Everything I know about stretching canvases I learned in 4H

Start, as you always do, by squaring off the stretchers. Use a mallet to get them true and check all four corners.
Last month I was building the large canvases for my spring show when Jane Bartlett stopped by. “Any bimbo can build a small canvas of cotton duck,” I fretted, “but sometimes these linen beasts get out of true, and then they’re a bear to frame.”
Once I had the fabric true on the warp and weft, I carefully folded it in quarters and set it aside.
Stretcher bars are designed to float with atmospheric changes, hence the little wooden “keys” that come with them. While having a solid hardwood stretcher makes life a lot easier for the canvas-builder, there is no long-term benefit in locking down the corners by stapling or screwing them together. When it shrinks, a big sheet of loom-state linen is going to pummel its stretchers into compliance.
Lining up the creases with the marked midpoints of my stretchers assures me the canvas will be truly square.
Little canvases sit quietly on a table begging to be stapled. After a certain size, you have to start manhandling them. The easiest way to prevent them from being knocked out of true is to temporarily screw them together at a 45° angle. But that in itself is a lot of work, requiring some woodworking skill, and you should remove the screws when you’re done stapling.
The first staples should be hand-tight, no more.
Jane (who is a textile designer) suggested I stop thinking of it as a construction problem and start thinking about it as a textile problem. So I applied some of my dimly-remembered 4H sewing knowledge.
And, yes, you will probably have to remove and replace staples to get the cross straight, but it’s worth it. 
The weft in fabric isn’t necessarily perpendicular to the warp, particularly if it’s from the bottom of a bolt. While you can use the reel to align your horizontal (weft) cuts, you’ve got no guarantee you’re cutting along the grain. The only true straight-edge you have is the selvage edge of the fabric. But using that, you can find any number of true vertical (warp) lines with careful measuring. You can cut down the fabric to the right size along these verticals.
Work around the canvas in a circle, adding a staple to each side until you reach the edges. The linen doesn’t need to be drum-tight,.
Then enlist a friend to help you fold the fabric in half along the vertical. Grasping each corner firmly, tug it diagonally in alternating directions. Eventually, you will get it more or less squared off. (If you’re doing it right, the ends will probably be cockeyed.)
Trim the edges when you finish. (If you want to make gallery-wrap canvases, I can’t help you; I frame everything.)
Once I was certain I had my fabric with the warp and weft more or less perpendicular, I folded each piece in quarters. Loomstate linen takes a crease beautifully, so the creases became my stapling guide.
Then check the square again when you’re finished.
I marked each stretcher bar’s midpoint with pencil. By lining the creases up with these pencil marks, I was sure I was creating a canvas that would pull tightly on the square. The first set of staples, across the midriff of the canvas, should be hand-tight, no tighter. From there I stapled the vertical set. Yes, I had to take staples out at this point and adjust them, but if those four staples yield a straight cross at the right tension, the rest of the canvas must line up true.
Finally, time to pour a little acrylic gesso on your loomstate linen. (If you want the disquisition about why I don’t use PVA and oil-based gesso, just ask.)
From here I was back on familiar territory. I used canvas pliers and worked out from the center, adding two staples to each side and then rotating 90 degrees. The goal isn’t to tighten the fabric as far as you can; the goal is to tighten it as evenly as you can. Watch the fabric grain as you go; if it’s out of line, you’ve messed something up.
Use your strigil to push the gesso into the grain. At this stage, less is more; it’s easier to add more gesso than to remove a gloppy excess from a canvas.
I did eight 40X48” canvases with this technique. It was a lot faster than fixing the corners, and the canvases (now finished) look true to me.

And do the edges and clean up any ridges with an old spalter brush and you’re done. Go have a beer; you’ve earned it!
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Who’s crazy now?

