Saturday, February 28, 2015

Michelangelo, The Torment of St. Anthony

Michelangelo, The Torment of St. Anthony, 1487-88
18.5 x 13.25 in.

Michelangelo (1475-1564) is of course one of the most celebrated figures in the history of art.  His contributions to painting, sculpture, and architecture are immeasurable and he created some of the most prevalent artistic images in our culture.  He was also a skilled poet and engineer.  Born Michelangelo di Ludovico Buonarotti Simoni, he was considered the greatest living artist during his lifetime and was the first Western artist to have a biography published during his lifetime.  His influence on art and Renaissance culture is perhaps greater than any other figure of the period. The Torment of St. Anthony is Michelangelo's earliest known painting, done when he was twelve or thirteen years old.  The painting is after an engraving by the German printmaker Martin Schongauer.  Until recently, the painting was attributed to the studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio, to whom Michelangelo was apprenticed at the time.  It was decided in 2009, after close examination, that the panel was indeed a Michelangelo.  The trials of St. Anthony were a popular subject at the time, showing the saint besieged by devils but resisting their temptations.  This painting differs significantly from most of Michelangelo's work, being based on the late Gothic style of Schongauer, but already we can see the skill of a master emerging.  There is great detail and texture in the rendering of the demons' faces and bodies, great tension in their moving limbs and contorting forms.  Anthony's face shows great passion and emotion, with each hair in his beard carefully executed.  The landscape at the bottom of the scene also holds great interest; though presented rather roughly, the water and trees effectively communicate their presence and movement.  Michelangelo's depiction of the rocks is also fascinating, presented realistically with rough and sharp surfaces, yet they also have a certain softness in their molding that creates a deep beauty.  With intense colors and somewhat sculptural forms, this painting contains some elements that herald the artist's later work, but it also offers a glimpse into this young genius, when he copied the popular German engraver and was beginning to master his craft.

This is my 200th post, so I would like to thank all of my readers. I hope you continue to enjoy my blog.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Paolo Uccello, The Hunt in the Forest

Paolo Uccello, The Hunt in the Forest, c1470
26 x 65 in.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) was an Italian painter, as well as a mathematician, and a major figure in the Italian Renaissance.  He is known for his innovative use of perspective and depth to illustrate narratives.  Born in Pratovecchio, Tuscany as Paolo di Dono, his father was a barber-surgeon and his mother was a high-born Florentine.  His nickname of Uccello was due to his fondness for painting birds.  At age ten he was apprenticed to the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, whose workshop was the center of Florentine art in the early fifteenth century.  Ghiberti's work had a great influence on Uccello and he remained with the master until about 1420.  At some point during his apprenticeship Uccello formed a lifelong friendship with Donatello.  Uccello became a member of the painters' guild and was a respected member of the developing art world in Florence. Uccello's best known work is the famous triptych of The Battle of San Romano (123).  Painted between 1435 and 1460, the three panels show extremely advanced understanding of perspective and depth, communicating the recession of space and the overlap of figures and objects. Elements like the crossing of spears and horses' legs, dense crowds, and clearly delineated foreground, middleground, and background all demonstrate Uccello's skill and vision.  Such techniques were incredibly advanced at the time.  We can see the same explorations in other celebrated works by Uccello.  The Hunt in the Forest is one of Uccello's later works and we can see a mature expression of these techniques.  The scene is densely populated, but each element is placed carefully in the composition.  The piece has a clear shape, with horses grouped on the edges and a triangular group of dogs that extends into the forest. The painting has a remarkable expression of the recession of space; the dogs recede into the darkness, the point of their phalanx lining up with the painting's vanishing point.  The overlap of objects gives Uccello's work an unprecedented realism, as people and animals cross both in front of and behind the trees.  Uccello favored bright colors throughout his work, and here the bright reds stand out powerfully against the dark greens and blacks of the forest.  While Uccello left behind no school of students or followers, the influence of his work has been vast and he continues to exert a powerful impact over artists and viewers today.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

William Breakspeare, Nude at a Table

William Breakspeare, Nude at a Table
7.25 x 10.5 in.

William Breakspeare (1855-1914) was an English artist from Birmingham.  His father was a flower painter in the japanning business (a type of lacquer finishing used on furniture and decorative items) and Breakspeare was himself apprenticed to japanners.  He transitioned into painting and became involved with the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, to which he was elected as a full member in 1884.  He spent time in Paris, beginning in 1879, and moved to London in 1881, often exhibiting at the Royal Academy.  Breakspeare's work shows a wide range of influence, including the Pre-Raphaelites and Orientalism, but he also worked in more traditional modes of portraiture and genre painting.  Breakspeare seems to repeatedly find interest in painting women in traditional role of female beauty and sexuality, but showing their vulnerability and sometimes discomfort, thus calling into question the meaning of this style of art. We can see this in The Reluctant Pianist and The Mermaid, and even his take on Venus.  This theme is certainly quite present in Nude at a Table, in fact it dominates the painting.  This girl appears quite young and uncertain, even uncomfortable.  Breakspeare does not shy away from that discomfort, but embraces it and portrays it effectively, creating a powerful and engaging painting.  In terms of technique, this piece is successful because of Breakspeare's smooth brushwork that appears consistent throughout the painting.  His strokes are molded and deliberate, but also gentle and relaxed.  From the rough background, to the carefully shaped objects on the table, the drapery of the cloth, and the smooth rendering of the girl's body, Breakspeare's hand is even and effective. The girl's face is rendered beautifully and with intense emotion.  With her small features and sympathetic eyes, Breakspeare makes us feel great sympathy for this young model.  The girl's pose tells us a great deal about her feelings; her body is turned away and largely hidden from view, with only her head turned toward the painter.  Her hands are raised as though she wants to hide her face in them, and has only turned so that we may see her anguish.  This approach calls into question the relationship of female subject to the male painter (and viewer).  If this model was so uncomfortable with posing nude, is it right that Breakspeare ask this of her and subject her to the male gaze?  Perhaps the girl's anguish is posed by Breakspeare as well, intended to make a point about the nature of the male gaze in the history of painting.  While we may never know the truth of this situation, the beautiful painting raises these important questions and prompts us to reconsider the subjectivity of this nameless model.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sam Francis, Middle Blue No. 5

