This special edition is dedicated to the paintings of Joshua Reynolds in the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection.
A just-discovered great new resource by Patricia Railing.
—The diﬅinguish’d part of Men
With Compaſs, Pencil, sword, or Pen,
Shou’d in Life’s viſit leave their Name
In Characters, which may proclaim,
That they with Ardour ﬅrove to raiſe
At once their Art’s and Country’s Praiſe.
For those familiar with Ernst van de Wetering’s Rembrandt – The Painter at Work and the Rembrandt Research Project, you may also be aware of the six-part series of Rembrandt books entitled A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings.
If you’re not interested in paying the going rate for an actual volume (Volume I is currently selling for around $1,200 on Amazon), then there is reason to rejoice:
The first five volumes of the Corpus are available as free digital downloads on a website launched in 2012 called The Rembrandt Database.
I only just found it yesterday, so it seems a worthy cause to help spread the word.
If you visit the Contarelli Chapel in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi, you can see the paintings that made Caravaggio a superstar. The only down side is having to appreciate The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew at oblique angles.
Thanks to Factum Arte’s extraordinary images you can now see the images head-on with a close-up look that only Caravaggio’s brush could have bested.
The video they created about the creation of these images—and subsequent facsimiles of the paintings—is also worth a look.
It really doesn’t get any more obvious than everything you’ll read in this article, written by James B. Stewart for the “Business Day” section of the New York Times under the sub-heading “Common Sense,” starting with the title:
Here’s just a taste:
The soaring prices are being driven by market forces rather than any aesthetic or artistic awakening, Professor Galenson said. “Aesthetics have nothing to do with it.”
What does matter, Professor Galenson’s research suggests, is innovation by the artist. “It’s really incredibly simple,” he said. “Valuable paintings are innovative. Valuable artists are innovators. Cézanne did his most influential work at the very end of his career, Picasso at the very beginning, when he invented Cubism. Nineteen sixty-two is when Warhol started using mechanical reproductions and photography and reinvented modern art. His works from the 1960s are the very most expensive. Those from the 1980s are much less.”
Timely words, considering what I just posted yesterday.
In essence, our modern culture boasts of millions invested on aesthetics that don’t matter and hollow innovation.
Sadly, little can be done to charlatan vampires that roam freely in the sun.
* Photo by Andrew Gombert/European Pressphoto Agency, pulled from the New York Times website.
I have a recent habit of saving a variety of essays, forums posts and articles I find on the internet as PDFs then assembling them into one bundle, which I print as a bound book and carry around with me for a month or so to read and contemplate. In the latest collection I included an article I found on the “Artcyclopedia” entitled The Importance of Being Odd: Nerdrum’s Challenge to Modernism.
In it, I was especially taken with the following anecdote regarding his entry to the National Academy of Art in 1962: “The application had included three paintings. Two of them were reasonably finished, while the third one had been hurriedly thrown together to meet the deadline. The fact that this was the one that the committee found so promising as to admit him into the nation’s leading art school, made him question the criteria applied to modern art.” That story ends with the following quote:
This was too easy; it offered too little resistance.
This immediately struck a chord and reminded me of a quote by Igor Stravinsky:
In art, as in everything else, one can only build upon a resisting foundation: whatever constantly gives way to pressure constantly renders movement impossible. My freedom will be so much greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength.
I can think of no better silver bullet against the contemporary art world’s notion that craft is optional and a decipherable criteria for quality is irrelevant.
For those out there like myself interested in technical art history, you can download an excellent free document in PDF presented by the Getty Conservation Institute called Historical Painting Techniques, Materials and Studio Practice. This was called to my attention by Prof. Celeste Brusati at the University of Michigan, and I thank her again for doing so.
One of the essays is by Leslie A. Carlyle entitled “Beyond a Collection of Data: What We Can Learn from Documentary Sources on Artists’ Materials and Techniques”. Under the heading “Technical approaches used for creating the illusion of volume” she says:
A basic goal of all representational artists—to present an illusion of volume—is accomplished in painting through the juxtaposition of dark and light values, and of highlights and shadows. This illusion is accomplished traditionally through one of four basic techniques. A brief analysis of these techniques will illustrate the possibilities of standardizing the visual examination of paintings and the usefulness of the visual markers that can be established as a result of this approach.
