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Although painting is fundamentally a response to life, it's also inevitably a response to painting.


      For me the story begins with the intensity and gravity of Giotto's work, his humility and conviction.


      I'm a fan of all things Florentine and Quattrocento, but ultimately things become a little too refined and elegant for me. The Brannaci chapel frescoes of Masaccio seem like a kind of still point in Florentine art: there's still a trace of primitivism from Giotto and a trace of the Byzantine left over from Cimabue, but it's Masaccio's own depth and personality that make this cycle so compelling and honest. There are great period details like laundry and birdcages in background windows, and great use of earth colors and an actual sense of realistic light with shadows. Painted without embellishment or theatricality, the cycle gives an everyday presence to a series of Biblical stories: they are happening before our eyes.


      A third generation painter, Bosch used a uniquely thin resin-oil technique with a unique palette on panels. He combined great draughtsmanship with extrordinary visions to produce possibly the most unique body of work of any oil painter. The ones I've seen in person look like they just left the easel, they're stunning. Typically, I'm most interested in the more simple ones: The Conjurer, for example, or Ship of Fools, have an incredible relevance to the lives and headlines of any era. Bosch doesn't flinch from the insanity of humanity, but unlike Ensor or Bacon he isn't cruel, just unnervingly accurate.


      It's hard to discuss Chardin without getting into compound superlatives. His earlier still life work was very much ahead of its time; using thick paint; essentializing form; while the later more empty still lifes have been simply legends to painters for centuries. Although less pyrotechnic than Rembrandt, Chardin did things with paint that were the despair of painters in his day let alone now: the edgeless edge, the melting fusion, the complexity within simplicity, the still life as koan: all were his invention. Chardin seems to have been the first European painter to be interested in both simplicity and paint for their own unique qualities, to have been actively looking for both a physical and philosophical essentialization. Aspects of this exist differently in both Murillo and Zurburan, but Chardin has a unique psychic poise and tension between irony and tenderness.


      An incredible technical prodigy, Rembrandt passed from an early style reminiscent of Durer or Raphael to a much rougher later handling, doing things with paint that remain a mystery to this day. But what is so unique about Rembrandt is the depth of moral gravity in his work; his obvious interest in the truth at any price. This quality of ethical emotion reaching a pinnacle in the stoicism of his later self-portraits and sets him apart to me from the more equivocal attitude of Vermeer, let alone a dramatic technician like Rubens. Another great painter to study to look for the possibilities of a limited palette, Rembrandt's work often shows a very careful separation of warm and cool pigments into different layers. A very nice site dedicated to Rembrandt can be accessed here.


      After more than four centuries, the combination of observation and artfulness in Vermeer's (1632-1675) work remains in a class of its own. Close up photos of Vermeer paintings are helpful for understanding his unusual penetration and resourcefulness as a painter. A quality selection is in the work done by Dutch painter Danny Van Ryswyck, available here. An extraordinary dedicated Vermeer site is here.


      A highly successful painter of historical landscape who taught Michallon who in turn taught Corot, Valenciennes is principally remembered now for the trunk full of outdoor landscape studies of Rome and it's environs that were given to the Louve. These paintings are very special evocations of time and light done very quickly and pre-figure the outdoor work of Corot in Italy, although Corot both altered and amplified the technique. We get something personal and mysterious from these paintings, something missing of course from the finished studio work, but something that's also missing from the current open air ethos. A good selection of these paintings is available in the exhibition catalogue In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting.


      A uniquely talented painter with a complex mind, Delacroix was paradoxically the last French non-academic to model his work directly on the Old Masters, and the one who inspired the next generation of French painters to abandon it. Delacroix worked in many different ways in his lifetime, and his thoughts on painting and life are recorded in his great journal. Perhaps the most compelling example of his ability is recorded in the Moroccan Sketchbooks, done on site during a tour of the region with a French diplomatic mission in 1832. I saw one of these small watercolours up close in a private collection at one point, and nothing else I've ever seen has accomplished so much with so little.


      Millet celebrated the land and the sacred simplicity of it's people in a body of work that is at once earthy, romantic, heroic, and wildly pagan within it's exterior homage to the intensity of peasant Catholicism. Like the other Barbizon painters at the dawn of the Industrial Age, Millet realized that our deeper relationship to the land was doomed and created his strong spiritual ethos of people in active harmony with nature as an antidote. A still point between Courbet and Corot, looking back at classical antiquity in a different way, an emotional favorite of Van Gogh, often marginalized by modern critics who don't know nature from a hole in the ground.


