A paean to black paint

Avoiding black keeps you from some of the most elegant colors available in painting.

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, available. Black can make a whole array of beautiful greens.

One of the absurdities of 20th century art education was the injunction to ‘never use black.’ That limits artists from some of the most elegant colors available in painting. The argument is supposedly based on Claude Monet’s palette; he never used black and you shouldn’t either. Like the so-called Zorn Palette, that’s a stew of half-truth and myth. Most artists’ palettes shift over time.

Asked in 1905 what colors he used, Monet said: “The point is to know how to use the colors, the choice of which is, when all’s said and done, a matter of habit. Anyway, I use flake white, cadmium yellow, vermilion, deep madder, cobalt blue, emerald green, and that’s all.” But earlier in his career, he certainly used a wider palette, including black.

The Servant, 36X40, available. Black is invaluable in creating skin tones.

The argument went that Impressionists avoided black because it doesn’t exist in nature. Black certainly does exist in nature: in basalt, in deep shadows, and in the subtle undertones in animals and people.

Moreover, it was argued, the painterly effects created by managing warm and cool hues are richer and brighter than those created by manipulating tones and shades. They’re more brilliant, certainly, because adding black (or white) always reduces chroma. But part of painting is the dance between high chroma and neutrals.

Anyway, Monet’s buddy and fellow founder of Impressionism Édouard Manet used black paint by the bucketful.

Monet said a mouthful in that quote, however, and it wasn’t the list of colors (most of which would not be great choices in the 21stcentury). Most of us choose paint colors purely out of habit. We become familiar with them and develop deep loyalty to them. That’s smart, as long as we choose wisely to start with.

But then the painter often gets into the bad habit of only mixing colors in a certain way. And that, in the tail end of the 20thcentury, meant never using black.

Obviously, you should never make grey by mixing black and white, because it’s lifeless. But there are many subtle colors available only through black admixture.

Black admixture chart of my palette. You should make one too.

In painting:

  • Tint is a mixture of a color with white;
  • Tone is a mixture of a pigment with grey (black plus white);
  • Shade is a mixture of a pigment with black.

What we consider acceptable in color-mixing is style-driven, just like everything else. For example, see the Permanent Pigments Practical Color Mixing Guide of 1954, below. It’s all about making shades and tints. That’s a hint about why mid-century paintings looked so grey, and probably why the pendulum then swung so far in the other direction. A little shading goes a long way.

Yes, it’s a mess. It’s been kicking around various paint boxes in my family since 1954.

This antipathy to carbon-based blacks resulted in Gamblin’s introduction of chromatic black, which is a convenience mix and thus a waste of money. Like all ‘hues’ It simply doesn’t mix true.

This product was a response to market demand. It’s very hard to paint without some black on your palette, and the real stuff was banned by the cognoscenti. But when I was in school (she says with a geriatric cackle) chromatic black was something we were taught to mix. That’s a valuable exercise in complements. Buying it premixed in a tube circumvents the point.

The meaning of (some) art

Still life occupies the lowest rung among genres, but it’s also invested with deep meaning—whether or not the artist intends it.

Roses dans un vase de verre, 1883, Édouard Manet, private collection

If archeologists are correct, the objects painted on walls in Egyptian tombs are grave goods meant to go with the deceased into the afterlife. Their meaning is clear. You take into the afterlife what you valued and needed in life.

Still-Life Found in the Tomb of Menna, c. 14thcentury BC, courtesy The Yorck Project 

In western art, there has always been a spoken or unspoken hierarchy of genres, with still life occupying the lowest niche. In Greco-Roman villas, ‘vulgar’ subjects like fruits and vegetables adorned walls and floors. By the Middle Ages, still life was beginning to appear as side notes in more serious paintings. The Northern Renaissance painters treated still life as its own form, with fantastical flower paintings. These pieces seem like overblown bouquets to us, but they in fact depicted flora from different countries at peak bloom. They reflected the dawning European interest in science.

