Delacroix

delacroix

  1. Painter

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) is commonly considered both the first modern artist and last classical artist. He was an artist who would attempt to evoke a powerful response in the viewers to a point where it would distort paintings. He was also an artist who adulated the Old Masters. He revered Rubens and developed a style of broken-colour brushwork in a way which would influence the development of Impressionism. It was only natural that he would be seen as a link between an august past and an innovative future.

A newly revised version of Barthélémy Jobert’s monograph (originally published in 1997) surveys the artist’s whole career, taking advantage of recent studies, sustaining the recent revival of interest in Delacroix. Recent exhibitions in America, France, Germany and America – plus a forthcoming exhibition in at the Metropolitan Museum in New York – have given gallery-goers and historians opportunities to reassess the Delacroix.

Delacroix was the central artist in the French Romantic tradition following the early death of Géricault in 1824. The pair apprenticed Guérin’s studio. Géricault supported Delacroix and passed on a religious commission to him. Géricault modelled as one of the dead figures in The Raft of the Medusa. Jobert writes that the young painter was not as close as to Géricault as is supposed, the latter being senior and established. Although Delacroix was saddened by Géricault’s death, Jobert suspects Delacroix’s admiration for Géricault cooled posthumously. He notes Delacroix wrote little about the older painter, both for publication and privately. Delacroix is usually presented as an arch enemy of Ingres, in a battle between Romanticism and Neoclassicism. The primary differences come in attitudes towards colour, paint handling, tone and theme.

Jobert notes that Delacroix managed his rise to prominence by submitting serious, large and ambitious history paintings to the (biannual) Salons of 1822, 1824 and 1827-8. The main works of these Salons (respectively The Barque of Dante, Massacre at Chios and The Death of Sardanapalus) received increasingly polarised responses from critics and public, as Jobert astutely dissects. This book does well to draw attention to underrated battle pieces and historical paintings such as The Murder of the Bishop of Liège (1829). The author has researched and explained sources for the literary and history paintings, allowing readers to appreciate the full drama and significance of the scenes the artist chose to depict.

The 1832 visit to Morocco and Spain provided Delacroix with many drawings, watercolours and notes that he plundered for inspiration over the rest of his career. Thirty paintings and innumerable prints and sketches were made over the next thirty years and became inextricably associated with Delacroix’s public career. Delacroix found much admirable and strange in the daily life of the Arabs and Jews and he considered himself plunged back into antiquity when surrounded by the clothing, behaviour and appearance of the people of North Africa. His colour became bolder and he combined in more sophisticated ways following his return from Africa. To the influences of Rubens and Venetian painters was added the clarity and brightness of North Africa.

Jobert points out that some of Delacroix’s masterpieces – Massacre at Chios, The Death of Sardanapalus, Liberty Leading the People and Women of Algiers – are common touchstones yet Delacroix overall achievement and underlying concerns are poorly understood. Why is Delacroix not better understood as an artist? Jobert suggests that part of the reason is a reluctance of recent viewers to engage with narrative and an aversion to literary subjects. Jobert notes that the masterpieces of Delacroix at the Louvre are – with the exception of the ceiling painting – early works and that his later great works are distributed in provincial museums around France, leading to an unintended distortion to how we perceive his development when viewing his work at the Louvre.

Some of the decorative cycles are inaccessible or difficult to see properly. The curving cupolas and glossy encaustic surfaces (some of them recently cleaned) have been photographed judiciously and these illustrations give a good impression of how dramatic and impressive Delacroix’s murals are. Overall, the illustrations are strong. Unexpected images include a delicate sky study sketch in pastel, a watercolour of Greenwich Park and a wonderful still-life of game and a lobster in a landscape setting (painted in 1826-7). There are pages from the Moroccan sketchbooks.

Delacroix had grave faults and he was criticised extensively from his first Salon appearance up to the present day. His deficiencies in anatomy came to the fore when he became intoxicated by his subject. He relied on memory and fantasy too often and this sometimes undermined the veracity of his paintings. He used fugitive pigments because he loved their colour, heedless of warnings against using impermanent materials. As a consequence many of his oil paintings are severely diminished today. He failed to see the value that modest subjects had as the bases for serious works of art, instead remaining wedded to the grand subjects of religion and history. This is all the more sad considering the great vividness and delicacy of his life studies of animals, people and landscapes. He will never be an artist we can relate to completely. He held too much in reserve, was too attached the notion of artistic propriety, passed over too many opportunities which seem attractive to us now.

Jobert’s narrative is fluent and absorbing. His expertise regarding Delacroix’s art and writing allow him to guide us through the Delacroix’s many achievements. This is an excellent and thorough survey of Delacroix.

9781588396808

  1. Draughtsman

 

A current exhibition features donations by Karen B. Cohen to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York of more than 106 drawings and other works on paper by Delacroix (Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17 July-12 November 2018). The museum houses one of the best collections of Delacroix in world outside of France, not least due to the generous donation of collector Karen Cohen.

The exhibited pieces cover every period of the artist’s long career and the many facets of his drawing practice. There are copies, caricatures, nature studies, compositional sketches (including overall compositional designs and tests for elements), observations from life, anatomical studies of men and animals. The techniques are very varied, including use of pencil, ink line, ink wash, watercolour, charcoal, pastel and chalk. A number of lithograph illustrations are included, showing how the public encountered Delacroix’s drawing. The artist generally kept his drawings private and the public only became aware of his 8,000 works on paper – and their outstanding quality and variety – when his studio contents were sold at auction after the artist’s death in 1863. One double-page spread in this catalogue presents a loose ink-wash landscape sketch, a lithographic illustration of Goethe and an anatomical study of a cadaver in chalks. Modern viewers may find such a multitude of subjects and open apprehensible techniques make these works on paper more approachable than Delacroix’s oil paintings.

