Friday, December 29, 2017

Missing Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi "John the Baptist," 1604
Last September, during a brief stay in Kansas City, I had a chance to visit The Nelson-Atkins Museum. My intention was primarily to see their fine Caravaggio, "St. John the Baptist," which is the only work by the renowned Italian near where I live. I've seen the painting several times, but like all of the master's work it repays further study. Caravaggio's real name was Michelangelo Merisi, but he was from the town of Caravaggio, and so he was Michelangelo da Caravaggio to differentiate him from the Michelangelo, who was from Florence anyway.

So I walked the few blocks from my hotel through the beautiful wooded neighborhood around the museum. I spent some time reminding myself about the enormous badminton shuttlecocks that parade up the grand green vista before the main building. Those are by Claes Oldenburg and are supposed to be representative of a match, with three on one side and the fourth on the other side--the building being the badminton net. In any event, I went in with great anticipation, only to find that the painting is actually part of an exhibition in Milan. This particular full figure of the saint is an enormous work (life-size) showing a dark, brooding young man in a dark wilderness. It was painted in 1604 as a commission from an Italian noble, whose family owned it for generations afterward. In preparation for the exhibition the painting underwent investigation with careful restoration as part of the process. The Milan exhibition includes a number of other favorites of mine by Caravaggio, including his "Rest on the Flight Into Egypt," from the Doria Pamphilj Palace in Rome. In any event, the painting was in Milan for the exhibition, and I only had an hour or two.

So I spent the short time going from one remembered favorite to another. The Nelson-Atkins Museum is a treasure of a museum if only because of the Caravaggio. But there is more to enjoy there than one might think. For one thing, the collection is quite varied, comprising African, Asian and European concentrations and ranging from Ancient Art to Contemporary. The museum is quite strong in European Art and holds work by El Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt and Titian to name only some of the most familiar. And the museum is also exceptionally strong in American Art.

Thomas Hart Benton, "Persephone," 1939
Particularly important American works are the large group by Thomas Hart Benton, who was a Kansas City resident at one time, but it also contains works by John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins, John Sargent, and Winslow Homer. Always included as one of the painters in the 1930s movement called Regionalism, Benton was a Missouri native but lived a good portion of his life elsewhere. After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago he also studied at the Academie Julien in Paris, lived and worked in New York for two decades, and eventually settled into Kansas City, where he taught at the Kansas City Art Institute, which is near the Nelson-Atkins. I've always liked his "Persephone," which he painted while there. Even for those days (1939) it was considered scandalous in Kansas City and cost Benton his job. It has been called a great piece of soft pornography but I think it's much more than that. Benton's sinuous lines and curvilinear perspective are much in evidence, but in particular his skin tones are wonderful and his distortions make eminent sense in these days of fish-eye camera lenses. It's  big painting and the figures are almost life-size. The Greek tale of Persephone tells how the goddess of the harvest was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, and must remain with him for half of each year, making the earth infertile (and accounting for the seasons). In the picture Hades is in the guise of an old Missouri farmer with a wagon waiting to abduct a nubile Persephone (who resembles Hedy Lamar, the famous movie actress, to me), even as the harvest is being finished. The painting is a great retelling of the myth, and Thomas Benton is one of my favorite realist painters. I always visit her when there.

Another work I often visit, and spent a bit of time with this time was Claude Monet's "Boulevard des Capuchins," from about 1874 is certainly one of the most famous (and initially derided) works of Impressionism. Monet painted the street scene from a second-floor window in Paris, capturing the passing parade on the grand boulevard, the diffuse light, and the mist-like bare branches. At the time, work of this sort was considered unfinished--the figures were particularly criticized as little more than "black lickings," but today's experts claim that Monet was interested in showing the kind of blurring a camera with a slow shutter speed might record. Perhaps so. Or perhaps he was simply trying to evoke motion without thinking of cameras. The colors are muted and blued because the scene is winter. Although this work is somewhat like the darker works of the Barbizon School, a predecessor of Impresionism, the palette is quite different. Many in our present culture may find this particular work of Monet less attractive since the brighter palette of Impessionism is missing. Regardless, I enjoy this work almost as much as Benton's.

