Sargent Drawings

The exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s late charcoal portraits of fabulously beautiful women, at the Morgan Library and Museum, is quite profound. These pictures were drawn when Sargent was sick of doing the elaborately colored portraits of society women, those dressed up in fancy gowns, the costumes distracting from the fact that Sargent is primarily interested in faces and that he has the ability to render each face as distinctive and deep. Sargent’s facility as a portraitist, whether in color or charcoal, prompts a viewer to ask the most difficult questions about the nature of portraiture, and that fact alone casts considerable credit on Sargent for having raised them, even if neither he nor anyone else is able to fully answer them. 

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Foreground and Background

One aspect of our existential situation is that people are sometimes involved in their own histories and sometimes they are not. Sometimes we are actors in our lives and our circumstances as when we take on a new job or act as a Good Samaritan and sometimes we are bystanders, as when we experience technological unemployment or notice what is happening in a Presidential race. Sometimes we shift our focus, and so we are drafted into the Army because of Pearl Harbor and yet the story of ourselves as soldiers is so profound that the war is a story of all those G. I.’s. who make up the Greatest Generation, each one of them to be immortalized as the doers who brought World War II to its righteous conclusion. This alternative between being at the heart of a story or on the periphery of a story is such a fundamental feature of human existence that we are not aware of the importance and pervasiveness of the distinction even as It is a distinction that we cannot do without if we want to grasp what happens in life and what life itself consists of, just as we can not easily grasp what it would be to be a creature in heaven that had no physical being, just a spiritual being, and so not subject to respiration or the feel of the breeze on our cheeks. A good way to get some sense of this distinct characterization of every human being as caught up, somehow, in his or her history, is to treat it as a version of what can be more readily understood in art as the distinction between foreground and background, which is not just a convention of art but a characteristic of life recognized by art with perhaps greater accuracy than is true in literature or philosophy. 

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Art Theory

Art theory refers to the development of concepts that are applicable to a number of art works so as to explain them rather than to the examination of a particular artwork, even though the concept may be drawn from a particular work of art and then becomes generally applicable, as is the case with Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, which is drawn from “Oedipus Rex”, but has become applied ubiquitously. Art theory is therefore different from the trivial arguments about whether a Duchamp's toilet is or is not truly an art work or whether art is a matter of line and color or subject matter. These are fruitless philosophical arguments while the real work of art theory is to increase the body of concepts that can be used to analyze art.

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Thomas Cole's "The Voyage of Life"

Thomas Cole’s “The Voyage of Life” is a series of four paintings he did in the 1840’s that showed the stages of human development, the first about childhood, the second about youth, the third about maturity, and the fourth about old age. These paintings set out a theory of human development when no theories of that sort would be rendered until the turn into the Twentieth Century and so the four paintings are like Cole’s four paintings on “The Course of Empire” in that they are breaking new intellectual ground and trying to find images to do justice to the insights that Cole offers up even if, I am afraid, he does not in this case do very well at illustrating his conceptions. The paintings in the series are worth consulting because they show us what a muscular intellect can do at starting out an entire field of human inquiry.

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Rembrandt Peale

A single painting tells a story about its subject while the body of work of a painter tells the story of that painter’s life: his moods, how he changes or develops or deteriorates over time, his persistent themes. The body of work is therefore more significant for looking into what a painter is than is any collection of biographical data compiled by some biographer about his love interests, his patrons, his friendships, or the ruminations of himself or the art critics of his time about what his paintings were really about. The same is true of literature. We know how different “Macbeth” is from “Hamlet”, each creating a different world, the first governed by fate and violent action, the second by a self uncertain how and when to take action. And yet the body of Shakespeare’s work tells us all that need be known about the consciousness of its author: how he moves from history to comedy to tragedy to romance, ever trying to contain his tendency to anger. The work is the essence of the author.

A case in point is Rembrandt Peale, son of a well known artist of his time, and even better known in his own right, who was a prolific portrait painter in the early part of the Nineteenth Century. Looking at the body of his work provides a biography of the painter and also how a painter adjusts to changing circumstances that are, for the most part, neither political nor social structural, but cultural in that they have to do with the influences that past painting has on its present practitioner. So let us abandon the view that a painter reflects his time for the view that a painter makes a mark on the painting of his time.