Sam Francis, Middle Blue No. 5, 1959-60

Sam Francis (1923-1994) was an American painter and printmaker whose works primarily interpret the role of color in bold and complex ways.  Although sometimes associated with the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, such as Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, Francis was never a member of the group.  Unlike those artists, who worked out of New York, Francis spent most of the 1950s in Paris.  Born in San Mateo, California, Francis joined the Air Force.  He was in hospital in California for several years, where he began to paint after being visited by the painter David Park.  After the war, he attended UC Berkley, where he studied botany, medicine, psychology, and art.  Francis had his first exhibition in Paris, but soon was exhibited internationally, including MoMA and the Kunsthalle Basel.  Francis's work explores color in a variety of styles and contexts, including works that resemble color field and others that resemble dense webs of color.  Many of his works simultaneously resemble geometric and natural forms. Middle Blue No. 5 demonstrates many characters and elements of Francis's work. The large gathering of paint that dominates the painting certainly draws the eye and we can see the complicated ways that Francis fit these many smaller patches of color together.  Sometimes he places patches of the same color together but often he separates them with another color. Each patch of color seems to radiate outward with the streaks and splatters that cross each other and stretch across the canvas.  In this piece, Francis shows us each color in isolation and interacting with all the others.  It is a masterful expression of shape and color from one of the great abstract artists of the century.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Giacomo Balla, Street Light

Giacomo Balla, Street Light, 1909
68.78 x 45.16 in.

Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) was an Italian Futurist painter and a prominent art teacher.  Born in Turin to a photographer and a musician, Balla began his art career working in a lithograph print shop.  He attended the University of Turin and had some early success there before moving to Rome in 1895.  In Rome Balla worked as an illustrator and caricaturist.  In the following years, he showed at several major exhibitions in Rome and Venice, including the Venice Biennale, and also had international success.  Balla began teaching and counted prominent artists such as Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini among his students.  Balla began experimenting with Futurism and was a signatory to the Futurist Manifesto in 1910.  He began designing Futurist furniture, extending the movement beyond the canvas.  Unlike most Futurists, Balla was not concerned with modern machines or violence, and instead his painting is known for his visual representations of light, speed, and movement.  1914's Abstract Speed and Sound is among his best known pieces. Street Light is a powerful example of Balla's style, exemplifying his visual representations of light. In this piece, Balla juxtaposes the artificial light of the lamp with the moon that is visible through the glow.  With his unusual brushstrokes, composed mostly of small and precise lines, and the bright palette, this large piece makes quite an impression.  Balla's take on the luminous scene is intense and beautiful, while also somewhat off-putting and eerie.  I had a brief blackout in my house tonight so I am particularly glad of Balla's illumination.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Curt Butler, Shallows

Curt Butler, Shallows

Curt Butler is a contemporary artist who works out of North Carolina.  He attended Kent State University and the Savannah College of Art and Design.  Some of Butler's work is figurative, mostly landscapes and nature scenes, but a lot of his work exhibits a more tenuous relationship between the appearance of the subject and the appearance of the painting.  To me, this work is significantly more effective.  Butler's work is not abstract, for the figurative subject remains visible, but the scene appears veiled and distorted.  Butler achieves this effect through the use of mixed media, specifically oil and encaustic.  Encaustic means the application of hot wax mixed with the pigments, and in Butler's case he also scrapes away some of the wax with a palette knife.  This is what gives his pieces that worked over appearance, and the fractured space that significantly contributes to the visual interest of his work.  Shallows is perhaps Butler's most successful piece. It presents its subject of lake and surroundings, but offers significantly more. The piece might first appear abstract, but as the subject emerges, we see a complex relationship between space, color, and paint.  The scene appears through a grimy window or hazy veil.  The scene appears to be melting, as the paints blend and change in contact with the wax.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Isaac Levitan, Boulevard in the Evening

Isaac Levitan, Boulevard in the Evening, 1887

Isaac Levitan (1860-1900) was a Russian landscape painter known for his atmospheric depictions of the Russian countryside, particularly the area around Moscow.  The style he came to be associated with is known as mood landscape.  Levitan was born in present day Lithuania to a poor, well-educated Jewish family.  He attended the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture where he tried  his hand at multiple genres before he transferred into the landscape class.  Levitan had his first public exhibition at age seventeen and was very well-received.  In 1879, mass deportations of Jewish families from major Russian cities forced Levitan and his family to relocate to the suburb of Saltykovka, but pressure from the art world allowed the family to return to Moscow.  Levitan continued to experience professional success and was eventually elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts and named head of the landscape studio at the Moscow School.  Boulevard in the Evening is a beautiful example of Levitan's skill and style.  This winter scene demonstrates the atmosphere he was so known for and his ability to portray a landscape in a realistic manner, while still creating a complex and powerful emotional impact.  In this piece, the white path and grey sky are joined by bare, sharp trees; they stretch over the path and recede far back, dominating the scene.  However, the people walking convey a different sense, with the energy of activity and the warmth of companionship.  Finally, the small lights that dot this stretch of trees also add a touch light and warmth that comes to characterize the whole painting, leading the way through the cold and dark.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Helen Frankenthaler, February's Turn