Flowers in a Wooden Vessel, 1606-1607, Jan Brueghel the Elder, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum

The Dutch Golden Age painters did much to improve the reputation of still life painting. Still life’s job was to reinforce social values. Vanitas painting expounds the futility of worldly pleasures. There is much overlap in symbols with memento mori, which reminds the viewer of the inevitability of death.

Vanitas with a skull, c. 1671, Philippe de Champaigne, courtesy Musée de Tessé 

Common symbols included skulls, time pieces and flowers, as in Philippe de Champaigne’s stark Vanitas, above. Rotten fruit and insects meant decay. Musical instruments told us that life is ephemeral. Fruit, flowers and butterflies spoke to the same truth. My favorite symbol is the lemon, which, like life, is beautiful to look at but bitter to the taste. (Oddly, coffee—which was brought in large scale to Europe by the Dutch East India Company—played no part in still life iconography, despite its addictive qualities.)

Take Your Choice, 1885, John F. Peto, courtesy National Gallery of Art

Trompe-l’œil (‘deceive the eye’) has been with us as long as artists have painted, but a specific subset of it—objects on a wall or within a frame—were painted for narrative effect. Books, letters, guns, tools, dead game, playing cards and other art ‘tacked’ up on a wall were popular themes through the 19th century.

Les Anemones, c. 1900-1910 Odilon Redon, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art 

In the twentieth century, meaning took a radical turn. It stopped being about symbols and became about the artist’s own psyche. Odilon Redon, for example, wrote that he wanted to place “the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.” Pablo Picasso famously said, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” Everything Picasso painted was autobiographical.

Still life, 1938, Lee Krasner, courtesy National Gallery of Australia

From there it was a short jump to the position of the later 20th century, when meaning was banished from art entirely. It became about form and color, rather than anything the artist wanted to say.

Despite this, the artist’s own viewpoint inevitably creeps in. Édouard Manet was unfortunately afflicted with syphilis, which was in his time incurable. In his mid-forties, he developed what he thought were circulatory problems, but which was really the locomotor ataxia of end-stage syphilis. Confined to his bed, he could only paint the smallest still lives, but these are exquisite. The one at the top of this page is believed to be his last painting. Nominally a simple vase of roses, it is redolent with the grief and questioning of the end of life.

Monday Morning Art School: composing a good still life

It’s almost winter. Don’t despair. Still life is a great way to tell a story, especially the story of you.

Merry Christmas (blonde Santa doll), oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas. I often paint small still life as warm ups for a day in the studio; all four illustrations in this post are from that exercise.

For many of us, it’s time to move into the studio for winter painting. For students, painting from life is always more instructive than painting from photos. The composition and spatial questions are largely answered for you when working from pictures, often not in a good way.

A still life is any collection of inanimate objects. Don’t limit yourself to flowers, fruit or glassware. I’ve painted toilet paper, Christmas ornaments, a tin-foil hat, money, empty beer bottles—in short, anything that struck my fancy at the time. Be playful, and don’t shy away from patterns; they can enliven and unify the most routine academic exercise.

New hard drive, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas. Reflection, transparency, composition; it’s deceptively simple, isn’t it?

Still life can be deceptively simple or highly complex, as it was in the hands of the great Dutch Golden Age Painters. There is no right number of items to put in a still life, nor must they add up to a primary number. But keep one eye on your level of experience and the amount of time you have for the project. A beginning painter would do well to keep it down to just a few objects. An experienced painter with lots of time can get as exuberant as he wants.

Side light is generally preferable to overhead light, and slight back-lighting gives delicious atmosphere. I strongly prefer natural daylight, but that isn’t always possible. If you must use artificial light, a spotlight isn’t the best thing; it makes harsh, unnatural shadows and narrows the visible color spectrum. Instead, a color-balanced bulb at least six feet away will give you more subtle light. Multiple light sources are fine, as long as they don’t completely cancel each other out. You don’t need intense light to paint; until the 19th century, painters worked beautifully in very dim illumination. As a general rule, it’s best to work on a painting in similar light to where it’s going to be viewed.