The Prisoners, 1908, Käthe Kollwitz, from A Weaver’s Revolt.
Yesterday, a reader sent me this, after commenting that Käthe Kollwitz’ Woman with Dead Child was a frightening drawing: “It is believed Käthe Kollwitz suffered from anxiety during her childhood due to the death of her siblings. More recent research suggests that Kollwitz may have suffered from a childhood neurological disorder called Alice in Wonderland syndrome, commonly associated with migraines and sensory hallucinations…”
One presumes part of this fantastical diagnosis has to do with the monumental scale of Kollwitz’ work, since Alice in Wonderland syndrome includes seeing things as either really big or really small. Part of the nature of sculpture is its monumentality, but Kollwitz was a woman. Nobody says this kind of thing about Henry Moore, so evidently there are still art critics out there who suffer from visual gender dimorphism.
The Carmagnole (Dance Around the Guillotine), 1901, Käthe Kollwitz.
Kollwitz was a misfit. She was born in Bismarck’s Prussia; she was three years old when the Franco-Prussian War started. Yet her parents and grandparents were dissident, religious, pacifist socialists who thought enough of her potential as an artist to send her to Munich to study.
A glimpse of the happy girl whom the woman might have become: Kollwitz’ self portrait from 1889.
As a woman artist, she is almost unique in having had the unconditional support of both her father and husband to pursue her career.  She married a socialist doctor, Dr. Karl Kollwitz, who worked among Berlin’s poor. But their own political beliefs could not inoculate them against tragedy. Their two sons, Hans and Peter, immediately enlisted at the outbreak of hostilities in June, 1914.
“The whole thing is so ghastly and insane. Occasionally there comes that foolish thought: how can they possibly take part in such madness? And at once the cold shower: they must, must!” she wrote.
The Grieving Parents, 1932, Käthe Kollwitz, now in Diksmuide, West Flanders, Belgium. This was executed as a memorial to her son Peter, who died at Diksmuide.
Later that year, Peter was killed at the Battle of the Yser in Diksmuide, Belgium—one of a staggering 140,000 casualties over two weeks. Kollwitz sought peace in her work and could not find it. “When [the grief] comes back I feel it stripping me physically of all the strength I need for work. Make a drawing: the mother letting her dead son slide into her arms. I might make a hundred such drawings and yet I do not get any closer to him. I am seeking him. As if I had to find him in the work… For work, one must be hard and thrust outside one-self what one has lived through. As soon as I begin to do that, I again feel myself a mother who will not give up her sorrow.”
As lifelong socialists, the couple worked actively to combat the rise of fascism. Adolph Hitler responded by demanding that Kollwitz resign from the Prussian Academy of Arts and banning Dr. Kollwitz from practicing medicine.  “For fourteen years… I have worked together peacefully with these people. Now the Academy directors have had to ask me to resign. Otherwise the Nazis had threatened to break up the Academy. Naturally I complied.”
Mother with Two Children, 1932-36, Käthe Kollwitz.
By then, Kollwitz was a world-famous artist and they were invited to seek asylum elsewhere. They refused, fearing reprisals against their family. Instead, they made a mutual suicide pact in the event of a return visit by the Gestapo. Dr. Kollwitz died in 1940 and they lost a grandson, also named Peter, on the Russian Front in 1942. Their house and much of her work was destroyed by British bombers in November, 1943.
Kollwitz died on April 22, 1945, two weeks before the cessation of European hostilities. “War accompanies me to the end,” she wrote.
Hunger, 1923, Käthe Kollwitz
Kollwitz’ work speaks in the universal language of death, poverty, grief, war and famine, which is why her work has had such a lasting impact. But these were not what she set out to paint. “How can one cherish joy when there is really nothing that gives joy? And yet the imperative is surely right. For joy is really equivalent to strength.”

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

That’s insane.

Woman with Dead Child, 1903, Kathe Kollwitz. The majority of 20th century artists presented madness and grief as a terrifying spectacle. Kollwitz, uniquely, empathized with those who were suffering.

