Monday, March 30, 2015

It’s Here — Really

Ernest Lawson (1873–1939, US), Spring Night, Harlem River, 1913. Oil on canvas mounted on wood, 25 1/8" x 30 1/8" (63.8 x 76.5 cm). © The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (PC-245)
Spring really is here, although it may not yet look like it outside (it’s actually snowing right now!). How about experiencing it on the inside with these two phenomenally beautiful little paintings by Ernest Lawson? He’s another of those artists who is not exactly a household name (even in art history households—yes, they do exist), which is unfortunate. Like many, many, many artists, his career as an artist was not rewarded with massive riches, but his vision as an artist never failed to see the beauty around him, particularly in spring.

Ernest Lawson was born in Nova Scotia. He studied painting at the Art Students League in New York, and then in the Cos Cob Art Colony in Connecticut. His mentors there were Julian Alden Weir (1852–1919) and John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902), both of whom had studied in France and developed a type of American Impressionism. Lawson, from early on, adapted the Impressionist palette, and the delicate tonalities and textures of his two mentors from Cos Cob.

From 1893 to 1896 Lawson was in France. He briefly attended the Académie Julien, where many of the impressionists had studied in the late 1860s. He met the impressionist Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), and thereafter confirmed a love of painting outdoors. When he returned to the United States, he concentrated painting scenes of Manhattan in all different weather and seasons, communicating a deep love for the city.  Many of Lawson’s scenes of New York are of Harlem, then on the edge of as yet unbuilt-upon land.

This painting of the Washington Bridge between Harlem and the Bronx on 181st Street on a glistening spring night is a worthy descendant of French Impressionism. Compare it to Monet’s Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil. The composition is strikingly similar, as is the beauty of Lawson’s color harmonies and palette. Lawson’s compositions tended to emphasize strong horizontals balanced by verticals of trees, grass, and, in this painting, the vertical supports of the bridge.

Claude Monet (1840–1926, France), Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874. Oil on canvas, 13 7/16" x 28 13/16" (54.3 x 73.3 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1062)

Lawson’s impressionist palette combined with a strong compositional sense must have seemed too progressive for the time because it did not follow the old formulas. After the rejection of a painting by the dictatorial National Academy of Design in New York in 1905, he joined the rebellion against it by joining with the group called The Eight, who are also called the Ash Can School for their unvarnished realistic scenes of New York. Lawson exhibited with them for one show in 1908. He also joined with the Independent Artists exhibition in 1910 and the Armory Show in 1913. This was really the high point of his career. He never really became a financial success as a painter. In the 1920s he briefly pursued a career in teaching.

Here’s another view of the Washington Bridge from the other side, looking in the same direction:

Ernest Lawson, Spring Morning, 1913. Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard, 16 1/8" x 20 1/8" (41 x 51.1 cm). © The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (PC-244)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.4; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.19-20 studio, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.3-4 studio, 1.4; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.7; A Community Connection: 6.2, 6.4; Experience Painting: 6; Exploring Painting: 7, 11; Exploring Visual Design: 5; The Visual Experience: 9.3; Discovering Art History: 15.1, 15.activity 1

Monday, March 23, 2015

Women’s (Art) History Month

Nell Blaine (1922–1996, US), Cosmos and Limes, 1968. Oil on canvas, 18 1/8" x 14 3/16" (46 x 36 cm). Photo courtesy of the Artist, Davis Art Images. (8S-16952)
There are so many inspiring stories involving artists throughout history that I could probably crank out a blog every day! (Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that!) But, to celebrate Women’s History Month I am going to introduce you to an artist I once saw speak in the 1980s, and whose work I’ve always admired, because her palette and mine are very similar. I think what she said in Art: A Woman’s Sensibility could sum up many artists’ feelings about what makes them paint, “I enjoy color more than words, and shapes more than sentences. When in the street, I instinctively notice the size and color of letters on a sign, not their directives.” As she says at the end of that essay: “Long live Painting!” (Art: A Woman’s Sensibility. © 1975. Miriam Schapiro, Director, Feminist Art Program, California Institute of the Arts, Valencia.)

Nell Blaine is a monumentally inspiring person in the history of artists, but she is rarely, if ever, featured in art history surveys. This is true despite the fact that 79 artists held an exhibition to raise money for her hospital bills in 1959, including Motherwell, the de Koonings, Freilicher, and Rauschenberg. She whipped polio and went on to create a vibrant, colorful body of work in oil and watercolor.