As always there is never enough time to savor everything that the museum has to offer. On the other hand it is close to home and no doubt I will be in Kansas City another day.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Winter in Art

The latest cold snap and snowy weather prompted thoughts of winter in art. Paintings of the winter season are fairly common in our time, but it wasn't always so. Painting and sculpture in Europe was devoted to religious topics and mostly paid for by the Church.

Pieter Breughel the Elder, "Hunters in Snow," 1565
Very few winter landscapes were made (in European painting anyway) until about the mid-16th century. In that century Pieter Breughel the Elder produced what is often considered to be the first winter landscape, "Hunters in the Snow." Breughel painted a series of images of the months, including this one, that year, commissioned by a wealthy patron, depicting village life. The hunters painting depicts a snowbound Flemish landscape and village, showing not only hunters with pikes trudging off with their dogs, villagers gathered around a fire, skaters on a frozen pond. There are houses and churches in the distance and all is set by a backdrop of snow-covered mountains--obviously invented, given the Flemish topography. Breughel made quite a few other snowy paintings, even a nativity scene. And since religious art was less and less important, especially in Northern Europe after the Reformation, secular landscapes of all kinds came to the forefront. Other genres of painting--still life, genres, portraits--became important as well.

Caspar David Friedrich, "Winter Landscape with Ruins" 1808
The German artist Caspar David Friedrich is a particular favorite of mine. He was part of the Romantic movement, whose approach to landscape was sharply different. Instead of the kind of bucolic prettiness that you might find in a work by John Constable, Friedrich painted mysterious, sometimes frightening landscapes, often with a single figure. He was interested in landscape as a way to explore the human condition, and used close observation outdoors to study various aspects, usually in graphite. He was particularly interested in metaphorical aspects, as you can see in Winter Landscape with Ruins from 1808. The monochromatic palette, bare trees, deep snow and obliterating winter atmosphere coupled with a ruined monastery evoke (for me at least) the depths of despair and loss. The evocation of mourning is almost unbearable. Friedrich, despite being famous as a young man, died in relative obscurity, as so many seem to have done.

Claude Monet, "The Magpie," 1869
During the 19th century, landscape painting evolved as painters spent more time outdoors, like John Constable in England and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot in France. Their work, in turn, sparked not only depiction of reality (the Realism of Courbet) but eventually the work of Claude Monet. Quite a few of Monet's works are snowscapes one of my favorites being The Magpie, which was rejected by the Paris Salon but is famous today. It was painted on the spot after a big snowfall. Monet evokes the sunshine on new snow with multicolored shadows that many consider the beginning sparks of Impressionism. In any event, unlike Friedrich, there is light and hope and optimism in the image in a seemingly realistic landscape. The focal magpie--metaphorically perhaps despair or misfortune--is dwarfed by the hope and warmth of the yellow sunshine. Worth considering in view of today's political and cultural climate.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Christmas and Dickens

Today begins the long process of lengthening days and the return of the sun. For those of us in the northern latitudes, more sunshine is always welcome. In another day or two is Christmas, originally a Christian festival that's now taken over the world. The formerly religious holiday has become a general festival of good cheer and good will. Given that this time of year seems to have always spawned such, it's really not surprising to see Buddhist and Hindu nations celebrating. Christmas is celebrated in Japan with general fun, gift-giving, and fried chicken. In India where only 2% or so are Christian, the holiday is celebrated by many more with gifts and Christmas trees. The holiday is wonderful. It signals a return of light and a renewal of happiness in an otherwise dark time.

John Leech "Marley's Ghost," 1843
Surprisingly--or perhaps not--much of the art of Christmas is religious, devoted to the story of the birth of Jesus and the stories about shepherds and wise men (or maybe kings) and all of that. Much of that art was commissioned by the Church as narrative, of course, and the holiday itself wasn't all that popular in a large part of the world for several hundred years. So secular art about Christmas really doesn't start to show up until perhaps the mid-19th century or so. There are those who say that Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," published just before the holiday in 1843 is most responsible for reviving Christmas, at least in England. Perhaps so. Certainly, according to biographers anyway, Dickens loved Christmas and was unfailing jolly during the season. That first Christmas offering, by the way, was followed by a Christmas offering every year.