Helen Frankenthaler, February's Turn, 1979
48 x 109 in.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) is a central figure of Abstract Expressionism.  Somewhat younger than the first wave of the movement, Frankenthaler entered the art world when the movement had already taken hold.  Her early work shows experiments with Surrealism and Expressionism, in much the same way as other members of the New York School.  Frankenthaler became known for her color field painting and became a leader of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists.  In these paintings, Frankenthaler applied paint through staining–pouring the paints on the canvas and allowing them to mix and spread.  This removed the intense and deliberate gestures of painting and yielded an openness that in some ways stood opposed to the dense compositions and paint applications of her predecessors in the New York School. Frankenthaler continued to paint until the end of her life, always finding new ways to explore space and color.  February's Turn is from her middle period and does not exhibit pure color field staining. The overall impression of this piece is quite astounding.  Over nine feet long, this large canvas has an imposing presence, and the intensity of its colors is quite profound.  This work does use staining for some of the paint application, but unlike most of her color field pieces, the hand of the artist is clearly felt.  We can see her gesture in the shaping of the purple, and in the mixture of orange and white.  The title of February's turn suggests winter turning into spring (which I think most of us are hoping for at this point), and the purple seems to turn a corner to join with the green.  The particular blending of colors in this piece demonstrates the artist's skill, as these shades both blend and clash, mix together and abut each other.  It is Frankenthaler's genius to mold these splashes of paint to suggest a tangible space and a corporeal presence in these colors.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, Phaedra and Hippolytus

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, Phaedra and Hippolytus, 1802
18 x 13 in.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774-1833) was a French painter of the Neoclassical style.  He won a number of prizes at the French Salon and traveled to Rome to further his studies.  Most of his works adhere to the tradition of history painting and feature subjects from Classical mythology or history.  His most celebrated piece is The Return of Marcus Sextus, which depicts a man who has returned home from exile to find his wife dead, his daughter clinging to his leg; the piece evokes the horrors of the French Revolution and was very powerful at the time of exhibition in 1799. Among his other subjects are Sappho and Aeneas at the court of Dido.  Guérin also painted contemporary portraits.

The story of Hippolytus and Phaedra is a bit complicated so bear with me.  Hippolytus was the son of Theseus and his first wife, the Amazon queen Hippolyta.  Hippolytus was entirely devoted to Artemis to the point that he neglected the other gods and explicitly renounced Aphrodite, taking a vow of chastity.  This enraged Aphrodite, and she enflamed Theseus's second wife, Phaedra, with a burning passion for Hippolytus.  When he refused her, the crazed Phaedra accused Hippolytus of rape and eventually killed herself.  Theseus banished Hippolytus and cursed him, beseeching his father Poseidon to wreak justice upon the young man.  As he rides away from the city in his chariot, a bull comes from the sea and kills Hippolytus.  Theseus only realizes his mistake once it is too late.

Guérin's rendering of the story successfully captures the drama and darkness at work here.  All the figures are in shadow and entirely unable to look each other in the eye.  The entire scene is shrouded in shadows and sadness.  Hippolytus is depicted like Artemis.  He bears all her iconography, holding a bow with hunting dogs in tow.  His body and face are even somewhat androgynous.  Hippolytus stands proud, even haughty.  He refuses to dignify Phaedra's claims and even holds up a hand, as though silencing his father (who of course is also the king). Phaedra looks away from the main action; she appears uncertain and somewhat ashamed.  She may be aware of the wrongness of her action, but is unable behave differently, compelled by Aphrodite. Theseus, meanwhile, sits stone faced, one arm draped protectively around Phaedra, his other hand clenched in an angry fist toward his son.  Phaedra's maid lurks in the background, a witness to these horrors.  There is much left unsaid in this painting, for it is not a moment of action, but one of silence and anger.  The pride of these two men is the cause of great tragedy, while Phaedra is a victim and pawn of this divine game.  Guérin masterfully communicates all of these complexities and his painting successfully evokes the tragic character of this story.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Guglielmo Ciardi, Conca di Sappada con le Terze

Guglielmo Ciardi, Conca di Sappada con le Terze, 1897
14.2 x 22 in.

Guglielmo Ciardi (1842-1917) was an Italian painter and a friend of the Macchiaioli painters, although he was never a member of the group.  Born in Venice, Ciardi studied at the Venice Academy of Fine Arts, where he particularly excelled in landscape painting.  Many of his works were traditional Venetian style views of the city and its canals.  However he also explored more uncommon viewpoints and created beautiful and unusual depictions of the waterways of Venice. As his career continued, Ciardi continued to develop his own perspective and grow more modern in his rendering of Italy.  Conca di Sappada con le Terze shows a clear influence of Impressionism and the Macchiaioli.  This landscape is quite unusual, combining these modern techniques with traditional Italian landscapes.  Perhaps the most striking feature of the painting is the very large brushstrokes; we can discern Ciardi's every gesture and he invites us to see how these individual brushstrokes come together to form the whole scene.  This technique was likely the influence of Cezanne and prefigures the development of Cubism.  Ciardi's color in this painting is perhaps somewhat unrealistic in the brightness of the greens and the particular hue of the mountain, but perfectly evokes the feelings of the scene he is depicting.  We feel the openness of the space and the brightness of nature.  As the clouds swirl around the mountain we can feel the breeze blowing through the valley.  This is an extremely lively painting that has quite a lot of movement, considering that nothing in the scene is in motion.  While those large brushstrokes and bright colors result in a painting that is quite abstracted, the subject of the scene is clearly portrayed and the atmosphere of the painting is effective and powerful.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Risaburo Kimura, London

