Saturday, January 22, 2011
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw
"Visiting the galleries of Baroque painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art one afternoon, some friends and I paused before Rubens's portrait of himself with his family, and reminded one another what a remarkable man he was. A painter of stupefying energy and force, he ran a workshop, listened to music as he painted, did the classical scholarship for cycles of paintings that required erudite references, conversed easily in six languages and discharged ambassadorial missions of great delicacy - his second wife, Helen Fourment, was delivered of his last child nine months after his death. One of my companions, the painter David Reed, said, meditatively, that most artists he knows strive to emulate Van Gogh: "Maybe we ought to try to be like Rubens instead."
"I thought then of the balm it would bring those artists, uneasy with their intact ears and stubborn sanity, if they were to embrace an alternative model of the artist as cultivated, emotionally secure and at home in the world. Not even the disappearance of acceptably marginal real estate from our centers of art is likely to dissolve the mandatory artistic persona of the romantic misfit and lunatic genius. So if we use Van Gogh and Rubens as taxonomic markers, the few artists who volunteer for inclusion in the latter's class must resist considerable peer pressure and face accusations of shallowness and embourgeoisement. John Singer Sargent was among the unabashed Rubenses of art: urbane, polyglot, at home with the milords and millionaires from whose portraits - and those of their families and mistresses - he earned a handsome living; an extrovert, diner-out, clubman, traveler, marvelous musician and intellectual of sorts, unmarked to a singular degree by the darker passions or stronger drives of the acceptable bohemian. His life, with some exceptions, was a succession of successes, and reviewers of a recent biography seem uniformly resentful of a man who made it through life as an artist without much spiritual agony or material want, and who even died, painlessly, in his sleep. Against the psychopathology of the artistic spirit as we expect it to be lived out, Sargent seems to have been too happy to have been deep.
"Still, those who hold briefs for the artistic benignity of suffering might ponder the fact that Sargent's one salient episode of serious reversal - the outrage that his great portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madame X) aroused when exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1884 - had just the opposite effect on his career. The brilliant society portraits with which he will be eternally associated came after that, when he removed himself from France and set up as a sort of superficial Impressionist in England. Up to that critical moment he was a child of fortune but a very deep painter indeed, and on the basis of what he achieved in the early 1880s he might have gone on to be very great as well. The wonderfully opportune exhibition of the many sides and phases of his teeming achievement at the Whitney Museum of American Art [this essay was written in 1986] offers us a singular opportunity to test our theories of the uses of adversity.
"Sargent was trained, as it were, to be an Old Master. The Old Master style works from halftones backward to darks and forward to lights which, against the somber tonalities of the canvas, acquire a diamantine luminescence. Think, as example, of Rembrandt, in whose paintings a metaphysically brilliant light splits darkness like a sword and at the same time vests forms with such radiance that it is as though they were redeemed by some holy intervention and touched with grace. Each canvas executes a metaphor of redemption from shadow to light - as if the biblical moment when darkness was lifted from the face of the waters were miraculously reenacted in each biblical episode Rembrandt painted - and even secular episodes take on a kind of biblical intensity. The same amazing light defines special forms against the surrounding darknesses in the painting of Velázquez, and it was Velazquez above all whom Sargent, like the other students in the atelier of the fashionable portraitist Carolus-Duran, was encouraged to emulate. "Velazquez, Velazquez, Velazquez," Carolus-Duran said. "Study Velazquez without respite!" Sargent's first great works - I think, in fact, his greatest works - were done in that mood of darkness slashed and split by light that re-creates the inner force of the Spanish master. These were done in the early 1880s, in Venice, and in terms of their bravura and poetry they are among the most compelling paintings I know. One of them, the Venetian Interior of 1880 (or 1882, these works being evidently difficult to date with precision), has obsessed me since I first saw it, at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, partly because of its depth and partly because of the disparity in depth between this early masterpiece and that of the familiar florid portraits through which we mainly know him.
"The interior of Venetian Interior, as in the other paintings from the brief remarkable period, is a wide corridor that recedes sharply to a back wall where, through a doorway or grilled window, an intense outdoor light is revealed. The interior space seems to have a gentle phosphorescence of its own: the mauve and silver halftones give it a certain submarine quality, perhaps referring to the watery essence of the city of canals and lagoons, and the light is seen as through water. Within these dramatic spaces, shawled women sit, working at monotonous tasks such as bead stringing; or stroll, waving fans; or cluster in intimate groups, exchanging gossip. Doors open on either side, and, somewhat mysteriously, the walls are hung with pictures, as if the spaces had the architectural identity of galleries and the social function of waiting places for slender courtesans. In one of these pictures, a woman looks boldly out at the viewer, as if at a reluctant patron. There is throughout a subdued, suffused but unmistakable eroticism. Because the spaces have a light that is quiet in comparison with the enveloping light we see through the apertures, they seem enclaves of shadow in a world of radiance. This gives them their intimacy and their mystery. In a way, the interiors seem near of architectural kin to Velazquez's studio, as we know it from Las Meninas, where, as here, an opened door in the back wall allows in an abrupt golden light, as opposed to the white and mineral light with which Sargent invades his cavernous corridors.
"These are not, of course, self-portraits in any obvious sense, but Sargent is present through the bravura of his touches. In the Clark's Venetian Interior a blade of light crosses the floor with incredible velocity. In the Carnegie Institute's Venetian Interior a flat blade of light is laid in a single sweep, while a vertical flash summons the face of a heavy Venetian chest out of the darkness. In the Venetian Bead Stringers three horizontal stabs of light constitute openings on the left; six vertical slashes cut a grille into the outer sky. Sargent is inside and outside at once, not part of the reality depicted but present in the depicting, where we are aware of his astonishing brio. The poetry comes from the desire to be inside among the women. In the Sulphur Match, from 1882, a tipsy Venetian leans her chair precariously against a wall, having let a goblet crash at her feet, while Sargent lights her dark partner's cigar (or pipe?) with a single flash of blazing white. The girl is unimpressed by this; Sargent is an intruder, hopelessly alien in this world he can only make visible. It is difficult to imagine a more vivid example of artistic - or sexual - alienation.