What is clear from this exhibition is that Delacroix did not see his drawings as independent pieces but only steps. This mirrors his practice of copying, where the act of making informs the artist, improves his practice and assists him internalising the skills and effects that he may apply in his painting. Delacroix’s dedication to study and emulation are decidedly unselfconscious, humble even. There are sheets recording armour, costumes and interiors. There is evidence that Delacroix spent hours studying animals, including cats, tigers, lions and horses. In these cases he worked quickly from life, slowly from dead subjects and consulted anatomy books to develop detailed views.

Among the sheets are some connected with the artist’s best known paintings, including Massacre at Chios, Liberty Leading the People and Women of Algiers. There is a coloured drawing of decorative tiles in Seville which was used in the boudoir setting of the Women of Algiers. Delacroix used his observations made in foreign locales as a resource from which he could draw upon later. He made oriental fantasies using his Moroccan sketches and memories until the end of his life.

What characterises Delacroix’s drawings is their liveliness, spontaneity and incompleteness. The artist considered drawings as working material rather than presentation-quality pictures. Of these sheets, only a few watercolours (among which is the particularly noteworthy Goetz von Berichingen Being Dressed in Armour by his Page George (1826-7)) are signed and seem intended as a public statement. There is an exquisite pairing of the interior cover of a small sketchbook – with the pencil drawing of a woman’s head – and the first page, which has a brilliant watercolour of a castle surrounded by autumn foliage.

Marjorie Shelley suggests that a comprehensive assessment of Delacroix’s work on paper has not yet been attempted and that there are myriad unanswered questions regarding Delacroix’s materials, techniques and approaches to making drawings and watercolours. She points out that Delacroix’s habitual casualness with pigments can be seen in his choice of iron-gall ink. Iron-gall ink is corrosive and was known to be so in Delacroix’s age yet the artist persisted in using it even though more stable alternative inks were available.

The catalogue includes a short description of the Met’s history of acquisitions of Delacroix’s art and has entries describing exhibited items in technical detail, which is very welcome. Works in the Cohen collection not included in the exhibition are illustrated at the end of the catalogue with full data. Short essays cover different aspects of Delacroix’s drawing and altogether this catalogue is a good introduction to the great artist’s work on paper.

 

Barthélémy Jobert, Delacroix, new and expanded edition, 2018, Princeton University Press, paperback, 352pp, 249 col./47 mono illus., £47/$60, ISBN 978 0 691 18236 0

Ashley Dunn, Colta Ives, Marjorie Shelley, Delacroix Drawings: The Karen B. Cohen Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2018, paperback, 176pp, 205 col. illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 58839 680 8

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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Obsession: Nudes collected by Scofield Thayer

1984.433.315ab

[Image: Egon Schiele, (Austrian, 1890–1918), Egon Schiele, (Austrian, 1890–1918)
Standing Nude with Orange Drapery (1914), Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper
18 1/4 x 12 in. (46.4 x 30.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982]

The sudden rise to prominence – and subsequent descent into obscurity – of Scofield Thayer (1889-1982) reads like an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. A young American playboy tours Europe then returns to the USA to marry. When he returns to Europe after the Great War, the young man is an editor of a literary journal and uses his fortune to support the literary lions of London, Vienna and Paris. He undergoes analysis with Dr Freud in Vienna. Now divorced from his wife, he is a dedicated libertine and decadent, his life devoted to the compulsive pursuit of novelty: principally promoting avant-garde writing, collecting erotic art and engaging in sexual conquests (both women and men). He amasses a great collection of art, some of it striking erotic art. On his return to the New York, he slowly descends into insanity and lives out the largest part of his long life in obscurity, spending periods in various institutions. By the time of his death, he has long outlived his notoriety and his death goes almost unnoticed.

Thayer edited Dial, one of the most important literary journals of the 1920s. It published ground-breaking prose and verse by T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and many others, famous and unknown. Dial also brought advanced European art to American readers. Thayer bought large quantities of art, mostly because he liked it but also a few pieces he intended to trade at a profit. In Vienna, he encountered the art if the recently deceased Klimt and Schiele. In war-impoverished Vienna, excellent drawings were cheap and Thayer could amass a fine collection of graphics, especially erotic drawings by the pair, some priced as low as $6 each. His collection of almost 600 pieces of art, ranging from German Renaissance prints and Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs to paintings by the Expressionists, Braque, Bonnard and Matisse, was bought before Thayer’s mental instability sent him into seclusion at the end of the 1920s. Some of collection was erotic in character. This uneven and partly salacious collection was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum on his death in 1982. One can only imagine the mingled pleasure and embarrassment among museum administrators and curators discovering the unabashed sexual nature of much of the art received into the collection. This catalogue documents the exhibition Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection of 52 nudes by three prominent Modernist artists: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Pablo Picasso. The exhibition will be held at the Met Breuer (Metropolitan Museum of Art), New York from 3 July to 7 October 2018.

Klimt drew thousands of studies – mainly figures – during pauses between painting sessions. He drew as preparation for his Symbolist paintings (including public commissions, such as the murals for Vienna university) and also as a general exercise to keep his skills sharp. Visitors to his studio recalled nude models lounging around, ready to inspire the artist with a gesture or position. Klimt had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ready models. The drawings of nudes in the Thayer collection are typical of the late period of Klimt. Slender young women with bountiful tresses drape themselves over undepicted beds, sometimes pleasuring themselves. The style is dreamy, with the often undifferentiated subjects drawn lightly, with little shading, most executed in pencil. Outlines – which are almost all there is to Klimt’s figures – are sometimes uncertain and repeatedly reworked to build up solid but insubstantial forms.