Last week when I wrote about modern culture’s inexorable squeeze toward a single mode of thinking, I had a vague idea that it might be interesting to look at how madness has been painted. This proved more difficult than I expected.
Insane Woman, 1822, Théodore Géricault, from his Monomania series.
The modern era has just too much to choose from—Edward Munch’s The Scream, Van Gogh’s self-portrait sans ear, the entire oeuvre of German Expressionism.  Théodore Géricault’s Monomania series has a certain appeal, since they were an experiment in using art in the service of science. The trouble is, the subjects look less mad than grumpy, and they’re a singularly uninviting bunch of paintings.
Géricault’s criminally insane subjects seem almost normal in comparison with his Romantic portraits, but he came of age during the French Revolution. In such circumstances, there is a blurred line between sanity and insanity. Géricault himself studied the heads of guillotine victims because he believed that character was most revealed in extremis. Nothing nuts about that, is there?

St. Bartholomew Exorcising, c. 1440-1460, the Master of the St. Bartholomew Altarpiece. Although we don’t know the identity of this painter, about 25 of his works have survived. It is presumed that he was trained in the Netherlands, although he worked in Cologne; he is considered to have been the last Gothic painter active in that city.
For all the stuff that is in there, “demonic possession” is not recognized in any versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, psychiatry, as a discipline, is a little more than 150 years old; exorcism has been with us since the dawn of time and spans religious barriers. It has been practiced historically in almost every major religion that believes that man has a soul.

Desperation, 1306. In this fresco, Giotto attributed suicide to the presence of a demon, top left.
Goya painted St. Francis de Borja performing the rite of exorcism at least twice. By the time he was painting, exorcisms were in sharp decline in the western world, ushered out by the Age of Reason. Oddly enough there has been a sharp rise in exorcisms since the middle of the 20thcentury. Perhaps this is a romantic notion spawned by television and movies, or it may represent our disaffection with psychiatry.

San Francisco de Borja attends a dying unrepentant sinner, c. 1788, by Francisco Goya. Fr. Francis was an early leader of the Jesuit order, and was widely regarded during his own lifetime as a saint. Goya depicted this 16th century exorcism from a more modern viewpoint than Fr. Francis’s contemporary would have; the beasts waiting to devour the unrepentant soul are not concrete.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Culture of Excess

Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt, 1551,Pieter Aertsen
My friend Dan Gowing was writing his Sunday school lesson this week when he realized just how efficient Jesus was with the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. The Gospel of Mark records that there were twelve baskets left after feeding 5,000 men and their families. Dan’s conclusion is that you can’t actually get anything you want from Jesus’ restaurant but you just might find you get what you need.
My holiday motto generally is, “What’s worth doing is worth doing to excess.” In that I am a typical American. Our Thanksgiving dinner alone usually has about twelve baskets of leftovers.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Rudolf II as Vertumnus, 1590, takes “you are what you eat” to its ultimate level. It’s not mere whimsy, but symbolizes “the majesty of the ruler, the copiousness of creation and the power of the ruling family over everything.” (Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann) He’s not Dutch, but he sure is good.

In November, I postedabout Norman Rockwell’s iconic Freedom from Want and how its table is almost bare by modern standards. When Rockwell painted this a mere 70 years ago our self-identity was still Puritan. Today we wallow in outsized appetites, and we’re all pretty fat. In fact, we’re far more like the Dutch Golden Age than our own recent ancestors. Of course, back then the Dutch were rich like us.
On the other hand, most of us miss the point of those Dutch paintings entirely. If we see them just as a celebration of bounty or a cock’s crow of vanity, we’re missing the warning sign buried in them.
Shop, with the Flight into Egypt, top, is in fact an allegory. The Holy Family, inset in a window frame, distributes alms to the poor as they leave. A merry group is seen eating shellfish (a symbol of lust) through the other window. The sign at the top tells you that the land is for sale, leading you to understand that all of this is available at a moral price.
Still life, 1644, Adriaen van Utrecht. This canvas includes almost all the elements common to great Dutch still lives. The presence of so much exotica points to the great wealth of the Dutch Republic. However, within this epic are buried memento mori:  the seashell represents human frailty; the spotted fruit, our own aging and decay; the music, the brevity of life. Like life, the peeled lemon is pretty to look at but bitter to taste.

