The notion of Mastery has several definitions in the dictionary. One evokes the idea of slavery, serfs and peasants, as well as the corresponding overlord, conqueror, monarch or or suzerain– the ‘Master’, precisely… This makes it a very objectionable word. I balk at using that word. I do not like the idea of kings or unjust overlords or the slavery and serfdom they produced. The modern CEO, who does not deserve the excessive pay he gets, or the power he has over workers, is an outgrowth of this corrupt concept. CEO’s are often tyrants or arbitrary dictators, stealing pensions, shipping jobs to China, refusing raises, downsizing, giving themselves bonuses, vacations and raises all the time. They are tyrants created by markets, and all the force and intelligence used to get rid of slavery, the refusal to let women vote or give African Americans equal rights needs to be unleashed on them.Unfortunately a good deal of art history is about just such “Masters” and rarely do they get the severe criticism they deserve. Museums too, tend to serve elite culture, and nowadays that means CEO culture.
Another definition of ‘master’ is the head of a guild, a skilled practitioner, an expert at something, blacksmithing or painting, a genius or head of a school or craft. This is less objectionable, though still has some caste like qualities which i do not like very much, as we will see below, Nathaniel Hurd seems to have used the world in his lexicon to mean part of an unjust caste system. Da Vinci was called a Maestro, in this sense, and I am not aware that the word Maestro is used in the negative sense above. Maestros, for instance, are exceptional players of the violin or piano, as well as painters or dance instructors. The two definitions of Master however, are too easily blurred and that makes use of the concept very problematical. So when one hears it often said that one should “study with the Masters”, what is meant is not to study with slave owners, or with control freaks or unjust, conquerors, CEOs or overlords, but to study with someone who actually knows about how to do something like blacksmithing, violin, glassblowing or to paint or draw. A master painter is not a tyrant, but one who learns how to do something that is really very difficult and takes many years to learn. So this may be a more or less neutral sense of the word that merely means a very good teacher or expert, a Maestro. I wish there was a separate word for both definitions, as I only mean one of them. I suggest not using the word Master and using the Italian word Maestro instead, since it does not have the connatation of a slave owner or cruel overlord.The art world has always been corrupted by the super-rich, and resisting the ideology of the master is important.
So I will use the Maestro to mean only those who are good at a craft, skill or art.I have studied with the “maestros”. All the best “maestros” or experts of art have stressed the importance of drawing. All the best have said that an important component of drawing or painting is training from other people who excel at their craft. It is only in the last 50 years that this process has stopped in most art schools, replaced by computers, commercial art and fashion. This is tragic and is helping to kill art, alienating it from hands and skills. We do not wish to ‘use a Rembrandt as an ironing board’ as Duchamp stupidly said. Indeed, Duchamp’s hatred of art is as palpable and irrelevant as his ridiculous and sexist joke on a copy of the Mona Lisa. His need to disparage this and other great work is a testament to his own lack of skills as a painter. He was a sort of nihilist clown and poseur, and a very bad painter. Those who worhip him feed off the dead rinds of what once was art, now largely lost, except among a few who still value it.
The past is amazing and full of methods and ideas. Disparaging previous generations is petty and childish. If the past is meaningless, the current generation who makes fun of it will also be meaningless. History is who we are and it is wide and various and in need of improvement. Art history leads to what we will become. Learning to draw is a long term process. One learns to talk to other maestros by drawing their paintings, sculptures or drawings as part of the process of understanding ourselves and our history. It is not different than learning to play Bach or Beethoven on violin.The past is full of errors and interests, mistakes and wonders. Being part of the long term community of artists should be akin to being part of the community of scientists. It is not a mistake that science begins with Da Vinci and is closely allied with drawing. It is about exploration. This understanding of art as a part of objective inquiry has been largely lost. But one reason I continue to draw at the museum is that I have so many teachers there, all of them dead, but still living in their art. They are friends and their work is part of my mind and our world. Insofar as there is a life after death, it is not in a mythical heaven or kingdom but in a museum.This is a wondrous thing, and this essay is about sharing this wonder,as well as questioning aspects of it.
Vincent talks in his letters about being “lonesome for the land of paintings”. He worked for art dealers early in his life and learned all about Dutch and English art in the 1800’s. I understand exactly what he means. It is a world of great depth and interest, with things highlighted that might not be so obvious in reality. It is more than the history of poetry, which has so many problems in it. Painting and drawing do not just communicate times and events, people and places, but also nature itself, existence itself and what it means. It communicates power and the mistakes of powers. It makes one part of an evolving history and changing community of artists. It extends the real world and does not diminish it, indeed, it makes the real world that much more vivid.
When Vincent says he is lonely for the land of pictures, he is invoking the land that artists created. Vincent would eventually come to condemn the “dealers in men” namely the gallery owners and museum curators and directors who steer art into the domains of the rich and well heeled, turning art away from actual meaning and into the intricacies of commercialism, fashion and the empty consumerism of abstract nothingness. Art for Vincent was not an elite affair, but a practice that takes sides with sufferings and joys of ordinary people. One would never know it to visit most New York Galleries today, but art was once a real thing, done by people’s hands, done with their heart and mind and carved out of ones personal life with struggle and joy.
I have been going to the Cleveland Museum of art for many years. I started going there often when I was 15, and have gone regularly, when I was in Cleveland, for the last 45 years. Since my first love was drawing, I decided four or five years ago to start again at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where I often drew in my youth, and now I draw there again, regularly, and with deeper purpose. When I was a guard there in art school in 1976, I often drew the paintings or wrote poetry while studying the paintings. The Cleveland Museum is an amazing place, and as I get older I see the wisdom of those who helped make it.
While the current administration is corporate driven and an agent of the elite, it was not always so. I saw the show Sherman Lee and Gabriel P. Weisberg’s 1980 show The Realist Tradition, French Painting and Drawing, 1830-1910, as well and the one he did on Eight Dynasties of Chinese Art, (1980). Both were amazing and still stick in my memory and I have the catalogs of both. I was lucky to be alive and a student then. The sort of shows the museum puts up now are pathetic in comparison, though this fact is invisible to those who work there, caught as so many of them are, in ideologies that they neither can examine or criticize..
In some ways these two shows were the culmination of Lee’s work. I knew Sherman Lee a little and went to some of his lectures on Chinese and Japanese art. He was a great director and made the museum an even better place, unlike more recent directors who have sent CMA into decline. A good example is Chinese art, which was Lee’s area of expertise. Lee’s own set up for his Chinese collection was amazing and well done. CMA has perhaps the best Chinese art collection outside of Taiwan. In contrast the current collection space is pathetic and small and with too few things to be nearly as interesting as it used to be. The have largely undermined his legacy. Instead of a large space for art they now have a large space for singles nights, and mixing of the sexes, as if that were a purpose of our art museum.
Lee walked around with his glasses down his nose and his back slightly bowed, checking things out, always looking at things, assessing. I liked the fact he had Bruegel’s “The Blind leading the Blind” in his office, as it reminded him to look a little more carefully. He had a real knowledge and the humility of a good scholar. The current leadership would do well to think of this. I do not mean to say that the board or directors might suffer from some corruption or other or might be wrong on this or that, though it may be, in fact. Recently the board tried to cover up for a really bad director who did harm to others. A young woman died. I made a show, with Gabriel Weinberg’s help, a great art historian who used to be a curator at CMA. But CMA rejected some of the best art of the last 500 years. Instead they are running a show on Basquait, a ‘friend’ of Warhols’, and Alex Katz, painter of flat and empty lives in upper middle class suburbs, whose work is vapid and meaningless. One wonders what the point of that is. The current leadership at CMA is turning the place into a high brow Mall and uppity singles bar, with the kitsch and Bank Lobby art of the culturally empty Bilbao Museum in Spain, close behind.
Indeed, what I have learned is that museum curators and directors can be very obtuse. they think they deserve their jobs because they have them, when actually they do not know what they are doing and act on false principles. Part of the problem with these institutions is the board, who are mostly businessmen, and who know next to nothing but making money, and so are ignorant. Just as businessmen are horrible in government, so they make very bad museum leaders, prone to primping, posturing and pretense. Sherman Lee showed us that directing a museum is about scholarship and that is a far cry from profit making mercenaries.CEO’s have no place in a museum, it is a place for scholars who love art. Of course, the Cleveland museum under Sherman Lee was a very different place than it is now. Now it is a confused place that largely serves the wealthy while pretending it is democratic.
CMA is wrong to restrict drawing in special galleries too. I mean only to say that the Board has a responsibility to the art, artists and education, as this is what that gives them their jobs. But they have avoided their responsibility and done poorly at directing the museum in the way that Sherman Lee did. They serve the rich 1%. The current director was a director at the Getty and the Morgan, two of the biggest museums devoted to the legacy of absurdly rich men. It is hard to imagine CMA doing anything interesting. They serve the rich.