1984.433.196

[Image: Gustav Klimt, (Austrian, 1862–1918), Reclining Nude with Drapery, Back View (1917–1918), Graphite, 14 5/8 x 22 3/8 in. (37.1 x 56.8 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982]

The best of the drawings is a standing figure of 1906-7. The unusual rounded hairstyle, striking pose (with hip jutting) and evidence of a revised pose all make this piece stand out as memorable. The other pictures by Klimt are fair examples of their type but not very engaging.

Egon Schiele’s interests were even more frankly sexual. Unlike the more expensive and public oil paintings that he made, Schiele could use drawing on paper as medium in which to be more adventurous and explicit in imagery and subject matter. Thayer’s 32 drawings and prints (29 of which are reproduced in the catalogue) cover the whole of Schiele’s short career, starting in 1911 and ending the year of his death, 1918. The earliest drawings are sketchy, with simple lines picking out aspects, those lines sometimes floating as if detached from the motif.

Observed in a Dream (1911) is an unusual showpiece from Schiele’s early years. The fanciful title (prominently inscribed on the front), thorough colouring with watercolour paint and coquettishly sexual pose all indicate the artist aping the pornographic photographs and drawings easily to be found in Vienna in that period.  Ultimately, Schiele’s art became more sophisticated and personal without losing its sexual edge. One gets the impression that a more confident and independent Schiele would later collaborate with his models to explore expressions of sexuality that were less clichéd.

The drawings and drypoints of 1914 include the button eyes and doll faces typical of that phase. There are a few of Schiele’s typical line drawings coloured by broken patches of gouache diluted with gum arabic. By 1918, Schiele’s lines were fatter (conté crayon or black chalk replacing pencil) and the curves more emphatic. The models were no longer the scrawny adolescent waifs of the early years but adult women bursting with health, some of them buxom. There are drawings of a child model, who was apparently the child of a female model, as evidenced by a drawing showing the mother and child together.

The art by Picasso is less explicit in general. Although Picasso was often driven by erotic impulses, it came out in playful, indirect and witty ways rather than straightforward realistic depictions of nude figures. One exception is Erotic Scene (1902), showing a woman with long hair performing oral sex on the artist. The work is from the Blue Period. It is poorly painted, with little feeling or care. Picasso later disavowed the painting and refused to authenticate it. However, there is no doubt about its authenticity. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson had a dim opinion of the painting, suggesting that the artist painted it hastily for money.

11. Pablo Picasso. Youth in an Archway, 1906

[Image: Pablo Picasso, (Spanish, 1881–1973), Youth in an Archway (1906), Conté crayon on paper, 23 1/4 x 16 3/4 in. (59.1 x 42.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982. © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

Other drawings by Picasso are of standing nudes executed in Gosol and Paris in 1906 and bathers executed in the artist’s Neo-Classical period of the early 1920s. The gap is not accidental. Thayer disliked Cubism and abstract art, so had no desire to collect any art made by Picasso during the 1907-1917 period. There is a 1922 pastel portrait of an idealised woman (probably a composite of Sara Murphy and the artist’s wife Olga) which is more tender than erotic. Picasso’s art seems distinctly public; the art of Klimt and Schiele is definitely of a private character. Picasso seems to be engaged in dialogue with artists of the past; Klimt and Schiele were more concerned with depicting reality and establishing connections between artist and subject. Picasso deals with ideals; Klimt and Schiele deal with actual subjects. Picasso worked from memory; Klimt and Schiele worked from life.

The selection of works tells us about Thayer’s priorities. It is notable that despite his sexual preference for men (though Thayer was apparently bisexual), the majority of subjects of the art he purchased were female. This is partly due to the fact that erotic depictions of nudes by the most prominent artists of the period were female ones, made by heterosexual male artists, which meant that the majority of erotic art of the time featured female subjects. Thus most of the nudes available were of female subjects. It also tells us that the quality of the art was more important to Thayer than its erotic potency. There was plenty of homosexual erotica for sale but none of the artistic quality of the art that entered Thayer’s collection. Thayer’s collection of non-erotic art was excellent, including some fine pieces by Matisse, Bonnard, Chagall and Demuth.

The catalogue is a useful addition to the body of literature on erotic art. The exhibition promises to be a celebration of erotic desire, the urge to present the beautiful in art and the lasting appeal of this art for viewers.

 

Sabine Rewald and James Dempsey, Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale University Press), 2018, paperback, 132pp, 110 col. illus., $25, ISBN 978 1 588 39 65 25

[Revised on 21 June 2018 to correct factual inaccuracy]

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900

 In the Studio (oil on canvas)

[Image: Marie Bashkirtseff (Ukrainian, 18581884), In the Studio (1881), oil on canvas, 60 5/8 x 73 1/4 in. Dnipropetrovsk State Art Museum, Ukraine, KH-4234. Photo: Dnipropetrovsk/Bridgeman Images. Courtesy American Federation of Arts]

“Recent gains in women’s participation in the arts now demands an assessment of those who have paved the way – both women artists who struggled to establish careers in art and art historians who reinvented the critical language to accommodate them.”

So states curator Laurence Madeline in her essay introducing a current exhibition on women artists. Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 (the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 9 June-3 September 2018; touring from Denver Art Museum and Speed Art Museum) gathers almost 90 paintings by 37 female artists from 11 countries, all of whom worked or trained in Paris. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The period examined by this exhibition and catalogue was a turbulent and rich one. Despite the rise of Naturalism, Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Symbolism, the Salon dominated public reception of art and academic painting was a significant proportion of the art produced and consumed. The studio system of training, the École des beaux-arts and Prix de Rome were important in the training of artists and this presented women with a number of hurdles to becoming full-time artists. Women were not admitted to the École des beaux-arts until 1897 and had limited choices in the studios they could study at. Académie Julian became a favourite not just of women students but adventurous male students and a large number of the most successful artists of that period and the immediately following era studied there. In 1881 the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs was founded to promote and exhibit women.

