Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bouguereau and the Real 19th Century

I just found the most fascinating article. Bouguereau and the Real 19th Century

There's just so much I could say about this.

This article is really long and many people will probably not go to the trouble of reading the entire thing (if any of it). The basic premise:

  1. Academic painter William Bouguereau was among the greatest 19th century artists that the art world had never heard of (until at least after 1990).

  2. Bouguereau's work was lost to history due to a massive conspiracy of art dealers out to make a great deal of money. By defiling Bouguereau's reputation and aggressively marketing modern art, said art dealers caused Bouguereau's work to all but disappear from museums for 50 years. (Note the point of the conspiracy was not really about Bouguereau/defiling Bouguereau, but it was about marketing a product, namely modern art.)
The author is, by the way, a HUGE fan of Bouguereau. A quote from his article, describing his first encounter with a Bouguereau painting:
I walked into the Clark Museum to see their thirty Renoirs, and after leaving the Renoir galleries walked out into a major hall, at the end of which was a painting that grabbed me body and soul. It was a life-size painting of four water nymphs playfully dragging a mythological satyr into a lake against his will. Frozen in place, gawking with my mouth agape, cold chills careening up and down my spine, I was virtually gripped as if by a spell that had been cast. It was so alive, so beautiful and so compelling. Finally, after about fifteen or twenty minutes of soaking up wave after wave of artistic and spiritual ecstasy, I started to take back control of my consciousnessÖ mind started racing with unanswered questions. My first thought was "I haven't felt this way about a work of art since I stood before Michelangelo's David."

I know what he means, that feeling he's talking about, the sensation of being floored by a piece of art on the wall. I wouldn't put it that way, for fear of sounding...well...kinda nutty (admit it, "spiritual ecstasy" is just kind of goofy sounding). But I know that feeling.

[It's that holy shit feeling. Song of the Lark, by Jules Breton gives me that feeling, that sensation. You can't tell by the graphic on the website if you click on the link I've provided, because you'd have to SEE this painting to understand, but it's the sun--Jules Breton captured, really captured--the sun at dusk, when it's big and indescribably red/pink/orange. With oil paint, I'd have though it was impossible. I could stare at this painting for hours and wonder and think and explore ideas and imagine myself in the place of the woman in the painting. This piece is hanging in the Art Institute at Chicago, and I recommend you go there at least once in your lifetime. I'm digressing.]

I'm not going to comment much on the conspiracy theory in this article except to say that I think it sounds a bit outrageous. Artists, like writers and musicians, come and go in popularity. This seems natural to me. I'm not an expert in art history--the most I know about modern art history I learned in Peter's Contemp Trends class, and David's Modern Art History. And that was something like 10 years ago. However, this is another quote from the article:

Do we really want the works of Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning to be representatives of the best of what mankind can produce? They are a crude hoax.
Nevermind that the author of this article misspelled Pollock's last name. He also called him a hoax. Earlier in the article the author really laid it all out with these couple paragraphs:

Bouguereau was incredibly productive, painting an average of sixteen to eighteen paintings per year during his prime. But his dealer Goupil had a list a hundred deep, of wealthy collectors waiting for his work. Everything was sold long before it was finished. Dealers for these great academics sat biting their nails waiting helplessly for the products they needed to sell. Well, what kind of business is that? Any good business man knows that if you have ten of something and can sell two hundred, that you'd better get out there and find the other one hundred and ninety so that you can meet the demand and maximize your profits. But with the demand of the works by a specific artist, you can't go anywhere else except to that artist.

What a great solution Modernism had for this problem. Dealers welcomed it with open arms, and as the Academy and Salon fell into disrepute, they were the ones who took over the direction of art, and their advertising dollars made sure that the press played ball. So they celebrated artists and art forms where supply could keep pace with the demand that they were creating. Bouguereau painted eight hundred and twenty-six paintings, and fully seventy-five percent of them are master works of the highest level and half of those are full blown masterpieces. But it was still only eight hundred and twenty-six paintings. Alma-Tadema only produce four hundred and thirty-five during his life.