"Sargent had the ambitions of a Jamesian hero: he wanted to be great as well as successful in worldly terms, which, in the economics of the time, required portraying the rich and powerful. And in his great portrait Madame X, he came close to achieving some of the erotic profundity of the Venetian interiors and making a fine fee. This time, of course, he and the subject were of the same world, and there is a familiarity, an intimacy, an almost conversational ease, implied in the relationship between the master painter and the great beauty he depicts. Madame Gautreau, like Sargent an expatriated American, had made it to the top through her wit, her looks and her social strategy. Sargent portrays her as a creature of tense elegance, with a profile as sharp and precise as if carved out of some hard, brittle material: the pink ear conveys the cameo intentions in her outlined features. She wears the crescent-shaped tiara of Diana the huntress; she is a woman of predatory sensuality, whose black velvet décolleté and lifted flounce is her costume de chasse. The costume is as witty as her sly nose and brilliant as her gemstones. The painting provoked a scandal when first exhibited in Paris. The reasons are obscure, but rather than culminating the efforts of a decade in a searing success, Sargent created a furor the like of which had not been seen since Manet exhibited his notorious Olympia. (I am touched that Sargent, together with Claude Monet, headed a private subscription to purchase Manet's masterpiece for an ungrateful French state: Olympia was not shown until 1917, and Sargent kept Madame X in his studio until 1905, twenty-one years after the debacle.) As a result, Sargent cut his ties with Paris, where the great promise of the Venetian years might have been fulfilled, and removed himself to England, which has been an artistic backwater at the best of times. There he turned into a rather superficial artist, the maker of dazzling portraits and dubious Impressionist studies. He tried to make contact with some deeper source of artistic meaning when he undertook the mural cycle for the Boston Public Library. But all light has fled from these turgid works; one feels, for all the glamour of his career, that he had made a profound mistake. The subjects of tragedies can also live happily ever after, the tragedy consisting in just that.
"Sargent never lost the Velázquez touch, which is there for us to marvel at in the gallery of stunning portraits that is the heart of the show (even if a heart worn on the sleeve). I had the pleasure of Patricia Hills's company in walking through the exhibition on my second visit. Hills organized the show and edited the catalogue to which she also contributed some fine essays - and together we responded to the authority with which Sargent transacted a lavender sash or evoked a bow out of a few curls and dabs of white paint. No one alive today could show the flesh through thin fabric as in his portrait of Lady Agnew's left arm. No one alive today could, as in a scene of Venetian glass blowers, drag a brush across the canvas so that each bristle picks out a separate rod, and we see brushstroke and rod bundle in a single glance. Of Velázquez, Sir Kenneth Clark once wrote:
I would start from as far away as possible, when the illusion was complete, and come gradually nearer, until suddenly what had been a hand, and a ribbon and a piece of velvet dissolved into a fricassee of beautiful brushstrokes. I thought I might learn something if I could catch the moment at which this transformation took place, but it proved to be as elusive as the moment between sleeping and waking.
"The elusive moment is that of the boundary between matter and art, perhaps between body and mind. But you can have that experience over and over in the work of Sargent. He really had the divine prerogative of lifting life out of paint with the turn of his amazing wrist, and it is, I think, a lost art. There is no Carolus-Duran any longer to teach us how. Spend some time studying the buckle on the belt of Mrs. 1. N. Phelps Stokes, from 1897. And contemplate her white skirt, which falls in heavy folds to the ground. Sargent is said to have painted it over seventeen times, according to Hills.
"But there is none of the poetry that left the work after the fiasco with Madame Gautreau's portrait, and that is so palpable a substance in the Venetian interiors that you will want to return to them again and again. Except for the portraits, in the years after 1884 the work seems to me dry and flat. Sargent tried Impressionism, but that is not a country for Old Masters, and I feel he had no internal understanding of what revolutions in touch and vision Impressionism implied. His watercolors have the look of examples of how to do watercolors, and if one did not know them to be by Sargent, one would suppose them resurrected from the annual of some provincial watercolor society. It was a style of depositing wash on paper that others could and did acquire. I find his drawings equally dry, for all the certitude of touch and his perfect draftsmanly control. In none of the work after 1884 do we sense any urgency of feeling or the presence of a soul.
"What we sense, only, is the presence of a great arm, a genius wrist, the dazzle of a virtuoso performer executing, as on a violin, a composition written in order to make virtuosity possible - where the piece is finally about the playing of it by the rare talents capable of doing so in public, with confidence and flourish and flash. There are those who think that painting is what painting is all about, and for them Sargent should be the paradigm artist. I am not one who thinks that, but there is enough of what art is about on my view of it to make this exhibition a joy as well as a moral puzzle. If nothing else there is the pleasure of the menagerie, in which his lords and ladies, his flounced amazons, his opulent merchants and silken mistresses, his candy children and austere dowagers glare past us, as exotic specimens, from an upstairs our very downstairs antecedents could barely guess at."
- From Arthur Danto, "Encounters & Reflections: Art in the Historical Present "
"Turner's earliest works were watercolours in the eighteenth-century tradition of the topographical 'tinted drawing', in which a preliminary pencil outline determined the subsequent placing of the washes of colour. However, after a group of watercolours in which he surpassed all previous works in this style, he evolved, together with Thomas Girtin and under the influence of J.R. Cozens, a more flexible technique capable of conveying the most subtle impressions and dramatic force. His first oils are sombre in colour, but already reveal his preoccupation with contrasted effects of light and atmospheric effects such as storms and rainbows. These earliest oils show the predominant influences of Wright of Derby and Wilson, but it seems to have been the paintings of de Loutherbourg that encouraged him in his particular interest in the dramatic possibilities of natural phenomena.