Risaburo Kimura, London, 1973

Risaburo Kimura (b.1924) is a Japanese-American artist who has work in many major museums throughout the world.  Kimura was born in Yokosuka, Japan in the Kanagawa Prefecture on the Eastern coast.  He studied art in Kanagawa at Yokohama University, then in Tokyo at Hosei University.  Kimura moved to New York in 1963 to pursue his career as an artist.  Beginning in the late 60s, he embarked on his best known project, the "Great Cities of the World" series. Consisting of over 400 different urban scenes, the series comprises the artists impressions of many world cities, and draws on Japan's history of printmaking by using lithographs and serigraphs (silkscreens).  The works demonstrate significant visual range, from New York to AmsterdamParisNew Orleans and Tokyo.  Kimura's view of London stands out from these other members of the series.  The piece has a very different impression than the fantastical New Orleans or the metaphorical New York.  Here London looks simultaneously shining and disintegrating; it is futuristic while evoking visual traditions of many cultures, particularly Arabian imagery.  Kimura cut these silkscreen prints himself, and it is easy to feel the artist's hand here. The imagery is so immediate and gripping.  Although the buildings appear to be melting, the shapes of the landmarks remain.  Against the metallic yellow sky filled with popping stars, and the quilt-like green ground, the buildings stand both out of place and in harmony with the surroundings. Kimura makes the buildings appear like a natural element in an alien landscape, but we can recognize it as a familiar skyline rendered with the intense gleam of the modern world.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Lilian Westcott Hale, The Old Cherry Tree

Lilian Westcott Hale, The Old Cherry Tree, c1920

Lilian Westcott Hale (1880-1963) is an American Impressionist painter.  Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, she studied at the Hartford Art School, then in Shinnecock on Long Island with William Merritt Chase, and finally at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with Edmund Tarbell.  There she met Philip Leslie Hale, whom she married in 1902.  Hale worked in paint and charcoal, and she is best known for her portraiture and powerful interior scenes.  She successfully captured the inner lives of women and explored the complexities of their lives.  In addition to these works, Hale also painted still-lifes and landscapes.  The Old Cherry Tree is a complex work that suggests an interesting relationship with nature.  Very influenced by both Impressionism and Japanese printwork, the painting depicts the interaction of the natural world and the fence built to cordon it off.  Although it extends only partway across the scene (the landscape seems to drop off into a valley of some sort, making its extension unnecessary), the fence exerts a strong influence on the space of the painting, and apparently on Hale herself.  The fence and gate are a barrier, both visually and physically, but the eponymous cherry tree challenges that status, intruding beyond the gate.  It twists and stretches, becoming the focus of visual interest.  However, the flat picture space, an element particularly drawn from Japanese prints, gives the sense of standing outside the scene, with the natural world beyond our grasp or experience.  Whether or not this was Hale's personal experience of nature, she conveys this distance quite effectively.  With its pale glowing colors and dense background composition, the painting is a curious and engaging look at the forest just beyond the fence.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Judith Leyster, Boy Playing the Flute

Judith Leyster, Boy Playing the Flute, 1635
28.74 x 24.4 in.

Judith Leyster (1609-1660) was a painter of the Dutch Golden Age.  Although rather successful in her lifetime, Leyster was all but forgotten for two hundred years after her death.  All of her works were attributed to the prolific painter Frans Hals.  In 1893 she was rediscovered and paintings began accruing to her name.  Leyster's best known piece is probably her self-portrait of 1633. She is also known for The Proposition (1631) which shows a man soliciting a reluctant young woman. Leyster's work shows a fascinating exploration of light and shadow and a strong interest in portraying the character of her subjects.  Boy Playing the Flute demonstrates these interests. The boy looks quite thoughtful and gazes, not toward the painter and viewer, but out the window. It seems as though his mind may not really be on his music.  From the light source of that window, the shadow he casts on the wall behind him creates a very interesting shape and, along with the shadow of the violin, an unusual feeling of doubling.  Leyster's skill is on particular display in the rendering of the boy's hat, which feels quite vibrant and real in both color and texture.  The boy's hands are also carefully rendered to show his movement and the keen physical engagement involved in playing this flute.  The style that Leyster and Hals worked in was very important in the development of portrait and genre painting and had a particular influence on Johannes Vermeer. Although even after her rediscovery Leyster was sometimes considered a pale imitation of Hals, in recent years her reputation has improved markedly, and she is recognized as a master of the Dutch style whose genre paintings offer great insight into the lives and feelings of her subjects.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Léon Bakst, Elysium