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Whitney Biennial

The problem with the art exhibited at this year’s Whitney Biennial is that the artists seem more concerned with exhibiting their knowledge of the technology behind their presentations than with the meaning, emotions or visual impressions left by their productions. This serves as a comment on the state of contemporary art, a movement which has run out of ideas and has always been short on visuals and emotions, much too given to cheap irony than to depthful images. The exhibition contains too many assemblages, either collages hanging on a wall, or as installations on the floor of the gallery. These always seem to me to betray a lack of imagination in that found junk is just glued together rather than arranged in a complex pattern so as to provide for aesthetic satisfaction. This is true of the work of Joe Minter and Daniel Lind-Ramer, and also of Troy Mitchie who provides the overly cute title “This Land Was Mexican Once” to his collection of junk. A title is not a substitute for art.

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Civil War Agitprop

Agitprop is art directed at getting audiences to take one side or another in a political conflict. It is usually straightforward in its emotional and political message so that audience can at a glance get a sense of what they are supposed to think and feel. We need look no farther back than John Turnbull’s pictures of battles in the American Revolution to see this process at work even if we prefer to think of these paintings as monumental, as evoking personal emotions like bravery as well as the terror of war. But the painting “Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton” is supposed to make you think of the sacrifices that were made in the cause of liberty and so subsequent citizens should live up to their heritage, to feel patriotism towards the government that now presides. One kind of agitprop, therefore, looks back so as to encourage allegiances in the present. Another kind of agitprop looks forward to when the oppressed will be freed of their shackles. Such forward looking agitprop is found in the Soviet agitprop of the Twenties, where the recently downtrodden and those still not free unite in solidarity, their faces stern and handsome, eyes aligned to the future, so as to create the brave new world to which they are committed. To make things even more clear, Soviet agitprop includes words to spell out its messages, this technique borrowed from the poster art that had become popular in late Nineteenth Century France.

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Noisy and Quiet Paintings

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Some paintings and painters are noisy and some are quiet, as paradoxical as that sounds because paintings do not have audio boxes attached. They just sit there in their frames and the viewer provides the sound effects when that is appropriate. Poussin is a particularly noisy painter. You can hear the screams of the Sabine women as they are being abducted; you can hear the moans of suffering but also the silences surrounding dead bodies and deserted streets in “The Plague of Ashdod”  You can hear the crash of blind Orion’s feet as he lumbers down the steep path in the painting “Blind Orion”. How the painter evokes sound is a good question. Perhaps Poussin does it with Orion by having people close to him gawking up at him, or maybe it is because the grade of the path is just right for encouraging a viewer to see the giant rushing down it by crashing one foot in front of another. However the painter does it, it gets done. It is part of his art. There are also quiet painters. The Hudson River School is known for its silence, whether Thomas Cole’s “The Oxbow”, where the countryside below suffers no sound, there maybe being some birds chirping on the hill where the painter who is observing the scene has his seat, or Bierstadt’s “Yosemite Valley-The Landing”, where the distance from the camp site means that the sounds of the Indian settlement will not be heard, while a close up, as in Homer’s “Snapping the Whip” allows an audience to hear the chatter of children. Sounds are therefore created as an inference from the information of the painting and the painter is accountable for the inferences that are to be drawn. That is part of his art.

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A painting where the inferences to be drawn as those inform the meaning of the painting and are directly opposite from the meaning a viewer might expect is in John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark”, first exhibited in 1778, which is sometimes interpreted as an allegory of the rise of the American Republic, the people in the boat representing the various strands of the American community, while the boy in the water is America and the shark is Great Britain, out to destroy the Republic. Or else, as is more usually the case and was so seen when it was first shown, the picture is a tribute to religious salvation: difficulties are overcome by courage and solidarity. But listen to the silences of the painting. The people in the boat are agape with wonder or horror but are not shouting, because there are no such expressions on their faces or mouths wide open. The shark seems dead in the water and so makes no sound and the boy appears to be unconscious and so also makes no sound. So what is being conveyed is a mood where great danger is over, the figures in the picture in the aftermath of some dramatic moment, trying to absorb it, each one within their own solitude. This is the opposite of what Lessing will say is the heart of sculpture, which is the moment before something awful happens, but rather is the moment after a disaster, when its impact is being communicated to the people who observed it, this moment of a drama also caught by Poussin in his noisy way in “The Parting of the Red Sea”, where Egyptian charioteers are washed up on the beach by still noisy waves while some Hebrews are still making their way onto the beach with, presumably, their heavy breathing and clattering steps accompanying the waves breaking upon them.

