left) though he was by no means alone. About the same time, his rival, Howard Chandler Christy, had his "Christy Girls"--more fresh looking and liberated than the Gibson variety. Even Norman Rockwell had his own "look," though it was by no means limited to beautiful young girls. You may recall as well the highly refined, cameo-like "look" of Charles Sheldon's "Breck Girls" (above, right) from the 1950s and 60s. I cut my artist's eye teeth drawing them. Eventually, as photography began to replace high-fashion illustration, the "look" of Richard Avedon was quite popular. And there have been many more since then. We might come to think of the phenomenon of "trademark girls" as something solely brought on by the advent of chic fashion magazines and the high quality color printing technology which made them possible. But we'd be wrong. Actually, it goes back at least another three to five hundred years before that.

Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria,
1606, Peter Paul Rubens 
Though no one has ever called them "Leonardo Girls," the great Renaissance painter did, in fact, have a trademark "look" that was quintessentially his own in painting the female face (Mona was just one of several examples). Some might say that Jan Vermeer did as well. But perhaps the most notable "look" from any such historic painter can be attributed to Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens was born in 1577 in the southern region of the Netherlands known as Flanders (today part of Belgium). Geographically he'd be considered a Flemish artist, though in terms of style, he goes far beyond that. He may have been one of the most fortunate artists in history. He was handsome, healthy, well educated, sensible, good-humoured, wealthy, diplomatic, and one of the most influential painters who ever lived. While still in his early 20s, he was quite successful, building a name for himself as he travelling among the noble courts of Italy churning out dozens of highly refined, slick-looking--what we'd call even by today's standards, glamorous--portraits of Europe's most beautiful noblewomen. His stunning painting of Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria (right) from 1606 is especially gorgeous with its glistening eggshell coloured satin, high Elizabethan collar, and "movie star" hairdo and makeup. This was a "Rubens Girl."

The Judgement of Paris, 1635, Peter Paul Rubens--pleasingly plump. 
In 1609, Rubens returned home to become the court painter to the Infanata (princess) Isabella and Archduke Albert, the joint regents of the Spanish Netherlands in Brussels. There his style mellowed, taking on a much gentler, sweeter appearance. Isabella sent him to Spain where he met Velázquez and was forever influenced by the great baroque portrait master. His later work, by today's standards, might look somewhat like the "before" pictures from a Weight Watchers ad--perhaps not quite "fat" but heavy, voluptuous, motherly, sensuous, female breeding stock. The new "look" of his classical, nude females became one of wholehearted trust, acceptance of differences, and a self-confidence. His 1635 The Judgement of Paris (above) is probably the best example one could cite of his mature work along this line.

Marchesa Elena Grimaldi, 1623,
Sir Anthony van Dyck
Rubens ran a prodigious workshop - some might even call it an art factory - but one which he managed with a kind yet firm hand. It's a mark of his vital influence that the Rubens "look" (either one of them) did not die with him in 1644. Rubens' early "look" can be seen in the work of his greatest pupil, Sir Anthony van Dyck, in that painter's stylishly sophisticated portrait of Marchesa Elena Grimaldi (right) dating from 1623. At the same time, another important student, Jacob Jordaens, can be seen perpetuating Rubens' later, more robust style in his Erichtonius (below) dating from around 1617. Here we find a heavy, florid, almost impasto style of brushwork that, especially upon close inspection, seems as robust as van Dyck's is smooth and refined. To us today, it seems remarkable that we might see a single style of an artist live on after his passing. But to see two different stylistic periods preserved in the work of artists of a second generation, is all the more incredible.
Erichtonius, 1617, Jacob Jordaens--
Rubens plus about fifty pounds.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Richard Rezac

Richard John Rezac
It's always hard, in writing about recent artists, to know how much importance to place on their work in the overall grand scheme of art history. Older artists are a little easier to place as are a few younger, more daring ones. Then there are people like Richard John Rezac. If you've never heard of him, don't be alarmed. Though quite talented and experienced, having already made a name for himself in the highly skilled area of commercial art involving photo retouching. Until his death in 2010, the man also applied his skills to the highly specialized field of artistically enhancing archival photos for print reproduction. He knew his stuff. He worked in the field since the age of 14. He was born in 1934 in New York City but has also worked in Denver and Milan, before taking up residence in tiny Wahoo, Nebraska (a suburb of Omaha), until his death. In his lifetime, he dealt with all evolving the state-of-the-art photographic processes in creating visual imagery from the ancient art of adding transparent oil paints to black and white photos up through Flexichrome, Dye Transfer, and Giclee printing fed by the digital manipulation of computer imagery.

Waters Edge, 1969, John Richard Rezac
His sole area of interest was military art. His greatest emphasis seems to have been on Vietnam and WW II, though his collection also paid token interest in W.W.I, Korea, and Operation Desert Storm. Some of his work is printed on archival watercolor paper using the eight-color ink process while others are on canvas. And while the artwork seems skilled and the reproduction flawless, there is never any question that what you're looking at are heavily retouched photos. Yet in most cases, the work rises above "colorization" it also stops short of the quality and visual effect of traditional painting. Often, colorized photos have a distressingly drab look about them. That's not the case with Rezac's work. If anything, some of them seem to be to be over colored, sometimes to the point of appearing "pretty," which, given the genre, seems to me slightly out of sync.

