Tag Archives: art

Sorolla and America at the San Diego Museum of Art

If you have the opportunity to get to San Diego this summer, by all means do so.  Americans have the very rare opportunity this summer to see an exhibition of paintings by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida at the San Diego Museum of Art.  Though Sorolla was quite well known in his own lifetime (some 50,000 people came to his funeral, according to the exhibition catalog), he was then all but forgotten by the public.

Sorolla's portrait of Christopher Columbus
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Christopher Columbus Leaving Palos, Spain, 1910, oil on canvas. The Mariners’ Museum. The photo doesn’t do it justice.

Which is a shame.  Because, like his contemporary John Singer Sargent, Sorolla (pronounced So-roy’-ya) was an extraordinarily gifted painter. This exhibition focuses on paintings made in or purchased by Americans (or both), including a portrait of President William Howard Taft.  The exhibition include portraits of patrons and society members; seascapes; a few landscapes; and a number of gouaches painted from his hotel room in New York, and drawings made on the back of hotel restaurant menus.

OMG.  The show is amazing.

People always talk about Sargent’s “bravura” brushstrokes.  I hate to compare Sorolla to Sargent, but that’s the point of reference I think viewers might have.  Sorolla’s brushstrokes remind me of Sargent’s: the sweeping strokes of paint to indicate the folds of cloth in a sitter’s gown; or, in an otherwise shadowy room, the single thick stroke to indicate a sliver of light on a girl’s shoulder.  The painter’s energy is evident in each brushstroke.  Sorolla apparently loved the challenge of painting quickly, which in part accounts for the energy of his outdoor scenes (all painted from life, even the large ones).  The portraits are sensitive and glorious.  The seascapes are filled with life and emotion.  The large paintings of specific scenes—handicapped boys at the beach for an outing; or a woman in shackles, arrested for having murdered her child (today we’d call them political)—are also filled with emotion and sympathy.

Surprisingly, the landscapes are the weakest of the pieces, at least in this show.  They lack exuberance, almost as if the scene was too quiet for him.  (Or maybe it was the lack of pressure to get the likeness right.)

The day I was at the exhibition, many of the visitors were painters.  Snatches of conversations I overheard were all about this shadow or that bit of painting, or his use of color or how he changed the paintings from his sketches.  And for artists, this show has a couple of treats:  sketches made in preparation of paintings.  These sketches range from very small oil studies for large pieces, to drawings made to work out the composition for one of his paintings of children at the beach, to a series of nine rather large oil studies made in preparation of a commissioned portrait of Christopher Columbus.  Sorolla apparently found one of Columbus’ descendants to pose for the portrait.  The nine sketches included here show Columbus in a variety of heroic poses, all eventually rejected for a quieter, more sardonic portrait of the man at the slanting rail of his ship, framed by one of the ship’s sails, with just  a bit of horizon peeking out near the edge of the painting.  It’s a remarkable portrait, even if today Columbus’ legacy is considered to be far more mixed than it was when the painting was commissioned.

One word of caution:  parking at Balboa Park is quite limited, and the place his hugely popular. On the Tuesday I visited, we drove around for about half an hour looking for a place to park.  Look into public transportation, or get there early. Tickets are not timed. And the museum restaurant is currently closed, though there are other restaurants in the park. Sorolla and America runs through August 26, 2014.

Have you seen Sorolla and America?  What did you think?

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Malakoff Diggins, Again

Here’s a painting I did last summer: a small one of Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park . This is “the diggins,” where 19th Century miners used large hydraulic cannons to was away the mountainside in search for gold.

The place fascinates me: beauty in destruction.

Malakoff Diggins by Stephanie Benedict
Malakoff Diggins ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. 6″ x 12″, oil on panel.

The Drought in Northern California

It rained in Northern California last weekend: a trace in Sacramento, and a few inches of snow fell in the Sierra Nevada. The week before, while most of the rest of the US was caught in the “Polar Vortex,” the temperatures here were deceptively mild. Indeed, if you are a bicycle rider or a hiker, this is a great winter: Central Valley and Bay Area temps in the 60s, perfect sunny weather. (Well, except for the dirty, stagnant air.) It’s not so great if you’re a skier, though: there’s no snow in the mountains. Almost literally. The early January snowpack measurements found that on average the snowpack is about 20% of “normal.” In the northern part of the state, the snow was at 10% of “normal.” So while last week’s storm helped a teeny bit, many of the cross-country ski resorts have closed; instead, people can hike on their trails.

Benedict Oak Tree Sketch
Oak Tree Sketch. ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. Watercolor in a Hand Book Journal.

What this means for residents, both human and non-human, is that, unless things change, there will be very little water this summer and fall. The fire danger will be extreme. There have already been red flag warnings in Southern Cal and in the Sierra foothills in January. There was a fire in Big Sur in December.

Here is Sacramento, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has cut the flows to the American River to 500 cubic feet per second (cfs). (A cubic foot is about 7.5 gallons.) By comparison, according to the Sacramento Bee, the median flow for early January is 1,728 cfs, over three times as much. Local lore has it that, when the flows are this low, you can walk all the way across the river in some locations.

