Painters of the middle class

There’s no shame in painting what people love, as long as you do it well.
Two chattering housewives, 1655, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Dordrechts Museum
If I weren’t in Buffalo, I could fly to see Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age, opening on February 22 at the National Gallery in London. (London and Los Angeles are roughly equidistant from my house, so that’s not as daft as it seems.)
The Dutch Golden Age (the 17th century, roughly) was when trade brought prosperity to the Netherlands. That, in turn, fostered a flowering of scientific thought, military might and culture. The conditions that made this possible were the nation’s recent liberation from Spanish rule, a solid Protestant work ethic, and the development of a new kind of business: the corporation.
The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602. It was the first multinational corporation and it was created by exchanging shares on the first modern stock exchange. This may seem humdrum to us, but at a time when for most of the world wealth and poverty were inherited conditions, it allowed for the creation of thriving merchant and middle classes.
The Eavesdropper, 1657, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Dordrechts Museum
Until the Dutch Golden Age, great art was commissioned by extremely wealthy people, who essentially dictated the tastes of the times. Suddenly, middle class people were buying art. This radically changed what artists painted.
The Dutch Reformed church and Dutch nationalism informed the aesthetic of Golden Age painting. Catholic Baroque was out; simplicity and Calvinist austerity were in. Dutch art concentrated on reality and ordinary life at all levels of society. The focus on realism is why the period is sometimes called Dutch Realism.
Always that realism was invested with meaning. Significant in this worldview was a rapid growth in landscape painting, particularly as it represented unique Dutch values and scenes. A windmill on a flat plain or a boat at sea may seem like tropes today, but they were symbols of heroism to the audience of the time.
The Dutch painted lavish still lives that seem overly full and overripe to modern eyes. They were simultaneously objects of beauty, symbols of abundance, and full of symbolic meaning. Among these are floral vanitas paintings, done with scientific accuracy while warning us of our ultimate destiny.
The Virtuous Woman, c. 1656, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Wallace Collection
Genre painting underwent a renaissance, because home and hearth were as important to these middle-class buyers as they were irrelevant to princes elsewhere. Nicolaes Maes was among the most important of these genre painters. After studying with Rembrandt for five years, he hung out his shingle, first in Dordrecht and then in Amsterdam. Like so many artists, he didn’t specialize in the beginning, painting whatever was necessary to make a living. After about 1660 he focused on lucrative portrait paintings. It was a good strategy, because he died a very wealthy man.
The contemporary American artist has two broad market paths open to him. The first is to produce conceptual art that is meaningful to high-flyers in New York. The second is to produce work that appeals to middle-class buyers. If the latter is your target audience you can learn a lot by studying the careers and subjects of Maes and his peers.
There are those who sneer at plein air painting even as it develops into the largest modern movement in painting. But the critical message of the Dutch Golden Age is that there’s no shame in painting what people love, as long as you do it well.

Sea Captains Carousing

It’s an iconic New England painting, and it’s fun to imagine with your friends in it.
Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, oil on bed ticking, 1755, John Greenwood, courtesy St. Louis Art Museum. Greenwood painted himself in the doorway, leaving with a candle.

Last night I had a glass of wine with my pal Cathy. She doesn’t want to learn to paint, but she likes to sail, so she asked me about my Age of Sail workshop aboard the schooner American Eagle. In the way of small towns, her husband knows Captain John Foss, and remarked about what a great story-teller he is. That’s true of sailors in general, but he’s a wry master of the art form.

I got home to this essay about iconic New England paintings. It includes the wonderful Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, 1755, by John Greenwood. Since moving to Maine I’ve gotten to know a number of sea captains, and even more lobstermen, and it’s wonderful to imagine them in their tricornes, dancing around in this painting.
Sea Captains Carousing is what art historians call a genre painting. These are scenes from everyday life: markets, homes, inns, brothels, churches, streets. Often, they’re moralizing, as in the work of English painter William Hogarth. Those fantastic Flemish and Dutch food paintings? They’re genre paintings, and they instruct us on the transience of luxury and the perils of gluttony.
Portrait of Richard Waldron, oil on wood, 1751, John Greenwood, courtesy New England Historical Society
Just to be confusing, the word genre also means in painting what it means in other arts—a type of subject matter. In fact, classical art had a hierarchy of genres, formulated by the Italians. It persisted right up to the modern era:
  1. History, religious and allegorical painting
  2. Portraits
  3. Genre paintings
  4. Landscapes
  5. Animals
  6. Still life
Greenwood was raised and trained in the hinterlands of the British Empire (Boston), so he didn’t have the advantages of such classical ideas. Still, he knew there was money in portraits, and he executed hundreds of the things.
Unless they emigrated from England as adults, most of our earliest painters were self-taught. They emulated British styles of painting, which they knew through prints and the works of émigré artists. This was true of both primitive painters like William Jennys or sophisticated artists like John Singleton Copley.
John Richard Comyns of Hylands, Essex, with His Daughters, 1775, John Greenwood, courtesy Yale Center for British Art 
Greenwood had the advantage of an apprenticeship with self-taught engraver Thomas Johnston. In addition to portraits, Greenwood painted many satirical works. Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam is the best known of them. Surinam was a Dutch colony in South America, now the Republic of Suriname. Greenwood lived there for five years, during which time he painted 115 portraits. He never returned to North America, traveling east to Amsterdam, Paris, and London, where he eventually settled.
Portrait of the painter Tako Jajo Jelgersma, c. 1750-58, John Greenwood, courtesy Rijksmuseum.
The beauty of Sea Captains Carousing is in what its subjects would later become in the history of Rhode Island. In addition to many prominent merchants, it includes Declaration of Independence signatory Stephen Hopkins, Governor Joseph Wanton, Admiral Esek Hopkins, and Governor Nicholas Cooke.
It’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

American naturalism

High-Jake Game, c. 1861, by Thomas LeClear. Before official colored regiments were formed in 1863, several volunteer regiments were raised from free black men, including freedmen in the South. The Confederacy had passed a law stating that blacks captured in uniform would be tried as slave insurrectionists in civil courts—a capital offense with automatic sentence of death. Many captured black soldiers were summarily executed without even the pretense of a trial. For this young man, this is a high-stakes game indeed.
Before there was an Ashcan School, there were genre painters. Thomas LeClear’s most famous painting, Buffalo Newsboy, is dear to all who grew up visiting the Albright-Knox Art Museum. LeClear was contemporary with Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet but the difference between their worldviews is striking.
This difference derives not from talent or temperament, but from place. The French naturalists described a society where there was limited social mobility. The working poor expected to remain poor forever. LeClear, on the other hand, described the boundless optimism of a people who believed poverty was a transitory state and that anyone could go from rags to riches. LeClear’s newsboy is saucy, healthy, energetic, and not the least bit fazed by his low beginnings.
Buffalo Newsboy, c. 1853, by Thomas LeClear, is a favorite of Buffalonians. It harks back to when Buffalo was a boomtown. 
LeClear painted some of his most famous canvases during the Civil War. By concentrating on children, he could obliquely point to difficult issues of democracy and emancipation. That he was able to retain his optimism during this cataclysm speaks volumes about his, and the nation’s, character.
Thomas LeClear was born in the village of Candor, Tioga County, New York. In 1832 his family moved to Ontario. A few years later LeClear became an itinerant portrait artist and decorative painter traveling in a range across New York and as far west as Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Young America, c. 1863, by Thomas LeClear.  â€śThe locality is a street in Buffalo, and the man on the sidewalk evidently engaged in counting up his gains is a portrait of a well-known operator in stocks, who goes by the name of “three cents a month,” a contemporary, Henry T. Tuckerman, wrote. 
In 1839 he moved to New York City, where he studied with Henry Inman. By 1847 he had begun to win substantial recognition for his work. That year, he moved to Buffalo in a calculated move to increase his income. At the time, Buffalo was a boom-town and LeClear quickly acquired many wealthy patrons
In the early 1860s LeClear moved back to New York City. He was elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design in 1863. He became a prominent portrait painter as well as a genre painter.

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!