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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Artists at Work

Lucien Freud Painting David Hockney--two artists for the price of one.
Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun
Self-Portrait, 1790
When I begin research on an artist about which to write, the first thing I look for is a painted self-portrait. If that is unavailable, a photo of the artist will suffice, or better still, one of the artist with his or her work, preferably one working (or pretending to). Of course the ultimate such image is the painted self-portrait of the artist at work. They're not exactly rare, but neither are they commonplace. Surprisingly, some excellent painters have never in their lives rendered a self-portrait (painted or otherwise). A few even seem to have been camera-shy as well. If all else fails, I'll use a painted or drawn image of my subject by another artist. A couple years ago I did a piece on artists' studios and the way they reflect upon the artist and his or her work. This time I want to take a look at the artists themselves. Seeing them at work helps link the artist to their art, enable us to see them as they see themselves (assuming, as with a self-portrait, that all such photos have been approved by the artist involved).

Honore Daumier Self-portrait, 1869
Self-Portrait in Front of the Easel,
Vincent van Gogh, 1888.
One of the most beautiful self-portraits featuring the artist at work is that painted by the French portrait artists, Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun (above, right). Not only was she a very beautiful young lady, but she painted beautifully as well. Was it self-flattery? That's hard to say; every other surviving image of the artist is also a self-portrait. There's no doubt that Lucien Freud's portrait of David Hockney and himself (top) in no way could be considered in that light. The same would apply to that of the 19th-century, French, Realism painter, Honore Daumier (above), which might very well be considered the ugliest self-portrait ever painted. Of course, when we talk about Frenchmen and self-portraits in the same breath, we have to mention the king of them all, Vincent van Gogh, seen working at his easel (left). Painted in early 1888, the painting is in no way flattering...more along the line of brutally honest.

The Artist in his Studio, 1626-28, Rembrandt van Rijn.

Picasso with linocut, 1959.
Rivaling, or perhaps surpassing, van Gogh insofar as self-portraits are concerned, we see his Dutch compatriot, Rembrandt van Rijn (above) in a "working" self-portrait. It's interesting in that the painting so dominates even the full-length image of the artist as to make a statement regarding the manner in which Rembrandt viewed each work as a entity to be overcome. This is all the more likely in that we're afforded a view of only the back of he painting while the artist appears to cower in the shadows. Quite the opposite take on the creative effort can be seen in the photo of Pablo Picasso (right) as he attacks his linocut image with a surgeons knife to make his mark. There'll be no "cowering" from this bull of a man!

Jackson Pollock...pondering. (Note the massive roll of unused canvas on the floor.)
Eugene Delacroix studio print, early 19th-century.
The same attitude could also be applied to the work of the "king" of American Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock (above), as he seems to hover weightlessly over his massive drippings, planning his next aerial attack. If any artist should have a tendency to feel overwhelmed by his work, we might cite the British painter Chris Ofili (below). Apparently taking his cue from Pollock, it's interesting to note that's not a paintbrush which Ofili uses to swirl his paint around but a broom. The wheeled device standing to his left appears to be a computer monitor...or perhaps a sign bearing the words, "wet paint." In our modern era, we seem destined to rely on the photographer's art in portraying artists at work. The contrast between "now" and "then" can be seen in the etched print of the French Romantic painter, Eugene Delacroix and his studio (above, left) as seen sometime during the first half of the 19th-century. The artist appears standing at the lower center, palette in hand, talking to a prospective client.

Chris Ofili at work in his warehouse studio.
Perhaps there's no sadder, yet heroic, image of an artist in his studio today than that of Pop portrait artist, Chuck Close (below), who, in 1988 suddenly suffered a spinal artery collapse leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Rehabilitation therapy has restored some use of his limbs but he remains wheelchair bound. Not one to wallow in self-pity, or welcome that of others, Close continues to work through his disabilities, remaining, at the age of seventy-five, one of the top artists producing today.

Chuck Close in his studio
Thanks to the now "ancient" art of photography, we can still glimpse artists in their studios who have become legendary, their paintings worth tens of millions (whatever the currency of choice). Two such examples are Claude Monet (below, left) and John Singer Sargent (below, right). Below those, it's interesting to observe the manner in which each artist, such as Paul Cezanne, photographed in his studio around the turn of the century, recreates a physical environment much like their personal presence. Cezanne's studio has been restored and can be seen today exactly as he left it when he died in 1906.
Two artists, two very different studios.
Paul Cezanne with his Bathers. His studio as seen today.
Frida Kahlo at work. Her studio tells much about her art and herself.
Ohio artist, Howard Chandler Christy, painting and sculpting from live models.
Salvador Dali--Surreal easel painter and muralist (1930s).
Georgia O'Keeffe working in her bright, airy, Taos studio.
Roy Lichtenstein at work in his...uhh, never mind.


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