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.

The limits of relevance

The historical portrait is a great way to understand our legacy. Don’t consign it to the back room.

Sir William Sidney Smith, by John Eckstein, oil on canvas, 1801-02, courtesy National Portrait Gallery. Although the subject is a real event, the sitter is revealed as a theatrical, egotistical, and rather absurd character. But he was a star in his day.

One of my favorite museums is the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London. That’s not because its collection is stellar—it’s piddling compared to the nearby National Gallery. It tells the story of Britain through art, and I love history.

There’s so much you can learn from portraits—the manners and mores of the times, the sitters’ blind spots and where they had to be flattered. Portraits, particularly painted ones, are romantic in a way that photographs are not. And then there’s simple curiosity. What did Thomas Cranmer, Admiral Nelson or Florence Nightingale really look like?
Among the paintings on display when I visited the NPG were the portraits of Iroquois chieftains—Joseph Brant, Red Jacket, Cornplanter and Governor Blacksnake. The Iroquois Confederacy played important roles in both the Revolution and the French and Indian War, as full allies of the British. Joseph Brant was once important enough to have been painted by court painter George Romney in London and Gilbert Stuart here.
Queen Elizabeth I (‘The Ditchley portrait’), c. 1592, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, courtesy National Portrait Gallery. Elizabeth stands astride the globe, but the portrait’s symbolic theme is her forgiveness of Henry Lee for retiring from court.
The NPG is suffering from falling visitation, dropping from 1,703,411 in 2017 to 1,586,451 visitors in 2018. As bad as that sounds, it understates the problem. Visits are down more than 25% from the 2.1 million visitors they recorded in 2015/16. Then, management blamed the drop on a counting error by an external company.
Now critics suggest that the current decline may be due to director Nicholas Cullinan’s pursuit of diversity. “If the implication of this criticism is that we and other museums should not programme contemporary artists (which in our case happen to be mostly women) and only feature well-known names, I think we have a problem with metrics that focus on quantity alone.”
That’s a bit of a red herring. Britons have a long and sometimes mystifying affection for contemporary art. In fact, Tate Modern is the UK’s biggest visitor attraction.
The Slave Gang, c. 1900, by unknown artist, glass magic lantern plate, published by The London Missionary Society, courtesy National Portrait Gallery.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that people come to the NPG for the contemporary portraits. They come to see the Chandos William Shakespeare, exquisite Elizabethan miniatures, or ponder the sad story of Lady Jane Grey. The NPG’s charm lies in its antique fustiness. It’s the thinking tourist’s Tower of London experience.
The portrait gallery can only be as diverse as the society it represents, which in much of Britain’s history meant white people painted by men. Today British society is more plural, but it’s also glutted with imagery. Nobody needs to go to the NPG to see what the Prime Minister look like—her photo is everywhere. Nobody needs to go there to look at the British Everyman, either, since he’s just down the street.
Winston Churchill, 1916, by Sir William Orpen, courtesy National Portrait Gallery. Churchill resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty after the disaster at Gallipoli, which claimed 46,000 allied lives. His reputation was ruined, albeit temporarily. This portrait was painted at the lowest point in Churchill’s career.
Emphasizing diversity can be a way of saying, “Look how backwards our ancestors were.” England was, from the 16th century to the 20th, an empire. Empires are by nature diverse. Those Iroquois leaders in a museum dedicated to British subjects were one example. So are 31 different maharajas represented in more than 200 portraits. Or the two great empire-building British rulers, Elizabeth I and Victoria, and the longest-reigning British monarch, Elizabeth II. There’s plenty of diversity in British history once you stop pigeonholing what diversity means.

$2 billion in art distributed for free

The Corcoran’s demise is a sad reminder that many cultural institutions in America skitter on the brink of insolvency.

Simplon Pass, 1911, John Singer Sargent, has gone to the National Gallery.

