A Lock Or A Key?

        When introducing painting students to the ideas of the Boston School, I often ask myself: “Are you giving them a key or are you locking them in?” As youth is wont to do, I recall decisively rejecting closed box methods. “This is how we do this and this is how we do that” almost inevitably felt like a trap to me; something which, rather than empower me, would make me a clone or a seconder of another’s personal predilections in painting. All manner of pastiche painters exist in the world today n the persons of individuals imitating Sargent, Bougeureau or other Academic painters, the Hudson River School, Barbizon painters, Impressionism, or even the Boston School itself.

        The preoccupation of all students of painting should be first the mastery of nature, not the mastery of somebody else's technique, methods, or look. Those latter are merely necessary vehicles or starting points, but inevitably dangerous to full expression of truth (notice I didn't say “self expression” although it potentially affects that too) regarding the visible or rather visual world. Rather, the teacher’s task is to provide the names of the known elements of the visual world and the best, most effective, most efficient approach they themselves have acquired for their articulation. Unless that teacher is training apprentices to work in their own shop and thus purposely in their singular manner, success should not be measured by the attainment of the look of that approach, that manner, but by the truth of such work to the look of nature itself.

        As Ingres and any sane master will indicate, nature is “la source” and not art itself. When an art becomes preoccupied with itself as it has in what were once the great art schools of the West, it inevitably faces decline and eventual erosion. That is no less true today. For example, dedication to outline appears as a method common among the numerous mannerisms of today's ateliers. Working from outlines has been referred to as a convention which is another word for manner. It has an inherent, non-visual, self defeating falseness based on a preoccupation with objects rather than the wholistic look of nature. Yet virtually every teacher in America employs it today.

        Among the causes of their limited focus is a rejection of Boston School impressionism, a way of painting dedicated to the fullest - and the most efficient - expression of the look of nature. R. H. Ives Gammell himself referred to it as the greatest evolution of impressionism whose greatest antecedent was Velasquez himself. As I said, the Boston School's own approach is similarly fraught with pitfalls, should the student become attached to its manner rather than mastery of truth. In fact, the reason for the rejection of impressionism is simply its failures to address significant visual truths that the new academics since at least the sixties have set about reincorporating.

        The modern student of representational painting needn't be a victim of the mannerisms of their times. Yet the only way to get past the locks and chains of today is to introduce oneself to a full understanding of the methods and thinking of the advanced impressionist - while at the same time approaching the best values and training associated with the academics. The Boston School thinking, rather than the academic Gammellized version of it underlying much of today's training, offers the key. Their logically combined mastery of both color and drawing provides a sound model for precise articulation of the whole look of nature, the foundation and base of our visual language, and therefore a truly greater means of personal self expression.

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Reflections on a Boston School Impressionist Education and the Absoluteness of Relatives in Art

        A similar relativity must be maintained in the degrees of sharpness whereby the apparent shapes in the field of vision are defined. Even a slight error of judgment in either of these areas may jeopardize the truth conveyed in a painting. The entire operation calls for a very perceptive eye, consummate draftsmanship and, above all, a firm intellectual grasp of the problem involved....comparatively few painters have carried it through even passably well.
                                     R. H. Ives Gammell


        It is essentially characteristic of the perceptual form that each single factor in the perception should have its meaning only in relation to all other factors; that all sizes. relationship of all lights and shades, all colors, etc., have only relative values. Everything depends on reciprocal relationships; everything influences the value of everything else. When we speak, therefore, of a total impression, we refer to the effect produced by the co-operation of all the factors in the perceptual form. Since the visual projection makes possible this conception of factors co-operating to form a unity, it follows that the single parts of which it is made up can have no meaning in themselves alone, but gain their significance only through that peculiar connection which constitutes their total unity. Accordingly, whenever in tracing the effect of a certain total appearance we are able to conceive the form of the object, it is because of the relationships existing between the various factors of the appearance. Hence if we try to represent pictorially our idea of form with the hope of producing a satisfactory total appearance we cannot succeed by translating kinesthetic ideas, piece by piece, into visual factors and then adding them together into one total appearance. In such a process we should not be considering at all the effects of the single factors as conditioned by their relations to the whole, but should be working, rather, as though each factor were perceived as isolated. We do not here deny the power of the spectator or of the artist as spectator to see at a glance everything represented on one canvas. We wish, rather, to emphasize the necessity of properly relating the parts of a picture in the process of composition.
                                     Adolf Hildebrand

