Sunday, November 30, 2014

Leonaert Bramer, Salome Presented with the Head of St. John the Baptist

Leonaert Bramer, Salome Presented with the Head of St. John the Baptist, 1630s

Leonaert Bramer (1596-1674) was a noted Dutch painter who achieved success with religious workshistory painting, and genre scenes.  Born in Delft, Bramer traveled extensively and spent quite a bit of time in Rome where he earned the nickname Leonardo of the Night for his particular skill with nocturnal scenes.  Salome is a very interesting painting for its starkness and use of dramatic techniques.  The story of Salome, Herod, Herodias, and John the Baptist is a favorite of painters throughout the centuries.  Usually, though, there is a great deal of attention paid to the head of John, yet here it is barely visible.  Instead the scene is quite expansive, showing King Herod and his banquet table.  Bramer applied his facility with nighttime painting to this interior piece, resulting in unusual lighting.  The blankness of the background, carefully rendered to be both appropriate to the dimly lit room and suggestive of a cloudy night sky, is quite striking, drawing the viewers attention to the figures, but also evoking the brutality and violence of the story.  The inclusion of curtains, not necessarily out of place in a banquet scene of the time, enhances the overall drama of the scene, and draws attention to the figures of Salome (the only person in 17th century dress) and the executioner, who do not stand under either curtain but the shadow on the right frames them and mirrors their own shadows.  The highly theatrical painting leaves the viewer with a sense of unease.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Nikolaos Gyzis, The Secret School

Nikolaos Gyzis, The Secret School, 1885

Nikolaos Gyzis (1842-1901) was among the most prominent Greek painters of the nineteenth century.  Gyzis was trained at the Athens School of Fine Arts in the movement known as the Munich School because many Greek artists trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Munich. After his study at Athens Gyzis himself won a scholarship to Munich and stayed there for many years.  The style emphasized a prominent but soft use of chiaroscuro and, particularly in the case of Gyzis, often depicted genre scenes.  The Secret School (also translated as The Underground School) makes an appropriate companion to yesterday's post post about the Ottoman Empire, for this painting is about Greece under Ottoman rule.  Greece was conquered by the Ottomans in the mid-fifteenth century (Athens fell in 1458) and was part of the empire until declaring independence in 1821.  Popular myth in Greece held that Ottoman rule prohibited, or at least severely restricted, organized Greek Christian schooling, and so churches were forced to educate in secret.  Although there is no evidence to support the story, and in fact there is strong evidence that Ottoman law allowed all religious minorities within the empire to organize their own schools, the story had become cemented in the national narrative of Greece and held quite a bit of sway in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Gyzis's painting depicts one such school, with a priest speaking to his small group of students.  This painting is all about the light; the soft, warm light that illuminates the center from the group does not have a visible source, suggesting that the knowledge itself is lighting the gathering.  Gyzis's soft brushwork gives the scene a sense of quietude and illicit mystery.  The intimacy of the painting is created by these elements and by the arrangement of the figures, who are grouped so as to exclude the viewer physically while being emotionally inviting.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Osman Hamdi Bey, At the Mosque Door

Osman Hamdi Bey, At the Mosque Door, 1891

In addition to a trailblazing painter, Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910) was a prominent intellectual and an administrator and diplomat in the Ottoman Empire.  Hamdi's father was a Grand Vizier in the empire, contributing to his high status in society.  Born in Constantinople and educated in Paris (specifically learning from French Orientalist painters Jean-Léon Gérôme and Gustave Boulanger),  Hamdi's work was widely exhibited internationally (which added to his clout as a diplomat) and he became emblematic of the intellectual, cosmopolitan gentlemen who populated the intelligentsia of the late Ottoman Empire.  He was also instrumental in the proliferation of Ottoman art to the rest of the world, organizing participation in several major international exhibitions.  Today Osman Hamdi Bey is probably the best known Ottoman artist; The Tortoise Trainer is one of his most well known paintings. At the Mosque Door is a remarkable depiction of the mosque's role as a gathering place for the community.  The painting was exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition in the Ottoman Pavilion (it was supposed to be in the Fine Arts Building) and is very well received by everyone who sees, even being awarded a medal.  The painting was then bought by the University of Pennsylvania for the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology––in part to curry favor for permission to remove antiquities from an excavation in Nippur––where it was soon rolled up and not rediscovered until 2007.  The painting is quite carefully composed, with the the figures arranged to give and extremely effective line and viewing experience.  The façade of the mosque itself dominates the painting, taking up almost two thirds of the canvas.  The architecture is beautifully rendered, with great attention paid to the stonework, decoration, and the drapery of the tapestry hanging above.  The portrait of Ottoman life that the painting offers is quite fascinating, showing the role of the religious community, the vibrancy of the marketplace, and even the misfortune of a beggar.  Osman Hamdi Bey is a key figure in the complex development of world art and the profession of archaeology, and we are fortunate that this exceptional painting has been rediscovered.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Arthur Wesley Dow, Ipswich, Fishing Boats

Arthur Wesley Dow, Ipswich, Fishing Boats
6.5 x 14.25 in.