"At the turn of the century Turner's ambitions led him to emulate the works of the accepted Old Masters, and in a series of large pictures of the next five years or so he painted sea-pieces in the manner of the van der Veldes, Italianate landscapes in the manner of Claude and 'historical' landscapes in the manner of Poussin. These were, so to say, pictures about pictures and also a direct attack on the pre-eminence of the Old Masters, but Turner soon digested the lessons of his predecessors, making their themes his own and treating them in a completely personal manner. He was taking the traditional styles apart and extracting their essence from them.
"At the same time, largely through pencil sketches but occasionally through watercolours and even oils, Turner studied from nature, making long tours in connection with the topographical engravings that provided him with financial security even when his paintings outstripped contemporary taste. The group of small sketches on mahogany veneer, painted on the Thames perhaps in 1807, are outstanding examples, almost rivalling Constable in their freshness and directness. A series of larger sketches on canvas of similar subjects together with scenes on the Thames estuary are more directly studies for the finished paintings of English subjects of about 1807 to 1813, which culminated in 'Frosty Morning'.
"The diversity of Turner's landscape style, even at this relatively early period, is echoed in his didactic series of engravings, the Liber Studiorum, issued in parts between 1807 and 1819. The idea was derived from Claude's Liber Veritatis, but whereas that was a checklist of authentic works, Turner's publication was a deliberate demonstration of the range available to the landscape painter, being, in the words of the sub-title, 'Illustrative of Landscape Compositions, viz. Historical, Mountainous, Pastoral, Marine, and Architectural'.
"By 1815, the year in which Turner exhibited 'Crossing the Brook', a scene in Devonshire treated so wholeheartedly in the manner of Claude as to look like an Italian view, the forces driving him towards Italy could no longer be ignored. In 1819 he went, his main centres being Venice, Rome and Naples. The clear light and bright colours of Italy overwhelmed him, and though his watercolours, especially those done in Venice, show him using pure colour without the conventional indication of shadows by dark grey or brown tones, his output of finished pictures for the Royal Academy slackened off considerably. However, 'Bay of Baiae', a panoramic landscape like 'Crossing the Brook' but with a much more fluid and curvilinear composition, set the pattern for a whole series of such landscapes which he continued to paint well into the 1830s.
"The 1820s did however show a great advance in the technique of his oil sketches. These show a much greater range, even within individual sketches, between thin washes and a thick impasto which is often scored into by the brush handle or even Turner's thumbnail to suggest details of form. Those done in 1827 while visiting John Nash on the Isle of Wight are particularly remarkable in that the sketches, seven in all, were painted on two rolls of canvas that were only sub-divided into separate compositions well after Turner's death.
"A second visit to Rome in 1828-9 resulted in still bolder compositions in pure colour, the sketches on coarse canvas which seem to have been tryouts for larger compositions (one is for the National Gallery's famous 'Ulysses deriding Polyphemus'). These too were painted on two undivided rolls of canvas. Unlike his first visit to Italy, when he devoted his time to pencil sketches and watercolours, on this occasion he produced a number of oil paintings, even exhibiting a small group in Rome, much to the mystification of most of the viewers. The exhibits included 'Orvieto', 'Medea' and 'Regulus', but Turner worked on them again to give them their present appearance before exhibiting them back in London. On the same visit Turner painted 'Venus reclining', an impression of Titian's 'Venus of Urbino' simplified into light and colour. Turner's interest in figures had already shown itself in a number of sometimes rather playful genre and historical scenes in the earlier 1820s and continued in the late 1820s and earlier 1830s, partly under the influence of Rembrandt: 'Pilate washing his Hands' shows Rembrandt's chiaroscuro treated in terms of rich colour.
"Many of Turner's figure paintings are associated with Petworth where, particularly in the years 1828 to 1837, Turner was a frequent guest of the third Earl of Egremont. The series culminated in 'Interior at Petworth', possibly painted under the impact of Egremont's death in 1837, in which the forms are dissolved in an onrush of light. These visits also produced what are perhaps Turner's most idyllic landscapes, the long oblong compositions designed to be set into the panelling of the dining-room at Petworth though replaced a year or two later by the more finished paintings still in the house.
"The idyllic, dream-like landscape, often of Venice, represented one side of Turner's late style. The other was the increasingly direct expression of the destructiveness of nature, apparent particularly in some of his seapieces. The force of wind and water was conveyed both by his open, vigorous brushwork and, in many cases, by a revolving vortex-like composition. In the unexhibited pictures these forces were treated in their own right, but in most of his exhibited works (the distinction lessened in his later years) they were expressed through appropriate subjects such as the Deluge or the Angel of the Apocalypse. In some of these pictures Turner used a colour symbolism, partly deriving from Goethe's theories, as in the pair of pictures 'Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge' and 'Light and Colour - the Morning after the Deluge', exhibited in 1843 with a specific reference to Goethe. These pictures are examples of Turner's experiments with square, octagonal or circular formats in which the vortex composition found its most compact and energetic expression.
"Looking at Turner's pictures of the yellow dawn or the red of sunset, one is aware, perhaps for the first time in art, of the isolation of colour in itself. Even his sea-pieces contain flecks of bright unmodulated colour that enliven their at first sight more monochromatic treatment. To extract from the continuous range of light the purity of yellow, blue or red, the hues that command and comprise the rest, required an uncompromising integrity of vision. Turner had precisely 'the disposition to abstractions, to generalizing and classification' that Reynolds regarded as the great glory of the human mind, though in a form that Reynolds would hardly have recognised. Quite early in Turner's career his pictures were already accounted 'among the vagaries of a powerful genius rather than among the representations of nature'.
