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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
James Tissot was a French painter who moved to England after the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1870, and returned to Paris some ten years later. During his career, he was both prolific and well paid. He made his name as a society painter, portraying fashionable women in good clothes and in appropriate settings. Later in life,Tissot devoted himself to Biblical paintings which are noteworthy for the sculpture-like rendering of Biblical figures, though the emotions of grief or piety that accompany them seem somewhat cliched. There is, however, one picture of his, “Hide and Seek”, created in 1877, that is very different from either of his two major periods, and it stands out as worthy of attention, and makes Tissot one of those artists that produces just a few memorable paintings rather than an artist who keeps producing them throughout the course of a career. For one moment, inspiration caught up with talent.
“Hide and Seek” is set in a large living room. On the right there is a door which opens onto a garden, but this is not a picture of the outdoors as seen from the indoors. Another widow with a view of the outside has a white window shade drawn down on it so that the outside is not visible, which helps the viewer return to the interior of the room as the painting’s subject matter. The room is furnished in Victorian style: overstuffed sofas, tables, ornamented carpets, all set far away from one another so that the room does not seem at all cramped while remaining quite homey. Critics have emphasized that this was a time in his life when Tissot was quite happy, having settled down with the mistress who gave him a son. She may be the person who is leisurely occupying a sofa with her feet up, reading a newspaper, the moment a sad one because she would die within a few years. So this is a bourgeois domestic idyll and so to be savored for how charming and pleasant bourgeois life can be.
There is more to the picture, though, and it refers to a paradox of bourgeois life not easily fathomed. There are four children in the picture, all similar and cherub like. The one at the center and the main focus of the picture is sitting on the floor and looking at a ball that is a bit removed from her, it also a strategic object in the painting. Why is she looking so carefully at the ball? This, the grown woman neglects to do so, perhaps because it is only a toy there for the amusement of the children. But there is something about the ball that perhaps only children, or the naive, or else the very perceptive, will notice. The ball is geometrically round and it is unadorned. That is different from the furniture, which is plushly upholstered and has numerous cushions, and from the rugs, which have elaborate floral designs. The starkness of the ball makes it something from another world. It is a geometric form not in the abstract, as in a geometry textbook, but actualized as a concrete thing out of keeping with its surroundings, and so is a symbol as well as a representation of what is ultimate and universal in the midst of the everchanging. The girl notices this about the ball the people around her do not. The ball serves as a critique of the pleasures and comforts of the bourgeois world, which will inevitably fade, while what the ball is and represents will not fade, and yet, ironically, the ball is just a plaything on the floor, however much it takes over the picture, that now focussed on its right hand lower quadrant where the ball lies. The ball as an abstract and yet present object, a part of the natural rather than the socially created world because it is a part of geometry which rules, in its way, aside from what people do, is therefore a challenge to the world in which the child is immersed, and the child knows that, and the problem set up by the painting is what the child as well as the viewer will make of that.
The ball constitutes such a challenge because it is so different from the clutter of ostentatious decoration that dominates the Victorian Age and which serves to remove civilization from its underpinnings in reality. In the Victorian era, civilization is understood as an imposition upon nature, and human society a construction that keeps people from being, as an image of the age that endures has it, in a constant evolutionary struggle where the strong defeat the weak. Society is a product of history and takes on its own representations that are not obliged to or reflective of the pre-social or primitive social forces that may underlie them. That is what makes society so comfortable and comforting. To do this, everything from architecture to household furnishings to dress indicate an artificiality that contrasts with the natural and even goes so far as to appropriate what might seem to be the natural to its own purposes, as when flowers are adopted to decorate rugs and so become part of human life rather than natural life.