Mary’s prom shoes, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas. Still life is a great opportunity to practice leaving things out.

Your still life does not need to be at eye level; looking down into objects is an equally-natural viewpoint.

The arrangement of the objects is more important than the objects themselves. Your goal is a compelling composition. The same compositional elements that make a good painting make for a good still life:

  • Is there a pattern of shadow (lights and darks) unifying the objects?
  • Is there interesting rhythm, repetition and motion?
  • Is the composition pleasantly balanced?
  • Are there a variety of textures?
  • Is there spatial depth?
  • Are there unifying lines and interesting arcs? Look carefully at your diagonals and be sure that they carry you around the composition, not out of the frame.

I generally start with more stuff than I need, and winnow the selection down as I go. I often end up not including all the elements in my still life, because it’s an opportunity for inventive cropping and judicious editing. The background doesn’t need to be concealed behind a drape, unless you have one conveniently located; this is a chance to learn to leave things out.

Objects can be unified by their shadows, by the pattern of the object on which they’re placed, or by overlapping. Have you achieved that? If not, it’s time to tinker some more.

Toilet paper and hiking boots, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas. My two preoccupations when working in the field.

In the modern era, meaning has taken a back seat to composition, but from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, still life conveyed religious, moral and allegorical truths. Memento mori and vanitas painting dealt with the impermanence of life. The Dutch had their pronkstilleven, which were lush morality tales. None of that appeals to us today, but still life remains a great way to tell a story, especially the story of you.

I often refer to Frances Cadelland Édouard Manetas design mentors But painters should also look at 17thcentury Dutch and Flemish and Impressioniststill life for ideas on composition.

Monday Morning Art School: how to create a compelling still life

If you want to be a good painter, it’s critical that you learn to paint from life rather than from photos.

Baby Monkey, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

The liturgical year has two periods called Ordinary Time. In fact, we’re entering summer Ordinary Time today, since Pentecost was yesterday.

I have taken to thinking of the-time-before-coronavirus as Ordinary Time. My classes would be moving out of the studio now into field painting. That option is now closed, so I’m asking students to create still lives in their own studios.

If you want to be a good painter, it’s critical that you learn to paint from life rather than from photos. Still lives are an essential tool for that. “Still life is the touchstone of painting,” said Édouard Manet, who believed that you could say everything that needed to be said in a painting of fruit or flowers. He spent his last years paralyzed, so he painted brilliant still lives from his couch.

Butter, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas


A compelling still life set-up has all the same elements as a compelling finished painting: unity, rhythm, movement and a focal point. Colin Page’s still lives combine modern color and paint handling with the exuberant excess of Dutch Golden Age paintings. As chaotic as they appear at first glance, he’s consciously directing your eye through his paintings. Your first assignment for today is to look at his still lives and ask:

1.      Where are the diagonals?

2.      Where are the dark punctuation points?

3.      Where are the reds and oranges?

There are lines that are spelled out and lines that are implied. Note how many triangles Colin makes with object placement.

New hard drive, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas


A still life is an opportunity to be witty, incisive, or topical. If you’re having trouble thinking of ideas, browse through this list. Or meditate on what most interests you today. For example, I might enjoy a still life based on my new grandson’s baby gear, which is all around my house right now.


“Remember that a painting—before being a battle horse, a nude woman or an anecdote of some sort—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors, put together in a certain order,” said painter Maurice Denis. While gathering the objects for your still life, be thoughtful in developing a sense of color—not just hue (which is easy) but in value and chroma. That doesn’t mean “matching” different items, but playing them against each other.

Light and shadow

Even more important than the colors of the objects is the color of light and shadow that will unify your painting. Natural light will give you the broadest spectrum, but it’s not always possible. Look carefully at the light you’re using—if it’s an LED it will be a lot cooler than an incandescent bulb, which sheds an almost-orange light. If you can’t figure out what color the light is, check the color of the shadows.

Think carefully about shadow placement. It’s what will unify your composition.

