The disproved axiom that "drawing is everything," or the equally destructive “well drawn is well enough colored” are two great errors promoted in modern realist ateliers. The discovery of a far better way of expressing the whole truth when painting from nature led painters to abandon principles of the “cult of the integrity of the outline,” as Degas commentator, Paul Valery once called it. Though he saw this new way of working all around him (presumably in such artists as Sargent and Sorolla among many others), Degas never surrendered to it as his method. I would suggest that he accommodated some of its beneficial effects in his own way, as referenced in the poet's essay “Degas Dance Drawing”:

As soon as a painter no longer conceives of color as local quality active in itself by contrast with other colors but as a local effect of all the light in a space, shared by all the forms it contains; as soon as he attempts to perceive this subtler repercussion, and use it give his work a certain unity different from that of composition, his conception of Form is entirely changed. Followed to the limit he arrives at impressionism.”*

In his book on Vermeer, Boston School Painter Philip Hale makes the point that rather than being merely the outline or contour( and what happens within it) drawing is, well ... everything, inclusively:

The trouble with trying for merely light and shade, merely for colour, merely for drawing, is not only that we miss all the other qualities but even that which we try for we distort ... a man who modestly tries to make the drawing, the values, the colour as they appear is apt if he has ability to do all three well. You cannot get really accurately modeled drawing without true colour. Indeed, if by some miracle one were able to paint each color right in tone, shape and shift the drawing would come by itself. They are simply other names for colour. The truest drawing is a melange of light and shade. The moment a man searches for one quality alone he does, by the 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 of 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 Vermeeer 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.

By bringing such thinking into actual practice, bringing all the elements, all the horses, into the exercise from the beginning and not just the outlines of objects, Boston School painters achieve greater unity in rendering nature. In doing so, they encompass more actual content than ever before, altering forever the very idea of unity itself. The complete painter understands this.

Paul Ingbretson, October 2017

*In a future post I hope to follow up with a finer analysis of the “unity different from that of composition” point which is unlikely to mean anything at all to the object outline painter not initiated in the way of working referred to here.

Degas, "Portrait de Marguerite Degas," 1859.

Degas, "Portrait de Marguerite Degas," 1859.

Ingres, "Madame Gonse," 1852

Ingres, "Madame Gonse," 1852

DeCamp, "Blue Veil," c. 1913.

DeCamp, "Blue Veil," c. 1913.

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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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

The Realism That Is Impressionism

        All great painters are more or less impressionists


        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.

        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.”

                                                                                  R. H. Ives Gammell


[Velasquez' painting is a] "realism of general aspect."


        The realistic or truthful-as-possible depiction of people and things for use in paintings has pretty much always been a goal of representational painters. Pictorial subject matter depicting life as it is lived in reality, rather than its idealized, fantasized, or otherwise altered variant has 'always' been around as well. Romanticism in subject matter, no matter how realistic the drawing and stylization in the work's treatment of objects and people, falls outside the definition of realism.

         By the 1600's, the Dutch painters were not only known for their realistic depiction of daily life on the streets, but for actually painting peopled interiors directly from life. Even when depicting historical subject-matter such as Christ healing the sick, Rembrandt had done so realistically (even including a defecating dog in the foreground.) However, it's in Vermeer that we have the Dutch model for the modern impressionist - realist, one who sets up in their studio an entire scene of life just as it might have happened, and then painting it more or less exactly as they see it.

        Well, it's not quite that simple, because well before Vermeer something like this form of realism was already being practiced in Spain. Velasquez was raised on it, as evidenced by his early kitchen pictures. Yet from there, it was the direction in which he took this approach which had the greatest early impact on the emergence of realism in the 1800s -  particularly with Las Hilanderas and Las Meninas. His fluid, direct-painterly methods and the sense of life they conveyed stood him stand apart from the more typical, hard outlined and carefully modeled works, including his own, leading up to that time. So great was his influence in Boston that recipients of the traveling award at Boston's Museum School were sent to Madrid to copy in the Prado. Their inevitable painting choice, if not their actual assignment, was Velasquez' figure of a woman spinning in the right corner of Las Hilanderas.

                In that same Museum School training, directed as it was by Antwerp trained painter, Otto Grundman, Dutch painters were also extolled as examples for emulation. Typically great Dutch craftsmanship would be pointed out, yet with the advent of a new emphasis on light and color following the advent of Monet. The master of light, Jan Vermeer, became a painter of particular interest to those who would subsequently lead the Boston School. It isn't surprising that Museum School trained (and eventual teacher there) Philip Hale, would select Vermeer as the subject for a book. Hale's thesis, not only a singular written presentation of Vermeer's art, does a remarkable job in also introducing key tenets of Boston School impressionism. It should be read by anyone wishing to understand them. Paxton, who collaborated in Hale's research and analysis, is reported to have extolled Vermeer as his ideal of good painting - something Gammell clearly bought into as well. At times Paxton seems to be almost self-consciously imitating his work. As with Velasquez, graduates of the Museum School often copied Vermeer in Antwerp or elsewhere to complete their training

        As indicated, many of the Dutch were occupied with the idea of painting things just as seen; in the room, or on the table, before them. Still lifes, interiors, or genre scenes were most often set up and copied accurately, granting further impetus to the observation of visual truths. With some exceptions (Rembrandt being the most notable) conventions related to painting remained fairly uniform - dominated by the idea of drawing the figure or object pre-eminent, with its outlines executed first, and then its interior surface modeled with mid-tones rather like a modern day coloring book. With their finely articulated two-dimensional accuracy, and their continuous lines, Holbein's drawings often look as if traced on a glass. When Vermeer paints interiors, as in The Astronomer, he outlines each object in the same way. Even he is clearly operating from object outlines.