John Leech, "Ghost of Christmas Present," 1843
The first edition of "A Christmas Carol" was illustrated with a series of steel engravings depicting various events in the story, from the appearance of Marley's ghost to the final denouement. The illustrator was a well-known English caricaturist, John Leech who had established himself as the main caricaturist for the English humor magazine, Punch. Leech had originally studied medicine, but art beckoned, and by his twenties he was published widely. 

The most interesting, perhaps, of Leech's works for Christmas Carol was his image of the Ghost of Christmas present who was shown in a green robe and surrounded by the makings of a giant feast. Dickens insisted that the robe be green because that's how he described the ghost. Leech had made the robe a bright red and grumbled but made the change. 

In any event, Charles Dickens, for perhaps a century or so at least, transformed Christmas into a snowy, cheery, wonderful holiday, aided in no small part by John Leech. 

Merry Christmas and may God bless us, every one!


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Acrylic or Casein?

A few weeks back while discussing casein paint, someone asked, "why not just use acrylics?'

"Racing," 4x6, casein on panel
Why not indeed? After all, acrylics are water-thinned, dry very quickly, are widely available in good grades and many hues, and have the virtue of extensive experience among a wide range of artists. Acrylics have proven themselves as a plastic, easily-handled medium. You can paint thin and transparent or more thickly, like oil paint. The paint layers are flexible, probably very long-lasting and generally light-durable too. Many favor acrylic paint as a substitute for oils.

But casein has a lot of virtues too. Casein paint dries very quickly,
"The Silver Creamer," 4x6, casein on panel
allowing the artist to work at least as quickly as with acrylics. Casein is a water-based paint too, allowing thin and thick application. Casein dries matte, which allows for great photographs, so that in the middle 20th century (before acrylics) casein was the go-to choice for many illustrators. Casein dries to a more rigid film, so firm supports are necessary (wood, bristol board, etc.) but otherwise the paint is very durable, so durable in fact it is one of the most ancient kinds of paint man has invented. Unfortunately, casein paint is only made by a handful of companies worldwide. Casein is a bit like gouache but unlike gouache, once casein has dried it isn't dissolved by water.  One final point: casein is made from milk protein and is therefore a renewable item; acrylics are made from petroleum.

So how to choose? Why not try a few tubes of casein paint and see?

Friday, December 15, 2017

Portraits of the Family

Peter Paul Rubens, "Isabella Brandt," 1620
A lot of painters have made portraits of family. Everyone from Rembrandt to Rockwell produced at least a smattering or more of family portraiture. The thing that I find interesting about family portraits is what these works might be telling us about the family or the relationship between the sitter and the painter in any event. You get not only a look at the individual, you get a chance to see that person through the eyes of someone who knew them very well.

For example,  Rubens painted his wife Isabella with tenderness and affection, and gave her a certain mischievous and knowing look that charms us after four hundred years. You get a hint that she could be a bit of a tease, perhaps, but also rather sexy.
Vincent van Gogh, "Portrait of the Artist's Mother," 1888

 Vincent van Gogh painted a picture of his mother from a photograph, giving us a sense of innate kindness behind her poorly hidden frown. Knowing their relationship the way we do today, it seems a telling image of the artist's mother. She was terribly worried about her eldest son throughout her life, and seems to have suffered greatly. The greens in the painting seem a bit much, but I suspect they were countered by a red that has faded to transparency over the decades.

Paul Cezanne, "Portrait of the Artist's Father," 1866
Paul Cezanne painted his father large in a dark, heavily impastoed portrait, reading the newspaper, as one would expect of a banker and man of affairs. As you would expect, Cezanne's businessman father didn't approve of his son's devotion to painting, nor to the woman he would later marry. In this work M. Cezanne is certainly serious, even perhaps grumpy and it's not difficult to see that the relationship must have been a difficult one. Cezanne had defied his father's wishes and committed himself to becoming a painter only a few years before his made this enormous and forbidding picture.

Mary Cassatt, "Woman with a Pearl Necklace, in a Loge," 1879
Another painter who produced sensitive works of family members was Mary Cassatt. During the late 1870s and into the 1880s she painted numerous members of her family--sister Lydia in particular. They lived with their parents in Paris during those years while Mary exhibited with the Impressionists and was a dear friend of Degas. Strictly speaking, she painted scenes involving family rather than straight-on portraits. Nonetheless, in her images of her sister we see affection and even a kind of awe of her beauty. Woman with a Pearl Necklace is a striking image of her sister during an intermission of the Paris Opera.