Statistical analysis in this catalogue indicates that female participation in the annual Salon ranged from below 10% to as high as 20% in a period when women as full-time professional artists were a rarity. This shows that women artists were recognised publicly in proportion to their participation in the fine-art field, even though it seems their art was less likely to have been awarded prizes and bought by the state. Such advantages naturally went to the most established artists, who were predominantly male. (Footnote 1)

Seeing a gathering of pictures by some unknown women artists seems to reinforce the impression that women are (or were) unduly discriminated against. Yet the art of twenty times that number of forgotten male artists from the period could have been assembled – with each of those artists as good as the women artists here. Go through any academy store room and you will encounter fine pictures by unknown artists, male and female. There simply is not enough wall space, book pages and public attention to cause these artists to be remembered. History bestows oblivion upon legions of capable professionals, regardless of gender. Fame is exceptional and, by definition, most artists are destined for obscurity. Nowadays, critics, curators and historians trawl archives and store rooms specifically in search of forgotten women artists to promote. Rescuing women artists from obscurity is an outcome of – and justification for – much Feminist art history over the last 50 years. Today there is no prejudice against women artists in the West. Women are rapidly becoming the majority of arts administrators and art historians. Today, among professionals and critics, there is an in-built favouritism towards women artists. Not a week goes by without a press release heralding the posthumous revival of a forgotten woman artist.

So, how good is the art exhibited here? Much of it is very good.

A number of artists need no introduction. Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès and Marie Bracquemond were respected and popular artists in the Impressionist circle, though the latter (who was married to acclaimed printmaker Félix Bracquemond and exhibited with the Impressionists) has faded from attention, partly due to her early retirement from art. Morisot, Cassatt and Gonzalès are presented fairly here, with first-class pieces.

Morisot_The_Cherry_Tree

[Image: Berthe Morisot (French, 18411895), The Cherry Tree (1891), oil on canvas, 57 5/8 x 35 in. Collection of Bruce and Robbi Toll; Photo: CAPEHART Photography. Courtesy American Federation of Arts]

A good case is made for Marie Bracquemond, with her Impressionist paintings of women and domestic life matching the quality of her more famous colleagues. Her reputation is likely to rise.

Naturalist painter of rural scenes Rosa Bonheur was celebrated in her lifetime as the equal of male painters. Bonheur was a phenomenon, becoming famous and being granted special privileges. Her art sold for high prices. Her paintings of farm animals were accurate and have an impressive physical presence but such art has become unfashionable and it is hard to see her name becoming common currency again. Fellow Naturalist painter Marie Bashkirtseff was very talented but one wonders if she would have left any more of a significant mark had she not died at the age of 25 in 1884. The adeptly executed In the Studio (1881) is one of the few large-scale paintings she painted in her short career. The Bastien-Lapage style of Naturalism she adopted was already verging on the fusty and sentimental by 1884. Was she capable of innovating or was she only a superior adherent of Cosmopolitan Realism?

Bastien-Lepage’s Naturalism became the dominant painting style in Scandinavia from his Salon success of 1878 until well into the Twentieth Century, long after his death. His approach was to paint scenes of rural life, including mild social commentary about the lives of working people. The doctrine of Naturalism through local colour, studying from life and painting at least studies en plein air won him legions of followers in France and Northern Europe. In this exhibition, nearly all the Nordic painters are indebted to him. Lady Elizabeth Butler’s patriotic scenes are more aligned to academic salon painting. Annie Louisa Swynnerton’s standing female nude is in the beaux-arts tradition, influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism. Amélie Beaury-Saurel’s pastel portrait of a young woman smoking and drinking coffee is bold, accomplished and lively. It is a very fine picture.

Grand claims for Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) are not borne out on the evidence presented here. There is a concise and beautiful painting of an interior (The Door (1884)); the only strong contrast in the picture is the glow of light coming through gaps around a closed door. However, the other pictures by her are weak stuff – a Botticelli copy, soft-focus social realism, a Whistlerian portrait. A strikingly modern self-portrait in a manner similar to Kitaj is not included, as it falls outside the dates for exhibited work.

Lowstadt_Chadwick_ Beach Parasol, Brittany (Portrait of Amanda Sidwall)

[Image: Emma Löwstädt-Chadwick (Swedish, 18551932), Beach Parasol, Brittany (Portrait of Amanda Sidwall) (1880), oil on panel, 11 7/16 x 19 11/16 in. Private collection, Stockholm; Photo: Lars Engelhardt. Courtesy American Federation of Arts]

There are idiosyncrasies in curation that are puzzling. The curators state that they deliberately avoided so-called typically feminine subjects such as flower paintings and portraits, yet included are maternities, domestic interiors and conversation pieces featuring women – all subjects that were particularly close to women artists’ hearts and the centres of their artistic production. Some of the artists are ones who visited or trained in Paris rather than living there for significant lengths of time. Paula Modersohn-Becker should not have been included.

The catalogue includes informative essays by Jane R. Becker on Marie Bracquemond and by Vibeke Waallann Hansen on the Nordic painters. Impressionist scholar Richard Kendall writes about the careers of the female Impressionists. A valuable biographical section presents data about each artist.

Bridget Alsdorf makes some unfounded judgements in her catalogue essay. She contends that in Manet’s portrait of Eva Gonzalès painting at her easel, Manet appropriates Gonzalès’s painting  of flowers on her easel as “his own” by painting it in his own manner. Gonzalès was Manet’s student and her style is very indebted to his. Breaking the stylistic continuity within the portrait by transcribing a Gonzales painting idiomatically correctly would have been completely inconsistent within the aesthetic and practice of Manet. Alsdorf asserts that Orpen included the portrait of Gonzalès in Orpen’s own Homage to Manet (1909) in a way that “is perfectly ironic, a further travesty of Gonzalès’s already awkward image as a femme peintre”. Orpen was including the most celebrated and publicly available painting by Manet situated in the British Isles in 1909. There is nothing ironic about the inclusion. Women artists suffered inequality in this period. Inventing slights only distracts attention from the actual difficulties they faced.