Several cultural forces in the Dutch Republic led to their love of still life. The rise in interest in natural science in the 16th century supported a concurrent rise in realism in painting (trompe l’oeil being the highest expression of this). By the 17th century, the Dutch Republic dominated world trade and had a vast colonial empire. They operated the largest fleet of merchant ships in the world.
But while they were rich and famously religiously tolerant, they were also strictly Calvinist. Icons were forbidden in the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church. Painters were forced to deal with religious subjects through symbolism. Their vanitaspaintings point out the transience of our earthly pleasures.
Flowers in a Silver Vase, 1663, by Willem van Aelst, includes a pocketwatch (time), poppies (death), roses (Christian faith), tulips (folly), dragonfly (transience), and butterfly (resurrection).
This was particularly easy with flowers. A language of flower symbolism had developed through the Middle Ages. These were both positive (such as the rose and lily representing love in both its divine and human manifestation) and negative (the poppy representing death). 
The presence of symbols of impermanence, such as candles, hourglasses, a book with pages turning, or buzzing flies, reminded the viewer that sensory pleasures are ephemeral.
The modern equivalent, of course, is the food photograph. Its similarity is in the excess, but it lacks self-awareness.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Crazy artists

Pietà, (1498-99) Michelangelo. There’s been speculation that Michelangelo was somewhere on the autism spectrum. His hygiene was abysmal, he didn’t like talking to others, and he was monomaniacally focused on his work. And yet he exerted an unparalleled influence on western thinking, as a sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer.

I meet myself in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders with tiresome regularity. The creative personality (and I’m no exception) is frequently impulsive, non-conformist, and motivated by what less-enlightened minds might call fantasy.
In the past, people actually understood that as a thinking pattern. Today, we define impulsivity and fantastical thinking as personality disorders. No child with this personality type will be allowed through school without being subjected to a program of therapy and drugs to ‘normalize’ him or her.
The Yellow Christ, 1889, Paul Gauguin.  Despite his success, Gauguin was certainly crazy by our standards, suffering from depression and alcoholism until he abandoned civilization for Tahiti, where he spent the last few years of his life painting in peace.
An exasperated educator once told my husband and me that they needed to prepare our kids for the “real world.” What does an educator know about reality? He works in a highly-regimented environment whose goals are not the goals of the larger world.
At the time, my husband was telecommuting with a Boston software start-up; I paint full time. Our “normal” wasn’t even in most people’s viewfinder. We didn’t have a typical life, but we certainly had a self-sufficient, productive and respectable one.
St. Catherine of Alexandria, 1595-1596, Caravaggio. Psychoanalyzing Caravaggio is a popular activity now, but there’s no doubt that even his contemporaries found him unsettling. The model for this painting was Fillide Melandroni, who posed for several works by Caravaggio. He tried to castrate her pimp, Tomassoni, and struck his femoral artery instead, killing him. Among the bully boys of 16th century Rome, if a man insulted another man’s woman, the penalty was castration. It was an age of brawling, and any attempt to interpret it by our social code is bound to fail.
Our schools can’t cope with the creative kid who doesn’t fit into any mold. In the past, that child might have gone on to be a Bill Gates, Rachael Ray, or Ingvar Kamprad (founder of IKEA), but in the modern world, most avenues are closed to people without education.
Then there’s the question of what happens when something goes wrong. As a society, we have a knack for pathologizing absolutely normal human responses.
I have the personality of a terrier. I bite first and ask questions later; however, as with my dog, my instincts are usually spot-on. Like a watchdog, when things go wrong, I stay awake. Both times I have been sick, my first response was insomnia. That is commonly treated with antidepressants. I fell for that the first time, with awful results. This time, I’m recognizing my insomnia for what it is—a normal psychological reaction—and just enduring it.
Our ancestors used to formally identify the emotionally-bruised and set them apart so they didn’t have to experience the full thrust of human interaction. Nobody expected you to behave normally when you were traumatized, which in part obviated the need for antidepressants. Today we don’t even wear black to funerals; to wear it for a year after a loss is unthinkable. Yet, when one in ten Americans are taking antidepressants, one might conclude that unrecognized and unprocessed grief comes back to bite us.
Cats by Louis Wain. He spent time in an asylum, but his artistic skills never diminished. That indicates that whatever was going on, he wasn’t schizophrenic. Today he wouldn’t be considered mentally ill; he would be a star on social media, with its outsized interest in cats.
Similarly, there is a lot to make us anxious in the modern world. Every adolescent I’ve ever known has in some degree suffered from an anxiety disorder, because the natural state of the adolescent is anxiety. Much of this is emotional noise and just needs to be waited out. It’s helpful to point that out to a kid; it’s not as helpful to tell him that he’s fundamentally flawed and can only function with drugs.
More seriously, post-traumatic stress disorder is what happens when a healthy human mind is traumatized. How, then, is it an illness? Is it not in fact a normal response to an intolerable situation? If so, does it not make sense that the human mind also has an answer to it in its own depths? How useful is it to tell its sufferers that they’re somehow irretrievably broken, especially since there’s no good comprehensive treatment for PTSD?
In the past—ironically enough—the deeply traumatized individual might have been guided to write or paint or otherwise express his or her fears through creative expression. Too bad that we now want to just wipe that out with drugs.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