Portrait of Bill, 2005

In my own case, I've done some family portraits too. Here is a portrait of Bill Barber, my mother's second husband and a thoroughly admirable guy. Bill was the definition of "salt of the earth," and was the best thing that happened to my mother in her old age. I worked up this 20x16 oil from personal references and life sketches. Someone else will have to say what they actually see in this portrait, but my intent was to show the warmth and deep goodness of the man, making his face that of a man of the land, with the kind of pale forehead that farmers' caps produce. His shirt wasn't gray but I wanted an effect of chiaroscuro with no distracting color.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

When to Stop Learning

In education circles, especially at the post-graduate level, the term "lifelong learning" has become trendy. The idea in educators' eyes is to encourage the eventual graduate to continue to learn and investigate. These days, given the speed of information publishing and the unbelievable volume, it's critical to instill the habit of continued learning. The ideal is never to stop adding to one's fund of knowledge.

For artists, lifelong inquiry and boundary challenging should be the norm. Those in occupations that produce things--"makers" is the current buzzword--ought to investigate as many different materials, means, and methods of expression as possible. For me it's only through that kind of questioning and questing that advances have come in production of art. A new medium may send one off in the most productive direction, or facilitate new work in the medium originally chosen. A new genre may spark enormous creativity. It is the quest that provides the power.

So of course the answer to the question in the title of this post (when to stop learning) is: Never.

Here are few random lessons learned over several decades that have paid dividends and keep coming to mind:
  • "Violate your edges" is a quote from my friend and mentor Bill Whitaker. What he means by
    Bill Whitaker giving a portrait demo, 2005
    that statement is just that you should paint across edges, then correct in order to establish depth and overlap. Without such treatment, edges are too often monotonous, uniformly hard or perhaps poorly-defined, and good edges make the painting sing. (Bill is a wonderful painter whose generous friendship and mentoring have been essential to me. I think of those words every day.)
  • Spend more time looking than painting.  Another important lesson from Mr. Whitaker. A lot of people are eager to paint, to put down the ideas that are coming to them as they study an object or a person and try to translate paint into picture. Guilty. It isn't easy for me to slow my technique, spend time not just looking at something but actually studying it: how long is it? how tall? where are the angles and how do they relate? and so on. Spending the time to understand shapes, structures, light and dark, and all of the other aspects of an object actually shortens the painting time. And it can facilitate crisper brushwork since the artist has thought hard about the brush stroke to be applied. Overall, study of the motif makes it easier to paint.
  • Paint like a millionaire. This one comes from a fellow student of art. The idea is to worry less
    "Secondaries," oil on panel, 2005
    about the cost of materials and more about learning how to use them. In that vein, it's important to use the best materials you can afford--top grade paint, durable and stable supports, and so on. Student grade materials are cheaper, yes, but may not perform to the necessary standards. That is, paint may have inert fillers (for example) that alter mixing properties or otherwise alter paint performance. Cheaper charcoal or graphite may have flaws or lack durability. And so on. A sports trainer of mine once admonished me to buy the best equipment I could afford. It's good advice and promotes learning. 

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Favorite Artists 2

Once in a while when thinking of artists, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin comes to mind.

Chardin, "Self portrait," pastel, 1771
Chardin was a lifelong Parisian and even lived the final years of his life in the Louvre as painter to the King of France. Although he was a contemporary of the rococo era of painters he was quite unlike them in his own work. In that century history painting was considered the pinnacle of art, but much of Chardin's work was still life or figures, neither considered to be as elevated. Chardin's work was hardly as flamboyant as that of others of his era (Watteau or Fragonard, for example).  Instead he dealt in common domestic subject matter.

For me, one of the chief pleasures of Chardin's work is a sense of quiet contemplation. Whether the work is a still life or figurative, the pictures become a source of meditation and sometimes even wonder.