        It has been observed that you can't pick your relatives and it is no less true in impressionism. For example, in laying in a painting you have a few initial anchoring points you may pick: Locations for top and bottom, or the extents of the lightest light and darkest dark. But after that, like it or not, you are their servants. After that, everything is relative to those choices and, of course, to all others in their turn.
        Of the more troubling conversations arising out of the anti-impressionist mindset presently troubling representational painting are allegations that impressionism a) led to, or encouraged poor education and b) led to, or encouraged the "moral relativism" of the age. The latter is a direct condemnation of impressionism originally expressed by Tolstoy. The former, sadly, may be attributed to Gammell himself. By indicting impressionism as a whole he indirectly implicates the men of the Boston School, his own teachers. To me this is a staggering misapprehension of the situation on both counts.
        In simple terms, Boston School impressionism requires more and not less education and discipline than run-of-the-mill photographic object painting. The Boston teachers, even by Gammell's own admission, provided as good a basic education as anyone anywhere in his day. The fact that there were so few practitioners of the kind of painting he wanted to do does nothing to diminish their commitment to teaching the traditional solid basics of drawing, painting and composition.
        The paucity of artists alive and running independent ateliers that could transmit the 'secrets' of salon paintings attests to to a loss of favor for that kind of work at the time. Put simply, it had run its course for the time being. Maybe it was, ironically, the photographic look of it that drained it of its magic as much as anything. For the moment the world was electrified by the more life-like impressions of certain artist' sunlit realities, more so than the stilted and over-stylized portrayals of ancient myths which meant nothing to them. The fact that the ignorant public couldn't differentiate between skilled impressionist craftsmen and hack imitators doesn't implicate either the craftsmen or their vision.
        Furthermore, indictments of a perceived moral relativism couldn’t be more misguided. For that matter, moral and religious language are much more easily lent to Impressionism’s defense than its condemnation. DeCamp’s entreaty that his students "paint straight and true like a Christian” wasn't any less an expression of his sincere love for all aspects of visual truth than it was a reflection of his religious background. The two could hardly have been thought to be in conflict. The particulars of one's religious faith aside, to be an impressionist is to be held spellbound before the light of the natural world and to endeavor to render it with the faith and honesty such love requires. This was a mindset shared as much by Gammell as any student of realism today. (Funny the irritation at the focus on light among apparently Christian moralizers. Didn't God Himself call forth light on the very first day?)
        However, the idea that in a painting all is in some sense "relative" is old news. Very old indeed, as it forms the very foundation of all aspects of good painting. I have in my studio a photographic enlargement of a note Gammell wrote and handed to me, stating that we paint visual facts not actual ones. The only visual facts are the apparent color, angles, proportions in relation to each other when reduced to two dimensions. When DaVinci talks about aerial perspective, he is demonstrating a relative truth: that the distant objects to our eyes appear less colored and less contrasty compared to things right before us. That is relative truth, as is all visual truth. That things appear smaller in perspective than similar things closer to the viewer demonstrates the relative nature of size to the viewer. To what does the word "relationship" attest but the apparent sizes, the sizes as they appear to this eye as they relate to other sizes?
        In fact the only absolute in painting is that everything is relative. Once you have settled on what is brightest in value or chroma, every value and chroma you make must be right in relation to that. Even when painting life size portraits in sight-size settings, the only actual size is the one which lies on the picture plane itself. Everything behind it will appear, and will therefore be drawn, smaller than actual. And all in front will appear larger to the eye. In other words, everything is subject to the relative size things appear to take in relation to each other from your viewing point.
        To cite another instance: consider the issue of relative values to actual values when doing a cast drawing. Thinking that by using the actual value of the white of the cast and its silhouetting dark note one can actually paint comparable effects of light, even in a classic studio setting, is demonstrably silly. It is ludicrously so under the open sky (as the wisdom that “one must be able paint the sun with the yolk of an egg” serves to remind.) 
        Where, then, is there room for moral condemnation of impressionism among people today, when it is merely the extension of the immutable laws of vision adduced and verified for centuries? I am afraid the reason for all this is to justify salon style painting techniques or - even more foolishly, the unfortunate use of absolutist based sight-size methods - as the only legitimate ways for representing reality truthfully. All others lead to perdition or modernism which is apparently, far worse.
        If you must have a fall guy for the chaotic state of representational art, instead of looking at artists who create truth out of color relations, like Monet, you might look at those who actually chose to randomize it: to bring chance into the equation. Acknowledged as the father of modern painting, Wassily Kandinsky, who was born to a wealthy Odessa family within a couple years of Benson and Tarbell, shared a common interest with Gammell in using painting to express non-visual ideas. He has far more in common with Gammell type imaginative painting than he has with impressionism and its love of the visual world for its own beauty. His drawing skills in any classic sense are non-existent, while his pernicious influence on the education of the artist is everywhere. And everyone agrees that he is the father of modern art. Rather than impressionism then, and I say this in only a partially tongue-in-cheek manner, perhaps it's reasonable to wonder whether, or to what extent, imaginative painting should be held responsible for modern art.

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition IV, 1911

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition IV, 1911

Claude Monet, Wheatstacks (End of Summer) 1890-1891

Claude Monet, Wheatstacks (End of Summer) 1890-1891

Short Review of the MFA's 2016-17 William Merrit Chase Exhibit

        William Merrit Chase was a year younger than his fellow Munich trained painter Frank Duveneck, and almost ten years older than Joseph DeCamp who followed them to Germany's Royal Academy for training. Any number of his pictures were painted alongside Duveneck with whom he shared models and, for a time, aesthetic inclinations. Chase remains an American Painter of the second rank, and this is something of a quick discussion of what keeps him there.
        For good or not so good, Chase's outstanding characteristic was in presenting many artistic faces: something of an artistic chameleon. After sharing the Duveneck look and approach to painting early on, he appears to have taken on the look and ideas of the naturalists, Bastien LePage perhaps, or the Newlyn School in numerous subsequent pictures. Later, he shares an aesthetic with Whistler and the tonalists, borrowing with them the flat patterning and diminished depth of values of Japanese prints. At other times his brushwork and light-effect production using dramatic blacks emulate Sargent, especially in his fish still-lifes and certain portraits. His full color interiors of later on and some of his outdoor subjects strongly reflect the Boston School painters, with whom he showed as one of the Ten American Painters. Finally, the body of outdoor work - mostly landscapes from Long Island - appear to be some mix of naturalism and understated impressionism, usually in very shallow value ranges.
        He expressed a regretful belief that he would probably be best remembered for the still-lifes with fishes that clearly show him at his strongest, and most individual. As is typical of those who emulate other painters, hopping from one style to another (perhaps in an attempt to follow market trends) can rarely achieve their model's level of quality. His Whistler/tonalist visitations while decidedly flat, lack the distinctive tastefulness of Whistler and numerous others who are clearly better at it. The attending tendency to flatten, which seemed his relentless goal, inhibited the truth of his light effects and left his pictures -except the still-lifes - decidedly ineffective with regard to edge, value, and chroma ranges.
        Although he was at times somewhat up to the task of 'doing it with the brush' a la Sargent or Duveneck, he seldom truly maintains the unity of that approach throughout - again with the possible exception of the fish pictures. Unlike Sargent, his work also typically fails to carry from across the room. Perhaps as a result of exhibiting with the impressionist oriented men of Boston, he suddenly and dramatically ups his chromal range from the doldrums of the Newlyn naturalism, yet he never achieves Boston School impressionistic sunlight effects, atmosphere, or even the inherent suggestions of depth characteristic of those who work from the effects of light. Instead, like so many who attempt impressionist light, his relentless grip on the outline of objects, and the false evens of his edge relationships held him back. His large busy interior start, despite its reasonable color-values, is a model of outline chaos at the expense of the visual unity which is the objective of Boston impressionist painting from start to finish. To give him credit, the color schemes of numerous pictures (especially when working tonalistically) though shallow, are sometimes distinguished and good. His drawing appears consistently accurate though seldom actually inspired or expressive.
        When my students and I visited the Boston wing of the MFA following our tour of the Chase exhibit, the first picture to greet us was the bare shouldered woman seated on a couch playing a guitar by Joseph DeCamp. They were stunned by the almost unbelievable strength of this work compared with anything by Chase. One of them was led to comment, “Its a good thing we didn't come to the Boston rooms first.” What was clear was that the elevated attention to the truth in the painting by DeCamp gave his work a far more impressive, but also more individual beauty than those of Chase. Instead of working humbly under DeCamp's assumption that the sometimes elevated poetry we call impressionist art is the result of the deep pursuit of visual truth, Chase appears to injure himself by a too persistent chase... after art.

 

Chase, Still Life- Fish ca.1900

Chase, Still Life- Fish ca.1900

Chase, Studio Interior ca. 1882

Chase, Studio Interior ca. 1882

DeCamp, The Guitar Player, 1908

DeCamp, The Guitar Player, 1908