America’s favorite folk art form

Nativity crèche at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester, NY. This follows the German custom of not placing the Christ Child in place until Christmas. I confess to secretly plotting for years with my friend Judie to steal this and resurrect it on our Town Triangle on a Friday night, in the belief that nobody could call to complain until after sundown on Saturday. But my respect for the crèche’s creator, Al Bullwinkle, always stays my hand.
Every November the United States schedules a ruckus over removing religious symbols from our public spaces. Despite that, the Nativity crèche remains our favorite folk art form, at least now that those plywood cutouts of gardener’s butts are passé.
St. Francis instituting the crèche at Greccio, painted by Giotto sometime around 1300.
St. Francis of Assisi is generally credited with creating the first Nativity scene. It was 1223, and he was attempting to center Christmas on the worship of Christ rather than on materialism and gift giving. It was a Living Nativity, and he staged it in a cave. Not only did he not make much headway against crass commercialism, the next year the Church recorded the first fight over who got to play the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Metropolitan Museum has a magnificent 18th century Neapolitan crèche set, which changes every year as they add new pieces.
The first sculpted Italian terra cotta Nativity sets were created shortly after that, probably because they couldn’t talk back. As crèches were scaled down to fit in homes, their construction shifted to include wood, wax, and plaster. Like other icons, many were forms of tow and wire with beautifully-sculpted faces and hands, dressed in lovely silk clothing. The custom reached its zenith in 18th century Naples. The Metropolitan Museum has an outstanding collection of these crèche figures.
Today there are plastic Fontanini sets from Italy, plaster crèches from Bavaria, Kraków szopka from Poland, carved-wood sets from South America, paper nativities—in short the crèche tradition has as many variations as the world has cultures.  Nobody loves them more than Americans, where we translate the Holy Family into Peanuts™ characters and turn nativity sets into collectibles that we then bid up into dazzling prices in our other art form, the marketplace.
Polish nativity set, or Kraków szopka. I have a beautiful polychrome nativity set, one made of pressed clay by my kids, and a mismatched plaster set made by my sister and brother and me in Sunday school almost fifty years ago. All are equally precious to me.
I live in a place whose town triangle in December is graced not by a crèche, but by a sewer-pipe menorah. Nativity crèches have great currency even here. I get great joy from peeking at them through lighted windows this time of year.
The blessings of the season be with you!

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

It is what it is…

Cartoon for an oil painting of Dr. Bernard Plansky removing my surgical staples.

By the time you read this, I will be snoring softly under a general anesthetic while the very gifted Dr. Eugene P. Toy takes a sharp knife to my innards.

This is my sixth surgery in fourteen years. If a stranger told me that, I’d think either he was suffering from Münchausen syndrome or had had so much plastic surgery that he ought to look as good as Michael Jackson.  But neither is true here. Nor am I particularly worried. This is a horrible clanger in my schedule, but I’m confident that I’m in God’s hands.