Blaine was born in Virginia and moved to New York in 1942 to study under Hans Hofmann (1880–1966). Hofmann was a mentor of sorts to some of the Abstract Expressionists. She was a member of the only group dedicated to abstraction during the Social Realist years of the Great Depression (1929–1940), the Abstract American Artists. Her early realist painting turned abstract under the influence of Mondrian, Helion, and Léger, all of whom worked in some type of geometric abstraction. In the late 1940s, she attracted the attention of Clement Greenberg, the art critic/essayist who marketed Abstract Expressionism. However, by the mid-1950s, she had returned to representation, developing a painterly and colorful style, focusing on painting from direct observation of nature or still life. Her particular passion was the depiction of flowers in pure colors. Her first solo show was 1953, and she was featured as a leading young woman artist in Life magazine in 1957.

On a trip to Greece in 1959, Blaine contracted polio and ended up in the hospital in New York for eight months, some of that time in an iron lung. Although told in 1960 that she would never paint again, she trained herself to paint in oils with her left hand and watercolors and drawing with her right. Her primary subjects after that were sweeping cityscapes of New York and its environs, and of the area around Gloucester, MA, where she bought a home in 1975. She also lived and worked in Europe for months at a time.

This still life is typical of her love of pure color, particularly cobalt violet. Her work of the 1960s through the 1980s recalls a trip she made in 1950 to Paris, where the work of Bonnard and Vuillard had a major impact on her. She thereafter studied 1800s French painting. While her forms are abstracted with loose brush work, they betray a certain tradition of compositional structure that goes back to Cézanne, the Nabis, and through Matisse. Her work is joyful and shows how she delighted in depicting the natural world. Her statements about color are demonstrated in her paintings!

Other works by the artist:

Nell Blaine, Outdoor Festival, 1954. Oil on canvas, 40 15/16" x 62 3/16" (104 x 158 cm). Photo courtesy of the Artist, Davis Art Images. (8S-16935)
Here one sees the artist on the verge of returning to figuration and objects. Poor Clement Greenburg.

Nell Blaine, Interior, Greece, 1959. Oil on canvas, 50" x 59 13/16" (127 x 152 cm). Photo courtesy of the Artist, Davis Art Images. (8S-16937)
I suspect that this was painted during her trip to Greece. Note how the forms are now firmly back in the representational arena.

Nell Blaine, Brisk Day, 1974. Watercolor on paper, 14 3/16" x 20" (36 x 51 cm). Photo courtesy of the Artist, Davis Art Images. (8S-16961)
A view of the skyline in New York often painted by Blaine.

Nell Blaine, View from the Ledge, 1975. Oil on canvas, 35" x 45 5/8" (89 x 116 cm). Photo courtesy of the Artist, Davis Art Images. (8S-16967)
This painting with its gorgeous bright colors certainly reflects Blaine’s enthusiasm for the wilds of Massachusetts after she bought the house in Gloucester.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.8, 2.7-8 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.6; A Personal Journey: 2.6; A Community Connection: 6.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.2; Discovering Drawing: 4; Experience Painting: 4, 6; Exploring Painting: 9; Discovering Art History: 13 activity 1

Monday, March 16, 2015

5 Days and Counting

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925, US), Pomegranates, 1908. Watercolor on paper, 21 3/16" x 14 7/16" (53.8 x 36.7 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4857)
Here is a gorgeous little Sargent to stoke your Spring Fever. You know, I never come across a Sargent watercolor I don’t like. Just looking at this beautiful work makes me feel as if there is a warm breeze on my face. Some art historians may doggedly ride that worn out horse of Sargent as the “best portrait painter of his generation,” but, as I feel about Winslow Homer (1836–1910), his watercolors are BY FAR the most brilliant part of his marvelous body of work. Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) once said that Claude Monet (1840–1926) was “just an eye, but God, what an eye!” in relation to what he (Cézanne) felt about the restrictions of Impressionism. Well, I say the same thing about Sargent’s watercolors.

John Singer Sargent is such an interesting person, and unlike many who became successful flattering wealthy people in portraits, he doesn’t seem to have had such a big ego. Like Monet, he always sought to grow as an artist and try new things. Born in Italy of American parents, Sargent learned early in his studies as a painter under the French pseudo-academic, fashionable portraitist Carolus-Duran (18371917). Carolus-Duran introduced Sargent to the idea of painting immediately without executing numerous studies in order to achieve a fresh, authentic depiction of a subject, and exploit the possibilities of a lively surface in oil. This idea was reinforced when he met Monet in the mid-1880s, painted outdoors (en plein air) with him and exhibited with him in 1885.