Happy New Year, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas


You can set your composition up on the floor and look down on it, or you can put it at eye level. Looking down gives you the best opportunity for diagonals and converging lines. A composition at your eye level starts with a grid of stately horizontal and vertical lines, which makes it feel lofty and separate.  Most still lives are painted at the same angle as we see things on tables in the real world. That gives the opportunity for both diagonals and verticals.

How will you frame the subject?

The ‘negative space’ around the objects is as important as the objects themselves. Consider these shapes before you start painting. Outlining them with a pencil on your thumbnail is a useful way of analyzing them.

Your homework

Choose five ‘carefully curated’ objects (or more, if you’re ambitious) and create a series of still lives from them in different arrangements. Record them in thumbnail sketches as you go. If you’re lucky enough to have a Lazy Susan, you can set your still life up on it and rotate it to get a sense of how objects can look different from different angles.

Monday Morning Art School: the tree outside your window

There is always something to see, even when we’re stuck at home.

The tree outside my front door is a maple, and it’s bereft of leaves right now.

Sue Colgan-Borror has been encouraging her fellow Knox County Art Society painters to take up a new art challenge each week. Last week’s subject was, “Where would you rather be,” to which Mary Ann Heinzen-Hackett responded, “Right here!” and went out and painted in the bitter cold.  I’m with Mary Ann. Although I enjoy jetting off to exotic places to paint, I love my own home the best.

One of the issues we face in lockdown is that many of us are being deprived of meaningful contact with nature. This is not a mere luxury. Research has shown that people who regularly spend time in green spaces are physically and mentally healthier than their peers. This finding cuts across lines of race, economics and gender.

A few weeks ago, I had my weekly painting classpaint the view from their windows. This was a limited exercise, in that each of them was working from their studio space. That meant they had one, or possibly two, windows to work from. But what about the views from all the other windows, the ones we barely notice?

The tree on the dooryard is an Eastern White Pine.

There are windows in my house that I seldom look out. I simply pass by them. I’m not alone in that. “When I encouraged people on social media to take a photo of a tree outside their window, one man replied that he’d thought it sad that he had no tree to photograph, before peering out into the street and realising that there was one right outside,” wrote Isabel Hardman.

Some of these tiny views that I ignore are arresting vignettes. Take the view from my front door. This door is never used; everyone uses the kitchen door, which opens off an area still called the dooryard in Maine. That neglected front door has a lace curtain over it, allowing only filtered light to come through. Outside is a beautiful old maple, the last survivor of a long line that once ran along Route 1. But since I never look at it, it’s seldom in my consciousness.

Tiny watercolor thumbnails done outside my window in Waldoboro, ME in the dead of winter.

There’s looking, and then there’s looking. There’s a difference between glancing at a tree and spending time drawing or painting it. The latter will give you most of the health benefits of a trek through Acadia National Park, and you won’t have to break quarantine to do it.

The tree outside your window is just one example of the beauty to be found in the everyday. There is always something to see, even as our viewpoint narrows with circumstances. Édouard Manet died tragically young of syphilis; he suffered from pain and paralysis during the last three years of his life. Yet during this time he completed many small still lives of flowers, fruit and vegetables that are today among the most admired and beloved of his work. I’ll bet they brought him joy, too.

Most of these thumbnails were done from my window in Rochester, NY.

A big part of learning to paint is learning to see.  Your assignment this week is to travel around your house and make small thumbnail sketches from various windows. If you’re lucky enough to get outside, sketch what you see out there as well. All the examples I’ve included in this blog were done in my daily travels around town or from my own home. They’re in watercolor, but you can work in pencil or marker. 

A marker sketch of my current house. Your window sketches don’t need to be any more complicated than this.

The goal here is two-fold:

  • To see beauty in the everyday;
  • To learn how to draw or paint better thumbnail sketches.