        Yet in Velasquez, who is obviously more interested in the larger visual impression for its own sake than Rembrandt, we see a real shift in the approach from the old way of painting. Velasquez's goal is to articulate the visual world as it appears, on its own terms, even when it includes an entire ensemble of people, and a variety of spaces. To execute such a complicated picture in a life-like way, he found new efficiencies: ways of getting more quickly to the point, and to the collection of relationships making up the big visual impression as we would call it today. His orientation is similar in certain ways to that of a French still-life artist named Jean Simeon Chardin, the other painter of key interest to Tarbell and the Boston school.

        Carolus-Duran and Dannat (the latter of which would have a major influence on Tarbell and Benson) as well as numerous others of their generation had found Velasquez' later approach well suited to their realist/impressionist ambitions. In the 1800's, some say as a result of the French Revolution of 1848 or even earlier, a realism understood as getting back to the depiction of life as it really is, began to dominate the visual arts. Sargent, who had adopted Carolus-Duran's approach almost exactly, had spent time in Spain working out his version of Velasquez' impressionism. Meanwhile Sorolla, Zorn, and our friends which made up the Boston School among many others dropped, for example, indirect and outline-first academic painting even when making imaginative pictures. Sargent's Oyster Gatherers of Calais and Smoke of Ambergris are examples.

        Yet even before that particular "French Revolution," the Dutch had already been developing painting along similar lines. Eventually, or one is tempted to say inevitably given their strong background in painting directly from life, landscape painting on location came to be attempted there. By the early 1800s, it was spreading south. At sixteen years of age, Monet is said to have found a Dutch trained painter, Boudin, painting on the beach. He put himself under his mentorship, eventually working with the artist's teacher, Jongkind - all in pursuit of the fascinating art of plein aire painting. Their approach to painting was also nearly outline free. By the time we get to Monet in particular, as he digs deeper into the study of the color of light directly before nature, it is clear that ever more effective and efficient processes for execution finally became de rigeur. At that point the methods of painting from life changed decidedly. And those of the Boston School were one of the more impressive in achieving all impressionism could hope for, what Gammell would go on to call the 'greatest evolution of impressionism.”

Velazquez, Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, 1618-22

Velazquez, Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, 1618-22

Velazquez, Las Hilanderas, 1657

Velazquez, Las Hilanderas, 1657

Representational Painting's Two Models

    “It cannot be too frequently pointed out to students of the period that both academicians and impressionists were justified in their respective aesthetic aims and that it is absurd to hold one type of painting to be a higher form than the other.   

    “...[T]hese objectives (of academic Lefevbre and the others) are alien to the impressionist endeavor which, as we have noted previously, aims to report the immediate impact of something seen and observed by the painter in its envelopment of light and atmosphere. Both ideals have suscitated great works of art, but each should be judged by its own criteria with the painter’s specific intent in mind .... a painter is obviously free to choose between these two mutually incompatible goals and his preference is usually determined by his native inclination.       

       “The word, 'impressionism' admirably suggests this purpose and differentiates it from a realism which seeks to imitate appearances rather than convey an artists reactions to those appearances...Indifferent to the world of the imagination they were deeply stirred by the world they saw about them.”                                                                                                                   R. H. Ives Gammell

    The evidence clearly supports the idea that representational pictures are of two basic sorts: imaginative, or pictures first seen in the mind and then pieced together like fiction writing in literature, and impressionistic, or pictures of the world as seen before the artist at the moment; a kind of "journalism of the senses" (though such an analogy may not entirely suffice.) For the purposes of this discussion, since it revolves around the teachings of Gammell, it is the key differentiation.

     Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, David's Oath of the Horatii, Leighton's Cymon and Iphigenia and most of the works of Gammell, are examples of the former. The creation of such works require many levels of preparation. The poses and groupings of the actors are drawn up as thumbnail sketches which are then most often worked up in detailed studies from live models. Clothing is studied in separate drawings, perhaps with the use of a manikin. Architecture is drawn out in some detail, often with three-dimensional models put to use. In Poussin's case, detailed dioramas were constructed which featured clay figures sculpted to scale. Elaborate layouts of all the elements are drawn onto paper, and traced or squared up onto the canvas or wall. Detailed grisaille studies of the parts and/or the whole are typically painted onto the surface before any color is added. The work proceeds in this complicated, indirect, and procedural vein ... ultimately leading to the final full color covering of paint for which many, if not all the parts, had been pre-painted as color studies. This form of the picture making craft is mechanically very complex, and has produced amazing results for those inclined to a work of the imagination. Creating a work in this way is a time consuming, and usually a very expensive proposition. The sort of work a wealthy government or church might have commissioned or promote in its institutions of art, but which a poor or middle income painter would have been hard pressed to endeavor. The Prix de Rome and a chance to study with masters of such painting in Rome was awarded by the government of France in specially designed competitions to young men who proved adept in its production.