"In certain watercolours he suspended altogether the definition of a specific subject, leaving almost everything in doubt but the positive existence of colour. Many of the exhibited paintings began the same way; the act of defining a particular scene was postponed until the varnishing days when the paintings were already hanging, and then performed with astounding brilliance. By the 1830s, as Charles Eastlake told Turner's first biographer Walter Thornbury, none of Turner's 'exhibited pictures could be said to be finished till he had worked on them when they were on the walls of the Royal Academy'. Another contemporary artist described how Turner sent in a picture to the British Institution exhibition of 1835 in a state no more finished than 'a mere dab of several colours, and "without form and void"'; the account continues that 'Such a magician, performing his incantations in public, was an object of interest and attraction'. These 'dabs' of several colours must have looked much like, say, 'Norham Castle'. Turner's process of transformation can be seen by comparing a sketch like 'Venice with the Salute' with an exhibited picture such as 'Dogana, San Giorgio Citella, from the Steps of the Europa'.
"Yet even in the most private, least-finished pictures there is never that detachment from outward reality that is now called abstract. On the contrary: he evolved with poetic freedom the real quality of the world. In the sumptuous style that reached its height in the mid 1830s, the material of nature was translated into resounding chords of colour. Then, particularly in the pictures that remained in Turner's studio, specific colour gradually dissolved into a general medium of vision, like a bright vapour - the hue of lucent air. There is rarely any doubt about the things represented, but they are formed out of a common elemental medium that washes over and through them.
"Turner outgrew theatrical extravagance but the essential sublimity of the forces that hold man in their grip remained with him always. There is a sense of it in the all-embracing flood of light that envelops a scene, and the spectator too. The last subjects of storm and catastrophe make visible a dream of peril and endurance that is full of heroic exaltation. The elemental drama that Turner painted was both real and imaginary.
"Many of Turner's most striking innovations appeared first in his watercolours, of which a changing selection is shown at the Tate. In the late unfinished oils like 'Norham Castle' distinctions of medium have disappeared, delicate films of oil paint float transparently over the white ground like washes of watercolour on paper, and the last traces of the eighteenth-century hierarchy of artistic values have been overthrown."
- From "Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion", by Simon Wilson
The Thinker - 1880
"It is true that Rodin's art makes overt reference to its own artificiality. When we say that his kind of realism was not seamless, we mean it: his sculptures often exposed the joint lines of the piece molds in which they were cast, as well as the "unfinished" marks of modeling and editing. Fragmentation and repetition functioned in the same way, as instances of the sculptor's processes made evident in his product. Rodin typically made "spare parts" - feet, hands, knees, and so on - and put together his figures from these. And once he made a figure, he would often remake it, by recasting multiple versions and variants. By showing these processes in the partial figures and modular recurrences of his exhibited work, he undercut his own virtuosity as a conjurer of stories in flesh and bone, and introduced an evident self-consciousness about the artificiality of art's means.
"It is also true that a lot of Rodin's literary and historical themes are inherited, and often evoke a kind of Romantic sentiment that many modern sensibilities find cloying. They are much less original, or prophetic, than his radical formal devices. Common practice says we can take what we like from a predecessor, and ignore things that we do not, that's the way a lot of fruitful change happens. But in this case, if we simply disregard the stories Rodin's works tell, in order to celebrate his "purely formal" contributions, we are cheating ourselves. By ignoring the immediate arena in which the innovations occurred, we wind up with an impoverished view of what his achievement was, both as a late nineteenth-century artist and as a key innovator in modern art. That achievement involved finding new uses for old things in a double sense: understanding how aspects of sculpture that seemed unique might be made expressive, and also how themes that seemed embalmed in tradition could be revivified,in modern terms with these very devices.
"Broken parts and replicas were a daily part of a sculptor's working apparatus: every studio in Paris was littered with them. But where others would have completed a work in progress, Rodin said "enough": and where others would have considered a figure made, he made it again - not because he thought these steps would cancel meaning in his work, but because he was willing to see how such decisions might alter the range of meanings he could convey. The truly creative act was to see how such forms could function within - not just independently of, or in antagonism to - his attempts to accord new meaning to the themes he dealt with.
"In his first major commission, for The Gates of Hell, he showed that in foiling expectations of wholeness and variety, he could at the same time make incompletion and monotony expressive. By not reconciling junctures between bodies that had been conceived separately, Rodin left the patched-together "couples" in The Gates to collide and claw at each other without any true mutuality. Despite their fevered motion, these figures and groups literally cannot pull themselves together, so no actions are resolved, and desires remain unassuaged. And the reuse of identical torsos, figures, and groups, hurtling up and down across this portal, helps deprive this pandemonium of any sense of real change or culmination. Fragmentation and repetition, as tools for dismantling one's world, became building blocks of another, an anti-world, where frantic, incessant incoherence reigned. They helped reorder the Renaissance topography of The Gates' ostensible subject, Dante's Inferno, into what would properly be called a living hell - a modern vision of chaos and futility implanted in every alienated existence, without discrimination and without end.
"One of the positive lessons that emerges from this gloomy composition is that treating a form as a movable cipher, and moving it around from one context to another, is a fruitful way of extending the range of meanings it can carry. The same head works differently with different bodies, the same foot or hand expresses something different in combination with alternative legs or arms, the same figure yields a different emotion in combination with a series of other bodies - or for that matter, in combination with itself, as the unrelenting pathos of the Shades' three-beat dirge demonstrates.
"This mobility of meaning operated on a particular level with units in one work, and also in the larger way Rodin used fragmentation and repetition in different contexts within his work as a whole. Making evident his piecemeal bodies and modular compositions proved to be a way to give newly expressive form both to the psychological torments of fictive worlds, in The Gates, and to complex dilemmas of social order, in The Burghers of Calais.
"In his monument to The Burghers, Rodin revivified a medieval story every French schoolchild knew, of six citizens who had volunteered as sacrificial hostages to an English king in a deal to end a wasting wartime siege. Dissatisfied with old conventions of summing up such a story in one hero or rhetorical gesture, he decided that, to get at the truth of what happened, the monument should treat all six equally. And to do that, he followed an analytic process we have seen before: imagining the cusp moment of commitment when the victims prepared to march out to what seemed certain death, he decomposed the event, conceptually and practically, into its smallest bits.