While Chardin was influenced by the art world of his time and by his contemporaries, he was singular in many ways. Mostly self-taught, he did not absorb the working style of a personal teacher so much as he exemplified himself. For one thing, his subject matter was almost documentary rather than romantic and flamboyant in the rococo style. He painted the interiors of French homes, delineating common objects that his contemporaries generally ignored. He dealt with the world of children and domestics and food rather than romantic interludes of the upper classes. He was an integral part of the French Academy, was quite popular in his lifetime, and exhibited regularly in the Salon during his whole life, although by his last years he had faded into near-obscurity.

"Woman Sealing a Letter," oil, ~1734
Chardin began doing figurative paintings, the first maybe his "Woman Sealing a Letter," when in his mid-thirties and already an established painter. Most often he depicted women and children in various pursuits--blowing a bubble, setting up a house of cards, working domestically, and so on.
"The Soap Bubble," 1735

"The House of Cards," ~1735
"Copper Cistern," ~1735
Regardless, it is the still life work that I find most alluring. Some of Chardin's still life works seem completely prosaic. For example, his "Copper Cistern" shows us a vessel used t hold drinking water for the household. The cistern is a tall copper vessel with a tap, hovering over a mug and a dipper. The vertical composition and muted palette provide a sense of quiet happiness, at least for me.
"The Silver Goblet," 1768

"Portrait of Portrait of Fran├žoise-Marguerite Pouget (Madam Chardin)" 1775
In the last years of his career, he turned to pastels, probably because of failing eyesight. Those works are among my personal favorites (see his pastel self-portait above and his portrait of his wife, right), but they were little-appreciated during his lifetime.

Regardless of medium though, Chardin has a special place in my pantheon of art because of his impressive craft and his humble yet moving subject matter.

Favorite Artists

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Salmagundi 2017 Thumb Box Show

Happy to be included in the 109th Thumb Box Show by our club, Salmagundi Club of New York. The club has actually been in existence for 146 years, since it began as a sketch club comprising young artists and illustrators. This is the club's largest show, hung in both the large main gallery and the smaller one downstairs, spotlights small artworks, some even tiny. Submitted works may not exceed 108 sq. in., or about 9x12, and can be photographs, paintings, drawings, and so on. Three dimensional works are likewise restricted to smaller than 12 in. in all directions.

Painting small is a tradition that has been around for centuries. Think of the small and relatively dark houses in northern Europe during the 17th century, for example. Small works were more commercial and more common because they fit the homes of the time. In contrast, huge works were commissioned for palaces and ecclesiastical purposes (Caravaggio, Rubens) elsewhere. Today smaller works, priced accordingly, are a popular way to collect original art.

"And a clock," casein on panel, 6x8, 2017
Three of my own pieces were selected. Two are 8x10 watercolors and one is a smaller casein painting on panel. One watercolor depicts a restored John Deere tractor dating from the 1940s. I based the picture on a reference photo I took at the Iowa State Fair in August this year. The other 8x10 watercolor is based on reference pictures accessed online. Each was posted here previously (see the links below). The third painting is a 6x8 casein on panel, a still life of my studio work table, painted in morning light.

The show opened yesterday and runs until January in both galleries. Open to the public.

Related posts:
Two Tractors in Watercolor
Fall Sketching

Friday, December 01, 2017

Studio 405 Open for Classes

Mainframe Studios is now about three months old. The building opened for occupancy the first week in August. So far the top floor, ground floor and lower level are open and all of the studio spaces are leased. My floor has over 60 artists and eventually the second and third floors will be similarly occupied. There are painters, ceramicists, photographers, a recording studio, and other less common disciplines including string art.

Office corner of Studio 405. Silverpoint drawings on display.
As part of its commitment, the management has been working hard to promote the studios and artists. Since opening in late summer, there have been two "open studio" events welcoming the general public (a third planned for about a week from now) and probably four or five private events for groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Meredith Publications. The public interest in the building and artists seems on the rise.

Wider view of the studio entrance.
My own studio continues to evolve. Besides setting it up as a work space, we've made the studio into a quasi-gallery. There are paintings, metalpoint drawings, and watercolor paintings available for sale. These are a few pictures.

Having more space will allow me to begin taking students individually or in small groups. One group will be starting this month, with more classes currently on the drawing board (literally!).

So if you live in Iowa or happen to be in Des Moines for some reason, feel free to stop in. If I'm working but welcome visitors, the door will be open.
Studio from the doorway.

Studio 405
Studio 405 Again