So what is the significance of “Watson and the Shark” other than that it intrudes upon the timeline in its own way, portraying the moment after rather than the moment before the climactic event? It is, I think, a point that is not political, however easy it is to see the little dingy as the ship of state. It is a sense of the deeps, even here in Havana Harbor, where the event that inspired the painting took place: the shark is one of the demons of the deep, the boy one of the victims of the deep, a victim of circumstance because the shark had found him. All onus belongs to fate. So the people in the boat are looking at their own destiny, whether they are black or white, and of whatever profession. They too will be dragged down into the sea. That is their eventual doom. I therefore read the painting as not about the Enlightenment or religion  but about the nature of life and think there is no reason to think the artist has been documenting the political moment rather than what is always the moment, a modern version of a dance of death painting, the grim reaper coming for all of us.

Some great painters are noisy and that explains what they are up to. Brueghel was particularly noisy. You can hear the laughter and music and bustle in his “The Wedding Dance” just as you can hear the crunch of the snow under the feet of the hunters returning to their town in “The Hunters in the Snow” and you can hear the rustling of the sheaves and the buzz of the flies in “The Harvesters” as the farmer who is taking a post lunch snooze under a tree, even down to his snores. Brueghel provides these sound effects via the viewer’s association of these picture elements with sounds, because Brueghel is giving a realistic account of the fullness of everyday life, even if some of his figures are exaggerated, that snoozing farmer a bit oversized, but not much more so than his fellow harvesters would notice.

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Then again, there are great painters who are very silent. I count Rembrandt as one of these even though he also did some loud paintings, such as “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” where you can hear the roar of the waves against the boat. Some of his greatest works are very silent, notably “The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild”, a picture of the solemn burgers who rule Amsterdam’s commerce out of their dour black clothing and unsmiling faces. They say nothing, not caught in the midst of chitchat or great events, as are the Founding Fathers who are caught by Turnbull as they are signing the Declaration of Independence, they perhaps silent for a moment in tribute to how profound is their action. Rather, the sense in the Rembrandt is that these men are known for their decisiveness rather than for their eloquence. They are solid burgers, which is what makes their republic great.

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A modern great painter, David Hockney, is also a silent painter and has been so throughout his career. His early creation of a Los Angeles office building, “Savings and Loan Building”, is not set amidst the bustle of street traffic either human or vehicular, as is the case in the Ashcan School paintings of John Sloan and others. Only a few palm trees stand in front of the building. His late creation, “A Bigger Interior with Blue Terrace and Garden” experiments with space in that he shows the wings of a terrace without distorting space to get it all in, but the painting is true to Hockney’s silent world in that nothing rustles. The same is true of his greatest paintings. “Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool” shows a nude man getting out of a swimming pool, his bare buttocks at the center of the picture, but he is not disturbing the water, the indications of ripples in the water not suggesting the splash of wavers, no more than the dashes on the blinds behind the emergent swimmer suggest only the soundless play of the sun on the blinds. Similarly, “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy” is without a soundtrack, no crescendo of music to accompany the very self assured quality of a couple standing amidst their still incomplete living room, the plush rug softening footsteps, Percy the cat saying nothing, and the phone, still not set on a table, not ringing. What is striking is Mr. Clark’s angular and faintly sinister face, it not needing to say anything to be worthy of notice. What the silence provides to the painting, I infer, is the artist’s characteristic combination of serenity and unworldly eeriness.

Whether or not there is a soundtrack is, I fully grant, sometimes an inference drawn from the sense of what the painting is up to rather than to be garnered from some clue in the painting, as is the case with some of the paintings I mentioned earlier, which give reason to associate sounds with them. But the question of a soundtrack is raised by the nature of painting as a form, one that is largely without words, however much that is not true of pamphlets and paintings in Luther’s time, or in Cy Twombly’s graphical comments on the environment, or in one or another poster that serves as agitprop. It is a form that is also devoid of ideas in that it does not state any directly, that being an abstracted verbal activity, even as many painters represent in their paintings the thoughts that lie behind their paintings. All art forms reach beyond themselves. The novel uses drama and a prosaic poetry. The drama uses spectacle, which is a painterly thing. Poems portray scenes as if they are being painted and music sometimes claims to be programmatic in that it is telling a story rather than being “pure” music. So there are no end of precedents for claiming that painting too drifts off into being noisy or silent, even as, within its own confines, it can be more colorful, as is the case with the Impressionists, or less so, as in the case of Rembrandt. Don’t shortchange the painter’s use of his resources.


Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire"

Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire” is so well known that there would seem to be little cause to comment on it except that it is easily misread, as when it is treated by the art historian Ross Barrett as a reaction to the Jacksonian democracy of the period, when there is nothing in the series of five paintings about the rise and fall of civilizations that is even remotely concerned with the politics of Cole’s time. The series is, however, of interest to a follower of intellectual history because, aside from its artistic accomplishments, the series marks out Cole’s conception of human history and this stands on the cusp of two very different ways of understanding human history-- as if we are not always on the cusp of something or other. In his case, on the one cliff lies a theory of history dominant in the late Eighteenth Century that had been so influenced by Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which depicts mankind as going from some glorious level of civilization to a decrepit form of that because of some set of circumstantial events, such as a succession of bad emperors or else because of some fatal poison introduced into the society, such as Gibbon imagined the case to be with a Rome that had become Christian. On the other side of the chasm lies an evolutionary theory of society, where people went from being primitive to ever more civilized, and that mediated by the way they made their livings rather than because of political machinations. Cole works hard to find images to fill out his understanding and, in that early period in the study of pre-literate societies, those are not easy to come by.

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William Merritt Chase

William Merritt Chase was a American Nineteenth Century artist not even all that well known in his time, recognized late in life for his general accomplishments. He was neither original in his subject matters nor in his treatment of them, and so is a suitable subject for letting us know just how much can be garnered anyway from his paintings about the social life of his period, which is the Victorian Era on the East Coast of the United States. He gives us a sense of architecture and interiors, of leisure time, and even of the relation between men and women, each of which could also be documented from other sources including other artists but is also documented here, in the specialized point of view of this particular artist, which traditional sociologists would not trust as a reliable source of information about a period in that the artist reflects what he perceives and not what is generally true. But that is not true in that even Andy Warhol tells the truth about what preoccupies people so much that they will not easily report what he can notice as their preoccupations: soup cans and Marilyn Monroe.

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Eastman Johnson and Mary Cassatt

Here is a painting from 1859 that might still remain controversial. It is Eastman Johnson’s “Negro Life in the South”, which portrays slaves living in a house in Washington D. C., where slavery was still legal and where, indeed, freed Negros from further north were held in captivity until they could be moved south and sold to plantations in the deep south as slaves. The picture is of an urban house (there is another house immediately adjacent), people courting on the front porch, or playing on a banjo, or just looking around or resting. What could be controversial about this painting?

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Minor Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins is best known today for his group portraits of doctors, of oarsmen, and of naked boys (though he also did some pictures of fetching naked women). He establishes himself as the figure who makes heroes of professionals and athletes, his “The Gross Clinic” and “The Agnew Clinic” tributes to the drama of medical intervention, which is a topic and a theme still familiar in television hourly drama, and his images of the heroism of sports still provides the rhetoric for sports broadcasting. His portraits of the stately, pulchritudinous, no longer young, professional is the stuff of any number of photographs of captains of industry, even if somewhat replaced by the nerdy Bill Gates and the overly slick Steve Jobs. Eakins was, in fact, a very versatile artist. He also did a number of portraits using both male and female sitters, and also scenes from the fight ring, and pictures of fishermen at work. I want to focus on three of his less known paintings to show what a craftsman he was and some of the fresh things he brought to painting that went beyond the formalism of his set scenes of graybeards in their environs, at work or at leisure. Eakins drifted into fresh ways to frame his pictures and so give them a point of view.

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George Inness

George Inness was a mid Nineteenth Century landscape painter who is claimed to have been a member of the Hudson River School, but he in general avoids the craggy rocks and the majestic vistas that characterize that school from Durant through Bierstadt, and instead offers up paintings filled with color and expanses of field that make a viewer appreciate the beauty of being in the midst of a landscape, and so his paintings are a good way to enter into the question of whether what makes a landscape painting beautiful is the landscape itself or the balance of aesthetic forces as those are arranged by the painter.

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Childe Hassam

Childe Hassam was an American artist in the last part of the Nineteenth and the early part of the Twentieth Century who is best known for introducing Impressionism into this country and for a series of American flags done in an Impressionist style that was inspired by the entrance of the United States into the First World War. I would rather stake his reputation on three of his earlier paintings, all three of them realistic, rather than on the rather derivative paintings of his fully Impressionist years, when he seems to specialize in many colors of rather unremarkable flowers.

