Friday, January 29, 2016

Fine Arts Friday: City Snow by George Luks

Children Throwing Snowballs by George Luks, 1906

Taking a welcome break not from winter but from the Wyeths, here are paintings of snow in New York City, by George Luks (1867-1933), a painter of the Ashcan School. I don't think anyone captures as well the contrasting qualities of snow in the city and the moods it engenders. 

Luks hailed from Pennsylvania coal country, studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and had a personality brimming with vitality and orneriness. Although he exhibited beginning in 1908 as a member of The Eight--the Robert Henri Ashcan School--he rejected any school label and said he had no mentors, including Henri.  

His painting--fresh and direct--bespeaks his view on life. Take it head on, without hemming and hawing; he reportedly died from injuries suffered in a barroom brawl. 

In his scenes of New Yorkers in the snow, he manages to capture the beauty of snowfall but also its devolution on the city streets to piles of wet grime surviving only because the air is harshly cold. To me, his paintings exhibit great economy--every brushstroke counts and is filled with energy. So vibrant is his painting of people, that we know exactly the mood of his subjects and can easily imagine being right there with them. Watch for his miniature cityscapes in the far left corner of some of these paintings. 

The Butcher Cart, 1901

Winter Night, 1930

The North River, 1910

Winter, High Bridge Park, 1910

Hitch Team, 1916

Brooklyn Bridge, 1916

These and many others of his paintings can be found here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Exploring: Art or Illustration?

Groundhog Day by Andrew Wyeth, 1959

Andrew Wyeth was on the outs with the New York art world through most of his career and at the point of his death in 2009. As related in the 2014 book Rethinking Andrew Wyeth, edited by David Cateforis, Wyeth came under harsh attack for being a mere illustrator, rather than a serious painter. The opening chapter of the book cites art critic Jay Jacobs, who wrote in Art in America that Wyeth primarily used “not pictorial but literary” devices. He cited Groundhog Day, in which “a knife, plate and cup await the arrival of some unseen personage.” He declared that Wyeth has a “linear and literary style” and castigated his vocabulary as that of “commercial illustration, not serious painting.” Another critic, Eugene M. Leake, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, found Wyeth’s portraits to be “characters in a friendly novel or … sentimental illustrations in an attic album.” 

It is not known if the insult of “illustrator” would have been used if Andrew Wyeth’s father had not been Newell Convers Wyeth, one of America's most famous illustrators and if it were not also known that the only formal art training Andrew Wyeth received was from this man.

Nevertheless, these critics raise an interesting question: what is art and what is mere illustration?

No one felt this dichotomy more keenly than N. C. Wyeth himself. The elder Wyeth was always seeking to find the money that would enable him to paint for art's sake, but his responsibilities tied him to his lucrative art for books, magazines, and commissions. 

In a painful letter written on July 16, 1911, the elder Wyeth derided his work: “The fact is that in every case we have been more or less journalists—news reporters—taught to grasp the unique, the obviously picturesque, the essentially dramatic, sifting out here and there striking and novel situations, queer and tragic events. We were taught to shut our eyes to the simple and glorious beauties about us, to seek the strange and unusual. My Oh! My!! What a distant call to the true realms of painting! The eternal sunlight is discarded for plunging bronco-busters; the glint of the brooks is passed by for raring and tearing automobiles; the wind in the trees gives way to the driving airship! To conclude, we were taught essentially the art of journalism, to be rendered in the manner of painting….”

N. C. Wyeth struggled with this frustration all of his painting life til his tragic death at the age of 63. He was a meticulous illustrator who thoroughly researched all the details of the period he was portraying in a book, traveling to libraries and museums to render dress, weapons, and ships with precise accuracy. 

And yet. In an earlier letter (March 10, 1910), he explains his commitment to imbue any illustration with the spirit of art:

“And out of doors it is so beautiful!  It’s a pity to pry into ancient graves and let their sinister secrets blind one to the pure, wholesome beauty that lies about us. And still, if these pictures I am to paint were to be done as they should be, that very spirit which lies about us in such profusion should be their main interest and soul—they should not be historical, damn the word, but should symbolize humanity and the world, allowing the details to sift in as only ordinary and commonplace garb, to designate the season of man’s development even as the changes in the trees denote the development of Nature’s seasons.