The ball as an abstract object and yet a real object is an image that could not be used for much longer as an image of the universal inhabiting the historical world. In the Eighties, Lewis Carroll introduces a wonderland where the laws of logic stand out in high relief. Alice becomes smaller and then bigger contrary to physical law; the Cheshire Cat ceases to take up space, in violation of biological law; and, to top it off, the Queen demands a verdict before a trial, which is a violation of social law. And after that would come Freud’s cluttered office, opulent and busy in the Victorian style, but with the addition of statues and artifacts from primitive societies to add credence to the idea that there are levels of consciousness and experience that go beyond and are coexistent with the normality of bourgeois life. Nor will it be long before geometrical shapes take over painting and architecture and room decoration, however much the rectangles of Sullivan office buildings still use decorative motifs. But Tissot is not yet in that period and so geometry is an intrusion into bourgeois life, which raises the question of why bourgeois life was so committed to plush and over-elaborate decoration.
But this one picture should not lead to neglecting the paintings on which Tissot’s fame was based. Tissot’s portraits are not bad even though they never take a grip on the viewer the way that the portraits of John Singer Sargent do, whether that is because Tissot does not have Sargent’s mastery of color or because Tissot’s faces are too realistic and so do not have the mystery and individuality that Sargent’s do, or because they look too much alike, with pert noses and small lips, his women dressed more often than not in white, or simply because current taste for some reason does not favor him. But a more limited case can be made for them. Tissot sets his portraits in interesting places: outdoors, in parks, in living rooms, on ships, and so they constituted a record of what fashionable (and not so fashionable) women did with their time. In some cases, the clothes of the women he portrays are carefully represented and complex and their faces are distinctive. Moreover, the women are shown to be poised, comfortable in themselves, and so a match for the stagey men who accompany them. That provides evidence that should unsettle the view that the women of the Victorian Age are prim and oppressed. They seem very much in command of their surroundings even if they do not have seats in Parliament.
Tissot’s “Richmond Bridge”, for example, shows a self-possessed pretty lady, accompanied by an admirer, posed in an interesting place, near a river (the Thames) with an arched bridge, and wearing an elaborate plaid dress. Her face is fuller than it is in many Tissot portraits, and she seems preoccupied, as if her companion cannot keep her interest, something also indicated by his showboat moustache and cane, which make him something of a cliche gallant. So there is a story here, though the high point of the painting is her plaid dress, closely hugging her body, its material seeming thin though elegantly cut and so making a fashion statement even if the painting deliberately underplays that.
Then there is Tissot’s “Waiting for the Ferry” or, as it is sometimes called “the Art of Waiting”, where an equally formidable woman is waiting, slouched over in a chair, for the time to move on, and also has a companion who can not stop looking at her but whom she does not acknowledge. The background of buildings leaning over or near the river are interesting for their shapes and the bustle of activity within and near them, their white and grey textures and the life within them made more interesting by the intervention of horizontal and vertical lines between the buildings and the woman who is dressed, this time appropriately, in an unornamented white that becomes glamorous because it is so well cut. The viewer is left wanting to see more rather than less of the background, while the posed young woman challenges the background for the viewer’s interest, the viewer wondering whether she is bored rather than merely self-possessed, and how her personality plays into its physical context. She too has a male companion who is just an ornament.
Then there is Tissot’s “Ball on Board” where, indeed, the whiteness of the gowns seems overdone even as the picture portrays how social occasions such as this shipboard party go. One interest a modern viewer takes is in the social fact that women are coming on board where they are not ordinarily welcome, and the deeper question of how it is women of the period would have felt about having to be so elaborately dressed even if they were just getting on a ship where more comfortable clothes would seem appropriate. The women do not seem diminished by their elaborate “uniforms”, anymore than contemporary women are diminished by dressing in short skirts and long legs when going to the office. So there is something about how dress sets off women whatever the era of social enlightenment in which they live.
It is difficult not to find something of interest in portraits of woman. This fascination with how women look, women looked at and men doing the looking, has been going on at least since Pompeii, and is intensified in Christian art, which is so preoccupied with the Virgin Mary. This preoccupation with portraits of women rather than of men reaches its highpoint, perhaps, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, with the society portraitists, though we would be remiss not to notice that the layouts in Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein ads are as elaborate as they are in a Tissot painting. The way Tissot catches hold of the male interest in staring at women is therefore of significance even though, as I say, his major claim on us is as someone who caught onto something metaphysical about Victorian life.
John Sloan’s well known painting “The City From Greenwich Village”, painted in 1922 and now hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., is a prime example of the Ashcan School, called that because it focussed on the grimy realities of city clutter and constant construction and the working class people who lived there. The painting remains striking because it provides a distinctive and very American view on the nature of city life, one quite different from the idea of urban life found in British, French and French presentations of citylife. James Whistler takes London bridges and turns them into swathes of dark color on a dark background to create paintings that are forerunners of Rothko. Cezanne fills the wide boulevards of Paris with crowds of people. Ernst Kirchner and other German Expressionists portray a Berlin crowded with strange looking people enjoying the nightlife. Sloan emphasizes, instead, how important is the physical aspect of cities, both the architectural structures and the architectural infrastructure. Spatial relations are more important than ethnicity or crowd psychology in explaining citylife.Read More
After having done most of his great portraits, bestowing a distinct life on each of the women who sat for him, Sargent seems to have been looking for something else to do. He travels the world and portrays it in a number of different styles. There are paintings of Italy that seem like finished architectural drawings, the lines clear, the colors muted; there are busy portraits of people sitting in their gardens, a multiplicity of pastel colors presented in somewhat broader brush strokes than Sargent had previously used. But there is one painting that stands out among these lesser Impressionist influenced paintings, and that is “Gassed”, an elegiac tribute to those wounded by gas in World War I. This painting might seem a mere magazine illustration because the drawing of the figures is not exact and because it seems to convey more information than it does artistically inspired emotion, but that would be to underestimate it, as the Imperial War Museum in London apparently does not, exhibiting the painting under glass as a solemn reminder of the Great War. Sargent used his formidable artistic skills to create an iconic representation of that war.Read More
Edouard Manet as well as Gustave Courbet, who was the subject of a recent post, are subject to conflicting interpretations, T. J. Clark again serving as my foil for pointing out the limitations of a Marxist interpretation of painting. Clark interprets Manet's “Olympia” in the same way he interprets Courbet’s “The Stonecutters”. He sees the stereotypical depiction of its subject as a visually accurate description of a social role, in this case the role of courtesan. The painting was offensive to the bourgeois viewing public, he argued, because it so blatantly identified its subject as a prostitute, while other paintings of the time used prostitutes as the unacknowledged models for nudes. The picture was also scandalous because it was so overt a rejection of the bourgeois convention of referring nudes to the world of myth and other forms of culture. The direct stare of the model out into the world outside the painting showed the alienation and oppression of the prostitute, and thus of womankind in general.Read More
To be blunt about it, Marxist art criticism, like Marxist criticism of the other arts, makes interpretations which point out class conflict, while what we might call bourgeois criticism points out issues of individuality. This is certainly true in the case of Gustave Courbet, a leading French artist in the period that preceded the Impressionist deluge. It is worth considering the two opposing camps of criticism if for no other reason than that viewers of the paintings are still liable to turn toward a class interpretation as the most obvious one even though Marxism has passed out of style, which perhaps shows the individualism is still a theme difficult to grasp as an idea even as it is countered by more fractionating movements such as those represented by Modern and Postmodern art.Read More
It is a curiosity that the Netherlands never produced any fiction or drama in the vernacular that took its place alongside that of the other languages of Western Europe, such as German, French, Italian and English. The greatest writers of the Dutch Golden Age were Spinoza and Grotius, both of whom wrote in Latin, as had Erasmus, the great Rotterdam humanist of a previous century. Rather, as everyone acknowledges, the greatness of Dutch culture rests on its paintings, which provide a vivid and even a metaphysical insight into the life of the Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently showing a rather large overview of these paintings and is avoiding the usual show of greats, including only a few by Rembrandt, one Vermeer, and none by Brueghel. The show provides a deep sense of why Dutch art is so good as well as so informative about the period it captures.Read More
Meyer Schapiro is one of those critics whose idea of criticism is to use it to weave a story of his own out of the story or visual experience he is examining, this principle applying just as much in art criticism as it does in literary criticism where, for example, Lionel Trilling wove his own story of the nature of morals out of the story he found in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park”, however contrary that interpretation might be to an accurate one. Schapiro does so, moreover, in the discursive prose style of the typical scholarly essay, where observations are made to elaborate on an early announced theme, rather than in what might be considered the more artistic story like process of suspense and release that can be found in, for example, Erich Auerbach’s classic essay “Odysseus’ Scar”, where the author uses the recognition scene in “the Odyssey” to tell a story about the difference between Greek and Hebrew culture, something it would not have occured to Homer to consider even if it is a story very much on Auerbach’s mind. (What are produced in these essays are stories because they are full of the unfolding drama of the particular in conflict with the general, Auerbach telling us of ways to distinguish the Greek from the Hebrew, there being many more that are not referred to. That is different from most scholarship which makes no bones about subsuming limited evidence to a particular thesis).Read More
The review in The New Yorker of the Delacroix show currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was curiously and unnecessarily dismissive of the artist, treating him as both banal and overbearing. I think that was because Delacroix is so clearly a Romantic, which is an age so out of favor at the moment, what with its Orientalism, supercharged emotions and flamboyant militarism. It is true that Delacroix is not up there with the true greats, like Picasso, who makes us reimagine the topology of the human shape, or Rembrandt, whose lined and craggy faces testify to their humanity, or Vermeer, who sets people and their identities within the world of extension when he, for example, shows the spaces between the dustmotes in the air. But Delacroix does have his virtues as an artist, if not as a philosopher or as a humanist, and these I wish to catalogue.Read More
Susan Sontag got it wrong when she said that photography was in part distinguished by the fact that there were so many good photographs to absorb. The same is true of all painting. A little bit of craft combined with a minimal eye for color and a good eye for perspective and composition can create a painting where you are transported into the texture of its life simply by looking at it before ever getting on with the job of seeing how the parts hold together or even noticing some of the more obscure parts, much less whatever meaning or meanings the painting may hold. It is the nature of the form that makes painting so beguiling, allowing itself, for example, to be noisy (like George Bellows’ “Stag at Sharkey”) or quiet (like Henri Rousseau or most Impressionists, even when they are drawing crowds of people), or else to be rich and tasty, sweet, like Matisse, or tart even if bittersweet, like Picasso even at his most romantic. Paintings invoke all the senses, not just the eye, including, not least important, a mind’s eye that turns itself to history and to abstractions. These remarks suggest that it is painting rather than the painter that makes for art. The medium has the resources to express a great number of things and any number of craftspeople working at their trade can provide satisfaction to their viewers, just as any number of novelists can tell stories well enough so that stories can engage our eternal desire to know what happens next.Read More
Alfred Bierstadt’s 1870 painting, “The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak”, is an iconic representation of the American West whose formal properties tell a lot about the American landscape and also about the art of landscape painting in general.
“The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak” covers a lot of territory. In its center is an ice covered peak, and below that is a lake, and further in the foreground is an Indian settlement, with tepees under the trees or grouped out in the open and Indians congregating or moving their horses, all the bustle of a well organized community. The Indians are dressed so as to show that it is not warm in this part of the Rockies, but they are comfortable and so as civilized as a pre-literate society can be. There is an unimpeded view from the Indian camp across the lake to some waterfalls and then to the giant mountain behind. The unimpeded view is the key to the painting, more than its contrast of colors, the green of the trees and the land on the apron of the lake, the blue of the lake, and then the increasing white of the waterfalls and the mountain behind. The Indian community can consider itself nestled next to the lake, with nothing to fear from nature, because they have so many layers of separation between themselves and the uninhabitable mountain, that just a part of their scenery. The scene is welcoming. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have such a vista from your own front porch! That would not be the case if a viewer saw the area abundant in fog coming from the lake and the mountain, or if the Indian community were hidden behind a ridge that gave it some shelter from the weather. Maybe, at another time of year, the landscape would be more foreboding of what nature might have in store, but here it is not, and I think the unimpeded view accounts for that.Read More
John Singer Sargent is such an excellent portraitist that he not only shows different faces to be different, which is very different from when Rubens painted a number of Rubens faces, he also uses different techniques to paint each of those faces. It is as if each face is an experiment in finding a way to render it. This focus on faces, however much Sargent dresses up his often not very pretty subjects in glamorous and carefully painted colorful gowns, replaces, for the most part, a concern with setting that would place the subject in their social context, as would be the case with Gainsborough. The faces speak for themselves to the extent that faces can speak to us at all and so makes of Sargent, often dismissed as a mere society painter, the greatest portraitist since Vermeer.Read More
The Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is an impressive presence. I wondered how those who commissioned it had decided on the final design given that so many very different designs had been rejected in favor of this layered latticework of upturned terraces, and with whether the architecture would seem dated in a generation or so. The actual collection, covering the origins of slavery up through Jim Crow and the Second Reconstruction, begins in the deep basement, reached through an elevator, and then the visitor moves up in space as he or she approaches the present. I was impressed by the ability of the museum to move along its crowds, still quite large now that it is more than a year since the museum opened. I was also impressed by the various guards who were very helpful in assisting visitors, which is very different from the guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they are likely as not to give you incorrect information about how to proceed to a room you want to visit. I was less impressed, however, by the narrative supplied by the placards that accompanied the artifacts, dioramas and other illustrations for the history of black slavery in the United States.Read More
The exhibit of Renaissance portraiture that was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art some years ago allows a reconsideration of the tag line from Jacob Burckhardt that the Renaissance saw the birth of individualism. Commentators and art historians at the time of the show invoked Burckhardt as a way to explain what this show was about, even if they used Burckhardt as little more than a mandatory reference: oh yes, his name has to be mentioned, and if the show is not about individualism, what could it be about? Well, it was about the fact that some very, very beautiful pictures had been created; that’s what it was about. Look at the pictures rather than treat them as way stations in intellectual history. Moreover, instead of playing the game of periodicizing art, let us now be analytic and so associate different aspects of art to different aspects of individualism, presuming the forms of individualism to be present at the same time, just as the various features of any art work, such as its subject and composition and its conventions and the external knowledge brought to a painting, are also always all there at the same time. Perhaps not all concepts can be broken down into these four parts, but individualism certainly can be. If that is the case, that the concept of individualism has all the elements that go into visualization, then that is evidence that individualism is not just a concept but a description of something that actually exists in that it can be visualized, while other concepts, such as justice and God, cannot be visualized, and so perhaps do not exist at all.Read More
Jacob van Ruisdael was a master of both landscapes and what we would now consider townscapes because they were paintings of what were then the urban vistas. Looking at his paintings allows seeing how he did these two kinds of paintings differently. That can supply the basis for generalizations about the nature of landscapes and cityscapes and, even beyond that, the nature of the human experiences that underlie aesthetic experience.
“View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds” is characteristic of van Ruisdael’s depiction of a town, which appears as a sliver in the middle of the painting, most of which is taken up by the grayish sky above or, beneath the sliver, a suburban part of town that contains a bleaching ground, where long strips of cloth are laid out to dry. The town itself is notable for a few church spires, one overlarge building, some windmills, and its rust color, while the bleaching ground is set amidst some trees and a few buildings, and its linearity can be taken to be an horizontal echo of the vertical linearity of the town. People, as everyone knows, make their marks on places by constructing with the use of straight lines. The other point to be made is that the downtown of Haarlem goes on for a while, stretching from the left to the right of the canvas, and gives a suggestion that it also bulges out, so that a bird’s eye view (there are birds in the picture) would see a great circle filled with houses, both residences and public buildings. The only people to be seen are, ironically enough, not in the town, but working the bleaching ground, and they are fairly small because the point of view van Ruisdael takes is remote from the scene, more concerned with the overall geography of the place than the life within it, many buildings to be found widely spaced from one another, in the plain between the bleaching ground and the town proper.
“Panoramic View of the Amstel Looking towards Amsterdam” is a townscape which is less parsimonious in that it gets close enough to its subject so as to portray much more of the way the city works. There is the Amstel River, filled with white sailed boats, broad in the south east corner of the picture, and then narrowing towards the bridge at the center of the picture, its horizontal line serving as the center point of the picture, the buildings of the city behind it, the far shore filled with buildings of various sizes, while the near shore has windmills, houses, and a promenade where the people who saunter up and down provide a sense of scale. The town is bustling with activity: men oaring a raft, fields with mounds of hay, and the activities that might be suggested to go on in windmills, residences and public buildings, though without the benefit of any particular story being unravelled, as was the case with the human interest sidebar provided in the portrait of Haarlem by the presence of the bleaching field, something remarkably noticeable then as it would be if one showed up today. A townscape is therefore a single place where people go about their business in close proximity to one another but where their stories do not intertwine. That remains the collective story of towns and cities.
Now consider how different is a landscape. In “Dunes”, perhaps his most famous painting, Ruisdael introduces an individual story into his portrait of a landscape. A man and his dog are trudging up a rutted path, one which can be traced back to where it disappears behind a hill. On either side of the path, interesting enough in itself because of its rise and falls, so that one would have a different perspective every few steps when wandering along it, are the brush that can be found on dunes, as well as some short trees. The plants go off in any number of directions, sometimes constituting a rough underbrush, sometimes a tiny copse of trees, sometimes the grass clinging to the tops of dunes, sometimes covering what is just a sandy stretch next to the road. There is no pattern in the flora to guide the eye, though an expert might know where and when different kinds of flora will grow on this kind of site. For the viewer to take hold of the scene, however, the man and his dog are very useful. The same is true of “Stag Hunt in a Wood with a Marsh”. The main pattern of the painting are the virticals of the trees, all of them leaning to the left, as if that is the way the wind blew them as they grew. They are planted both in the earth and in the marsh that takes up the center of the foreground of the picture. And yet Ruisdael relieves this landscape by putting huntsman into it as well as a stage being pursued by dogs who are catching up with it while it is in the marsh. Why this need to have a story going on rather than the landscape presented for itself alone. There needs to be a reason for the convention.
Not that all of Ruisdael’s landscapes have humans in the picture. Sometimes it is a waterfall that serves as a focal point, or an old ruined castle (the fact of which is proof of human engagement in the locale of the landscape). In “Waterfall in a Hilly Wooded Landscape”, the story line seems to be to be what I see as tree roots left over after, I presume, humans have harvested the lumber, though here again one would think that Ruisdael could have done without in that the broken tree in the foreground creates interest enough while the trees in the back stand tall and green.
Other Seventeenth Century painters follow the same convention of placing people in the landscapes, while not putting them in cityscapes. Meindert Hobbema, another Dutchman, includes people in his landscapes, “A Stream by a Wood” and in “The Avenue at Middelharnis”. The great Nicolas Poussin, a Frenchman painting in Italy at about the same time, has Orion, in “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun”, stumble down a path very similar to the one found in “Dunes”, though this time people moving up the path have to scurry out of the way of the blind giant. This scene takes place in the midst of very lush scenery, the greenery of trees, leaves, bushes, grasses, painted with great care. That is very different from what Poussin does in the urban scene depicted in “The Rape of the Sabine Women”. Yes, it does contain people, but is an urban scene in that there are multiple individual stories going on in the midst of the chaos of the Roman men selecting and dragging off the Sabine women, the whole scene observed from afar by people on their balconies. City life may seem chaotic, but it is organized. The exception to the rule that contrasts townscapes and landscapes is Bruegel, another contemporary, who presents the boisterous and communal lives of villagers, each going about their own business and yet also involved in one another’s festivities, like a wedding. That liveliness of a village scene earns Brueghel the commendation that would be awarded by William Hazlitt, to William Hogarth a century and a half later: that he was one of the great comic writers.
Here is a suggestion as to why this convention makes sense. The portrayal of nature is always confusing because there is too little to focus the mind. Rather, a viewer of a landscape or someone out in actual nature is over stimulated by the ever new vistas of conflicting colors, different kinds of growth, none of which give off straight lines. There is nothing to steady the mind except, perhaps, a fallen tree or a rock filled brook that constitutes a mini-waterfall. There are too many objects-- trees, blades of grass, fallen brush-- to make it easy to concentrate the mind or to organize the picture. Cities, on the other hand, are dominated by their formal activities of milling, boating, manufacturing, it easy enough to identify a structure with a function, and so, indirectly, of human activity. For that matter, we consider landscapes to be domesticated when they show the signs of human organization, as in the hedgerows of Normandy, or Robert Frost’s New Hampshire stone walls, or even the stately planned trees of Hobbema’s “The Avenue at Middelharnis”. So painters know how the human mind organizes its perceptions, how it gives them order, so as not to make people overcome with the information they need to process, as would be the case if one were left alone, standing in a forest or looking at a landscape, not knowing where the eye is to settle, or where are the borders of the image, or how one green becomes a darker and then a lighter shade of itself, all of these shades following no particular order other than the rules of shading that apply when a place is sheltered from the sunlight. Nature is, in itself, overwhelming and so the portrayal of nature requires toning that down by the introduction of people or some clear dramatic interest, because people understand motives, which are either invisible or only indicated, far more easily than they understand nature all and to itself.Read More
There are certain portraits of women that have come down in history as masterpieces because they capture the allure and mysteriousness of their beautiful subjects and so illustrate both the individuality of a particular woman’s appeal and the strangeness of womanhood as a type. These portraits include Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”, Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring”, and Manet’s “Olympia”. The paintings have much in common. The women have a distinctive half smile, are imaginatively posed, and exhibit a combination of nonchalance and forwardness, as if all beautiful women have to be of that type. To be added to that list of great portraits, I think, is John Singer Sargent’s “Lady Agnew”, which has all of those attributes but is to be distinguished by the fact that the subject of the portrait is not really beautiful at all and yet Sargent is able to reveal that fact and still make her beautiful to behold, which says a lot about his mastery of portraiture but also about what it means to be a beauty in his time, at least among English speaking women in the wealthiest class of their societies.Read More
Limitless are the ways in which artists combine in their work both convention and innovation. And ever unanswered remains the question of whether it is easier for an artist to do one of these two things or the other, whether he or she is following his natural bent when he gives us what is expected, constructed out of what his audience is familiar with, as the way to make a painting or a play, or when he or she is listening to his own inner ear and eye and mind. Henrik Ibsen was at the height of his art in “John Gabriel Borkman”, crafting a play whose suspense was in the revealing of the relations of the characters rather than marked by changes in the characters. He was not being true to the traditions of Shakespearean or French Classical drama in that the play does not hinge on events but on making the audience think new things about the characters, but was that not, in fact, true to what is always true about drama, which is that surprises of one sort or another are what move it onto its inevitable or prefigured or quirky conclusion? Drama is still drama even if it unfolds in accord with fresh mechanisms. Let us make the same point, and deepen it, by considering three recent exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which seems no longer in the business of blockbuster shows but quite thoughtful minor ones.Read More