In 2014, the board of trustees for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, announced that they were closing that venerable institution and offering its assets—for free—to other agencies to manage. That meant its school, its Beaux Arts building, and its collection would all be given away. The assets were staggering, somewhere around $2 billion, and somehow the money machine would be kept out of the process.
This week the deal became final, with the Corcoran board announcingthe dispensation of the final 11,000 artworks. (The National Gallery had first dibs and took about 40% of the collection.) The art school, the building, and about 800 works go to George Washington University. Much of the rest of the collection is headed to the American University Museum, with the Smithsonian American Art Museum and other institutions rounding out the list. The art will stay in Washington, in the public view.
Niagara, 1857, by Frederic Edwin Church, has gone to the National Gallery.
The Corcoran was one of America’s oldest art museums, founded to house the private collection of a 19th century financier, William Wilson Corcoran. Doing nothing by half-measures, Corcoran hired James Renwick, designer of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and the Smithsonian ‘Castle’ in Washington, to build his museum.
Corcoran made his fortune on war bonds and retired to a life of philanthropy by 1854. His good works were legion. They included the land and chapel for Oak Hill Cemetery, a benevolent fund for the poor of Georgetown, innumerable gifts to universities, and securing Mount Vernonfor the nation. He was also a southern sympathizer who left for Paris at the outbreak of war.
Forty-two Kids, 1907, George Bellows, has gone to the National Gallery.
Corcoran was also an early patron of American art. He counted painters Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Doughty, and George Innessamong his friends. The Corcoran was established in 1869. Its School of Art was founded in 1878.
Fast forward a century and Corcoran’s vision was showing signs of financial strain. “When news broke that Board was considering selling the building, it felt like every conversation I had placed the beginning of the Museum’s decline to an earlier and earlier point,” wrote Blair Murphy. “One D.C. artist I spoke with argued that the Museum had never recovered from declining to purchase the collection of the shuttered Washington Gallery of Modern Art. That was in 1968.”
Ground swell, 1939, Edward Hopper, has gone to the National Gallery.
In 1989, the gallery agreed to host Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment. Worse, it cancelled the show when trustees and supporters voiced opposition. A change in leadership staved off bankruptcy temporarily. But history conspired against the institution. Rerouted traffic after 9/11 made it harder to get to. In 2005, the museum was unable to raise funds for a highly-touted addition by Frank Gehry. The financial crisis of 2008 hit cultural institutions hard. Giving to the Corcoran fell off sharply.
The Last of the Buffalo, 1888, Albert Bierstadt, has gone to the National Gallery.
Washington is a city of free, government-subsidized museums. The Corcoran was neither. By the end, in 2014, the admission fee was $10. Why pay that when there are so many other options that cost nothing?
The Corcoran’s demise is a sad reminder that many cultural institutions in America skitter on the brink of insolvency. What do we do about that?

Frankly, that was plain rude

Don’t complain about the crassness of our president when you behave just as badly.


America, 2016, by Maurizio Cattelan, installed in a restroom at the Guggenheim.
The interesting thing wasn’t that someone sent me this story about the Guggenheim’s refusal to loan the Trumps a painting for the White House. The interesting thing was how manypeople sent it to me. Clearly it hit a nerve.
In brief, the Trumps requested the loan of Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 Landscape with Snow for use in their private living quarters. Curator Nancy Spector refused the loan because the painting has just come off tour. Had she left it at that, nobody would have raised an eyebrow.
But as a New York intellectual, Spector hates Donald Trump. She’s made no secret of it, using social media to trumpet her opinions. She has every right to do that.
La Nona Ora, by Maurizio Cattelan (1999), wax, clothing, polyester resin with metallic powder, volcanic rock, carpet, glass, sold at Christie’s for $886,000.
But it was sophomoric and rude to offer the Trumps a gold toilet on behalf of the Guggenheim. (You can read her letter here.)
Why should major museums loan artwork for a politician’s private residence in the first place? Since the Johnson administration, presidents have been borrowing important works from major American museums. “It might be a friend, it might be a decorator … but it was someone designated by the president and first lady to come to the National Gallery of Art and choose work,” curator Mark Rosenthal toldNPR. “It’s very much [like] a kid in a candy store.” A list of the 47 pieces borrowed by the Obamas can be read here.
America, the toilet, is the creation of contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan and was installed for the past year in a public restroom on the Guggenheim’s fifth floor, intended for the use of visitors. Cattelan’s schtick is poking fun at the wealthy and powerful. His La Nona Ora (1999) shows Pope John Paul being struck down by a meteor. L.O.V.E. (2010) is a crippled hand giving the finger to the Milan stock exchange. This is the kind of thing some people think of as high-concept pranking. Apparently, they’ve never had teenaged sons.
The Ballad of Trotsky, 1996, by Maurizio Cattelan, sold in 2004 for $2.1 million.
America took $1 million in gold to create. What kind of artist can get his hands on that much gold? Only a wealthy one, or one with rich and adoring friends.
I usually ignore this stuff. I don’t admire it, any more than Nancy Spector admires what I do. But I believe in courtesy and decorum as the basis of a civilized society. Rudeness has become so unremarkable that even ladies who lunch feel free to do it. Lewd and crude commentary is the order of our day. But even those of us who did not support Trump in 2016 ought to respect the office of the Presidency and the White House.
Landscape with Snow, 1888, Vincent van Gogh. President Trump has been accused of having bad taste in art, but I too prefer this over Cattelan’s toilet.
Nancy Spector suffers from Groupthink, which means, sadly, that her snarkiness is going to be applauded, not condemned, in her insular little world. That doesn’t mean it will play in Peoria. While Spector’s gesture was meant as a slap at Trump, it’s felt by the people he represents.
Ironically, the crass and coarse President rose above the fray and did not deign to comment.

We’ve arrived!

New York, 1911, by George Bellows
Until recently, the National Gallery in London considered its purview to be European painting of the 13th through 19thcenturies. One has to smile at its recent decision to finally acknowledge America’s coming of age as an artistic powerhouse. It has done so by the acquisition of a 20th century painting, Men of the Docks, by George Bellows.
That the National Gallery considers Bellows to be the iconic American painter is peculiar, considering we are also the nation that produced Cole, Church, Whistler, Sargent, Hopper, Copley, Homer, Prendergast, Rockwell, Glackens, the Wyeths, and so many other indisputable greats.
Blue Snow, the Battery, 1910, by George Bellows. Bellows was exploring the tension between the natural and built world in his New York snow paintings.
“Bellows has almost always been seen in the context of American painting, but the way he painted owed much to Manet, and his depiction of the violence and victims of New York derived from Goya and earlier Spanish art,” said gallery director Dr. Nicholas Penny.
Ah. America seen through the lens of violence and victimhood. While that is a narrow view of America, it is also a narrow view of Bellows.
Cliff Dwellers, 1913, by George Bellows.
Bellows’ urban paintings depict the energy and chaos of working-class New York. His boxing paintings are undeniably violent, but there is no particular victimhood there—rather, there is brute power. Nor is there any overt victimhood in the slums of New York or in his shipbuilding scenes. Americans of the time saw tenements and hard work as opportunity rather than oppression.
Builders of Ships / The Rope, 1916, by George Bellows.
Bellows was associated with a group of radical artists and activists called “the Lyrical Left.” This group, which included the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, was not leftist in the modern sense of the word. Rather, they advocated an extreme idea of personal liberties, tending toward anarchism.  While Bellows contributed work to socialist publications, he was frequently at odds with their editorial staff.
In 1918, he did five large oils and 16 lithographs about atrocities against civilians by the German army at the beginning of World War I. These works—rather than his New York scenes—most explicitly quote Goya.
Breaking Sky, Monhegan, 1916, by George Bellows. My workshop students ought to recognize this view.
Yes, he focused on the grime of urban living and on social commentary, but he also painted untouched expanses of snow, shipbuilding in New England, and the pounding of waves on the rocks at Monhegan and Matinicus.

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!