Velasquez and the Boston School, or Some Disjointed Facts of Nature

In his book, The Boston Painters, R. H. Ives Gammell makes the following statement:

“In short, a painter may properly be called an impressionist to just the extent that he renders aspects of nature as he saw them with unflinching honesty...”

On the surface that would seem to be a reasonably summary definition of an impressionist. Yet it leaves us with the question of whether any painter might be called "impressionist" who renders honestly this or that aspect of nature – something painters have always done. Thus he seems to suggest painters can be relatively impressionistic raising the implicit question as to whether there ought to be any such denomination. After all, all are impressionistic to one degree or another. He then goes on to say

“Given its most complete expression in the art of Velasquez, who is still its greatest exemplar, its (impressionism's) aim has ever been to convey on canvas the impression made on the painter by the subject he elects to depict.”

Gammell unintentionally leaves his readers potentially wondering about the very word “impression” itself, with its implied subjective interpretation when combined with the words, “made on the painter by the subject.”

On the first point Gammell is really following Monet, who says, “All great painters are more or less impressionists.” This somewhat defensive comment by Monet we can only take to mean that, of course, all of them tried to some degree to paint what they saw as it really appeared with relative degrees of success in achieving a truthfulness to nature.

However, when discussing where “impressionism was first fully made manifest [ie] in the work of ...Velasquez,“ his biographer, the painter/writer R. A. M. Stevenson, claims that his was a kind of painting based on recording not just some aspects for use in his pictures but whose modus operandi was to reproduce

“...a truth of general aspect. The whole effect of the canvas conveys a definite idea which has ordered every element of drawing, colour, and definition.... He wished any scene that he looked at in nature to be so treated in art as to express the quality and the distribution of the attention it had received from him in real life.”

... and not, to be clear, some subjective interpretation of it. Furthermore, quoting Stevenson,

“When you fail to grasp the ensemble of a Velasquez, when you miss its profound and touching truth, you can fall back on little else save a few disjointed facts of common realism. The art of the thing escapes you as the art of a Beethoven symphony escapes the man who only catches hold of occasional tag-ends of tunes hanging out of a preposterous and tangled coil of sound.”

Note the expression, “a few disjointed facts of common realism,” and try to grasp the essential difference between work that incorporates some truth and full-bodied, wholistic impressionism. Imagine, if you can, the inevitable differences in the practices required to attain what Gammell called their “mutually incompatible” goals. Velasquez's impressionism cannot be successfully made by the common strategies of academic painting but requires something considerably more like the subsequent and connected approach of the Boston School.

Tarbell, Edmund.  Portrait of Judge Hammond,  ca. 1910

Tarbell, Edmund. Portrait of Judge Hammond, ca. 1910

Velazquez,  Las Hilanderas . 1657

Velazquez, Las Hilanderas. 1657

Secrets of Boston School Direct Painting

        What is the content of an impressionist rendering? Little more than value masses and their joints. It can't be put more simply than that. We see, we perceive the world, in value-produced effects. Rendering value-effects as they occur before our eyes produces visual likenesses of anything or any group of things we see. Value-effects exist in degrees of value, contrast, and abruptness of edge, and thereby produce varying effects. To create a likeness, all we have to do is collate the values and effects of any ensemble of such units accurately in the correct order of their strengths, sizes, and locations on the picture plane. Having done so, we will observe that we have not only created the appearance of objects, but the illusion of three dimensional space and the atmosphere of that space - every bit as critical to the complete and wholistic expression of the visual appearance.

        To accomplish such, it is of foremost importance to jettison the outlining of objects – what Stevenson terms “primitive drawing” in his essay on Velasquez. As painters seeking mastery of the whole truth we must let go of that that seemingly "precious" tool. In clutching on to it, we block and mangle too many other visual realities. In our addiction to outline, we fail to discover the better way to bring the visual world into being.  Instead we must endeavor to follow advice like Sargent's: to reproduce effects, spots, or points of contrast - and pursue their associated angles in relation to one another. Similarly when working in color-values, search out the color of the spots. Do this in willful obliviousness to any connection between them and any apparent, delimited "object." We also find ourselves perfecting the points of effect by the more or less simultaneous incorporation of color.

