Hans Bol - "Landscape with the Fall of Phaethon" 1569

Hans Bol – “Landscape with the Fall of Phaethon” 1569  (Courtauld)

We grow so accustomed to seeing really good art that it’s easy to miss what makes it good–hence the comparison here between treatments by Hans Bol (1534-1593) and Rodolphe Bresdin (1822-1885) of figures in rather similar big landscapes.

The vital difference here is coherence. Nothing in Bol’s piece quite relates to anything else. It’s a jumble of elements in search of an overall narrative. The foreground group, four figures and a fish, is drawn as if each were a separate little study that has been cut out with scissors and pasted down wherever there is room. The whole group on its little island has the same lack of relation to the rest of the composition as  the pieces do to each other. It kisses the farther shore in a few places, enough to muddle, for example, the woman’s outline, without really connecting foreground and distance. Follow the shoreline as it drifts aimlessly, rising and falling. Middle tones baffle Bol. Shapes are left left white unless there is some immediate descriptive necessity. Objects are seen one by one, rather than as contributory pieces of a whole with a whole meaning. Poor Phaethon and his horses are lost in the muddle of shapeless clouds.

Rodolphe Bresdin - "Bathers in a Mountain Pool" 1865 (Art Institute of Chicago)

Rodolphe Bresdin – “Bathers in a Mountain Pool” 1865 (Art Institute of Chicago)

Bresdin’s landscape, on the other hand, while quite similar in design, is seen from large to small. The mountain shapes to left and right form a V, joining with the foreground copse of trees. The trees gather into strong darks above the water–so dark that the eye jumps to the whites of the bathers. Contrasted with the middle tone of the pond they are drawn very simply (compare with Bol’s muddled lady).

From the V the hills fold back, first in a long recession on the right, then a more distant formation on the left, and finally to the far horizon. The richly worked sky–several swoopy horizontal bands–links the mountains to right and left, and by its weight keeps the eye from floating away from the foreground.

Within this grand design there are many unifying themes. Look for bright white shapes. Look for textures. Again and again they are varied and repeated. The horizontal shading of the water reflects the sky. The light, meanwhile, comes consistently from the left.

In a word, Bresdin’s is a wonderfully intricate but in no way mechanical composition. Compare with Bol. You will, in fact, find resemblances, but the results are very different.



Those Monuments

On a recent trip to Monument Valley in Arizona I found the vertical ribs of the buttes strikingly reminiscent of medieval figure sculptures. Impossible to give the whole effect–as the light moved, figures appeared here and there, and then disappeared. But at this moment, four faces and figures.

Chartres Cathedral [Wikipedia]















In the next few minutes the shadow on the left, below, briefly but perfectly resembled a man on a subway platform lost in his iphone, while to the right another man, lugging a large bag, turns away.








Cezanne’s audacity

Paul Cezanne (1839 – 1906) was audacious in many ways, but especially in the vivacious and undisguised process of exploration and discovery with which he developed his paintings. Take the Large Bathers. It’s not naturalistic; there are logical parts and then parts that satisfied his need for a bit of dark or light someplace–the upper left and right corners, for example. Every painter faces such requirements, but most conceal the necessity by throwing in some convincing bit of scenery. Cezanne doesn’t bother. He paints till he gets the formal hit he wants, and then leaves it alone.

the large bathers c.1900 127x196cm (W'ped)

the large bathers c.1900 127x196cm (W’ped)

Cezanne bathers c.1900 --detail (W'pedia)

Cezanne bathers c.1900 –detail (W’pedia)


And then there are the smaller-scale improvisations. The foreground woman in the detail on the left–again, she’s not naturalistic, but she’s very carefully developed. Her back is thickly painted with a palette knife–warm & cool tones in great variety which nevertheless do not describe a woman’s back. No spine, for example.



But even more surprising than that is the way Cezanne draws over and around the figure. That long silhouette that begins at her left armpit and then swoops all the way around her right leg, ignoring the intricacies of waist and butt that would detain most painters. And even odder, braver, more questing, is the linework on her right side–detail right. That little line drawn with loose paint that departs from her arm and wanders out onto her side. Imagine if it weren’t there–the torso would take on the shape of a great pipe. That line gives her a waist. Barely, but it works. And the lines on the outside of the arm, correcting or at any rate finishing out the contour of the shoulder.

And while we’re there, the blue line of the next figure that drives right over the white fabric, which would otherwise dominate the figure. He doesn’t bother to invent a more realistic shape or location for the fabric, he just has it both ways at the same time.



