Impressionism – Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Tue, 09 Jul 2019 01:51:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Impressionism – Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Whistler’s Gentle Art Sun, 30 Jun 2019 19:42:50 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A current exhibition showcases the watercolors that revived James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s career.

James McNeill Whistler, Southend Pier, 1882-84

James McNeill Whistler, Southend Pier, 1882-84, watercolor on paper.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) James McNeill Whistler, Southend Pier, 1882-84 James McNeill Whistler, Violet and Amber-Tea, 1882-84 James McNeill Whistler, Pink Note-The Novelette, 1883-84

To say James Abbott McNeill Whistler had a colorful life would be a gross understatement. The American artist, who was born in Massachusetts, grew up in part in Saint Petersburg, Russia. There, his father advised on the construction of the railroad and young Whistler took drawing classes at the Imperial Academy of Sciences. The United States Military Academy at West Point came next, but Whistler failed chemistry and left the academy in 1854. He learned etching while working at the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey before leaving for Paris in 1855 to become an artist in the true 19th-century definition of the word.

In Paris, he studied at the École Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin and with Charles Gleyre, but it was his own immersion in the works of the masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Velázquez and contemporaries like Gustave Courbet that truly honed his style. A union with Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros—the Société des Trois, as they called themselves—was also heavily influential, as was a relationship with Édouard Manet, the writings of Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Thoré, and an on-trend interest in Japanese prints and blue-and-white porcelain that would grow considerably over time. In May of 1859, Whistler relocated to London. There, he fell in with several of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Throughout the 1860s, his reputation grew, primarily through his landscapes, which borrowed the flat, tonal quality of Japanese art and deftly distilled, as in poetry or music, place into feeling. Experiments with multi-figure compositions in the 1860s gave way to single-figure subjects in the 1870s, such as the celebrated Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871).

As the Aesthetic Movement grew, so did Whistler’s place in it. He became a living testament to the notion that an elevated sense of taste should pervade one’s life and he became known for his printmaking, interior decoration, furniture, and designs for frames and exhibitions. He created a signature—not unlike Prince’s infamous symbol—a butterfly formed by his initials that he nestled within his compositions.

But Whistler’s fame extended beyond his artistic output. The libel suit he filed against the art critic John Ruskin in 1878 garnered considerable attention. Ruskin, upon seeing Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) at London’s Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, described the artist as “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler sued and won. In 1890 he published The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a book that provided an embellished, often-hilarious transcript of the case and clippings of letters the artist wrote to newspapers regarding other enemies and “frenemies.”

Though the jury may have ruled in Whistler’s favor, the art world—and the artist’s bank account—did not. As the 1880s rolled in, Whistler needed to revive his career in order to stay afloat. Enter watercolors. Beginning in 1881, he embarked on a 15-year-long series of small works in the breezy medium. Of the marketable paintings he wrote, “I have done delightful things and have a wonderful game to play.”

“Whistler in Watercolor,” an exhibition on view at the Smithsonian’s Freer | Sackler in Washington, D.C., through October 6, delves deeply into these works and in particular Charles Lang Freer’s relationship to them. Freer, who also owned oil paintings, prints, drawings, and pastels by the artist, amassed the largest collection of Whistler’s watercolors in the world—some 50 seascapes, nocturnes, interior views, and street scenes. These delicate works, which were included in the collector’s bequest to the museum in 1906, are rarely seen and have, in fact, never left the Freer Gallery of Art. Thus, the show serves as a sort of grand introduction to the series and a reaffirmation of Whistler’s facility with both paint and the art market.

“This is a groundbreaking exhibition for a number of reasons,” says curator Lee Glazer. “The watercolors—‘dainty,’ ‘beautiful,’ and ‘portable’ as the artist described them—are critical to understanding how Whistler’s art-historical ambition and his canny understanding of the commercial art market coalesced.”

After the Ruskin case, Whistler, in need of money, took a commission from the Fine Art Society of London to produce 12 etchings of Venice. When Whistler returned from Italy a year later (the assignment was initially only for three months), he had produced 50 etchings, 100 pastels, a number of oil paintings, and some three pastels. Though London Bridge (1881, watercolor over graphite on rough, wove paper), a work in the Freer’s show, was not his first, he considered it a sort of jumping-off point for his immersion into the watercolor medium. The year it was completed, a reporter wrote, “Mr. Whistler is about to surprise both his friends and his detractors by appearing in the new character of the water-colour artist.”

A trip to the seaside town of St. Ives in southwest England in 1883 proved a fruitful occasion for painting. Working en plein air, Whistler completed several works in oil and watercolor. The watercolor seascapes are bright and light, with a pleasing tripartite organization of sky, sea, and shore. The exhibition features several paintings from this productive getaway, such as St. Ives: Cornwall (1883–84, watercolor on paper), Southend—The Pleasure Yacht (1882–84, watercolor on paper), and Southend Pier (1882–84, watercolor on paper)—all of which are redolent of salt and sand. Whistler also translated his practice of “nocturnes” or night scenes into watercolor, and a 1882 trip to Amsterdam generated several experimental works. In Nocturne: Grand Canal, Amsterdam (1892, watercolor on cold-pressed, wove paper), a standout of the show, the light from the windows of the buildings that line the canal reflect in the water like dancing spirits. Whistler maintained a wet surface while he worked with the paint, rubbing and scraping it to create the ethereal effect.

But he also created watercolors in town, and his depictions of street scenes delighted Victorian critics and collectors. Focused primarily on the cityscape in the Chelsea neighborhood of London, where he lived, Whistler translated his observations into charming pictures with low-simmering social undertones. In Chelsea Children (circa 1897, watercolor on hot-pressed, wove paper), a group of children look in a shop window, while a lone child looks longingly into a store advertising stewed eels.

Not all of Whistler’s watercolors take place out of doors, however. The exhibition showcases a host of works composed in the artist’s studio, such as Milly Finch (1883–84, watercolor on cold-pressed, wove paper), The saucy painting depicts a model in a lavender dress, splayed on a red chaise longue with a red fan in her hand. A much more modest picture, Note in Pink and Purple—The Studio (1883–84, watercolor on cold-pressed, wove paper), features the same dress, chaise, table, and drapery swag, yet the model sits demurely instead.

Freer first met Whistler in 1890, when he visited the artist at his London home. The artist and the collector struck up a friendship, which in turn led to Freer acquiring more and more of Whistler’s work. One of his acquisitions was the legendary Peacock Room, which he acquired en masse in 1904 and installed in his Detroit mansion. In 1876, Whistler created Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, a decadent interior in the height of Anglo-Japanese style, for his former patron, the shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. The patron had outfitted the room with blue-and-white Chinese porcelains from the Kangxi era and wanted Whistler to add some painted flourishes to bring harmony to the room. When it was revealed that Whistler had painted the room in a profusion of blue, green, and gold patterns reminiscent of a peacock’s plumage—and charged Leyland an exorbitant fee—the artist and patron quarreled, and ultimately ended their relationship.

“The Peacock Room in Blue and White,” an installation of the room, is currently also on view at the Freer | Sackler alongside the watercolor exhibition. Not only a recreation of Whistler’s decorations, the installation features Kangxi-era pots from the Freer collection as well as 100 newly commissioned vessels to help fill the room’s 218 shelves.

An exploration of Whistler in yet another medium is also on view at the Frick Collection in New York. “Whistler as Printmaker: Highlights from the Gertrude Kosovsky Collection” runs through September 1 and showcases 15 prints and one pastel. The exhibition is a slice of a larger promised gift from Kosovsky and her husband, Dr. Harry Kosovsky, of 42 Whistler works to the Frick. Over the course of five decades, the couple amassed a collection that ranges from etchings dating to the late 1850s to lithographs of the late 1890s.

Whistler created several works in the show during the storied trip to Venice mentioned above. Two standouts are San Biagio (1880, etching and drypoint, brownish-black ink on ivory laid paper) and Ponte del Piovan (1879–80, etching and drypoint, brownish-black ink on cream laid paper), etchings with just enough Whistleresque detail to suggest the essence of Venice’s architecture and canals. In Sunset: Venice (1880, chalk and pastel on beige paper), the lone pastel and a highlight of the gift and exhibition, Whistler barely intones the outline of the Santa Maria della Salute and the Giudecca on the horizon—like a faint yet audible whisper.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Joaquín Sorolla: Sunlight Dialogues Sat, 30 Mar 2019 00:44:02 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A survey show at the National Gallery in London illuminates the achievement of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, the last great master of the classical Spanish tradition of painting.