These four techniques are:
- Basic Technique
- Transparent Oil Technique
- Highlight and Impasto White
- Direct Surface Blending
Very straightforward, seemingly obvious, but I had never before given it much thought. I am always appreciative when someone can take the complex—like oil painting—and make it simple, which Ms. Carlyle does. Each take several paragraphs to explain, so refer to the actual document for the details. If nothing else, it’s a nice Rorschach test to take to find out which technique you identify with the most. Worth a look.
For one evaluates pictures differently from tapestries. The latter are purchased by measure, while the former are valued according to their excellence, their subject, and number of figures.
—Letter of June 1, 1618, to Sir Dudley Carleton.
I teach a 100 level on-site Art History class for The American University of Rome called Art of Rome.¹ I began teaching it in the Spring of 2007 and, as of this writing, have taught it every semester since. It is, in essence, a hybrid of historical fact—names, dates, places and vocabulary—combined with a methodology designed to enable students to describe, analyze and interpret the meaning of a work of art based on its formal qualities.
It was back in December of 2006 with The Calling of Someone at the Table that I demonstrated how formal analysis serves the understanding and interpretation of a painting. Here is yet another attempt—perhaps long overdue—to further the cause.
What Something IS is Not What Something MEANS
This is the hardest thing to get beginning students of formal analysis to understand. This concept runs parallel to the mantra I use with my beginning drawing students: draw what you see, not what you know.
When discussing this idea in class, I’m quick to make comparisons with literature, i.e., pointing out that The Wizard of Oz is a story about a girl, her dog, a tin man, a scarecrow and a lion and their quest to find a great and powerful wizard who can help the girl and her dog return home. But what The Wizard of Oz means is something else entirely and it is fun to point to some of the many theories that litter the web.
Now, while narrative is often the fruit of the sum of the parts of a figurative painting—the hand of a nude female extending fruit to a nude male easily excites a literary imagination—often times the way in which those parts are arranged, modeled and emphasized may speak to a meaning that is completely detached from the title of the work or the overt actions of the figures. Narrative in formal analysis is a trap.
What is Formal Analysis?
Formal analysis is an examination of the formal qualities—the parts—of a painting; it is an investigation of the management of those parts and an attempt to understand why and how the decisions made by the artist affect meaning.
The formal qualities of a painting include: size, subject matter, scale, light, line, shape, color, texture, perspective, proportion, rhythm and composition.
With so many to choose from it can at first seem overwhelming, but, often times the artist helps us by limiting the thrust of meaning to one or several of these formal qualities. Let’s take Caravaggio’s (second) Conversion of Saul as an example:
What Is the Painting According to the Patron and Context?
For the answer, all we need to do is read the title: The Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus. Easy enough. In fact, Caravaggio’s realism makes it hard to see it differently. Saul, having fallen from his horse, embraces the divine light (as opposed to seeing the light—clever to the last, is Caravaggio not?) and marks his conversion to Christianity and his change in name from Saul to Paul.
What Is the Painting According to a Philistine* or a Man from Mars?
A man on the ground, on his back, arms outstretched, his head closest to the viewer, with the body of a horse above him and a second figure standing behind the horse’s head.
In essence, this is the first part of our methodology, Description, albeit a succinct version of it. Description is an objective account of the image with every effort made to avoid value judgements.
* Philistine: a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them. Apple dictionary.
Formal Analysis of the Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus
Let’s pick four formal qualities: Light, line, shape and composition.
- Light serves the drama and the mystery. It is hard to understand the setting (where) or the time of day (when) or where exactly the light originates (top right), or even the source of the light.
- Line serves the emotional and psychological complexity: Saul’s facial expression is serene, the horse’s juxtaposed ears allude to perplexity and the visual stitch of legs—made of the horse and standing attendant—is disorienting.