Although Sargent exhibited subjects other than portraits in the Salon in Paris, he never achieved the recognition with his other subjects as he did with his portraits. His fashionable portraits of the wealthy came to define his career. The 1890s were Sargent’s busiest and most lucrative years of portrait painting. By 1900 he tired of the artifice and formulaic nature of depicting wealthy sitters and he turned increasingly to watercolor. In taking up watercolor, Sargent returned to emphasizing painting outdoors. 

Between 1900 and 1914 he created over 700 watercolors, painted almost entirely outdoors, in brilliant pure colors with virtually no pencil outlines. Abundant numbers of watercolors were produced on trips to Italy, Corfu, through the Swiss Alps, in Spain and in North Africa, as well as in the American West and Florida. 

This study of pomegranates came from a trip to Spain in 1908, where he made numerous sketches and watercolor studies of the exotic fruit. Not only does he brilliantly explore the opaque possibilities of pure watercolor hues, like Homer, he uses the lightness of the paper to aid in his highlights, rather than using white gouache as highlights. He also painted the subject in oil. In the US in 1909 he had the first of only two exhibitions of his watercolors. He showed 86 works, 83 of which were bought by the Brooklyn Museum, an astounding purchase of art from a living artist working in what was considered at the time to be a “minor” medium.

The fact is, because of the emphasis on watercolors by Homer and Sargent, the medium had found the path to asserting itself as a standalone medium in fine art. It was no longer merely a study medium. I think we would be hard-pressed to think of any other artists in the Western world who worked so diligently in perfecting their work in the watercolor medium as finished works.

A version in oil:

John Singer Sargent , Pomegranates, Majorca, ca. 1908. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4" x 22" (73 x 56 cm). © Terra Foundation of American Art, Chicago, IL. (8S-29058)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.4connections; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.1, 1.1-2 studio, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.4, 1.6, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.5; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.9, 2.11; A Community Connection: 6.2, 6.4; Experience Painting: 2, 4; Exploring Painting: 5; Exploring Visual Design: 4, 8, 11 (random); The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.4; Discovering Art History: 13.1

Monday, March 9, 2015

Another Art History Myth Busted

Netherlands, Saint Barbara, late 1400s. Painted wood, height: 57" (144.8 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4893)
I’m sure you are all familiar with the refrain we hear in art history books about the differences between the Renaissance in Northern Europe and Italy. Well, to put it mildly, the idea that the Italian Renaissance was somehow more fabulous than in Northern Europe is—pardon my language—hogwash. The awakening of Europe to a more prosperous and educated middle class, less controlling Roman church, and stronger secular monarchs and countries was Europe-wide, not just in Italy. So what if they didn’t have ancient Greek and Roman sculpture to study as anatomy examples? Northern European Renaissance art is a sort of intense, expressionistic realism that even amazed Italians. Look at the Portinari family in Italy! They couldn’t get enough of Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes! And Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini did more than take a cursory passing look at Northern painting.

Anyone who looks at Romanesque and Gothic churches in Northern Europe can see that sculpture did not disappear during the Middle Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire (ca. 500s CE). All over Europe, the spiritual overtook the physical in importance. That is not to say that Romanesque and Gothic sculptors were not somewhat influenced by classical sculpture. Just look at the jamb figures of some of the portals of Chartres Cathedral. As the Roman church lost its stranglehold on European countries, they evolved into nation-states with strong central governments. Art schools began to really flourish during the 1300s, and the “estate of humankind” began to be considered, rather than a worldly curse, a gift from God and something worth celebrating in art.

The courtly styles of sculpture in Northern Europe radiated from Burgundy, Paris, and the princely courts in Germany. Freestanding sculpture, outside of churches, was rare, so it is not surprising that much of the Northern sculpture in the 1400s looks like jamb figures from cathedrals that stepped off their pedestals. That said, they have acquired an astounding quality of relaxed, fluid elegance and natural movement compared to jamb figures.

The proportions of the figure of Saint Barbara are right on, and the sculptor has even tamed the high forehead seen in Northern paintings of women, which was a symbol for intelligence / wisdom (a fashion thing when they were wearing big headgear). Speaking of big headgear, Saint Barbara sports a turban-like wimple (probably material stretched over a wire frame), which was the fad among young noble women. The drapery is treated in a style that was popular in both painting and sculpture called “Zackenstil” (jagged style) in Germany. It refers to the depiction of drapery as swirling, pointy-edged folds. The artist obviously studied folded material, just like Leonardo did, by draping wet material for study purposes. While the drapery doesn’t technically reveal the body underneath, it is very convincingly part of a human figure.

I will point out two aspects of this work that make it more “classically” conceived than most Italian sculpture of the same period: 1) The sculpture is painted, and we know that Greeks and Romans painted their sculpture; and 2) Is that a pew/fencepost/harp that supports the figure? Gee, sort of like the omnipresent tree stump supports in Roman copies of Greek sculpture!

Two other Northern sculpture masters: Claus Sluter’s work is phenomenal, with hints of a body underneath the massive drapery, and Tilman Riemenschneider is a poster-child for Zackenstil.

Claus Sluter (ca. 1340–1406, Flanders), John the Baptist, from the portal of Chartreuse de Champmol, Dijon, France. Marble, life-sized. Photo © Davis Art Images. (8S-12519)
Tilman Riemenschneider (ca. 1460–1531, Germany), Saint Stephen, 1502–1510. Painted and gilt linden wood, height: 36 1/2" (92.7 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CL-679)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.9-10 studio; Explorations in Art Grade: 3 1.3-4 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.3-4 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.3; A Community Connection: 3.2; A Global Pursuit: 4.4; Beginning Sculpture: 5; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 6; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 15.8; Discovering Art History: 10.1

Monday, March 2, 2015

Architecture or Sculpture? You Decide

Java, Indonesia, Siva Temple, Loro Jonggrang, Prambanan, ca. 856–915 CE. © Davis Art Images. (8S-10184)
I have been stunned recently by the overwhelming beauty of Hindu-Buddhist temples in Java. I think they rival the beauty of any architecture anywhere else in the world. It is interesting to compare these stunning structures with what was being built elsewhere in the world at the time. It was not yet the period of cathedrals in Europe, gorgeous churches were being built in the Byzantine Empire, and it was just about the end of the Classic Period in Mesoamerica, a time that saw the construction of some of the most beautiful planned cities in the world. I would like to see more attention paid to striking architecture such as this as part of the global “March of Time in Art and Architecture.”

It is generally believed that the earliest inhabitants of the Indonesian archipelago were of Indian or Burmese origin. Later migrants known as Malays came from Southern China and Indochina at around 3000 BCE. Since the early period, the Javanese established trade with India and China. Prior to the arrival of Buddhism and Hinduism to Java, the native inhabitants practiced a form of animism.
Hinduism was introduced from India through trade during the first century CE. Hindu kingdoms were established in Kalimantan, Sumatra, and Java between the 400s and the 1200s, some of which had also absorbed Buddhist influences. Javanese architecture began under Hindu influence, with a surge of Buddhism from about 750 to 850 (as evidenced by the monumental Stupa in Borobudur), and a second flourishing of Hindu architecture that lasted from the late 800s until the 1300s with the coming of Islam.

The Siva Temple at Loro Jonggrang is the most preeminent of Javanese temples. It is part of a complex of at least 200 subsidiary temples and stupas, built of brick. The Siva Temple shows the tendency of late medieval Hindu architecture to be placed on larger and larger platforms. The tower of the temple is based on the Dravidian pyramidal style temple towers in Indian architecture, with much more elaboration in sculpture programs.

The idea of the sacred mountain evolved in temple architecture during the late 600s in Southeast Asia. The mountain (Mount Meru, sacred in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism) was considered the axis of the universe, and, as in Western pyramids, ziggurats, and even cathedrals, provided access to the divine. While the basic form of the temple ("candi") in Southeast Asia was similar from region to region, the elaborate and exuberant sculptural programs on the exterior are of greatest impact. The reliefs around the pedestal/platform of the temple show scenes from the Ramayana interspersed with niches containing sacred figures. The sculptural style of Prambanan is a combination of the classic Shrivijaya Kingdom (750–850 CE) style seen at Borobudur, and elements that hark back to the Gupta period (320–647 CE) in India. The entrances on all four sides are a tradition dating back to early stupas and other Buddhist architecture.

Siva Temple, Loro Jonggrang, sculpture: Guardian of a Direction. © Davis Art Images. (8S-10187)
Siva Temple, Loro Jonggrang, sculpture: Rama. © Davis Art Images. (8S-10188)

Here’s another beautiful temple in the same part of Java as Loro Jonggrang:

Java, Candi Plaosan, ca. 830–850 CE, Prambanan Plain, near Yogyakarta. © Davis Art Images. (8S-10183)
This temple, where Buddhism was worshipped, is part of a complex of 248 smaller temples and stupas. Ironically, it was only used until about 1006, when a nearby volcano erupted and covered everything in volcanic ash.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.1; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.31, 6.33; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.20; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.14, 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.20; Exploring Visual Design: 6; A Global Pursuit: 8.5; Discovering Art History: 4.5