Joaquín Sorolla, Sewing the Sail, 1896

Joaquín Sorolla, Sewing the Sail, 1896, oil on canvas, 222 x 300 cm. Credit: Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna di Ca’ Pesaro, Venice 2018 © Photo Archive – Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Joaquín Sorolla, After the Bath, the Pink Robe, 1916 Joaquín Sorolla, Self Portrait, 1904 Joaquín Sorolla, Sunny Afternoon at the Alcázar of Seville, 1910 Joaquín Sorolla, Sewing the Sail, 1896 Joaquín Sorolla, Strolling along the Seashore, 1909 Joaquín Sorolla, And They Still Say Fish is Expensive!, 1894

The Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida had a very fortunate life, both professionally and personally, but in terms of posterity he had the misfortune to have been doing his best work just as avant-garde modernism was about to change the art world forever. Often grouped with his contemporaries John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn, Sorolla was a master of bravura paint handling, influenced by Impressionism but basically anchored in the older European tradition of realist depiction, and particularly the Spanish tradition from Velázquez and Ribera through to Goya. In his time, Sorolla became an international sensation, hailed as “The World’s Greatest Living Painter” by the London gallery where he had a one-man show in 1908, and in 1909 and 1911 he had blockbuster shows in New York, a city for which he felt a great affinity and where he had important patrons.

But only two years later, the Armory Show came to town, bringing with it a whole new approach to painting, and to visual art in general, that would cause work such as Sorolla’s to be derided and, eventually, ignored. After his death in 1923 at the age of 60, Sorolla’s work went out of fashion, and it was not until the 1990s that he began to be rediscovered, due to changed attitudes that allowed for a more objective stance on the hot-button issues of the modernist debates. Now, with the distance of a century and more, viewers no longer need to make up their minds as to whether Sorolla’s works are “retrograde” or not; they can simply enjoy them for what they are. Exhibitions in Spain, Germany, France, and the U.S. have raised awareness of Sorolla, amid a growing appreciation of the art of the Belle Epoque as well as of Spanish art.

Now through July 7, the National Gallery in London is presenting “Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light,” the first exhibition of the artist’s work in the U.K. in over a century. Curated in partnership with the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (to which the show will travel after closing in London) and the Museo Sorolla (housed in the artist’s former home and garden in Madrid), the exhibition brings together over 60 major works in all the genres that Sorolla practiced—social realism, portraits, nudes, beach scenes, gardens, and historical works. Christopher Riopelle, the National Gallery’s Neil Westreich Curator of Post-1800 Paintings, consulted with Sorolla’s great-granddaughter Blanca Pons-Sorolla and with Consuelo Luca de Tena, director of the Museo Sorolla, in organizing the show, and also collaborated closely with Brendan Rooney, Head Curator and Curator of Irish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland. Loans of artworks came from numerous museums in Spain, Italy, France, Cuba, and the U.S., as well as from private collections.

Sorolla was born in 1863 in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain, a region whose beaches, fishing ports, folk traditions, and special sunlight would always be central to his art. His parents died in a cholera epidemic when he was two years old, and he and his sister were raised by an aunt and uncle. At 13 he started taking classes in drawing with the sculptor Cayetano Capuz at the Escuela de Artesanos in Valencia. Making rapid progress, he had his own painting studio by the age of 16, on the top floor of the house of a photographer named Antonio García Peris, who supported the budding artist financially and whose daughter Clotilde would become Sorolla’s beloved wife and favorite model.

In 1881, Sorolla visited Madrid, the capital city, for the first time, and in the halls of the Prado received his first exposure to the work of Diego Velázquez. The Spanish masters of the 17th century, especially Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera, were key inspirations and reference points for 19th-century Spanish painters such as Mariano Fortuny y Marsal and Ignacio Pinazo Camarlench, and Sorolla deeply immersed himself in this tradition, which prized careful observation and virtuoso technical skills. Sorolla loved Velázquez’ Las Meninas (1656) and frequently alluded to it in his paintings; his 1906 portrait of the American artist Ralph Elmer Clarkson incorporates a copy of it, and his habit of admitting the viewer to a scene through a door or portal derives from Las Meninas’ distinctive, optically challenging vantage point. His great Female Nude (1902) is a conscious updating of Velázquez’ Rokeby Venus (1647–51), and his portrait of fellow painter Aureliano de Beruete is Velázquez-like in its use of black, livened by small strokes of white and red in the subject’s face that impart a spark of psychological realism.

Sorolla’s friend and fellow Valencian, the novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, called him “grandson of Velázquez, son of Goya,” and while the influence of the former was most lasting, in his early years Sorolla was especially indebted to Goya for his close focus on social problems and difficult subject matter. Today he is best known for his sun-splashed visions of bourgeois grace and harmony with nature, but Sorolla’s paintings from the 1890s are much grittier. Another Marguerite!, which won Sorolla a first-class medal at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1892, his first major achievement in the art world, shows a young woman in a train car, flanked by two police officers. She is dressed in black, with her head bowed down dejectedly; a closer look reveals that her wrists are in handcuffs. Sorolla got the idea for this painting when he was riding on a train and saw a handcuffed woman who, he was told, had killed her out-of-wedlock baby. Sorolla simplified the composition by eliminating everyone else from the train car except the three figures, heightening its emotional power with this dramatic unity. The painting’s title alludes to Marguerite from Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera Faust (Gretchen in Goethe’s original play), who killed her child and was damned and eventually saved.

Another important work from Sorolla’s early period shows influence from Goya in its social observation as well as its satirical title. And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! (1894) shows three fishermen belowdecks, the two older ones tending to the prostrate younger one, who evidently received a serious wound while plying his trade. The palette of this canvas is mainly shades of brown and black, and the overall effect is very 17th-century while maintaining a strong sense of contemporary social relevance. Sad Inheritance! (1899) depicts a group of disabled children from an institution being taken for an outing to the beach by a black-clad priest. There is poignant contrast between the healthful sun and sea and the distorted, weakened bodies of the children, and yet this is clearly a rare joyful moment for them. Sorolla based it on a scene he had actually witnessed and painted it en plein air, on the very same beach. “I suffered horribly when I painted it,” he recalled. “I had to force myself all the time. I shall never paint such a subject again.”

Indeed, the turn of the century marked a turning point in Sorolla’s work, in both his choice of subjects and in his technique. Sad Inheritance! is actually a sort of fulcrum in that it marks the last time Sorolla painted with a “social realist” agenda, while the background of the picture—the beach, the water, and the beautifully rendered sunlight—move to the foreground in much of the rest of the artist’s oeuvre. Running Along the Beach, Valencia (1908) gives us children on the beach again, but now they are archetypally healthy: a naked boy chases two girls in sun dresses, one pale pink and one white. The sun glistens against skin, and the bright sun draws crisp shadows in the folds of the cotton dresses. The whole composition is dynamic, exuberantly full of life.

This dynamism is reflected in Sorolla’s mode of working—almost always plein air and always quickly. He insisted that speed was of the essence, that he “could not paint at all” if he had to paint slowly, since “every effect is so transient, it must be rapidly painted.” To capture not just the motion of people but the constantly shifting light, he moved toward a looser, brushier technique that sometimes flirts with Impressionism without ever completely going there, espousing an intermediate style that was modern without being revolutionary. Fellow adherents of this style, known as International Modernism or juste milieu, included Sargent and Zorn, whom Sorolla called “the one who had reached the goal of what I understood and understand oil painting to be.” As for plein air, it became virtually a religion for Sorolla, who set up impromptu painting tents of sheets of cloth tied to stilts and anchored to the ground by ropes so that he could work on the beach without being disturbed by the wind. Nonetheless, conservators still find grains of sand embedded in his canvases.

Sorolla’s interest in the effects of sun and dappled shadow on skin and cloth can be seen again and again in his post-1900 paintings. In After the Bath, The Pink Robe (1916), a large-scale work that the artist considered “one of the best I have ever produced,” the women’s loose beach garments take on a sensual life of their own, as bars of sunlight coming through the bamboo slats of the cabana play over them. One of Sorolla’s best-known works, Strolling Along the Seashore (1909), is a symphony of sun, sand, sea, and glorious white cloth. It is actually a double portrait of his wife and their daughter María, and the two women, with their white dresses, straw hats and white parasol, incarnate something of the modern bourgeois cleanliness, grace, and rationality that the new 20th century promised for Spain.

An integral part of this gracious lifestyle was the domestic garden, which Sorolla not only cultivated in his own residence but repeatedly painted. His painterly technique finds particularly fertile soil in a series of paintings of the gardens of the Alhambra and the Generalife, former residences of the medieval Islamic rulers of Spain. Sorolla toured historic sites in Spain to make studies for Vision of Spain, a massive mural commission he received from his American patron Archer Milton Huntington, founder of the Hispanic Society of American in New York and organizer of Sorolla’s hugely successful 1909 and 1911 shows. The panoramic cycle of paintings was to run around the ceilings of the HSA’s building like a frieze, illustrating not only the history of Spain and its New World Empire (the last of which was lost as a result of the war with the U.S. in 1898) but also its contemporary folklife. Sorolla shared with Huntington a strong affection for Spanish traditions that were dwindling away amid the pan-European modernity that he himself was part of. The National Gallery exhibition includes sketches and studies for Vision of Spain, which tend to have greater vitality than the somewhat stagy finished products, which were not fully installed until 1926, three years after Sorolla’s death.