      Art historians are fond of making the distinction between the good and bad Corot. This is understandable given Corot's incredible success later in life and exploration of many styles. Many painters have produced on several levels, but the contrast between the simple and the sophisticated in Corot's work makes this distinction somehow his to bear. The Corots I like best as a group are the outdoor studies made on several trips to Italy in the 1820's. These paintings have a uniquely essentialized sense of structure and light especially when viewed in context with other outdoor work of the period. Inheriting the Valenciennes technique via Michallon, Corot took it several steps further. Some of his outdoor paintings were worked on several times at the same period of time during the day. Others -- such as the amazing Augustan Bridge at Narni -- were worked on once but he probably arrived on site with the scene drawn in very exactly from previous sketches: this and several others in the series are simply too large and too "locked" as compositions to have been the product of a single morning: especially in light of how Corot drew. There's a great book about these paintings called Corot In Italy by Peter Gallassi, who did a great deal research and writes very much in tune with his subject.

Pre-Impressionist Landscape

      There are many interesting Pre-Impressionist landscape painters from all over Europe. Many of them worked outside at some point in Italy, this work has come somewhat available through the Gere Collection but much more is around. Many different styles but unified by the alla prima directness of vision. Study here is by d'Aligny, below is an early Pissaro, who studied with Corot.


      Boudin was another painter who abandoned careful studio work for the out of doors. Inspired by the Barbizon painters, he did a great deal of work near the ocean. His style and encouragement were very helpful to Monet in formulating Impressionism, although Boudin painted with the "old" colors of naturalism. Boudin is most well-known for a large series of ala prima paintings of fashionable middle-class people on the beaches of Trouville. Done in 1x2 format on mahogany panels, they show an amazing fusion of seaside atmosphere with the somewhat arch depiction of fashionable figures rapidly in paint. Because he worked alla prima, Boudin's work has some rough spots but his best work is distinguished by a combination of energy and sincerity with regard to Nature. Stylistically he's the most viable transition in the battle zone between Corot and Monet.


      Constable's studio work is so well known at this point that it is difficult to imagine it being as controversial as it was when it was made. The outdoor studies are legion, with no really definitive text about them, and contain many moments of inspired painting. Leslie's memoir of Constable, featuring many letters, reveals an amazing human being.


      I studied Luminism extensively in the 1990's and Kensett became very important to me for his subtle link with European painting -- he was trained in Italy -- with American values and composition. As his work progresses it develops a tangible spiritual quality analogous to the writing of Emerson; the Luminist he is most related to is Gifford, but Gifford is more accommodating and pictorial. This transcendental quality is most pronounced in Kensett's Last Summer's Work, many of which are astonishing in their combination of elegance and simplicity. The most famous painting in this series, Eaton's Neck, is on permanent display in the Metropolitan's American wing. It's small relative to the Sargent society portraits across the room, but as a work of art it is in a different realm.


      Heade's work has a more primitive quality technically in a way that harks back to earlier Luminists like Fitz Hugh Lane, and made him something of an also-ran during his day (when Church and Bierstadt ruled), but he has great strengths in both atmosphere and composition and did many subjects -- such as his series of saltmarsh haystacks and various storm paintings -- with a unique depth. Although I'm not as big a fan of his work in the South, there's something sincere, engaging, and proto-modern about his New England landscapes which transcends and augments their stylization and psychological quirkiness.


       Peto is the dark horse of 19th Century trompe l'oeil painting in America, the genre initially dominated critically by Harnett. But Peto's paintings have much more depth, irony, pathos, humility, and soul. Through this subtle but intense combination of ironic intelligence and sincere humility Peto leads to artists as various as Hopper, Cornell, Morandi and Walker Evans.