- Shape serves the curvilinear mass of the horse’s body juxtaposed with the curvilinear form of Saul’s embrace, which together emphasize a circle (and whatever is contained within that circle).
- Composition, which is essentially the final arrangement of all formal qualities, specifically serves the compression of space, the division of the lower half (Saul) to the upper half (the horse and standing figure), the position of the horse’s weight-bearing foot to Saul and the position of the horse’s lifted hoof to the oval shape created by Saul’s outstretched arms. Note: there are many more observations we could make about the composition, but these are the ones I’ve chosen to focus on.
What Does the Painting Mean When Taken in Context?
Here is where we get to turn the screw. In one to three sentences, I’ll declare an interpretation of these formal qualities while also taking into consideration the sociopolitical environment in which it was made, i.e., the Counter-Reformation:
Caravaggio uses a journalistic realism to convince his religious patrons that his aim is true to the cause of conversion while simultaneously using composition as a vehicle to subvert that message and “counter-reform” meaning: at the center of Saul’s circular embrace is nothing more than the hoof of a horse, a visual pun inferring that those devoted to the light of Christianity are but willing victims to a doctrine and dogma that tramples the spirit.
Wow. Now that’s an interpretation using only formal analysis. But, it does require an understanding of context. So what if don’t have even that?
What Does the Painting Mean without Knowing the Context?
Well, let’s refine our formal analysis. Let’s say we don’t know the title and thus don’t know the name of the protagonist. That means our analysis would now look like this:
- Light serves the drama and the mystery. It is hard to understand the setting (where) or the time of day (when) or where exactly the light originates (top right), or even the identity of the source of the light.
- Line serves emotive complexity:
Saul’sthe facial expression of the figure on this back is serene, the horse’s juxtaposed ears allude to perplexity and the visual stitch of legs—made of the horse and standing attendant—is disorienting.
- Shape serves the curvilinear mass of the horse’s body juxtaposed with the curvilinear form of
Saul’sthe lower figure’s outstretched arms, which together emphasize a circle (and whatever is contained within that circle).
- Composition, which is essentially the final arrangement of all formal qualities, specifically serves the compression of space, the division of the lower half (
Saulthe figure on his back) to the upper half (the horse and standing figure), the position of the horse’s weight-bearing foot to Saulthe lower figure and the position of the horse’s lifted hoof to the oval shape created by the Saul’slower figure’s outstretched arms.
By not naming the subject matter we help to ensure that we won’t be mislead by what we may know of the narrative. Also, we could even push this to the furthest extreme and pretend we don’t even know the name of the artist, let alone the sociopolitical environment of the time.
In light of that, I’ll change my interpretation entirely:
The artist takes the narrative of a horse and fallen rider and transforms it into a moment of prurient revelation. This theme of sexual enlightenment is triggered by the visual and literal weight of the horse’s weight-bearing foot that falls upon the groin of the fallen rider. In truth, the illusional space allows for this foot to be behind the groin, but the compositional alignment of the foot and groin with regard to the pictorial space (the flat surface of the picture) can not be by chance. Despite the visceral response this discovery might have upon the viewer, the fallen rider’s serene expression contradicts any sense of physical trauma and instead announces, with arms outstretched, a knowing and joyous embrace of the worlds’s earthly pleasures.
Could a reasonable person disagree with that? Absolutely. Have I effectively used formal analysis to support my claim. I think so.
And there you have it.
¹ Art of Rome is an Art History course created, developed and taught by the late great Prof. Terry Kirk for The American University of Rome for more than twenty years. I literally took this class with Prof. Kirk in the Fall of 2006 (the semester before I taught it) and we went on to have many joyous and energetic discussions regarding its continuous evolution and refinement. It is a great honor for me to continue his legacy and it is his memory that ever inspires the enthusiastic and tenacious teaching spirit I try and bring to every class.