While Sorolla was in many ways traditional, he was no conservative, and there is nothing in his art to indicate that he was making a statement against the avant-garde, or any new trends in art. He simply reveled in the power of paint to convey the beauty of the world, and, just as much, in the experience of using it. In a letter to his wife, he wrote, “Painting, when you feel it, is the greatest thing in the world.” When asked by a journalist if he had ever had any ambition other than to be a painter, he replied, “No, not me … no, a painter! Nothing but a painter! If you had been able to follow my life, step by step, at my side all the way, you would be persuaded that I never wanted to be, nor will I ever want to be anything but a painter.”

By John Dorfman

Becoming van Gogh Wed, 27 Feb 2019 00:48:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Two major exhibitions, in the U.S. and the U.K., explore the painter’s beginnings and growth as an artist.

Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Leather Clogs, autumn 1889

Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Leather Clogs, autumn 1889, oil on canvas

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Leather Clogs, autumn 1889 Vincent van Gogh, Irises, May 1890 Vincent van Gogh, Peasant Woman Binding Sheaves (after Millet), September 1889 Vincent van Gogh, The Langlois Bridge at Arles, May 1888

Everyone thinks they know Van Gogh. Thanks to seemingly countless exhibitions, book publications, reproductions of artworks, and movies—most recently Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, released in November and starring Willem Dafoe—not only have the works of Vincent van Gogh become iconic, but so has the man himself. And the Dutch painter’s penchant for self-portraiture has made his intense, red-bearded face an instantly recognizable symbol of artistic integrity. Nonetheless, much about van Gogh remains unknown, or little known, to the general public.

A major exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, “Van Gogh: His Life in Art” (March 10–June 27), aims to remedy that situation. “The popular story of Van Gogh has tended to focus on his last few years and his death,” says David Bomford, curator of the exhibition and chair of the Department of Conservation and Audrey Jones Beck Curator in the Department of European Art. “But there is a rich and complex narrative that starts much earlier, one that is defined by Van Gogh’s tremendous drive to become an artist.” Using a tightly focused selection of more than 50 portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, the exhibition will chart the artist’s development from his late-blooming, self-taught first steps in drawing and painting through to his discovery of color, his acceptance into the avant-garde, and his tumultuous, tortured final two years, during which he produced his greatest works and then committed suicide.

The Houston show, which will be on view nowhere else, is the result of a collaboration between the MFAH and the two institutions that have the greatest holdings of Van Gogh’s work—the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (created by the Van Gogh family’s foundation) and the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands (based on the holdings of a couple who were among the first to collect Van Gogh’s work, starting in 1908) . This exhibition is a special opportunity for viewers, because the works loaned from those museums have rarely traveled outside their home country. Other loans come from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art, the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, and various private collections.

Further proving that now is truly a Van Gogh moment, another important show opening at the end of this month on the other side of the Atlantic will also delve into the artist’s origin story. “The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain” at Tate Britain (March 27–August 11) explores the Dutchman’s extended stay in the country during the 1870s, when he was in his early 20s and working for the international art dealing and publishing firm of Goupil & Cie. Van Gogh spoke English well, felt great affection for Britain, and, although he was not yet painting when he lived there, absorbed influences that show clearly in his work. The exhibition, which is the Tate’s first dedicated to Van Gogh since a blockbuster in 1947, features major works by the artist from English collections alongside works by British artists who were influenced by Van Gogh.

Van Gogh’s story is one of artistic triumph in the face of astonishing adversity and repeated false starts. He was born in 1853 to a middle-class family in the Dutch province of Brabant, where his father, Theodorus, moved from town to town in his capacity as a Protestant pastor. Vincent had five siblings but was especially close to his brother Theo, four years younger, who would become his closest confidant and supporter and, eventually, his art dealer. Vincent was always a square peg in his conservative, proper family, but his first ambition was to be a minister like his father. In this, as in several other lines of work, he notably failed, mainly because of his emotional instability but also, of course, because at that time he was unaware of his true calling.

One of the strangest facts about Van Gogh is that his entire life as a painter is compressed into one decade, from 1880 until the year of his death, 1890. And of those years, it was only in the last five that he was producing mature work. Before that, he struggled to teach himself and fitfully studied with other artists, later judging that all the painting he had done in the first half of the 1880s was not worth exhibiting. Despite this handicap, Van Gogh managed to create an astonishingly large body of work—some 850 paintings and 1,300 drawings. With manic energy and with the tremendous courage necessary to keep working through bouts of severe depression and eventually psychosis, Van Gogh constantly evolved and improved his vision and skills. He was making up for lost time, but he was also working against time, for he had long since had a premonition that he would not reach the age of 40.

Van Gogh’s first exposure to art was from the business side, when he worked for Goupil, a job that Theo, who was also employed by the firm, got for him. Vincent’s first artistic heroes were the Barbizon painters Corot, Rousseau, and especially Millet. Their affinity for rural life and depictions of the peasantry resonated strongly with Vincent, who, after washing out of academic studies for the ministry, ministered to poor miners in Belgium as a lay preacher, choosing to share their hardships. He was also influenced by the Hague School, a Dutch version of Barbizon whose members included Jozef Israëls, Jacob and Matthijs Maris, and Anton Mauve; the latter happened to be a cousin of Van Gogh’s by marriage and gave his younger relative his first formal art lessons. The Hague School was also known as the “Gray School” due to its strong preference for dark colors, and Van Gogh’s early work embraced not only peasant realism but also a palette so muted that it verged on grisaille. The Potato Eaters (1885), the first of his paintings that he considered serious and with which he hoped to announce himself to the art world, is rendered in this dark and gloomy way, so unlike the electric blue skies, acid greens, and solar yellows of Van Gogh’s later work.

It was in Paris that Van Gogh discovered color, Impressionism, Japanese prints, and the earliest iteration of the modernist avant-garde. Invited by Theo, who was managing the office of Goupil’s successor firm there, Vincent moved to the French capital in 1886 and enrolled at one of the less academic academies, that of Cormon. He learned to let the light into his paintings, to communicate emotions through carefully chosen contrasting colors, and to build up an image with pointillist-inspired brushstrokes. These visible long strokes of paint would become one of the most recognizable features of Van Gogh’s work. It was also in Paris that Van Gogh finally found an artistic community, friends who were also artists with whom he could share ideas, enthusiasms, and techniques. One of those friends was, of course, Paul Gauguin, with whom Van Gogh would soon share a house in Arles, a town in the South of France where he moved to reconnect with nature and to discover a new kind of light. It was also in Arles that his final madness began.

Van Gogh’s interest and skill in portraiture grew during his time in Paris, and one of the highlights of the Houston show is In the Café: Agostina Segatori in Le Tambourin (1887), an environmental portrait of an Italian-born former artist’s model and café owner who was Van Gogh’s lover at the time. The overall greenish cast of the painting, which ably conveys the nocturnal character of the place, is broken up by two bold passages of red, the woman’s feathered hat and the rim of the table at which she sits nursing a beer. On the wall behind her are hung some Japanese ukiyo-e prints that belonged to Van Gogh and that she allowed him to exhibit for sale in her café. She also showed some of his own work there; after they broke up, she kept it and sold it along with everything else when the bar went bankrupt.

The Houston show culminates with examples of the bodies of work Van Gogh created in Arles and in his final destination, Auvers-sur-Oise, outside Paris. Peasant Woman Binding Sheaves (after Millet), from 1889, is an example of a series in which Van Gogh imagined and painted fully colored versions of black and white prints that he loved. “I’m trying to do something to console myself, for my own pleasure,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. “I put the black-and-white by Delacroix or Millet in front of me as a subject. And then I improvise color on it but, being me, not completely of course, but seeking memories of their paintings—but the memory, the vague consonance of colors that are in the same sentiment, if not right—that’s my interpretation.” In this project, Van Gogh’s art lies entirely in the choice and deployment of color, since the composition is not his own. He is breathing life into an image.

Irises (1890), painted while Van Gogh was in the mental hospital at Saint-Rémy, is one of his greatest still lifes. It makes full use of the principle of complementary colors, with the green and blue of the leaves and flowers placed against the featureless, bold yellow background for a striking effect. Irises were important to Van Gogh, symbolizing life, spring, and hope. But, as the exhibition’s curators note in the catalogue, the drooping flowers on the right of the vase may have been intended as harbingers of death, which was around the corner.

The Tate’s exhibition is innovative, if not counter-intuitive, in that it focuses on a period in which Van Gogh was not only not an artist, but had not even conceived of himself as potentially an artist. Working in the art trade, mingling with other businessmen in the booming metropolis, he was immersed in the world of global capitalism, as far away as possible from the humble, rural simplicity he preferred. He became aware of the poverty of the London working class, as well as of the strong presence in the city of evangelical Christian groups that were fighting for reform and social justice and inspired him to do likewise after his return to the Continent. This passionate desire to commune with the poor became an important ingredient in Van Gogh’s art. As Louis van Tilborgh of the Van Gogh Museum puts it, “the Van Gogh we know was being born in London.”

English literature was also very important to Van Gogh, especially the works of Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe. A portrait of his friend from Arles, Marie Ginoux, painted in 1890, depicts her with two books on the table in front of her, the titles legible—Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These volumes gave Van Gogh great comfort when he was depressed, and in a letter to a sister he wrote that he read them with “extreme attention.” In London he became acquainted with English social realist painting and with the Pre-Raphaelites, who inspired him to try and found a colony of like-minded artist-comrades at the yellow house in Arles.

Many 20th-century British artists were inspired by Van Gogh’s expressionistic and socially conscious art, among them Vanessa Bell, Samuel Peploe, Matthew Smith, William Nicholson, David Bomberg, and Francis Bacon, and their works hang alongside Van Gogh’s in the Tate’s installation. One of Van Gogh’s most famous floral still lifes, Sunflowers (1888) is on view, loaned from the National Gallery, which received it as a gift in 1923 from Theo’s widow, Jo van Gogh-Bonger. When the painting was first shown in London in 1910, as part of Roger Fry’s exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” it was derided by English critics who couldn’t grasp Van Gogh’s innovation, but among young artists it brought about a flowering of floral painting. In addition to Van Gogh’s, the Tate show features sunflowers by Christopher Wood, Frank Brangwyn, and Jacob Epstein.

By John Dorfman

Water’s Edge Tue, 28 Feb 2017 20:59:12 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition of watercolors captures a moment in American painting.

Winslow Homer, Diamond Shoal, 1905

Winslow Homer, Diamond Shoal, 1905, watercolor and graphite on paper, sheet: 14 x 22 in.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Louis Comfort Tiffany, Algerian Shops Winslow Homer, Diamond Shoal, 1905 Edward Hopper, Haskell’s House Charles Demuth, Still Life: Apples and Green Glass, Jane Peterson, The Pier, Edgartown

The opportunity to view fine watercolors is perhaps more rare than one might realize. Watercolor paintings are exceptionally light-sensitive and delicate, and thus the best examples in museum collections are shown in moderation. Their fragility, coupled with a long-held stigma that they were a lesser form of painting, makes it that watercolors too seldom have their moments in the sun. An ambitious exhibition, which opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this month (March 1), brings 170 exceptional examples of American watercolor from esteemed public and private collections momentarily out of the shadows. With the show running barely three months (it closes May 14), fans of the American painting tradition are advised not to blink and miss it.

Titled “American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent,” the exhibition looks at the medium’s boom in popularity during the last few decades of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th. During this period, quite a few hobbies of the leisure class began their ascent to their eventual status as legitimate art forms (think photography). A popular pastime and commercial style before the Civil War, watercolor inhabited a seat at the art world’s kids’ table for much of the 19th century. It was even dismissed as a so-called “ladies’” medium. However, the inception of the American Watercolor Society in 1866 and the use of the medium by leading figures of the late 19th century—such as Thomas Moran, William T. Richards, and Thomas Eakins—established watercolor as an important format for depicting the American scene. By the mid-20th century, such quintessential American artists as Edward Hopper, John Marin, Charles Burchfield, and Charles Demuth had utilized watercolor for a major part of their output.

The exhibition uses the concurrent careers of Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) as its timeline. Though they are both lauded for their work in other mediums, Homer and Sargent are arguably the most celebrated American watercolorists. Their lifetimes mirror the rise of watercolor’s popularity.

Homer learned watercolor painting technique from his mother Henrietta Benson Homer. Henrietta, an accomplished amateur watercolor painter, will be represented with work in the PMA’s exhibition. Homer, initially a successful commercial illustrator and later an eminent studio painter working in oil, began regularly incorporating watercolor into his practice after a summer trip to Gloucester, Mass., in 1873. Though initially met with critical derision (in response to a show in 1881 one critic wrote, “a child with an ink bottle could not have done worse”), Homer’s watercolors garnered popularity and sold steadily. The painter began to use watercolor as a primary medium, particularly while traveling. While spending two years (1881–82) in villages along the English coast, Homer worked almost exclusively in watercolor. This output was received favorably when the painter returned to New York. In the winter of 1884–85, during his first visit to the Bahamas, Homer painted some 30 watercolors, including A Garden in Nassau (1885), a highlight of the PAM’s show. The painting depicts a local boy on a sandy path looking toward an unseen house. The dwelling is blocked by a limestone wall so white one can almost feel it sizzling with midday heat. Large palm fronds are neatly detailed, while other examples of island fauna are expressed in fluid washes of color that dot the sandy path like puddles collecting rain. Homer, who is well known for his marine paintings, has several watercolor examples in the exhibition. Diamond Shoal, a 1905 watercolor on paper, shows two sailors manning a sailboat in choppy seas, while a boat not far in the distance appears to sink. Here Homer uses watercolor as an effective device for depicting the elements—the gray, foggy sky seems thick with moisture, while the hostile waves teem with rabid white froth. Building a Smudge (1891), an earlier watercolor, is a more placid scene. The painting, which is one of some 85 watercolors Homer made in the Adirondacks between 1889 and 1895, shows to guides building a fire on an embankment near water’s edge.

Like Homer, Sargent made many of his watercolors while traveling. The portrait painter, completed some 2,000 watercolors over the course of his career, in places like Florida and Corfu, the Middle East and Maine. Often taking on a playful or joyous quality, Sargent’s watercolors depicted nature scenes, architecture, native peoples, and friends. Of Sargent’s watercolors, his biographer Sir Evan Charteris wrote in 1927, “To live with Sargent’s water-colours is to live with sunshine captured and held.” Muddy Alligators, a 1917 watercolor in the PMA’s show, proves Charteris’ point. Sargent paints a scene of six alligators lounging in a swamp. The swamp water, which luminously reflects trees that grow above, and the alligators are both washed in the milky brown color of hot mud baking in the sun. Sargent, who often painted watercolors for personal amusement, completed this one as a diversion from another muddy task: painting a portrait of John D. Rockefeller at his winter house in Ormond Beach, Fla. Spanish Fountain, a watercolor from 1912, captures the yellow light of late afternoon hitting an ornate fountain. Of particular note are the tadpole-like strokes Sargent uses to suggest light reflecting off the water in fountain’s pool.

The exhibition also has several tricks up its sleeve. One is a watercolor by Louis Comfort Tiffany—Algerian Shops (circa 1872–87). The designer’s foray into watercolor is a highly detailed street scene of a marketplace in old Algiers. Perhaps it’s a reach, but the way Tiffany depicts blocks of architectural elements on buildings, wares hanging from storefronts, and figures walking through the market seems reminiscent of the abstracted blocks of color on Tiffany lamps of the era. On the topic of glass, another piece in the show is John La Farge’s Peonies in a Breeze (1890), a watercolor which the artist would render in stained glass some nine years later. The stained-glass piece, Peonies in the Wind, which was reworked in 1908, is also on view. A plate made by Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati in 1880 further illustrates versatility and popularity of watercolor at the time. The white glazed stoneware plate is decorated with fish and insects in an inky blue.

Present also in the exhibition are examples of the new generation of painters who made watercolors their own. John Marin’s The Red Sun, Brooklyn Bridge (1922) is a view of the city and the Brooklyn Bridge’s architecture as seen from inside the bridge. It is watercolor at its most kinetic and most modernist. In Charles Demuth’s Still Life: Apples and Green Glass (1925), there are small bleeding passages in the red paint of the apples. These splotches of bled paint dance like light on the apple’s waxy skin. Haskell’s House, a 1924 watercolor by Edward Hopper, shows a large, white Victorian house on a hill from street view. Perhaps more than any other work in the show, Haskell’s House captures a view of America that has long since begun to fade.

By Sarah E. Fensom

The Painter of Modern Life Wed, 28 Sep 2016 21:05:22 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Aristocratic and conservative in his tastes and opinions, Edgar Degas was a revolutionary in art.

Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873

Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873, oil on canvas.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Edgar Degas, Woman in a Tub, circa 1883 Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, circa 1873 Edgar Degas, Rehearsal Hall at the Opera, Rue Le Peletier, 1872 Edgar Degas, Racehorses in a Landscape, 1894 Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873

“A work of art,” Émile Zola wrote after seeing the Salon of 1866, “is a corner of creation seen through a temperament.” In Zola’s novels, biology is destiny. The human temperament is fixed, like that of a piano, but democratic, commercial society is fluid. The 20-novel history of the Rougon-Macquarts, a French family under the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon, demonstrates the resulting disorder, “the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world.”

“Make expressive heads (Academic style) into a study of modern sentiment,” Edgar Degas wrote in a notebook in the late 1860s. A new world required a new vision. Degas’ contribution to the Salon of 1866, Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, is often seen as prefiguring a shift of temperament, a turn from historical to contemporary subjects in the 1870s. “Degas: A New Vision,” which opens on October 6 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (through January 8), suggests that while Degas’ eye turned from Spartan athletes to Parisian dancers, his temperament remained fixed. As in Zola’s fiction, the world changed around him.

Curated by Gary Tinterow of the MFAH and the Degas scholar Henri Loyette, “A New Vision” is most international exhibition since “Degas,” the landmark 1988 retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris, whose curators also included Tinterow and Loyette. The exhibition collects more than 200 works from public and private collections and surveys the sweep of Degas’s career, from his Italian studies of the 1850s to his photographic experiments of the 1890s.

“Once I get hold of a line,” Degas told Walter Sickert, “I never let go of it.” And the line, like the idée fixe of a Balzac character, never relinquished Degas. His fleeting poses and transitional movements are both technical descriptions and psychological portraits. The two are not the same, and their blending in Degas’s expert line produces the intimate and disquieting effects that run through his work. The draughtsman resolves a challenge to his eye by capturing the physical tension of muscle and nerves. In doing so, he depicts unresolved and uncertain psychological states, notably his own.

This effect is most explicit in the early group portraits. Degas has a Tolstoyan eye for the varieties of unhappy family. In his dual portrait of his brother-in-law and sister, Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli (1865), Thérèse is half obscured by a table, while Edmondo dominates the foreground, so much so that his left elbow is off the canvas. Candidly anxious, Thérèse raises one hand to her cheek and keeps the other on Edmondo’s right shoulder, as if trying to calm herself. Edmondo sits sideways on a dining chair, his left shoulder cocked on the back of the chair, his left hand dangling loosely. He looks relaxed, but he cannot meet our gaze.

Thérèse looks directly at us with honest weakness, but Edmondo looks shiftily to his left. Like his left elbow, his eyes are pushing out of the picture, and away from Thérèse. By propping his left shoulder on the chair back, he drops his right shoulder. Thérèse’s hand will only remain there if she maintains the pressure, and if Edmondo continues his leftward drift, he will pull away from her entirely. His left leg might even be tensing in preparation for standing up and escaping a situation in which he is not as comfortable as he pretends.

“To find a method of composition that reflects our times,” Degas wrote in 1859. In that year, he began preparatory sketches for another masterpiece of misery. The Bellelli Family (1867) is a group portrait of his Italian in-laws, a bourgeois drama executed on the scale of a history painting. Laure, his father’s favorite sister, is stoically sad in black. Her pose echoes Holbein and Van Dyck, but she is a modern neurotic whose marriage has been displaced by the “fatal convulsions” of modern politics. Her husband, Gennaro Bellelli, is exiled from Naples for his activism in the Risorgimento.

Gennaro sits with his back to us, unemployed and unreliable. His face is seen in profile, as if he were a Roman preparing for his image to be stamped on the coinage, or a successful modern politician posing for an engraving. The gravity of failure, marital and public, pulls their daughters, Giovanna and Giulia, in different directions. Laure has a hand on Giovanna’s shoulder. Steadied before the gaze of the world, Giovanna is the only figure to look at the viewer. Giulia sits in the center of the picture. She is looking past Gennaro, but he is looking at her. She is his only point of contact with his family. She sits with one leg tucked under her body, ready to topple toward him, and out of Laure’s grasp. Although Laure and her daughters avoid Gennaro’s gaze, someone is watching him, and not just the artist. On the wall behind Laure’s shoulder, Degas reprises his oil portrait of his recently deceased grandfather Hilaire De Gas as an “Old Master drawing” in sanguine chalk.

In 1855, the young Degas had approached his hero, Ingres, through a family friend, and asked for advice. “Draw lines, lots of lines,” Ingres said, “from nature or from memory.” The Bellelli Family took eight years, long enough for Degas to convert his impressions of the Bellellis into muscle memory, and to reconcile modern sentiments with the “expressive heads” of the Renaissance masters. The line is beautiful, the implications bitter. Gennaro’s ironic profile and the mock Old Master drawing of Hilaire De Gas are satires on modern life.

The “Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire wrote in 1863, must “extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distil the eternal from the transitory.” In Interior (1868–69), Degas applied the method of the history painter to the sordid matter of a Zola novel. In a dark bedroom somewhere on the border between the distressed middle class and the respectable working class, a man in bourgeois costume leans against the bedroom door, and a woman in a nightdress crouches half in shadow. On the table, her pink-lined jewelry box is open, its contents probed harshly by the light overhead.

Degas called Interior “my genre painting.” But this scene does not contain enough clues to tell a genre painting’s story. In the early 20th century, the painting was referred to as The Rape, but Degas’ friend Paul Poujaud knew it as The Quarrel. Are we looking at a classical antecedent, the rape of Lucretia by Tarquin, which sparked the revolt that turned Rome from a monarchy to a republic? Or a modern consummation, perhaps from Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, where Thérèse and her lover, having murdered her husband, prepare for their wedding night? Or a mundane scene of prostitution, raised to the level of allegory by the violence and tension of Degas’ execution?

In the early 1870s, modern life assaulted Degas as if he were the protagonist in one of Zola’s instructive catastrophes. In 1870, France accepted Prussia’s invitation to war and lost. The Second Empire fell, the emperor absconded to London, and Paris rose in revolt. The liberal Third Republic arose to make peace with Prussia and make war on the citizens of Paris.

Degas volunteered for the National Guard in 1870. During rifle training, he discovered that his eyesight was defective. So too, it emerged after his father’s death in 1873, was his vision of his family. His father, Auguste, had been a banker; his mother Célestine’s family was in the cotton business in Louisiana. Family money had cushioned Degas for 40 years. Now, it emerged that his brother René had sunk the family in debt. Degas had to sell his house and art collection to clear René’s debts and the family name. Cornered, he had to earn a living for the first time. The pictures of ballet dancers and racehorses sold especially well.

“After a great many essays and experiments and trial shots in all directions, he has fallen in love with modern life,” Edmond de Goncourt wrote in 1874, after a visit to Degas’ studio. But Degas’ eye had always been on modern life, even when his mind was on ancient Greece. The posture of the boy on all fours in Young Spartan Girls Challenging Spartan Boys (1860–62, reworked 1880) recurs in his brothel sketches. He had exhibited his first picture of a dancer, Mlle. Fiocre in the “Ballet La Source” at the Salon of 1868. Degas was not in love with modern life as much as he was a prisoner of it. He preferred the city to the country, the line of a dancer’s leg to that of a tree.

Degas exhibited in seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1888, but he described himself as an Independent or a Realist. He rejected plein air painting in favor of traditional studio practice. He insisted, and not without reason, that no art was “less spontaneous” than his. Aristocratic in manner, reactionary in politics, and classical in taste, he was uncomfortable with the Impressionists’ courting of controversy and publicity. In 1880, Zola even accused him of having exploited the Impressionists, in order to place his “refined and elaborate works” before a public that might otherwise have missed them.

Degas followed his lonely line into and out of the Impressionist controversy. His commonality with the Impressionists is not just in his eye for the evanescent and the quasi-photographic fixing of mobile effects. His technical commonality with the Impressionists is strongest in his use of pastels. Pastels cannot be mixed on a palette, but must be applied alla prima, directly onto the picture ground. To avoid overmixing, which kills the colors, pastels must be applied in correct sequences—blue over red, not red over blue—or by spaced strokes that mix in the viewer’s eye.

“Make portraits of people in familiar and typical positions,” ran another of Degas’ notebook jottings, “above all, give faces the same character of expression one gives their bodies.” Familiar, that is, to the muscles that sustain the pose, and typical of the person who makes the movement. In A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873), his uncle, the cotton merchant Michel Musson, assesses raw cotton that is as light as a cloud but heavy with potential cash value. The perfectly balanced dancer bows with a bouquet in Finishing the Arabesque (1877); in the dressing room, the ungainly nudes hop from bath to floor.

By the 1890s, Degas was more than half blind and experimenting with a metal contraption that covered his blind right eye entirely and allowed his weakening left eye to see through a narrow slit. He called his late paintings “an orgy of color,” a final visit to his brothel of the senses. For his last drawings, he measured his model with a pair of compasses, not realizing that he was pricking her skin. After he moved to a smaller apartment, a developer knocked down his house. Drawn by memory, Degas continued to visit the site, looking at a hole in the ground, but seeing the “lines, lots of lines” of architecture, and the life that had been within.