Missing Man, (photo) 1917, Richard Rezac, color
Now, having told you all that, you see why he's such a hard man to label. Is he an "artist" (certainly not in the traditional sense) or merely a skilled technician working on a level far above that of your typical, pixilated, computer geek? In viewing his work, don't expect to find modest, litho type reproductions, or their associated prices. His Giclee prints, such as Foggy Belgium, Jan 31, 1945, are 24"x36" and go for $2,300 each in an edition of 250. Artist proofs are slightly more. But that's not all. For an "ouch" price of $5,500 you can have a 72" x 56" image of the same work (one of ten). It's certainly not "over the couch" art. He owned all his own equipment including a Giclee franchise. And his work is not just interior decoration with a military bent. He's had several traveling exhibits and boasted of his work being already in museums. What to make of this? A curiosity or a glimpse of the future of art? WhiIe it may not be the whole future, I have to think we're starting to see a large part of twenty-first century art unfolding here, even though Rezac's content and prices would seem to limit the market for his work severely. Anyone wanna to go in with me on a Giclee printer?

OK, Gotcha, Dak To, Vietnam,
1967, Richard John Rezac

I'm Alive, I'm Alive, Dak To,
Vietnam, 1967, Richard Rezac


Friday, December 21, 2012

Early Pollock

Jackson Pollock
We've all got them. Stashed away in the back of some closet, or in the attic, or perhaps in a bank safe deposit box--what we jokingly refer to as our "early work." We have saved it for a variety of reasons, not the least of which may be for when we need a good laugh. Perhaps too, we've saved them for sentimental reasons, or to look back upon to chart our progress as artists; all of which are perfectly valid, practical reasons to have saved some of our first paintings, drawings, photos, etc. And for some of us, they've been saved simply because no one would buy them or even wanted them. However buried deep in the back of our minds, maybe in our subconscious, is the persistent thought that maybe, just maybe, as soon as our obituary hits the streets (or perhaps today, the Internet), museums all over the country will be calling our survivors, wishing to acquire a piece of our "early work" to flesh out their collections and give their exhibits "perspective." I'm exaggerating of course, but the point is these pieces do, in fact, do just that.

She Wolf, 1943, Jackson Pollock
Take Jackson Pollock for example. The man died on August, 20, 1956, in a smash-up, while speeding his convertible down a back road toward his farm near East Hampton, New York, located out on the eastern end of Long Island. A heavy drinker, he was no doubt drunk. He was 44. The next day, hardly before the body was cold, his paintings doubled in value, whether hanging on museum walls or still spread out across the paint-splattered floor of his studio. His name and his work were not quite "household" at the times, but now are so familiar just the mention of them brings vividly to mind the colorful, controlled, rhythmic gyrations of his body as he dripped, slung, and splattered paint over his gigantic canvases with an instinctive harmony of colour, line, and mass that today makes his work impossible to forge. If anyone else tries it, the results look like spaghetti with a bad marinara sauce.

Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley, 1934, Thomas Hart Benton.
Having died in his prime, Pollock, like Marilyn Monroe, or Jack Kennedy who came later, became an icon, more image than living figure. And being an artist, Pollock's work therefore is also frozen in our minds as if it all erupted at once in a single nightmarish jag of creative frenzy. We all know it didn't happen that way but by the same token, few if any of us can bring to mind a single image from Pollock's "early work." History tells us he was a student of Thomas Hart Benton during Benton's tenure at the Art Students League in the 1930s after he ran away from home at the tender age of sixteen to study art. In fact, Benton used Pollock as a model for the harmonica player (above, bottom, center figure) in his 1934 Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley. One of Pollock's earliest, "school boy" works, Going West (below) from 1934, has some of the swirling masses of Benton's work but less of his dynamic realism. It's more abstract, yet recalls the frontier heritage of Pollock's Wyoming home. Pollock's sketchbook from the period contains nearly 500 drawings from the historic masterpieces Benton required his students to study. With all its planar dynamism, it is today, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Going West, 1934, Jackson Pollock
An Orange Head, 1938-41, Jackson Pollock
As a hungry young artist, Pollock's late 1930s Flame (below, left) though still done with a brush and still quite modest in size, shows a further movement in the direction of his classic work. His 1940 Bird (below, right) shows the influence of Mexican muralists. And Orange Head, (left) from the same period, vividly details his nervous breakdown and subsequent Jungian (Carl Jung) psychotherapy. It also defines his interest in Picasso's iconographic imagery. During the war years, we see Pollock's work being influenced by Miró's linear dream works as seen in Stenographic Figure. His 1943 She Wolf  illustrates an interest in Palaeolithic cave painting. And finally (he's moving quickly now), in his 1943 Guardians of the Secret, the first seminal peek at his mature style as he synthesises all this into a daring, wall-size composition packed with archaic forms and his hallmark swirls of dripped paint first seeing the light of day. His Gothic from 1944 and his Shimmering Substance find him immerse in totally non-representational work by the end of the war.

Flame, 1940, Jackson Pollock
Bird, 1938-40, Jackson Pollock
In 1950, Pollock had his first one-man show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City. It was a smashing critical success--one of the high-water marks of the entire Abstract Expressionist period. Yet only one painting sold, Pollock's No. 1, (Lavender Mist) (bottom). Despite this, both his mature style and his career had arrived. For the next six years, Pollock was the darling of Peggy Guggenheim, Harold Rosenblum, and the whole New York art world as he lived up to his "Jack the Dripper" image with all the hard drinking, hard living, hard painting, hard edged willfulness he possessed. And by 1956, his early death was as predictable as his work had become. But were it not for the few sparse castaway efforts snapped up by museums in the weeks and months after his tragic demise, we would know little more about where this man and his work came from beyond the name of his hometown, Cody, Wyoming.

No. 1 (Lavender Mist), 1950, Jackson Pollock