"He studied not just every man, but every arm, every hand, and even every finger, as an individual entity, in order to build up an atomized repertoire of discrete units of expression. Then when he built the monument from this lavish palette of recombinant possibilities, he exercised an odd kind of economy. Two of the final figures have the same head, and a third bears that same face only slightly altered. Identical fingers, hands, and feet also keep reappearing on different bodies, in different orientations, or modified only by flexions. Moreover, when the time came to put the six figures together, Rodin did not - at least not in any conventional sense of unity. He established no shared glances or reciprocal gestures to link them, and, most blatantly, he did not smooth over the evidence of the disparate bases on which he made them. He made their heads all level - a radical gesture against the expected pyramidal elevation of a hero - but he left them literally without a common ground, standing on separate axes of balance.
"All these formal decisions were directly tied to his conception of the meaning of the event. The subtle disaccords between the various limbs and expressions of the individual figures, and the variety of inflections among them, suggested the different stages of unresolved inner struggles. And the disjoined bases underlined the isolation, one from the other, of these private agonies of regret and resignation, denial and decision. But the recurrent parts, along with the steady cadence of the ponderous sackcloth, conveyed that these victims were also a collective, in aspects similar and interchangeable. In this assembled but estranged group, the weight of common destiny and public duty on the one hand, and the tug of individual wills on the other, are kept in perpetual tension by the play between the rhythms of repetition and the centrifugal energies of fragmentation.
"The Burghers are not a professional or occupational group of the kind Degas favored, and their gestures have less to do with the eroding force of habit than with the engulfing force of emotion. They form a community of wills - voluntarist in every sense - driven by the sparks of diverse individual actions, pushing against the resistance of self-interest. This ad hoc polity, in its sacrifice for a larger civic, good, lives by a different mix of the same forms and the same energies that made The Gates hellish: private psychic struggles are the elements, and their conflicted nature is expressed as undissolved in the whole. The turn-of-the-century German sociologist Georg Simmel's parallel vision of society as a continually negotiated dispute reads like a meditation on this monument. "Man has the capacity," said Simmel, "to decompose himself into parts and to feel any one of those as his proper self. Yet each part may collide with each other and may struggle for dominion over the individual's actions. This capacity places man, insofar as he feels himself to be a social being, into an often contradictory relation with those among his impulses and interests that are not preempted by his social character. In other words, the conflict between society and the individual is continued in the individual himself as the conflict among his component parts. Thus the basic struggle between society and individual inheres in the general form of individual life."
- Text from "A Fine Disregard", by Kirk Varnedoe
William Bouguereau (he did not use his first name, Adolphe) was born in La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast of France, on November 30, 1825. In a manner similar to Mozart's display of innate musical skill, Bouguereau, at a very early age, demonstrated his uncanny ability to draw. His uncle Eugene, a curate, educated him, teaching him Latin, Greek myths, and the stories from the Old and New Testaments. This uncle played a crucial role in Bouguereau's life, for he arranged for the boy to go to high school (college) in Pons, where he took his first drawing lessons. His teacher, Louis Sage (1816-1888), is largely unknown to us today, although it is said that he had trained in the studio of Ingres. Whatever Sage's background, his instruction and Bouguereau's talent combined to produce a solid footing for the boy in the principles of drawing.
Bouguereau's parents, merchants first in wine and then in olive oil, initially wanted him to enter the family business by the early 1840s based in Bordeaux and he did so. A client of the elder Bouguereau convinced the father to allow the son to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux for two years, an institution then headed by Jean Paul Alaux (1788-1858). As often happens, work and study had to make room for each other, and Bouguereau was able to study at the school only early in the morning and late at night. He earned extra money designing lithographic labels for jams and preserves. Nonetheless, in 1844, after only two years of part time study, Bouguereau won first prize in figure painting for a canvas representing Saint Roch. This prize was the catalyst for Bouguereau's future career.
The center of the art world, however, was in Paris, not Bordeaux, and Bouguereau's father could not afford to send his son to the capital. His mother earned extra money doing needlework, but that effort was of limited use. His uncle the curate stepped in once again, arranging for Bouguereau to paint the portraits of his parishioners at a fixed price, in exchange for room and board. Thirty three portraits sufficed for him to save nine hundred francs. An aunt matched this sum, which finally gave Bouguereau enough to go to Paris in 1846, at the age of twenty one. With the recommendation of Alaux from Bordeaux, Bouguereau was accepted into the studio of Francois Edouard Picot (1786-1868) and then at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, the latter the goal of all art students aspiring to official acceptance.
A brief discussion of the official art world in Paris in the mid nineteenth century might help to explain why Bouguereau chose the path he did, and why he was so successful once he had mastered its idiosyncrasies. The rulers of the strongly centralized government of France had, for centuries, embellished the state, and their person as an embodiment of that state, with art. From lavishly decorated royal palaces to the war booty Napoleon stole from Italy, art had been used as a political tool to demonstrate the strength and longevity of the French monarchy. The various regimes of the nineteenth century imperial, republican, monarchal were no different. They used the multilayered bureaucracy they had inherited to train artists, to provide public exhibitions, and to reward artists who met their criteria. In short, an artist, whether architect, engraver, sculptor, or painter whose works were deemed appropriate by government agencies, could hope for, and in many cases was assured of, a livelihood from commissions both from the government and its network of dependencies - the church, municipalities, institutions, and government agencies and from the public who saw the works displayed.
Training in Paris took place in the government sponsored art school, the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where the students were taught how to draw. At that time the craft of putting paint on canvas was taught elsewhere, that is, in the private studios of the school's professors. Rigorous hurdles, in the form of competitions of increasing difficulty, were placed before the students, the highest hurdle being the Prix de Rome. Only ten students each year competed for this coveted prize. The winner was sent to Rome, to stay for four years at the Villa Medici, the seat of the French Academy in Rome, to study classical art and the Italian Renaissance masters. This art training system, then, was oriented to the past, for it was predicated on the notion that no artist since the Renaissance had ever achieved the level of perfection reached by Raphael and Michelangelo. It was the duty, obligation, and responsibility of contemporary artists to embody in the present, and to carry into the future, that tradition.