Monday Morning Art School: Painting water

“Rivers are elemental and ambivalent. They are frontiers and highways, destroyers and fertilisers, fishing grounds and spiritual metaphors, power-givers and flushers of poisons.” (Derek Turner)

Port of Hamburg, Anders Zorn, watercolor, 1891, courtesy of Nationalmuseum, Sweden. Even in watercolor, Zorn goes for opacity and energy, not wispy translucency. 
It’s been said that we never stand in the same river twice. It is equally true that we never paint water the same way twice. There are as many answers to the question “how do you paint water?” as there are moments in the day. Water is as changeable as the sky. But there are still some general steps you can follow.
The purple noon’s transparent might, Arthur Streeton, 1896, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria. Streeton’s river is defined by value, and the depth of the painting by atmospheric perspective.
Start by noting the mechanics of the body of water in question. Is there a current? At what point is it in the tide cycle? What underwater obstacles are disrupting the surface? Is the surface smooth or choppy? Is the water silted or clear? What is it reflecting?
Water seeks a flat plane, but there are always light-and-dark contours.  The wind makes patterns on the surface. In watery depths are dark tones. The splash and movement of foam and surf are light and energetic. On a rocky headland, these may appear to be constantly shifting, but in fact they follow rhythmic rules. In rivers, standing waves may appear oddly immutable.  

Hudson River, Logging; Winslow Homer, watercolor, 1891-92, courtesy National Gallery of Art. The water is blocked in solid shapes of different values.
Just as you seek the contours in a still life or portrait, find them in the moving water. Mark them out, dark to light. It’s easy to get repetitive in this phase. Only by careful observation will you avoid that.
The grand canal of Venice (Blue Venice), Edouard Manet, 1875, courtesy Shelbourne Museum. It takes keen observation to paint the pattern of water without being dully repetitive.
Reflections always line up vertically with the object being reflected, but the length of reflections varies. This is liberating: if you get the widths right, you can be creative with the lengths. Generally, the valuesin reflections will be somewhat compressed; lights will be slightly darker than what’s being reflected, and the darks slightly lighter. But that doesn’t mean the chroma will be necessarily reduced—reflections can often surprise with their purity of color. And there’s no rule that says the ocean will be lightest at the horizon. The ocean does anything it wants.
San Cristoforo, San Michele, and Murano from the Fondamenta Nuove, Venice; Canaletto, 1722, courtesy Dallas Museum of Art. Even delicate Canaletto paints reflections more positively than simply dragging his brush through the verticals.
Depending on the surface of the water, a reflection can be mirror-like, or it can be in bands, or it can be almost lost in chop. But the overall scene won’t be a mirror image of what’s in the background. Mountains will appear farther away in the reflection. Observe what’s actually there, versus what you expect to see.
I usually block in reflections before I start worrying about the surface of the water. That lets me choose my markmaking at the last minute. It’s easy enough to build the reflections vertically and then drag a brush across them to give the sense of still water. But this is a party trick and can be overdone.
Falls, Montreal River, JEH MacDonald, 1920, courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s an unusual angle, looking down from the top, but we understand what we’re seeing because of the ferocity of MacDonald’s brushwork.
Instead, use brushwork to imply the vast energy of water. Long, fluent strokes can indicate ebb and flow. Short, energetic strokes will show chop. Opaque or impasto paint can indicate the dance and verve of crashing waves better than delicate transparency.
Lake Ladoga, Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1871, courtesy Russian Museum. We can see the underwater rocks along the shore.
Shallow water, where you can see to the bottom, is difficult to paint. The ground influences the color of the water, and you must balance underwater details with surface reflections. Shallow water running over rocks in a river can be very erratic; to get the sense of that requires careful, slow observation.
Your assignment this week is to paint water. If you’re lucky enough to live where you can paint outdoors without breaking your lockdown rules, please—by all means—avail yourself of that opportunity. For the rest of us (and those of you who are still locked down in winter) a photo is another option.
I can’t wait to see what you do!

