Brace’s Cove oil on canvas 10×15″ 1864


The iconic Luminist Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-65) did a lot of rather prosaic views of the sea and ships; a number of breathtakingly delicate works of the same subject, very much in the spirit of the 17th Century Dutch sea painters, and equal to them in formal command; and then a few startlingly un-Ninteenth-Century-seeming pieces like Brace’s Cove, with its astonishing sense of quiet and light, and boldness of composition.

Representational paintings are generally organized around a few strong shapes, but rarely in such a commanding and undisguised way. This is not a work of passive observation. It’s full of artifice. Light touches in some places but not in others close by. Lane keeps the shapes connected by such devices as the bushes left and right that soften the silhouettes of the rocks and mingle foreground and distance. The ribs of the boat perform the same function; the sagging mast is a giant stitch from the dark foreground all the way to the light sky. The loopy wavelets carry the eye from the center to the right side and then back to the center again, and interweave the right-side promontory with the reflection of the orange rock.

No doubt Brace’s Cove looked more or less like this, but never at any one moment. Lane is the visionary, and completely the boss.


This post is a reprise of 8/20/11


Similar concepts have different effects depending on their expressive purpose. Francis Bacon mentions the woman in the famous Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s film “Battleship Potempkin” as having influenced his portraits.  Judging by appearances, he was more influenced by the war work of Henry Tonks. But you’d never mistake a Tonks for a Bacon.

Tonks – Frederick Cholmondeley  1917

from Battleship Potempkin 1925

Bacon – Head III 1961   (

Tonks (1862 – 1937) was a doctor as well as a painter. A war artist in WWI, he combined his skills to do pastels recording facial injuries. They are striking both for their clinical frankness and personal observation. These afflictions are borne by breathing individuals. So it’s surprising that they are not more moving. Tonks doesn’t achieve more than a tepid emotional engagement.


In part, no doubt, this is because his aim was reportorial rather than expressive, but it’s also because his attitude is very pale. These are little portrait studies, with humdrum bits of background and highlights in the hair getting the same attention as the wounds. His sitters look bored with sitting. No doubt they were. So, it seems, was he.

Tonks-the pearl necklace 1905 (

His “real” work was genre stuff (right: “The Pearl Necklace” 1905). It’s hard to believe that the same person could have done “the Pearl Necklace” and the battle wounds, but the genre sensibility–scenes that charm because they are familiar and comfortable–oddly pervades both aspects of his work. He describes the girl’s dreamy state, however trite (her nightgown is slipping off, but so chastely that you hardly notice); he describes Frederick Cholmondeley, however horrific; he isn’t passionate about either of them.

Eisenstein’s woman is less gory than a Tonks, but carries more punch because Eisenstein’s purpose was to excite horror, not convey information. Bacon is able to be so strong–when he isstrong, as in Head III above–because his images have no responsibilities beyond his own head. He can follow them or push them wherever they happen to go.

But his work can also get piddly, as in the 3 Studies of a self portrait. These are just playing with the dissolution of forms. They look as if Bacon had smeared his mirror with vaseline and copied the result. They are modernist genre stuff–no more moving than the Tonks pieces, and of far less social utility.

Bacon – 3 studies of a self portrait








reprise of 11/4/11




Henry Wriothesley (pronounced “Risley”), 3rd Earl of Southhampton – 1603 – attributed to John de Critz



An engaging portrait, but it’s the cat that really makes it sing. The earl, suavely executed, and the cat, almost naive in pose and expression, look as if they were painted by different hands. This is perfectly possible; successful artists often used students or assistants to fill in peripheral details. Landscape painters would have a figure specialist in to do the group in the corner—or portraitists would hire a landscape painter to do the view through the window behind the subject.

Edward Hicks “The Peaceable Kingdom” c.1834

Edward Hicks of “Peaceable Kingdom” fame lived two hundred years later, but it’s almost as if he has been brought in to do the cat.

Or perhaps Hick’s 19th Century Chinese contemporary, Zhu Ling.