Some time back in 2012 I read Virgil Elliot’s Traditional Oil Painting. He refers to Burnt Umber as a Problematic Pigment:
The author [Virgil Elliott] has all but dropped burnt umber from his palette, owing to its high degree of absorbency when dry, which causes varnish to sink in, leaving chalky-appearing “dry spots.” It can be useful as a minor ingredient in a paint mixture when faster drying is desired, such as in instances where raw umber would not produce the right color. Both burnt umber and raw umber are essentially clays, which have a natural tendency to shrink when dry and swell when saturated with a fluid. However, since burnt umber undergoes a heating process in its creation, it is the worse of the two in that regard. Raw umber does not seem to be quite as problematic.
Also around that time I was having a series of phone conversations with some of the employees at Kremer in Germany and was advised not to use umbers at all (burnt or raw) in that they tend to creep to the surface (I’m paraphrasing), and unfortunately I didn’t ask for an explanation with regard to the chemistry.
Jump to September of 2013 when my research into alkyd mediums led me to a paint maker named Pip Seymour. Not knowing where to buy his paints in Rome, I called him. I was so pleased to discover that he was both amenable and patient in helping me better understand the chemistry behind painting that he readily became a victim of his kindness; the more answers he provided, the more questions I asked. In a follow-up phone call I decided to get his analysis of burnt umber and, in my effort to keep the question as succinct as possible, I decided to phrase the question with a touch of drama: “Is burnt umber evil?”
In essence, his opinion was to keep it simple (which he wisely applies to most of his analyses). He did suggest the importance of stand oil as a binder/medium with such a color in that it helps to keep the pigment particles even as they dry. He went on to say, “Changes in surface appearance may enhance the aesthetic within a painting – but that understanding can alter over time just as the organic composition of all oil paint layers can change. The most crucial factor is the realization of the image at the moment of creation.”
A couple of days after that phone call, I sent him the following email:
An extraordinarily bizarre thing happened on the evening after our last discussion: I was organizing some of my many, many PDF files on technical analysis, when one in particular caught my eye. It was on Caravaggio’s time in Malta, and, as I had just finished reading a technical analysis on the Beheading of John the Baptist, I chose that one to read before going to bed that night.
Now, you may remember that my second question to you last Friday was, “Is Burnt Umber evil?” Evil seemed the best word to sum up what I had read previously on the pigment, especially in light of Virgil Elliot’s call for its banishment from the palette.
Well, low and behold, that night I read the following from Caravaggio and Paintings of Realism in Malta by Roberta Lapucci:
“The defect of this technique [working over a dark priming] is that, with time, the chromatic balance is altered, reinforcing the shadows and absorbing the half tones. Burnt umber has a unique chemcial characteristic; during the drying process of the pictorial film, its manganese molecules tend to migrate towards the external surface to absorb oxygen (the element also needed by oil when it polymerizes). Therefore, by rising up to the pictorial surface, burnt umber eats out the half tones and reinforces the shadowy areas. However, it does not pass through lead white, thus increasing the contrast even more. Such a dark priming layer is used with a chromatic function ‘but not… en reserve’ rather ‘to intensify the contrasts, to make the pictorial layers vibrate and to absorb lights’; some white strokes ‘hardly can cover the dark ground’.
“In 1681 Filippo Baldinucci defines burnt umber as ‘a natural colour, of dark hair tonality, used to pain and to put in the priming layers of canvas and panel paintings. This is held by the best painters to be an evil color; it has such a desiccative power that is does not work well in the priming layers and in the oil layers also due to the other poor qualities, it makes colours change; which is why it fooled many artists, who used it in their canvases, even those who were very good in colour rendering’.” (Yes, it reads “evil”! It was a Twilight Zone moment.)
So there, fellow painters, is the chemistry behind umber… and even a moral judgement! But is it evil? I am still undecided. But I am trying some new browns with a mixture of yellow earth, red ochre and black.
Dogma is the illusion of power.
Craft is the power to create illusion.
Decades ago this would often come up in discussion with Maestro: what is the difference between “Illustration” and “Painting”?
Here’s a thought I had tonight on the way home from Tuesday’s figure drawing lesson:
Illustration is execution; Painting is performance.
Illustration is the end of the journey; Painting is the means of the journey.
When Craft and Quality are smothered by Dogma: Kate Middleton’s Portrait.
Religion requires the suspension of Reason.
Little Good is unreasonable.