When the artist likes his subject

I’m studying Francis Cadell before a portrait commission takes me to his home town.
Portrait of a Lady in Black, c. 1921, Francis Cadell, courtesy National Gallery of Scotland.
Winston Churchill hated his state portrait, painted by Graham Vivian Sutherland. It so rankled that his widow, Clementine Churchill, had her secretary burn it more than a decade after his death. That’s the fate of a portrait that pisses everyone off. It must have felt like a stinging rebuke to Sutherland, who was blameless.
Sutherland was not primarily a portrait artist, but a tapestry designer and landscape painter. He thoroughly embraced modernism. There are some artists who could combine that with warmth, but for most of the 20thcentury, modernism was coupled with cool disdain. Sutherland’s portraits, mainly done in the 1950s, are icily insightful. Many illustrious people sat for him, so he was a logical choice for the parliamentarians who commissioned the painting. Sutherland was fashionable.
Interior, The Orange Blind, c. 1914, by Francis Cadell, courtesy Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Unless Cadell was on a ladder, this is an imagined viewpoint.
Another painter who did portraits as part of a larger ouevre was the Scottish Colourist Francis Cadell. He was skilled at still life, interiors, and plein air landscapes. He was also a portrait painter in his native Edinburgh. Unlike Sutherland’s, his portraits are sympathetic. They tie their subjects to what interested him most—the house and furnishings that provided the setting.
Lesser thinkers might have made a cynical statement about materialism, and in more sophisticated cities, that would have been lapped up. However, there’s absolutely no condescension in Cadell’s worldview. He is as interested in interiors as they are. As an artist, he comes across as a thoroughly nice man.
The Parting, c. 1915, Francis Cadell, courtesy National Gallery of Scotland.
Cadell was the only Colourist to serve in the Great War. Before he was sent to the Front, he did a series of drawings in ink and watercolor. These are fast, witty drawings built on graphic design and splashes of color.
His later paintings worked off the same idea. He created meticulous, exciting value compositions in white, cream and black, and shot them through with highlights of bold color. That color was often red.
I’m studying Cadell because I’m going to Scotland next Spring. I’ll do a portrait, in a home on the next street to where Cadell lived and worked for nearly 12 years. He painted his Portrait of a Lady in Black, above, in his Ainslie Place studio. As with so many of his paintings, it’s as much a portrait of a place as of a woman. In fact, the model, Bertia Don Wauchope, was not a client at all, but his regular model.
We read the shape between the fan and her torso first, because it’s the highest contrast in the painting. Rapidly, though, we begin to see the spaces defined in mauve, and the reflection of her great hat in the mirror. It’s a stunning monochromatic composition alleviated only by the pink of that ridiculous flower and a slash of lipstick. And yet there’s nothing dehumanized about it.
The Vase of Water, 1922, Francis Cadell. His studio had mauve walls, so it’s an indication that the painting was done there.
The key to Cadell’s portraits are, in fact, his still lives. He ruthlessly reduced detail and shadow into blocks of brilliant color. Their main purpose was to provide a brilliantly faceted abstract framework. And yet there is a casualness to them that make them plausible moments stolen from life.
Sticking an international trip into my summer schedule is impossible, so I plan to go in May, as soon as the weather warms enough to paint outdoors. A side trip to Ionaseems inevitable. After all, that’s where I first met Cadell and the other Colourists. This time, I’m bringing my oils.

The way to end all wars

Hitler and Churchill were both artists. Who would have won a painting throwdown?

Mary’s First Speech, by Winston Churchill (courtesy Wikiart)

The Battle of Britain was a military campaign between the Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe. It was brutal and bloody, with 90,000 civilian casualties, 40,000 of them fatal. It is remembered as the first major campaign fought entirely by air forces. The United States hadn’t yet weighed in against the Axis powers, and Britain and Canada went it alone against the greater strength of German air forces.

The Battle of Britain was also the only battle in history where both leaders were artists. If, in June of 1940, Britain and Germany had instead engaged their premiers in an art competition, who would have won?
“I am an artist and not a politician. Once the Polish question is settled, I want to end my life as an artist,” Adolf Hitler said. He was bitter at his failure to gain acceptance at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, and in Mein Kampfblamed that failure on ‘the Jews’.
The Courtyard of the Old Residency in Munich, by Adolf Hitler (courtesy Wikipedia)
Hitler was rejected twice by the academy. His problem was his portfolio, which was heavy on architecture, light on portraiture and figure. One professor, noting his excellent draftsmanship, suggested that he apply to the School of Architecture. As a drop-out, he would have had to return to secondary school first, and he was unwilling.
Hitler described himself as a ‘student’ of Rudolf von Alt. However, there is no fantasy and little of the natural world in Hitler’s work. He showed a profound disinterest in the people who should have inhabited the architectural spaces he drew. If they appear at all, they are static columns. His painting style was far more conservative and pedantic than the leading lights of fin-de-siecle Vienna, such as Gustav Klimt.
Tree at a Track, 1911, by Adolf Hitler (courtesy Wikipedia)
Winston Churchill did not pick up a paintbrush until the age of 40, but he had more than four decades to practice his great avocation. “Winston found hours of pleasure and occupation in painting,” wrote his daughter, Mary Soames.
“It was a ‘love affair’ with painting – I think that is the only way to describe it. Problems of perspective and colour, light and shade gave him respite from dark worries, heavy  burdens and the clatter of political strife.” Painting enabled him “to confront storms, ride out depressions and rise above the rough passages of his political life.”
Churchill took up painting in June 1915. His sister-in-law was painting in watercolor at the family home, Chartwell. She gave him her son’s kit and urged him to try it. He was so enthusiastic he bought an oil kit the next day.
Lakeland Scene near Breccles, by Winston Churchill (courtesy Wikiart)
“The first quality that is needed is audacity. There really is no time for the deliberate approach,” he said. As a very busy man, he had no patience with the idea of traditional training. “Two years of drawing lessons, three years of copying woodcuts, five years of plaster-casts, these are for the young… We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We just content ourselves with a joy ride in a paintbox.”
Churchill used painting to chase off the “black dog” of depression that haunted him through his life. By 1921, he was showing his work. He would submit pieces for jurying under pseudonyms so as not to influence jurors.
Churchill loved to paint en plein air, and his paintings are full of light and color. While he was not a master painter, he worked within the style and mood of his times, unlike the reactionary Hitler. If I were the juror, I’d give the first-place ribbon to him. Then again, I know how it ended.

The client hates the painting

A grateful nation wanted to honor Sir Winston Churchill for his remarkable service. The painting they commissioned was regrettably unsympathetic.
Sir Winston Churchill, by Graham Sutherland
In 1954, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was winding up his second term of office as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He was one of the most brilliant men of any age: a leader, a soldier, an historian, a writer, and along with all that, a skilled painter. Where he could have gone with an art career had he not been busy saving Western Civilization is anyone’s guess.
Mary’s first speech, by Winston Churchill
Wishing to honor him, the joint Houses of Parliament commissioned a portrait painting by another polymath, Graham Vivian Sutherland. Sutherland was a printmaker, a textile designer, a wartime artist, and a portraitist of some note. He was also known as a modernist, which ought to have struck a warning bell. For all his complexity and brilliance, Churchill was deeply orthodox.
Sutherland was paid 1000 guineas. This needs explaining. The guinea had been officially removed from circulation more than a hundred years earlier. However, luxury goods like art, couturier clothing, horses, and fine furniture were quoted in guineas right through the late 20th century. A guinea was 21 shillings, and that equaled about $35,000 in today’s money. The fee was paid entirely by donations from members of the joint Houses.
W. Somerset Maugham, by Graham Sutherland
To date, Sutherland’s most famous portrait commission had been of the writer W. Somerset Maugham. Sutherland’s fans thought him honest; others considering him cold. In retrospect, his portraits seem almost to be caricatures.
Churchill wanted to be shown in the chivalric robes of the Order of the Garter. However, the commission specified that he be shown in his usual parliamentary dress.
Abraham Lincoln, by Daniel Chester French
Sutherland was methodical in his preparation. He traveled to the Churchill home, Chartwell, to make charcoal and oil studies, doing the final work in his studio. The pose was meant to quote Daniel Chester French’s monumental portrait of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. However, in its odd miasma of dreary monochrome, Sutherland’s painting was oddly unheroic. It was just an old man, struggling out of his chair.
That was a bad note to strike, even if it did resonate with the nation’s own sense of exhaustion. Unknown to the public, Churchill had recently had a stroke. He was feeling sensitive about his health.
Clementine Churchill brought a photograph of the completed portrait back to her husband ten days before the public ceremony at Westminster. Churchill hated it, calling it “filthy” and “malignant”. His fellow Conservative Charles Doughty convinced him that he had to accept it, since rejecting it would offend the donors.
In his speech, Churchill, ever the wit, described the likeness as “a remarkable example of modern art.” Although it was intended to hang in Parliament, Churchill immediately took it back to Chartwell with him, where it was stashed away.
Lord Goodman, by Graham Sutherland
In 1978, it was revealed that Lady Churchill had asked her secretary to destroy the painting. Grace Hamblin was the Churchill’s loyal private secretary for more than 40 years. She and her brother burned the painting on a large bonfire in the back garden of his house.
Biographer Sonia Purnell has described Lady Churchill as “ruthless” in protecting her late husband’s legacy. Because the painting didn’t represent her own image of her husband, “it had to go.” That disregards the fact that he hated it as much as she.
Sutherland later described the disposal of the portrait as an “act of vandalism.” Certainly no artist wants to see their work destroyed, but in the end a painting is an object, a possession, and the owner has the right to destroy it.

Painting and politicians

Winston Churchill, The Goldfish Pond at Chartwell, 1932. I think any artist would be proud to have painted this.
When we were painting in Camden at my first workshop last month, an elderly gentleman asked Sandy if he could take her photo with her painting. “After all,” he said, “you could be the next Winston Churchill.”
One presumes he meant Winslow Homer, but I suppose he could have meant Churchill. Churchill was a fine amateur painter.
Winston Churchill, A View From Chartwell, 1938. Storm clouds may have been gathering over the Sudetenland, but Chartwell remained Churchill’s personal Garden of Eden.
Whether you feel that your soul is pleased by the conception of contemplation of harmonies, or that your mind is stimulated by the aspect of magnificent problems, or whether you are content to find fun in trying to observe and depict the jolly things you see, the vistas of possibility are limited only by the shortness of life. Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb,” wrote Churchill.
Of course, Churchill’s nemesis, Adolf Hitler, was also (famously) a painter. In Mein Kampf, he wrote about his rejection from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.  Later, he tinted and sold postcards of scenes of Vienna, and haunted Munich artists’ cafes in the vain hope that other artists might help forward his career. He was alleged to have told British ambassador Nevile Henderson, “I am an artist and not a politician. Once the Polish question is settled, I want to end my life as an artist.”
Adolf Hitler, Perchtoldsdorg Castle and Church.
Hitler had drafting ability and might have succeeded in his aspiration to become an architect, had he been able to muster up the academic credentials to get into school. But there is something excessively sentimental  about his painting. Combined with the rigidity of his drawing, his work is, indeed, very off-putting—and I don’t say that just because he was one of history’s great mass murderers.
Adolf Hitler, Alter Werderthor Wien
A third titan of WWII also took up painting, albeit after his tenure as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Seeing his friend Churchill at work may have influenced General Dwight D. Eisenhower to take up painting, or he may have been influenced by watching observing the artist Thomas E. Stephens paint Mamie’s portrait. Maybe he just had time on his hands after the war.
President Eisenhower at his easel.
Eisenhower wrote to Churchill in 1950: “I have a lot of fun since I took it up, in my somewhat miserable way, your hobby of painting. I have had no instruction, have no talent, and certainly have no justification for covering nice, white canvas with the kind of daubs that seem constantly to spring from my brushes. Nevertheless, I like it tremendously, and in fact, have produced two or three things that I like enough to keep.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower, The Telegraph Cottage, 1949
Eisenhower’s self-assessment seems apt, but the question of talent is beside the point. Whatever the merits of their painting, Churchill, Hitler and Eisenhower are going to be remembered for their other achievements.
The painterly impulse isn’t completely unknown among modern politicians. A few months ago, a hacker revealed daubs by former president George W. Bush. (I wish he’d take one of my Maine workshops; he would really benefit from it.) But in a world where politicians seem more likely to go in for sexting and rent boys, painting seems like a quaint past-time.

Even though Rockland is just up Route 1 from Kennebunkport, I am kind of doubting George Bush will be in my class. But if you’re signed up for my July workshop in mid-coast Maine, you can find the supply lists here. There’s one more residential slot left; I’m dying to know who is going to fill it. August and September are sold out , but there are openings in October! Check here for more information.