There is some high quality art which we benefit from encountering, often for the first time, but are some of these artists unfairly overlooked? Not really. Bonheur and Bashkirtseff are scarcely more obscure to today’s gallery-goers than Bastien-Lepage and painters of the Barbizon or Hague Schools; Cassatt and Morisot are mentioned in every publication on Impressionism. What about the lesser-known ones? Schjerfbeck is capable but inconsistent; Virginie Demont-Breton is a competent Salon painter; Kitty Kielland is a skilful Norwegian landscape painter. Are these artists good? Yes. Are they better than the (male) artists who are more well-known? No, though some are equal in competence.

Yet there are hundreds of shadowy others at the elbows of Schjerfbeck and Killand, also ready to claim a seat in Parnassus.

On the opening of the Musée fin-de-siècle in Brussels, I was astonished to encounter the paintings of Hippolyte Boulenger (1837-1874). After 20 years of studying and writing about art of the period, I counted myself fairly familiar with the painting of the era, yet here was this painter who was the equal of Corot, who painted with the energy of Courbet and I had never heard his name. His landscapes are deeply immersive, full of bold brushwork and underpinned by acute observation, yet today not even one Belgian in a thousand would recognise his name. His art would have fitted into this exhibition – he deserves a monographic exhibition – yet there is no academic mileage in reviving the reputations of Belgian male painters. No cultural connoisseur or social historian will ever become indignant about the unjust neglect of Hippolyte Boulenger. Yet I would rather have hanging on my wall a Boulenger marine painting in preference to anything painted by Turner or Constable.

The canon is a limited field and it necessarily excludes the overwhelming majority of all art ever produced. Just as the newspaper acclaim and jury prizes of past eras do not secure a place in the canon for dazzling Salon painters, so too the perorations of art historians today do not permanently alter the course of history. The best approach is to look at art frankly (and sceptically) and assess bodies of work as honestly as possible. On that basis, there is plenty in Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 which is appealing and surprising and we can be grateful to have encountered it.

 

Laurence Madeline et al, Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900, American Federation of Arts/Yale University Press, 2018, paperback, 288pp, 150 col. illus., $45, ISBN 978 1 885444 45 5

(1) Prizes, awards and state purchases are not distributed equally according to the merit of exhibited art. It is in part dependent on the status of the artist and that artist’s reputation.

If famous artist A wins 10 prizes in a career, less famous artist B does not get a proportionate 8 prizes (equivalent to 80% of artist A’s recognition) but more likely 1 or 2 prizes in a career. There is a limit to the number of prizes available. Members of the public or prize juries may recognise a limited number artist names. The difference in recognition between being number 1 and 2 on that list is small; the difference between being number 19 and 20 on that list may be large. Similarly, a graph of all living artists’ income per annum would be flat at zero and near-zero for almost the entire X axis showing the low income of the majority, grow slightly for the small number who make a living income and then reach a sheer wall for the tiny number of super-rich artists. This is a form of winner-take-all situation.

Thus, prizes are awarded in a disproportionate manner. If the top ten most celebrated artists in any given cohort are male then the remaining 90 artists – regardless of whether they are male or female –who are less famous will receive 90% or even 50% of the prizes but about 10% between them due to the winner-take-all economy.

See: Hans Abbing, Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, 2014, Amsterdam University Press, 367pp, ISBN 978 9 0530565650

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Precisionism 

 

[Images: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]

The current exhibition Cult of the Machine (currently at de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (24 March-8 September 2018); touring to Dallas Museum of Art (16 September 2018-6 January 2019)) examines American artists’ fascination with machinery. This review is from the exhibition catalogue.

Precisionism was a tendency in American art that arose after World War I and flourished until the early 1940s. The central figure in any discussion of Precisionism is Charles Sheeler (1883-1965). His scenes of industrial complexes, machinery and modern architecture are representative of Precisionist engagement with new forms, materials, processes and places in America. This exhibition includes many fine examples of art by Sheeler and the Precisionists and related material.

Precisionism was seen as one answer to the perennial problem that had dogged American art ever since the mid-Nineteenth Century: what was American art? To that question had been added a further complication: could art be both American and Modern? Many American traditionalists said no, as Modernism was a European invention that reflected the culture of Europe not America. Regionalism (views of rural locations painted in a realistic manner) and Precisionism (views of urban and industrial locations painted in a realistic, photographic or stylised manner) were contemporaneous attempts to define what American art could be. The former was viewed as traditionalist, rural and retrograde; the latter Modernist, urban and progressive. While there are inaccuracies in these summaries, they contain a fair degree of general truth. Precisionism’s legacy is most clearly seen in the Photorealism of the 1960s.