All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go. That includes not just nail polish, but greyscale markers, drawing paper, and a sketchbook. And my list of paintings.
I did the above cartoon after a memorable day with our family doctor, Dr. Bernard Plansky, in 2000. (He’s the guy responsible for catching my first cancer after an internist and gastroenterologist missed it; if you object to my presence here, take it up with him.) Rather than drive back to Roswell Park to have my staples removed, I asked him to do it.

He had a resident with him whose job was basically to hold my hand to stop me from whining. Dr. Plansky asked if the resident could pull a few staples for the experience. I’m all for apprenticeship, so of course I said yes. But my deal was that I got to remove one myself. The great blessing of my life is that even the darkest times end up being a little absurd, and thus filled with laughter.

I  made canvases for my spring show before my hospitalization. That’s nine large linen canvases in the back, and bunch of sketch boards in the front. They’ll be totally dry by the time I get home. I plan just to draw in hospital, but if they don’t spring me fast enough, I’ll bring in contraband art supplies.
I never painted this self-portrait, but I still like the idea. However, it has to wait until I’m done with my current project. To that end, I’ve made nine beautiful big linen canvases. I’ve toned them and my sketch boards. They’ll be thoroughly dry when I get home. I’ve packed my sketchbook and my greyscale markers. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Six Days of Advent: The Magi

The Adoration of the Magi (tapestry), 1904, by Edward Burne-Jones. Note the angel leading the magi with the Star of Bethlehem cupped in his hands.
My father occasionally talked about the last time he saw his father. He said he was a very small boy, and there had been a blizzard on St. Patrick’s Day, and he and his mother saw his father briefly on the street.
After he was long dead, I realized he was talking about the Great St. Patrick’s Day Blizzard of 1936, when he was, in fact, 12 years old. That time compression, in an odd way, lends verisimilitude to his tale. We can all understand a fatherless boy conflating the two most memorable events of his young childhood. There is nothing rehearsed or too perfect about that: it sings from the heart.
Adoration of the Magi, 1504, Albrecht Dürer. The Bible doesn’t specify that there were Three Wise Men; it doesn’t say one was black; it doesn’t name them Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior. 
The visit of the Magi to the infant Christ child has a star hanging over it: the Star of Bethlehem. The identity of this star has interested scientists for as long as we have studied the heavens. It may have been the conjunction of planets or stars, it may have been Halley’s Comet, which showed up in 12 BC. It may have been another comet detected in the Far East around 5 BC.

Dream of Three Wise Men. Capital from Autun cathedral, mid-12th century, Ghiselbertus of Autun.
The trouble is that none of these events line up perfectly enough to satisfy an image of the Magi worshipping the newborn Christ in the manger. (Of course, the story doesn’t say he was a newborn, either.) The slight misalignment between the Gospel story and what science currently says gives it the ring of truth.

Detail from Mary and Child, surrounded by angels, 526 AD, Master of Sant’Apollinare, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.
We translate “magi” as “wise men” but they were probably actually astrologers: men who studied the influence of the heavenly spheres on the lives of mere mortals. That’s a discipline we completely discount today, but who better to follow a star to the Living God?
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Six Days of Advent: The Shepherds

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, Chinese. 20th century, Unknown Artist (and that’s a pity, because it’s a wonderful painting).

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, 1663, Abraham Hondius. This is exactly what I see in my mind’s eye, including the fat little putti.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
Annunciation to the Shepherds, first half of 17th century, Juan Dò. Until recently, this painting was unattributed, which is oddly appropriate, considering it’s a portrait of the lowest of the low.
Because of the time compression of the Bible, we get the impression that angels regularly zipped down to earth. I’m no theologian, but that doesn’t seem to be strictly true. There are a lot of visitations of angels in the early times recorded in Genesis—to Adam and Eve, to Hagar, to Sarah and Abraham, to Lot, to Jacob. Perhaps the most charming story of angels appears in Numbers, when Balaam is being such a jerk that the angel works through his donkey instead.
The visitations by angels in the Old Testament happened over thousands of years. On the other hand, during the brief period in which Jesus and his disciples lived, angels seemed awfully active. Angels were with Jesus at his birth, at his temptation in the desert, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the tomb was empty, and at his ascension to heaven. Likewise, an angel appeared to Peter when in prison.
The Annunciation to the Shepherds, 1875, Jules Bastien-Lepage, who is most famous for his brilliant Jeanne d’Arc at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Mary, of course, received a visit from the angel Gabriel, and Joseph was spoken to by an angel. But those darn shepherds; now, that’s a weird story. If Joseph and Mary were nobodies in the Roman Empire, those shepherds were lower than dirt. And yet Caesar Augustus sat alone in his palace and a whole choir of angels came down to talk to the shepherds in Bethlehem instead.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Six Days of Advent: The Mystical Nativity