Degas was always a man of temperamental obsessions—engraving, poetry, anti-Semitism. Like Zola, he took up photography in late life. Degas’ photographs are taken head-on, not from the corners, and they have the narrative clarity of history painting. In an 1895 photograph, the artist poses next to Albert Bartholomé’s oil, Weeping Girl. In the shadowed room, his little corner of creation, he strokes his beard and contemplates the girl’s curled, naked body. It is as though she has emanated from his head like an ectoplasm at a séance—or as if he has never left the room of Interior.

By Dominic Green

Oskar Kokoschka Painting Sells for $425,000 Tue, 28 Jun 2016 17:17:16 +0000 Continue reading ]]> At Bonhams’ Impressionist & Modern Art Auction in New York on May 12, Seated Old Man set a record for a work on paper by the artist when it sold for $425,000, over four times its high estimate.

Oskar Kokoschka, Sitzender bärtiger Mann (Seated Old Man), 1907

Oskar Kokoschka, Sitzender bärtiger Mann (Seated Old Man), 1907

Oskar Kokoschka is considered one of the emblematic figures of the Expressionist movement in Central European art, although he hated to be called an Expressionist. This highly expressive portrait dates from the earliest part of Kokoschka’s long career, which spanned the “Vienna 1900” era through the post-Pop ’70s (he died in 1980 at the age of 93). Executed in graphite and watercolor on a piece of light brown paper measuring16 7/8 x 12 1/8 inches and signed “OK” in the lower right, it shows the old man, his hands, cheeks, and nose reddened by exposure to the elements, seemingly beaten down by a life of hard work but still possessed of reserves of strength and endurance. Kokoschka made this drawing in 1907, when he was 21, during a time when he was making his living by painting fans and postcards for the Wiener Werkstätte. The drawing style here somewhat resembles that of Egon Schiele, who at the time was only 17 and had not yet shown his work publicly. Kokoschka himself had not had a show yet; the next year, in 1908, he exhibited at the Vienna Kunstschau, and his works were so severely blasted by the critics that Kokoschka was expelled from art school.

But he was going places anyway. The mastery evident in Seated Old Man led to Kokoschka becoming an in-demand portraitist, and the influential architect Adolf Loos became his patron. Also in 1908, he started his career as a writer with a book of poems, The Dreaming Boys, illustrated with eight color lithographs. Soon Kokoschka, a multiple threat on the cultural scene, would also become a successful Expressionist playwright.

Oskar Kokoschka, Sitzender bärtiger Mann (Seated Old Man), 1907

Offered at: Bonhams, New York, May 12, 2016
Estimated at: $70,000-100,000
Sold for: $425,000

Making Waves Tue, 28 Jun 2016 16:48:54 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Marine painting enshrines the love of ships and the sea, and in the best examples one can almost feel the salt spray and hear the snap of the sails.

James E. Buttersworth, Clipper Ship Black Warrior, circa 1853

James E. Buttersworth, Clipper Ship Black Warrior, circa 1853, oil on canvas, 29 x 36 inches.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) James E. Buttersworth, Clipper Ship Black Warrior, circa 1853 Mary Blood Mellen, Ship at Anchor on a Lee Shore, circa 1858 William Trost Richards, Sunrise, New Jersey Shore, 1881 Guy C. Wiggins, Morning, Gloucester 1915 Irving Ramsey Wiles, White Sloop, Peconic Bay, 1907

The field of marine painting, in theory, is as vast as the ocean itself. Ships and the sea have been favorite themes of artists since ancient times. Greek vases and Roman murals depicted boats bearing men and gods on errands historical or mythological. Renaissance painters such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder loved to paint panoramic views of naval battles, such as his 1598 view of the engagement in the Gulf of Naples. Even Rembrandt, usually a landlubber, couldn’t resist painting a dramatic Storm on the Sea of Galilee (now sadly lost, a victim of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in Boston in 1990). Romantics such as Turner or the Hudson River School painters loved the way water interacts with the sky at the horizon, the atmospheric effects of moisture, and the reflection of a setting sun in a lake or sea.

But when collectors in this country speak of “marine painting” or “maritime painting” they are most likely referring to an American tradition of art originating in the early 19th century and continuing today, in which boats—whether yachts, merchant vessels, or battleships—take center stage. While collectors of marine painting also relish the aquatic beauty of nature, they tend to be involved in the world of sailing and to have a strong interest in its history. “Marine art never goes away,” says Howard Godel, a New York dealer who has long specialized in the genre. “There are always sailors and yachtsmen who have major-league boats and want to collect these paintings. Some will actually display the art on the boats; some won’t. The demand never disappears. Certain artists may cycle in and out, but as for the genre itself, it’s a forever thing.”

One of the biggest names among classic marine artists is James E. Buttersworth (1819–94). Born in England, the son of a marine painter, Thomas Buttersworth, James emigrated to the U.S. in about 1847. He worked for the firm of Currier & Ives—a reminder that marine art in those days was not just for the elite collector but was disseminated to the population via inexpensive reproductive prints made from paintings. Buttersworth specialized in portraying clipper ships, then the fastest vessels in existence. His Clipper Ship Black Warrior (circa 1853), available from Godel, skillfully depicts this medium-sized ship, which was launched in 1853 from the shipyard of Austin & Company of Damariscotta, Me., and sailed to Australia and South America. Buttersworth chose a low vantage point to paint the Black Warrior, in order to bring the viewer alongside it in the water, so to speak, and also took care to also devote some bravura brushwork to the dark, whitecapped ocean itself as well as the pink-tinged clouds. Nature and the works of man get equal time in the best marine paintings.

As the clipper-ship era came to an end in the 1860s and ’70s and the less romantic steamship came to dominate, Buttersworth turned his attention to the graceful yachts of the leisure class. He documented many America’s Cup races in the course of his career. Collectors wanting a top Buttersworth painting will have to get in line. “Buttersworth is always in demand,” says Godel, “but finding large, important ones in great condition is getting to be like finding a rare colored diamond. They were plenty around 20 or 30 years ago; now far fewer.”

Another mainstay of the 19th-century American school of marine painters is Antonio Jacobsen (1850–1921). He emigrated from Denmark to Hoboken, N.J., right off New York Harbor, and unlike Buttersworth he embraced the new technology as a subject, to the point where he was called “the Audubon of Steam Vessels.” Unlike Buttersworth, he was willing to take a volume approach; he is said to have completed some 6,000 paintings. Sea captains were his preferred clients. “Jacobsen never goes away because he’s a household name and was so prolific,” says Godel. “You really want to try and get him before 1905, when the water is crisp and the skies are really well done, painted on canvas rather than on board. The early period is worth double and triple what the later ones bring.”

Another sub-genre of American painting that falls within the category of marine art is the Luminist School. A later iteration of the Hudson River School, the Luminists (not called that at the time, only by 20th-century art historians) concentrated on still, mirror-like waters, sunsets, and ships at anchor in harbors, all with the goal of conveying a deep and glowing light and a profound sense of peaceful stillness. The top Luminist is generally considered to be Fitz Henry Lane (1804–65), whose works are now extremely scarce on the market. Lane had a female student, Mary Blood Mellen, who collaborated with him (some paintings are signed with both their names) and carried on painting in his style after his death. Her Ship at Anchor on a Lee Shore (circa 1858) is very similar to a Lane painting from about four years earlier, A Rough Sea.

William Trost Richards (1833–1905) was a Philadelphian disciple of the Hudson River School who painted many seascapes. His Sunrise, New Jersey Shore (1881), for example, is a sublime celebration of the interpenetration of sea and land at the beach. Water-soaked sands glisten as an almost moon-like sun glows just above the horizon. The only ships visible are some near-microscopic white sails in the far distance. Elizabeth Stallman, principal of MME Fine Art in New York, which handled the painting, points out that paintings inspired by a sheer love of the beauty of seascapes do very well in the market, as do those made in the service of various maritime pursuits. “We have found the market for our American marine paintings to be sound,” says Stallman, “and one of our biggest sales last year was a gorgeous William Trost Richards seascape. Thankfully, our love of the sea is a universally shared affection, and when depicted with wonderful skill, the results delight every level of astute collectors as well as public institutions.”

Paintings from the early to mid-20th century, executed in a more Impressionistic style, are also popular. Irving Ramsey Wiles’ White Sloop, Peconic Bay (1907), for example, shows off the artist’s brushy style, which has often been compared to that of John Singer Sargent. Another East Coast Impressionist who painted many marine subjects is Guy Wiggins, a student of William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri. In his Morning, Gloucester (1915), the dappled reflections off the water steal the scene, and the overall effect resembles that of Childe Hassam. Some prefer the looser painting of the American Impressionists, but in general the current marine market seems to favor the crisper style and more descriptive approach of the 19th-century masters.