Just as the training was regulated, so were the forms in which this tradition took shape. Paintings, for example, were ranked by their subject matter. History paintings, stories of noble or tragic acts drawn from history and myth, were accorded first rank. Then came portraits, worthy as likenesses of important personages, then landscapes, and at the bottom, still lifes. The latter two, according to academic theory, were only copies of what the artist could see, and could not carry a message of virtue or morality. Only history painting, with its emphasis on the human body, could properly reflect the training of the government schools and, with judicious choice of subject, glorify the state. Thus, the highest prize, the Prix de Rome, was given to the best history painting; the other genres, with the exception of a new category, historical landscape painting inaugurated in 1817 did not even have a prize.
The main event in the arts calendar of Paris was the Salon, a huge annual exhibition of contemporary art. As important as the government was in commissioning works of art, there was in fact a limit to the number of churches and governmental buildings needing new decorations and the number of official portraits required. In previous centuries the state, the church, and the aristocracy (an extension of the state) were, broadly speaking, the only institutions powerful and wealthy enough to commission works of art, and therefore to influence what forms art would take. In the nineteenth century, as these institutions began to lose power, they were overshadowed by the growing middle class, who wanted to hang fine art in their homes. Before dealers became established as buyers and sellers of art, which happened around mid-century, the Salon functioned as the supreme marketplace, where consumers could see, in one place, what artists were capable of producing. Success at the Salon, which was dependent on such factors as an advantageous placement of works and favorable reviews in the press, could guarantee for an artist a viable career.
Bouguereau's early artistic life began somewhat inauspiciously. Although he was accepted at the Ecole des Beaux Arts after only two months in Picot's studio, it was as the ninety-ninth of one hundred pupils accepted. He was chosen as a contestant for the Prix de Rome in 1848 (third of ten contestants), in 1849 (seventh of ten), and again in 1850, when he was the last of the ten competitors chosen. The Prix de Rome he was awarded in 1850, for his Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes, was in fact a kind of second prize, as Paul Baudry (1828-1886) had won more votes. Bouguereau was accorded a trip to Rome in part because there was a vacancy at the Villa Medici; no prize had been awarded in 1848 because of the revolutionary turmoil in France that year.
Living in Italy, for Bouguereau, was a luxury; the prize was four thousand francs, in addition to the six hundred he was given by the Municipal Council of La Rochelle on his entry into the art school in Paris. While there he applied himself to such rigorous study that he earned the nickname of "Sisyphus." In addition to absorbing the lessons to be learned in Rome from antiquity and the work of Renaissance artists, he traveled throughout Italy to copy the masterpieces found in Orvieto, Assisi, Siena, Florence, Pisa, Ravenna, Venice, Parma, Naples, Pompeii, Capri, Bologna, Milan, and Verona. He also visited the hill towns and lakes around Rome Terni, Narni, Civita Castellana, Albano and Nemi, Castel Gandolfosites that had inspired landscapists since the seventeenth century. The things he saw during his sojourn in Italy would inform his art for the rest of his life.
Upon his return to Paris in early 1854 Bouguereau was awarded valuable commissions in two areas, portraiture and decorative cycles. These opportunities for work came from both Paris and his hometown of La Rochelle. Bouguereau continued to exhibit paintings (some of which had been painted in Rome) at the Salon, where they were received by the public with great favor. Because of his training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and that institution's emphasis on paintings with themes drawn from mythological, classical, and biblical history, the subjects of Bouguereau's early Salon submissions were mostly somber and serious. Titles such as Combat of the Lapiths and Centaurs (1852; private collection) and Le triomphe du martyre: Le corps de Sainte Cecile apporte dans les catacombes (The Triumph of the Martyr: The Body of Saint Cecilia Being Carried into the Catacombs) (1854) indicate that the young artist aspired to take his place in the tradition of grand history painting.
These pictures were not the kind, however, that had wide commercial appeal. His art began to move away from grandiose compositions to more genre-like scenes with fewer figures. Mothers and children, shepherdesses, and children playing were some of the themes that would find a place on the walls of middle class homes. Bouguereau was a canny businessman. In addition to exploiting the great marketplace of the Salon, he allied himself with dealers who could show his work to advantage and procure for him good prices. Toward the late 1850s his work was beginning to be handled by the dealer Paul Durand Ruel (1828-1922); after October 1866, Adolphe Goupil (1806-1893) was Bouguereau's exclusive dealer. Beginning in the 1860s Bouguereau's paintings were particularly popular in England and America, where the taste for scenes of domestic sentimentality ran high.
Throughout the course of his career, Bouguereau was in the habit of spending the summers in La Rochelle, painting in a studio he had constructed there. After several years of heart disease, he died in La Rochelle on August 19, 1905. It is thought that his condition was exacerbated by the burglary of his house and studio in Paris that spring, one of a string of robberies in the neighborhood. He is buried in the cemetery of Montparnasse, near the neighborhood where he had lived.
Le Pardon De Kergoat
(b Courrières, Pas-de-Calais, 1 May 1827; d Paris, 5 July 1906).
French painter and writer. After the death of his mother he was brought up in the village of Courrières by his father, grandmother and uncle. The last instilled in him respect for tradition and a commitment to the philosophical ideas of the 18th century. Breton’s father, as supervisor of the lands of the Duc de Duras, encouraged him to develop a deep knowledge of and affection for his native region and its heritage, which remained central to his art
Born Oct. 4, 1814, Gruchy, near Gréville, Fr.
Died Jan. 20, 1875, Barbizon
French painter renowned for his peasant subjects.
Millet spent his youth working on the land, but by the age of 19 he was studying art in Cherbourg. In 1837 he arrived in Paris and eventually enrolled in the studio of Paul Delaroche, where he seems to have remained until 1839.
After the rejection of one of his entries for the Salon of 1840, Millet returned to Cherbourg, where he remained during mostof 1841, painting portraits. He achieved his first success in 1844 with “The Milkmaid” and a large pastel, “The Riding Lesson,” that has a sensual character typical of a large part of his production during the 1840s.
The peasant subjects, which from the early 1850s were to be Millet's principal concern, made their first important appearance at the Salon of 1848 with “The Winnower,” later destroyed by fire. In 1849, after a period of great hardship, Millet left Paris to settle in Barbizon, a small hamlet in the forest of Fontainebleau. He continued to exhibit paintings of peasants, and, as a result, periodically faced the charge of being a socialist. Letters of the period defending Millet's position underline the fundamentally classical nature of his approach to painting.
By the mid-1860s, Millet's work was beginning to be in demand; official recognition came in 1868, after nine major paintings had been shown at the exposition of 1867. Important collections of Millet's pictures are to be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and in the Louvre.
It is more like a dream than any other great painting known to me. We do not dream a Bosch or a Delacroix: they are too consistent in their fantasy or romanticism. But in the Atelier moments of intense reality and sudden heightenings of sensuality are succeeded by baffling inconsequence; there is a reunion of characters who seem both familiar and strange, and maintain a speechless isolation from one another, as if under the spell of an enchanter; and there is the setting of a transformation scene in which the back cloth will gradually dissolve and reveal some unattainable distance. This dream like interweaving of the real and the symbolic Courbet expressed quite accurately when he entitled his huge machine 'Allégorie réelle: intérieur de mon atelier, déterminant une phase de sept années de ma vie artistique'. But what a terrible picture that title suggests! That it is not a salon monster (and was in fact rejected from the Salon of 1885) is due to its extraordinary pictorial qualities.
Courbet was a born painter. Everyone who watched him at work was astonished at the way in which his beautiful hands could make the brush or the palette knife convey the subtlest tone or the richest substance. I like to approach the Atelier from the west staircase of the Louvre so that I can see it through the doorway, glowing in the afternoon sun. My eye then dives into the warm sea of tone and colour, and for some minutes is content to swim about, delighting in each wave and ripple of beautifully rendered optical sensation. As nineteenth-century amateurs used to say, "C'est de la peinture!"
But very soon I begin to ask questions. What do all these figures mean? Are they simply the memories of seven years, which have come unbidden; or have they been invited for some purpose? "C'est passablement mystérieux," said Courbet. "Devinera qui pourra." He who can will guess.
Some of the answers are simple. In the centre Courbet, the prophet of realism, is supported by two examples of truth in art, a landscape of his own Franche-Comté and a superb, unidealised nude model. A peasant boy watches the master at work with innocent admiration, and we are led to infer that his judgement is preferable to that of the academicians. To the right, we may guess, are the men who have influenced Courbet; and if we are familiar with the period we have no difficulty in recognising M. Bruyas, his long suffering and slightly dotty patron, and his friend Proudhon, the socialist philosopher, whom Mr Clive Bell once described as the biggest donkey in Europe. The gloomy seated man is Champfleury, who was the first advocate of Courbet's realism. As for the figure on the extreme right, we happen to know that it represents Baudelaire, because it corresponds to a portrait that Courbet painted of the poet seven years earlier; but it bears little resemblance to other portraits of Baudelaire, and in fact Courbet complained that his face changed every day.
With the lady in the shawl, however, the scheme breaks down. Courbet subsequently called this couple 'amateurs mondains', but she is painted with great warmth, and she is obviously there simply because he liked the look of her. To the left there is a similar collapse of logic. No doubt there was a sociological excuse for l'Irlandaise, the figure of ultimate poverty who sits on the ground beside his canvas, for it had not escaped the attention of continental Europe that the richest country in the world had within its borders several million starving and ragged savages; and in the shadowy depths behind her are several other figures suggested by philosophy a priest, a prostitute, a grave digger and a merchant, who symbolise the exploitation of our poor humanity. But nothing in Proudhon explains the Rabbi on the extreme left, still less the hunter with his dogs, who, like the 6 amateurs mondains', seems to be agreeably free from social consciousness.
Of course, it is this absence of system which saves the Atelier. The figures which had been haunting Courbet's imagination for seven years had come there for a number of reasons. They had pleased his eye, influenced his life, stealthily entered his subconscious. In 1855 a comparable picture was being painted in England, Ford Madox Brown's Work; and Brown introduced many of the same ingredients: the workers, the beggars, the ragged children, the philosopher friends, even the 'amateurs mondains'. But, as we know from a much too long description by Brown himself, the whole was conceived in terms of literature, and can properly be classed as an illustration, on a heroic scale, to Carlyle's Past and Present. Whereas in the Atelier every figure is a personal symbol related to a visual experience, and it is not Proudhon's philosophy but the mysterious workings of the pictorial intelligence which have brought them together.
After wandering in this mixed company, we return to the painter at his easel. Courbet has given himself a splendid appearance and for once in the history of self portraiture we know that it was justified. This was an age of cruel observers. Dozens of them described Courbet in detail and all agreed about his beauty. He was tall and olive skinned with long black hair and huge bovine eyes. His friends were struck by a likeness to the young Giorgione, and this was not lost on the painter himself, who entitled one of his finest self portraits 'a study in the Venetian manner'. They also told him that his eyes were like those of an Assyrian king. Courbet obligingly grew a long, pointed beard, and it is this Assyrian phase that he has commemorated in the Atelier. He was as shamelessly delighted with himself as a prize stallion. A year after painting the Atelier he was invited to luncheon by the Comte de Nleuwerkerke, Napoleon III's Director of Fine Art. A long letter to Bruyas describes the episode, which is a model of how an artist should behave to an official. M. de Nieuwerkerke took both his hands and said he wanted to act frankly with him. He must moderate his style, put some water in his wine, etc., and the Government would support him.
