Heart of the Andes

The Heart of the Andes, 1859, Frederic Edwin Church
Next month I’ll be down at Olana (the home of Frederic Edwin Church) to paint with friends from New York Plein Air Painters. To prepare myself, I stopped by the Metropolitan Museum to visit his most famous painting, The Heart of the Andes.
This is an enormous canvas—ten feet wide and five feet high—that depicts the whole panoply of earthly conditions, from the peak of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador in the far distance to the lush jungle landscape lying at our feet.
The Heart of the Andes, 1859, (detail) Frederic Edwin Church, showing the focal tree at the lower left.
Church visited Ecuador and Columbia twice. He was retracing the journeys of a famous 19th century naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt. The Heart of the Andes is a composite view, including topography from many places.  The enormity of the canvas allows him to use more than one focal light. There is human activity, most noticeably on the path that leads us in to the cross, but we are cut off from most of it.
The Heart of the Andes, 1859, (detail) Frederic Edwin Church, showing the remarkably intricate foliage running along the right.
In the month of its first showing (in 1859) more than 12,000 people paid a quarter each to see it, waiting for hours in line.
“Nobody would pay a quarter to see a painting today,” Brad Marshall said as we looked at it. “They’d just look at it online.” But no photograph can capture this painting, particularly the intricate work running through the foreground.
The Heart of the Andes, 1859, (detail) Frederic Edwin Church, showing the church and village in the middle distance. There are worlds within worlds in this painting and the mind boggles at the idea of how he sketched it out.
Church eventually sold the work for $10,000, which at the time was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Belfast, Maine in August, 2014 or in Rochester at any time. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Does art reflect society or society reflect art?

McSorley’s Bar, 1912, by John Sloan. McSorley’s is the oldest Irish tavern in New York City. It only admitted women after being forced to do so in 1970. I got into my last-ever bar fight there, with an undergrad from NYU who imagined I’d slighted his girlfriend. “I can take him,” I insisted to my husband. “Who expects a roundhouse from a blue-haired church lady?”
Yesterday a reader asked, “Does art reflect society or society reflect art?” It seems to me that art is primarily a reflection of the aspirations and values of the society that created it. That is not to downplay the importance of social justice in art, and it doesn’t mean that artists can’t change people’s minds. Think of the tremendous courage it took for Émile Zola to publish J’accuse, and the influence it has down to this day. But even that was responsive to a reality: the injustice of institutional anti-Semitism.
By the turn of the 19th century, America had recovered a bit from its earlier unbridled optimism. This could be seen in its literature, with writers like Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, and Frank Norris describing the dark side of the American experience. The painterly equivalent was called the Ashcan School.
Steaming Streets, 1908, by George Bellows. The Ashcan painters did not gloss over the filth and danger of our cities.
The Ashcan painters opposed both American Impressionism and the highly polished work of painters like John Singer Sargent. They were darker, rougher, and harsher. They were not just interested in light and air; they also wanted to paint the grime, the frozen manure and the poverty that were also part of our urban reality.
From the standpoint of trendiness, their moment was short-lived. The Cubists, Fauvists and Expressionists took over the avant garde high ground with the Armory Show of 1913, and suddenly the Ashcan painters were lumped in with all those boring old realists from the 19th century.
Eviction (Lower East Side), 1904, by Everett Shinn (gouache). Shinn had watched the eviction of an old musician from his apartment, which inspired this picture of misery and despair.    

That should not minimize their artistic and social importance. Painters like Robert Henri, George Bellows, George Luks, John Sloan, and William Glackens cast a long shadow. They were the first painters to admit that America was not Elysium, and the flaws they painted have only gotten more noticeable with time. 
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!

The poorest of the poor

The Laundress (La Blanchisseuse), c. 1863, by Honoré Daumier. This painting exists in another two versions, one of which is owned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
In the context of art, naturalism is a kind of painting that attempts to look reality square in the face. It seeks to depict people and their transactions with as much honesty as is possible. Since naturalism arose in tandem with the Industrial Revolution, it frequently investigated the changes which the Industrial Revolution wrought.
The Third-Class Carriage, 1863-65, by Honoré Daumier.  While Daumier has us focus on one family—a mother with her infant child, a tired grandmother and a sleeping boy—they represent all of the working class, with their solid bodies and weary stoicism.

Mid-19th century French painters were particularly good at this, and nobody was more incisive than Honoré Daumier. Daumier was a bit of an artistic polymath, excelling at printmaking, caricature, painting and sculpture. He was tremendously prolific, producing more than 6000 pieces of work in his lifetime.

The Uprising, c. 1860, by Honoré Daumier. Daumier was unique in seeing the nascent labor movement as a fitting subject for art. Daumier is very spare with the details here, driving our attention inexorably to the figure in the center. In this, he suggests the coming Impressionist movement.
In Daumier’s era, washerwomen did their work at lavoirs, which were public places set aside for clothes washing.  It was dismal and hard work. Duamier lived on the Quai d’Anjou on the Île Saint-Louis. This afforded him many opportunities to see the washerwomen at their work along the Seine.  His washerwomen, would have been amused by the modern conceit of “Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work Day” since it was a fact of life for the 19th century poor. They are tired, but they are strong, and they exhibit the same monumentality as Millet’s gleaners.
The Burden (The Laundress) c. 1850-53, is another look at the same subject. Again, the figure is monumental and impressionistic, but here she and her child are both driven. The paint handling clearly suggests the next generation of French painters, particularly Van Gogh.

Having grown up in a working class household himself, Daumier was uniquely sensitive to working class life. However, he did not just paint the poor; he depicted (and caricaturized) the whole gamut of French society.

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!

It could always be worse

Portrait of Émile Zola, 1868, by Édouard Manet
My friend Martha recently told me, “Taxes are the price you pay to live in a free society.” I’m doing my taxes this week and debating what I should post while I’m off in the land of spreadsheets and illegible receipts I never got around to entering.
I’ll start with some French realism today, to remind myself that things could always be worse. We could be struggling to heat our homes and our children could be executed for stealing crusts of bread. Officers could be convicted of heinous crimes simply because of their Jewishness.
Let’s start with Manet’s portrait of Émile Zola, who was France’s most important social realist writer. Zola was nominated for the first and second Nobel prizes in literature (which were won, characteristically, by nobody you ever heard of). He is remembered chiefly for his championing of the falsely-accused French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus.
But that was still in the future when this painting was conceived. It was a thank-you gift for Zola’s passionate support of Manet’s work. The setting is Manet’s studio. On the wall is a reproduction of Manet’s scandalous Olympia, tying this painting very clearly to Manet’s gratitude. Zola is seated at his work table. The book, inkwell, quill, books and papers tell us he is a man of letters.
Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners, 1857. Note how the figures are dehumanized by their faces being obscured and how they are separated from the prosperity in the distance.
The French Barbizon painters championed realism as a painterly technique (in response to the accepted Romanticism of the time). But they were also social realists, taking an unflinching look at the vast poverty that endured in rural France.
Hunting Birds at Night, 1874, by Jean-François Millet.
Unfortunately, social realism can be tough to appreciate over time, because appalling poverty starts to look quaint when we are distant from it. This is the fate that has overtaken Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners. In its day, it was an electric criticism of French society. The wealthy (who tend to buy paintings) seemed to get a whiff of the tumbrels of the French Revolution and it made them decidedly uncomfortable.  “His three gleaners have gigantic pretensions, they pose as the Three Fates of Poverty … their ugliness and their grossness unrelieved,” wrote one reviewer.

Short on money, Millet sold this painting at a sharp discount. A century and a half later, it is one of the most recognized and beloved paintings of all time.

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!

When I had No Clothes On

Not our anonymous naturalist, alas, since I haven’t any pictures of her. A nude by little ol’ me.

After dusk last night, a shifty-looking fellow rang my front bell and abruptly thrust a sheaf of paper bound in hemp string into my hands. It was a leaked copy of a memoir by a local naturalist.
It’s much too long to quote in full here, and not all the people mentioned are dead. But I thought you might enjoy a few passages that relate to yesterday’s interview with Michelle Long:
If I had ever given the matter a passing thought, I suppose I had always assumed, vaguely, that models tended to be either Parisian waifs like George Du Maurier’s Trilby, characters from Anaïs Nin’s erotica, or at the very least, the glamorous mistresses of painters.  But it is not so at all. 
Wherever there are art classes, there are also intelligent and creative naturists picking up a few spare bucks by modeling, it seems.  Since my salary at [excised] was piteously small, I had realized at once that some moonlighting would have to be done. I had considered baby-sitting, but now that I knew modeling was a possibility, it struck me as the very best possible night-time job: fancy being paid perfectly good money for sitting around with no clothes on and doing absolutely nothing![1]
Modeling was almost always good fun, and only occasionally did I have to struggle with my sense of the absurd.  One day, I looked down from the model-stand and found myself face-to-face with [excised], who had been my high school Girl Scout troop leader!  A very strange feeling indeed.  Modeling at Nazareth College initially made me a bit nervous; there is something deeply weird about being nude in the same room with a nun…
Then there was the public nature of the work.  Now and again, I would go to a restaurant or an art film, and people would recognize me…  Sometimes I would unexpectedly come upon myself at an art exhibit or a gallery opening. Once, this happened when I was out with colleagues from [excised], and I was reduced to hiding behind partitions and doing what I could to distract them from looking too closely at the nudes.  When a particularly striking recumbent semi-nude charcoal sketch of me happened to be reproduced in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, I thanked my lucky stars that it did not include my face.  My mother, however, could not be fooled: ‘I’d know that bottom anywhere,’ she said…         
Our photographer also liked the idea of re-creating classical paintings with live models.  Mount Hope Cemetery, that great Victorian necropolis, is the perfect setting for this sort of thing.  More than one mausoleum there is a dead ringer for the Treasury of the Athenians at Olympia.  Thus it came about that two female naturist buddies and I half froze ourselves impersonating the Three Graces (minus the conventional diaphanous peploi), dancing hand in hand before the classical portals of some wealthy family’s tomb on a chilly day in early spring.  The pictures are really very pretty, though I cannot remember precisely why one of us[2]had chosen to wear a spangled feathered 1920’s headband for the occasion…[3] 
Nude modeling in cemeteries is not for the faint of heart.  Every time we heard a car approaching, we all had to race behind the mausoleum to put on our bathrobes, knowing perfectly well that there was some poison ivy back there.  Better a case of poison ivy than an arrest for public nudity, in however artistic a cause.[4]  We managed to get in about half an hour’s uninterrupted work at one point, but then a car actually came up the hill right towards us!  We dove for our bathrobes and hid behind the mausoleum, hearts in our throats, fearing that it was the police.
But no!  It was our friend [excised], who had heard about the project, and had been so eager to be part of it that he had apparently driven to the graveyard and through the graveyard in the all-together![5]  We managed to get in about twenty solid minutes of being The Judgment of Parisbefore the light faded.[6]  Freezing cold, we all gratefully and hastily put on our clothes, then drove over to my place, cranking the heat in our cars at full blast …
Each of us knew a few other models, for Rochester Institute of Technology often holds two life-drawing classes simultaneously, and models, although they tend not to be very chatty with the students, do talk with one another on breaks.[7]
Hence, when the opportunity arose, we were able to put together an artistic Feast of Misrule that is probably still remembered as far away as Syracuse and points beyond.[8]  The charming and persuasive [excised] had somehow managed to talk the local branch of the YMCA into renting their entire building to the Rochester naturists for a whole evening, one a month or so, for a whole winter….  In an ideal world, every urban naturist group would simply own its own YMCA.  Most of us, I think, were childish enough to take an enormous delight in using the other sex’s locker room.  The pool was enormous, and the gymnasium offered plenty of room for (sigh) volleyball.[9] I seem to remember that one month, we were even able to hold a nude dance, with waltzes, of course, between the sets of squares and contras.[10]
The Feast of Misrule was billed as a workshop for artists and models, but its main goal was to allow everyone a chance to get on the other side of the easel, if only for a night.  We did end up with more models who wanted to paint and draw than artists who were willing to take a shift on the podium, but that worked out perfectly well: one or two models at a time are about all beginning artists can cope with.
The ploy worked brilliantly; we models turned out to be no worse at life-drawing than your average beginners are.  We were merciful to our brave artists, who were mostly modeling for the first time.  In a spirit of charity, we did not insist on any long and difficult poses.  All of us who wanted to attempt it had the chance to take part in a two-person pose, and everyone who felt up to it tried to draw one.  Finally, when we had amassed a large enough collection of portraits of one another, we posted our work on the walls of the big front room, and, for a touch of authenticity, added a few curatorial-looking labels on white three-by-five cards.  One optimist even added a price-tag.  I seem to recall that the Head Naturist of Syracuse mounted one of his drawings on a larger piece of paper and drew it an ornate baroque frame.[11] 
Then we poured out the wine and arranged fruit and cheese on the table, and opened the great double doors to invite all of the other naturists in.  It was, I expect, Rochester’s very first all-nude art gallery opening.  If only we had been able to find a nice naked string quartet, it would have been absolutely perfect.  As it was, the Feast of Misrule was an event to remember; a truly star-studded evening out, and a delightful change from horrible, horrible work. (© 2013, Amy Vail, Rochester, NY.)
Yes, we have a good time in our studio!  And if you’re interested in joining us for a fantastic time in mid-Coast Maine this summer, check here for more information.

[1]There are very few genuinely enjoyable jobs that you can do with your clothes off.  Babysitting is not one of them.   I have always hated babysitting.  Indeed, I earned eternal exemption from changing any and all family diapers by throwing up on one of my dear nephews halfway through the process.
[2]Not I.
[3]Incidentally, doing normally private things in a graveyard has fine, if not entirely respectable Classical antecedents. If Catullus and Martial are to be believed, the less expensive Roman professional ladies did this kind of thing all the time.
[4]Even my liberal parents would have been grieved by such an arrest.  Worst still, it would have become an humiliating family joke for the next two or three generations.
[5]Driving naked is very good fun, but it is not legal in all states.  (I cannot believe it is legal in any cemetery.)  I believe my dear Head Naturist of Syracuse only avoided an indictment for driving naked in West Virginia by dying before the date of his trial.  May he rest in peace, nude, as he would have wished.
[6]All right, then, the Judgment of Craig.  The pictures are striking and not unattractive, but Craig has too many tattoos to be an entirely convincing Paris.
[7]Not all models are naturists.  It takes more than a willingness to take your clothes off to be a true naturist.  You also have to put up with volleyball (shudder) and be willing to participate in an annual chocolate pudding war.  I always tried to avoid the volleyball, but it was not always possible.  The pudding, however,  wasn’t  bad at all; it is an excellent conditioner for the hair, though devilishly tricky to get out of your ears.
[8] I adore Syracuse.  Ah, Syracuse, City of Lights!  Would I were back there now!
[9]What is it with some naturists and volleyball?  Don’t they know that they are just catering to conventional stereotyping?
[10]Now, nude waltzing is witty and original, and far to be preferred to boring old volleyball.
[11] I lost my heart to him that evening.  He is enshrined him forever in the Detrimental Hall of Fame.

New York Social Realism

A Pool With A View (Cunningham Rd) by Bruce Bundock
32″ x 20″, Acrylic

Today I’d like to write about an artist who also did the Rye Painters on Location this weekend: Bruce Bundock.

It takes an extraordinary mind to see the beauty of Tyvek, T11 siding and an above-ground pool set serenely in Eden. This is a legitimate extension of the social realism of Millet or Hopper, but we are so blind to working-class, rural New York that we don’t immediately recognize it. (New York has the highest and fastest growing income disparity in the nation*.) What interests me is that Bruce seems genuinely fascinated by these modest houses; there isn’t a shred of sentimentality in his work.

His subtle social commentary wouldn’t work without impeccable technique. I am personally fond of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, and I see intimations of it in Bruce’s work, particularly in the discrete steps used instead of gradation to indicate tonal range. The best of his paintings remind me of old-fashioned commercial lithography, particularly in the wonderful flat greens of the trees. None of this, of course, would work without his superlative drafting.

Botanical by Bruce Bundock
11.5″ x 8.25″, Acrylic

This weekend, I acquired Bruce’s “Botanical”, above. I presume by the title that Bruce thinks it’s about the flowers, but once more I see a modest but proud house set in Paradise. As I’m sure I’ll see him someday in a major national gallery, I am thrilled to have such an archetypal example of his work.

Rye Beach Pavilion, by Bruce Bundock, September 13, 2008, acrylic

His Rye painting, of an old Spanish-style building at Playland, included that motif, appropriately muted. A painting which might have been postcard-sentimental was elevated by the inclusion of construction equipment in the foreground, which was perfectly integrated into the composition by skillful balancing of form and color.

To see more of Bruce’s paintings, go to http://artid.com/members/bundock