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Saturday, January 14, 2017

John Collier

Lady Godiva, 1898, John Collier
Many artists, now and in the past, go most of their lives utilizing a single style and very often a single area of content--some rigidly so, in fact. Personally, my style of painting has changed little over my career, though my content has always been quite broad. That's quite common among artists, in fact; either a single focus, or a broad interest in a variety of subjects. The British painter, John Maler Collier had two content specialties; and seldom has any artist ever had two that were more diverse than did Collier. Born in 1850, John Collier is most often classed as a Pre-Raphaelite. That pretty well covers how he painted--very typically quite slowly and with great precision. However Collier, unlike most of his brotherhood colleagues, had only two diametrically opposite content areas.
Thomas Henry Huxley, 1885. John Collier, his  father-in-law
Marian Collier,
1880, John Collier
First, he painted rather staid, stodgy portraits of virtually every wealthy, well-known, male personage of British society of his time. He began, around 1880, quite naturally, with his wife, Marian as a model (left, also a painter). This was followed by a portrait of his father-in-law, Thomas Henry Huxley, dating from 1885 (above).

Rudyard Kipling,
1891, John Collier
Collier's portrait of the writer, Rudyard Kipling (right) is typical of his "bread and butter" male portraits. In fact, such portraits were pretty much typical of what most London portrait painters were doing at the time. In that sense, Collier's portrait work, while quite adept, was in no way exceptional. At the same time, interspersed with his portraits, were a few history and mythology paintings such as The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson (below), dating 1881. Such works could, in general, be considered to be well above the norm. but fall quite neatly into the usual style and content areas of the Pre-Raphaelites.

The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson, 1881, John Collier
John Collier studied at The Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and at London's Slade School under Edward Poynter. Besides portraits, Collier also painted a number of imaginative paintings--scenes of mythology and legend. Presently John Collier is less well known as an artist than as a writer. His current fame rests largely on his two books, The Art of Portrait Painting and A Manual of Oil Painting. The importance of these books (especially the latter one) cannot be overstated. In this book, Collier lays out a method of painting followed by many of his contemporaries, such as the Pre-Raphaelite, John Everett Millais. He called this approach, "Sight-size." This painting method involves putting the canvas side by side with the subject, and walking backwards and forwards between each touch. This is particularly well adapted for students in that it allows direct comparison between the picture and the subject. Every touch that is given by this method has to be applied by memory, and not by direct observation, since the painter can only see his subject properly while away from the canvas. The artist then returns to the canvas, applies a stroke or two, then backs off again to see if it's right. This method is much less tedious than it seems; and is capable of giving good results...or at least providing the artist plenty of physical exercise.

After the death of his first wife, Marian, in 1887, Collier
married her younger sister, Ethel, in 1889.

Pharaohs Handmaidens,
John Collier
Far more than most of his Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood colleagues, we also see another side to this typical, Victorian-era, portrait artist, as exemplified in his gaudy version of the legendary Lady Godiva (top), painted around 1898. Though fairly demure by today's standards, by 19th-century standards, Collier's rebellious young lady is about as subtle as a bulldozer in a flowerbed. Though the subject matter was hardly new, Collier's lavishly colored handling of it no doubt raised more than a few eyebrows. Of course, the British art world was, at the time, completely dominated by male tastes. Thus the painting also likely elicited discreet smiles of approval as well. Moreover, as seen in a surprising number of Collier's other nude and semi-nude beauties, such as his Maenads (below), from 1886, and his Pharaohs Handmaidens (right), one has to wonder if maybe the portraits were merely a respectable sideline to his true interests in the painter's art.

Maenads, 1886, John Collier


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