      It's hard to come to grips with a painter who is as ubiquitous as Monet: the first modern artist-as-anti-hero, the larger-than-life, driven, temperamental genius who made France sign a contract for his huge final paintings and wouldn't leave his studio when the Germans were forty kilometers from Giverny during World War One. The anti-industrial, overtly pagan aspect of Monet's work is downplayed critically: Pisarro painted the industrial countryside but Monet refused: there's much more Wendell Berry in Monet than people seem to realize: it didn't look that way, he made it look that way. Still, there's a certain amount of condescension artistically to Monet from the lofty perch defined by Cezanne. But Monet was much more than an eye: his work contains a great balance of compositional strength with textural and chromatic subtlety that none of his many followers or imitators achieved: contact with his work destroyed many American 19th Century painters. Yet there are also many Monets in which he seems on automatic, imitating Monet so to speak. Then there's the famous ego... Still, I'll be wandering around in some museum and turn a corner and there they are, just stunning, carved in color like stone, so obvious that anyone could do it. But no one else has ever done what Monet did in his league, and a great many painters have tried. So, it may be more complex than Cezanne may lead one to believe.
       Monet stressed working from nature for the French press in order to distance himself from the Parisian painting culture even though almost all of his middle to later works were finished in the studio. Many people still think that Monet painted "outside" when it's much more accurate to say that Monet beganmuch of his work outside. Smaller early works were done on site, but not with nearly the same degree of finish Renoir was able to achieve under the same circumstances. But then, the gravity of the Monet painting is generally greater.


      American painting of the last quarter of the nineteenth century had a tough time dealing with Impressionism. Chase is the only American painter of this earlier time who addressed Monet's brighter palette and emerged with a brighter style of his own -- compare for example the later work of Hassam. I'm interested in his pure landscape work, not the figurative or genre pieces. There's a great balance between color, form and painterly handling in a Chase landscape. Sometimes his stylishsavior-faire is a little much but more often his love of place wins out.


      Hammershoi was very well-known in his lifetime and immensely respected. His spare, Vermeer-inspired interiors done with thin paint, a limited palette and an uncanny sense of light have an amazing subtlety and poise: there's something of Satie here. A more dour, Nordic side emerges in some of the landscape and figurative work that approaches Symbolism, but the early portrait of his sister is wonderful, the antidote to Madame X. A painter well worth investigating for painters.


       Bonnard walked an incredible tightrope between the naive and the sophisticated and produced evolving work of many different palettes and emotional timbres for half a century. Bonnard solved the problem of how to re-incorporate Monet's brighter and fragmented use of color into painting that was more complex both in terms of meaning and composition.

William Nicholson

      In a long commercial career Nicholson(1872-1949) made many different types of art. He designed posters, illustrated children's books such as The Velveteen Rabbit, and made portraits in oil. He also produced, apparently its own sake, a body of small, closely observed still life work in oil with a great combination of precision and mystery.

Gwen John

      A graduate of the Slade, Gwen John (1876-1939) moved slowly but surely away from tighter realism into a realm altogether her own. The later work is gentle but also stoic, uniformly poised and deep, yet often with an almost eruptive intensity, painting where less is always more.

Clarice Beckett

      A specialist in simplified, atmospheric alla prima realism, Beckett's paintings were all but unsellable in Australia during her lifetime (1887-1935). At this point the surviving work, rescued from thousands of paintings stored in an open air barn, is in the larger national collections in Australia.


      Hopper is also ubiquitous but his best work is in a class by itself. I can do without his harsher or more cynical side but his essentialization of landscape elements is unique in it's poise between realism and abstraction, and his sense of New England light was both accurate and poetic: Cape Cod art is full of Hopper influence but it only demonstrates how great he was at what he did. I'd love to see the ten best Hoppers next to the ten best anything else. They're not all that quality but the best ones hold their own remarkably well even compared to older paintings.


      Seldon Gile was born in Maine near the end of the nineteenth century but ended up painting in California as a member of the Society of Six. His work combines an unerring graphic sense with thick paint applied in dabs and and a palette of mostly primaries. The paintings have a very powerful intial impact but are quite explorable due to the many subtle variations of tone within what appears at first to be massive areas of color: the best paintings exploit this very consciously. This work represents a unique inside-out development of Impressionism that anticipates Avery and color field painting in general.


      Early on the 20th century, painter Tom Thomson created a body of small, densely painted alla prima paintings of unusual sincerity and integrity in the relative wilderness north of Toronto. At this point, Thomson might be called the de facto patron saint of Canadian painting, and, as with Hopper, the great popularity of this work has unfortunately resulted in much commercial emulation.