The Nativity, 1912, Sir Stanley Spencer. Joseph is off to the right, doing something to the chestnut tree.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Raphael, Rubens, Tiepolo, Correggio, and the other great painters who’ve painted exquisite Nativities. But there is something arresting about the mystical nativity, where reality is somehow subsumed in spiritual fervor.
Sir Stanley Spencer painted the Nativity, top, as a student at Slade in 1912. He later explained:
The couple occupy the centre of the picture, Joseph who is to the extreme right doing something to the chestnut tree and Mary who stands by the manger…  Joseph is only related to Mary in this picture by some sacramental ordinance… This relationship has always interested me and in those early works I contemplated a lot of those unbearable relationships between men and women.  
The embracing couple represents physical love in contrast to Mary and Joseph’s spiritual connection. That goes with Spencer’s amazingly messed-up attitudes toward women and sex. Spencer’s strict separation between the spiritual and the physical is the neo-Platonic trap into which many of the mystic painters fall. The whole point of the Incarnation is that God becomes man, sharing our joys, sorrows, and, yes, the messy realities of our births and deaths.

Nativity, 1310, Giotto. Joseph seems to be sleeping.

Giotto is generally considered the first Renaissance painter, but he was firmly in touch with his medieval self. That gave him a leg up for mysticism. The pre-Renaissance world was able to see in a non-literal way that is almost completely lost to us. This allows the infant John the Baptist to sit at the bottom of the frame while Jesus is being born, and the almost-disembodied angels that arch across the top of the painting like a Byzantine architrave.

The Nativity, 1492, Domenico Ghirlandaio. You have to zoom in to see her laser-beam prayer. What is it with poor Joseph? Asleep again.

Domenico Ghirlandaio painted the Virgin Mary sending laser beams of prayer down to the infant Jesus while a heavenly choir sings above. The columns and one-point perspective point us that much farther along the Renaissance.  All that gold leaf you’re seeing in the Italian paintings of this time is supposed to remind you of the untarnished nature of the story.

The Mystical Nativity, 1500-01, Sandro Botticelli. Believe it or not, Joseph is sleeping.

Sandro Botticelli described the Nativity as the moment when heaven and earth touch. He was painting at the apogee of the Italian Renaissance, which accounts for the more concrete nature of his visionary angels—he couldn’t throttle back on the realism like Giotto or Ghirlandaio . In his later years, Botticelli fell under the influence of a fanatical Florentine preacher, Savonarola. There is something almost manic in the earthly action in this painting that points to the spiritual oppression of the time.
The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, 1434-36, Jan van Eyck. Joseph doesn’t even show up for this one.
By the fifteenth century, the idea of the Virgin Mary as intercessor for the sinful had gained traction. Jan van Eyck’s The Madonna with Canon van der Paele shows the donor beseeching the Virgin Mary and Sts. Donatian and George. The intense realism and the fine architectural drawing contrast with the unreality of these four figures sharing a common space.
The Nativity, c. 1810, William Blake. At least Joseph is actually present.
William Blake painted the above panel, on copper, concurrently with his Europe, a Prophecy, from which comes his wonderful Ancient of Days painting. At about the same time, he also painted a series of watercolors illustrating Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”:
It was the winter wild,
While the Heav’n-born child,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies…
But Blake, as usual, strayed off into his neo-Platonic world-view. Here the soul of Jesus leaps fully formed toward the soul of John the Baptist. No encumbrances such as the messy reality of childbirth or our imprisonment in our fleshly bodies gets in the way.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!