A favorite: Seurat’s Pierrot

Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891) was 24 when he painted this image of a friend in a Pierrot costume. He hadn’t yet developed the severe pointilist method for which he is principally remembered, but the basis of it is here: the shapes are clean and simple, enlivened by repeated touches of color. Compare with Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s more conventional approach (below), in which the background is simply the ground color with a mottled application of the shadow tone.

Chardin – Girl with Shuttlecock – 1737 (W’com)

Another point of contrast is Seurat’s exceedingly restrained use of counterchange–the device of having the background go from dark to light in one direction, while the principal object goes from light to dark. The effect is to create a sense of space. But Seurat makes the darker side of his figure almost indistinguishable from the lighter side of his background. This way he gets the visual bounce from the contrast on the left, but has almost no depth of space at all. This keeps the whole image on one plane, and emphasizes the abstract quality of the shapes.

He undermines depth still further by having the wall meet the floor right at the tip of Pierrot’s shoe. Picture that division at, say, the top of the blue bow. That would place the figure a foot or two out from the wall, and define the space for the rest of the image. As it is, the floor constitutes little more than a reddish stripe along the bottom of the composition, stitched to the rest by that foggy left leg.



Rothko: “Magenta, Black, Green on Orange” 85 x 65″  1949 (Museum of Modern Art via W’pedia)

Rothko’s touch

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)  is noted  for his rich and moody color fields, but color is only part of what makes them so effective. It’s his touch that keeps the eye engaged. He didn’t just mark off rectangles and hog them in; they are veils, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, so that one never quite loses the under layers and the effect of the several colors. More, his edges are never simple or predictable. Pick an edge–any edge–and follow it. Sometimes it will be firm, sometimes hazy; sometimes straight, sometimes meandering. In the presence of an actual Rothko you can put your eye close to an edge and follow it, and you will never be able to predict, from what is happening in front of you, what will happen six inches on. Everything–shapes and their edges and the spaces between–are exploring and testing all the time–which is what a viewer must do to really see and experience a Rothko.







By comparison with which, the vaguely similar researches of Josef Albers (1888-1976) leave me admiring in theory, but unengaged. He did hundreds of them. They remind me of reading the dictionary: informative, but not life-enhancing: too much attention to theory, and not enough to the excitement of discovery.

Albers: “Homage to the Square” 24 x 24″ 1965 (Detroit Institute of Art via W’pedia)


St. Thomas Acquinas in Prayer c.1430   9.3 x 15″         (Budapest Museum of Fine Arts)

Burning a Heretic

I think of the work of Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, known as il Sassetta (1392 – 1450) as quiet and contemplative but full of layers, as in this image of St. Thomas Acquinas. The main event is right up front, but then the eye begins to wander this way and that and into the deep spaces. It never goes far without encountering some new shape, some variation, some richness.

And then there is his amazing “Burning of a Heretic.” You wouldn’t call it contemplative, but there is a reserved quality to it, an almost anthropological dispassion. There is discovery and richness, but instead of shapes and spaces, here Sassetta observes types. The heretic and the horse in the center are the only parties who seem to be taking the event seriously. The spectators are calm, the soldiers uninvolved, the flock of chubby priests (Sassetta’s little dig?) off on their own head trip. The fire tender is quietly absorbed in his work, oblivious to the substance of the action.

Burning of a Heretic     c.1430   10 x 15″  (National Gallery of Victoria)




Walt Whitman — David Levine

Colette — Irving Penn 1951













The pose used in each of the three pieces here, with the subject leaning back from the viewer, creates a contemplative distance, a separation.

Colette is nearest of the three. Her distance is a conversational one as if across the tea table, but there’s a hierarchical implication. She isn’t eagerly engaging us. She’s waiting. Are you worthy?

Then Whitman. Here the distance is in time, which Levine creates by the open foreground. Colette’s arm and hand form a diagonal approach to her face; here a few nervous, sketchy lines perform the same function, but describe nothing beyond remove. The shadowy brim of his hat is like eternity, into which he is in the process of receding.

Camille On Her Deathbed — Claude Monet 1879


And then Camille. Here again the approach is diagonal, from lower right to upper left. As with Whitman, the distance is one of time.

The long foreground also carries a personal, domestic implication. Monet must have set up his easel at the foot of her bed, and spent some time there, painting his dead wife.



A favorite: Barbari’s plan of Venice

Jacopo de’ Barbari’s woodcut, “Plan of Venice, 1500”, falls into the engaging category of artful representation–fact-based, but full of life. It’s huge–about four by six feet.