Monday Morning Art School: figure drawing for the busy person

Line-of-Action won’t make you a figure artist, but if you can’t get to a weekly model session, it’s the next best thing.
The Anatomy Class at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, 1888, François Sallé. Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales.
My son-in-law Aaron has the makings of a very fine artist. Yesterday, he snapchatted me some figure gestures with a note that said, “I practice online when I can’t come to your class.” (He lives in Buffalo.) They were quite good.
The website he’s using is Line of Action. It’s a bundle of reference photos that can either play as a slideshow or in a class format. The latter is like a figure session, starting with 30-second gestures and working up to longer poses.
Bathers on the Seine – Academy, 1874-76, Édouard Manet, courtesy São Paulo Museum of Art. 
I clicked through the figure photos. For the most part they were poses I might see on an average Wednesday night at Camden Life Drawing. In some cases, the photos exaggerate perspective due to barrel lens distortion.  But that’s a quibble. For someone wanting to draw comics, lens distortion might help create dynamism. The viewer can choose gender and whether the model is clothed or unclothed. Nothing I saw was remotely sexualized (a danger with working from photos on the internet).
There are other categories of images as well: animals, hands and feet, and faces. I’ve done gesture drawings of horses in motion, cows, and sleeping dogs and cats. However, animals, as a rule, don’t pose well. Too often animal portraits are static because they are generally done from photos.
The drawing class, 1660, Michiel Sweerts. Courtesy Frans Hals Museum. The formal class has been around for centuries because it works.
There’s a landscape drawing section currently only available to subscribers, but there are better ways to get there. I’ve written before about painting from a moving vehicle. My watercolor workshop on the schooner American Eagle is all about landscape gestures. Even the most prosaic suburban apartment complex has things to paint and draw, so all you need is to go out there and do it.
If you choose to play the slides in class format, you will experience the models as seen in a typical figure drawing classroom. This mode includes built-in breaks. You can practice drawing just as you might practice cello.
Modelo de Academia, date unknown, Manuel Teixeira da Rocha. Private collection.
Typically, figure-drawing classes start with brief gestures. These help the artist draw kinesthetically, putting his whole arm into the process. Short gestures fire up a kind of sympathetic drawing, which can be more accurate in measurement than more formal systems. And short gestures are unsettling, so the artist can’t get into a rut from the start.
From gestures, most classes move through longer and longer poses. The final long pose is where the artist begins to explore detail. Anatomical accuracy is usually the primary concern in a figure class. But equally important are composition and the relationship of the figure to its (mostly unarticulated) ground.
Line-of-Action won’t make you a figure artist—you need lots of time with live models for that. But if you’re in a place where you can’t get to a weekly figure group, or a point in life where going out to draw is impossible, it’s the next best thing.
You can use their basic photo library and the class format algorithm for free. There are two basic subscription levels. Since I don’t need feedback from their artist community, I’ll just be dropping by as a casual user.

Coda: Last week I wrote about gender disparity in the arts. Last night at Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation, the highest auction price was set by Jill Hoy. The tide may indeed be turning!

Three basic elements that make or break a painting

What defines great art? It’s not style or beauty.

Execution, 1996, Yue Minjun, courtesy of the artist
Emotional content
Stirring a response in the viewer is the first responsibility of art. This is done by evoking ideas, memories, or a sense of place. (Even bad paintings, if they’re of someone we cherish, can be meaningful to us.) Painting is primarily a medium of communication. If there’s no content, there’s no point. If the viewer doesn’t stop and ponder, the artist has failed at his primary job.
Style has nothing to do with this. Photorealism or abstraction can make points every bit as powerful as figurative painting does. That is a question of the personal taste of the artist and his audience, nothing more.
Likewise, emotional content has nothing to do with beauty, or the lack of it. There is nothing beautiful in Execution, a 1996 painting by Chinese artist Yue Minjun. It was inspired by the Tiananmen Square Massacre and it packs a raw emotional punch. Conversely, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, by Édouard Manet is a lovely painting of an obviously-revered woman. It has just as much emotional content as Yue Minjun’s painting, but in a completely different way.
In some ways, simple thinking is a virtue in painting. Too many ideas, too much conflicting emotion, and the piece will be too complicated to say much at all.
Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, 1872, by Édouard Manet, courtesy Musée d’Orsay
In painting classes, we focus on technique, because it’s the basis of painting. Technique simply refers to the protocol of producing a competent painting:  mark-making, composition, palette, building up a surface, moving the viewer through the piece, etc.
In certain fashionable circles today, technique gets a bad rap. Art has become more about making social statements and less about skill. That only works as long as the artist colors within the lines of his particular social statement. 
Imagine, if you will, that an enfant terrible artist comes across a moment of great beauty or a harrowing personal tragedy that requires great skills to depict. He is lost. Technique frees us to be emotionally responsive, but emotionalism cannot be sustained into maturity without a basis in technique. Without it, we have inchoate noise.
Ophelia, 1852, John Everett Millais, courtesy Tate Museum