        In this new and more complete paradigm, the painter must be expert in the observation of the relationships between these effects - effects considered not only in terms of their strength and intensity, but in their size and location as well. We must become adept in perceiving ways to render the “thing as a whole,” seeing and rendering systems or sets of smaller groupings by color, by value, or by effect -  and the shapes created by their relative locations. For anyone dedicated to “realism” this will admittedly require a leap of faith. Yet as Gammell liked to point out, “you have nothing to lose but your chains.”

        At no point is Velasquez in the included illustration painting a cat. He paints visual effects and visual relationships, visual impressions. The successful result reveals a cat - and more. The basic mastery for successful Boston School painting is over that which makes up the “look of nature,” its appearances, which may be effectively rendered as paint on canvas - nature and canvas having nothing in common except that which might emerge from a tube of color. As opposed to actual realities, we employ visual, and thereby paintable, phenomena - and more importantly, their relationships. The basis of the Boston School way is therefore applied mastery in the reproduction of these phenomena in paint. We must be good at rendering form by the gradation of values; of color notes with their value, hue and chroma; edges or what happens when values meet. We must acquire proficiency at producing true proportions and other relationships as they pertain to these things as they occupy the picture plane. We must acquire fluency in the relationships of colors to each other. Forms to each other. Angles to each other, light effects to each other, sizes, values and so on. And leaving off trying to make the shape of “things,” we must expand the shape concept to include not only the shapes of darks and lights -  but that of the “figure created by the leading lines of the composition” and much much more indeed.

        Though they exist wherever we look, we leave off trying to find out how to make things-as-objects, and don't even wonder how. We find that this "wondering how" drives us back into our heads in fruitless pursuit of a priori generalized information, rather than into our eyes in search of a world that is far too unpredictable to fit that box. "How to paint an apple" or "how to paint a portrait" would undermine our primary activity, the authoritative rendering of paintable visual phenomena and any internal or external relationships in terms of their size, location and effect as seen in a world reduced to a picture plane. Ultimately the person who can best paint from their head is the one with the greatest experience painting truthfully what their eyes see, comprised of the color notes first, and following that, their placement and other related visual concepts. We want to be able to paint what we see with our own eyes - not with our ears, what we may have learned in books or what people have told us - and to articulate this on its own terms and in ways  most efficient at getting the job done. That is simply a matter of color-values and what happens when and where they meet.

Velazquez,  Las Hilanderas , 1657

Velazquez, Las Hilanderas, 1657

Book Excerpt: Chapter VI Wholistic Rendering By Effects



        “At the start he used sparingly a little turpentine to rub in a general tone over the background and to outline the head (the real outline where the light and shadow meet, not the place where the head meets the background)”
        Evan Charteris

        “But he [DeCamp] was thoroughly alert to everything which related directly to picture painting. As he could draw quite correctly when he arrived he was better prepared than his classmates to assimilate Duveneck's rare faculty for expressing form with paint, something very different from coloring a carefully established drawing and which presupposes a power of discernment not many painters ever attain. All his life DeCamp considered this essentially painterly quality to be a major asset of the painter's self expression."
        R. H. Ives Gammell

        "Don't draw lines around things—make them by rendering the light and shadow...You are still thinking of things in terms of objects rather than in terms of areas of light."
        Frank Benson

        "Comparison of the definitions and gradations of a fine Velasquez with those of an ordinary picture is, perhaps, the most ready way to perceive the vulgarity of the cheap method which exaggerates outlines, and replaces tone and gradation by false explanatory definition. To draw a silly line in a mouth, eye, or nose, where no line should be, merely because you have been taught painting by means of chalk-drawing, implies a gross violation of the lighting of a portrait, just as putting toy boats and cows in the distance implies a contradiction of perspective.”
        R. A. M. Stevenson

        “Literary critics have praised his interiors for their 'atmosphere,' but practically speaking there is no atmosphere in an interior! The distance between the foreground and the background is so slight that the intervening air does not modify it at all. What the unwary call 'atmosphere' in an interior is really its colouristic light and shade, its chromatic chiaroscuro. This clair-obscur, as the French translate it, seems to the layman such an obvious condition of things that he hardly realizes how necessary it is for the painter to learn to compare rightly the obscurity of forms in the shadow with their emergence in the half-tone and in the light.”
        Philip L. Hale

        “His [Chardin's]manner of painting is singular. He places his colors along side of each other almost without mixing them, so that the work looks like mosaic or patchwork, or like that hand-made tapestry called 'pointcarre.' "                                                                                                               A contemporary (attribution unknown)

        “The only justification for such a rough and unpolished manner of painting was a thorough knowledge of the effect that colors produce upon one another.”                                                                Charles Normand

        Among other problems associated (for some of us) with Gammell's teaching, many of the aphorisms from the Boston School with which he was thankfully well stocked didn't apply to his own work or what he had us doing in ours. Typical of the imaginative painter, his entire way of starting a picture was non-visual, and non-impressionistic. Rather than having us draw by the spots referred to by Hale, we drew around each every object as he mentions int he above quote, carefully establishing the drawing. Though he explicitly stated we were drawing not the actual but the visual, his own approach said otherwise in significant parts. His approach was based on visual observations, but lacked the axiomatic all-over-the-place-at-once, as-if-coming-out-of-a-fog, and from-the-spots look of the Boston School start. From the looks of their starts, both Gammell and his student Richard Lack demonstrate a different approach to painting. Even Paxton's wonderful start at the MFA, though essentially in order visually, shows him to have a slight inclination toward object massing over the visual value spots. As I've indicated, when looking at the body of his finished work, this definitely differentiates him from others.                                                                                                                                         In his correspondence, Delacroix discusses those who see beauty only in lines, and thereby refuse to believe others may receive a different kind of impression. In truth, the academic model to which he referred (and which was common even in the schools headed up by Boston men) was based on outlining, and then modeling objects. It was the norm coming out of the academies and most of the ateliers. My first impressionist training, however, disparagingly informed us we were not doing colored drawings; we were painting.                                                                                                                             In his drive to clean up art education and return to would-be representational painters their full and rightful heritage and base, Gammell managed to effectively throw out the Boston School baby with the bathwater. Although he acknowledged the twin heritage of the DaVinci-to-Bougeureau model as opposed to the Velasquez-to-the-Boston School model, his teaching reinforced only one: The one he himself found especially useful for himself, and his imaginative inclinations. To his credit, it was the one he considered the best underpinning for painting of any kind, including the one best enabling even the Velasquez model. After all hadn't DeCamp's advice to the young Gammell been to first learn to paint like the early outline-based Velasquez? DeCamp, at other times, discusses the ease with which one might understand the later way of Velasquez (essentially the "Boston School" version) but how difficult it is to execute it. According to Gammell, the remarkable difficulties one faces when attempting to become skilled in the latter approach inheres in the methods themselves. Even if true, (which it may be since it appears so counterintuitive at first and certainly isn't what most of us have ever heard) I believe the difficulties are increased if not even caused by initiating a way of thinking using outlines - with its many logical implications for the overall painting craft - and then trying to graft the impressionist approach to light and color post hoc and by less effective means. (See the phonics conversation in another part of this essay.)
        In his book on Vermeer describing the impressionist process, Hale says we don't paint the outline of the leopard and add spots, we start with the spots. He refers to allowing the visually strong place to lead the way over any other facts regarding the object, including specifically, its outline. Says Benson: “Don't paint anything but the effect of light. Don't paint things," Everyone tries to get an effect by carefully describing an object. That's not the way it's done. "You are still thinking of things in terms of objects rather than in terms of areas of light."                                                                                         Boston School painters typically began their lay-ins by indicating the arabesque - the figure created by the strongest effects of the general ensemble taken together - something unavailable until much later (if at all) to the older imaginative painters in their necessarily piecemeal and object-driven world. My personal teaching goal is to inculcate a unified approach which includes all the drawing skills, but using a Boston School visual model. It is based on the belief that drawing outlines of objects is not the only way of drawing, even when the eventual goal is the rendering of the object. Form articulation is so multi layered, so comprehensive, any assumption that only drawing, particularly in outline, will suffice to render the object is not only incomplete, but will leave you facing a problem of persistently false relationships from the very start. Stevenson actually refers to it as "primitive," which, by the standards of impressionism (even the all inclusive definition Gammell uses) it truly is.
        Form drawing, for the Boston School painter, isn't merely the articulation of a muscle on an arm; it includes the distance between the arm and the chest, the chest and the wall behind it. The manner in which these distances are accomplished in nature before our eyes is most accurately revealed and reproduced in the comprehensive impressionist approach. No formularized approach is an adequate substitute for the experience of wholistic truth, one which may be had only on its own terms and in its own timing. Nothing but learning to work from the look of nature, the visual world before one at that very moment, in all its ramifications, can prepare one for the eventualities of the impressionist experience - eventualities which include new formulae like drawing from effects rather than outlines of objects per se. Hale expresses the gist of this thinking, this wholistic visual approach in stating that:         

“The man who modestly tries to make the drawing, the values, and the colour is apt if he has ability to do all three well. You cannot get really accurately modelled drawing without true colour. Indeed, if by some miracle one were able to paint each colour right in tone, shape and shift the drawing would come by itself. And so with light and shade and tone values or relations. They are simply other names for colour ...The truest drawing is a melange of light and shade. The moment a man searches one quality for itself alone, he does, by that very act, strip it of some of its most important attributes. We too often forget that all things are made manifest to us through the action of light....
[Light and shade] "cannot truly be rendered unless it includes colour and form. Form, as it appears to us, cannot be rightly indicated without the aid of colour and chiaroscuro. Colour, true colour, cannot be well suggested unless the shapes are right and the modulation; in other words, the drawing and values. The reason Vermeer made his drawing so just, his values so true, was because he cared so much about colour. His drawing in his best things came right because the chiaroscuro, the edges and the colour were rightly observed. He loved light and shade, he was a master of it, and the only way he could render its beauty as he saw it was by getting his drawing and his subtle colour shifts just right... Vermeer, then, did not strive to paint right because 'tis naughty to do wrong' but because the infinitely beautiful subtleties of light he saw about him could not really be rendered without true drawing and colour.”

        One of the most alarming expressions in Western art once one has seen the impressionist light is a plausible old one,  “Well drawn is well enough colored.” To the extent it was widespread, this incredible disdain for searching out the concomitant truth of color as part of the expression of a subject may well be part of the reason Western art lagged so long in this area. Titian's deep fascination with color harmony and color truth as an essential part of a good picture is appreciated, but in practice not always shared. Due to Gammell's dedication to what he calls his personal vision rather than to the beauty of the visual world, color has been too often thought of among some of his followers as simply a way of enhancing the subject. Unfortunately, and mostly for the same reasons (plus an incapacity by training) much of today's realist efforts short change a major component of visual expression and beauty itself; one which is a factor in drawing by any Boston School accounting. This may be explained in part by the simple failure to realize that color is a factor in drawing. I know I support the thinking of the Boston School when I make the argument to my students that drawing is so important as, like the arrival of the king, a great deal of preparation must first be underway. We turn on the lights, we roll out the red carpet, and only then are we ready to introduce drawing. Even then, at the outset of the lay-in, it is primarily for the purpose of effect-relationships and placement that we are Boston School, and not simply for object making per se. Yet as indicated by Hale above, color plays an obvious role in creating the sense of three dimensional space in a painting. Ordering light effects inclusive of the color component, and creating atmosphere by similar means, both produce a greater sense of volume and space-  important expressions in drawing, and often neglected. Just because value, the first element of color, is the most important doesn't mean the problem of drawing can be left to it alone. The Boston School teaches an all encompassing method incorporating color from the start like (some at points exactly like) the mature Monet model. It does it by means of the direct searching out process inherent to the French Impressionist system, and is not satisfied by gluing color on at the end as some mere bonus enhancement, having studied the picture in all its truthful features and effects right from the start of the painting. This is crucial to understanding the changes in the very approach to painting which define the Boston School. Stevenson offers the following about the relevant issues in the overtly Velasquez-based view of his and Sargent's teacher:

“Duran set himself to teach art less on the venerable principles of outline drawing than on a method adapted to his own fashion of looking at nature by masses and by constructive planes. Of course, Duran taught drawing, but likely enough his method was not suitable to every kind of talent, for he separated drawing from modelling with the brush as little as possible. According to him the whole art of expressing form should progress together and should consist in expressing it, as we see it, by light. He regarded drawing as the art of placing things rightly in depth as well as in length and breadth; and for this purpose he would call attention to various aspects of form the intersection and prolongation of imaginary lines, the shape of inclosed spaces, the interior contents of masses, the inclination of planes to light, and the expression or characteristic tendency of any visible markings.”

        Due to their investment in expressing a more complete truth of nature, Velasquez and those such as the Boston School following in his steps, developed an approach which evolved on far more wholistic lines than had previously been seen, one that brings into play all-the-horses-at-once, in a very literal way.


R.H Ives Gammell,  The Garden of Persephone , 1938

R.H Ives Gammell, The Garden of Persephone, 1938

Velazquez,  Mars Resting , 1640

Velazquez, Mars Resting, 1640