“My solitary interest (I mean my soul interest) is in trying to do just this. If I fail in this particular—I fail altogether. If I succeed I will feel a better illustrator for it.”

In this I believe Wyeth succeeded and this is the reason why he remains a beloved illustrator today. Here are two examples of his spirit of painting in his illustrations. 

From The Black Arrow, by N. C. Wyeth. It is not just actions of the two men, but the monumental tree and the snow that makes this picture greater than the scene it depicts. 

From Kidnapped by N. C. Wyeth. 

His illustrations bring to the reader a new apprehension of what is at stake, because the particular experience has been universalized such that we recognize in it our own deepest struggles. 

And yet, N. C. Wyeth himself went into a deep depression upon reading a biography of his favorite painter, Rembrandt van Rijn, because it made him feel so sharply his own inadequacies as an artist.  Of course, if we were to apply the criteria of those who scorned Andrew Wyeth as an illustrator, we would have to throw out most of Rembrandt’s body of work. In fact, entire museums filled with what is reverenced today as great art would have to be tossed out as mere illustration. To indicate just a few:

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1669. This post traced how Rembrandt worked through earlier versions of the Prodigal Son story to arrive at this painting, whose subject is the unseen: mercy itself. 

Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, 1475, which exquisitely captures the miracle and the humility of the birth of Christ. 

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio, 1601. It is hard to resist the beauty of this painting. 

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, 1511. I never met anyone of any religious or non-religious background who was not awed by seeing the Sistine Chapel. 

These four paintings all depict scenes from well-known stories. What makes them great art?  What do you think?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Fine Arts Friday: It's the Bowl

I Say Goodbye to Mother and the Cove or Jim Hawkins Leaves Home,  from Treasure Island illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, 1907

When I saw this painting by N. C. Wyeth in the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, I looked at it for a long time. We see in the center foreground the young Jim Hawkins carrying his small bag of clothes and setting out, just at the point that he has overcome his hesitancy over his mother's tears and now, more determined than fearful, is ready to step away from his home into the big world to find he knows not what.

Jim stands in the forefront of the painting, his body in strong relief against a shaft of light slanting across the house he is leaving. His mother is behind him facing toward the house, her head in her apron as she weeps. When will she hear from again? When or will she ever see him again?

The composition shows N. C. Wyeth's years of training under the illustrator Howard Pyle, as all the elements on the right side of the painting lead our eyes to the path Jim is now set upon. His mother stands against the brighter side of the house and the sky--separate from the darker shades in which her boy now steps.

But what transfixed me was the bowl. Why did Wyeth put the bowl in the window? It sits in alignment with both Mrs. Hawkins' buried head and Jim's face. It seems to symbolize the tie between them.  Perhaps more than any other object, crockery can be imbued with memories and meaning. "This was my father's cup."  "My mother always used this bowl in the morning." The bowl seems like a small detail, but when I imagine the painting without it, I find that the emotional impact is diminished.

N. C. Wyeth believed an artist has to pour his entire self into a subject to paint it. Only one year before he completed Jim Hawkins Leaving Home, he had started his own home after marrying Miss  Caroline Bockius of Wilmington, Delaware. In 1908 he bought land in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, with the proceeds from his Treasure Island illustrations and built his brick house for his young family. He wrote his mother in 1911, "How I look forward to our life in this snug little house.... Home spirit is the most religious thing I possess." And in another letter, as in 1905, he writes of how a box in which his mother had mailed a cake to him had made him homesick, as "it reeked of odors that told inexhaustible stories."

Jim's departure was not the only time Wyeth pointedly placed crockery in a work. In Mowing, he paints a young girl taking water out to a mower. The beautiful pitcher she holds glistens in the sunshine like a jewel. We can contrast this pitcher with the wooden bucket in Winslow Homer's painting of a similar scene (see below). It seems more appropriate to take water out to the fields in a bucket than in good dishware, so we can only guess that the pitcher had significance for N. C. Wyeth. In both Jim Hawkins Leaving Home and Mowing, the kitchen objects lend a grace note of "home" to the image.