Do you know how many works were produced by Picasso? -- more than eighty thousand.
This seems to be the heart of the article. According to this author, you've been duped. Your artistic tastes have been shaped by art dealers who wanted you to prefer modern art--which could be realistically produced much faster and in greater quantities than traditional paintings. Furthermore, you've narrowly escaped being cheated out of a rich artistic history that was buried for half a century but that is slowly making its way back into museums around the world.

My 3 favorite paintings--I have them listed on my blog as "This is what I'd take if I had to live the rest of my life on a desert island and I could only take 3 paintings"

  • The Song Of The Lark, Jules Breton

  • Mariana In The Moated Grange, Sir John Everett Millais

  • An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, Joseph Wright of Derby
All of these pieces are very realistically rendered, traditional paintings. In fact, John Everett Millais was even mentioned in this article as one of the unfortunate 19th century artists whose career was covered up by the modern art scandal. If I had to choose favorite contemporary artists, I'd probably pick some of the backwards, retroactive American artists like Edward Hopper. And if I had to choose favorites among painters who don't work representationally or who don't place an emphasis on representational art, I wouldn't be picking anyone from the New York School or any of the other famous art crowds. I'd be picking some of the people whose blogs I follow now--artists who have benefited from the invention of modern art. And while I was never on the Modern art bandwagon in terms of my favorite artists, I would never believe for a second that contemporary, non-representational art is not really art, or that it is somehow less than other conservative, traditional art. This reminds me of the man at my office, a very good friend, who says that all real music was written before 1900. We talk about modern bands and he says, "that's not real music". And like that, he writes off about a century of music because he thinks it's noise.

But, back to this issue about the validity of realistically rendered art vs. unrealistically rendered or non-representational art.

I can paint and draw very realistically.

Here is a charcoal drawing of Walt Whitman I drew in high school. Note, uber realistic. I'd show some examples of my paintings from high school too but I don't want to bother my mom to dig them out of storage.

I don’t draw--or paint--this way anymore. I love the artists who do, but I don’t. Why is this?

I don’t like the painstaking process of looking back and forth between the model and the canvas. I don’t like to worry that something likes "just a little wrong". That one eye might be slightly higher than the other eye, that the color of the skin is just a little too pink or the mouth looks unnatural.

I love paint. I love the dribbles and textures. I want not to worry about the "rightness" or "wrongness" of an image. Furthermore, I resent the idea that a drawing can be right or wrong/good or bad, just based on the accurate placement of an eye or an ear. I don't want the art I make to exist on such a quantifiable scale. It feels childish--the notion that accurately rendered art is good just by virtue of looking like its subject.

To his credit, the author does not imply that Bouguereau is good simply because he has the technical facility to paint accurate looking people. The author's point is that Bouguereau is a master because he paints great artistic themes with great accuracy. The themes are an important part of the painting. I'll come back to that.

There is a certain attitude, something that bothers me, a kind of bias against realistic representation in art, as if those artists who still wish to work representationally are missing the point. I believe--and I do think I'm right--that I would have struggled more with the art curriculum at my college had I continued to paint and draw as realistically as I did before I entered college. That my art professors would have perceived this as a kind of failure to thrive. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'd have been just as successful in school had I continued to draw meticulously, painstakingly, painfully accurately as I did when I was younger. (there was at least one student in my program--a non-trad, and I no longer remember his name--who drew phenomenally accurately and who I recall was somewhat revered among faculty and students). Or, maybe one does need to let go of accurate representation in order to explore, even if one does eventually come back to accurate representation, after a period of experimentation.

I'd like to point out a few things about the organization that published this article. Art Renewal Center,, has a mission statement, including the following:
  • To promote a return of training, standards and excellence in the visual arts.

  • To provide responsible views opposing those of the current art establishment when warranted, especially as expressed in critiques of current art exhibitions, and in aesthetic philosophy.

  • To disseminate the rich artistic heritage of 2500 years of accumulated knowledge in creating traditional, realistic images touching upon universal and timeless themes.

  • To advance the understanding that Great Art begins with great themes and expresses them poetically through mastery of all aspects of technique.