Léon Bakst, Elysium, 1906

Léon Bakst (1866-1924) was a Russian-Jewish painter, as well as a scene and costume designer employed by the Ballets Russes.  He studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts and the Académie Julian in Paris.  When he returned to Russia, he became close friends with renowned impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and a member of his artistic circle.  Bakst worked for Diaghilev at Ballets Russes and founded a periodical, World of Art, with him.  Due in large part to the fame he accrued designing sets, Bakst was elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1914.  In addition to his costume, scenic, and program design (including a depiction of Nijinsky), Bakst is known for his portraiture and his intense, unusual modernist landscapes.  These pieces show the distortion of landscape in the modern world and the fracturing of the psyche.  Elysium is exemplary of this style.  The title refers to the area of the Underworld in Roman mythology reserved for certain favored heroes.  Bakst's version has some elements of a traditional bucolic ideal, but the scene is warped and discomfiting.  The land itself churns and twists, the paths ever winding.  The status of the people we see is not entirely clear.  Most mill round, seemingly lost for a purpose.  The pair at the foreground may be enjoying themselves, but the kneeling figure appears to be pleading and has a somewhat desperate expression; this maybe the desperation of love or something less idyllic.  Another figure lurks furtively behind a tree, watching the pair.  Two more figures, one crouched in the shadowy bushes toward the left, another leaning against a large urn (who looks as though he may be a fawn) appear to be in states of great agitation or utter sadness.  Therefore it seems clear that this Elysium is not the paradise of myth.  Instead we have a dark and ominous view into this confusing locale.  Stylistically, the piece very much resembles set pieces and it is not hard to envision these trees as a backdrop.  Bakst is sometimes considered an art nouveau painter, and the large swaths of color and wavy forms, as well as the sphinx flying through the trees, fit this designation.  However there are also deeper themes at work here; Bakst portrays this scene with a sad awareness that flows through many of his works.  The deep greens of the trees and the bright green of the grass create a somewhat jarring contrast––they both clash and blend––that contributes to the unease of the scene.  Bakst combines all these elements to create a mysterious and powerful piece that evokes profound questions about the nature of death and paradise.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Chaim Soutine, The Old Mill

Chaim Soutine, The Old Mill, c1923

Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) was a Russian-Jewish painter born in modern day Belarus.  He studied at the Vilna Academy of Fine Arts in Vilnius and then at the École des Beaux-Arts after he emigrated to Paris in 1913.  In Paris Soutine developed friendships with Amedeo Modigliani (who painted Soutine in 1916) and Marc Chagall.  Soutine's success grew in the early 1920s when he was championed by famed art dealer Paul Guillaume.  Guillaume arranged a large sale to American collector Albert C. Barnes, and Soutine, having disposable income for the first time in his life, immediately took a trip to the French Riviera.  Soutine painted many landscapesportraits, and still-lifes, but he is possibly best known for his series of ten paintings depicting a beef carcass.  Influenced by Rembrandt's explorations of the same subject, Soutine bought an animal carcass and left it hanging in his apartment for several days so that he could paint it.  When he saw the blood seeping out under Soutine's door, Chagall is said to have screamed that "Someone has killed Soutine".  The Old Mill is a landscape from the beginning of Soutine's most successful years.  Strongly influenced by Cezanne and Van Gogh, the painting's heavily abstracted forms and warped lines show the important place Soutine occupies in the development of Expressionism.  Coming from very similar circumstances, much of Soutine's work closely resembles Chagall's in both style and tone.  Both were born in Belarus and moved to Paris around the same time (though Chagall would move back to Russia before settling in Paris), and both draw on multiple European traditions––Impressionism and Expressionism to be sure, as well as elements of folk art and the influence of their Judaism.  After two decades of success and exhibitions in both Europe and the United States, Soutine fled Paris when the Nazis invaded and was forced to find haven in rural France, changing locations frequently.  Although he eluded Nazi capture, he developed a stomach ulcer and died at age 50 after risking his life to return to Paris for an operation.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

August Sander, Hohenzollernbrücke

August Sander, Hohenzollernbrücke, 1945

August Sander (1876-1964) was an extremely important German photographer.  Sander first learned about photography when he assisted a photographer working for the mining company that employed his father.  With help from his uncle he bought photography equipment and began experimenting.  He was able to work as a photographer's assistant for his military service (1897-99) and spent several years traveling Germany and Austria.  In 1909 he settled in Cologne and set up a studio there.  Sander mostly worked as a portrait photographer, known for his series People of the Twentieth Century.  In 1929, sixty of these photographs were published as a book, Face of Our Time.  Among his most celebrated and discussed pieces is Three Farmers (1914).  Sander's career and personal life suffered greatly under the Nazi regime.  His son was imprisoned for his membership in the liberal Socialist Workers' Party and died in prison.  Sander's work was banned and many copies of his book were destroyed.  Once World War II broke out in force, Sander set about photographing the city of Cologne in order to preserve it, if only photographically.  Located near the border of France and Germany, the city was subjected to numerous bombing raids and suffered a great deal of damage.  However the damage in this photograph was inflicted by the Germans.  Hohenzollern Bridge, which crosses the Rhine, was blown up by the Nazis to slow the Allies' advance as they invaded the city.  The photograph is an intense encapsulation of the damage done to the city and some of the destruction of the war. There is no visible human presence in this picture; the area appears deserted to escape the danger of the collapse.  A small boat is visible in the left foreground, also abandoned.  The image of the powerful steel, bent and twisted, collapsed into the water, is a powerful concept for this documentarian of the twentieth century.  The famed Cologne Cathedral, which thankfully survived the bombings, looms in the background, a vision of survival and endurance on the far bank.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Cleopatra Before Caesar

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Cleopatra Before Caesar, 1886