Mowing by N. C. Wyeth, 1911

Temperance Meeting (Noontime) by Winslow Homer, 1874. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Saint Sebastian and a First Responder

January 20 is the feast day of Saint Sebastian, who died in 288 at the hands of the anti-Christian Roman emperor, Diocletian. Saint Sebastian was a member of the Roman emperor's Praetorian Guard, but when it was discovered that he was a Christian, he was delivered for persecution to archers from Mauritania and was riddled with arrows, as shown in this painting by the great Italian Renaissance painter, Andrea Mantegna.

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna, 1480

When we see this painting of Saint Sebastian we assume that this is how he became a Christian martyr. But in fact he survived this torture, because Saint Irene, the widow of the Christian martyr Saint Castulus, rushed to his aid. 

Saint Irene Coming to the Aid of Saint Sebastian by Trophime Bigot (1579-1650)

Saint Sebastian Aided by Saint Irene by Georges de la Tour, 1650

Saint Sebastian did not die of the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," because Saint Irene removed the arrows, took him home, and nursed him back to health. After he had recovered, Saint Sebastian openly confronted the Emperor Diocletian, calling upon him to stop his persecution of Christians. The emperor responded by ordering that Saint Sebastian be placed under immediate arrest and be bludgeoned to death. This time Diocletian succeeded. 

It is believed that Saint Sebastian is a protector against the plague, and he is the patron saint of athletes and soldiers. Saint Irene's feast day is March 30. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

The N. C. Wyeth Family Home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania

Home of N.C. Wyeth and His Family

The body of work that N.C. Wyeth left us shows that he was primarily an illustrator. No matter his status as a painter, one thing is certain: he and his wife Carolyn raised five creative children. Three became painters--one of them, Andrew, becoming a major artistic presence in the second half of the 20th century; one is a notable composer (Ann), and one became an inventor (Nathaniel).

So it is with great interest that I toured the family house of N. C. Wyeth as part of a visit to the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford. The home is situated on a hill not far from the museum. Further up the hill is the beautiful large studio that N. C. Wyeth built for himself. The Wyeth spread is near Route 1 across from the Brandywine Battlefield, where George Washington was defeated by the British General William Howe on September 11, 1777. and where the Marquis de Lafayette was wounded.

N. C. Wyeth had attended art school in the summer in Chadds Ford, studying under the Delaware illustrator Howard Pyle. At that time, N. C. Wyeth reported to his mother the happy scene of Pyle, his wife, and five children all picnicking under a tree outside their summer home. It would seem that N. C. Wyeth set out to re-create this vision, and family life and parenting became a major preoccupation of his life. 

The N. C. Wyeth Family (left to right): Nathaniel, Henrietta, Ann sitting on her mother's lap, Carolyn, and N. C. Wyeth with Andrew. 

Wyeth bought the land and built the house with the money he earned from his illustrations for Treasure Island. It was no McMansion. The house standing there now includes a later addition, that turned the former kitchen into a dining room, and added a pantry and new kitchen. Even with the addition, the N. C. Wyeth home must have been a snug fit for seven active people. I figure the children must have been tossed outside to play and that N. C. Wyeth's studio--filled with costumes, paints, pastels, books, and all manner of fascinating things--must have been a spillover playroom. 

The living room was the biggest room in the house, and it did not take any stretch of the imagination to envision the entire family gathered in this room after dinner, reading, talking, playing music, drawing, doing homework, and sewing (Mrs. Wyeth). 

Living room in the N. C. Wyeth home with a bust of Beethoven in the window and a large bookcase. 

The Big Room by Andrew Wyeth, 1948--three years after his father's untimely death. The younger Wyeth has stripped the room of comfort and coziness  and instead focused on the light pouring into it. 

The living room from the other side. 

               The dining room is small, and benches supplied the seating on either side of the table. 

The pantry with some of the Wyeth crockery, of which more on Friday. 

Painting by N. C. Wyeth of his wife in the kitchen. The painting is on the middle shelf to the right in the pantry above. 

A child's bedroom. All the bedrooms were like this. A bed, perhaps a four-poster, with a white chenille bedspread, a chair, a bookcase full of books, a bureau. 

After the adult children left, Mrs. Carolyn Wyeth continued to live in the house until her death in  1973. Then daughter Carolyn lived there, painting and giving art lessons.  After she died in 1994, the house was given to the Brandywine River Museum of Art and is now open for tours. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Fine Arts Friday: Winter Is for Wyeth 2

Crows in Winter by N. C. Wyeth, 1941

N. C. Wyeth painted Crows in Winter as part of a set of four seasonal paintings for MetLife, painted in oil. The other three are Canada Geese in Spring, Herons in Summer, and Mallards in Autumn. Of the four, however, Crows in Winter stands out for its almost Japanese woodcut quality. N. C. Wyeth created this effect in the painting, as can be seen from his sketch, which presents a less flat character.

In the sketch, Wyeth has drawn the differentiation in  the crow's bodies and wings as they fly, and the valley below and the ice in the trees are shaded. In the painting, though, perhaps the stark juxtaposition of the crows against the sky led him to leave any differentiation behind in the sketch and take advantage of this starkness to make the painting more dramatic, and the crows look almost like black paper cutouts against the sky. For the most part, the snow on the pine tree on the right gets the same treatment, losing all shading the closer it gets to the crows. Against the flatness of the crows and the snow and the smoothing out of the snow in the valley below,  the branches of the tree on the lower left look like a fragile fan spread out by an unseen hand. The snow and crows also stand out against the mushroom-nuanced sky. The total effect is an arresting painting. Its simplicity and color denote cold and winter; the sky may well bring more snow.

The sketch was produced in 1940, so it is likely that the painting was created before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but it is hard not to see in the head-on view of the flock of crows an acknowledgement of the ominous war that was already engulfing Asia and Europe and that was surely on everyone's mind.

At the age of 59, N.C. Wyeth was struggling to be a painter rather than an illustrator, and numbers of his paintings at this time show a totally new style, as he borrows from here or there, but the style remains undeveloped in subsequent paintings. In this case, the elder Wyeth has created a work that calls to mind Mary Cassatt's simplifying style in some of her works in homage to Japanese woodblocks. Crows in Winter seems to be another, short-lived experiment by Wyeth. Unfortunately, he died only four years later in an accident, and we do not know where ultimately his painterly seeking might have led him. Although his later work Nightfall (1945) is well loved, including by me, I believe that his finest paintings (that are not illustrations) are his stilllifes. But that's for another Friday.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Winter Song

The Fallow Way written and sung by Judy Collins

Friday, January 8, 2016

Fine Arts Friday: Winter Is for Wyeth

Dead of Winter by Andrew Wyeth

"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape, the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show," Andrew Wyeth said, about why so few of his landscapes are summer or spring scenes. He spent the winter months in Chadds Ford, in southern Pennsylvania, an area of moderate winter temperatures and snow, just enough snow to cover the ground but not enough to cover everything, as the painting shows. 

Dead of winter is a scene that any of us who have tramped around fields or the outskirts of towns in the winter might see. It is a commonplace scene that brings to mind nothing of note in the passing of it. Yet, such is the power of art that Wyeth nearly takes our breath away with the detailed beauty of this painting--the graceful and fragile grasses on the lower left, the scraggy bark of the tree, the green on its branches, the sturdy stalks of grasses and weeds. 

Here we see the Wyeth method at work, whose purpose was not to capture an objective reality but to capture his own excitement and love of the object he was painting. I don't know the history of this particular painting in pre-studies, but Wyeth rarely painted only what he saw or did so only in fast, on-the-scene watercolors. This painting displays lavish attention to detail painted in the studio. 

The tree stands isolated from the pine grove on the hill behind it.  And as Wyeth references, we know that this scene--captured on canvas--does not last forever in nature; soon the snow will melt, the ground will loosen up, and the buried plants will start to stir. 

Dead of Winter is a nature scene, but its composition and tender rendering stir up our soul. We can see ourselves in it, not as walking next to it but our life on an emotional continuum with it.  

Andrew Wyeth--great painter, great poet.