Characteristics of Precisionist art are: clarity of technique and subject; typical subjects being machinery, industrial artefacts, architecture, manufacturing and manufactured objects and the act of building and built structures; handling of materials in a neutral and impersonal manner, with smoothly painted surfaces downplaying the physical and tactile aspects of art; subdued colour;  a relative absence of figures; absence of overt social commentary; a dry approach, eschewing humour; a preference for the geometric, regular and unflawed; a balance of simplified realism and post-Cubist flatness of picture surface; extreme angles and close-ups are favoured; lack of flux or movement; and there is an emphasis on the microcosm and macrocosm, often drawing parallels between the extremes.

shot in studio master
shot in studio master

[Image: Paul Strand, “Wall Street, New York,” 1915. Platinum/palladium print, 9 5/8 x 12 5/8 in. (24.4 x 32.1 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Michael E. Hoffman, New York, in honor of Mr. Joseph Folberg for his generous support and commitment to photographers and photography, 1992.96.2. Photograph by Randy Dodson © Aperture Foundation, Inc, Paul Strand Archive Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

In contrast to the Ashcan School of John Sloane and the New York School – which provided candid social-realist views of everyday city life – Precisionism was detached in tone. The Ashcan painters presented dirty, discordant cities teeming with life and incident; the Precisionists viewed the same cities cleansed of the impurities of traffic, billboards, inclement weather and even people. One significant curatorial decision is to include rural subjects in this exhibition. Precisionism was largely urban and rural in its locales but agricultural buildings formed a reasonable proportion of the subjects chosen by Precisionists.

Precisionism was a tendency or trend rather than a movement and no formulation of stipulations or list members. The style had parallels in European art in Neue Sachlichkeit, Stanley Spencer, Tristram Hillier, et al. What goes unmentioned in the catalogue texts are posters and commercial art. Art Deco echoes Precisionism in the preference for simplification, impersonality, mechanical subjects, subdued colour and so forth. Art Deco is not discussed in the catalogue essays.

In addition to paintings, the exhibition includes a range of sculpture, prints, drawings, and photographs. The remainder of the 136 items in the show are examples of excellent and uncompromising design from the inter-war period: book-covers, furniture, a lamp, radio, even a 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton automobile.

2018_DEY_COTM_Install

[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]

Sheeler is not only the leading Precisionist, he is one of the most important figures in the history of early Modernist art in America. Paintings, photographs, prints and drawings show the artist’s competence in multiple mediums. His realism is a touch dry but is never pedantic. He knew enough to keep pictures free of fussiness and he simplified to the degree necessary.

Charles Sheeler_Classic Landscape_1931

[Image: Charles Sheeler, “Classic Landscape,” 1931. Oil on canvas, 25 x 32 1/4 in. (63.5 x 81.9 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2000.39.2 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

A colleague of Sheeler’s, Morton Livingston Schamberg (1881-1918), is identified by curators as a link between Dada and Precisionism. His machine paintings are freer than the art that came afterwards. Joseph Stella (1877-1946) is unusual in the degree of freedom and dynamism in his art. His views of the Brooklyn Bridge emphasise the swooping tension of the cables. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) painted views of New York City before her retreat to rural isolation and natural forms as subjects.

OKeeffe City Night 1926

[Image: Georgia O’Keeffe, “City Night,” 1926. Oil on canvas, 48 x 30 in. (121.0 x 76.2 cm). Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of funds from the Regis Corporation, Mr. and Mrs. W. John Driscoll, The Beim Foundation, the Larsen Fund, and by public subscription, 80.28. © 2017 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

This exhibition includes one of her night-time views of skyscrapers and the catalogue illustrates another, the famous Radiator Building – Night, New York (1927). Scenes of Pittsburgh’s ironworks and factories by Elsie Driggs (1898-1992) are included. They show buildings rather than the workers or the dramatic (even picturesque) smelting of iron. The paintings of Charles Demuth (1883-1935) are less naturalistic and feature the multiple lines and flat planes that one can find in Orphism and Cubism. The radically simplified bridge views of Ralston Crawford (1906-1978) are as concise as Art Deco posters.

Cunningham Fageol Ventilators 1934

[Image: Imogen Cunningham, “Fageol Ventilators,” 1934. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/8 x 9 in. (17.9 x 22.7 cm). Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © 1934-2017 Imogen Cunningham Trust Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

Much of Precisionism relies on photography: it is either photography or derived from photographs. The exhibition contains photographs by Precisionists. Paul Strand is the best known of the Precisionist photographers and film makers. His documentary film Manhatta (1920) (made in collaboration with Sheeler) is a landmark of American cinema. Photographs in the exhibition include well-chosen examples by Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Jean Steichen, Ralph Steiner and a number of photographs taken by painters. Where the sources and paintings can be matched, both are included for purposes of comparison.

Gerald Murphy (1888-1964) is acclaimed as one of America’s great painters. The fact that he only painted between 1921 and 1929 is a painful loss to us. Only eight paintings by him survive. In terms of quality of production, Murphy’s art is as strong as Vermeer and Giorgione’s.

Gerald Murphy_Watch_1925

[Image: Gerald Murphy, “Watch,” 1925. Oil on canvas, 78 ½ x 78 1/2 in. (199.4 x 200.4 cm). Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, Gift of the artist, 1963.75.FA. Photograph by Brad Flowers © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

The exhibited Watch (1925) is one of the masterpieces of Modern art. Its restrained colour, flat facets, accuracy and exquisite finish make it stylistically closer to Post-Cubism than Precisionism but the spirit of the art is pure Precisionism. Analysis by horologists suggests that while the depiction of the workings of the watch is accurate, the main spring appears defective. It may be that this poignant impairment was deliberately introduced by the artist, who had a lifelong struggle with his homosexuality, and may have wished to use symbolism of dysfunction.

The find of the exhibition is George Copeland Ault (1891-1948). Technically, his paintings conform to most aspects of Precisionism in approach and subject; where they differ is tone and implication. His architectural views are imbued with more atmosphere than those by other Precisionists. The views of unpeopled scenes in snow, mist and at night have a degree of melancholy and ambivalence absent from other Precisionist art. His Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946) is similar in clarity, calm and peculiar intensity to Magritte’s Domain of Light. Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944) has something akin to bleak orderliness, the white snow blanket a dull antiseptic white under a murky sky. His best paintings have a meditative quality missing from more typical examples of Precisionism. It is not great art but it is powerfully compelling – all the more so because it exerts its hold in an inexplicable manner.

2018_DEY_COTM_Install

[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Far left: George Copeland Ault, Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944), far right: George Copeland Ault, Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946)]

Judging on this evidence, political critiques of Precisionism seem misplaced. A better approach is the psychological reading. The primary drive behind Precisionism is psychological not political. The paintings – with their dearth of human figures, signalling of the supremacy of artifice over nature and absence of entropy – indicate their creators’ misanthropy and discomfort with disorder. Precisionist art speaks of perfectionism, attempts to impose control over external chaos and hypersensitivity towards disruption. It is a pathological response akin to phobia of germs or insecurity in the face of change. Precisionism is the art of those averse to imprecision; it speaks of fear of decay and worry about ambiguity and doubt. Sheeler’s stated aspiration of achieving “purity of plastic expression [through] objective forms” is indicative of deep attachment to certitude and impersonality. Any reading of Precisionism which does not include discussion of the psychological drive of its artists is incomplete.

Catalogue essays by experts discuss various aspects of the style, complemented by full-page illustrations, a chronology and notes. The book itself is excellent and handsome. The use of silver chimes with the metallic subjects of the art. The only aspect which could have been improved is to have increased the inner margin between text and page gutter on verso pages, which gets uncomfortably close while never impairing legibility. Personally, I would have chosen a serif typeface in preference to this sans serif. Sans serif is tiring on the eye over extended passages of reading. Cult of the Machine is a wide-ranging, balanced and at time surprising survey of one of the key American art movements.

 

Emma Acker, et al, Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in association with Yale University Press, April 2018, cloth hardback, 244pp, 150 col. illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 300 234 022

© 2018 Alexander Adams

 

Degas: Themes and Finish

Jane Munro, Degas: A Passion for Perfection, Yale University Press, 2017, 272pp, 250 col./mono illus., hb, £40, ISBN 978 0 300 22823 6

Daphne Barbour & Suzanne Quillen Lomax (eds.), Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, Volume 3: Degas, National Gallery of Art, distr. Yale University Press, 2017, 196pp, fully illus., pb, £50, ISBN 978 0 300 23011 6

 

To mark the centenary of the death of Degas, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge is holding an exhibition of his works (closes 14 January 2018), which will subsequently tour to Denver Art Museum (18 February to 20 May 2018). This is a review of the catalogue of that exhibition. Compared to the blockbuster shows of Degas in recent years, this is an intimate affair. It combines work from Cambridge and Denver with a few loans from other collections. Cambridge purchased a number of pieces from the posthumous auctions of Degas’s studio, work selected by John Maynard Keynes.

Items in the exhibition are divided into rough groups: Degas and England, copies of the masters, monotypes, landscapes, nudes, dancers and sculpture. There is a section of the catalogue and exhibition given over to Degas’s influence on following British artists. Degas made a handful of visits to England but unlike his youthful stay in Italy (admittedly a longer period) these made no discernible impression on his art. Degas rarely mentioned his English sojourns. Like his predecessor Gericault, Degas must have been impressed by the British passion for horse racing but whether it left much of an impression beyond that is an open question.

Although Degas did not win a scholarship to the French School in Rome, he had enough of an income to tour independently. He travelled with Moreau and they sometimes copied the same paintings and depicted each other. Degas spent time in Naples where he had family. Degas was the most academically gifted and inclined of the Impressionists and revered Ingres, himself a devotee of the Old Masters. The young Degas modelled himself on Ingres, using the same materials, spending hundreds of hours drawing, learning traditional techniques and acquiring the skills expected of an academic painter. This included long sessions copying paintings and sculpture in museums, including Greek and Roman sculpture, Donatello, Veronese and others. The exhibition includes copies by Ingres, showing parallels between the two painters.

Some of the most unfamiliar works are those actually typical to painters on a grand tour of Italy. The small landscape sketches in oils are acutely observed and sensitively painted views of Naples, Rome and other locales. As was common, these are painted on paper for convenience and later pasted on board for presentation. This was an easily portable medium though it is discouraged because of the technique’s unsuitability on both optical and conservation terms. However, the expediency was used for works that were not intended to be public and were only created as supporting studio material to be transcribed or adapted to more permanent works.

Degas never much cared for landscape. As for working en plein air, Degas derided painters who did so. Allegedly he had a good memory for landscape and produced his landscapes in monotype from memory in the studio. His adaptation of landscape as body suggests that forms rather than light or colour were a preoccupation and that he was willing to adapt in order to transform actual landscapes into more anthropomorphic images. One wonders whether those who claimed Degas had a good memory for landscape actually compared art to specific places. Most likely Degas did have a good visual memory but clearly the important thing was how the memory of the view seemed and how it might be adapted to suit the artist’s purpose, not the veracity of the art compared to the source.

Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, by Degas

(Image: Edgar Degas (18341917), Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, c.1856–9, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 36.7 x 32 cm, Howard and Nancy Marks)

So these landscape sketches, executed en situ, are anomalies in Degas’s practice as a whole but completely congruent with a young artist of the time. Degas used these views of legendary sites of history and culture as sources to be recorded the way he assiduously drew paintings of the Old Masters in the museums of Italy. Degas tended to use landscape as mere background for a subject wholly other and which was his real interest. In early paintings such as Scene from the Middle Ages it is obvious that Degas had no engagement with landscape and would have dispensed with it altogether if he had had the chance. (And he eventually would.) It was just a short step from Young Spartans Exercising (1860), with its perfunctory landscape, to Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the ballet “La Source” (c. 1867-8), with its artificial landscape in the form of a painted backdrop. The play of artifice and verisimilitude allowed Degas to turn his limitation into a feature. He no longer had to be concerned about “getting things right” when flatness and lack of integration became an absolutely truthful presentation of stage backdrops. He would have entirely dispensed with landscape painting if he had not had to use views as part of his paintings of horses and jockeys. One wonders if Degas’s deteriorating eyesight played any part in his rejection of landscape as a subject for his mature art. The artist, his long vision seriously impaired, simply could not see well enough to paint them. It seems likely that physical limitations accorded with his artistic preoccupations rather than the other way round.