Another reason these painting are so cherished, according to Godel, is that they are now irreplaceable records of times past. “It’s really good that we have artists like Buttersworth and Jacobsen,” he says, “who painted enough works that we have recordings of so many American ships. Many were burned or wrecked, but there’s an image of almost every one. So these paintings are not only beautiful, they’re documents of American history.”

By John Dorfman

Points of Correspondence Thu, 28 Aug 2014 18:15:17 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A new exhibition at the Phillips Collection examines the relationship between the Neo-Impressionists and their Symbolist peers.

aul Signac, Place des Lices, St. Tropez, 1893, oil on canvas.

aul Signac, Place des Lices, St. Tropez, 1893, oil on canvas.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) aul Signac, Place des Lices, St. Tropez, 1893, oil on canvas. Paul Signac, Setting Sun. Sardine Fishing. Adagio. Opus 221 from the series The Sea, The Boats, Concarneau, 1891, oil on canvas. Henri-Edmond Cross, Beach at Cabasson (Baigne-Cul), 1891-92, oil on canvas. Camille Pissarro, Peasant Women Planting Poles in the Ground, 1891, oil on canvas;

Ogden Rood was an American physicist whose seminal book on color theory, Modern Chromatics, with Applications to Art and Industry, was published in 1879. It appeared in German and French translations in 1880 and 1881. Dots—the worker-bee shape of Pointillism—were Rood’s idea. He theorized that if a painter rendered dots or lines of complementary colors closely together, the viewer, standing at a distance from the canvas, would perceive a different color. Rood devised a color wheel illustrating his theories. He believed that manipulating colors could manipulate perception and wrote, “Paintings, made up almost entirely of tints that by themselves seem modest and far from brilliant, often strike us as being rich and gorgeous in color, while, on the other hand, the most gaudy colors can easily be arranged so as to produce a depressing effect on the beholder.”

As Rood was publishing his theories, Michel Eugène Chevreul, a French chemist and thinker, was nearing the last decade of his life (he died in 1889 at the age of 102). Chevreul’s studies ran the gamut—he pioneered a formulation for soap using fats and salt; discovered margaric acid and creatine; explained the physical phenomena behind divining rods and magic pendulums. As director of the Gobelins tapestry factory in Paris he became aware that certain colored dyes looked different when next to others. Beginning in 1839, he started developing a 72-part color wheel that depicted three primary colors, red, blue and yellow; three secondary mixtures of orange, green and violet; and six further secondary color mixtures. The wheel showed that under certain circumstances the brain could perceive colors that aren’t there. Chevreul’s work led him to formulate the Law of Simultaneous Contrast, which eventually crossed over from the realm of pure science into that of art history.

The scientific works of Chevreul, Rood, and others inspired Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro, and their fellow Neo-Impressionists to develop a particular style of color application known as mélange optique (optical mixture). While using the study of optics as the basis for their techniques, they could approach the thematic concerns of Impressionism from a new angle. Separating colors with individual strokes of pigment—a method Signac called Divisionism—the Neo-Impressionists attempted to trick the eye into perceiving a greater vibrancy of color emanating from the canvas. As Signac put it, “the separated elements will be reconstituted into brilliantly colored lights.” Divisionism doesn’t exactly replicate the way the eye and brain divide colors, so the intended illusion doesn’t quite come through. However it represents an important step in the evolution of color theory and modern art. Its pure aesthetic effect is vibrant and shimmering—like waking up from a dream within a dream.

A new exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (September 27–January 11), titled “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music,” will feature more than 70 works and highlight 15 artists. Viewers will be immersed in the science and beauty of the group’s paintings just by looking at them. However, they will also be given a window into the cultural atmosphere surrounding these painters. The show will place its focus on the relationship between Neo-Impressionist painters and Symbolist writers. These two groups, which were working simultaneously, shared a social milieu as well as ideas.

“Neo-Impressionist painters were close friends with Symbolist writers and discussed passionately how to express their ideas in poetry and painting,” says exhibition curator Cornelia Homburg. “The painters wanted to transform reality in order to evoke a mood or an emotional experience, rather than find a way to reproduce what they saw in front of them.” Similarly, the mission of the Symbolist movement was to depict absolute truths through indirect description. Symbolist poetry was an art of evocation rather than explanation.

The Symbolist art critic Félix Fénéon coined the term Neo-Impressionism, while writing for L’Art Moderne, an arts journal affiliated with the avant-garde Belgian group Les XX (who held a yearly salon where the Neo-Impressionists often showed their work). In an article titled Les Hommes d’Aujourd’hui, Fénéon described a piece of Signac’s work as an “exemplary specimen of an art of great decorative development, which sacrifices anecdote to arabesque, analysis to synthesis, the fugitive to the permanent.” Signac in turn painted Fénéon with exuberant flair. Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890 (1890) is an almost proto-psychedelic, pointillist depiction of the critic holding a flower before a background of swirling colors, patterns, and stars. Signac wanted to capture “a decorative Félix,” in an “angular and rhythmic pose.” The artist wrote, “it will be…a very composed picture, very organized as to line and color.”

Painted the following year, in 1891, Signac’s Setting Sun. Sardine Fishing. Adagio. Opus 221 from the series The Sea, The Boats, Concarneau, which will be hung at the Phillips, though more placid in mood, shares the portrait’s principles. The lines and colors are very organized—as can be seen in the ripples of the sea and the boats dotting the horizon—yet there is a rhythmic, almost buzzing quality to the seascape because of the pointillist technique. Though it is a scene ripped from nature, it bears a decorative quality that is willfully divorced from reality.

The painting, as suggested in its title, takes inspiration from music, as did many Neo-Impressionist works. An important aspect of the exhibition, the group’s relationship with theater, music, and performance, will be on display. Seurat’s At the Gaîté Rochechouart (Café-concert), circa 1887–88, depicts the orchestra pit, the conductor, and a female singer, arms raised in the midst of a performance. The scene is rendered in conté crayon and white gouache on buff laid paper. The textures of the media coupled with the paper mimic the effect of the pointillist technique though the scene is black and white. A mysterious haze seems to descend on the stage from a light in the top right corner, and the dark cast over the orchestra gives the illusion that it is vibrating with noise. Another 1887 work on paper by Seurat, Woman Singing in a Café Chantant, is also in the show. Seen from the side of the stage, the performer is in profile. As the lights glow, the scroll of the stand-up bass and the head of its player seem to be backlit. Using black and blue chalk, white and pink gouache, and pencil and brown ink on paper, Seurat gives the viewer the illusion of a nighttime buzz, without the hangover—all of the illusion with none of the consequences.

Coastal Impressions: A Look at the California Art Scene Thu, 27 Dec 2012 23:54:16 +0000 Continue reading ]]> California paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries represent an exciting opportunity for collectors in search of beauty and quality.

Armin Hansen, Jewels of the Sea

Armin Hansen, Jewels of the Sea

Long before there was midcentury modern or Bay Area Abstraction and Figuration, California boasted a lively art scene. Its styles were firmly rooted in European Impressionism but adapted to the unique light and landscape of the state. Just as California beckoned to sun-seekers everywhere, it attracted artists looking for a plein-air paradise. “Most of them were from the East Coast, the Midwest or Europe,” notes George Stern, a longtime dealer of early California painting based in West Hollywood. “They came because of the promotion of California as a new Eden, with great opportunities and great weather—and the ability to paint outdoors almost 365 days a year.”

While Southern California painting is more popular today, Northern California painting came first, and it was not strictly speaking plein-air. In the 1890s, painters in the San Francisco area made the transition from doing large-scale, painted-to-impress views of well-known landmarks to more intimate, contemplative studies of the effects of light and atmosphere, based on close observation but often executed in the studio. This approach is known as Tonalism, and took its inspiration from the Hudson River School landscape work of George Inness and from the daring light-and-dark effects of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Among the Tonalists were William Keith and Thomas Hill, as well as Charles Rollo Peters, a San Francisco-born specialist in moonlit nocturnes who spent a great deal of his career in Monterey. Peters was a particular admirer of Whistler, and the notoriously critical expatriate master returned the feeling. Another prominent Northern California Tonalist was Arthur Mathews, who with his wife, Lucia, was also a furniture designer and a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. In fact, interest in Arts and Crafts was a major factor in the revival of interest in early California painting in the 1980s, after a long period of disfavor.

One of Mathews’ students, Granville Redmond, represents in his own person the shift of California’s artistic center of gravity in the early 20th century. Stern describes him as a “transitional figure,” in that he began with Tonalist compositions while living in the Bay Area and switched to an Impressionist style after settling in Los Angeles. “Redmond’s early works are very Tonal,” says Whitney Ganz of William A. Karges Fine Art in Beverly Hills . “He came down here and his works got brighter and brighter.” Redmond’s landscapes, rich in floral detail, are among the most sought-after California paintings in today’s market, the top price at auction for a canvas of his being $542,000.

After the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, many artists abandoned the area and moved South—especially to the Carmel–Monterey area but also to Laguna and of course Los Angeles. Once there, their art inevitably changed under the powerful influence of the strong sun and the special colors and effects it creates in combination with the local flora, desert and mountains. Among the other major figures of this period (through the 1930s, when the Depression effectively caused the demise of California Impressionism and its collector base) were William Wendt, Edgar Payne, Armin Hansen, Franz Bischoff and Guy Rose. Rose is interesting because while a native of Los Angeles, he spent a great deal of time (until 1914) living and painting in the Giverny art colony, where he befriended Monet.

Rose’s style is very close to French Impressionism, which makes him a standout among his California colleagues. “California Impressionism is not pure Impressionism, defined like French Impressionism, it but does carry on some of those traditions, like painting out of doors and capturing atmospheric conditions,” says Ganz. “In general, it has a slightly more realist look than what you would find at height of French Impressionism. Guy Rose is biggest exception—he paints most like a French Impressionist of all the early California artists.” A Rose oil on canvas, Woman Sewing in a Garden, will be offered in Bonhams’ sale of California and Western paintings in L.A. on December 11, estimated at $400,000–600,000. His auction record is nearly $2 million.

After decades of obscurity during which modernism eclipsed California plein-air and Tonalist painting, the revival of the 1980s and ’90s brought about a long-term upswing that is still going on. Of course, the recession of 2008–09 has affected the California market as it has in all art fields. Ganz says, “Although the market certainly isn’t where is was five years ago, we are selling paintings, especially top-tier works in terms of quality. But if someone wanted to acquire a few paintings or put a collection together, now would be the time to buy.” He explains that at the entry level, a beginning collector “can get nice collectible material between $10,000 and 20,000—something that would really hold up over time.” The next tier up would be in the $20,000–75,000 range, and the top is six figures to over $1 million.

Auction houses are also seeing a relatively soft market right now. “The California Impressionist market is still in recovery, but we are seeing good prices consistently now for the “A” artists,” says Katie Halligan, vice president and fine art sales director at John Moran Auctioneers, in Altadena, which holds two sales a year devoted to early California painting. “Buyers are willing to step up for Payne, Rose, and so on.” Scot Levitt, Bonhams’ director of fine arts in L.A. and San Francisco, says, “The top end of the market continues to be strong, and, as best we can tell, always will be strong. For anything else, the market is volatile, it’s up and it’s down. Sales that used to be 90 percent sold are now 75 or 80 percent, and that’s entirely due to the economy.”

Stern says, “We can still sell paintings in the six and seven figures, but there are great opportunities for beginning collectors to come into it and pay under $10,000. There are very fine quality painters you can still collect because they are not on radar of most collectors.” Among the undervalued artists he cites Clarence Hinkle, “a post-Impressionist who can occasionally get into an almost expressionist style of work,” Aaron Kilpatrick, William Judson and John Bond Francisco. Alternately, one could try collecting works in a style other than that for which an artist is most famous. Stern observes that Redmond’s moodier Tonalist paintings sell for significantly less than his more familiar verdant landscapes with poppy fields. In general, Tonalist works are lower priced, and Peters’ night scenes, says Stern, are “interesting and desirable but not so expensive.”

Whatever one buys, early California paintings will likely continue to appeal, both within and outside their home state. “I’ve had a lot of clients who collect it because they love Impressionism and obviously it’s cost-prohibitive to collect paintings by great French Impressionists—if they were even available,” says Ganz. “But it’s also it’s about the place where they grew up. The attraction is historical, topographic and aesthetic. You look at these paintings and think, wow, that’s what the area used to look like before there were any houses there!” Stern points out that California painting is “very straightforward, very appealing, and the concept of beauty is something that is very relevant to it. Those are not the primary motivating factors for people who are collecting contemporary art, but it was with these painters.”

This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Coastal Impressions”

American Impressionism: Florence Exhibition Examines American and Italian Influences Wed, 02 May 2012 23:56:08 +0000 Continue reading ]]> In the late 19th century, American artists and their patrons descended on “the Boston of Italy,” and now the city is commemorating the event with a show at the Palazzo Strozzi.

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “A Flowering in Florence”.

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 When James Bradburne, the dynamic director of Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi, came to New York last fall to publicize the foundation’s upcoming exhibition “Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists,” he held his meetings at The House of the Redeemer.

“Where?” asked the seasoned New Yorkers who had appointments with him. Bradburne was referring to a 1916 Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, smack in the middle of Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile, that was home to Edith Shepard Fabbri before she willed it to the Episcopal Church as a retreat house. Born a Vanderbilt, she was married to Ernesto Fabbri, brother of the artist Egisto Fabbri, who anchored Florence’s American art colony. Egisto designed the House of the Redeemer’s interiors, complete with a 15th-century library imported from a ducal palace in Urbino—a fitting backdrop for Bradburne’s recounting of the early days of the art world’s great Italian-American love story.

It all started after the Civil War, when rich Americans, particularly from Boston and the East Coast, began traveling to Europe. It was the American age of the Grand Tour, and art capitals such as Paris, London, Munich, Dusseldorf, Venice and Florence were among the must-dos for the cultivated. Edith Wharton, Bernard Berenson, Gertrude Stein, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Vernon Lee all set sail. Artists were also making the crossing, enrolling in art schools and feasting on a smorgasbord of monuments, Renaissance paintings and the increasingly impressionistic painting styles of their European contemporaries. “My God, I’d rather go to Europe than go to heaven,” said William Merritt Chase.

Certain cities, such as Florence, proved difficult to leave. Henry James, who was omnipresent abroad during these years, called Florence the “little treasure-city.” East Coast intellectuals dubbed it the “Boston of Italy.” Thanks to Florence’s violet-tinged light, awesome art and architecture and poetic villas and gardens, American artists who couldn’t bear the thought of another bleak New England winter settled in, producing some of the finest American works of plein air landscape and portraiture.

“Americans in Florence” documents their progress, which would continue up to World War I. Early “pioneers” such as John La Farge, George Inness and William Morris Hunt were followed by Elihu Vedder, Frank Duveneck, Elizabeth Boott (who would marry Duveneck), Frederick Childe Hassam, Edmund Tarbell, Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Integral to the artist’s circle was Egisto Fabbri, the American-born Italian painter who had a palace stuffed with Cézannes in town and an overgrown romantic estate, Villa di Babazzano, in the Tuscan hills. American and Italian artists flocked to both of them. Of course, the true star of this era is John Singer Sargent, an American who was actually born in Florence.

One of the treats of this show is a collection of recently discovered photographs of this art colony that were taken by the eldest Fabbri sibling, Ernestine, who was also a painter. Shown side by side with a Sargent or an Egisto Fabbri painting, photos make the era—with its settings, costumes and customs—spring to life.

Palazzo Strozzi is noted for its creative approach to its exhibition subjects, and this show not only examines how Italy influenced Americans but how this wave of Americans affected Italian painters. They certainly took notice of those beautiful American girls wandering the city’s piazzas in their frothy white dresses—as evidenced by canvases of Giovanni Boldini, Vittorio Corcos, Telemaco Signorini, and Michele Gordigiani. The final section of the exhibition looks at how American artists who worked in Florence influenced later American painting—many of them, including Frank Weston Benson, John White Alexander, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing (all represented in the exhibition) returned to the United States and taught.

Palazzo Strozzi also has a reputation for coaxing little-seen loans out of private and museum collections. Among those in this exhibition is the painting that opens the show, The Hotel Room (1904–06) by Sargent, with the idea that this may have been an American artist’s first view of Florence. “Americans in Florence” displays examples of every kind painting that was popular in this era—portraiture of the wealthy, famous and titled; city scenes starring iconic Florence bridges and squares; “interiors with figures,” usually depicting a beautiful young woman in a sitting room in a faded Florentine palazzo; gritty paintings showing the encroachment of the Industrial Age on the verdant countryside, Renaissance-revival works, and idyllic Impressionistic Tuscan landscapes—think gardens, villas and lots of picnicking.

The exhibition has also produced a companion booklet, Passport for Americans in Florence, that provides visitors’ information on many of the palazzi, villas, churches and gardens that figure in these paintings. So, after viewing Sargent’s gorgeous At Torre Galli: Ladies in a Garden (1910), a visitor can consult the Passport for the opening hours of the garden and chapel at the real Villa di Torregalli.

“Americans in Florence” runs through July 15. The foundation selected this year to stage the show because it’s the 500th anniversary of the death of the Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci, our country’s namesake. Matteo Renzi, Florence’s progressive young mayor, has declared 2012 the year of the Americas. In honor of the decree, a sister show, “American Dreamers: Reality and Imagination in Contemporary Art,” is also up at Palazzo Strozzi’s Center for Contemporary Culture through July 15.

By Sallie Brady