  • To repudiate the idea that development in art requires destruction of boundaries and standards, pointless emphasis on 'newness,' or pursuit of the bizarre and ugly as ends in themselves, and to expose as artistic fraud those works conceived only to elicit outrage.
Did you notice that? The use of the word "themes"? Let me talk for a minute about Bouguerau's themes. The author of this article wrote:

It was the artist's goal to show humanity as beautifully real and ideal as possible, encouraging all to strive for such ideals. The message is: Mankind is good and life is good.
This reminds me of Keats' line about truth and beauty.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
I love all the Romantic poets, especially Keats. I've been to the Keats house in Rome and I've looked at his death mask and studied that lock of his hair and I wrote papers about him back when I used to write papers for classes and I've read his poetry and I love Keats. But I cannot escape the nagging worry that this particular statement is just fluffy b.s.

Truth and beauty are not one and the same. There's not even a lot of overlap.

Still, if you study the paintings by Bouguereau, you'll note several consistent characteristics from one piece to the next:
  1. most/all the subjects are beautiful
  2. most of the clothed women are outdoors and barefoot (and most of them are women), but there is no dirt on their feet
  3. the female portraits feature accessories for the women (water jugs, sewing projects), but they're never doing work
This is kind of nitpicking, but its indicative of something greater going on in these paintings. These pieces have nothing to do with reality. The lofty themes expressed in these paintings are far removed from brutal, visceral, beautiful life. And, frankly, with some exceptions I find most of these paintings to be two-dimensional (as in, lacking in depth of content). There's no conflict here. No grit, no dirt, no strife. This romantic portrayal of ultimate beauty is just one limited vision of a multi-faceted universe.

As are all paintings. I suppose there's no way that any one painting could encompass all the good and bad, right and wrong, all the greatness and terror in the universe. So coming back to the mission statement of this organization...

On the one hand, Art Renewal Center seems to be making a very rigid claim that traditional art is superior to modern art (and what else could they mean by saying things like "promote a return of training, standards and excellence in the visual arts" and "creating traditional, realistic images touching upon universal and timeless themes"?).

It probably goes without saying, but I disagree. You can't measure the artistic superiority of one movement or period of time over another. Art is not moving in the wrong direction or a bad direction, and while I appreciate historical art, the current state of art is not regrettable or inferior.

Still. The Art Renewal Center's mission statement does touch on one thing about modern art that bothers me, which I will just very briefly bring up and maybe talk more about later because I've already spent waaayy too much time writing this. The modern art/contemporary movement has spawned the modern idea that art can be made anywhere at any time and it can be made thoughtlessly, casually, unintentionally, and this idea kind of haunts me. That art has no limits, is not defined. But I guess that's a different post.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Patchwork City

This is a 30x40 canvas, which is nearly as big as I can get. I have no idea what I'm going to do with this painting--I don't know if I can put more atmospheric art up on my walls, but storage is a problem. And since space is an issue, I have only a small, fold-up table-top easel, and that can't hold more than 40 inches of height on a canvas.

All the same, I'm trying to figure out how I can make the next 30x40 canvas more affordable. I'm doing another. I think this painting says more than I can articulate on the subject of my former home.

I tell people I hated New York, but that's an oversimplification. There are a lot of problems with New York. It's really hot in the summer, window air conditioning units take all the fun out of life, bugs and rodents are everywhere, neighbors are crazy, and even in the expensive restaurants, the tables are all but piled one on top of the other because there's no space. There's no space, and everything is old, old, old. Rent is high, pay is crap. Grime in the subways, grime in the apartments, grime in the air. There is no dirt like New York dirt. It's impossible to keep anything clean. The floors are uneven, there is no storage space, and the evening commute is noses to arm pits through all of midtown.

And actually, some of those things were attractive features. You know. It's kind of Romantic, all those layers of dirt revealing layers of other things. There is no place more real than New York. It's a really beautiful and really hateful city, both of those things at once. I miss it.

I try to tell people how it made me feel, but I don't know how to articulate that kind of roar, then I start to ramble and it comes out very negatively and I don't really want it to, and I think people have all heard that same story before. So I say I hated it, and that's part true. My bitching aside, awful things happen there.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Graffiti Face

The above painting, which I am calling Graffiti Face, is another painting I made from leftover paint on my brushes at the end of my painting sessions. There's actually nothing I don't like about this painting. The muted, dirty colors, the accidental nature, the patchwork-y deposits of color, the fact that to me, it's a face painted on a concrete wall.

