Monday Morning Art School: know what you’re doing

If you don’t have technique, nobody’s going to notice your emotional content.

Boating, 1874, by Édouard Manet, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s beautifully composed, serene and yet energetic.

In one of my classes, an advanced student (who has probably won more awards than me) asked why I focus on systematic painting. “What about emotion and feeling?” she asked.

Oddly enough, for all that we’re social beings, our souls are insulated. We are born alone, and we die alone. At times in between, the lucky among us carry on conversations with each other or with God. But our emotional intelligence is very personal and private. We can share it if we choose to, but I doubt others can influence it. The best we can do is encourage others to be moral and empathetic.

Self Portrait at 28, 1500, by Albrecht Dürer, courtesy the Alte Pinakothek. Is it possible to have a crush on a man who’s been dead for 500 years?

That doesn’t mean I can’t teach students to see and recognize beauty. This is why I often have my students look at and learn to analyze great paintings. I’m a firm believer in the non-linear, associative, synthetic mind, and our sympathetic intelligence. “Think with your gut” is not just an expression. If you’ve ever been truly terrified, you know that only a small part of you is controlled by your rational mind. Beneath that, we run on very primitive lines. The interchange between that and our rational minds is what drives creative expression.

The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. I love how Brueghel always pushes the main action into a corner. Just like life.

But art—no less so than mathematics—is an intellectual discipline. Most great painters approach the problem in the same way: they make design decisions, color decisions, and lay their paint down in the prescribed manner handed down to us over centuries.

Why do they do that? Because it works.

Late Afternoon, Monhegan Island, by Rockwell Kent, courtesy Jamie and Phyllis Wyeth Collection. It’s always a toss-up between Lawren Harris and Kent. The light is spectacular, the colors are the essence of sunset.

System is liberating. If you doubt that, consider the last time you flailed around trying to make a picture and ended up with mush. It happened because you either forgot what you were doing or changed your mind in mid-painting.

I used to write music. It sometimes shocks me to sit down at the piano and realize I no longer can run through chord progressions automatically. How did I ever learn that? By learning lots of music by rote. I read it, I regurgitated it, and occasionally, I managed to be lyrical with it. Now that I’ve forgotten it all, I can’t express any emotion through the keyboard.

Moonrise, 1894, by David Davies, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria. It’s simple, austere and powerful.

On the other hand, I’ve painted more than a thousand paintings. Occasionally I surprise myself by being brutally honest, as I was with The Dooryard, painted last week. Its emotional kick wasn’t conscious but it comes from a deep and real place: that’s my darkened bedroom window.

I don’t have to ask myself, “can I do this?” I know the process and I approach a painting the same way every time. Knowing the limits means I know where I can push. I can rise above the technical issues to occasional lyricism.

Haymaking (Les Foins), 1877, Jules Bastien-LePage, courtesy Musée d’Orsay. Exhaustion is something I understand intimately, and he has expressed it so poignantly.

Does that get stale? Of course not. There is enough mystery in painting to keep me working until I die. Recently, Colin Page told me he was studying John Singer Sargent boat watercolors. Colin certainly knows how to paint, and he has a process that works. But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped searching.

Your assignment is to identify your current five favorite paintings and tell me why you love them. Since I’ve demanded that of you, I gave you mine as illustrations for this post. Don’t get too excited. The list might change tomorrow.

A blast from the past: Joan of Arc

This post, from 2007, has the highest number of hits of anything I’ve written on this platform. Pastor Nicholson and I never ran with this project, but we’re still buds.

Jeanne d’ Arc, 1879, Julies Bastien-Lepage, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art
My friend John Nicholson and I have decided to try a new project. I will choose a painting based on a Biblical theme and write about it from an artist’s viewpoint; John will write about it from a pastor’s perspective on his blog, The Shepherd’s Staff.

John is a Baptist pastor from Alabama; I am an artist from New York. Can we find enough common ground in our Christian faith to make this work?