    The word 'impressionism' was put to use by Gammell as the label for any paintings done from nature essentially just as the artist sees it before them, or as a reasonably proximal interpretation of what they see. Yet Monet and others of his plein air landscape painting circle were those first associated with the appellation. Speaking to the term's use as a descriptive for work done directly from life, R. A. M. Stevenson considers it understandable that “...[I]mpressionism was first fully made manifest in the work of a portrait painter.” Specifically Velasquez, (for whom his book is named and his inquiry prompted.) Still-lifes and interiors - like those of Chardin, Vermeer, or Velasquez - were initially set up, then painted on the spot as wholly pre-designed subjects. As their subjects stood before them as a gestalt, their process of execution was more direct and far more efficient than those of the imaginative painter. To paint a still-life, the impressionist will select and arrange the objects, select a lighting and vantage-point, decide the picture's size and proportions, stretch a canvas, and simply go to work. With figurative subjects, the model will be placed in a pre-arranged setting and assigned a pose which they will hold like a potato on a plate for as long as needed. The human model may be absent from the setting while the artist works on other elements, but ideally the ensemble is always together and apiece.

    The outdoor landscape is even less complicated, with the artist doing very little arranging - little more than looking around, finding a scene through their viewfinder, and setting canvas on easel. The only preliminary may be a small thumbnail drawing or a color study for initial review. From that point forward and without further ado, the impressionist directly renders what they sees before them with as much grace and efficiency as possible.

    Less direct methods may be used by some impressionists who will enact preliminary drawings of the scene or set-tup before them. The Gammell method for students included full value preliminary drawings of the whole, to be sized up and traced onto canvas, which is then laid in and subsequently finished one area at a time. This outline based method differs decidedly from that of the Boston School referred to by Gammell as the greatest evolution of impressionism. It is more closely tied to an older way, similar to that involved in producing Velasquez' early bodegónes; ways ultimately dropped by him in his quest for a more vivid expression of the visual effect, ways more commonly used by the imaginative painter.

    One final version of painting that would have to be considered 'impressionism' under Gammell's definition is the trompe l'oeil painting. It is treated historically as a deformity or a curiosity by comparison with the rest of impressionism, owing to its intentional exaggeration of detail and a tendency to reward a localized "looking in," rather than emphasize the truth of the larger impression. Having had to figure most things out for themselves, thanks to our widespread disconnect from the wisdom of the past, many of today's representational painters use curious combinations of any number of ways of handling visual truth even when working, as it were, "impressionistically."

    The fact that impressionist painting could be fairly readily undertaken by those without much financial support contributed to an increase in the number of those aspiring to be painters in the first place. A major onslaught of truly bad painting naturally accompanied this trend, as fewer and fewer acquired even a modicum of the necessary underlying skills. The destruction of the drawing base in our educational institutions, along with the failure of individual artists with skill to personally take responsibility for the success of the next generation are equally to blame in the damage done to representational art in the last hundred years. These realities in no way diminish the brilliance of impressionism's “greatest practitioners” in the Boston School, especially given the notion, as affirmed by Joseph Decamp, that it is the method “easiest to understand but hardest to do.” 

    Although imaginative artists have found that a key to their strength is in the ability to create a visually plausible scene, neither their operation nor their results would be usefully labeled impressionistic. They are not simply responding to the seen world as it is, but creating one of their own out of whole cloth. And although in that effort an understanding of perspective and chiaroscuro, the anatomies of plants, animals and people, interior and exterior architecture and even how they relate in the settings are very helpful to them, the impressionist painter finds thinking of these things can be an actual hindrance to their success; success which is significantly measured by truth to the look of nature. At best this kind of knowledge is primarily (and ought to be used as) a resource for checking one's work.

    Apart from accuracy of shape making and form interpretation, some compositional universals and, of course, skill in the oil medium, little of the complex technical craft of the imaginative painter is of use to the impressionist. It is inevitably piecemeal and object-based and would, if used by an impressionist, impair the hallmark unity of the visual whole. On the other hand, there is no question that the training undergone by the student of impressionism to see and accurately render the world before themselves visually would clearly benefit the imaginative painter in their quest for visual plausibility. All painters of stature speaking on the subject emphasize, before and all other considerations, the central importance of the mastery of the look of nature: key to understanding “la source” of art.

Gammel, The Predicament ,1958

Gammel, The Predicament ,1958

DeCamp, The Blue Cup, 1909

DeCamp, The Blue Cup, 1909

Jules Joseph LeFebvre, Judith, 1892

Jules Joseph LeFebvre, Judith, 1892