It’s an interesting fact that we identify works of art by their creator’s names; we ask, is this a Caravaggio or a Gentileschi? Once living, complicated humans, artists are transformed into the sum of their work.
To be great, a painting must transcend the symbols and customs of its times. John Everett Millais’Ophelia (c. 1851) is in many ways a Victorian trope. To completely understand it, you’d have to be familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and with the Victorian idea of the language of flowers, for the flowers in Ophelia’s garland all have specific meaning. Most modern viewers know neither, and yet the painting can still move us, because of the profundity of Millais’ understanding of despair.

Les trois grandes dames of Impressionism

Three great women painters who navigated tricky social rules before there was modern feminism.
The Boating Party, 1893-94, Mary Cassatt, courtesy National Gallery

Today we look at the intimate mother-child paintings of Mary Cassatt and pigeonhole her as a woman artist, or, worse, ‘sentimental’. She would have disliked either description. She thought of herself as a New Woman, and her paintings were depictions of that ideal. Although she never married or had children, she viewed motherhood as a high calling.

Cassatt was riding a wave of feminism that swept America during the 1840s, when universities began opening their doors to women and all-women schools, most notably the Seven Sisterscolleges, were formed.
Reading Le Figaro, 1878, Mary Cassatt, private collection. The model is the artist’s mother, an educated and well-read woman who had a profound influence on the artist.
The New Woman was popularized by the heroines of Henry James. She controlled her own life, purse and thoughts. Mary Cassatt was not stridently political in the 20th century sense, but she depicted women and their work in a whole new way. There would be none of the bathtub voyeurism painted by her close friend and sometimes-collaborator, Edgar Degas. In short, she was a feminist and most of her fellow Impressionists were not.
Cassatt was described by critic and art historian Gustave Geffroy  as one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism. The other two were Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot. Each chose to negotiate the difficult territory of career and family in different ways.
Under the Lamp, 1877, Marie Bracquemond, courtesy Galleries Maurice Sternberg, Chicago
Marie Bracquemond was the daughter of an unhappy, arranged marriage. Her sea-captain father died shortly after her birth, and her widowed mother and stepfather were ramblers, giving her an unsettled childhood. Yet she was a prodigy. As a teenager, she began studying in a local atelier. A painting of hers was accepted into the Salon when she was just 17. She studied for a time under Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who didn’t think much of women painters.
At 29, she married fellow artist Félix Bracquemond. They’d had a passionate two-year affair, but Marie should have listened to her mother, who hated the fellow.
According to their son, Félix was resentful and critical of his wife’s painting, particularly when she began to explore Impressionism. By 1890, she was so discouraged that she gave up professional painting altogether. Despite her fragile health, she lived to 76, only outlasting her husband by two years.
The Mother and Sister of the Artist, 1869-70, Berthe Morisot, courtesy National Gallery
Just as Cassatt had a deep friendship with Degas, Berthe Morisot was an intimate of painter Édouard Manet; in fact, she married his brother. Eugène Manet could not have been more different from Félix Bracquemond. Also a painter, Eugène never achieved much of a reputation, instead devoting himself to promoting his wife’s career.
Berthe Morisot was the granddaughter of Jean-Honoré Fragonard and was born into an affluent bourgeois family. Because she was very self-critical, it is difficult to trace her development and training with any certainty. She met Édouard Manet, in 1868, and married Eugène in 1874.
She first showed with her fellow Impressionists in 1874. Le Figaro critic Albert Wolff wrote that the Impressionists consisted of “five or six lunatics — among them a woman — a group of unfortunate creatures.” Morisot, he added, had a “feminine grace [that] is maintained amid the outpourings of a delirious mind.”
By the time her daughter was born in 1878, Morisot was a mature artist who was showing and selling regularly. Morisot died when Julie was just 16. She had contracted pneumonia while nursing her precious child back to health.

