Monday Morning Art School: the human face

The best portrait painters drag us into the emotional space of their sitters.

Henry VIII at 49, 1540, Hans Holbein the Younger, courtesy Gallerie Nazionali d’arte antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome 

My students will be painting self-portraits this week. One of them asked me for a masterpiece to copy. Without hesitation, I recommended the Tennessee painter Tom Root.

My pal Eric Jacobsen calls Tom Root “a national treasure.” His Holiday (Rest on the Flight to Egypt) is one of the few paintings that carries the western tradition of religious painting successfully into the modern era. He’s technically superlative and keyed into the contemporary zeitgeist. Since I want my students to paint in the modern idiom, it’s best that she studies a modern painter.

La Monomane de l’envie (Insane Woman), 1822, Theodore Gericault, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon

The best portrait painters drag us into the emotional space of their sitters. That is why we can look at a Renaissance painting and feel that sudden start of connection. This is an absurdly truncated list that misses many masterpieces, but it’s a start for any student who wants to study portraiture.

Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight could be subtitled, “Look at me and my glorious hair.” Dürer chose to present himself with the iconography usually reserved for Christ, but he’s not saying he’s a god. Rather, he’s telling us that all followers of Jesus are imitators of Christ, and that his own talents are God-given.

How very different is the lesson in Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Book. Bronzino was a Medici court painter, and his portraits are all assured, stylish and reserved. This haughtiness reflects the rarified atmosphere in which he worked, but he still reveals the underlying vanity of youth in this young scholar whose name is lost to time.

The Jester Don Diego de Acedo, c. 1644, Diego Velázquez, courtesy Museo del Prado

Jan van Eyck is known to most of us for the Arnolfini Portrait, truly one of the most beautiful and enigmatic paintings ever made. Its complex iconography, perspective and rare attention to detail are absolutely clear, and yet we have no idea what the painting actually means.

In his day, he was best known for history painting, but the French romantic Theodore Gericault was a sensitive portraitist. He painted a series of ten portraits of the insane, on the encouragement of Dr. Étienne-Jean Georget, a pioneer in psychiatry. His best portraits are the inverse of Bronzino’s—humble, sensitive and honest.

Hans Holbein‘s art is superlatively realistic, and he was able to capture likenesses with rare facility. He had a penetrating understanding of character, and combined technical skill with allusion and symbolism. He must have been a skilled courtier himself, to have survived the intrigues of the English court as well as he did.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sir Anthony van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque artist who became the next great English court painter. He was a favorite of Charles I, and for good reasons: his keen observation, the liveliness of his depictions, and his ability to portray that most elusive of characteristics, majesty.

No list of portrait painters would be complete without Diego Velázquez. Hired to paint popes and princes, his affinity was to the court dwarves and jesters who were kept as enslaved human pets. That doesn’t mean he didn’t understand his regal subjects; his portrait of Pope Innocent X is the penetrating gaze of an ambitious and self-satisfied man.

Rembrandt is considered the greatest painter of the Dutch Golden Age. He was prolific in many genres, but particularly as a student of the human face—especially his own, which he used as a map of the human condition. His Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar is a masterly disquisition on the subject of aging. With age comes wisdom—and sagging jowls.

And then there’s John Singer Sargent, whose motto had to be “Give the people what they want.” He captured the incredible wealth of the Gilded Age, but it’s never clear that he likes his models. In many cases, he reduces them to mannikins, but in The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, he makes a poignant statement about the role of women and girls in society. The girls recede into space in order of age, with the eldest (Florence, age 14) almost enveloped in the darkness of the drawing room.

Analyzing your own work

Where do you fall in each of these scales? Where do you want to be?

The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599–1600, by Caravaggio, courtesy Contarelli Chapel, Rome. This model of Baroque painting has an open structure, lighting unity and relative clarity.

I have written about painterliness here, and here. It’s an important concept in contemporary art that was first coined by the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. He was trying to create an objective system for classifying styles of art in an age of raging Expressionism.  

