Boston School Painting: Direct or Indirect?

        It's a moot question how many of the Old Masters made use of process, how many of direct painting, and no one knows exactly the methods of those who appear to have painted by process. But at any rate the artists who have renewed the practice of painting in this century have sought to render what they saw without passing through preliminary or intermediary stages, during which the picture bears no comparison with nature, and looks wholly unlike its final and completed appearance. Modern men aimed at directness in two ways, one of which I cannot but think a mistake. The English innovators worked on a detailed drawing, made upon the bare white canvas, painting each inch with a careful and minute elaboration intended to be left as final in the picture. They, no less than the painters by process, claimed the sanction of tradition; but it was to the primitive practice of the pre-Raphaelites, chiefly painters of fresco, that they appealed, and not to the work of culminating schools and the true masters of oil-paint. The modern Frenchmen who also laid their colours directly on the canvas followed a different method. They first indicated the drawing very slightly in charcoal; when they took up the brush they made no attempt to finish bit by bit; they tried rather, while the paint was wet to cover the whole with a general lay-in of the broad masses in their main values of colour. At this stage they searched out and determined the relations between the large elements of effect; and not until they had made sure of the important divisions would they load them with subdivisions and place upon them the delineation of detail, the fineness of modelling, or the refinements of colour. They studied the truth of the whole before that of the part, thus seeming to contradict Leonardo, who advised students of drawing to study the part before the whole. Leonardo was not speaking of painting a picture but of acquiring a knowledge of facts. Unquestionably the habits of the Frenchmen led to a different style from that of the Englishmen to a better generalized and better ordered kind of truth, to a larger and suaver aspect of canvas, to a more logical study of atmosphere and real lighting, to a finer perception of plane, to a broader, more evident and intentional touch, and above all to that much praised power of perception, which in truth means a perception of the value of details and their agreement or disagreement of the ensemble of a picture. The Frenchmen also appealed in support of their innovation to the example of old masters; they maintained that Velasquez and Hals always painted directly; Rembrandt for the most part; Leonardo, Titian, and other Italians, very much more frequently than had been supposed.
         R. A. M. Stevenson, Raeburn

        English teaching has been contrary to impressionism, and Velasquez has not been sufficiently, or at any rate rightly, admired. Many painters and writers of influence have condemned impressionism in a manner which showed that they neither knew nor cared anything about it. Whatever has been gained in England in this direction lately has been gained at the bayonet point of abuse and strong language. The English schools never taught one to "place" a figure or cast on the canvas. They would not permit of blocking in either squarely or roundly. They expected you to begin a thing by finishing. They accustomed the student from the outset of his career to overlook subtle differences of large planes, to miss the broader sweep of a line for the sake of tight detailed modelling, and the exaggerated indenting of small bays in an outline. They gave gold medals to chalk drawings in which every little muscle was modelled up to a high light, whilst an important change of plane, such as the set-back of the chest, was shown by a wrong general value. It is not wonderful that people so taught saw only one side of the art of Velasquez, and that their system of teaching is now abandoned for one which has been, to a large extent, based on the practice of the great Spanish impressionist.
        R. A. M. Stevenson, Velasquez

        Any discussion of the Boston School necessarily includes the issue of directness versus indirectness, or what Stevenson calls painting by process. In the recent past the work of Maxfield Parrish, a painter Gammell actually consulted to discover alternate ways to make his imaginative pictures, is probably the prime example of the indirect approach in the U.S. He does the drawing for his pictures as finished silhouettes in one process which he seals with varnish so he doesn't lose it. Then he lays over that a very articulate blue underpainting of the values only called a grisaille which he lets dry and seals. He then glazes reds and yellows over that, in two distinct processes to complete the color. Even when working directly from live models with an intent to simply make it like including a likeness of the light-effect, a painter may use an entirely indirect process. The preliminary work for Ingres' Le Grande Odalisque provides prime examples of the processes of that method when used in its most typical application: the imaginative picture.
        When Richard Lack discusses his “impressionist” method he is actually describing an older method of indirect painting, one that had been discarded by the Boston School painters in their personal work. They didn't practice or teach under-painting, they taught hitting the note you see “as like as you can the first time.” The French called it “au premier coup” meaning at the first blow, or straight off. As with Sargent this method was not done in a single sitting but over many days, often over dry paint. Yet it was a single process, in which each wet-into-wet layer attempted to be as like as possible until completion. “Put down a note and leave it,” referring to the color notes, further characterizes the directness they practiced: they didn't do that over a grisaille lay-in. Among other clear indicators, the relative rarity of serious preliminary studies and their starts themselves both indicate no such general practice. As in the case of the drawing for The Blue Cup, it is obvious DeCamp was merely searching quickly for the main effects in order to determine if he had a composition he liked and perhaps to secure its rough framing and placement, but certainly not as a template for the painting.
        Properly speaking these are usually concept sketches rather than studies, and by no means under-work. Sargent, whose process is similar, would sometimes throw down a few pencil lines on a small piece of paper and then circumscribe them with a frame to assess his composition. At times, in portraiture, this might be done to enable the client to approve the rough idea before proceeding. I do that very thing, usually in full color and executed in an hour, to discuss my proposed composition with my client. Boston School painters were masters of direct painting from life, and their work proves that the direct methods were as good as any indirect ones for most purposes, and far better than any for exploring color-based light and drawing simultaneously. Although it is strongly implied by some that these were men of lesser intellect, I have found that those of greater scholarly erudition, sometimes taken as intelligence, are often incapable of successfully executing pictures as they did even though they tried mightily.
        So while one may call anything painted from life with the intent of simply making a likeness “impressionism” - since, after all, it doesn't fit under the “imaginative” category - it still isn't Boston School impressionism. It is as simple as that: the method is the school.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres,  Odalisque in Grisaille , ca. 1824–34

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Odalisque in Grisaille, ca. 1824–34

William MacGregor Paxton,  Nude , 1915

William MacGregor Paxton, Nude, 1915