On the evidence of these oil sketches Degas was a competent landscapist in the line of Corot and Ingres. Watercolour studies of rocks are also included.

Monotype printing, where a design is drawn in ink on a metal plate before being run through a press with paper which transfers ink to paper, was one of Degas’s principal means of artistic expression. His monotypes outnumber his prints of other types. Degas often reprinted from the same plate a second impression, which is always lighter than the first print. Degas would usually modify the second impression with pastel, gouache and body colour. These alterations sometimes became so involved and extensive that additions entirely cover the underlying print. The atmosphere, emphasis and appearance of print could be radically changed, as was apparent in the recent MoMA exhibition, New York which included comparative examples of first and second impression monotypes. (For my full review of that exhibition see “Degas monotypes”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. CLVIII, no. 1360, pp. 589-90; July 2016.)

Subjects of monotypes on display include landscapes, horse-and-jockey and street scene. A comparative print by VLN Lepic is included to show how free and expressive the prints of the French C19th monotype revival could be. French monotypes of this period share in common the approach of expressive inking of etchings, wherein plates were inked in highly individual and expressive ways which altered the appearance of the original design and introduced new elements. This made each impression as individual as a unique drawing, quite at variance with the usual practice of printers attempting to make an edition of an etching as uniform and neutral as possible.

Nudes, dancers and sculpture are related in Degas’s art. Dancers were often drawn nude – either from life or imagined – before being used in paintings and the nudes of women washing and drying often include difficult, peculiar and transient poses that echo those of dancers either in actions or resting and stretching. Degas figurines in wire, clay, Plastiline and coloured beeswax were often of dancers in motion. Some poses were so unstable that Degas had to introduce props to keep the figures upright. Other sculptures were of horses. Britain has few really good Degas pastels of nude figures, so the exhibition has usefully drawn upon American loans. One can see many poses reoccurring in different mediums and figures repeated in pictures. Degas used tracing paper to experiment with positioning, tracing and reversing. He also used tracing paper as the ground for large-scale finished pastels, an unconventional choice which has caused some conservation issues for collectors. Using a slick surface for a powdery medium is problematic; Degas relied on applying extensive layers of fixative throughout the drawing process to keep the pastel in position. Using water sometimes turned the pastel to a paste which he would manipulate with brushes, creating a fusion of wet and dry techniques.

The sculptures are discussed more extensively in Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, Volume 3: Degas, published by the National Gallery of Art, featuring works from its unique holding of original Degas statuettes.

Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, by Degas

(Image: Edgar Degas (18341917), Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, First Study, c.188295coloured wax over a commercially prefabricated metal wire armature, attached to a wooden base, 23.5 x 13.7 x 27.5 cm, © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

The posthumous repairing, editioning and distribution of bronze casts of Degas is involved and covers a multitude of archival, legal and moral issues about the reproduction of sculpture. These questions are of great financial importance considering the value of the pieces and the proliferation of fakes (or at least “unauthorised copies”). Degas considered casting some of his figures but never did; he exhibited only one sculpture during his lifetime, the famous Little Dancer aged Fourteen (1878-81), at the 1881 Impressionist exhibition. It was Degas’s heirs who decided to edition the statues in bronze and sell them.

The generously sized illustrations in the Cambridge catalogue allow us to get a good feeling for the originals. Both Facture and the Cambridge catalogue include x-rays which display the armature and internal components of the originals. Degas’s gimcrack, improvisatory approach to sculpture is apparent in evidence of hasty repairs, scraps of cloth and cork used as bulk and numerous breakages. Degas was apparently serious about his sculptural practice but treated the objects themselves in a rather casual manner. Extensive repairs were needed to many of the figures before they could be cast and some figures were just a jumble of fragments. It is fascinating to see the nails and wire holding the figures to their wooden bases and all the other touches of the artist which are obscured in the bronze casts.

There is debate about how finished the statues and the paintings are. Degas’s art is a difficult to assess in terms of finish. He left some works unfinished, exhibited art that seemed incomplete, revised finished work and wanted to “re-touch” sold pictures in private collectors (often to disastrous results). For discussion on that point, the bronzes and possible restorer intervention in a pastel, see my discussion of Facture on ArtWatch UK’s website here: http://artwatch.org.uk/degas-and-the-problem-of-finish/

For the general reader A Passion for Perfection is a good overview of Degas’s output, with new observations on his themes and techniques. Facture is an essential publication for scholars and collectors of Degas’s art.

18 October 2017

A Restoration Palindrome

“This title does not discuss the actual techniques used by restorers of the period but discusses the way restoration was seen and how business was conducted. The author examines the underlying assumptions of collectors, critics, administrators and restorers at time of great change in French (and European) history.

““A painting cleaned is a painting ruined; a thing to which the dealers never agree, but it is nonetheless true.” So wrote Pierre-Jean Mariette in 1851-3. Restoring was a controversial practice even in its early days. “Individuals engaged in some kind of restoration in Paris between 1750 and 1815 were generally also dealers, experts, copyists, or painters. That versatility underscores the breadth and variability of the profiles involved. The activity itself was nurtured by numerous related occupations, such as painting and forgery.” In business directories of the time, the classification of restorers was unclear and changeable. Dealers – initially based near the Louvre but later more widely distributed in central Paris – commonly repainted, retouched, cropped and expanded paintings that passed through their hands and a small community of restorers grew up to support such activity…”

Read the full book review on ArtWatch website, 6 June 2017, here:

http://artwatch.org.uk/book-review-a-restoration-palindrome/