Category Archives: Art History

Baywood Artists Paint Point Reyes

Weekend visitors to Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California, have a treat in store for them. Through the end of this month, the exhibition of paintings by the Baywood Artists is on display at the Red Barn Classroom near the Visitor Center. Over 50 paintings of tule elk, pelicans, horseback riders, surf, fog, and the water and land of Point Reyes illustrate some iconic—and not so iconic—scenes.  The show is a benefit for the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, the primary nonprofit park partner organization created to raise awareness and funds for education, preservation, and resource protection of the National Seashore.

Point Reyes Poppies by Tim Soltesz.
Point Reyes Poppies by Tim Soltesz. Oil. 18 x 24. At Point Reyes Wild.

The show is a treat. From Tim Soltesz’ largish painting of fog rolling in to Christin Coy’s teeny views of the marshes, the works showcase the many aspects of Point Reyes.  While most of the works are oils, some are other media:  watercolor, pastels, graphite.  Something for every taste and price range.  And, even better, I hear the show is selling fairly well—nice to hear, because the sales benefit not only the artists but the land.

It’s this choice to use their artwork to support conservation efforts that so impresses me with Baywood Artists. Well, that and the high quality of their artwork!  For three years running they have chosen the Seashore as their focus.  You can see from the images that they spent a lot of time at Point Reyes painting.  Some of the works are from a mountain summit, which means the artists lugged their easels and paints and canvas up some trail to get those images!  It’s a dirty job, I know, but someone’s gotta do it, right?  All the better for us, the viewers, and the lucky people who take those paintings home.

Point Reyes Wild is on display weekends only through the end of September 2014 from noon to 5:00 p.m.

Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting

The Irvine Museum has an interesting show up this summer:  Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting.  It’s an exhibition of early California Impressionist paintings paired with contemporary plein air paintings.  Many of the paintings are from private collections.  The viewer can compare and contrast the techniques, the subject matter, or the sizes of the paintings.  The museum offers little commentary on the matter, which is refreshing, so the observations are entirely those of the viewer.  Here are mine:

  • The older paintings are often larger than the newer ones. 16 in. x 20 in., 20 in. x 30 in., or even larger, are not uncommon sizes for the California Impressionist paintings. The newer paintings are more frequently 12 in. x 16 in. or smaller.
  • The earlier paintings are often more carefully painted, with more precise strokes and harder edges than the newer ones. Many of the newer ones are very think paint applied very quickly—not slapdash, but also not carefully controlled. The influence of the intervening century of abstract painting, perhaps?
  • The color palettes of all of the painters are similar. Few if any blacks, no strikingly different color ranges such as illustrators might use. The individual pigments might be different now from a century ago, but the range of colors are similar. And in this show, mostly California colors and light.

While this is a nice exhibition, and an interesting conceit, it’s also true that none of these paintings represent the best work of the earlier artists, and probably not the contemporary painters, either. I don’t mean these aren’t good paintings—they are.  A couple of them are very good indeed (take special note of the Ken Auster painting of houses near the beach). But not every show can be full of masterpieces.

In fact, as I think about it, these are plein air paintings.  A plein air painting can only be worked on for a couple of hours during the day, or the light changes too much.  I suspect the larger early pieces were painted over a couple of days, at the same time each day. But they’re not studio pieces, which can be worked on for longer periods.

And maybe that’s part of the point of the show:  that plein air paintings can be nice, even very good—but they are rarely masterpieces.

Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting runs through October 2, 2014.

Have you seen the show?  What did you think?  Do you like plein air painting?

Upcoming Museum Exhibitions

For the past few years, there have been a number of quite stellar art exhibitions featuring impressionist or sort of near-Impressionist art in the northern California region. Now the museums seem like they are focusing on more modern art, which appeals less to me. Still, there are lots of shows that sound interesting. Here is a completely subjective sampling.

Japanese Prints: Hokusai at LACMA

April 13–July 28, 2013

LA County Museum of Art

 

J.C. Leyendecker

Ongoing

The Haggin Museum, Stockton, California

Like Norman Rockwell? Check out J. C. Leyendecker.

 

Inspiration Points: Masterpieces of California Landscape

May 31–August 11, 2013

Oakland Museum of California

The Oakland Museum has one of the best collections of early California art around.  IMHO.

 

Impressionists on the Water

Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

June 1 – October 13, 2013

In celebration of the Americas Cup races.

 

Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years, 1953–1966

De Young Museum, San Francisco

June 22–September 29, 2013

I know, Diebenkorn is more modern than my typical recommendations.  But every artist working today has to contend with Diebenkorn somehow.

 

The Epic and the Intimate: French Drawings from the John D. Reilly Collection

June 30–September 29, 2013

Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento

 

David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition

DeYoung Museum, San Francisco

October 26, 2013–January 20, 2014

 

Matisse from SFMOMA

November 9, 2013–September 7, 2014

Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

Paintings from the SF MOMA collection while that museum undergoes renovation.

 

And of course, the really big not-to-miss show:

Anders Zorn, Sweden’s Master Painter

November 9, 2013–February 2, 2014

Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

Among many artists I admire, Anders Zorn is ranked as one of the Big Three among many painters I respect, though he is less well known to the American public. (This Big Three comprises Sargent, Sorolla, and Zorn.) There was a smaller show at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston earlier this year. This show promises to be much larger, and a chance for those of us not going to Sweden to see his work in person.

What shows have I missed that you are looking forward to seeing this year?

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?

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?