Wölfflin was primarily concerned with the stylistic changes from the Classical to Baroque periods, but he was the first art historian to analyze paintings based on their internal, intrinsic values rather than just their place in social history. It’s too bad that his writing is so ponderous, because his pairs are useful tools for us to analyze our own work. Where do you fall in each of these scales? Where do you want to be? Remember, there’s no right or wrong answer, because each of these ideas has gone in and out of style many times in the history of painting.

Portrait of a Young Man with a Book, c 1540, Bronzino, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a linear, rather than painterly, painting. That doesn’t make it any less brilliant.

Linearity vs. painterliness:

Linear paintings have clearly defined, distinct shapes. Painterly paintings blur edges and forms to create a more unified surface.

La danse (first version), 1909, Henri Matisse, courtesy of MoMA, is a single-plane painting.


Plane vs. recession:

This is the contrast between a painting that operates with a simple foreground-background (like Mona Lisa, for example) and one with multiple planes coming together to create a form.

Nymphs and Satyr, 1873, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, courtesy Clark Art Institute, is a multiple-plane painting of the same subject. 


Closed vs. open:

Closed paintings are constructed using a structure of horizontal and vertical lines that contain them within the frame. Open paintings use diagonals, giving the feeling that there is an image continuing beyond the frame.

Annunciation, c. 1470, Benvenuto di Giovanni, is an example of clarity in lighting and a multiplicity of objects. Compare it to the Caravaggio above to see the amazing stylistic leap made in a century in Italian painting.

Multiplicity and unity:

Before the Baroque, paintings focused on detail. Individual items stood out independently, giving a sense of multiplicity. A united painting focuses on the whole and gives the sense of flow and motion. Unified light is a key element in making this possible.

Absolute vs. relative clarity:

In absolute paintings, the viewer can see everything that’s happening in the painting, and the subject is usually front-and-center. The light is even. In a relative structure, deep shadows draw and define our focus, which is unified across the whole painting.

Note: I have one opening in my Monday night class starting March 1. Additional information is here. If you’re interested, please let me know. 

Art history can make you a better painter

We are affected by what has happened before us, and we have the power to influence those who follow. 
Blueberry Barrens, Clary Hill, will be at Camden Falls Gallery’s Autumn Hues show, opening this Thursday.

I know a painter whose flawless technique is hitched to 19thcentury luminism. Another excellent painter watched him one day and sighed, “if he knew any art history, he’d be brilliant.” It was a sage comment. With a little understanding of modern art movements, my friend’s ability could be updated into something powerful, something that resonated with today’s viewers.

I’m not talking about putting on a new style like a shirt you bought at FatFace. That never works. Style is something that integrates one’s training, technique, emotional state, and personality. It’s what’s left when you’ve eliminated everything but inner truth. Done right, the artist has no more control over his or her style than he does over his autonomic nervous system. Try to put on an acquired style, and you’ll immediately be recognized as a poseur.
Downdraft snow in the Pecos, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas
But note that I included training in that equation. To paint like a 19th century luminist today means ignoring the impact of a century and a half of war, the horrors of government-sponsored genocide, and the relentless push-pull of modern urban living. It means ignoring abstract-expressionism, magical realism, the invention of movies, color photography, and the entire digital age. There’s a reason modern painting has an edge that 19thcentury painting didn’t.
Beach Erosion, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.
With rare exceptions, my art-history posts are the least-read of anything on this blog. (I moved to this platform in 2007 and have my stats since then, with the exception of the period I was writing for the Bangor Daily News.) It’s always disappointing to write about a great artist of the past and realize nobody cares to read about him or her. But, like cod liver oil, I know art history is good for you, so I’m going to continue to offer it regularly.
None of us stand alone in the great continuum of history. We are affected by what has happened before us, and we have the power to influence those who follow. But to do that, to take our rightful places as painters or teachers, we need to be part of our epoch. To do that, we must understand where we are and where we came from.
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard
That’s not limiting; it’s liberating. For example, observing how Bronzino painted energy into apparently-static portraits can make us better landscape or still-life painters. Our predecessors have experimented in color and composition in ways that can give us a firm foundation for our own exploration.
Understanding the goals of Rogier van der Weyden or Kazimir Malevich doesn’t make us paint like them. But understanding their place in the great sweep of time helps us to position ourselves in our place. Ultimately, that is the most important thing we learn through art history. It is the difference between a pretty painting and one that will have meaning to future generations.