Barbari was obviously no slave to literal description, especially in matters of perspective and scale. This isn’t surprising, if only because he never saw an aerial view. Think how boring the piece would be if he had done a flat map or attempted some low, convincing viewpoint–or if those lively ships were reduced to fly specks. Instead we get the city as a busy, almost abstract shape with a lot of texture to it, which is cleverly held against the picture plane by the foreground islands, the long horizontal of the distant coast, and the various gods and winds that surround it.



Derain’s experiments

Last week we looked at the clues in Claude Monet’s early work that show how he crafted the visual information in front of him into strong art. In a similar quest, here we look at two pieces by Andre Derain (1880-1954). 

The first, The Seine at Chatou, seems to have been painted in one session with a few touchups afterwards. It seems to have been painted in the field, judging from the immediacy of the handling and a wide streak of scratchings on the left side (not visible here), as if it was dragged past a bush on the way home. It exudes a sense of exploration: he wouldn’t have painted this view if it hadn’t appealed to him, so things like that long, long branch to the left, and the awkwardly u-shaped ones on the right, are here because they were in front of him and engaged him. But there is also the compositional order imposed by a painter with formal training: the foreground tumbles in lively fashion toward the river, and the vertical bushes and trunks carry the eye up to the many horizontal stripes and shapes across the middle, locking the delightful vagaries of the scene into a coherent composition. 

The Seine at Chatou 1906  29 x 48″  (William S. Paley collection)















Now to Bridge Over the Riou, painted in the same year. This is how painters get into trouble: pushing too hard with no workable sense of a new logic, a new system. The basic compositions of these two pieces are similar: a sweeping foreground leading to a river with trees and fields beyond, stitched together by foreground trees. But now Derain goes out of his way to rebel against convention. He muddles the foreground and stifles the river. Left and right bear no relation to each other. All that clunky blue-and-green foliage stops the eye dead in its tracks. There are lots of interesting bits, but they don’t play off each other, or build a convincing new whole. The result is muddle, not an assertion of a new vision.

Or at least, not so far.


Bridge Over the Riou 1906 32 x 40″ (William S. Paley Collection)



Monet’s strong beginning (Claude Monet, 1840-1926)

The show at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, “Monet: the Early Years”, is full of surprises. 

The first surprise isn’t how wonderful the wonderful stuff is, but how many middling pieces there are–things you wouldn’t pay much attention to if the artist’s fame hadn’t made you think you’d better admire anyway. Even geniuses, it seems, put their pants on one leg at a time.

But the wonderful stuff predominates, and really is wonderful. Most of the work in the show will be familiar to anyone who has looked at a history of the Impressionists, but as is usually the case with strong paintings, seeing the work in the flesh reveals subtleties that don’t come across in reproductions. For example, how bold his attack is, and how undisguised. 


The Red Kerchief 1869

The Red Kerchief is on a gray ground, visible here and there. The strokes and dabs are thick, wet, and knowing. It was done in more than one session, but the overpainting never muddles the first layin, although there are second thoughts: he seems to have found that white shape at the bottom boring, so he added that little cluster of leaves with a smaller brush and slightly off green.



And so with other pieces. Check out the brights in the detail of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe below: the flashes of light on the plate by the hand, on the fruit, and how frankly and improbably but convincingly the gray plate to the left is defined by the white area that lies against it but doesn’t trespass. Monet wasn’t passively jotting down “impressions”, he was constructing. And that hand–so deftly minimal!




This frontal attack doesn’t always work as well as it might. Sometimes, as in the detail of The River-Bannecourt below, the effect is merely slapdash. Apparently, the foreground needed punching up, so he drybrushed on more foliage until he got the balance he wanted. It’s a strong compositional choice, and from a few feet away it works, but when you come in close enough to take in the details it’s coarse and messy rather than daring and strategic. The background shapes are reduced to left-over bits and pieces. His stronger stuff (as in The Red Kerchief or the déjeuner) works the nearer and farther shapes together, side by side.



But generally, he’s on top of it. Here a glorious foreground, full of strokes and dabs of fluid paint with later, drybrushed augmentation.



He was in his twenties when he did these things. I mean, my goodness! And they were only the beginning.


Before ending this post I must mention the good manners of Monet’s enthusiasts. There were lots of people at the show. This snap is a typical view, if leaning a trifle on the elder side. What’s remarkable about it is that people aren’t crowding the pictures, or stepping in front of each other, or blocking views. They maneuver carefully around each other, working in slowly, taking turns. In a hot show, how often do you have that experience?