Wildlife officials have already started warning people to beware thirsty wild animals. If the drought goes on long enough, it may affect the country’s food supply.

Here are a couple of photos from my local park, where there is a vernal pool preserve. Vernal pools are not affected by the pumping of river water. They only get water from rainfall, and no water flows out of them. The first photo is from December 2012, the second of our three dry years (so far). And the second picture is from last week (before this last rain).

 

Vernal Pools 2012 Benedict
Vernal Pools in Fair Oaks, December 2012. This was the second dry year in a row.

 

Vernal Pools Jan 2014, Benedict
The same vernal pools in January 2014. Sacramento has had no measureable rainfall since early December, and that was less than 0.1 inch of rain.

Since there is little I can DO about this drought, except conserve water*, I’ve decided that I’m going to try to document the drought in sketches and paintings. The sketch above is from that same park. With no rain, the oak trees kept their leaves very late, and they turned beautiful and subtle burnt oranges and reds.

I know I am supposed to end these posts on an upbeat note, and pose a call to action. So here’s my call to action for you: pray for rain. Do a rain dance for us. Whatever power you have with the Universe, send some rain and snow our way.

*Water in the West is an extremely complicated and complex topic, but since this blog focuses on art and nature, not politics, I’m not going to get into it. Yet.

 

Anders Zorn at the Legion of Honor

I wanted to write a glowing review of the Anders Zorn show at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco now through February 2, 2014. Anders Zorn is considered by many painters to be one of the Big Three of early 20th Century painting (the other two are John Singer Sargent and Joaquin Sorolla). He is not as well known by the public now, but in his day he was quite successful as a portrait painter and painted the portraits of three U. S. presidents.

 

Anders Zorn Self Portrait
Anders Zorn, Self-Portrait in Red, 1915. Oil on canvas. Zornmuseet, Mora. Photograph by Patric Evinger.

In many ways, the paintings are amazing, and this is a rare opportunity for Americans to see them without traveling to Sweden. The watercolors, especially, are tours de force. The paintings, both watercolors and oils, are worth seeing for the brushwork alone. Big brushes that create satin fabric (or homespun) in a stroke. Portraits that capture the personality of the sitter, for good or ill. So I definitely recommend the show to anyone interested in art history during the Gilded Age or in the paintings of a “painter’s painter.”

Zorn is also known for his limited palette, on display in the self-portrait that opens the exhibit: white, yellow ochre, vermilion, and ivory black. The self-portrait also has a dark ochre that might be burnt umber or some other darker earth color. In that palette, the blacks can look blue when placed next to warmer colors. And for the landscapes, Zorn may have also used viridian, but I don’t think so. The green in his landscapes is so odd, I think it, too, must be made with black, though I’m not sure how.

Which brings me to why I cannot whole-heartedly recommend this show to someone who just loves art, and has no interest in the craft or in art history. For ultimately, though most of the paintings are supremely well executed, I cannot love them.

The paintings are just cold*, by which I mean the temperature of the colors, not the emotion he seeks to portray. The paintings are also, for the most part, somehow calculating. Even the nudes, for all their daring (naked women in the landscape!) are a little voyeuristic and prurient.

I think I was reacting to that famous palette. Without blue, the colors somehow seem cold and off. And yellow ochre is a harsh, dull yellow under the best of circumstances. If anything, I was reminded of early Van Gogh, before he went to Paris: all dark and umber and black. A few of the nudes are warmer, as Zorn got the warmth of the day into them. This is just my own opinion, mind, and you are free to disagree with me. But I’m gonna stick with a fuller palette.

Have you seen the Zorn exhibition? What did you think?

*See especially “Man and Boy in Algiers,” a watercolor from 1887. The rendering is perfect. But the skin tones in sunlight are cold. There is almost no warmth at all in that sunny day painting.

 

Something Completely Different

I’ve been experimenting with caseins recently. I got some after I read the amazing James Gurney’s posts and watched his videos about the paints. (I rather wonder how much sales of caseins spiked after he blogged about them.) They’re fun!Toy Tiger ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. 5: x 7". Casein

Toy Tiger ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. 5: x 7″. Casein heightened with watercolor and water soluble pencil. On panel.

They’re a bit like gouache, in that they are an opaque, water-soluble medium, but they seem to me more flexible. You can thin them to do washes, or use them fairly thickly. They dry to a soft matte finish. But they’re also sort of like oil, in that you can mix them wet-into-wet if you work quickly. Gurney calls them “oils on steroids,” but I’m not sure I agree. I think they’re more like gouache on steroids. But they also share a feature of acrylics: they change value once dry, generally turning darker. Since values are something I struggle with, and therefore focus on, I find the value shift annoying.

But, not enough to stop me from playing more with them!

Posting will be intermittent the next few weeks. I’m trying to finish up some larger pieces for a show, and to get ready for some trips.