I want to paint more like this, but whether I could do it again to my own satisfaction, I mean, whether I could reproduce this particular style and make not look contrived is questionable.

I also painted two limes tonight (see below). The very minor challenge was to paint them and retain the appearance that they were in a bowl, without painting the edges of the bowl. I'm pleased with the way it turned out. I bought these limes from my avacado man. I love limes. I love their thin skins and they way they fit in my hand. Unfortunately, I don't usually eat limes. I use them in drinks and in guac from time to time. I guess I'll have to use these in a beer.

I also painted the avocados I bought from my avocado man. They were delicious when the painting was done.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

fun with still life paintings

I'm sure I've painted still life subjects in the past but I have no memory of it. They weren't memorable experiences. Recently I saw some paintings by an artist, I don't know her name, they were just still life paintings, but there were lots of them. The sheer number of paintings this artist had painted, all of them still life subjects, all of them very ordinary (the subjects), was impressive by itself. And then, they were beautiful (the paintings) too. I mean, they were extraordinary because the subjects themselves should have been banal and instead her attention and care made them striking in their ordinariness.

I saw what she had done and I thought, I want to try that. I want to paint ordinary things and make them beautiful. I started with food--it's the classic still life subject, right? I painted white eggs in a white bowl. Something about the luminosity in this painting--the cream colored egg shells and gray blue paint--makes me squeal (privately, to myself).


I loved the first one so much I had to do it again.


This satisfied my egg thing. I'd like to point out that I've noticed that both the egg canvases have a very pleasing weight, and if I bang on the underside of the stretchers with an open, flat palm, the canvas makes a low, deep, gong noise. I wish I could remember where I bought these two canvases.

So then I painted tomatoes. I cut it open because the fleshy, greeny, dribbly parts on the inside are the best part.



Then I took a break from the still lifes and switched to a landscape. Love the colors.


And then I did a cantaloupe going bad in my fridge.


So then the cantaloupe thing didn't go the way I wanted it to and I became frustrated. It was 5:00 in the evening. I cleaned up everything to quit for the day. I was looking a the clock thinking, great, I can quit early and get everything else done that I need to do tonight and go to bed at a reasonable hour (1:30?--who needs sleep). But I kept turning around and looking at the kitchen table, the sunlight falling on the table. I do most of my painting at night--not so great for still life paintings. It's good to paint in natural light, but tomorrow I go work and I won't get home until I've already killed most of the daylight. That seemed like a terrible shame. And I have these carrots. I bought them just today. If I don't cut off the green parts and put them in fresh water today they'll get mushy and I can't eat them then, but if I cut off the green parts they won't be nearly as fun to paint, and that's actually why I bought them in the first place. So, I dragged all my painting materials back out and set everything up and this was the last painting I made.


The carrots are my favorite. It's a heavily textured painting. Plus, was a total surprise. It started off going so badly. I wish I had a better picture, but it was dark by the time I finished and I get poor quality photos at night.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Rust Red, Gray Blue

This is a 16x20" painting that I finished tonight.

The photograph above I took when the painting was finished, and the photo below I took when it was only half way complete. Putting the red in the tree was kind of a risk. I already liked the piece and I have a tendency to overwork paintings. I think now, comparing the two photos that I made the right choice. I'm in love with "light red"--that's the rusty color. I can lay it down on an already wet canvas and it takes over. Such a confident color. I've been wanting to do more fuzzy, abstract landscapes.

There's a light blue scratch riding the line between the land and the sky. It's a scratch from a palette knife. I like delineations. Like lines. Scratches, scars.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fences and Wheat Fields

The image above is what the canvas started off looking like last night, and the image below is what I turned it into. I love the scratches--like old scars--under the image. I'm not sure where they came from--a palette knife, I suppose.

I feel as if--no, I don't just feel, because I HAVE--spent hours trying to take some good pictures of my paintings. Not just these two paintings here, but all my paintings. The picture of the piece below is the best I can do right now. I will try again this weekend to get some better pictures in daylight.