Challenge to the ideal of femininity

Canadian painter Prudence Heward was an audacious post-Impressionist, and so much more.
Rollande, 1929, Prudence Heward, courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

When I first saw the painting above, I laughed aloud. I was painting badly, my nose dripping horribly. Young Rollandeperfectly echoed my mood. Kudos to the aficionado who texted it to me.

Rollande’s discontent is epitomized by her pink work apron. It is the initial focus of the painting and must have been loathsome to a girl with ambition. She stands, hands on hips, separated by a fence from the Quebec farm that is her lot in life. Even her posture is confrontational. She may be staring directly at us in the Modernist mode, but hers is no happy face. It’s almost as if we are part of the problem.
Compare her face to Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1530, and you sense where Prudence Heward is heading. Bronzino’s anonymous poet can stare with unsmiling hauteur and we understand that he is the cock of the walk. But women—especially low-status women—are supposed to be cheerful.
Sisters of Rural Quebec, 1930, Prudence Heward, courtesy Art Gallery of Windsor
Rollande also modelled for Heward’s Sisters of Rural Quebec, 1930. The younger girl is her sister, Pierrette. The composition is a brilliant, complex slash of diagonal and vertical lines. It serves to further isolate the sisters, both from each other and from us. Not only are their faces stark and emotional, but note the sunflower at the bottom left corner. It’s in darkness, a mute testimony to their ‘real’ life on the farm.
Apple Tree (Study for Portrait of Ellen), c. 1935, Prudence Heward, courtesy National Gallery of Canada.
“I think that of all the arts in Canada painting shows more vitality and has a stronger Canadian feeling,” Heward wrote in 1942. At that time, Canadian painting had reached a brilliant maturity, separate from its American and British siblings. It was uniquely reflective of the country, its circumstances, its ethos and its pride.
Anna, c. 1927, Prudence Heward, courtesy National Gallery of Canada. She looks as if she’s fallen in the snow.
Prudence Heward was primarily known as a figure painter, although I’ve included a few of her landscapes as well. She was not limited by traditional Québécois expectations herself. Rather, she was born in Montreal to a large, affluent family who supported her artistic inclinations.
During World War I she served with the Red Cross in England. Returning to Canada, she resumed painting, joining the modernist Beaver Hall Hill Group. Her first exposition was in 1924; her first solo show in 1932.
Farmhouse and Car, c. 1933, Prudence Heward, courtesy National Gallery of Canada.
In 1925, she went to Paris on scholarship, studying at the Académie Colarossi. Her work was profoundly influenced by the monumentality and color sensitivity of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisseand Henri Rousseau.
In Paris, she met her lifelong friend, Isabel McLaughlin. Together, they returned to Paris in 1929 and took sketching classes at the Scandinavian Academy. Heward traveled with McLaughlin and other artist friends throughout her life. They visited the Heward summer home near Brockville on the Saint Lawrence, northern Ontario, the Laurentians and Bermuda. In 1933, Prudence Heward co-founded the Canadian Group of Painters, the successor group to the Group of Seven
The Immigrants, Prudence Heward, 1929, private collection, Toronto
A serious car accident in 1939 was the beginning of the end of her career. She continued to paint until 1945, when her health problems forced her to give up her brush. Primary was her worsening asthma. She was seeking treatment for it in Los Angeles when she died in 1947 at the age of fifty. It was an unfortunate, untimely loss for Canadian painting.