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Monday, July 30, 2018


London, Sergey Kachin, the traditional landmarks in a painterly style of impressionism Monet would have adored. (He spent several months in London painting the city orange and blue.)
Have you ever gone in search of one thing only to find something better? A few days ago, I went in search of paintings of London, England, for another posting. I found the London cityscapes, of course. You'd have to be blind to miss then. Not only that, but my wife and I were intimately familiar with the subject having just returned from a week of gallery-hopping. No, I didn't see Her Highness, but I did get a good look at her hat and a few other sparkling trinkets stowed away at the Tower of London. London, with all its iconic landmarks is a painter's heaven as well as his or her creative hell.

The London cityscape spans some 123 years. Both Dawson and Moore capture the essence of the city, flavored moderately by a necklace of landmarks, old and new. How many can you identify?
Let me explain. Simply painting standard, stand-along landmarks such as the afore-mentioned tower and its companion, the Tower Bridge, Big Ben and Westminster Palace (home to England's parliament), Buckingham Palace (home to England's queen), not to mention newer landmarks such as the London Eye, the London "nose" (the Brits call it the gherkin) and the Shard. Sergey Kachin (top) hardly misses a cue with his Big Ben, Westminster Palace, Westminster Cathedral, even the Westminster Bridge all with a Fauvist palette only slightly tinged with reality. Monet would have been aghast.

Winter in Central Park. Mark Harrison has painted a view of the iconic venue which I dearly love. Any New Yorker would recognize it instantly. Yet there's no Empire State Building, no U.N., no Brooklyn Bridge, not even the city's most famous work of art, Bartholdi's Liberty Enlightening the People.
Distance--Brooklyn Bridge,
Danijela Dan
In choosing representative cityscapes, I've limited myself to cities I've personally explored, and paintings which have not stooped to simple "landmarkism" with which to gain their identity. Robert Finale's Christmas in New York (below), and Danijela Dan's Distance--Brooklyn Bridge, while attractive, and no doubt quite salable, where would they be without the bridge and the Rockefeller Center centerpiece? Although the Brook-lyn Bridge would probably tie with Lon-don's Tower Bridge as the most painted bridge in the world, yet in both cases, there are limitations as to creativity and novel presentations. Lesser landmarks such as Rockefeller Center (minus the tree) offer greater opportunities for freedom of expression.

Christmas in New York, Robert Finale--cityscapes aiming to capture the essence of the city while only referencing the landmarks without dwelling on them exclusively.
The artists of the Parisian cityscapes (below) are unknown (or unlisted). In Paris Cityscape (upper image, below) the artist relies upon ambience with which to identify the city he or she obviously knows well. There's no Eiffel Tower or Arch de Triumph to captivate tourist. The Paris trappings are subtle but effective. However in the watercolor image (below) having the enigmatic title I Love You, (probably I Love You, Paris by John Salminen) the artist "clobbers" the scene with his or her Eiffel Tower, yet presents a novel approach emphasizing the sheer height and engineering magnitude of Paris' number one landmark. In essence, if you feel you must paint urban landmarks, an innovative approach will lift the painting from trite to triumphant.

Two artists, one city, two radically different approaches.
So, where did this infatuation with the urban landscape originally develop and who triggered it? Until the middle of the 17th-century, cityscapes, for the most part, cityscapes were simply landscapes with a few tall buildings. There was little or no recognition as to cities being "beautiful" and thus few attempts to render them as beautiful works of art. What few cityscapes that survive from earlier eras are often negative comparisons to the pastoral beauty of "God's country," as seen in Durer's Innsbruck Seen from the North (below), from around 1496. Strangely, this attitude persists even today. Cityscapes before the 17th century were usually hand drawn in conjunction with maps or as painted backgrounds for religious scenes.

Innsbruck Seen from the North, circa 1496, Albrecht Durer
The Little Street, 1657-58,
(oil on canvas), Jan Vermeer
Most art historians would agree that among the first artists to recognize the urban environment as a viable (indeed, beautiful) subject for the painters art was likely the Dutch painter, Johannes (Jan) Vermeer in his painting The Little Street (left), dating from 1657-58. Here there is no map involved, no peripheral land-scape, no religious content. Some ex-perts have suggested this may have been the scene across the street from his studio (the property on the right in the painting once belonged to Vermeer’s aunt). In any case, what strikes us about the image is its ordinariness. It's not beautiful, inspiring, or in any way a glor-ification of a street in Delft, Netherlands. It's a depiction, nothing more and nothing less, except for the fact that it preceded Vermeer's more famous cityscape A View of Delft (below) from 1660-61, which suggest The Little Street might be considered the first bonafide cityscape ever painted.

Note that the colors differ drastically in the two images above. The upper one would seem to be the more accurate.
Copyright, 1970, Jim Lane
Manhattan Morning, 1970, Jim Lane.
One of my few attempts at capturing
the essence of a city while relying
only minimally on a famous landmark.
The work was done with a palette
knife in oils.


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