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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Soren Emil Carlsen

Roses and Vase, 1894, Soren Emil Carlsen. Even though painted in the prevailing
Impressionist style, and far more eye-catching for its color than most of his work, the
painting still retains a somewhat old-fashioned quality even in its own era.
Emil Carlsen Self-portrait
In the pages of my book, Art Think (available at right), I discuss the difficulty in selling still-life paintings. It doesn't seem to matter how well composed or how well rendered they are, people may admire them, but they simply don't buy them. Emil Carlsen would agree with me I'm sure. He spent his entire life devoted to painting still-lifes and at times, faced bankruptcy trying to sell them. Although he also painted a few landscapes and seascapes, for some thirty years he was forced to teach art at various academies, colleges, and art institutes in order to make ends meet. Born in Copenhagen in 1853, Carlsen came to the U.S. at the age of nineteen having already studied architecture for four years at Denmark's Royal Academy. Here, he studied painting in the country's best art schools, then joined the late 19th century flood of American artists to study in Paris. There, he came to admire the work of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Though Chardin is considered the foremost French still-life artist of the 18th century, that infatuation could well be considered Carlsen's most grievous error.

Study in Gray, 1906, Emil Carlsen. Even the title, not to mention the colors, subject, and composition, are boring. They were reminiscent of Chardin alright--to a fault.
Moonlight, 1818, Emil Carlson, probably the
"trance-like" painting Phillips was referring to.
When an artist as adept and well-trained as Carlsen has difficulty selling his work, there must be one or more very good reasons. The first and foremost I've already discussed. He insisted upon concentrating his artistic efforts primarily on difficult to sell still-lifes. Second, as I alluded to above, he chose as his chief influence an artist whose style and aesthetic sensitivities were already a hundred years old at the time. Antiques were not so well regarded as today back in the year 1900. The art collector Duncan Phillips wrote of Carlsen that his ocean scenes had "a certain trance-like mood." If that means they could put you to sleep, while the statement may have been meant as a positive comment, it could also be taken as yet another reason Carlsen could not sell his work. In a word, they seem "boring."

The River Bank, 1881, Emil Carlsen--one of his few landscapes containing human life.
Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Emil Carlsen
Though some of Carlsen's landscapes were a bit more exciting than his other works, such as The River Bank (above), in effect, they more often than not appear to be simply "backgrounds" waiting for something interesting to happen in the foreground. Even Carlsen's few portraits as seen in the one of his wife (left), have a dull, bland, "sleepy" look to them. Of course a sitter becomes bored during the hours needed to pose for a portrait. It behooves the artist, however, to try to relieve the ennui, or at least to mask it. Carlsen does neither. I don't often "dis" the work of other painters, especially those of the past; and to his credit, Emil Carlsen is said to have been an excellent teacher. But every artist, regardless of the era in which he or she lives, or the style or content of their work, needs to imbue that work with a certain degree of (for lack of a better word) pizzazz. That word probably hadn't invented yet when Carlsen lived (he died in 1932), but it seems quite obvious to me that such a trait, whatever word was in vogue at the time, might have elevated Carlsen and his work to a much greater level of acceptance, both then and now.

A Tempting Shot, 1873, Emil Carlsen. His work would seem to have been much more
salable before he headed off to Paris and took up with Chardin.



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