So, what stands out at this museum is some of the art itself, and in this case, CMA, under Lee and others, has chosen exceptionally fine things in every area of its expertise. There is the usual gold and ivory nonsense, objet’s des artes, vacuous modernist work. Gold frames with elite portraits in them. But in some of its works it rivals the MET, Louvre, Tate or the National Galleries in London or DC, not in quantity, but in the quality of each piece it has collected. I have only drawn some of them, loved them in fact, and embraced them closely in my mind and heart. There is alot of works at CMA that are basically propaganda for the upper classes at various points in history. Unless they are exceptional is some other way, I generally avoided those.
So this blog entry is about this place and the drawings and studies I have done there in the last four or five years years. So to the drawings…..
Misnamed by Praxiteles
This exquisite sculpture, which is probably Roman and not a Praxiteles, and possibly a looted antiquity, is nevertheless very lovely. .Each drawing is separate and the last one, or the right, is an imaginary reconstruction of what the sculpture might have looked like. CMA, which has done little of value since Lee, has tried to sell this as a Praxiteles, but of course it isn’t. I won’t talk about these drawings here as I have written of them elsewhere, at length, here:
This URL brings you to a book called Persistent Fictions. Look up the name Praxiteles:or the essay “Praxiteles: Misuses of Scholarship in the Making of the Myth of Praxiteles” to read about these sculptures.
I wrote about these images too, painted studies from the Louvre, not Cleveland, a statue called the Aphrodite of Knidos, also claimed to be by Praxiteles but probably is not. I write about this in the above essay too. So I won’t talk about it here.
I did this drawing based on a sculpture visiting CMA from Liverpool, England. Also discuss this in the above essay, so no need to talk about it here.
All of the above sculptures are probably Roman, as is this one too, from the CMA collection. A updated version of the Kouros Boy? Probably. I am especially happy with the arm and chest in this drawing, and with the arm, neck, chest and hip in the drawing below too. Drawing things like this involves a great deal of concentration, and there are always difficult areas that one struggles with. I try to measure with my eyes or use the pecil to measure. I struggled with the legs in the drawing above and with the face in the drawing below.
Terpsichore Lyran (Muse of Lyric Poetry) | 1816
My procedure with these drawings was to wander around the museum until something caught my eye, and in many cases this meant that I knew little or nothing of the history of that particular piece. I drew on the basis of just what my eyes saw, not any research I had done on the artist or the piece. So in some cases, as with Canova, I was in the dark about the artist and drew based on the aesthetic qualities of the work. I later studied who he was.
Antonio Canova, (1757-1822) was one of the great sculptors of the 1800’s, more or less contemporaneous with Turner( 1775-1851). He was a conservative and a Catholic and helped turn the love of Greek culture from a progressive force at the time of the French Revolution into a backwards leaning one that ended up serving the attempt to restore kings to power. This is a reactionary work. But I put that aside and see it as a wonderful example of well made sculpture and Greek myth. There is an earlier plaster version of this sculpture in the Carnegie-Mellon in the Pittsburgh collection, which I have also seen. This one, of course, is marble and the completed work. One could criticize it as being conservative, symbolism and formal, as is often the case for Canova’s work, But his Three Graces is certainly one of the most beautiful of 19th century sculptures. Art often goes beyond politics and this is sometimes the case with Canova.
Drawing something does not imply an endorsement, necessarily. I ignored Canova’s sculpture for years, as I do the inflated Anthony Van Dyke in CMA. I dislike Van Dyke. Van Dykes works are intrinsically painted as propaganda for the upper class. His works are in the Mellon created Smithsonian and other museums. Van Dykes are the darlings of overpaid wanna be American CEOs and “aristocrats”. His paintings endorse his upper class interests.. I am aware that the art world is partly a service industry to the unjustly rich, and I am aware how corrupt they are and how they deform art. This sculpture has many wonderful qualities so it is good for my purpose. and it is lovely, at least partly innocent of the Ancien Regime, Napoleon and corrupt American economics. But none of this matters much to my purpose, which is to draw a form in a certain kind of light. But here I want to draw figures in space and this one is perfect for that.
Unlike Van Dyke, this wonderful sculpture, beautiful in itself, is independent of Canova’s backwards views on politics and religion. It is currently in the old part of the museum and surrounded with grey walls, in a sort of formal echo chamber with an arched ceiling and a sky light, which brings the light out of the stone very well. It makes it hard to draw though, as one is drawing the light, which means one has to concentrate heavily on making the image darker. Many people do not understand that painting in European history is really about light, and they regret the fact that most of these paintings are “too dark”, when actually they are not too dark, as the artists increased the darkness to show more light. Impressionism refused this darkness, and that is not the norm at all. Impressionism went too far and hyped up the light and color into a range that was unreal in its brightness in many ways. So this work, surrounded by the dark, is actually very light. From my point of view, then, this is what made it interesting to draw, even if difficult.
Of course, this is Rodin’s great Age of Bronze. It and one or two of his female nudes are his best work. These are four attempts to picture it from different angles. They are small drawings maybe 3 or 4 inches tall. I had concluded from my studies of Praxiteles that this sculptor probably did not exist and that much of the scholarship around this Greek work is largely bogus. My skepticism about some aspects of art history was confirmed. This made art look very different and I began to see it as an aspect of history, a problematic and personal concern if ever there was one. So I started seeing artists not as part of ‘movements’, largely invented by art scholars, but as individuals living in historical times, struggling with the content of their work.
This meant that artists like Canova or Rodin are actually working inside Greek and Roman motivations, and ones that they very imperfectly grasp. This dissolution of form into impressionist sculpture that one sees in Rodin is eventually broken down into his own psychology. I have mixed feelings about Rodin partly because he was such a problematical person. I tend to see him through the eyes of Camille Claudel ( her invovlement begiins with Rodin in 1884) and Gwen John, (begins with Rodin in 1904) both of whom he treated very poorly as mistresses.There is a few good movies about Claudel, and Sue Roe’s bio of John is very well done.) One cannot be exposed to these women’s stories without it affecting how one sees Rodin. Both were better artists than he in various ways. John is more subtle, a poet of solitude, and Claudel has more feeling and passion. Claudel seems to have given Rodin most of his best ideas. The sculpture predates them both and is one of his best works. It is a tower of individual conciousness, and has an amazing sense of his own existence. This particular sculpture is one of many, of course, They were virtually manufactured somewhere over a hundred years ago and many were sold.
It has an interiority on the one hand, but is not subjective on the other. This tension creates a wonderful study that is at once very Greek and yet at the same time impressionistic. While in the past I found its exploration of the Rilkean interiority of its subject interesting, that does not interest me much anymore. It would have been more interesting to draw the original clay sculpture, which no longer exists. The copies of it are much more diffused and ambiguous, anatomically. Indeed, there is variation between copy and copy. The original copies, particularly the plaster copies, are clearer anatomically. The original is already a bit too ambiguous. The Cleveland copy is more ambiguous than most. This ambiguity was his intent probably, to have the muscles be vague and ambiguous. In some viewpoints and lighting situations, the muscles are impossible for the human body. Examples of this are the right bicept or the higher abdominals. Rodin’s motives are always rather confused and though it is supposed to be a warrior, or a vanquished warrior, it comes off as the opposite. Rilke is probably at least partly right that it depicts a transcendent interiorization of self conquest. I am dubious of this quality and prefer to see it as a sculpture about actual existence, not subjective transcendence. Rodin himself was unsure about what to call it. That is because it is really not about war at all, but the negation of it.
For Rilke, Rodin unveils the invisible, god in the body, a church inside a sculpture. Rilke’s inflation of the romantic impulses of Rodin is typical. Romantic inflation to eternal status is common in art, and always a fiction. Rilke’s essay states that the sculpture or the age of Bronze, which Rilke calls the Primal Man, has a face and this ” mask [is] as God created the first man, without intention of presenting anything save Life itself—immeasurable Life.” This religious view of Rodin is not my view.
Again the ‘romantic’ or transcendental quality in the sculpture did not interest me, ven if that is what Rodin thought he was doing. What caught my attention was the form itself, its musculature, and its strength as a pose. The darkness and perhaps inexpert casting of the Cleveland copy is such that it is very hard to see the forms. I was interested in drawing what can be seen in them and this made drawing it very hard and time consuming. I drew it five or six times and each time was not easier than the last. I found myself straining my eyes, and this I think is obvious in the drawings, which are heavily labored. closely studied and even metallic in the heavy use of the lead. These are not drawings about the material they are made from, I hasten to add, but about a sculpture and the man who made them. I suspect I might try doing this one again, as it seems there is even more to this piece that I have not yet fathomed. I have noticed that the sculpture looks best when on the ground. Then one sees better what it is. When I drew it it was high on a pedestal, and that was a mistake by the museum.
2017. Yes, well I did do another copy of it here:
This drawing is much larger than those above which was done for 30 or 40 feet from the sculpture. This one is from a photo I took when the sculpture was on the ground maybe 10-15 years ago. I think the sculpture looks much better at this height, and suspect that this is how Rodin actually worked on it, so the thesis that up on a high pedestal distorts it is probably right. It makes it hierarchical, which ruins it for me. Seeing it on the ground was much more personal and real. Rodin did not think it his best work but I think it is.
He is struggling with the placement of muscles. I am not sure he really understood muscles as well as he might have. I made a study of various copies, both plaster and bronzes, in various places around the world, and there is a great deal of variation. I included some of this research in the drawing itself, though my primary model was a knee length photo of the Cleveland copy, which I took myself, as I said. I used the CMA version, which, nlike the Plaster copies, in very dark. But the light on it was problematic, indeed, one thing I discovered about this sculpture it that light effects it in extreme ways, in some cases, making it vague and even anatomically incorrect in many ways, Some of the stomach muscles, parts of the legs and other areas are enhanced or better done in other copies. So this is something of a composite, using parts from many copies. I did this because it would not have made sense to do it based on one thing, as the light problem is extreme. Making a ground level and bigger drawing by freehand was a good exercise to do and I learned from it. Rodin is still working more with reality than against it, as he failed to do later, and this naturalism helps his work quite a lot. This is a wonderful work, slightly impressionistic in its ambiguity, but very well done.
Drawing of Rodin Sculpture (1890)
Lorenzo Bartolini, 1810
The sculpture of a little girl by Lorenzo Bartolini is lovely and again inspired by ancient Greek motives. I had no idea about the origins of the work when I did the drawing, as I was saying. I just liked it.
Bartolini was a propagandist for the Napoleon family among other things, and was to the left of Conova. His work has a lovely finish and is well drawn in its lines and planes..This lovely little girl made me think of my own daughter.
I was not looking at the political facts behind these sculptures at all. I understand that sculpture is often a manifestation of conservative values, largely because it is expensive and tends to be bought for political reasons by the rich, who use it to try to influence public values. My concern was to draw these things as part of my own concerns, and in relation to the people depicted, not necessarily in reference to the politics of the sculptor, which in this case and that of Conova, I hardly agree with. Bartolini, for instance, did a lovely sculpture of a young woman sitting on her knees, one of my favorite poses. If one called it ‘existence’, which is what it is about, for me at least, it would be accurate. Insead he called it “Faith in God”, which makes it a fictional, and dated work, even slightly repulsive. His title expresses the beliefs of the time and perhaps his own sensibility. I am all in favor of deconstructing Christian images of this kind. A lovely figure or form is independent of a title an artist imposes on it, sometimes.
Sculptures can have a neutral presence, and one can read into them other meanings that were, perhaps, not intended by the artist. The fact is that the sculpture is wonderful and while full of sentiment, is not “sentimental ” the term of opprobrium used by unfeeling art drones.. I did this drawing without knowing anything about Bartolini, or his sculpture, as it is so well done and lovely. I often draw things about which I know little, factually. I later found out that, in fact, the person it depicts is Napoleon’s niece, Elisa.. But it matters little anymore who it was. But a lot of the 19th century was prone to making art full of feeling and insight into the human condition. I admire that and not the class warfare that the rich waged against everyone else though art.
In 19th century poltical terms, I tend to side with the rebels, peasants and ‘communards’. I do not much like Napoleon and rather agree with Courbet who thought him a monster. Courbet wanted to dismantle the column friezes and sculptures on the Vendome Column in Paris, for instance. Later he was falsely accused of tearing it down and forced to pay for its replacement. It was an outrageously unjust punishment to seize his artwork, impound his paintings, and sell them and keep the money, for a crime he did not commit. He merely wanted to “unrivet” it (deblulenner), take it down and put it in a museum. Courbet was forced to leave France by the arbitrary dictatorship of the far right, the same monarchist thugs pictured on the Vendome column, in fact. This martyrdom was so awful that it probably helped kill him. What Courbet actually advocated was entirely reasonable. He wrote that he wanted the column and sculptures taken down because the Vendome Column—
“perpetuates the tradition of conquest, of looting, and or murder, [ we want to]…. transport the reliefs to an historical museum, [he calls the statue a] “continous misunderstanding and returning to the monstrous mistakes of the past,, [which will] perpetuate hatred and conservatism” (Courbet, Letters, Sept. 14, 1870)
In short the monument was far right memorial to unjust wars of conquest and Napoleonic brutality. Then as now the far right wants to take from the poor and middle class and give to the rich. Courbet was right to oppose this and put the Vendome sculpture in a museum somewhere. Courbet was one of the smarter of the 19th century artists.
This sculpture by Bartolini is innocent of Napoleon and his war crimes. I prefer Bartolini to the arid and empty abstractions of the last 50 years. This in fact is a portrait of a beautiful child and I drew her, twice, from both sides, for that reason alone.
Portrait of a Man | Cleveland Museum of Art
I’ve studied Rome and its history and culture a bit in recent years. CMA has a wonderful room full of Roman heads on pedestals and this is a bronze head there. Who it is is unknown, but he has a strong face and a determined look. It brings a Roman man into the present, even with the inlaid glass or stone eyes gone. He could be anyone, perhaps a carpenter from Rome in the Augustan period, or a householder, a soldier or even a tailor. I did a second study of the same sculpture, both of them recent (Aug.2016) If you look at sculpture from Herculaneum and Pompeii you will see that these Roman Bronzes usually had eyes placed in the sockets, with a pupil and the white of the eye visible. It would not have been inappropriate to draw that in, but I did not do it in this case, unlike the following work.
I especially like this marble Roman boy, whose innocent face, looking askance at us, is well worth celebrating. I can imagine him with his Mom going to get food at a market on the streets in Rome or a nearby town. I added his eyes, which made him much more alive and curious. It is the look of a boy from Rome 2000 years ago, yet he might be your brother or my childhood friend.
A Philosopher by Pierre Puget.1662
I did this one because it is a mountain of a man, and a very solid man built with strength and order, heavy with thought and age, still able and healthy. I do not think of philosophers looking like this, as the ones I have known tend to be wan and otherworldly. Maybe even awkward and maladjusted to life, like Wittgenstein or Nietzsche. But this shows the hale and hearty type of Socratic genius that is common in the time of Rembrandt and later, the sort of philosopher who is also an athlete perhaps, if there ever was such a being.
Daniel Mauch; Adam and Eve; about 1535; boxwood
Moving from a Greek sphere of influence to a Christian/Greek amalgam, I did these drawings of some tiny boxwood figures. These are only about 20 cm or 8 ” tall. I wanted to do back and front. Boxwood is a wood I love and have always wanted to do a sculpture in. I have never found any of the wood, so have never done it, but there is still some hope for that. In any case, they show what is possible in such a wood. It is a lovely color and very hard, so it it very formable and yet offers a lot of resistance.
Portriat of a Monk
Circle of Gerard David
This Monk is a strange being, who might be a store owner, or a scholar, if he were not a monk. I wonder why he gave up on life and wanted to live in the monastery behind him. The place looks like a fortress designed to keep the monks in and the world out. Of course that never works, so why do it? Many men and women gave up on the world then. There were objective reasons to do this. The medieval world was a dangerous place, with disease and social iniquity everywhere, and arbitrary dictators, Dukes or Lords, running things. Being murdered was not unlikely. There was also the likelihood of being attacked by bandits on the roads. There were arbitrary arrests and the Inquisition to fear. The poor, women and animals were all more harshly treated. Was it such an awful place in the middle ages that one felt an advantage in giving up and hiding behind stone walls? Yes, it made a certain sense to escape to a monastery. Life was risky, even more than now.
Do I see a coldness in his face or a kindness? What is he looking at, as it seems he has forgotten to pray entirely, has he seen a bird land in a bush? Maybe it is a pose for a Nativity and he is looking at the mythic beings before him. He seems to be escaping from the reality around him. Escapist contemplation of mythical figures was a desirable value in those days. Imaginary Virgins look so demure and sweet. The fictional “Holy Family” was so much unlike the actual families of the middle ages.
Gerard David, from whose circle this work may have come, was an interesting artist. His lovely works show a dream like calm and he was a fine colorist. His Rest on the Flight to Egypt is clearly a woman from the landscape of Northern Belgium, or the Netherlands. Perhaps she is from Bruges or Utrecht, Antwerp or Ghent.. I love the gentleness of his people. It is clear looking at them that this is a fiction imposed on his model of being the Virgin Mary. Once one takes away the myth his works become lovely essays in gentle humans and lovely women in landscapes of our own world. Not make believe at all. I see this monk this way too. He is living in a fictional world that is ‘real’. A real man, caught in a dream and not able to get out of it. I find it very sad, but lovely in its way, as is often the case with the David school.
Tilman Riemanschneider 1469-1531 Aesop’s St. Jerome and the Lion
This man tells a much more sympathetic story. It is one of my favorites in the museum. Riemenschneider is one of the most interesting of the Christian artists of the late middle ages. He was a master who must have grown up on the amazing achievements of Jan Van Eyck and the realism that made outward appearances so important. It is certainly not a matter of lenses and political devices that made Van Eyck so good, but a thorough description of reality, paint stroke by paint stroke.
Riemenschneider was amazing with wood and seems to have wanted to do what Van Eyck did in sculpture. He did this sculpture in 1494. It is a work of deep feeling for both animals and humans. It became one of my favoites only as I was drawing it, as I could see how much heart and mind he put into it. He had knowledge of people and nature.
He was a sensible man in a corrupt time, the opposite of the monk above.. He got involved with the Peasant’s revolt in southern Germany.and refused to fight the peasants whose cause he thought was just. It is said that 300,000 peasants joined the fight of of those 100,00 were killed. They wanted decent pay, the right to farm and hunt, to pay less onerous taxes and get back common lands stolen by the Landlords. All just claims. These revolts were the precursors of the French, American and Russian revolutions to come. It was a just fight that he suffered from. This sculpture contains something of his notion of rights and I admire it for that. Riemenschneider was a decent man, and he was tortured and harmed physically and mentally by the corrupt aristocrats of the time. He largely stopped making art after his torture. His concern for the poor, humans and animals is evident in this and other works by him. He is unknown and deserves much more attention than he has gotten.
Mourners from the Tomb of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1364-1404) |
Claus de Werve, 1380-1439j
These are two sculptures of 4 that were part of a tomb. Christian art as something to believe in, is really Christian propaganda, and it has long ceased to interest me. But I still have a fascination with the period and with the people and history in it. These are beautifully done, alabaster sculptures. What was of interest to me was the realism of the faces,. From a time and place close to the Riemenscheider above these are also deeply felt pieces done with great skill. they go beyond merely Church art. The front figure has a somewhat sour look, as one sees sometimes in Monks, as they have given up things in life that there is no good reason to give up. I have known various monks and nuns and they are often very sad people, who denied the “world” and suffer for thier illusion that that is a good thing. The monk in the back had his eyes open but I preferred them to be closed. His slightly hunched position and prayerful interiority is curious and typical for what one sees in monastic communities. Years ago I was fascinated with Monastic life and tried it out, and rejected it. I was interested in how the monk’s dress in body denying clothes. But my main interest was the excellent realism of the faces and poses, influenced by Van Eyck and Holbein and the new realism.. The artist showed us real people in the midst of a religious setting, and yet the reality that he shows was itself instrumental is bringing monastic escapism into question.
Giovanni Ambrolgio de Predis (Italian, 1455-aft 1508)
He was a student or colleague of Leonardo in Milan and did some work for the Sforza’s. I noticed the similarity to Leonardo in the face before I knew who did the work. I had head of Predis before and seen the wings he is said to have done to the Virgin on the Rocks in London. There is only one painting done by Leonardo in America, in the National Gallery in DC, so it was a joy to find this and to try to copy it. It is as close to Leonardo as one can get here. I was thrilled to be drawing someone who knew and probably studied with him. It is hard to get close to Leonardo, as he is a mystery, not in the religious sense, but in his mind and his amazing ability to combine knowledge with drawings as a form of inquiry. I have been reading about him since my teens and have read many books on him. I don’t know if there is another artist I have loved as much. He always delivers new surprises. I will study him till I die.
The De Predis makes use of the Sfumato technique of Leonardo. The tumbling spirals of the hair also evokes some of Leonardo’s style and interests. It does not have the elegance or beauty of form that one sees in Leonardo. The proportions of the eyes and head shape not quite like Leonardo. One can see its faults. But I love the modeling in it and it was well worth doing. I learned a lot about Leonardo.
Sandro Bottecelli and Workshop 1490.
One of the best of CMA’s Renaissance works, this lovely work has Botticelli’s graceful drawing and lines in it. I only did the face of the mother and child. To me this is a secular image, every much about the love of actual children, not the love of an abstract goddess. The Virgin is clearly a mythical invention. Botticelli believed in this myth, no doubt, but that hardly means that I must. The Church exploited this natural love of women and mothers for a millennia or more. The Church wanted to confuse the love of one’s mother or wife with itself, such that people would turn to the Church for help, even if the Church really just wanted money or power. Botticelli and Leonardo in Italy and Gerard David and others in the north, coming out of Byzantine models, created this very sympathetic image of motherhood. It appealed and still appeals, to both women and men. I bracket off the fact that it is a Church propaganda image and look instead at the fact that it is really love of women and children that is at the root of it. I love my wife and children in a similar way and that is what I was drawing. What a beautiful form it shows.
Botticelli was seven years senior to Leonardo, and was also of Verrocchio’s workshop. they certainly knew each other. Leonardo criticizes him as a painter whose landscapes are rather “sad”, meaning, I think, that they were not well done, which is quite true. But as far as I am aware he did not criticize his figures, as indeed, no one did. No has done the Three Graces as well as Botticelli, or could draw a woman’s’ face in quite as lovely a manner. Botticelli unfortunately fell under the spell of Savonarola, a fundamentalist preacher, and his art declines from then on. His genius blossomed in the freedom of non- Church art and then declined when Christian ideology took hold of him.
Portrait of a Womam, 1540 Cornielle de Lyon
This one is a lovely small work, with a brilliant blue background and the woman encrusted with patterns of jewels and beautifully woven cloth. It is curious how Northern portraits are slightly different form the Italians at the time. One need only compare Botticelli to this. Kenneth Clark talks about this in his book on the Nude, but his assessment is so class ridden that I cannot take it seriously. Clark is offended by Rembrandt’s nudes, indeed, all the early depictions of the Northern figure in general, clothed or not.. But all of Rembrandt’s work is devoted to a very realist, personal and sometimes gritty description of reality at the time. He is not to be faulted for this. This is what I love in his work, and Ingres is not an improvement on it. Indeed Ingres’ class ridden paintings are, if not objectionable, certainly bloated and overdone. He tends toward glorification as in his really silly portraits of Napoleon or Homer. This is not to say that Ingres was not one of the best draftsman ever, he was.
As much as I was mystified and confused by this artist, I admire this little work for its delicate tones and it lovely characterization. The upper classes of Europe associated themselves with a Roman set of imperial mannerisms . This often resulted in some very bad art that was over blown and sometimes objectionable, in contrast. But this is not to say that there might not be some problems with the origin of this work.The attribution of the work to Corneille de la Haye (aka De Lyon) only occurred recently, since it was claimed by the Louvre, who acquired a work with the name Corneille de Haye on inscribed on it 1976..The writer Anne Dubois Groer claimed to have found 158 of his works since then. .She claims on uncertain evidence that this portrait in CMA is not a Valois princess. CMA used to claim that it was, evidently. It does follow the rather type cast manner of the 16th century princess pictures, including those of the Valois clan by De La Haye/Lyon.
Is this one of the Valois clan? Maybe, or not, I don’t know. I cannot discover on what Groer based her conclusions. It is odd there are three of these, maybe four. There is a very similar work to the one in CMA in the Bode museum in Germany ( 3rd from left below) and one in the Met (2nd below). The one in CMA (1st on left below) is the finer of the two, it seems to me, though Groer claims the Met version, which is a fragment, is better. But I have only seen a black and white photo on the Met website, so I cannot say the Met one is better. I am not sure it matters in this discussion anyway.
In the German one proportions of the figure and head are wrong and the face has been made rather 19th century looking and is out of proportion to the body. It is said that Cornielle de Haye did replicas of his own work, but there does not seem to be any sure evidence of this, beyond anecdotal accounts. These could be copies or fakes or replicas. I don’t think anyone really knows, as far as I have been able to find out anyway. It is an open question. Art history often presents conundrums like this Once art gets tied up with money these sorts of attribution knots develop as the marketers of these works are greedy and will invent fictions.
My point is to show that there is uncertainty in art history and not everything claimed of a work is necessarily true. It is plausible these are all by Corneille de la Haye. Plausibility is not truth. It might be a good story, but it may or may not be accurate. So though efforts have been made to claim certainty about his artist, I am not sure we have that certainty yet. More evidence is needed for that.
The last two above, on the right, are also claimed to be works of De Lyon. They show a similar motif where the artists or a copyist did a variation or version of the image. They are similar but not identical. There should be further study on these in terms of chemical comparison and analysis, dating and light studies, to determine the age and composition of these works. I am not saying they are fakes, but there is a paucity of information about these images and no decent provenance, so to claim they are by so and so, when it is not known that they are, might be premature. As is they suggest that the selling of women and elite wives to be, was a common practice, and involved some artists in fabricating lovely images for prospective aristocrats.
If it is true these are De Lyons, Groer made a great contribution to the scholarship. If it is not true, it is an embarrassment to the whole profession. Recently a Leonardo appeared on the market and within a few years was shown to be a fake, when the artist came forward and admitted he has done a lovely drawing of a contemporary British woman. So caution is called for in these cases. Yet it remains plausible until proven otherwise, that these are the real thing. In any case these are lovely portraits, there is no doubt about that. Though exactly what there function was is not entirely clear. Were they marketing devices for rich young women, to get them a husband? Holbein and others did portraits of Anne of Cleves to show Henry the VIII, so he could have the child he demanded? It was merely business. Why were these paintings done?
I don’t know. It is a question. I am only saying that these works are questionable, perhaps partly because there are so many similar images from that time, and partly because the type of picture seems to have an economic motive then of marketing these princesses around Europe. Are these family pictures to be loved and cherished or images of available princesses to be married for political reasons? I do not know, though I tend to think the latter. It would be nice to see the museum deal with the question of the purpose and authenticity of this work.. As far as I know they have not. Instead of being sensational, it might be good to see CMA return to its roots and value scholarship more.
This is a wonderful painting, one of the first that I did. I’ve always loved this work and the woman in it. One of the really great works in our collection. When I was a guard at the museum I loved being around her.One cannot help loving it, as the artist so clearly loved her. She smiles at us as if we were the artist. She points toward her heart. Her eyes are alive, she is breathing, It is not bloated like many of Rubens’ other work. It is economical and drawn with great understanding and sympathy. It was a joy to stand in front of it for hours and draw it slowly and carefully. Her nose if fine and her neck full bodied, and her eyes positively sparkled at me as I was working. She is almost laughing and has a joy that is infectious. I think my own happiness shows in the drawing of her too.
Cleveland’s Rembrandt’s are not among his best work, but they are still very good. I am not sure if this was done by him or his followers, but it is a fine work. Doing all these drawings has been teaching me about facial features, lips and eyelids, pupils, eyebrows and noses.I enjoyed drawing this woman’s nose, lips and hair.
I have often thought that this work by Peiter de Hooch (1629-1684), Portrait of a Family Playing Music, 1663. is perhaps one of the most interesting and lovely of all the works at CMA. De Hooch is somewhat underestimated. Vermeer is great and I love him, but there is a humanness in de Hooch that is lacking in Vermeer, who tends to be a bit chilly in his presentations. There is no doubt that Vermeer was a great caftsman. I do not mean to say that Vermeer’s are not perfect in their way, but the is a great deal more warmth and sympathy in De Hooch.
Indeed, the evidence suggests that De Hooch was Vermeer’s teacher and creator of some of Vermeer’s best ideas. Vermeer’s interior scenes with the window on the left seems to have its origins in De Hooch. Vermeer’s “Woman Holding a Balance”, for instance, was first done by De Hooch, who did a similar painting before Vermeer imitated this subject. There is a woman that appears in many of De Hooch’s works and I am pretty sure it is his wife, and perhaps his kids too, often both together. Children do not really appear in Vermeer’s work, except for a few from behind. Certainly Vermeer achieved a kind of frozen perfection, but there is great feeling in De Hooch, which I prefer to a frozen eternity. Both are amazing at depicting light. There are many of De Hooch’s works that do this, but one of the best in the De Hooch in the National Gallery in DC.
I did these 4 drawings over a number of years. It was the light through the window, the dog and then the music and little girl in sunlight that originally drew me in. It is something in the luminosity of that distant and single window, showing the light and air outside the house that just impresses me to no end. It is one of the few paintings I know of that shows the quality of the air in the 1600’s and how sunlight played in it. The light coming in and illuminating the little girl shows the light near a canal and the air out the window in a way that surpasses Vermeer. The air out the window is real history, showing just how it felt in Amsterdam in the 1600’s.
The woman in the front seems to modulate her voice and asks us to do the same. We are included in the lovely singing. The flute can be heard and the mandolin. An early violin sounds lovely too. The woman on the left is not beautiful but she is real, which is more important. The woman on the right is not thin, which is also better than if she were a perfect being,
The man playing the violin tells us how lovely the music is, The violin and flute sounds so good with the background of other instruments, it brings the dog in from the kitchen. Even the little girls with her silver dish forgets what she was going to do, and feels the music as the beautiful sun of that day strikes her. What a precious moment De Hooch has seen here.
Or to look at this slightly differently, the dog loves the music too and is a little worried he will be kicked out of the room again, but he is clearly listening and looking at the musicians. The girl in the kitchen is impatient to come in too, as she has a silver tray and wants to give the players apples. They have been playing so beautifully they all deserve them.
Sunlight hits the little girl and illuminates her new dress and the woman of the house is holding the little one and is waiting to come into the room. ( could be a maid? or is the mother playing the Mandolin?) She has been staying out because the baby needs tending and might cry and disturb the musicians. But she is clearly in a reverie between the beautiful baby and the beautiful music. What really brought this painting alive for me was looking out that arched window and realizing that this is the only place in all of art that has made me feel just what the air in Amsterdam felt like in 1663. I can feel the sun shinning and enjoy the warmth of it. If I was that little girls father, who might be the man playing the violin, I would be so happy right now.
Note: In the drawing above I tried to show part of the painting that has the light coming in and illuminating the little girl. As to the air out the window, I found I could not show the light out the window in pencil. I think I could do it with oil paint, but CMA does not allow painting in the galleries at the moment. They have some irrational policies as far as drawing and painting there is concerned and are dragging their feet about these irrational policies..
Gerard Ter Borch
The painting by Gerard Ter Borch is again, one of his best. CMA has many examples of exemplary works like this. I only show a slight bit of the red furniture. TerBorch used the red furniture at least 6 or 7 times, by my count, and at least one of these works appears to be a twin or perhaps part of a set/pair of two works that may have been companions. I am thinking of the “Portrait of a Young Man” in the National Gallery, in London, which matches this one almost exactly. I wrote and asked them if it is sure that these are a pair. They do not know for sure. It is “suggested” that they are a pair. But there is no certainty, such as this pair being owned by one person at some point in their history. It is possible Ter Borch just really liked this table and chairs and used them often in studies and commissions of this kind.
Yes, it is a very refined work, indeed, the best of the series with red velvet furniture. He is one of the most refined of the Dutch realists of the great period when Vermeer, De Hooch and Rembrandt were also at work.. As yes, one cannot get much more fancy that that dress. It is a sort of little symphony in silver and grey. He is famous for his mastery of painting satin and that is in this work too. I don’t much care that such refinement in our time is looked down on. Vermeer could paint maps on the wall with a similar precision and craft. I admire the skill of it. I do not admire those that are embarrassed by such skill.
But what caught my interest were not these things, as marvelous as they are, but the lace veil and the curled hair really struck me as so very well done. Lace was a craft done almost entirely by women, in those days, and largely forgotten now. There is an organic and vegetable quality in the lace and hair I really like. It is natural and yet composed and elegant. It is the work of hard working hands and skillfully done too. Caspar Netcher did a lovely work on lace making:
This drawing was my first drawing in that sketchbook so it got a little ruined because I carry the book around so much. But it is not too smudged. What I admire in him was his control of the paint and the gentleness of his touch. He even shows this quality when he paints a maid milking a cow in a barn, or a boy de-fleaing a dog, two of my favorite works by him,since both images show the same care and hand work, well done.. Because he can paint a cow with the same gentleness he paints the very lovely woman, we know this quality is native to the man, and not just a mannerism. Ter Borch is much less well known that Vermeer, but actually he may be the better painter, as also my be De Hooch. Or rather, let us say that all three of them achieved a kind of perfection in their depiction of ordinary life, in different ways, with different emphasis.
Young Woman, 1640, Gerrit Dou
Gerrit Dou did many fine works with people in niches and windows, as well as other subjects. He was a student of the young Rembrandt in Leiden. My drawing here is about actual size and it is close to the actual size of the painting. It is tiny. She is a sweet and rustic woman, who appears to be wearing some sort of animal hair vest. My version is a little wide in the face and yet has some of the warmth of the original. My version exaggerates the rustic quality of the original perhaps. Wonderful little painting. Dou also should be better known.
John Singleton Copley, 1765
Moving now to this early American work, and a very fine one it is. It shows a great silversmith, some of whose work is also in our museum, including a lovely silver teapot, was made by Hurd. It reminds me of course, of the novel Johnny Tremain, which I read in 7th or 8th grade, and re-read to our kids a year ago or so. That novel explores and interesting tension between the character Johnny, who is ordinary at the same time as being a very talented silversmith and his relatives, who deny he is related and who are among the elite. The novel favors the poor and yet, shows the times as favoring the injustices of the elites and all this happens in the context of the revolutionary war. So this painting is a real life version of the Tremain novel in many ways. He was a large man it seems, with a very sympathetic face and a craftsman’s hands. I liked the painting very much, more than others of Copley’s work, but only looked at it as a good painting of a craftsman. I did not do any research on it till today. In late August 2016.
CMA identified the book shown in the painting. It says on the lower book, “Display of Heraldry/J. Guillim” are visible on the spine of the book shown at Hurd’s elbow. This is a very interesting book that explores the close relations of wealth and spiritual symbolism to a virtual caste system of social exclusions. An online copy of it can be found here:
Hurd was also an engraver and so was concerned with Heraldry and property identification, since these were in demand from his more elite customers, incluing Paul Revere, who he sometimes did engraving for.. Heraldry is an old art that appears to begin around 1200 or so with the art of war and the demands of a nobility that wished to identify weapons and Armour as their own. The need to identify status and property explains the art of rich families just as their need of portraits show their “pedigree” or “breeding”. The notion of breeding and social hierarchy go hand in hand. This is the modern origin of racism, which existed before but was rather different in Roman times. Nobles, gentlemen, priests and later, even corporations use this symbol making as a sort of brand system. (some modern art is an outgrowth of this elitism, in fact). It is not just the warrior caste that does this, but later property owners begin to use it. By Tudor times even guilds and unions were being awarded grants of arms. So this portrait of Hurd functions as a sort of passport into a social religion, proving his worthiness. It shows a man who is serving the wealthy and doing so so as part of their effort to create a social religion of sorts, with insiders and outsiders, upper and lower orders. Thus Hurd has a book that is a veritable dictionary of symbols and social distinctions made up by the wealthy to divide themselves into hierarchies in the service of the king or the state. This does not mean he was not a likable man, but one cannot avoid noting the symbolism in this work. It is Copely that is repulsive here, more than Hurd.
The second unfinished portrait of Hurd, which probably is earlier, is more democratic and shows the craftsman as a worker. bare armed and shirt open. I thought I was drawing this when I did the original portrait and had no idea what the book was that was before him. I left the book out and was only interested in his face, which is independent of all social hierarchy. Most early Americans were fleeing from this veritable caste system when they came here. But the truth is they brought caste and military elitism with them. George Washington and Ben Franklin both had coats of arms made. It was a token of elite social standing.
I find the elitism and militarism of Heraldry repulsive myself. It makes for beautiful designs, these coats of arms, but when one realizes what they really mean it is unjust. Did Hurd himself reject the more democratic painting in favor of the elitist one, or did Copley prefer the one over the other, as I do? Why was one left unfinished but was not destroyed? No one seems to know the answer to these questions. Has anyone even asked these questions?. Hurd of course was a third generation silversmith in Boston and was probably bound to this caste system whether he liked it or not. Indeed, there is evidence that he dealt with both British and Americans in business, showing that he tried not to take sides. It is how he made a living. His father and grandfather left the business to him, over which he became the Master. He was just doing what he had to, as do jewelery makers today
In Hurd’s case the two definitions of Mastery which I gave at the beginning of this Blog combine into one.. This is the sort of “mastery” that I reject. I admire Hurd for his craft and his art, and love his face, so much like Neruda’s, but find the world that he lived in rank with social injustice. I can separate this from him and enjoy the portrait for its democratic tendencies, which are definitely there, but there is a flavor of the old medieval European caste system there too and that I reject. One would not find such things most contemporary realism. It was already gone by the time of Courbet (1850s), who also rejected this sort of thing, rightly.
I would apologize to the reader of this blog that I have to make these excursions into discussions of societal class systems and CMA’s tendency to favor elitist works. But this cannot be denied. The history of art is full of elitism. This only begins to be questioned after the Renaissance and in earnest after Courbet. I was not drawing these drawings to record class consciousness. My interest was in beauty, truth and accounting for things in their existential reality. My effort here is to bring these works down to earth and be honest about them. That means discussing these unpleasant facts. Hurd could not do that, as he was caught up in the hype and “branding” of the elites, but I am not and can explain things Hurd would not even allow himself to think about carefully. There has been real progress since those unfortunate times, and this portrait shows why.
Ernest Meissionier, A Painter , 1855
I worked on this figure for along time. It was painstaking and exact in every way. The way the hand holds the brush and even more exact, the way the other hand holds the curved palette board. The way both hands rest of the Mahl stick is also very well done. The way of the coat on the body and the way the hair is pulled back and tied with a ribbon, the precision with which the painter is painting, all this and much more is in this very fine work.No doubt about it, Meissionier is amazing.
I ‘ve read complaints about how small Meissionier worked and what high prices he got. He is a trained miniaturist. Also he is an historian. But this is an amazing craftsman and his paintings hold up extremely well with time. He is thus a real history painter. I admire him for that even if I don’t like him as an historian very much. His historiography is very different than mine. He exalts battle and endorses social injustice. He is a far right painter and man of the Ancien Regime as they called the deposed kings of Pre-revolutionary France. Meissionier also idolized Napoleon and this is hard to do now that so much is known about him. He also was the head of the Salon in 1872 and was very unjust to Gustav Courbet, who he sought and succeeded in getting blacklisted from the Salon and most other establishments to sell his work. Courbet “must be dead to us” Meissonnier said, cruelly. It is hard to imagine a meaner and more vindictive man. Indeed, the fate of Courbet and his imprisonment and fines laid on him by the French government implicates the entire French monarchy in its guilt. None of that is to my taste. I will discuss this further later.
If the French Revolution had any purpose Napoleon was not it. In my mind I associate him with Robespierre who was out to destroy the Revolution and create his own formula of tyranny, as did Napoleon. But as with other paintings that hang in our great museum, it is quite possible to admire this work of Meissionier and yet dislike his politics and even his person, as what he did to Courbet is probably unforgivable..But political judgment is not the same as aesthetics. One can look at these works, as the drawings of Ingres, and see past the problems of the past and yet still love their aesthetic qualities. Meissionier was a great painter, no doubt about it. He had a profundity of insight into the human condition and expert drawing and painting. Their are other works that I admire of his too, such as his man in white reading a book, his portrait of his St. Bernard, his chess players, card players and even his depiction of Napoleon’s white horse which is breathtakingly well done. A bad man, yes, probably, but a really good painter, no doubt about it. Courbet on the other hand seems mostly a decent man, minus his hunting and drinking addiction and a good painter too. No one expects an artist to be a saint, especially as there is really no such thing. Even saints are fakes, was we now know. Someone like Courbet tried to help people, and often succeeded. Ernst Meissionier is a different story. But this remains a great work, one that even Van Gogh lauded.
Ingres is like Meissionier in many ways. Both are reactionary painters and both idolize the past and Napoleon. I’ve written about this dislike of some of Ingres paintings elsewhere. Here I mean to talk about this drawing. Yes, it probably took hours for a servant to do her hair,and yes it is a drawing of an elite woman, and yes, most people could have lived for a long time on the price of her dress. It is a given that this is not my taste and I am not enabling any of these things, but that said, I do not wish to talk about any of that here, what really interests me here is how it was done and how well it was done. I think this is one of my failures in my drawings at CMA. I will try to explain why.
Da Vinci is the best draftsman ever, since he could not just draw but made drawing part of science and inquiry of many kinds. No one, not even Hokusai or Menzel, who were very good, draws as well as Leonardo. Ingres is not as good either, but he is the best formal portrait draftsman ever, with the possible exception of Hans Holbein, who is also amazing. Ingres’ portrait drawings done in Rome, mostly, are amazing and unparalleled.
I tried to draw his great drawing in the CMA collection several times. I struggled with this one. It is very subtle and lightly done. The image on the right by Ingres is darkened to see it better. The first time on the left, I drew it from life but could not finish it as a guard stopped me and said they have a policy that one cannot draw in special exhibits. There was no reasons to stop me as no one else was there but me. This wrong headed policy is unique to CMA and involves a confusion in the museum about copyright, as well as an irrational notion of institutional control. The Louvre policy is sensible and allows drawing anywhere, anytime, unless it is very busy in a given gallery. Most museums follow the Louvre, logically. Copyright does not apply to drawing. No one can stop me drawing anywhere, any time, unless there is a good reason. CMA has no good reasons. In any case, I complied with the irrational directive. I had to, or be forced to leave. This is merely arbitrary bullying. One has to put up with the irrationality and protest it, but still wait until the Board of Directors gets around to being reasonable, something they are not well known for in recent years.
I did a drawing based on the Ingres drawing, on the right, above. The drawing, the first version, started out wrong. I was rushed. The head was too far to the left, and the eyes were too big. I was in a hurry and could see it was wrong.
The second version I did from a photo I took of the drawing. It is not very good, either. The face position and structure is about right, but the eyes are still not exactly right, though I had made them smaller. The ribbon in the hair is not quite right either. I changed them, but the eyes were too high and the jaw not right.
The third version involved bringing the eyes down a bit, making the hair larger and working on the jaw, among other slight adjustments. I can’t do anymore because I have erased too much and to erase more would ruin it. I could change more things in it, but I will call it done here. It is better but still very imperfect. I have seen how precise and accurate Ingres could be. Ive come pretty close to what he could do, if not all the way. His is still warmer and he sees more deeply into the actual woman. It is amazing what he could do, how precise his shading and lines are. Ingres is one of the great in the history of drawing, not in terms of subject, but in terms of skill.
Drawing involves this sort of slight adjustments. Leonardo talks about this at length and he is right, one must alter what one does over and over till it is what one wants. Slowly ones gets better at seeing what one has done wrong. There are a lot of erasing underneath this drawing. Ingres was incredibly subtle both in his lines and in his shadows and I began to see that areas that were not shadowed actually were. Some believe that Ingres only did the outlines of a face using his line to model the form, but this is wrong too. He used an incredibly gentle hand and hard pencils and made very soft lines on the face itself, modeling it very slightly. You can see this in this drawing on her cheekbones, around the eyes nose and mouth and elsewhere, all over the face really.
I don’t believe the David Hockney thesis that he was using a camera lucida to do these. Some of Ingres’ portrait are really eccentric, with physiologically impossible long necks and strange faces that are clearly a result of Ingres own internal tendencies and not a drawing prism or mechanism of any kind. He drew hundreds of people and not a single one mentions any such mechanism in their many letters. He was drawing from life. Some of the feet in his drawings are out of proportion. He often distorts figures to be in line with his strange inner visions. But draws with great knowledge and precision and this cannot be done with a mechanism. It is done with a quick mind and a gentle touch.
Degas studied with a student of Ingres and met him and thought him one of the best draftsman ever. Many of Degas things show Ingres’ influence. Indeed, in the generation after Ingres, Degas is one of the best draftsman. Other students of Ingres watched him draw and no one, not even one of the subjects he drew, has ever said he used such a mechanism, as I said. The more one reads about Ingres the more one admires his diligence and love of art, even if one disagrees with him otherwise. His ability to suggest texture and clothes and how they lay on the body or appear to the eye is nothing short of extraordinary. He developed a very creative use of the pencil to achieve varied shapes, forms and textures. Each line is studied, each shading thought about. This is not mere copying, it is insightful rendering and hard won. His pencil portraits are great works. Hockney’s views on the matter show him as slandering Ingres and based on a trivial study of his work. Ingres said that:
.”it takes 25 years to learn to draw, one hour to learn to paint”
“Drawing is the probity of art. To draw does not mean simply to reproduce contours; drawing does not consist merely of line: drawing is also expression, the inner form, the plane, the modeling. See what remains after that.As long as you do not hold a balance between your seeing of things and your execution, you will do nothing that is really good..”
Someone who claims that it takes 25 years to learn to draw has worked at it very hard. One need only look at the massive catalogue of Ingres drawings to see he worked at it very hard. I can see from these drawings that I am not as good as Ingres. I might try again at some point. I know these drawing are not as good as I thought I could do, not that they are bad, I just think I can do better.. I am not up to Ingres’ abilities as yet. I need to work harder on my drawing. What he says about painting is wrong. It takes decades to learn to paint too. But he is right about drawing and he knew because he worked so hard doing it. He is not a great painter.
Did he himself see how great were his portrait drawings. I don’t know. I have read some of his letters and some biographical material and have not read that. He says he did not like doing portraits but in context he seems to be talking about paintings. His drawings are a different story and he was extremely good at it. He is worth studying for anyone who wishes to know something about the history of drawing. or to see some of the best drawings ever done.
3 drawings of Fantin Latour’s “Madame La Rolle”
Fantin Latour’s Madame La Rolle, 1882, is another of the exceptional pieces in CMA. I have always been attracted to Latour’s technical skills, which are considerable. His abilities with paint both in a work like this, and in his flower paintings was considerable and has some origins in Titian’s use of scumbles and glazes. This explains both the infinite variety of glazed and scumbled tones in the lovely white dress he does here and the excellence of his flower studies.
I did three drawings of this work. None of them were easy and I am not entirely happy with any of them. I hate to say that, but it is true. I did better on the Ingres above, even though they too are imperfect.. The first was just a sketch to see if I could do it at all. I only put it here to show that I work hard, and still do things that are not very good. Hard work helps but is not a guarantee of it coming off well. In the first one, the proportions are wrong, the face is terrible and I made her much too heavy. I do like the lower hand though.
The other two are more concerted efforts. It is an amazingly subtle work with many tonal changes and nuanced forms, subtle in its use of glazes, scrumbles and oil. It is harder to copy a painting in pencil than to copy another pencil drawing. He was using paint as light and this depends heavily on the use of dark and half tones. A example of this is her left arm that is light near the bicep, against the shadow on the chest and ribs, but is darker on the forearm, relative to the stomach and hips. This is subtle and good painting and shows how much he is observing nature. The one on the left has the best right hand holding the flower. The cheek bones are better but the eyes and lips are not quite right yet.
Fantin’s is not the only picture of Madeleine LaRolle in CMA. There is also this one by Albert Besard, painted a few years before the Latour, perhaps in 1879. This is a quick sketch of the face. you can see I am right handed.
Madeleine Lerolle and Her Daughter Yvonne
by Albert Besnard
Mrs. George Waugh 1868
This is a small drawing of William Holman’s Hunt’ mother-in-law. She evidently blamed Hunt for the loss of her daughter, who died after a hard childbirth. The complications of childbirth had fewer treatments then and it was not Hunt’s fault. Hunt immortalized this rather forbidding woman in this work. One almost feels sorry for this old woman, now saddled with a bad reputation created by her son in law. I wonder if she was that bad? Hunt did live with her when he was doing this portrait so he could not have been all that bad. Hunt is a very good craftsman, and I admire that in his work.
Albert Bierstadt, 1866, Yosemite Valley
This tiny drawing was done from one of Albert Bierstadt’s paintings. I have a deep feelings for Bierstadt’s work as they were the first artworks I ever saw at age 7 to 9, when my mother used to take us to the Haggin Museum in central California where I grew up. This painting, as in much of Bierstadt’s works always evokes images of and feelings about my beloved California. I am a rare thing, as I was actually born and grew up there, so my memories are conditioned by that place in their roots. This tiny couple in that hugeness excites me and puts humans in their real proportions. I wanted to just give a hint of this, readers can look up the actual work on the Cleveland Museum of Art Website here:
Frederick Sandys 1829 1904. Portrait of Susana Rose 1862.
I think this is one of Sandys’ best works. There is a finished drawing he did of this too. In addition I think this one of the best drawings I have done at the museum.
A lot of Sandy’s work tends to be excessively romantic and symbolist, even verging on the fantastic at times, with Camelot and poisonous ‘femme fatales’ not far away. There is a suffocating verdure too, rather like Dante Rossetti. But this one is really wonderful, both in design, posture, color nd composition. It was a joy to draw the precision of it, and the friable feeling of skin and self that he put into it. I do not know of a better presentation of old skin. But also, I love his attempt to try to show a real person. Her skin is old and delicate, like wrinkled silk, and her eyes are lovely. I love the lace in her hair she is wearing and the blue sash or ribbon in it.
Theodule Ribot, 1865
I like Theodule Ribot, a little known artist now. A lot of his works have an authenticity and directness I admire. He reminds me of early Van Gogh, with a similar caring sensibility I like, but more refined. I don’t think the public liked this gritty realism much, as they still don’t, fed as they are with the lives in rich McMansions on screens, cell phones and a constant barrage of lying advertisements. But in this case his work has real charm, even if it has the darkened tonality of a candle lit world before electric lights. I love the dog and the girls relationship to it. There is a cat, hoping ot get some milk, rubbing against the little girl’s leg too. I did not draw that, but it is worth doing someday too.
Thomas Eakins, The Beglin Brothers Turning the Stake 1873.
Ah, Eakins. Eakins is a wonderful artist. Though people see him as problematic man. I have my doubts about all of that, as he had enemies and I have seen myself how enemies make stuff up. This is not to say that there are not men who do bad things in the world. I have seen them too, but I doubt Eakins was one of them. He did many beautiful works and accurate studies and was evidently a very good teacher. He went afoul of the prudishness of the time where some were horrified by some of his nude studies and his use of nude models that no one blinks at nowadays. He was a scientist of sorts and I think of him as continuing the tradition started by Da Vinci. This painting might seem stiff until one starts studying it. It actually is a very vital thing and full of life and effort, strain even, and the fight with the water these men are undergoing is considerable and muscular. Eakins pursed reality with a tenacity I admire. Indeed, one could say with justice that art history is largely lied about in many art books. It is really the story of the struggle of artists to understand reality and this brings it very close to science. It is not really about money. For the rich it is, but, much to their surprise no doubt, the best art is not about them. In this case, art is about light on water, the light on the river near Philadelphia, the ripple of straining muscle, the blue caps, the oars, the air.
William Sydney Mount (1807-1868),
The Power of Music, 1847
This is a fascinating picture. Mount, the artist who painted it, was also a musician and quite a good fiddler. He wrote a number of fiddle tunes and invented a violin with a deeper and louder sound.
But though this seems to be about fiddle music, it might not be about music at all. At first I thought it was a racist image, or one exploring the nature of pre-civil war racism. The barn door is preventing the man from being part of the group, which does seem to imply a racist exclusion. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that it is really an abolitionist protest against this very thing.
It is really about a man who is listening to the music. Rather like Eastman Johnson who showed an African American quite as intelligent as a white man by reading a book, here, Mount is showing an African American laborer who loves music. He is the focus of the work and the focus of the music too. It is not the barn door that is preventing the man from going into the barn, it is slavery. The bad laws that supported slavery is harming this man. He clearly loves music and may play it himself. Mount did a few other paintings of African American men playing the violin or banjo, some of them very fine.. In these they are openly engaged in music, not unlike Henry Tanner’s great painting of an old man teaching his son or grandson to play the banjo.
But in this work, the man is not playing, but just listening. He was apparently just cutting wood , as an ax is propped on the barn. He has a jug of water or cider that he has put down next to the barn. He leans against the barn door, dressed in tattered old clothes, He is a smart dresser though, as he has on red suspenders and a yellow neck tie. His clothes might be old, but well patched up and the buttons on it are shinny. He is clearly cared for and likes to dress as well as he can. We are told enough to form a clear picture of a well dressed, poor man, who loves music. He loves it deeply enough that he smiles even more than the old man in green who smiles in the background. In Courbet’s phrase, this is a “real allegory” about African Americans finally being like everyone else, humans with as much right to do what they need to as others. In my mind, this man is playing music with all the others. He is the man who appreciates and that is really as important as the music itself.
In my drawing of it I left out the man’s face who is standing inside the barn. He is superfluous and may be there merely to make the man outside seem even more alien from the group. It is the man outside that matters. What I read about this work is that Mount actually knew this particular African American. E. Bruce Robertson writes that the ‘black’ man was Robin Mills. I would need to check this fact but first have to find out how and where to check it. Robertson writes:
“Robin Mills is most likely a freed former slave, married, a property owner, and the elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Setauket [where Mount lived]. To Mount he is a neighbor, a substantial figure.”
Some Bouquets for Gustave Courbet
I have thought alot about Courbet in recent months. The woman is Laure Borreau, with whom Courbet had some sort of affair in 1862, referred to in the Letters ( pg. 211 and thereabouts). The Letters of Courbet are very much worth reading. Petra Chu’s excellent book is the best for this. She is a very good scholar. They are not as well done as Vincent’s, who was an exceptional writer, but they are very telling and tell a complex story. I thought of this drawing after reading the terrible story of how the right wing, monarchist French government scapegoated Courbet in 1871 and continued to persecute him up until his death in 1877. This is recorded in very painful detail in his letters.
CMA has two of his major works— a portrait of Laure Borreau and his very last landscape done in Switzerland shortly before he died. My drawing combines he two of them into one, as a kind of gift for old Courbet. He died, in exile, waiting to go back but still afraid to do so as the conservative government was still threatening him and his family. His beloved sister Juliette was waiting for him, but he never arrived. He died in Switzerland an exile from France, forced there by the government of the Napoleonists, who were unfairly running France. I did this drawing to offer him some flowers for all his suffering. His last painting shows the small little girl making bouquets of mountain flowers for the goats and their babies. Courbet loved the goats. The goat kisses the little girl. The painting in CMA called “Portrait of Laure Borreau” shows a woman Courbet loved. Courbet also painted her sister, Gabriel. I put Laure in the painting of the Swiss Alps offering Courbet flowers , like the little girl who gives them to the goats. In both cases the images show Courbet as a warm hearted man who was giving to others. I do not know what happened with Laure, but he clearly loved her, so I place her late in his life, and she is offering him flowers. When one reads his letters ones sees mostly that Courbet was a good man. He tries to help others, is very aware of his social responsibility and he does all he can to give back to his family and the people and town he comes from.
To understand this drawing one has to know what happened to Corbet between 1871 and his death in 1877. He was accused, falsely, of masterminding the destruction fo the Vendome monument, which was created to glorify Napoleon’s war campaigns. He was not even hired by the Commune yet, a left wing government that was briefly set up after the Franco Prussian war. There was a meeting in which the monument was slated for destruction by the Commune. Courbet was not involved with that. All he wanted to do was “unrivet” the monument and remove it to a museum. There are letters from this time that show that Courbet wanted to put the bronzes on the monument in a museum, not destroy them. His letters were not listened to. He was wrongly put in prison and fined by the successor Napoleonic government. It was clear they wished to scapegoat him. Not satisfied with his many written protests, the government decided to persecute him further and they destroyed his life and forced him into exile and then took all his art work, ruined his family and harassed him legally until he died of overwrought nerves and drinking. Jules Castagnary, Courbet’s friend, says that they killed him, and there appears to be truth to that. I offer some flowers to him from his own work, hoping someday to see him exonerated for the harm that was done to him.
Preparation of the Dead Girl 1850-55
This is my version of this work, Preparation of the Dead Girl, wrongly called the Wedding or the Bride. My version is ‘drawn’ or ‘painted’on Photoshop to give some idea of what the work once looked like, more or less. It was badly botched by some painter over a hundred years ago. The artist tried to make it into a wedding picture and has the dead woman looking into a mirror that was not part of the original. It is poorly done. Smith College owns it and has not restored the original,. They made some x rays in 1929 and these show the woman being prepared for a wake. As far as I know no one has ever shown this painting as it might have looked. It is an amazing and moving work. It is a sad picture and it appears that Courbet himself is between the women at the end of the long table, helping to read or sing texts from small books both women are holding. I suspect these books are some sort of hymnal or reading from religious texts. Courbet was not religious, but he was more than willing to show the habits and customs of local people for an event like this. No one has ever painted anything like it. Indeed, it shows how inventive Courbet could be, it is a delicate and amazing work, and should be restored.
The painted over version is ridiculous. here:
Formerly called the Wedding or the Bride, heavily over painted by an unknown hand. The botched changes to the work look like this today. One can see that the meaning of the work has been destroyed. The composition no longer works. It is clumsy and false.
My version is loosely based on this x ray from 1929. A chair leg is visible to the left of the figure. I think I see the attendants hand on the arm on the dead woman’s left side. but I am not sure.woman’s left. The painter who added things seems to have put her in a red chair, but if that is a chair leg then what one sees behind the chair leg is actually the attendant’s dress, possibly reddish brown.
There are too many rich ladies in fancy clothes and young Greek men who are beautiful on this blog page. It is not that I did not love them too, I must say, when I drew them. I loved drawing them all. Drawing is inquiry not judgment, which comes later. My judgments stand, I think, but so do my observations, and they are often very different, and I leave them separate. History is a complex of observations and judgments. That is what makes it hard, as well as interesting. That is hardly my fault.
CMA is a questionable place in some ways. There is no doubt that it has been corrupt in various ways. I would not put buying stolen antiquities past them. I also think their current crop of leaders and curators are mostly corporate art drones with little insight into what art really is. The best director they ever had was Sherman Lee and those who have replaced him are, in one case, a philandering fool who indirectly killed a young woman, and in other cases, likely to try to turn a great museum into a bar for singles and an art mall for profiting in vapidity. That said, I love the place because of some of the art it has, which is blissfully independent of many of the people that work there.
I am glad CMA also has the old woman with the beautiful wrinkled face that Sandys did, the plain Mr Hurd, the forgetful monk, the lovely, musical family with their great dog and the little girl int he sunlight and the luminous air of the 1600’s coming in the arched window. I enjoyed drawing the men rowing, and Robin Mills, as well as the the Little Milkmaid and the Roman boy. But after I come to judgments it is hard to see the rich ladies with the same eyes that I see the young milk maid. Truth be told I even loved drawing the women in the fancy dresses and the Greek young men. I was such a young man once, when I first walked into CMA, a mere boy of 15 years. I have been enchanted with it ever since. 45 years. And here on this page I get to say thank you back over hundreds or years, as well as to question what I have seen. I want to say thank you to all the artists and the people in the paintings and drawings. It has been a joy to draw you over these last 4 or 5 years..