This might sound trivial, but I couldn't decide if I should leave the fence, or add some trees, or maybe a person inching through the grass. So far none of the house pictures have featured figures--at least, not explicitly. I think that the presence of the people who belong in the houses I have painted are implicit in the paintings. Or the houses are the people. The people are the houses. The houses aren't houses anyway--no house looks like that. No house except those we draw as children really look like this.

Monday, July 19, 2010

life drawing session #2, frantic lines in pen and ink

So this week I used pen and ink. As it would turn out, my black ink is almost gone and the replacement I bought was actually white ink (not useful in this case!), so I used the brown ink I had on hand. I liked the sepia look so much that I think I'll try it again.

I'm a little rusty with pen and ink, but I think there were a lot of neat little things happening in most of the drawings.

I think this was the most successful of all the pieces:

like the figure on the left more than the figure on the right, and am annoyed that one of them is proportionally larger than the other:

This was a neat little moment, part of a larger image that had little else good about it:

I dislike the shortest poses, but this piece below was a nice little procession of gesture poses across the page. Torsos elongated.

wish she had held this one longer:

Her longest pose:

Eakins painting restored

An interesting article in the New York Times covering the restoration of an Eakins painting has me puzzled--the article makes it sound as though the restoration actually involved painting over the painting. Is that how restoration works? I could google it, but I don't have time right now. Maybe later.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

sad discovery

I haven't painted in a few days because I'm organizing my apartment, which means I'm doing a lot of sorting and some throwing away, etc. I came up on some illustrations I made years and years ago. I have always been really attached to these illustrations, but I've discovered that they've been water damaged. Somewhere in the move between here and there, or sometime in their storage folded up in old newsprint paper, they were exposed to something that has dried brown. This is very sad--I can still see the images more or less just fine, the paper is now warped a little stained, and not in an attractive way. I guess I always had this coming, because I never did much to protect them--never really knew what to do with them--so they sat in storage and I pulled them out once per move while packing, and looked at them, touched the paper, and put them away.

These scans aren't the best--the paper won't lay flat on the scanner now, and the images are much larger than the scanner will hold.

This is an illustration of a poem by Robert Browning. It's a bit weird.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


I meant to go to bed early tonight. I just thought it would be nice. I guess I won't now.

I never meant to finish this painting...I was just trying to rub the used paint off my paintbrushes and onto a canvas. Then I started to notice a really beautiful shade of...I don't know what you'd call that color. Sand? Seashell? and gray-blue. Really soft, beautiful colors. Reminded me of land and water.

This painting is really delicate. I'm calling it "Stitches". It's different from anything I've done.

Stitches is a really small painting--4x5, maybe. No. It's 5x7.

Then, this was the painting that I did before the Stitches painting--I thought this was the last painting of the night. I just meant to rub the paint off my paintbrushes. I started to paint the wine bottle and goblet on the table. I've been wanting to try still life paintings, although I had imagined I would start with a more original/unique set up. Maybe I'll work on this again later. Maybe I'll just paint over it.

This piece is heavily textured. I painted it on an 8x10 11x14 that had like two or three paintings--and some big scratches--underneath it.

It's really hot here. It was in the 90's today. My apartment was stuffy most of the night, even with the air conditioning, and it's 1AM and I'm tired, but I really like that stitches piece. It looks so small, and fragile.

Monday, July 12, 2010

the best. website. EVER.

Amien, the Art Materials Information and Education Network, has a forum where you can ask questions about your art materials and get thorough, straightforward answers. I don't know if I'm the only one, but I have so many questions, all the time, about my art materials. What's the best way to adhere mixed media to a canvas? What does "archival quality" mean, anyway? What happens if I use cheap oil paint? Does the expensive oil paint really make that much of a difference, or do the benefits stop mattering after a while? Does it make a difference if I use odorless paint thinner? ...and now I have someone to ask, besides the clerks at Dick Blick.

Life Drawing Session 1

I went to a life drawing session tonight--the first one in about 8 years. I was a bit nervous, during the drive to the studio. It's been a long time, and I knew I wouldn't know anyone there.

