These two pieces start in very different places, but because of a similar attitude about surface, the results are strikingly similar.

Both begin with white tones held together by intermittent black lines. Both employ the same palette: green, red, orange, and blue, although the predominance of greens and reds is reversed. Both have a choppy surface constructed of short, abrupt touches. There are more large, unifying shapes in the Cezanne, but they are treated as textures in much the same way as the de Kooning..

Paul Cezanne – copy of Delacroix’s ‘Medea’  c. 1880                                       Willem de Kooning – Woman 1  1952



For comparison, here is the Delacroix that Cezanne was copying. It’s divided into large areas of dark and light with the

Medea – 1862 (W’pedia Commons)

purpose of dramatizing the action. The bodies are bright, coherent shapes. Medea’s gown is dark, to set off the children’s flesh tones. The background, right, is light to contrast with Medea’s hair; the foreground is dark with a little path in the middle so that the eye goes into the space as if it were a stage, and then moves upward to the bodies. Color is reserved.

Cezanne has recast the whole in light to middle tones, which has the effect of flattening the picture plane. His foreground is a light shape; the foot cuts to the bottom edge, which de-dramatizes the space by making the corners shapes rather than the foreground of a stage. The figures are far less coherent because Cezanne is exploring all the little local possibilities of shape and tone, and making each bit interesting, rather than disciplining the parts to an overriding whole. Obviously he respects the Delacroix, and is learning from it–he keeps the ominous shadow over Medea’s face, for example, and gives her head a more willful, less regretful tilt–but the lessons he’s learning are of his own devising.

So from Delacroix to Cezanne, a huge leap from storytelling to the exploration of surface. From Cezanne to de Kooning another step, but not so huge. De Kooning flattens the picture plane more than Cezanne by enlarging the figure and treating the marginal shapes more actively. And interestingly, while Cezanne is undercutting drama, which seems the modernist direction, de Kooning is going back to it big time. His women are called bitch goddesses–very in your face.


This piece is a reprise of 11/12/11.


The portraits of Arthur Devis  (1712 – 1787)  can seem quaint when compared with grander portrait styles, but they are less convention-bound, and have their own curious vision. The spaces are large and dim, and get paler as you look into the farther rooms. The views visible through the windows are just like the landscapes on the walls. The people seem almost lost in their great, sparely furnished houses. They are decked out in their finest, clearly posing, but seem distracted, as if thinking about something else.

Sir Roger Newdigate  1756  W’pedia

Mr. & Mrs. Richard Bull c.1750

The figures are planted very firmly in the middle of their spaces, but the spaces are odd: Sir Roger, to the right, seems to live in a funhouse where floor and ceiling almost meet at the back wall. His monstrous desk slides into the picture from the wings. His feet are planted square across the picture plane as if to say, “the eye stops here,” and also, it seems, to arrest the progress of his desk. His pose, however, is active, and the front of the desk and his chair shift the eye back into space, and link it to the background. A more conventional painter would have flattened the floor and elevated the ceiling. But if you look at Sir Roger’s space as composed of abstract shapes, almost flat above and below, with a busy clutter of warm reds and the strong blacks and whites of the figure across the middle, it’s very satisfying.

The Bulls are composed similarly. The rug is parallel to the bottom of the space, like Sir Roger’s feet, but Mrs. Bull is set on the oblique, like the desk, with her hemline leading to Mr. Bull’s legs, which continue it up to his face so that he doesn’t get lost even though he’s smaller and dimmer. Here, too, the strongest darks and lights are reserved for the figures so that they always recall the eye when it wanders into the large space around them.

Arthur Penn 1752 Philidelphia Museum

Then we have this odd pose in a doorway. The farther room is carpeted, in contrast to the considerable expanse of bare floor in the foreground; the view through the window is lush and complex as opposed to the unadorned paneling and door closest to us. Spare and light out here, dark and rich beyond. Some inner sanctum? If so, and if that is important to the gentleman, why not set the portrait in that room? Perhaps because Devis liked this composition. And the darkness beyond sets off the figure very effectively, just as the fireplace sets off Mrs. Bull.

As designs, these three portraits are striking and ingenious; as social advertising or self-congratulation, which is usually the point of portraiture, they are perhaps dubious. This may be why Devis fell out of fashion, and Sir Joshua Reynolds, among others, full of flash and dash, became the rage. It seems too bad. The Reynolds below is perfectly well painted, but it’s obvious, snobby, and sentimental all at once.

Reynolds – Lady Elizabeth Delme & children c.1778 W’pedia


Certainly, Devis’s vision was very personal to himself, and perhaps Lady Elizabeth and her peers, shopping around, wanted less presence of the painter, and more attention to their own good looks and fine clothes and stylish hair. And children, of course. As Gertrude demanded of Polonius, “More matter with less art.”

Sir Joshua bores me, but I always come back to Devis with fascination.











This post is a reprise of October 22, 2011

John James Audubon – “Virginia Partridge” 1825 Wikipedia

I’ve tended not to take Audubon’s bird illustrations seriously, but lately—at last—I’ve begun to appreciate both his sense of drama and the abstract power of his designs. So like Kline. Not just an illustrator, not at all.

Franz Kline – untitled drawing c.5 x 4″ 1950 the Metropolitan Museum of Art


This fuzzy file from Wikipedia is the only image I’ve seen for this painting by Peter Kobler von Ehrensorg  (1746), but the delight here is not the details, but the unbridled luxury of the design.

The two figures float on a field of black and near-black. The emperor almost disappears into a flurry of red and orange middle tones, which are repeated less vividly on the empress’s side. She leaps out, brightly contrasted with the inky surrounds of background and her gown. His large area of middle tones interweaves with her smaller area of brights; the predominant darks and whites on her side are picked up in small, sharp bits on his costume.

Those sorts of contrasts and repetitions are common enough in complex paintings. What sets this piece apart is both the richness and subtlety of the colors and the surrealistic liveliness of their costumes: dancing, billowing ribbons, full of variety from one side to the other.

Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Maria Theresa, Empress Consort of the Holy Roman Empire, Queen Consort of Germany.

Even that wonderful chair plays in. For fun, start with the trim of his robe where it is flipped inside-out across the chair. It rises from the arm of the chair, floats (defying gravity) up to his chest, then curves back over his shoulder. It reappears on the other side, dives under that rich if unconvincing inside-out bit coming down from his left arm, appears again below his scepter and wiggles down to the floor. There it gets entangled with what may be more robe or may be something else, but which in any case delivers the eye to the amazing soft orange trim of her gown, which, although low-key, seems bright because it is contrasted with the intense black of gown and floor, and carries us all the way to the right edge of the composition—where the eye is caught by the brighter, firmer body of her robe above, which carries us up, across her whole upper half, and presently back to his left hand.

And so on. Cy Twombly would play similar games, not without richness and resource, but without the playfulness or the surprise.

Twombly     “untitled”      1970            (berkshirefinearts.com)


This post is a reprise of January 21, 2012