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Three Black Artists

Henry Ossawa Tanner was a late Nineteenth Century painter who trained with Thomas Eakins but moved to Paris so he could live more freely as a black man than he could in the United States. He is best known for “The Banjo Player” which critics say gives a more humane account of a black man teaching his grandchild to play the banjo than did William Sidney Mount’s painting of the same name from a half century earlier. But reading in moral messages about what a black painter might try to do with a painting that is different from what a white artist might do is beside the point, the point being what Tanner does do as an artist, how he composes and colors his painting and so gives it a distinctive life. The important thing about Tanner’s “The Banjo Player” is the white splotch of light in the right hand corner where various utilitarian objects, towels and crockery, are to be observed, and the contrast between that and the shadowy nature of the rest of the painting, it all suffused in a bluish glow. In fact, Tanner’s success as an artist is his use of blue tones, as those are set against white ones, in so many of his paintings. They are his distinctive signature as an artist.

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Modern Portraiture

Modern portraiture can be defined as what happens when portraiture as an art form abandons what had preoccupied it ever since it arose out of Christian art, which was  the representation of people to show off how the subjects were powerful, or had something of interest in their faces, or were somehow beautiful. The something else that portraiture came to be about was that it was the occasion for the artist’s musings about human consciousness or the state of the world or anything else that caught his attention, Van Gogh making his portraits just as strange and luminescent as he did his presentations of chairs and beds, and so portraits no different, in that sense, from what landscapes or cityscapes were supposed to accomplish, which was to provide the artist’s point of view, as when Julian Freund provides not just a portrait of how unpleasant can be the sight of a realistically painted human body, warts and all, but his sense of the human condition as grossly biological and filled with sloth and gluttony, a perception that would have appealed to Dante.

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Sargent's Story Pictures

John Singer Sargent is best known, of course, for his portraits of pretty society women in fancy gowns. Sargent does not use any symbolism in his painting. That would mean one image stands in place of another image or idea as when a dove represents The Holy Ghost. But, for Sargent, an orange sash is only an orange sash. So how does Sargent catch the intellectual interest of his audience without symbols? He does so by turning these hired portraits into story paintings, which means that his audience is invited to tell stories about them, a story being a narrative that gets from one place to another and has some suspense about what will come next. These stories are there in the pictures but waiting to be found, the viewer the one that has to conjure them up, though the clues for doing so have been supplied by the artist in the way he poses or dresses his subjects.

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Democracy and Genre Painting

Genre painting is the name given to a genre of painting that flourished, among other places and other times, in Mid-Nineteenth Century America. Genre painting in America portrayed the informal social life of a supposedly still unsophisticated  and largely rural America, this movement ending entirely with Winslow Homer’s “Snapping the Whip” (1872), that painting of boys at school recess that is perhaps better known today for its 3D effect of having its participants look as if they are on the verge of breaking out of the frame. These American genre paintings portray people grooming and selling horses, dancing, white people mixing with African Americans, and much else that could be considered informative about what life was like back then if one could trust inferences that are made from an art form, whether that is literature or painting, about what is really going on in the social life of the times. The art historian Elizabeth Johns makes such an attempt with regard to American genre painting and concludes that the paintings present a number of types so as to take a condescending and humorous view of their subject matter and are therefore not to be trusted as a serious set of pictures about the way things were because the pictures are designed to please the city swells who commissioned them. I disagree. I think it is possible, if one is careful, to draw inferences about reality from what might indeed have been painted as fanciful or stylized presentations of the life of the times. More particularly, the pictures, or at least some of them, tell the story of the emergence of democracy in the United States, a subject that historians of the time find crucial but where there is not enough of a documentary trail to explain how that remarkable event took place, something that did not arrive in Great Britain until the Reform Bill of 1886, some fifty year later.

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The Limitations of Painting

One of the things that made Sargent a great painter was that he appreciated the limitations of painting. At least for two hundred years before he did his work, painting had not carried philosophical messages or meanings encoded in symbols but rather did what it was capable of doing, which is to show what things look like. Sargent has no symbolism, no iconography, only what people, particularly, look like in their faces and in how they dress and in their presentation. What Sargent gets from accepting that limitation is an attention to detail that allows him to pick up the telling detail that gives a picture drama even if not anything that could be called meaning.

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