The studio was in a scary neighborhood. Maybe not scary, like,...lots of gang activity and crime, but the sort of scary that made me think, if there is a serial killer in the city where I live, this is where he skulks. It's where he dumps the bodies. There were no houses, no businesses--only brick warehouses and semi trucks. The roads were in terrible condition. I arrived at dusk, and it was just spooky.

The session was totally cool. I was instantly comfortable. I started at a table but moved to the floor so I could bend over the drawing pad. I had a beer.

We started with gesture drawings.

Then we moved to longer poses.

The model pulled a gun for one pose. (it was a prop...I assume)

They switched to shorter poses at the end. Too bad because I had switched to a larger format, and that was working out nicely for me. But because of the shorter time for each pose, these last drawings remain unfinished.

These are all 18x24. I need to spray them with fixative, but what I remember of fixative, it sort of changes the image...makes it darker in places, less fuzzy. Does this happen to anyone else? How can I prevent it? Is there anything better to preserve the image?

Oh yes, by the way, I got completely filthy.

Edit, 7/19/10:

I've been wondering the last few days, looking at these drawings from time to time, why I don't draw the model's mouth. And well, I do sometimes, but not usually. It's possible I'm like a child who draws people without arms and hands because he subconsciously feels a lack of control. It's also possible this is an aesthetic choice. That I secretly believe a mouth would look wrong if I drew one. I can't decide.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Open Door

I wasn't trying to duplicate the layout of the white house painting, but it happened. I was watching "Paranormal Activity" while I painted this, and a lot of my attention was on the movie, even if my eyes were on the canvas. Actually, it was a good thing, having something to look at instead of the television. I'm a shameless fan of scary movies (as I write this I am simultaneously watching/listening to "Jaws"), but when it comes time to keep my eyes on the tv screen, I'll do anything just to look away. I just get so giddy and scared. By the way, the movie was very creepy, and though the end was terrible, it successfully scared me. I went to bed at 2:30 last night with my head under the pillow to hide from my thoughts. (has anyone seen this? and how the woman gets up and stands next to the bed for hours? oh dear.)

I'm off to buy more canvas in a moment, and some new drawing materials. I can't find my ink well, and I'm running low on paper.

Friday, July 9, 2010

New "House" Series

I went on a painting binge last night. These paintings kept me up and working until 5AM, but they were 100% worth it. I hit on something.

Here's what happened:

By far my favorites are the first two. The neutral-near-monochromatic color scheme is so rich and gorgeous, but more than that, I'm in love with the house shape. What it symbolizes. And how lonely these homes look, in their dark, cloudy little monochromatic worlds. I must take this farther.

In college, I painted a lot of mostly-empty rooms, with iconic doors and windows. By the time I left college, I had begun to feel as if I had exhausted the subject, but this takes what I loved about those paintings and flips them inside out...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Blue Quilt

I decided I wanted to paint a series of illustrations of the Once And Future King. I chose a passage from the Sword In The Stone, at the very end, when the Wart had pulled the sword from the stone and his foster brother and foster father had bent down on one knee to hail the new king, and the Wart was overwhelmed with his fear. Actually, I chose a scene right before that scene, to be more accurate. And the sword was in the stone, and the three figures were standing beside it. The painting was very vague, mystical and weird looking, textural, I thought the colors were very beautiful, and I showed the painting to my painting-checker (family member, I have her look at all my work and she usually gives kind of vague answers like "it looks nice, I like it, what do you want from me?"), and she said something like, "it's three figures in a grave yard." I couldn't figure it out, at first, but then I realized the sword didn't look like a sword, it looked like a cross, head-stone fashion. That was when that painting died, right there. All the steam blew out of me. I had no desire to fix it--I wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible. I try very hard to stay away from obviously morbid subjects and morbid paintings. I like dark and edgy, yes, but I like to tease meaning from paintings, not to get hit by meaning as if from a blunt object. So, nevermind the fact that this was not meant to be a painting of three figures in a graveyard--I like unexpected, happy accidents. I just didn't want it to be so obviously bleak.

I left it to dry, then I turned it into this. The pastel reds and yellows show from beneath the new layers of thalo blue and burnt umber. The texture underneath pokes up from below like little mountains. I was very satisfied with the painting when I finished it, but the more I see it, the more I enjoy it. I find the blue very comforting.