      Edward Seago (1910-1974) was born in Norfolk and lived and worked principally in England. His outdoor oils combine influences of the Corot and Constable outdoor work with a sense of atmosphere reminiscent of Gwen John, featuring dense smudges of paint contrasting with well-chosen detail in both bold and well-worked passages.


      Utrillo is about as far from fashionable at this point as it is possible to be, but there's always been something about his work that I'm really drawn to. He's just there, in the bustle or emptiness of the streets. He's just looking, supposedly, with a style that brings together elements of Boudin, Rousseau, and sometimes, as in this one, an element of Bonnard's compositional tesserae. They're awkward, honest, and there's a gentle lyrical magic in the best ones.


      Avery paintings have a unique presence in person: every one I've ever seen has it, and the later ones have it in spades. Reproductions, however, don't have it, it vanishes. (I kind of like this of course). There's a gentleness and cosmic humor in Avery's work that is both elegant and beguiling. Perhaps this is because Avery had a complex career where, until the end, he was always too something else for what was currently in vogue stylistically. It's possible that the less well-known work of Avery's wife, Sally Michel, is even more elegant and beguiling.


      Balthus was an amazing technician who went through several stylistic phases in his search for a way to incorporate older painting into newer painting. From neo-classical beginnings he moved more towards a style which fused elements of quattrocento primitivism with elements of modernism derived principally from Matisse and a third element of dream. Of course he is somewhat infamous for the jeune fille aspect of his work but I'm not sure this isn't by philosophical design. Certainly erotic, the Balthus nudes are also mysterious and meaningful, the antithesis of modern art's commercialized femininity. Is there anything even remotely pornographic here? My sense is that this is in the eye of the beholder: America has an unfortunate history of witch hunting that is fundamentally anti-feminine on a number of levels. Balthus is frankly aware of his obsession even as it mystifies him, and is further differentiated by the fact that he obsessed about what he liked as opposed to the many modern painters who have obsessed about what they hate. These paintings ask very interesting questions about cultural attitudes towards what is and isn't permissable as well as what is and isn't a dream.


      Donald Evans was an American who worked mostly in Holland. In a short life he created a very detailed alternative world using the medium of sheets of postage from countries he invented. The work is technically rigorous, but also contains a recurring element of word-play and international black humor.


      Morandi (1890-1964) taught etching in his native Bologna and also produced an unusual body of small still life paintings in oil. The first time I saw a reproduction of his work I had a physical reaction of excitement and wonder. What stands out after long study of many books on Morandi is his invention of a visual language that solved the thesis-antithesis of classical and modern art, and the way his paintings are essentially philosophical: demure, stoic, humorous, but also numinous. There's a great conscious tension in his work between stillness and movement, between color and no color, between figure and ground, between empty and full, between serious and playful. They're all explored with grace and skill; he was a dedicated experimenter within a purposeful set of limitations. Perhaps he is primarily a painter's painter for all of the above reasons, but still my favorite semi-reclusive philosopher of the brush. Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, by Janet Abramowitz, tells the interesting story of his career in a way that is both sympathetic and insightful. There are many monographs available on Morandi, a very intereting one is Morandi Ultimo by Laura Mattioli Rossi (Mazzotta, text in Italian).

Walter Vaes

      Vaes (1882-1958) taught at the University of Antwerp and created a body of intense still life work analogous to, but very different than, Morandi, referencing the past in a way that included more midtone color and an unusually lively approach to edges. Not the most well-known painter, a good collection of Vaes reproductions is here.

Albert York

      York (1928-2009) made small scale work using simplified forms. On the one hand these have a Morandi-like minimalism, and on the other hand a more 19th century French regard for painterly vision and painterly paint.

      Under construction, books I've found especially useful or well done.