"I answered", said Courbet, "that I too was a Government . . . and that I was the sole judge of my own painting. I added that I was not only a painter but a man, that I did not make art for art's sake but to vindicate my intellectual liberty, and that I alone of all my contemporaries had the power to translate and render in an original manner, my personality and my society."
To which he replied: "Monsieur Courbet, vous êtes bien fier."
"Monsieur, je suis l'homme le plus orgueilleux de France."
We must remember that he had come from a country district and had never experienced the bewildering complications of metropolitan life. He saw no reason to conceal his strength, to moderate his laughter or to think twice before voicing an opinion or breaking into song. He was really Blake's ideal man, although neither would have cared much for the other's art.
At first Courbet had considerable success. He won a medal in the Salon of 1849 and in the next few years many of his pictures were accepted, although they aroused an ever increasing storm of academic fury. Then in 1855 all the pictures sent to the international Exhibition were refused. Courbet immediately hired a garden full of lilac in the Avenue Montaigne, built a gallery and exhibited forty three of his pictures, including several of colossal size. Among them was L'Atelier du Peintre, painted during the preceding months in the intervals of a severe attack of jaundice. The public reacted as they did to all great works of art in the nineteenth century: they roared with laughter. Not until the Impressionist exhibition, twenty years later, did the public again have such a good laugh. But Delacroix, who was alone in the exhibition for an hour, was deeply impressed. "They have rejected", he said of the Atelier, "one of the most extraordinary works of the age."
Courbet was thirty-six when he exhibited his masterpiece, and in some respects it was the climax of his career. He continued to dream Of, and talk about, huge canvases which should celebrate democracy and decorate railway stations. He wasted a lot of time on a large picture of tipsy priests returning from a conference, with which he hoped to shock the Empress Eugenie. But his best works were small celebrations of things which please the senses fruit, flowers, waves, shining trout and girls with red gold hair. In 1867 he again put on a one man show: "J'ai fait construire une cathédrale . . . Je stupéfie le monde entier." The exhibition aroused little comment, for by this time Courbet's theories were accepted, and, compared with the work of Renoir and Monet, his pictures had the tone and texture of Old Masters.
Alas, this splendid apostle of the senses ended badly. He became extremely fat and more noisily self assertive than ever. The authorities must have longed for a chance to get rid of him and in the end they had one. The Column in the Place Vendôme was pulled down during the disturbances of 1871, and Courbet was held responsible, unjustly as it happens, although such an escapade would have been quite in character. He was put in prison and offered the alternative of paying for its reconstruction or imprisonment for five years. He escaped to Switzerland and after a short period of miserable tranquillity, during which he is said to have drunk twelve litres of wine a day, he died.
The catalogue of the 1855 exhibition contains a preface in which Courbet sets down his aims more shortly and more sensibly than is usual on such occasions. The title of Realist, he says, has been forced upon him just as the title of Romantic was forced on the men of 1830. And he concluded: 'Savoir pour pouvoir, telle fut ma pensée . . . faire de l'art vivant, tel est mon but'. It is a fair statement. He painted what he knew his own countryside, his neighbours, his friends - and his art is alive. But in one respect he was also a romantic. "To love oneself", said Oscar Wilde, "is the beginning of a life long romance and it is evident that every time Courbet represents himself the character of his art changes. There is nothing realistic about those marvellous self portraits, The Wounded Man and The Man with a Pipe; in them he is as whole heartedly romantic as a follower of Giorgione. The Atelier is, among other things, a great poem of self-love. just as Mallarmé and Valéry were to make poetic inspiration itself the subject of poetry, so Courbet has taken as the subject of his masterpiece his own pictorial inspiration. That it is so great a painting is due to the extraordinary richness of his experience.
And as I look more attentively at the Atelier, I realise how misleading is the notion that Courbet's art was made up of hand, eye and appetite. French critics love to repeat that he painted as an apple tree grows apples. What nonsense! The most hasty analysis shows that the Atelier is the production of a powerful intelligence.
Take the central group alone. Courbet has portrayed himself almost in profile, with his arm stretched out horizontally, and has related this hieratic stiffness to a series of interlocking rectangles, so that he seems to be a stable element in the midst of the floating population which surrounds him. More than that, he is a plastic element, a relief from Persepolis, and this feeling of timeless plasticity is enhanced by the nude model, also in profile, whose grandiose outline is a perfect foil to the thin geometric shapes of chair and canvas. This is not the fruit of a vegetable procedure, but of a rigorous devotion to the tradition of art. Even his opponents admitted that Courbet had studied the old masters with profit. He said that his first revelation of art had been the sight of The Night Watch, which is, indeed, one of the few great pictures painted with an appetite as hearty and unfastidious as his own. He continued to copy Rembrandt throughout his life. But his chief source of instruction was the Spanish school, known through the gallery of Louis-Philippe. In the Atelier the lady with the shawl seems to derive from the school of Seville, the mysterious figure strung up immediately behind his canvas is one of Ribera's tortured saints. And the huge room is full of echoes of Velasquez, in the hunter with his dogs, in the beggars, and in the whole sense of space which derives from both the Meninas and the Hilanderas. But, as Courbet had never been to Spain and knew these masterpieces only in engraving, his tonality is much warmer and closer to Ribera, whose Club footed Boy in the Louvre had a decisive influence on French nineteenth-century painting. The cool detachment of Velasquez would have dismayed him.
Nor is Courbet's intelligence limited to the science of picture making. The Atelier was painted in the interval between Balzac and Flaubert, and seems to bridge their two worlds, Balzac on the left, Flaubert on the right. It justifies Courbet's boast that he alone of his contemporaries had been able to relate the art of painting to the society of his day. Hanging where it does in the Louvre, it seems like the last act in that great drama of French history which begins with David's Oath of the Horatii, the earliest manifesto of the revolution, passes through the Napoleonic adventures of Baron Gros, and culminates in Géricault's Raft of the Medusa. The age of heroic action is over, but, as Courbet's powerful hand evokes these characters from the shadows, we recognise how France still dominated the life of the mind.
Text from Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures.