Archive | January, 2013

Painting of the Day

31 Jan

The Apparition - Gustave Moreau

The Apparition. by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898). Watercolor on paper, 1874-1876. Currently on view at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris. 

Notes from the fifth edition of the Art History textbook by Stokstad and Cothren:

A vision-like atmosphere pervades the later work of Gustave Moreau, an academic artist whom the Symbolists regarded as a precursor. They particularly admired Moreau’s renditions of the biblical Salome, the young Judaean princess who, at the instigation of her mother, Herodias, performed an erotic dance before her stepfather, Herod, and demanded as reward the head of John the Baptist (Mark 6:21-28). In The Apparition, exhibited at the Salon of 1876, the seductive Salome confronts a vision of the saint’s severed head, which hovers open-eyed in midair, dripping blood and radiating holy light. Moreau depicted this sensual and macabre scene and its exotic setting in meticulous detail, with touches of jewel-like color to create an atmosphere of voluptuous decadence that amplifies Salome’s role as femme fatale who uses her sensuality to destroy her male victim. 

The Symbolists, like many smaller groups of artists in the late 19th century, staged independent art exhibitions, but unlike the Impressionists, who hired halls, printed programs, and charged a small admission fee for their exhibitions, the Symbolists mounted modest shows with little expectation of public interest. During the 1889 Universal Exposition, for example, they hung a few works in a cafe close to the fairgrounds, with the result that the exhibition went almost unnoticed by the press. 

My comments:

Moreau’s oeuvre is very interesting because every time I see it, I’m struck by how nonwestern it looks. The architectural details, the costumes, and the way he drew the figures’ bodies all contribute to its evocation of Eastern art. 

Although this is watercolor instead of graphite, it’s still interesting and informative to compare it to my art of the day two days ago, Ingres’s graphite drawing. In Moreau’s work, the lines aren’t as defined, and they aren’t expressive in the same way that they were in Ingres’s work. Here, light plays an important role, as Moreau made most of the watercolor light but painted darkly around the head of John the Baptist so that it could stick out in contrast to that dark. The elaborate costumes that the figures wear make this scene very different from what I think viewers would typically imagine when they think of this famous Bible story that’s being told. The exquisite detail here is typical of Moreau’s work, but his pairing of it with a Biblical subject matter is quite interesting. What made him choose the subject?

Painting of the Day

30 Jan

A Maid Asleep

A Maid Asleep. by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Oil on canvas, c. 1657. Currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Notes from metmuseum.org:

This canvas of 1656 or 1657 is the earliest work by Vermeer to depict his usual subject of one or two figures in a domestic interior. The wine glass and unsettled objects on the table suggest that some social occasion has passed. To the upper left, the corner of a painting of Cupid (known from other pictures by Vermeer) includes a fallen mask which refers to the woman’s unguarded expression. Radiographs reveal that Vermeer originally included a man in the background and a dog in the doorway; these motifs were replaced by the distant mirror and the chair with a pillow to the lower right. In changing the composition Vermeer made its amorous theme less obvious, just as his remarkable passages of observation obscure his borrowing of ideas from other genre painters, such as Nicolaes Maes.

Paraphrased additional notes from the book Vermeer with 129 color plates and accompanying text by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr.:

The sleeping woman takes a position that at the time was well known in emblematic literature as the representation of Sloth. Therefore it’s plausible that Vermeer’s painting has a moralizing implication: that the proper conduct of one’s life requires temperance and moderation, in order to avoid fall asleep due to implied drunkenness. 

There are, however, other possibilities for the significance of the woman’s pose, one of them being Melancholy. Above her there is an image that has been identified as Otto van Veen’s Amorum Emblemata, a kind of artwork known as an emblem that is entitled “Love requyres sinceritie.” This concerns deception in love; hence the girl may be in a state of melancholy due to recently being deceived by a lover. 

The fact that Vermeer made the painting smaller than he originally planned it and also removed the man and the dog suggests that he wanted to avoid the didactic narrative and preferred a more subtle, poetic approach. The painting is a transitional work, the first in which architectural elements and symbolic images are significantly used to reinforce the content of the painting. 

My comments:

When we discussed our chair assignment in my Foundation Drawing class, the professor brought up the use of light in drawing and mentioned Vermeer, asking me to be responsible for bringing in a book on Vermeer for our next class.

While I find the way that Vermeer is able to render shadow in this painting absolutely unbelievable in terms of how realistic it looks, what I find most intriguing about this painting of Vermeer in particular is his compositional arrangement. It reminds me very much of Degas’s Women with Chrysanthemums, in which there is a giant bouquet of Chrysanthemums that takes up the vast majority of the canvas with a woman that sits on the right, staring contemplatively into space with her eyes directed towards the edge of the canvas. Similarly in Vermeer’s painting, the woman sits to the very left of the canvas and leans towards that edge. In the center of the painting, a luxurious patterned carpet with a palpable texture as well as an ajar door that reveals a mysterious mirror behind it occupies our attention. I think it’s only the bright white part of the woman’s clothing that makes her noticeable in the painting; if Vermeer had painted her with only dark clothing, it would probably be very easy to miss her. Her near disappearance into the painting is aided by the slight shadow that covers her head and right hand. 

Going back to the mirror behind the doorway, I find it incredibly interesting and almost confusing because it almost looks like it could just be another doorway leading into another room, but the very subtle frame makes it look more like a mirror.Why would Vermeer place that mirror there? The fact that he took out the man and the dog and replaced it with this mirror suggests to me that he was less concerned about telling a story with this painting and instead was interested on artistic experimentation with formal elements.The fact that this is one of Vermeer’s first domestic genre scenes supports this assertion because if this is a new subject that Vermeer is working with, it would make sense that he’d like to start by playing around with it.

Because the mirror creates a lot of questions about the painting. Given our position as viewers, I would think that the mirror would reflect us. I would also think the mirror would reflect the chair in the foreground. But it does neither of these things, so what’s going on? And why did Vermeer include the mirror at all?

 

Art of the Day

30 Jan

Image

 

Study for Venus a Paphos. by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Graphite on paper, 1852. Not sure where it is (although the painted version is on view at the Musee D’Orsay, Paris).

Notes from wikipaintings.org about the artist:

Jean Ingres was a French neoclassical painter, who considered himself the protector of French academic orthodoxy, and fought against the rising popularity of Romanticism. He also considered the leader of the Romantic movement, Eugene Delacroix, his artistic nemesis. Perhaps part of his vehement protection of the classical style of painting had something to do with the early termination of his education. At age 11, the French Revolution began, disrupting his traditional childhood, which became a constant source of insecurity.

As a budding artist, Ingres was able to observe the many examples of famous artworks of Belgium, Holland, and Spain, which had been looted during the exploits of Napoleon, and were held at the Louvre. He freely borrowed from their classical interpretations and used the techniques in his own art, leading to many critics to accuse him of plundering the past. It was in this vein that his first submissions to the Paris Salon were received very poorly. Ingres’ humiliation was so deep that he vowed never to return to Paris. Throughout his early art career, his painting style, which emphasized the purity of color and did not employ the gradual shifting of color and shading as in Romantic paintings, led to many bad reviews. Ironically, it was only the Romantic artists, whom he so hated, that recognized and appreciated Ingres’s talents. show more

At the end of the Napoleonic empire, Ingres found himself without patronage and penniless. He survived by illustrating drawings for English tourists, many of which rank among his best creations. In 1824, he exhibited his Vow of Louis XIII, which led to his critical acclaim and made him widely popular. Even his earlier works, which had led to his humiliation and disgrace, were held up as masterpieces, and widely distributed. There is a tale that one of Ingres favorite students, Theodore Chasseriau, whom Ingres considered one of his favorite students, upon returning to his teacher after a number of years, showed a tendency toward Romanticism. Ingres quickly disavowed his student and never spoke favorably of him again. His success has led to the legacy of Classicism versus Romanticism, and created the standard to which Classical paintings were held. 

My comments:

Today in my Foundation Drawing class (on which I’ll post a link with elaboration soon on my foundation drawing page on this blog), in our discussion of drawing edges and positive versus negative space, our professor mentioned Ingres, who he considered masterful at this skill as well as perspective. 

I know almost certainly that if I hadn’t taken Foundation Drawing, my choice for Art of the Day today would never have been my choice. I tend to favor paintings because I think that on a superficial level that is characteristic of all people who have little knowledge about art, paintings are more interesting simply because there is literally more to them. Whereas drawings like the one above consist of only black and white and have no paint or color to them, paintings inherently possess many more properties to occupy the viewer’s attention for a longer time-it’s almost a matter of their quantitative value (more components=a more captivating artwork), without taking into account the qualitative value of each individual element of an artwork, a value that can be exponential depending on the magnitude of the artist’s gift. But after just one actual Foundation Drawing class (we’ve technically had three now but the first two were just introductory and we didn’t learn a lot), I’ve come to appreciate drawings like the one above exponentially more. I usually skip the Works on Paper section of museums, but now I plan to pay it a visit the next time I get to be in a museum. I know that my disregard of drawings is common, based partly on the fact that it was very difficult to find information about this sketch even though it was created by a major artist.

Anyway, now looking at this drawing by Ingres, what particularly interests me about it is the way he used line, pure line, to give the woman figure real substance. He managed to use shading to really convey the softness of the woman’s skin, which is amazing when you step back and realize this is made of nothing more than graphite on paper. I love how Ingres used a very faint line on the woman’s back because that is where the light source hits her body the most, while the front of her body possesses strong shading and is highly defined.

Linda Nochlin article on Orientalist Painting and My Response to It

28 Jan

In the last two posts I mentioned Linda Nochlin’s article The Imaginary Orient, which I read for my Modern Art class. I also had to write my response to that article as an assignment, so I thought I’d post the article and my response to it so that everyone had a better idea of Nochlin’s views and my own regarding Orientalist painting:

The Imaginary Orient, by Linda Nochlin

Nochlin’s crusade for political provocation

 

Enjoy!

Painting of the Day

28 Jan

Image

 

Death of Sardanapalus. by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). Oil on canvas, 1827. Currently on view at the Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Notes from louvre.fr:

This work confirms Delacroix’s desire to follow in the footsteps of the masters while allowing himself a certain freedom. At first sight, the combination of color and ornament and the energy emanating from the painting may overshadow the methodical and painstaking preparation that went into its construction. This magnificent work—so gigantic that Victor Hugo considered it “beyond small minds”—marked a decisive turning point in Delacroix’s career and in his era.

Delacroix, inspired by Byron’s tragedy Sardanapalus, drew on a range of influences to produce this painting: ancient sources such as Diodorus of Sicily, contemporaries including Victor Hugo and Rossini, and less obvious influences such as Etruscan sculpture, Persian miniatures, and Indian customs. Byron merely hinted at the outcome of his play, which he dedicated to Goethe: besieged by his enemies in his palace, Sardanapalus committed suicide. Delacroix, however, imagined that the king also burned his worldly possessions and everything that had given him pleasure: women, pages, horses, dogs, and treasures. The painter gave expression to his idea through a personal style resulting from his prodigious pictorial culture, a blend of French, Flemish, Dutch, Italian, English, Oriental, classical, and modern influences.

Above a burning pyre, King Sardanapalus, draped in white, reclines on a sumptuous jewel-inlaid bed adorned with gilded elephant heads and covered with scarlet fabric, as his cruel sentence is carried out. This complex, superhuman figure, both judge and executioner, actor and spectator, lies semi-recumbent on the bed, one hand supporting his head. With his beard and turban he resembles a Mughal or Qajar sultan, while his pose evokes a classical statue, a figure by Michelangelo, Delacroix’s Michelangelo in his Studio, Rembrandt’s Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, or Heraclitus in Raphael’s School of Athens.

The force of the composition matches the violence of the event; the subject matter, architectural setting, dramatic technique and tension, theatrical effects of light, and gestures of fear evoke the work of English painters such as Turner, William Etty, and John Martin. The painting is surprising too for the daring of its foreshortened perspective, for the effects of light, and for the cool, clear colors that propel the heart of the scene toward the viewer. The painting features a diagonal—emphasized by the flames of the pyre and the sensually writhing bodies—that crosses from bottom right to top left, its colors gradually changing from a deep red to a pearly pink against which the creamy flesh of the naked bodies and the raw white of the king’s drapery are accentuated.

As the city burns in the distance, the palace seems swept away on a raging wave that destroys all notion of hierarchy, gender, species, and rank. All logic is lost as masters, soldiers, slaves, men, women, animals, bodies, objects, attitudes, movements, materials, life, and death are tangled together in piteous disarray. Brutally cast into the furnace because of the king’s arrogant refusal to surrender, the figures are reminiscent of certain biblical characters, the groups in Charles le Brun’s series of paintings from the life of Alexander, or the massacre of the princes in Jacques-Louis David’s Funeral of Patroclus.

The women resemble the female figures painted by Correggio or Rubens; contrasting with the king’s perfect stillness, they are convulsed with horror, and take their own lives before having their throats slit by officers and slaves. The king’s favorite, Myrrha, lies at his feet, her back naked, her head and arms outstretched on the bed; a guard facing her draws his sword to kill a bare-shouldered female slave. Against a harmony of rich, muted, and refined tones at the bottom right of the funeral pyre, echoing the royal couple, a guard kills a slave whose voluptuous body and pearly golden skin are reminiscent of Rubens’s sea nymphs (in the Galerie Médicis in the Louvre). The bust of a naked woman lying in front of this couple evokes Delacroix’s Mulatto Woman; to their right, a man submits to his fate, head in hands, while another beseeches the king, one arm outstretched. In the half-light at the top right of the painting, Aischeh (whom the painter mentions in the Salon booklet) has hung herself. The central figures are set off by a more compact group to the left of the pyre. At the top, level with the king, his cup-bearer Baleah (also named in the booklet) presents him with a ewer, basin, and towel. A woman just below veils her face before a man who stabs himself in the chest. The brightness of the central scene is balanced by the bottom left corner, with the dark but translucent forearm of the black slave and the dapple gray of the horse he pulls toward the pyre. This small group, like the overall composition, recalls the vigor of painters such as Théodore Géricault, Antoine-Jean Gros, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, and Tintoretto.

Delacroix used well distributed colors, contrasts of light, shadow, and halftones, extremes of red and white, swift brushstrokes, and a subtle play of bold, vibrant impasto juxtaposed with clear bright glaze to glorify the smoothness of flesh, the shimmer of fabrics, and the gleam of the jewels and treasures in the foreground of his painting. This technique, coupled with rich and intricate ornamentation, creates a strong sense of life, movement, and aesthetic unity.

The many preparatory sketches made by the painter over a six-month period, in which he analyzed the movements and positions of the bodies, the accessories, the groups, the tension and dynamics of the scene, and the intensity of expressions, reflect his desire to dominate the overall composition yet preserve its spontaneity.

After the travels of Champollion and Dominique Vivant Denon, ancient oriental subjects were in vogue among both Neoclassical and contemporary painters, as were Egypt, Palmyra, Persia, and biblical themes. Delacroix knew that the only way of making his mark on his era was to interpret such subjects in a highly personal manner that would distinguish him from the great masters of the past. But devotees of classicism and institutional authorities judged his turbulent composition, with its cascade of figures, violent emotions, and muscular bodies, to be subversive, like the work of English painters who were considered avant-gardist. At the time, therefore, the question of form took priority over the artist’s reflection on civilization and destiny, and over the emotion of his work and its intellectual, sensual, poetic, visual, and spiritual expression.

My comments:

Coincidentally, this painting has appeared in my academic life several times, although I haven’t thought about it or seen it since AP Art History a year ago. First it appeared in the article I mentioned in my post yesterday by Linda Nochlin titled The Imaginary Orient, and she referenced it to make what I thought was a specious point that Delacroix was expressing his personal fantasies of dominating women with an oriental subject matter that would make his exploitation more acceptable to his french audience. 

The painting surfaced again today when I was talking about Marilyn Stokstad’s art history textbook with my art history professor Michael Cothren, who co-authored the latest edition of the textbook. He told me that Stokstad was adamant about not including any artwork in the textbook that depicted violence against women, and for her, Death of Sardanapalus was one of the worst offenders of this rule. 

My personal feeling is that no art, no matter what it depicts, should be excluded from a textbook or a museum. That is plain censorship. To me, it’s no different from banning Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray for its homosexual overtones. Students deserve the chance to see all art and discuss its controversial aspects, and decide for themselves whether it’s even controversial. Art History, in my mind, is a crucial discipline for telling us how people have lived in the world then and now. It’s so crucial that art historians and teachers don’t give them their preferred view of that world. 

Leaving that aside, I think this painting is very interesting for the way Delacroix has used countless undulating, curvilinear lines to evoke a sense of motion and chaos in the painting. For some reason whenever I see the painting, I think that the scene is on fire, even though upon second glance I can detect no evidence of flames. But the artist has done such a good job of evoking sheer mayhem and a sense of the apocalypse that it feels as if the scene should be on fire, for what we see playing out is just that crazy. 

Painting of the Day

27 Jan

The Snake Charmer. by Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904). Oil on canvas, c. 1870. Belongs to the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. 

Notes from clarkart.edu:

The Snake Charmer focuses on a naked boy handling a python while an old man plays a fipple flute. Watching intently is a group of mercenaries differentiated by the distinctive costumes of their tribes, by ornaments, and by weapons. Such erotic and exotic imagery of Near Eastern subjects was very popular in the late nineteenth century. Despite the nearly photographic realism employed by Gérome, the painting is a pastiche of Egyptian, Turkish, and Indian elements that have no basis in reality.

My comments:

This painting was used in an article from Art in America that I had to read for my Modern Art class, and it discussed the Orientalist work in terms of how France and other European countries used artists like Gerome to paint the Near East in a certain way for their citizens in the West and to use this contrived image to justify their imperialism and colonization of Africa and the Middle East, and even, in some cases, to give it a moral cause. The author of this article, Linda Nochlin, is responding to a recent exhibition (recent at the time of the article, which was written in 1983) about 19th century French Orientalist painting that refused to address the political motivations behind the painting. In her view, paintings such as The Snake Charmer simply cannot be analyzed and discussed honestly without addressing its overt creation of a fake facade of the Near East for French viewers. 

At first read, I was confused by the article because to me Orientalism referred to the fascination to Japanese painting that influenced many European artists in the 19th century (such as Degas and Van Gogh), a phenomenon known as Japonisme. But once I read the article again, all of Nochlin’s arguments made more sense, and I think she makes an important point about what we must consider when we interpret this painting. It’s not just the subject matter of the painting that leads viewers to have a certain image of the Near East in their head, although this is a major tool on the part of the artist. Even though the Near East was modernizing at a slower pace than France, it was still modernizing, but Gerome’s painting, which is typical of the Orientalist genre, makes the Near East appear as we probably would imagine it in Aladdin and Arabian Nights, where everyone is a nomad and has no concept of modern technology. One interesting formal element that distances us even further from the people in the painting, Nochlin interestingly pointed out, is that it places us as viewers not among the audience in the painting, but behind the snake charmer so we can also observe the audience. It’s almost like the snake charmer is just a pretense for the real show, which is the audience, an audience that most French citizens of the 19th century would know nothing about since they had never traveled to the Near East or received any honest information about that whole other world of different cultures. 

Modern Art survey course page updated!

25 Jan

Just a reminder that I’ve updated my Modern Art survey course page for which there is a link at the top of the homepage. The image above is a preview of what you’ll find there.

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