      I'm a huge fan of technical art history, which basically saved me from wandering around forever in the labyrinth of old texts, burying new glazed pipkins in dungheaps on Michaelmas Eve. But there are just not that many books published externally of the discipline that feature that wonderful emphasis on the object and how it was made. Perhaps the height of this so far has been the Tate book on the Pre-Raphealites, a wonderful blend of technical commentary with the cultural story of a movement. Regular art history can be more of a roller coaster. There are books that do an amazing job of explaining things, such as Lorinda Dixon's book on Bosch, or the T.J. Clark book on Manet, and while I really liked Bryson's book on still life, or Fried's Absorption and Theatricality, they each contained moments where more simplicity might have been of service to the text's ultimate integrity. Then there are post-modern or post-structuralist books that are not really about the objects or their milieu, but about an arrangement of ideas in which the objects are only grudgingly allowed to participate. And these, to the simple country painter, are scary. So, at this point I'm careful about getting art history books, it is always good to do some research first on the author and what they're about. I first came across Susie Nash in a fascinating long article in Trade in Artist's Materials from Archetype. This made use of abundant period account books to discuss the building of the Chartreuse de Champmol, a Carthusian monastery in Dijon, from 1377 to 1411, from the perspective of the artists and materials that were involved, and, in a book full of impressive research, was mind-boggling for the author's ability to recreate not just the art of the complex, but the functioning of a kingdom. Like many painters, I've always been more drawn to the Italian Renaissance than the work of the North. I know Italy is ubiquitous but growing up on 20th century art the early work especially seemed like manna from heaven. Still, it's always good to fill in one's own blanks if the opportunity arises, and it seemed quite likely I would learn something useful from a book on the Northern Renaissance by Professor Nash.

      Nonetheless, I was not expecting a book that was a work of art. As a text, this proved an immense positive surprise. Instead of the usual plodding, chronological overview, the book is organized in specific compartments that tell complete stories of their own. Some discuss aspects of the period, such as patrons or commercial centers like Bruges, while others explore specific, typically extraordinary, examples of work from all crafts within the period in a way that gives the reader a sense of the great sophistication of international commerce in Europe during the period, and of the enormous challenges taken on and executed by the artists themselves. Each chapter contains historical and physical documentation for the concept or individual works chosen at an unusual level, sometimes, in the case of sculpture and retables, sourced from within the object itself. The tools and perspective of technical art history are used to tell the period's story on many different levels at once, fusing large scope with intense detail: a method of organization similar to that of the works it examines. The construction of the book is an inspired gamble. It works so well because Nash chooses and orders the material with both precision and aplomb: the whole comes together through the depiction of its most compelling details. The prose is condensed and well crafted, Nash does not resort to the scholarly vocabulary often, and when she does it is with good reason: facture, for example is both a simple and very useful word in this context. The prose is also in constant motion: Nash is adept at linking objects with their often lively narratives, differentiating the various socioeconomic microclimates in which someone could work, singling out compelling physical details about the works and their manufacture, and also manages to include a set of compelling observations about the work of Van Eyck. Yet, in spite of the intense level of research involved, there is not one iota of erudite blather. The author is firmly in the trenches with the artisans and their work, making for a deeply felt, deeply human book, and an inspiring example of active, dedicated scholarship.


      Well, I was a little nervous about this with Ingres on the cover but it got great reviews. This series from Oxford is proving to genuinely be as advertised, different, and this one is pretty daring. Prettejohn talks about the history of the concept of Beauty in specif periods in a balanced way from the perspective of both painters and theorists. I just finished the first section about Winklemann and Kant and it was quite well done, conceptually thorough but cleanly, almost majestically written. We are out of the artificially rarefied older realm of fine art criticism where there are extensive taboos about what can and cannot be mentioned. While smart and literate, Prettejohn is not pretending to be that special extra-human being, the scholar, and discusses art and its world from all perspectives. Modernism takes a few well placed shots, and so does the museum culture of the priceless objects it both holds and defines. This is gently done, but brings me an awareness of the sound and fury of a world I simply sidestepped by living in Vermont. Have much more to go but the genuine philosophical depth of this as an inquiry surprised me. More great English prose, a slower pace than Nash, more of a river than a brook, but this makes sense with the material and sets up the always lovely Elegant Concluding Paragraph, at which, one must admit, the author excels. In larger terms I love it that art history seems to be finding a way to reinvent itself. This book is written from a refreshingly human, even somewhat earthy, perspective that would have been impossible a few decades ago. I've really enjoyed authors such as Bryson or Fried, but there's sometimes a sense that they are trying to get just one more pebble on the pile before the whole tottering edifice collapses. With Nash and Prettijohn, in different ways, the implosion is a given, but it is taken as a breath of fresh air.

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