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922) was an American painter and printmaker who became best known as an art teacher and was an important figure in the development of arts education.  Many of his works are landscapes, from loose renderings of an Alberta lake to impressive views of the Grand Canyon.  This particular piece is a very small painting, and its date is unknown, but it is a beautiful piece and represents Dow's views on art.  He believed that art should be more than a copy of nature, that individual elements like composition, line, color, and form come together to create harmony and produce something greater than the sum of its parts.  Ipswich, Fishing Boats demonstrates these ideals; far from an exact copy of nature, the painting uses attributes like the intense red of the sails, the movement and reflectiveness of the water, the houses and trees in the background, and the artist's loose and expressive brushstrokes, to create a painting that evokes the Ipswich harbor it depicts.  This was an important place for Dow, for he founded the Ipswich Summer School of Art there and served as director for nearly twenty years.  This painting captures the beautiful simplicity of the town and harbor.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Giuseppe de Nittis, Self-portrait

Giuseppe de Nittis, Self-portrait, 1883-84
44.88" x 34.65"

Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884) was a noted Italian painter who had contact with both the Impressionists and the Macchiaioli.  The Macchiaioli (whom I have discussed before) were a group of painters often considered the Italian counterpart to Impressionism.  De Nittis met them through a friendship with Telmaco Signorini, but his association with them was brief.  After exhibiting work in Florence, de Nittis moved to Paris in 1867 where he had some success at the Salon.  De Nittis met the Impressionist artists, forming a particular friendship with Degas, of whom he produced a small portrait. Degas invited de Nittis to participate in the first Impressionist exhibition at the Nadar gallery in 1874.  He had five paintings in the show, but apparently did not get along with certain members of the group and did not exhibit with them again.  Nevertheless, we can clearly see the influence of Impressionism on de Nittis's work, both before and after the show.  This self-portrait is a beautiful example of de Nittis's skill.  Done in pastels, which the artist began using in 1875, the piece shows a great range of textures and materiality.  From the solid wood, to the gauzy curtains, the glass lamp, to the plush velvet couch, each element is rendered quite successfully.  The medium of pastels creates an overall softness to the work, especially evident around the painter's face.  De Nittis looks ethereal and contemplative, as well as emotional and profound.  Unfortunately it appears the work was left unfinished, perhaps due to the artist's sudden death.  However the piece remains a striking testament to the skill and expressivity that Giuseppe de Nittis brought to his work.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Indian Decor

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Indian Decor, 1894

One of the most well-known Post-Impressionists, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) is probably best remembered for his posters and paintings of Moulin Rouge, posters that went far beyond commercial art to express the character of the Paris nightlife and the Bohemian community in Montmartre.  His illustrations are considered central to Art Nouveau  Due in part to his immersion in that lifestyle, Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings can be quite extreme, in both their exaggerated shapes and vibrant colors. Indian Design is an interesting piece in Toulouse-Lautrec's oeuvre.  In addition to the night club scene, most of his works are portraits and depictions of private homes or other aspects of French life, including the sports that his health prevented him from participating in.  In this piece, Toulouse-Lautrec depicted an exotic landscape (having traveled only has far as London), but the style is very unusual.  The sketch-like appearance (unusual for oils) suggests the distance of the scene as well as a certain amount of mysticism. There is also the slight suggestion of a curtain to the left of the elephant, alluding to the possibility that this is a set on stage.  I find the piece quite beautiful, and Toulouse-Lautrec applied a very delicate touch in applying these paints that gives the piece a sense of intimacy.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Helen O'Toole, Stumble

Helen O'Toole, Stumble, 2013
55" x 90"

Helen O'Toole is a contemporary Irish artist based in Washington.  She moved to Chicago in 1987 to pursue an MFA the School of the Art Institute and now is a professor at the University of Washington.  O'Toole cites her childhood in Ireland, its landscape and mythology, as a major influence on her painting.  O'Toole's work bears some resemblance to color field painting, but she uses a wide palette to express the depth and breadth of feeling that she wants to communicate. Her works also often resemble abstracted landscapes, viewed, in O'Toole's own words, "through misty areas of obscured forms, and veils of evocative color."  In Stumble these forms seem to exist like cloud formations, rolling across the expanse of the canvas, somewhat insubstantial yet extremely potent.  This is a fairly large painting and it imagine the power this piece would have in person.  The richness of O'Toole's colors and the power of her misty shapes suggest the intensity of memory and the fog of history that O'Toole sees as a central theme of Irish culture.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Deer

Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Deer, 1946
8.82x11.81 in.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is an artist now perhaps more known for her persona than her painting. She did indeed have an interesting and complicated life and much of her work is autobiographical, incorporating self-portraits. This particular painting shows Kahlo's vulnerability and her wounded feelings. The painting responds to traditional images of the hunt and also depictions of St. Anthony, who was martyred with arrows.  The painting also depicts the pain that Kahlo endured after an unsuccessful spinal surgery and her feelings of being trapped by her physical pain.  It is also worth noting that Frida placed her head on the body of a male stag, which is clear from the antlers, perhaps alluding to her struggles over her gender and the difficulty she experienced getting her art recognized.  Frida Kahlo's greatest ability was in imbuing her art with the emotional profundity of her condition.  She could express her deep sadness and longing and her confusion over her identity.  This painting demonstrates that ability, as well as her skill in traditional measures of painting, for both the forest and the deer are rendered with great skill.  While we can certainly admire Kahlo's technical skill, the great pain she felt in her life is quite present throughout her art and it is impossible not to feel that intensity in this piece.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Georges Lacombe, Blue Seascape, Wave Effect

Georges Lacombe, Blue Seascape, Wave Effect, 1893
25.6x16.9 in.