My favorite painter?

The Procession to Calvary, 1564, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“Who are your favorite painters?” a reader asked. That’s an impossible question. Instead, here are some painters who I profoundly admire and you should too.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was the most significant of the Dutch/Flemish Renaissance painters. Among the first generation to paint other than religious scenes, he was a great landscape artist. His paintings, especially genre paintings, are a whirl of human activity. But what I admire the most is his ability to hide the focal point, or multiple focal points, in insignificant corners of his paintings. His figures are as fresh and realistic as when they were painted.

Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513, Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer was a great painter, but I admire his engravings, woodcuts and drawings most. He was a superlative draftsman, particularly in perspective. It’s his simple, profound understanding of the Passion that moves me most. He did at least three versions, and they’re the visual equivalent of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

The Fall of the Damned, c. 1620, Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens may have been intellectual, classically trained, and the favorite painter of the Counter-Reformation, but to me, he’s the progenitor of comic-book art. I draw a direct line between his dynamic canvases and the work of the late Steve Ditko. Both dealt with cosmic issues in a restless, complex way.

Weymouth Bay, c. 1816, John Constable

John Constable is best known for his great set-pieces like The Hay Wain, but he is also the (largely uncredited) inventor of modern plein air painting. In place of a classical education, he spent his youth wandering the fields of his native Essex. This “made me a painter, and I am grateful,” he said. By the time he convinced his father to let him study art, the damage was done—he was a fresh, observational painter in an age when classicism was king.

The Railway Station, 1873, Édouard Manet

Édouard Manet is known as a pivotal painter in the transition between Realism to Impressionism., but his importance to me is his surface treatment. He was the first painter to eschew sparking bright lights and a superlative finish in favor of his own, raw, handwriting. He is, in this sense, the father of Modernism.

The Red Vineyard, 1888, Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh hardly needs any introduction, being one of the most influential painters in art history. His importance to landscape painters can’t be overstated. He was the precursor to Fauvism, and that, far more than Impressionism, is what speaks to our own times.

Algoma Sketch 48, 1919-20, by Lawren Harris (member of the Group of Seven)

Tom Thomson and the Group of Sevencame into being across Lake Ontario from my hometown of Buffalo, but I didn’t really learn about them until adulthood, since realism was so out of favor in my youth. Still, these painters did more than any others to apply the principles of Impressionism to the North American landscape. They vary greatly in style, but they were united by their love of the Great White North and the wilderness. They were intrepid extreme plein air painters.

Resurrection Bay, Alaska, 1965, by Rockwell Kent

Rockwell Kent was eulogized as “a thoughtful, troublesome, profoundly independent, odd and kind man” by the New York Times. That’s all true, but he was also terrific painter, aggressively simplifying his subjects to their essence. His subjects—concentrating on the Adirondacks, Alaska and Monhegan—are all about the ever-changing light of the north.

Red Shirt and Window,2013, Lois Dodd (courtesy Alexandre Galley, New York.

Lois Dodd could be admired just for her tenacious success in the male-dominated New York art scene. Her credentials are as sterling as any of her male peers, but she had her first career museum retrospective in 2013, when she was already in her eighties. That would mean nothing if she weren’t also a superlative, self-directed painter. She ignored Abstract-Expressionism and Pop Art to forge her own, realistic way.

My 2024 workshops: