Category Archives: Museums

Another Book of Sargent Watercolors?

Oh, my, yes!

When I buy monographs of an artist’s work, I almost never read the text. I’m just not that interested in the topics that interest art historians. This new book, John Singer Sargent Watercolors, is an exception. For the student of Sargent, this book is a must-have.

The book is a companion to a new exhibition of Sargent’s watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and, later, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. (Alas, this show apparently will not travel to the West Coast, where I live…)

Sargent oil painting next to a similar watercolor
This spread from John Singer Sargent Watercolors shows one of my favorite Sargent oil paintings next to a watercolor of a similar scene. What a treat to be able to compare them! (I know this photo doesn’t do them justice.)

The story behind this show is that Sargent only exhibited his watercolors in the States twice during his lifetime. The first time, the Brooklyn Museum bought all of them; the second time, the MFA bought them all. This exhibition brings these two collections of more than 100 paintings together for the first time in a century.

For the viewer, it’s a treat to see images of all these paintings grouped together.

For someone who wants to learn from one of the best: the book includes many close-ups of the paintings, so you can see how he did what he did. You can see how Sargent layered the paint, how he used a wax resist, or wet-in-wet. There are photos of Sargent working (including one of him with an umbrella tied to his leg to hold it upright!) and of his models, so you can see that the apparently casual images are, in fact, carefully posed. There’s even a chapter, called “Bringing Back Something Fine” that talks about Sargent’s techniques, with photos of the paintings taken with a raking light, to highlight the texture of the paper or the impasto paint.

And the book also compares a number of the watercolors with oil paintings. Apparently Sargent went back and forth from one medium to another, in yet another example of the man’s extraordinary talent. So the book shows, in one two page spread, one of my favorite Sargent oil paintings, called “Val D’Aosta” right next to a watercolor image of nearly the same thing, called “Brook Among Rocks.” Both paintings portray a clear stream flowing over cobbles, the banks lined by rocks and grass. The water flows quietly, only a few riffles as it moves over the rocky bottom. Light reflects off the bottom of the stream. You can almost hear it burbling as you look at it. And—look there—fish! He’s painted a small school of fish in the water.

As an oil painter, I have an idea how the oil painting was constructed (and I’ve seen that painting up close in person). The watercolor? Yes, ok, watercolors are painted from light to dark, and the grass is clearly wet-in-wet. But—how did he get those reflections? Even more than his portraits, IMHO it is Sargent’s watercolors of streams, mountains, and rock quarries, that amaze and humble me.

The Other Show at the DeYoung

What can one say about The Girl with the Pearl Earring, the exhibition at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, that hasn’t been said already? Well, here’s my take: the real treat of this show isn’t the paintings. It’s the accompanying exhibition of prints and engravings called Rembrandt’s Century.

The double show (at the DeYoung, you pay one entrance fee for both) includes 35 paintings from the Mauritshuis in The Hague; and some 200 engravings, etchings, prints, and a painting or two from the De Young’s own collection. “Prints were among the most extensively collected and circulated works of art produced during the Dutch Golden Age,” according to the catalog for Rembrandt’s Century. And Rembrandt van Rijn “was arguably the most influential graphic artist of his generation.” (Today we would call this varying your price point.) And, while etching and engraving may have been replaced by photography and iPad apps in popularity today, it’s worth it to see these amazing prints, made nearly 400 years ago, by some of the best artists of their or any age.

Now, I’m not an art historian or a printmaker, so I’m not going to talk about processes or the development of the arts. What I can say was that I was awed and humbled to stand in the presence of the master’s work—and indeed of all of these pieces.

Rembrandts Shell at the DeYoung Museum
Rembrandt van Rijn. The Shell (Conus Marmoreus). 1650. Etching, drypoint, and engraving. 9.7 × 13.2 cm (3 13⁄16 in. × 5 3⁄16 in.). Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund. 1997.42. From Rembrandt’s Century.

Take this shell, for example. Look at the chiaroscuro—the light and shadow. Look at how the shell feels round. To me, it’s that ability to create volume and depth that distinguishes Rembrandt’s work, etching or painting, from that of his contemporaries.

And then there’s this:

Rembrandt Sleeping Puppy
Rembrandt’s Sleeping Puppy. This version is from Wikimedia.

It’s teeny, all done with finely incised lines—but you want to pet the little guy.

One of the most surprising things to my friends and me was the way some of Rembrandt’s etchings reminded us of Picasso’s. (I’m sure we’re not the first to notice this—but you just don’t get the same jolt of recognition from reproduced images in books, even though these images are themselves prints.) The most striking example of this is a piece called “The Artist Drawing from a Model.” The top half of the image is completed, finely rendered, and very dark. The bottom half is merely scratched lines, the hints of things to come. The faint model herself is beautifully sketched out. The artist—and even more, the chair in the lower left—are crudely drawn, a preliminary layout. We don’t know why the piece was left unfinished. But it sure looks to me like something Picasso might have done.

Rembrandt Artist Drawing from a Model
Rembrandt Artist Drawing from a Model. This version is from the National Galleries of Scotland. REMBRANDT.78. Etching, drypoint and burin on paper. 23.20 x 18.40 cm. Sir David Young Cameron Gift 1943 through the Art Fund.

There ARE works by artists besides Rembrandt in this show, some of them quite good. Still, to me, they just show how good Rembrandt himself was by comparison.

And the paintings from the Mauritshuis? The recent trend for museums to send their permanent collections travelling while they renovate is a huge boon to art lovers. The opportunity to see these paintings is definitely worth it. I may never get another chance to see these works in person. The Girl is exquisite (and larger than I expected—about life size). And yet…

This probably isn’t fair, but I’m going to say it anyway. The painting “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” is in a darkened room all by itself. The painting is behind what has to be bullet-proof glass in a huge free-standing display case, which is surely alarmed. The fact that museums must make such an effort to protect these priceless artworks from people who would destroy them is a very sad commentary on our society, or any society. IMHO.

Still, she is sublime. Ironically, the Vermeer makes the paintings that follow it in the exhibition look stiff by comparison. But there are three Rembrandt portraits you can get up close to, to see his brushstrokes.

Have you seen The Girl with the Pearl Earring or Rembrandt’s Century? What did you think?

Secret Treasures at the Crocker

Imagine walking into a room and suddenly being transported to another time, another place. A place where satyrs raise families, where temples slowly crumble in Arcadian decay. A place where miniature cows graze in tiny fields, or an army of 1/8th-inch tall soldiers march across a field.

That’s how I felt this week—transported―when I walked into the The Artist’s View: Landscape Drawings from the Crocker Art Museum exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum. While the big show currently at the museum is the Norman Rockwell show, there’s a hidden treasure on the second floor that I highly recommend. The show only runs through January 6, 2013, so see it while you can!

Willem van Bemmel Landscape
One of the drawings in the exhibition. Not my favorite, but the only one I could find an image of. Willem van Bemmel, Landscape with an Artist Sketching, n.d. Black chalk on beige laid paper, laid down to beige laid secondary support, 6 1/8 x 7 15/16 in. Crocker Art Museum, E. B. Crocker Collection

The exhibition features drawings from the 17th through the 19th centuries from the museum’s permanent collection. Most of the artists were new to me, but that didn’t make them any less amazing. Most are small: from perhaps 3 x 4 inches, to about 12” by 20,” these are ink and chalk and graphite drawings (and a couple of watercolors) and sketches of hillsides, trees, Greek temples in idyllic settings. The latter may not be to our modern tastes, but to anyone interested in seeing how someone works, they’re fabulous.

The museum kindly has a few magnifying glasses for visitors to use “for a closer look” at these small works. With them, you can see teeny figures done in ink (with quill pens, remember), or that family of satyrs in their forest home. Or you can just get a closer look at the individual strokes of the quill that form branches or the squiggles that transform into leaves when you stand back to look at the entire work. For the artist, it’s a great opportunity to look at the technique of these predecessors working 150 or 250 years ago.

I’ve heard that one of the reasons modern artists don’t get the effects these earlier artists did is that the paper we have available today is different (this is the Era of Bad Paper, after all). I could clearly see the difference in some of these works, on blue or cream laid paper. Some were made with brushes, some with charcoal, and others with chalk. The white highlights could be very subtle or bright washes—but they all seemed softer and yet more precise than most one sees today.

It’s a gem of a show. Where the Crocker did fall down, however, is in the gift shop: there’s not one image of any of these pieces on a postcard or print anywhere. I wanted to take a couple home with me (on postcards) so I could study how they were made. No luck. So literally, you may never get to see these works again.

And the Rockwell show? It’s pretty amazing. I’m not sure why illustrators get such a bad rap.

 

A Mine of Beauty, Landscapes by William Trost Richards

Last week I mentioned that I’d received two new books on my doorstep. This post is a review of the second book.

Thanks to James Gurney, my library has a new addition: a delightful book of watercolor miniatures by Nineteenth Century American painter William Trost Richards called A Mine of Beauty. Published by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art for an exhibition of the paintings, this little book is itself a mine of beauty. Or, as my friend Steven put it, “Holy cow!”

An Essay at Twilight by William Trost Richards at PAFA
An Essay at Twilight, watercolor on paper, 3 5/16 x 5 inches. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Promist Gift of Dorrance H. Hamilton in memory of Samual M. V. Hamilton

Richards (1833–1905) was a Philadelphia painter who painted both in oil and watercolor. The approximately 100 paintings in A Mine of Beauty are printed full sized, from about 2 ½ inches by 3 ½ inches to 3 by 6. Richards painted them for his patron, industrialist George Whitney. Remarkably, the collection remained intact and now belongs to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

The paintings in A Mine of Beauty are remarkable: beautifully rendered landscapes and seascapes from southern New England, mostly around Newport and Conanicut Island in Rhode Island, and from Britain. They are exquisitely detailed little things, images of shorelines, boats, villages, sheep grazing in fields, river scenes. The man must have had a size 000 brush and a magnifying glass to make some of these tiny people and animals and castles. I recently had a brief discussion with another blogger about size. Well, these miniature watercolors show just how big a world a tiny canvas can convey. And they’re watercolors!

If you believe, as I do, that a painter should study the masters to improve her own work, then, as much as Sorolla or Sargent, this is a must see for landscape painters.

The book is fabulous. The exhibition runs from September 29 to December 30, 2012. I wish I were going to Philadelphia this fall so I could see it!

Postscript: To be fair, there’s another new book on Richards, called William Trost Richards True to Nature: Drawings, Watercolors and Oil Sketches by Carol M. Osborne. As the title indicates, this larger book showcases Richards’ oils and drawings. I recommend them both to anyone interested in Richards’ work.

What I Learned About Gilbert Stuart

One of the (many) treats of my recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was the chance to see Gilbert Stuart’s “unfinished” portraits of George and Martha Washington. The president’s portrait is the one used for the dollar bill. It’s a very famous painting, which many people know already, but I hadn’t been to the MFA in over 20 years, so it was fresh for me. And the last time I saw it, I wasn’t a painter, so I could see if with fresh eyes this visit. And seeing the portraits in person is different than seeing them in reproduction.

Both paintings are unfinished, apparently because Martha Washington didn’t like them. Martha’s is the head only, the president’s portrait includes the head, the beginning of shoulders, and a start of a background in the upper 2/3 of the canvas. The heads are exquisite: lively, beautifully rendered, subtly detailed. One of the little signs at the MFA says that Stuart captured those subtle, lively colors in the skin tones by glazing very thin layers of paint. So the heads in these paintings are virtually complete.

And the rest of the canvas is blank. A halo of dark around Martha’s head, and the beginning of a background in the 2/3s of the piece around George, both painted in a burnt umber-ish color, and after that—blank. Stuart knew what he wanted to do. Martha’s face is off-center. But there are no sketch marks, no blocking in, no marks of any kind. Just what appear to be stains on one of the canvases.

Detail showing the blank canvas on Martha Washington's unfinished portrait.
Martha Washington (Martha Dandridge Custis), by Gilbert Stuart (detail). 1796. Oil on canvas. Jointly owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Wikipedia says this was Stuart’s frequent practice. I’m no expert (and certainly not of portraits)—but that blank canvas speaks volumes to me about the confidence Stuart had to complete these paintings: to eventually fill in the clothing, the backgrounds, to keep proportions and light-and-shadow consistent, to make the paintings seem like one complete whole and not like bits stuck together. I know some painters today who work that way, but I was taught to fill in the entire canvas, to bring all the areas of the canvas to completion together, so they will all hang together as a single painting.

There’s another benefit to working this way. Stuart could give his clients an idea what the finished portrait would look like without spending the time or paint on the completed work before the client decided they wanted to keep them. I have no idea if that’s what Stuart was actually doing—he was apparently rather impulsive—but still. Who knows?

If you’re an artist—how do you work a painting? Do you work the entire canvas as a whole, or do you finish the focal point first, then complete the rest?