Georges Lacombe (1868-1916) was a French artist and a member of Les Nabis.  Les Nabis were a group of avant-garde French artists who worked mostly in a symbolist aesthetic, but their overall style can be seen as a combination of Impressionism and Art Nouveau, with the members also working in the graphic and decorative arts.  Georges Lacombe was mostly noted for his sculpture, considered the sculptor of the group, to the point that his painting was largely overlooked. Nevertheless, he was an accomplished painter, mostly portraying genre scenes (heavily influenced by Gauguin and Matisse) and Asian-inspired landscapes.  This particular seascape is done in tempera, which accounts for the slightly chalky look of the colors.  Lacombe created fascinating shapes in this scene, particularly in the foam that has reached the beach, but in the crest of the wave as well.  The thickest part of the wave, on the right, mirrors the shapes of the clouds quite thoroughly.  Lacombe also managed to suggest interesting plays of light by using pink instead of white on the wave and clouds.  The combination of movement and stillness that Lacombe expressed is quite Japanese, and also quite beautiful.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

JMW Turner, Angel Standing in the Sun (100th Post!)

JMW Turner, Angel Standing in the Sun, 1846
31.1x31.1 in.

Today is my 100th post!  Since I wrote my first entry about a Turner painting, I decided to discuss another to mark the occasion.  Throughout his long career, Turner (1775-1851) explored many different styles, including large-scale history paintings of high drama that conform to the Romantic tradition, such as Mount Vesuvius in Eruption from 1817, quiet landscapes that tend more toward realism, like 1797's Moonlight, A Study at Milbank, and works that seem impossibly prescient, like this study of a sunset from around 1830, which prefigures Impressionism and even resembles Abstract Expressionism.  Angel Standing in the Sun is a very late painting, and seems to contain thoughts about the artist's death. This is indeed a biblical scene: the Archangel Michael appears on the Day of Judgment with his flaming sword, while Old Testament scenes are depicted in the foreground; Adam and Eve mourn the body of Abel, Judith stands holding the head of Holofernes, and Samson and Delilah appear together.  All of these scenes of murder and betrayal, portrayed on Judgment Day, certainly indicate that Turner was pondering his own death, and suggest a dark theme to the painting.  However, that is not what I see in this painting.  The most striking feature for me is intense effects of light that Turner rendered.  Michael is swathed in golden light that swirls around him, and the rich gold of his robe heightens this effect.  In the sky the clouds and sunlight arc over the painting, indicating the pale, clear sky just beyond them.  To me this is a hopeful painting, about the  persistence of life in the world.  The extreme beauty of the piece is quite powerful and Turner's brush put to such light is nothing short of rapturous.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you've enjoyed my first one hundred posts.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Georges Braque, Castle at La Roche-Guyon

Georges Braque, Castle at La Roche-Guyon, 1909

Georges Braque (1882-1963) was a crucial figure in the development of modern art in the early twentieth century.  He contributed significantly to the Fauvist movement and, along with Picasso, invented Cubism.  The Cubist movement was founded between 1907 and 1911, but by which artist and  through which painting is not entirely clear.  Both Picasso and Braque were moving toward the style for several years and their work leading up to Cubism is termed Proto-Cubism.  Castle at La Roche-Guyon is Proto-Cubist, but is a step toward Analytical Cubism.  It certainly goes further than Braque's previous pieces.  Braque began his Cubist explorations with architecture, reducing buildings to a form approximating a cube, and then using shading to make the building appear simultaneously flat and three-dimensional.  Perhaps Braque's earliest use of the technique is 1908's Houses at l'Estaque.  The approach is also evident in an earlier version of the scene in today's piece.  What sets Castle at La Roche-Guyon apart from these earlier Proto-Cubist works is that Braque extended the technique beyond the architecture.  We can see the same Cubist forms in the landscape surrounding the castle, especially in the lower left corner of the painting.  The differentiation between the building and the landscape is even blurred on the right.  I find this painting quite fascinating, largely because of its intermediate position.  It contains much of the innovation of Cubism, but retains clear figuration and the coloration that Braque began to move away from in his best known works.  Another piece with a similar balance of landscape and Cubism is City on the Hill, also from 1909.  These pieces show how Braque moved from his Impressionist beginnings, through Fauvism, and to the Cubism that defines his legacy today.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ilya Repin, Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin

Ilya Repin, Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin, 1884
35x27.25 in.