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) was a French painter and sculptor in the academic style.  He is known for his depictions of Classical myth and history and especially for his Orientalism. However, one of his best known paintings depicts a duel in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.  He was able to marry his interest in painting and sculpture with a depiction of Pygmalion and Galatea.  After some initial setbacks, Gérôme achieved success at the Salon of 1847, which he parlayed into several important commissions. In 1856 Gérôme visited Egypt for the first time, beginning his fascination with the Middle East and North Africa.  He painted many different aspects of the landscape and culture in those regions, and made several more trips east. Cleopatra Before Caesar allowed Gérôme to explore both Classicism and Orientalism.  This initial meeting between Julius Caesar and Queen Cleopatra is often considered the quintessential encounter between east and west.  Having been driven from the palace by her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra allegedly smuggled herself into the camp of the invading Romans wrapped in a rug.  While the story is likely apocryphal, it speaks to the exotic and mysterious image of Cleopatra that society has developed.  In Gérôme's version of the scene, Cleopatra has all the agency and power.  She is the only figure standing upright and is the focus of everyone in the scene.  Although she is clearly marked as and eastern woman, with exotic dress and bare breasts, she is thoroughly European in appearance (which is likely accurate to Cleopatra's Greek ancestry but complicates her status as an Oriental seductress).  Caesar, meanwhile, is by comparison barely a feature in the overall impression of the painting; he sits in the background at his desk, almost blending in with his surroundings.  Cleopatra does not in fact look at Caesar, her eyes are downcast.  The most exotic figure in the painting is the servant (or slave) who has brought Cleopatra, who crouches in the corner, mere support for the Queen of the Nile to rest her hand on.  Gérôme's skill is most evident in the smooth and sculpted rendering of Cleopatra's skin and body, as well as the drapery of the rug that is unfurled at Cleopatra's feet.  By setting the scene in and Egyptian monument, Gérôme was also able to include Egyptian painting and hieroglyphs in the background, which I'm sure he greatly enjoyed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Jackson Pollock, Full Fathom Five

Jackson Pollock, Full Fathom Five, 1947

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is perhaps the most famous American artist.  He is the standard bearer for Abstract Expressionism and has become the modern archetype of the tortured artist. Born in Wyoming and raised in California, Jackson had a difficult childhood and is believed to have started drinking regularly in high school.  He moved to New York when he was eighteen to join his older brother at the Art Students League.  Both found employment with the WPA, as well as in a number of odd jobs.  Pollock's early works were a mix of Surrealism and Cubism and he found great success on the New York art scene.  However it wasn't until he abandoned figuration entirely and employed pure abstraction that Pollock found his signature style.  Full Fathom Five is one of the earliest masterpieces of the technique that has often been called drip painting.  I prefer the term action painting, because the approach included many kinds of paint application, dripping, flinging, pouring directly from the can.  Pollock also abandoned easels and spread his large canvases directly on the floor of his barn studio.  With the technique he produced such well known masterpieces as Autumn Rhythm and Convergence.  Full Fathom Five is a full realization of the style, but perhaps contains more direct referents than many of Pollock's works.  The title is much more specific than most of the drip paintings, which are often just known by a number. Taken from Shakespeare's Tempest, the line refers to the deep ocean and a drowned man.  We certainly feel this from the painting; the deep greens, rich blues, and dark blacks suggest the sea and its dangers.  Pollock, along with most Abstract Expressionists, was also very involved in psychoanalysis, and we can see the depths of the psyche played out on this canvas.  If we look at a detail (taken from the area around the orange streaks near the upper right corner) the application of paint becomes visible, which gives greater insight in Pollock's process.  This beautiful and intense painting is an exceptional example of Pollock's style and genius, and his ability to communicate great depth of though and feeling within the apparent chaos of his paintings.

Monday, February 9, 2015

John Hoppner, Miss Mercer Elphinstone

John Hoppner, Miss Mercer Elphinstone
22.625 x 18.5 in.

John Hoppner (1758-1810) was a prominent English portrait painter, known for his use of color. Born in Whitechapel, London to German parents, his mother was an attendant at the royal palace. King George III took an interest in Hoppner when he was a boy, leading to spurious rumors that he was the king's illegitimate son.  Hoppner entered the Royal Academy in 1775 and achieved significant success before becoming the official portrait painter to the Prince of Wales. Many of his works are typical eighteenth century portraits in style, but he conveys great vivacity in his subjects to create engaging paintings.  This portrait is a lovely and simple piece.  Hoppner represents this young woman with great care and portrays her intelligence and poise.  While most of Hoppner's works show elaborate period dress and are very marked by their time, including his self-portrait, this painting seems quite contemporary by comparison.  In part due to her simple clothing, Miss Mercer is very present and we can feel an immediate connection with her.  With the simple background and garment, her beauty stands out quite well and we have a strong sense that we know Miss Mercer Elphinstone.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Bill Jensen, Louhan (Dark Angel)

Bill Jensen, Louhan (Dark Angel), 2010-11
28 x 23 in.

Bill Jensen (b.1945) is a contemporary artist whose work hangs in many major museums, including the Met.  Born in Minneapolis, Jensen moved to New York in the 1970s and rose to prominence as part of a resurgence in painting after the prevalence of other art forms in the late sixties.  Jensen's work is mostly abstract, featuring intense color and complex forms.  With its dense compositions, Jensen's work is primal and instinctive; the viewer's visceral reaction is a very important part of their impact.  Jensen's work ranges widely in tone, showing different aspects of the psyche.  Louhan is an impressive piece, that immediately grabs hold of the viewer. With the deep black center and washed out colors, the gaping black might appear to swallow its surroundings.  But instead there is a luminosity to the work.  The dark angel of the title becomes quite present as energy appears to radiate from the black.  The thin colors, then, appear like tendrils of flame, set alight by this presence.  However, the specter of the dark angel is not necessarily wholly negative.  The background does glow gold and purple, and theres is a sense of wonder at work here.  This mixes with the ominous presence to create an intense experience, perhaps akin to the sublime.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

David Roberts, The Houses of Parliament from Millbank

David Roberts, The Houses of Parliament from Millbank, 1861

David Roberts (1796-1864) was a Scottish painter known for his interest in Orientalism.  Born in Edinburgh, he began his career there as a stage and scenery designer.  He moved to London in 1822 with his wife, Margaret, and six-month-old baby, Christine, when he was offered a job as a scenery designer and set painter at the Coburg Theater, now the Old Vic.  He was commercially successful with his sets, while gradually making the transition to fine artist and building his reputation throughout the 1820s.  By 1829 he was working full time as a painter and exhibited his Departure of the Israelites from Egypt.  In 1831 Roberts was elected president of the Society of British Artists.  In 1832 he began his travels, and truly found his style.  He first traveled to Spain and Tangiers, notably painting the interior of Seville Cathedral.  He went to Egypt and Arabia, Jerusalem and Jordan.  He depicted archaeological sites, everyday people, and sweeping landscapes.  Roberts appears to have been fascinated with every aspect of the Near East.  He even had himself painted in "Orientalist" attire.  When he returned to Britain he made lithograph prints of his illustrations of his travels, to immense commercial success.  One of the things that makes this portrayal of the Houses of Parliament so interesting is the way that Roberts depicted the famous building to look like a foreign element.  The edifice is shrouded in mist and eastern-looking boats pass in front of and around it.  Even the lighting gives the scene an air of the exotic. He took a similar approach to a view of Edinburgh from his later life.  Roberts applied what he learned in the Middle East and applied to his subjects in Britain to show a new dimension of this familiar scene.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Théo van Rysselberghe, Portrait of Marguerite van Mons

Théo van Rysselberghe, Portrait of Marguerite van Mons, 1886
35.43 x 27.76 in.

Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926) was a Belgian painter who was an important figure in the development of art at the turn of the century.  Van Rysselberghe studied at the Academy of Ghent and then at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.  Traveling extensively in Spain and Morocco, many of his early works are Orientalist in both theme and style.  However he quickly moved away from Orientalism and toward Impressionism.  In this period he shows the influence of MonetRenoir, Cassatt, and Van Gogh, among others.  When he embraced Pointillism, van Rysselberghe developed his own style of Neo-Impressionism.  He painted landscapes that varied wildly in form and content, as well as some very interesting portraits. Marguerite van Mons was the daughter of a friend of van Rysselberghe, and was ten years old when he painted her in June of 1886.  He had already painted her older sister, Camille.  As with a number of paintings I have discussed recently, one of the things that makes this piece so interesting is its unusual use of space.  Young Marguerite is shown standing in front of a door, which serves as a completely flat background.  Portraits without a dynamic background were not uncommon, but to use an architectural feature of the girl's home is unusual without that active element, such as an open door or a complete room.  Van Rysselberghe did include the elaborate decoration on the door for visual interest, but spatially the scene appears very limited.  However the flat backdrop foregrounds the subject quite intensely.  Marguerite becomes t he complete point of interest.  She is not in the middle of the canvas and she wears a simple black dress, but her complex and mysterious gaze gives the painting a powerful impact.  She appears inquisitive and knowledgable, a very intelligent girl who observes the world around her.  With her hand on the door handle, it looks as though van Rysselberghe has surprised the girl, caught her in the act of leaving the room.  However as she looks out at him, she appears thoroughly aware of the painter and what he is doing, and she has caught him as well.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Lesser Ury, Evening Rain

Lesser Ury, Evening Rain

Lesser Ury (1861-1931) was a German-Jewish painter and printmaker, generally considered to be an Impressionist artist.  Raised in Berlin, Ury left school to pursue a trade after the death of his father, a baker.  However he soon traveled to Düsseldorf to study painting.  After his studies, Ury spent time traveling and stayed in Paris and Brussels for extended periods of time.  He returned to Berlin in 1887 and had his first exhibition.  He received a hostile reaction, but received a medal due to the influence of Adolph Menzel, the foremost German artist of the time.  In both Berlin and Munich, Ury was a member of the Secessionist movements to promote modern art and the avant-garde.  Much of Ury's work resembles Impressionism quite clearly.  He frequently painted landscapes and interior scenes.  Some of his landscapes have a more modernist appearance, showing the influence of avant-garde art movements in Germany.  At times he tended toward even greater abstraction, to beautiful and dizzying effect.  Paintings of cafes at night are among his best known works, as are rainy urban scenes.  Evening Rain clearly falls into the latter category, and it is a very interesting example of the genre.  This painting shows the street soaked in a downpour, blurring the forms of the scene.  People generally are indistinct shapes, especially in the background.  One of the most interesting elements of the piece is the use of reflections on the wet street.  For both the horses' legs and the people's, the reflections serve to lengthen their legs and make them appear strangely distorted.  By doubling their limbs this way, Ury doubled the vertical raindrops by elongating the people and horses.  The color here is masterfully utilized; the scene is mostly neutral tones, with a dark grey bridge, a greenish-grey street, and brown and black figures.  However the woman at the foreground is a startlingly prominent exception.  Her blue dress focuses the entire painting and immediately draws the eye.  She is an oasis of color on this shabby street.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Theodore Earl Butler, Place du Rome at Night

Theodore Earl Butler, Place du Rome at Night, 1905
23.38 x 28.75 in.

Theodore Earl Butler (1861-1936) was an American painter, often considered an Impressionist artist, although he was not officially associated with the group that founded the movement.  He was, however, a founder of the Society of Independent Artists, a group based in New York that championed the exhibition of avant-garde art in the US.  Butler was born in Ohio and studied at the Art Students League in New York before moving to Paris in 1886.  He won an honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1888 and soon became close friends with Claude Monet.  Butler moved the Giverny and became part of a small group of American artists who learned from Monet at Giverny. In 1892 Butler married Monet's stepdaughter, Suzanne Hoschedé.  They had two children together, but Suzanne died in 1899 and Butler married her younger sister, Marthe. Monet's influence can be seen in much of Butler's work, both in subject and appearance.  Butler also explored Pointillism and Fauvism.  Throughout his career, Butler's work maintains a very hazy quality.  He sees his subjects through a blurred eye that causes the viewer to see the scene in a completely different way.  An excellent example of this is his view of lower Manhattan; the city seems to float as an island in the sky, as though Butler has captured the whole thing in his tiny view.  Place du Rome at Night is a somewhat different work for Butler.  Most of his works from his time in France, which comprised most of his life, are rural scenes of Giverny.  But here we see his impression of a lively Paris night.  In addition to Monet, we can see the influence of Pissarro here. The city bends and swerves in the streetlights and here the dense activity seems to be the haze we are looking through.  As space recedes, the scene gets more abstracted, as well as more densely packed with light and color.  Despite the late hour, dozens of people crowd the streets and sidewalks and every window appears lighted.  This is a scene of great excitement, as Butler witnesses the vivacity of the modern nightlife.  With his large brushstrokes and bright colors, it is almost as though the city itself is speeding by.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Charles-Antoine Coypel, Young Girl Holding a Mask

Charles-Antoine Coypel, Young Girl Holding a Mask, 1745

Charles-Antoine Coypel was a prominent French painter, as well as an art critic and playwright. Born to  family of artists, Coypel was born into a high place in French society, including inheriting his father Antoine Coypel's position as First Painter to the King.  Charles-Antoine also became director of the highly prestigious Académie Royale.  He was known as an extremely skilled designer of tapestries, such as his illustration of Don Quixote.  His paintings include large scale history paintings as well as many portraits.  Among his most celebrated works are a self-portrait and a portrait of Molière.  Young Girl Holding a Mask is a beautiful example of traditional eighteenth-century French portraiture.  Coypel's skill is evident throughout the work, successfully depicting the smoothness of her skin, the softness of her hair, the prismatic beauty of the pearl earring and gem, and the cool hard surface of the mask.  Meanwhile, although her dress is barely visible, Coypel successfully depicts the folds and drapery of the garment.  The liveliness of the subject makes this painting quite engaging.  Her hand is fully engaged as it holds the mask, which appears to just touch her chin.  Her face is beautiful and active.  She does not look directly at the viewer, instead gazing a bit further down, perhaps somewhat coyly with a slight smile.  Her dark eyes are alight with intelligence and interest.  When this girl puts on her mask, her bright eyes will be the only part of her face visible, but Coypel makes us feel that we would see her just as well.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Zdenka Braunerová, From Paris

Zdenka Braunerová, From Paris, 1886

Zdenka Braunerová (1858-1934) was a prominent Czech painter and graphic designer.  Born in Prague to upper class parents (her father was a successful lawyer and imperial councillor and her mother was a noblewoman), Braunerová showed an interest in painting and drawing from her time in the nursery.   Much of her work consists of landscapes and cityscapes.  She spent a significant amount of time in Paris and was inspired by both the city and the people she met there.  In her later career, Braunerová largely turned to graphic design.  This mostly consisted of printmaking, but she also explored metalwork and stained glass.  From Paris is one of the many works inspired by Paris, and offers an interesting portrait of the city.  We see the streets engulfed in a torrential rain.  The sidewalks are so drenched that they are as reflective as a lake.  The entire scene is washed in grey, but Braunerová still managed to make the scene glow.  The sidewalk reflects, not just the grey clouds, but also the glimmer of sunlight that shines through in the background.  Although the rain seems cold and harsh, she evokes the rejuvenating power of rain by placing a tree in the foreground, apparently just budding.  Throughout the painting there is a very interesting relationship between the forms and the brushstrokes themselves. Although Braunerová does not depict any individual raindrops in the scene, she uses her brushstrokes to convey the vertical motion, their falling paths, creating a painting of great beauty and expression.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Hans Hoffmann, A Hedgehog

Hans Hoffmann, A Hedgehog, before 1584

Yesterday I wrote about Hans Hofmann, the 20th century Abstract Expressionist.  Today I am writing about Hans Hoffmann, the 16th century Mannerist.  Slightly different names, very different artists.  Hans Hoffmann (c1530-1591/92) was a German painter from Nuremberg.  Hoffmann came to prominence as a part of the movement that saw a renewed interest in the work of Albrecht Dürer some forty years after his death in 1528.  Today Hoffmann is the best known member of that renaissance and based much of his style on the great master.  Although he was also a portrait painter and draughtsman, he is mostly known for his nature studies that follow Dürer's style, some of which are direct copies.  One direct homage to Dürer is Hoffmann's Small Piece of Turf, which follows Dürer's Great Piece of Turf.  Hoffmann also made a copy of Dürer's famous hare.  Hoffmann was quite successful in his life, becoming court painter to Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor.  Although Hoffmann does not match Dürer in skill, he brings an element that is not present in the greater artist.  While Dürer's nature studies are purely objective and realistic, Hoffmann anthropomorphizes his animals in a very unusual way, a way that Dürer was not interested in exploring.  This beautifully rendered hedgehog is incredibly detailed and lifelike. We feel the texture of the animal's spines, and the soft fur of its underbelly.  We see the fineness of its whiskers and the sharp claws.  However, when we turn our attention to the hedgehog's eyes we see something beyond this realistic portrayal.  There is so much character there, the hedgehog is animated and alert.  It makes eye contact with us and its personality shows through. It appears somewhat weary, but curious and engaged.  The effect is also present in Hoffmann's painting of a wild boar piglet.  While Hoffmann may not be as great an artist as Albrecht Dürer, or Hans Hofmann for that matter, there is an authenticity and connectedness in his work, and we feel the presence and temperament of his animals in their surroundings.