THE COMPLEAT PAINTER

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.

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

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