Ilya Efimovich Repin (1844-1930) was the foremost Russian artist of the nineteenth century, and occupied a towering cultural position comparable to Leo Tolstoy (whom Repin painted in 1887). Repin was also a crucial figure in the dissemination of Russian art to the rest of the world.  He is best known for his large scale history paintings, but worked in a variety of genres.  The portrait of Repin's friend, Vsevolod Garshin quite haunting in its beauty; it hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I was drawn to it from several rooms away.  Garshin was a short story writer who served in the Russo-Turkish War.  Although he was made an office at the end of the war, Garshin resigned his commission to devote himself to literature.  He was quite tormented by the horrors he had witnessed and participated in on the battlefield.  Garshin carried deep compassion and empathy for all people and his stories reflect this virtue.  It is this quality that Repin captured with such skill.  Garshin looks directly at the viewer (or at Repin during the sitting) with all the sensitivity and sadness through which he entered the world.  Repin's earlier study of Garshin shows the writer in a very different pose, and it is clear why Repin chose this final version.  Although the profile in the study shares the same emotional substance, it does not reach the extreme force of the portrait.  As Garshin sits hunched over his desk, surrounded by the tools of his trade, he has looked up from his work and we are met with a gaze of such intensity that it is difficult to look away.  The sorrow that appears in that expression is heartbreaking, but the intense kindness of this man is present as well.  The combined sensitivity of these two great artists is extremely powerful and results in a painting of great beauty and complexity.  Sadly, Garshin could not bear the weight of his pain and committed suicide four years after this painting was made at the age of thirty-three.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bui Xuan Phai, Da River

Bui Xuan Phai, Da River, 1980

Bui Xuan Phai (1920-1988) was a Vietnamese painter, perhaps the best known painter in the country's history, and certainly the most celebrated of modern Vietnamese painters.  His career was very difficult due to the political situation and, in 1957 after a two-year stint teaching at the Hanoi College of Fine Arts, Phai was sent to a reeducation camp, dismissed from his post, and forbidden from showing his work in public.  This was due to his involvement in a political movement promoting political and cultural freedom.   To make ends meet, he worked as a commercial artist under pseudonyms, but he continued painting throughout the years.  In 1984 the ban was lifted and Bui Xuan Phai had his first solo show, which became the most successful solo art show up to that point in Vietnam.  He was posthumously awarded the Ho Chi Minh prize in 1996.  Phai is best known for his cityscapes, depicting the streets of old Hanoi.  These works depict a place and way of life that was quickly fading, and they speak to a nostalgia for this lost past in the people of Hanoi.  Phai also worked in many other styles and media, including landscapes like Da River.  This painting exhibits many traditional elements of Vietnamese art (which also appear to some degree in the traditional painting of China that is more familiar to most Western viewers, myself included) as well as a definite streak of modernism and a similarity to French painting, particularly Cezanne (of course the direction of influence here is hard to tease out since Impressionists borrowed so heavily from Eastern tradition).  The influence of French art is not unlikely, since Phai was part of the last generation of artists trained by the Vietnam University of FIne Arts, which was founded under French rule in 1925.  Da River is a simple scene, greatly enhanced by the great depth of feeling that is evident from the artist.  I can feel his love for this landscape and his fellow feeling for the people boarding this boat.  Each element is beautifully rendered, such as the reflection of the boats, or the way the fog envelopes the mountains. Finally, the overall softness of the painting, the gentleness of Phai's hand, both in the palette and the forms, makes the painting extremely warm and inviting.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Joan Mitchell, Grandes Carrières

Joan Mitchell, Grandes Carrières, 1961-62
78.75x118.25 in.

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) was a major Abstract Expressionist in what's considered the second generation of the movement.  She was one of only a handful of women to gain public and critical acclaim within art scene of the time.  Mitchell demonstrates a unique brand of Abstract Expressionism; most of her work demonstrates the complete abstraction that marked the height of the movement, but she did not embrace the "all over" ethos that painters like Pollock and Rothko utilized in their signature works.  Instead, most Mitchell's paintings retain an intelligible shape and a visual center from which the patterns radiate out.  Mitchell's work demonstrates a fiercely intense use of color, where the vibrancy of her tones becomes a characteristic of the expressiveness of her lines.  Grandes Carrières demonstrates all of these elements.  The power of her gestures is evident in every stroke, and the gestures seem simultaneously aggressive and lyrical.  The particular colors in this piece are quite striking; they do not blend at all but they complement each other surprisingly well and each enhances the power of the others.  The painting expresses the rising chaos of the modern world, yet also asserts its persisting beauty.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Dionisio Baixeras y Verdaguer, Boatmen of Barcelona

Dionisio Baixeras y Verdaguer, Boatmen of Barcelona, 1886
59x83 in.

Dionisio Baixeras y Verdaguer (1862-1943) was a Spanish artist from Barcelona.  He was one of Spain's foremost genre painters, depicting people's everyday lives in Catalonia, especially fishermen who were so essential to Barcelona's economy.  Baixeras studied the French realists such as Millet and Breton, and their influence is evident in his work.  He shows the same interest in rural life, the relationship of sunlight and landscape to labor, and exhibits excellent draftsmanship with expressive brushwork.  Boatmen of Barcelona is one of Baixeras's better known works.  The intensity of the morning sunlight is quite powerful.  Baixeras demonstrates great facility with his textures, in the clothing and beards of the men, and especially visible on the boat in the patch of wood the sun shines on directly.  This large painting, currently hanging in the Met, makes quite an impression in person.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Jean-François Millet, Hunting Birds at Night

Jean-François Millet, Hunting Birds at Night, 1874
29x36.5 in.

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) was a French painter of the Barbizon School.  The Barbizon group was devoted to accuracy in its depictions of rural peasant life and realism in landscapes.  Millet was one of the founders of the movement, known for his soft lighting, scenes of peasant farmers, and devotion to visual and emotional realism.  He has several very famous paintings, such as The Gleaners (1857), The Sower (1850), and The Angelus (1859).  Hunting Birds at Night (also known as Bird's-nesters) struck me quite differently.  It is a painting of an entirely different character and was Millet's last work.  The scene is drawn of Millet's own childhood memories of bird hunters blinding large flocks of pigeons with torchlight and then clubbing them. Despite this grisly subject matter, the painting has an ecstatic quality and the light seems almost supernatural.  Millet uses very different brushwork here, looser and softer, especially evident in the rendering of the birds.  By painting each bird rather generally, rendering their shape rather than their actual characteristics, Millet communicated the vast size of this flock, and adds to the murkiness of the scene; they almost seem like clouds or waves emanating from the torchlight. One of Millet's greatest gifts was his ability to sympathize with his subjects and communicate their hardship.  In this painting he has achieved the same feat, only it is the birds whose struggle is felt.  As they flock toward their death, Millet painted a stunningly beautiful threnody for their luminous deaths.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Alphonse Mucha, Prophetess

Alphonse Mucha, Prophetess, 1896
34.25x54.33 in.

Alfons Maria Mucha (1860-1939) was a Czech painter and decorative artist whose work became the face of Art Nouveau.  Art Nouveau was a movement that encompassed many forms of art, such as commercial art, architecture, furniture, and decorative arts.  It combined natural forms (particularly flowers and vines) with modern media and contexts.  Mucha's Zodiac (also from 1896) is one of the most famous examples of the style.  In general, Mucha's paintings are not as famous as his commercial and decorative works, but Prophetess is still fairly well known.  The painting's shape, tempera paint, and setting recall Medieval art, or at least nineteenth century visions of Medieval art.  The beautiful figure herself is quite complex.  She sits at the edge of this stream quite oblivious to practical concerns; her skirt is getting wet, the water jugs she presumably came to fill sit empty, her dress falls from her shoulder, and yet (perhaps only because of the title) there is a certain wisdom about her.  She holds beautiful flowers and ponders the world around her.  Prophets, in addition to seeing the future, are known for seeing the deeper truths of situations that most people remain oblivious to.  In this light, the woman does not seem flighty or careless, but unperturbed and transcendent.  She sits in this beautiful setting and sees the splendor and blessing of this moment.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

René Magritte, The Lost Jockey

René Magritte, The Lost Jockey, 1948

René Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian artist, generally considered a Surrealist but his particular brand of avant-garde Surrealism differed greatly from most members of the movement.  Most of Magritte's best known work are witty, thought-provoking images, such as his famous painting The Treachery of Images which shows a painting of a pipe and then claims it is not a pipe.  The phrase seems sarcastic and contradictory, except that it is in fact not a pipe--it is a painting of a pipe.  Magritte is also well known for his 1964 painting The Son of Man.  The Lost Jockey is a watercolor gouache (combining watercolor with a thick gum or glue to make it opaque) that depicts a favorite subject of Magritte's.  The jockey riding through unfamiliar and surreal surroundings is a theme Magritte depicted several times, such as in 1926, another from the same year, and in 1942. The version I chose is fascinating to me for several reasons.  For one thing, the surroundings are much less unusual than in the other versions.  These are normal trees that appear to stand on normal land, as opposed to the branches growing out of columns that appear in the others. Therefore the jockey's situation seems quite different; he is not in any danger or under threat from his surroundings, merely riding quickly, trying to reach his destination.  I find this image quite engaging.  The geometric shapes of the trees are quite pleasing and the gradient of yellow, from golden at the top of the sky to off-white on the ground, creates an unusual rendering of our world that is familiar and recognizable, but still somewhat unsettling.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Winslow Homer, West Point, Prouts Neck

Winslow Homer, West Point, Prouts Neck, 1900
30x48 in.

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was an American painter and printmaker who worked in landscapes and seascapes.  He began his artistic career as a commercial illustrator and was mostly self-taught.  His works chronicle the scenery Homer observed throughout his travels and especially from his home in Maine.  Prouts Neck is a peninsula in southern Maine where Homer had his studio.  From there he had a view of the sea, overlooking Cannon Rock.  This painting of Prouts Neck is a beautiful depiction of the rocks and sea there.  Particularly fascinating to me is the plume of sea foam that bursts from the waves.  It looks like a coil of steam or even a protruding arm stretching into the sky.  The sea itself is depicted in beautiful shades of bluish grey that shines in a metallic way.  The intense sheen contrasts perfectly with the dark masses of rock, where Homer skillfully conveyed the rough texture.  The scene is presided over by the brilliant sunlight, golden and deep red at the horizon.  As the ocean stretches into the distance the reflection of the sunlight becomes visible, and the water appears much calmer than in the foreground among the rocks.  These elements help convey the vastness of the ocean and the scale of the scene we are viewing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Camille Pissarro, The Louvre from the Pont Neuf

Camille Pissarro, The Louvre from the Pont Neuf, 1902

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was a core member of the Impressionist movement.  He had a prolific and diverse career, from his early use of Realism to explorations of Pointillism.  He is well known for his five views of the Boulevard Montmartre (Boulevard Montmartre à Paris, in cloudy weatheron a winter morningin the afternoon, and at night) and for his winter scenes.  To me, what makes Pissarro's work stand out is the delicacy of his brush.  The brushstrokes are so deliberate and blend so perfectly into the whole, yet remain quite distinct.  His tonality is extremely subtle, as is evident in The Louvre from the Pont Neuf.  There is a warmth in the clouds, achieved by the small touches of pink that fill out their color.  The river looks a chilly grey, but the shifting of the waters still looks inviting.  The figures are loosely rendered, with no features discernible, but their feelings and relationship to their surroundings are evident nonetheless. Some are eager to watch the boats passing, other are on a leisurely stroll.  The authenticity of these people comes through powerfully.  In many ways the painting I have chosen is a conventional Impressionist landscape, with its scene of Paris and prominent view of the Seine, yet Pissarro brings deep warmth and care to his paintings, transforming simple scenes into beautiful and expressive pieces.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid

Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884
115.5x53.5 in.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was a Pre-Raphaelite painter as well as a designer who worked with William Morris.  Like many Pre-Raphaelite painters, Burne-Jones drew on Classical myth (such as his cycle depicting the story of Perseus) and traditional English stories, especially Arthurian legend.  The Beguiling of Merlin is among Burne-Jones' most famous works. King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid is based on a a tale referenced throughout English literature and retold several times, such as in a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  The story tells of the African king Cophetua who felt no desire for any woman until he sees Penelophon begging on the street.  He is immediately overcome by love and approaches her, asking her to be his queen. She agrees and the couple have a quiet, prosperous reign.  After many years together, they die and are buried in the same tomb.  It is a rather simple story that Burne-Jones rendered into a fascinating painting.  Among the many interesting elements is the complex depiction of space. Burne-Jones successfully communicated the recession of space, while maintaining the flatness of the picture plane that often characterizes Pre-Raphaelite works.  Every element of the painting is incredibly detailed, from Cophetua's armor to the stairs they sit on and the beams that rise behind Penelophon.  While Cophetua looks adoringly up at his love, Penelophon looks out at the viewer, and this is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the work.  Her expression is not of love for this king, or joy at leaving her life of poverty behind.  Instead she looks incredibly saddened, or even lifeless.  Could this perhaps suggest a darker reading of the story?  Perhaps Burne-Jones was trying to suggest another version wherein Penelophon feels no love for Cophetua and agrees to the marriage out of her need to survive.  The exact meaning of this gaze is unclear, but it makes this complex painting extremely engaging.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time

Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time, 1634-36
32.5x41 in.

This is a famous painting by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).  Poussin was the leading classical painter of the French Baroque style of the seventeenth century and was the exemplar for the Neoclassical style that dominated French painting throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries.  Poussin was influenced by Classical art in every respect; he drew and painted with clear, precise lines that emulated Classical sculpture and he routinely drew on Classical themes and subjects.  A Dance to the Music of Time was commissioned by Giulio Rospigliosi (later Pope Clement IX) who is thought to have dictated much of the iconography, however the painting and its themes are believed to have changed significantly from its original design.  The initial intent was a depiction of the four seasons, an element preserved in this final version, with the male dancer representing Autumn, followed by Winter, Spring, and Summer in the blue.  What changed is that the theme expanded to the passage of time and cycle of life in general.  The four dancers thus additionally represent the four stages of life on the wheel of fortune.  Autumn is now also Poverty, dancing barefoot connote his humble position.  He looks toward Labor, the continual lot of the impoverished, whose muscular build, bare shoulders, and attire suggest hard work.  Labor twists and reaches to grasp the hand of Wealth, who is reluctant to hold her hand.  Wealth wears golden skirt and sandals and a headpiece trimmed with pearls. Finally, Pleasure completes the circle.  She is adorned with flowers and looks out at the viewer warmly, knowingly, and a bit slyly.

The other elements of the painting further these themes.  Time himself plays the lyre (literally the music of time), depicted, as is customary, as an old man, while the baby at his feet holds an hourglass.  On the left stands a statue of Janus, the two-headed Roman god of the calendar. Janus has one old face looking to the past and one young, looking to the future.  In the clouds, the chariot of Apollo follows the goddess Aurora, the rising sun succeeding the dawn.  Apollo is accompanied by allegories of the hours.  The presence of all of these gods and allegories illustrates the inevitable passage of time and the brevity of life.  In this painting, an hour, a day, a year, or a lifetime, are all transient and in motion to the same dance.

The painting gained further notoriety when Anthony Powell chose it as the title and central motif of his twelve-volume cycle of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time, about coming of age and the people and events that shape a life.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Ma Yuan, Clouds Rising from the Green Sea

Ma Yuan, "Clouds Rising from the Green Sea" from Water Album
10.6x16.4 in.

Ma Yuan (c1160-1225) was a Chinese painter working during the artistically rich Song Dynasty (960-1279).  He was one of the most important traditional Chinese painters and remains among the most famous today.  His landscape paintings were incredibly influential and continue to exert an influence over painting and global impressions of Chinese culture.  Perhaps his most famous technique was his tendency to focus the content of a scene in the lower corner of the painting, which gives the scene an entirely different perspective and relationship with the viewer.  Ma Yuan had a diverse style, including elaborate landscape scenes and explorations of complex philosophical themes, such as people's relationship to nature.  The ink painting I have chosen is a fairly simple piece in comparison, merely showing rolling waves, however I was quite taken with it. Ma Yuan demonstrates a remarkable ability to portray movement in this piece.  The waves also look like blowing sand, or knotted wood, and the water seems to contain tangible depth.  Ma Yuan also successfully communicated the receding space as the water fades into the fog and clouds. The delicacy of his brush and the energy of his lines make this a beautiful piece that expresses the tranquility inherent in this constant movement.

I set out to write about a premodern Chinese painting today and ended up choosing this one. There were of course many beautiful pieces that I looked at and I thought I'd include a link to my second choice: Shen Zhou's Lofty Mountain Lu from 1467.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Emma Sandys, Preparing for the Ball

Emma Sandys, Preparing for the Ball, 1867
24.25x17.25 in.

Emma Sandys (1843-1877) was an English painter who worked in Norwich.  She was strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite style and thus often depicted her subjects in medieval (or period) clothing (note the hairnet in this piece).  Sandys exhibited works in both London and Norwich and was particularly noted for her portraiture, such as Fiametta (1876).  Preparing for the Ball is a fascinating piece in many ways.  It is easy to see the Pre-Raphaelite influence, for the whole painting has a prominent medieval cast.  Sandys' skill is quite evident, especially in the detailing on the subject's hem and cape.  Sandys also demonstrates great ability with textures, successfully expressing the drapery of the gown, the velvet and leopard skin on the floor, and the wooden cabinet.  The use of the mirror is a fascinating device, affording the spectator a full view of this woman.  Honestly, when I first saw this painting I didn't initially notice the mirror and read the image as two women preparing for the ball together, sisters perhaps.  I was of course mistaken, but this impression speaks to the themes of the painting, wherein this woman does essentially present as two people.  She is both the elegant society woman, perhaps a hostess, who puts on a brave face, and the woman in the mirror whose solemn expression reveals that she is burdened by her duty and her finery.  Therefore Sandys manages to present two personae in one subject and express great depth about human tribulations and the role and burdens of women, from the medieval era to Sandys' time in the medieval period and beyond.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Jeremy Mann, Cityscape

Jeremy Mann, from Cityscapes, 2013

Jeremy Mann (b.1979) is a contemporary artist based in San Francisco.  He seems to have gotten the most notice for these cityscape paintings, but has also done portraits and figure painting, still life, as well as many types of landscapes, both rural and urban.  Most of Mann's work is marked by loose brushwork, reminiscent of Post-Impressionism, and rich, powerful compositions.  This piece is somewhat different from most of the cityscapes because the perspective is from such a distance.  Many of Mann's Cityscapes are from street level, depicting the city as a member of its community.  This bird's eye view gives a very different impression.  Mann's loose brushwork is less evident for one thing, with the blurring of the urban elements appearing to be just due to the distance.  As the sun sets or rises (it looks more like rises to my eye) the city is illuminated under the vast, golden sky.  The city stretches out, past the bottom edge of the frame, as a dark mass, and organism waking up with the sun.  It appears powerful and intense, energetic and unpredictable.  There is also a definite peacefulness to the view of the city at this hour, from this distance.  Mann portrays the city both alive and calm, full of potential energy to be ignited by the sun.

Many of Mann's Cityscapes are beautiful and fascinating and I highly recommend them to interested readers:

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Andrew Wyeth, Crescent Moon

Truth be told, I am not sure what the title of this painting is.  Almost everywhere I find it, not title is listed.  One place called it Crescent Moon and I went with it, even though that is most likely not the correct title.  Logically, I probably should have chosen a different piece, such as the similar Crescent, or the famous Christina's World, or perhaps Refuge from the well known Helga series.  All of these paintings are beautiful, but I like my choice best.  Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) was an extremely successful American artist, best known for his regionalist paintings that depict the rural landscape and life of his hometown in Pennsylvania and his summer home in Maine. Wyeth had a stark, frank style that made his work relatable to the viewer, and often with a certain cast of sadness.  The painting I chose is an excellent example of Wyeth's skill, in his representations of the rolling clouds, the individual blades of grass, the distressed wood, and the effect of the unusual lighting on the whole scene.  There is an air of mystery here, curiosity of what lies beyond the square of window light.  The moon is such a thin sliver, just before or after the new moon, yet is very powerful, drawing the eye toward it.  The scene is quite simple, but Wyeth makes it exceedingly engaging.

Monday, November 3, 2014

David Roberts, Mosque of Ayed Bey in the Desert of Suez

David Roberts, Mosque of Ayed Bey in the Desert of Suez (Tombs of the Caliphs in Cairo), 1840s

David Roberts (1796-1864) was a Scottish painter who frequently depicted Orientalist subjects. Roberts portrayed these scenes from firsthand experience, having traveled to Spain, Egypt, the Levant, and the Middle East before returning to Britain and being elected to the Royal Academy in 1841.  He completed many paintings of his travels, such as this piece depicting Pharaoh's Island near the Sinai Peninsula, however he is best known for the numerous lithograph prints he produced of Egypt and the Near East.  This is one such print, portraying the mosque and mausoleum of Sultan al-Ashraf Qaytbay, who was a sultan of Egypt in the fifteenth century. Roberts' work is noteworthy for many reasons.  The detail of the architecture is quite remarkable, and would have been an invaluable resource for scholars who were unable to travel to Egypt. Roberts also went to great lengths to accurately depict the crowd of tourists and visitors, who are surprisingly differentiated.  However, these fascinating and impressive details are not what makes the print an effective artwork.  Roberts successfully conveyed the reality of the scene that once lay before him.  While the sky changes colors in the passing sun, from gold to pink to purple, and the sands swirl around in the wind, the mosque itself remains thoroughly stable and unyielding. Completed in 1474, the complex was already almost four hundred years old when depicted it, and now almost two hundred more.  The sunlight shines on the white stone, and the wind blows the sand against its walls.  But like so much in Egypt, the history of the place and the success of its construction endures.  Roberts communicates this sense elegantly, subtly, but with great power.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Giorgione, Judith

Giorgione, Judith, 1504
57x26.2 in.

Giorgione (1477/8-1510) was a Venetian painter of the High Renaissance, and a close friend of Titian. Together the two painters are considered founders of the Venetian school.  Although Giorgione died quite, he had a significant impact and produced a number of works.  Judith is a take on the story of Judith and Holofernes, though is quite different from most representations.  In the Book of Judith, the Jewish people re being invaded by an Assyrian army led by Holofernes.  Frustrated with the inaction of her countrymen, Judith ingratiates herself with Holofernes, using her beauty and promises of information against the Israelites.  She is given access to his tent, and when he lies in a drunken sleep, she decapitates him.  Most depictions of the story, such as Artemisia Gentileschi's famous version depict the moment of violence, when Judith cuts off Holofernes' head with the help of her maid.  Giorgione chose to depict Judith in a moment of triumph, stepping on the head of her conquered foe and holding her sword.  This gives the image kinship with many depictions of David, who is frequently shown standing on Goliath's head.  It also depicts Judith in a pose of great power; she has achieved her goal and appears with pride and serenity.  The painting draws on traditions of portrait painting, for the rendering of Judith's face is stylistically similar to Renaissance portraits.  Giorgione also demonstrates great skill in the rendering of Judith's garment, which drapes beautifully and marvelously reflects the sunlight.  The outdoor setting is unusual for the story, but in keeping with a common interest in the beauty of the Italian countryside.  This painting is a beautiful example of Giorgione's talent and the great art he produced in his short lifetime.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Norman Lewis, Untitled

Norman Lewis, Untitled, 1949
20x30 in.

The other day I went to the Jewish Museum to see their exhibition From the Margins: Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis, 1945-1952.  The exhibit was a tribute to these two artists who were marginalized in the Abstract Expressionism movement, one for her gender, the other for his race.  It was a wonderful exhibit, and a great chance to see these artists featured (even if the reality of their careers and difficulties was a bit more nuanced than what the exhibit presented).  I've already written about a Lee Krasner painting (which was included in the exhibit) so decided to feature Norman Lewis today.

Norman Lewis (1909-1979) was born in Harlem to immigrant parents from Bermuda.  He demonstrated an interest in art from an early age and always knew he wanted to be a painter.  During his lifetime he was acquainted with Abstract Expressionists, including working on WPA projects with Jackson Pollock, and most of his work fits squarely within that style, some also showing a Cubist influence.  The particular piece I chose had a strong impact on me at the museum.  Lewis was very influenced by jazz, and that is evident here.  The splashes of bright color and the strong vertical lines evoke the dynamic feeling of Harlem jazz.  Lewis's style is very lively and energetic, often demonstrating an inextricable entanglement of line and color.  Another painting that demonstrates these same elements is Twilight Sounds, which is one of Lewis's most explicitly musical paintings.  Additionally, it shows a certain peacefulness that settles over the city on a summer night.  Regardless of how much recognition Lewis received during his lifetime or since, he is a great painter who successfully captured the contemporary reality of his world.

From the Margins is on view through February 1st.  I highly recommend it.