Jules Bastien-Lepage’s portrait of Joan of Arc at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York never fails to make me catch my breath. I wander away from Rosa Bonheur’s gigantic The Horse Fair, which is a monumental, formal study of controlled energy, and am slapped in the face by The Maid of Orléans.

Joan of Arc was born into a bleak moment in French history. France and England were entering the penultimate phase of the Hundred Years’ War. The English had captured huge swathes of territory and secured the French crown under the Treaty of Troyes, which also declared the Dauphin Charles VII illegitimate. The French countryside was bearing the brunt of a century of fighting, depredation, and the Black Death 75 years earlier.

At about age 13, Joan began to hear voices. Eventually, she sorted these voices to be those of St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Margaret of Antioch, and the archangel Michael. These coalesced into visions. At her trial, she said: “I saw them with these very eyes, as well as I see you.”

By the time she was 16, her heavenly counselors had become more insistent and specific. She never recounted her visions at her trial, but there is a record of them that slightly predates the relief of Orléans. A Flemish diplomat named De Rotslaer recorded “that she would save Orléans and would compel the English to raise the siege, that she herself in a battle before Orléans would be wounded by a shaft but would not die of it, and that the King, in the course of the coming summer, would be crowned at Reims, together with other things which the King keeps secret.”

The story of her initial rejection (“Take her home to her father and give her a good whipping”) and eventual triumph is worth studying. Two details touch me. The first is that the Dauphin subjected her to a careful theological examination before entrusting his troops to her. The second is that her career ended abruptly after her visions were fulfilled.

Jules Bastien-Lepage was part of a movement in European art and literature known as naturalism. This embraced realism but often was invested with an awareness of the condition of the poor, which in some cases makes the art into manifesto (see Charles Dickens as an example). At the same time, the nineteenth century saw an enormous population shift from the countryside to the cities, so there are elegiac overtones in the genre.

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Gleaners, 1857, Jean-François Millet, courtesy Musée d’Orsay
Bastien-Lepage was temperamentally the heir of Jean-François Millet, who painted the incomparable Gleaners. About Millet, the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913 said, “he has shown us how the trivial can be made to serve in the expression of the sublime, and how the Infinite and the Divine can be discerned in the humblest existence.” Vincent Van Gogh, Honoré Daumier, and Bastien-Lepage also had that sympathy, although it was tuned differently in each of them.

Bastien-Lepage painted Joan of Arc after the Franco-Prussian War. With their empire ruined and Alsace-Lorraine taken, the French identified powerfully with Joan. Bastien-Lepage’s painting is thus nationalistic, but to regard it as mere propaganda would trivialize it.

For one thing, there is the question of identification. Both the artist and the subject were from Lorraine. Joan was a peasant heroine and Bastien-Lepage was a peasant painter. She must have been an irresistible subject.

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Les foins (Haymaking), 1877, Jules Bastien-Lepage, courtesy Musée d’Orsay 

Bastien-Lepage’s most famous painting was Hay Making. Because it is a smaller and simpler canvas than Joan of Arc, you can make out the technique more easily on your monitor. His technique looks peculiar to us today. He married controlled realism in the figures to Impressionism in the background. These are two radically different ways of seeing and painting. As odd as this seems now, photography and Impressionism were both new in 1877, with no rigid rules. In fact, he synthesized the two approaches beautifully.

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Tricoteuse, 1879, William-Adolphe Bouguereau
To understand the academic virtues of his painting, compare Joan of Arc to William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Tricoteuse, painted the same year (Bouguereau vies with Caravaggio as the best painter of feet ever). The figures share the same perfection of drawing and modeling. But there the resemblance ends. In his best work, Bastien-Lepage used perfection only where it advanced his narrative, and there he pushed it to a photographic clarity—Joan’s loosely-laced jacket, the muddy shoes on the reaper. Bouguereau distilled detail to an ideal. His girl is an archetype of poverty, frozen in time.

In Joan of Arc, Bastien-Lepage introduced Catholic symbolism archaically, so we can almost read this painting like an icon. Joan’s own discarded spinning wheel (covered with wool so coarse we can practically smell it) stands in for St. Catherine’s wheel. Michael’s sword (Joshua 5:13–15) hovers in the air as a portent of the sword Joan would later find behind the altar in the chapel of Saint Catherine de Fierbois.

You can easily see Bastien-Lepage’s Impressionistic brushwork in the background of Hay Making, but it is also the device that allows the three saints to shimmer in Joan of Arc (we just can’t see it online). Moreover, he shoves us into the picture with Impressionist abruptness. We sense we’ve stumbled across Joan in her back garden. Compare this to Gleaners, which is profoundly powerful, but far more classical in its structure.

Nevertheless, Bastien-Lepage was not remotely an Impressionist. It is always Joan’s face to which I first respond. Her moment is awful in the deepest sense of the word. It is not that she has shut us out; instead, she seems to have stopped completely. Today many people see that frozen look as a failure, the result of painting from a reference photo. I disagree. It is a face of transfixion, of awed intelligence. After all, the face of the tedder in Hay Making, is hardly photographic, even though the painter was using the same technique. She is loose-jawed, beyond exhaustion.

This is where Bastien-Lepage diverges from the earlier naturalist painters. Millet saw nobility in the peasants’ suffering; Bastien-Lepage looked forward to the bleakness of the coming century. In the eyes of Joan and the tedder in Hay Makers, there are glimpses of the deep psychological pain of the German Expressionist Käthe Kollwitz.

Bastien-Lepage died young (at 36) and much of his work is either schmaltz or unformed. But some of it veers into greatness. I have to wonder what he would have produced had he lived longer.

(You can peruse Bastien-Lepage’s œuvre online here. You can read the transcript of Joan’s heresy trial here, and the nullification trial here.) In researching this, I also came across the delightful and idiosyncratic Hay in Art.)

Going by the numbers

We should all immediately switch to Instagram. But as with blogging, there’s a lot of unpredictability on the internet. There’s still plenty of room for intuition.
Joan of Arc, 1879, Jules Bastien-Lepage, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Yesterday I had my left foot operated on, giving me a matched pair of incisions and some hope for less pain going into the summer.

My mind is muddled, so I’d hoped to reprise an old post. To that end, I consulted my stats for this blog. Blogger tells me what my top posts are (although this blog has been on three different platforms over the years). A few years ago, the most popular posts were The One Thing Every Painter Should Know and a recipe for scallops from my friends Berna and Harry.
Plastic bags, dethroned by art history.
Since I last checked, art history has steamrolled over them. The top view-catcher is this post about Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc. It’s eleven years old, it violates the modern dictums of length and language, it’s complex, and it continues to get readers. In fact, there are a number of art history posts on that top ten list, including The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow and Ingres and Napoleon.
Measured week-to-week, however, art history is a slow starter. Those posts usually have the lowest immediate readership, even when they have much to say.
Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne, 1806, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, courtesy, Musée de l’Armée, Paris
After more than a decade of blogging, I still see no discernible pattern for what will be popular in a post. That’s liberating. It means I can write about whatever I care about, rather than pitching content to some ‘expert’ idea of the public’s low taste.
A surveytells us that new galleries are opening more slowly than they did a decade ago. This is part of a general decline in entrepreneurship in the United States. It’s no surprise to those of us who worry about our battered small town Main Streets, but there’s good news in that same report.
It surveyed a group of high-net-worth individuals about their collecting habits. These are people with more than $1 million but less than $5 million in assets. The vast majority (89%) spent $50,000 a year or less on art and objects. That suggests they aren’t buying from tony Manhattan galleries, but from low- and mid-tier galleries. In other words, they’re buying works by people like you and me, in places like S. Thomaston, Camden and Ogunquit.
The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, 1567, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy Oskar Reinhart Foundation
Meanwhile, the online market for art and collectables continues to grow, but at a slower pace. That makes sense as a market matures, and it’s nothing to worry about. More than half of online art buyers said they will buy more art online in 2018 than they did last year, according to the Online Art Trade Report.
Instagram has dethroned Facebook as the preferred means of online promotion. In 2016, galleries used the two platforms almost equally. Now only 31% of respondents prefer Facebook to the 62% who liked Instagram. Instagram is also the favored platform for collectors under 35, 79% of whom said they discover new artists on Instagram and 82% of whom said they use it to keep up with artists they like.
Going by the numbers, we should all immediately switch to Instagram. But just as with blogging, there’s a lot of unpredictability in sales. There’s still plenty of room for intuition.

It’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

It’s all relative

Money can’t buy happiness but the lack of it seems to annoy just about everyone.
Waiting, by Carol L. Douglas. I no longer remember what bureaucratic inefficiency prompted this so many years ago, but I can still feel the frustration.

Last week, a line squall took down a branch from the maple in our front yard. Going out to inspect the damage, I saw that woodpeckers had hammered neat holes into much of it. The tree is mortally ill and there is no solution other than to have it taken down. It’s not a job I want to tackle because it overhangs power lines, Route 1, and my roof.

It’s going to cost about $1250, but that comes on the heels of $2000 in car repairs and $1400 for a washer and dryer this month (replacing a pair that died at the ripe old age of four years). I was having a small fit about cash flow when I got a text message from my pal Helen. I’ve written about her before: she’s a poor woman from North Braddock, PA who works part-time as a residential advisor for mentally ill adults. She has sarcoidosis along with an insatiable yearning for learning.
Helen was cheesed off. “I lost my nail clipper,” she fumed, “and I don’t have $1 to go to the Dollar Store to buy a replacement one right now.”
The Gleaners, 1857, by Jean-François Millet, was never meant to be romantic. It was initially viewed with deep suspicion for its sympathetic portrayal of the poor.
For some reason, that totally cracked me up. Here we are in vastly different places in the American economy, suffering from the same darn problem: lack of ready capital. It makes me wonder whether anyone, ever, has enough money.
There are 442 billionaires in the United States. If a billionaire spends $100,000 a day and never makes another dime, he will run out of cash in 25 years. That seems very secure to me, but I really don’t know how billionaires live, any more than I truly understand how Helen lives or she me.
I imagine that when someone is that focused on acquiring wealth it’s either aggression or a mental aberration related to hoarding. Perhaps being down to their last million could make them feel as nervous as I do when I’m down to my last centime.
Ruth, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted to demonstrate indirect painting, but it’s also a portrait of someone short of ready cash. It’s another very old painting from the mists of time.
Helen was homeless last year at Christmas. It was a terrible concatenation of circumstances that ended up with her, her daughter and her granddaughter losing all their personal possessions and being stashed by Social Services in a motel. She had nothing, not even her winter boots.
Being involved with the social welfare network means you get advice from social workers, whether you want or need it. One of them told Helen, completely seriously, that she needed help with her ‘hoarding problem.’ Apparently, standards for hoarding are very low when all your possessions will fit in the trunk of a Ford Fiesta.
Les Foins (Haymaking), 1877, by Jules Bastien-Lepage, who keenly felt the plight of the French peasant.
All of this is just a reminder of the wisdom of M. Micawber’s famous recipe for happiness, from David Copperfield:
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”
We live in a credit-driven economy that would be quite unrecognizable to our ancestors. Everyone does it—families, businesses, government. I try not to play, but I also know there’s only so much worrying one can do about money. After all, we’re bound to make more tomorrow.

We have a lot to answer for

The Young Schoolmistress, 1740, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin. Chardin painted children concentrating. That is only possible when children aren’t worrying.
I spent two decades in a town where, as Garrison Keillor quipped, “all the children are above average.” It’s fringed by the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology,  and provides those professors a green, leafy suburb in which to hang their hats.
Jennifer and I taught Sunday school together years ago. She’s got a PhD and is a professor of optics. Another friend once lamented that with “only” an MA in Spanish literature, she was the least-educated person she knew. (Since my education was largely cobbled together, I found this funny.)
As you can imagine, the children of such parents never go to bed intellectually starved.
Jennifer met Helen, a former gang-banger from Braddock, PA, several years ago. She coached her in writing skills, among other things. Helen is a Resident Advisor for the mentally ill in an enclosed program. She suffers from sarcoidosis, recently came through a bout of homelessness and is the legal custodian of her two-year-old granddaughter. She is mixed-race and 52 years old.
Young Beggars, 1890, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. They have more to worry about than their book learning.
Helen and I have become good friends. Recently, Helen decided to quit swearing. She was putting quarters into a swear-jar when I realized she couldn’t divide by four. We started to probe the limits of her education.
She has read no classic literature or poetry. She does not know basic computation. She writes easily and breezily, but her vocabulary is on an elementary-school level. All of this might be understandable if Helen were a recent immigrant from the third world, but she’s a middle-aged graduate of an American high school.
Helen was born in 1964 to an interracial couple. Her physically-disabled mother was four months pregnant when her parents were married. Her father was a drug-dealer who did time. Helen was told in school that she was learning-disabled. I see no evidence to support that. To me, it seems more likely that she was unable to concentrate.
Buffalo Newsboy, 1853, by Thomas Le Clear, courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Expectations for the working poor were very different in the 19th century.
Right now, Helen is working on learning her times tables, and is reading the speeches of Malcolm X, the Book of Acts and Dickens’ Great Expectations. I assign her four vocabulary words every day, emphasizing what part of speech they are. We’ve discussed remainders, thesis statements, and how to outline.
“Aleara is learning her multiplication tables. My six-year-old granddaughter and I are learning at the same time,” she marveled.
One of the subjects we’re talking about is budgeting. That’s not trivial; that’s how the middle classes get ahead. But you can’t budget if you can’t do basic computations.
Pauvre Fauvette, 1881, by Jules Bastien-Lepage. The 19th century French poor were less socially-mobile than our own poor of the time. This little warbler was stuck where she was born
Next door to my old community is the Rochester City School District. It earned a public hiding a few years ago, for turning in the lowest black male graduation rate in the nation: 9%.  At the same time, it had one of the highest costs-per-student in the country: $20,333 per kid in 2013. But if you think I’m going to criticize the teachers, you’re wrong. I know many city school teachers. To a man or woman, they’re dedicated, serious, and optimistic.
We can argue about politics, money, motivation, broken households, family support, etc. but it would help by starting with an admission that something is seriously broken. For forty years, Helen believed the lie that this is the best she was capable of doing. We owe her grandchildren a better start than this.

Artistic license

The Veteran in a New Field, 1865, Winslow Homer
I’m preparing a drawing of a wheat field with hail damage. I started by considering the greatest wheat field painting I know. Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field is surely one of the iconic paintings of American history.
Homer painted this in the summer of 1865, immediately following the end of the Civil War and  President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. We understand the farmer to be a Union veteran by his jacket and canteen at the lower right. Holding his scythe, he is at once the Grim Reaper and the man returned to civilian life. He grieves, and yet he has returned to life. There has been no greater work ever painted on the wages of war.
My sketch for a wheat field with hail damage. Homer’s painting tells us me that it doesn’t need to be complicated; in fact, I’m not sure a painting of a wheat field can be complicated.
You learn something every time you look at a painting. Surely no wheat has ever reached the height of that in this painting. Even Timothy-grass, the tallest component of hay, seldom reaches these heights in the Northeast, but the golden color of the stalks tells us this is no hay-field.
Another favorite field painting: Jules Bastien-LePage’s Haymaking (Les Foins), 1877. The look of blank exhaustion in their faces is recognizable to anyone who has worked hours under a hot summer sun.
And I was just worrying because in my next sketch I’m pointing something that faces east decidedly to the north. Well, if Homer can get away with wheat that tall, perhaps I can reconfigure the Maine coastline.
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!