waterlilies with sky (c.1916)

Love Them Waterlilies

A baleful side effect of being required to read those thick, interminable classics in high school is that we absorb the notion that high culture can only be equated with what is most dreary and difficult, and that we must discount what is accessible and pleasurable. Claude Monet (1840-1926) suffers especially from this delusion. His work is so frankly decorative and accessible that while we flock to see his shows and delight in the many books and calendars featuring his work, we tend to overlook the originality, to say nothing of the resource and  audacity–the unbridled painterlyness– of his paintings.

Here is one of his many versions of waterlilies. It is freely, boldly drawn. The subtle but lively strokes of the brush are everywhere. Water, sky, clouds–all united as a rich and vivacious surface. No doubt the cavemen noticed waterlilies, and people have been looking at them ever since, but nobody painted anything like this before Monet.


On a side note, this piece was painted during World War I. The front was perhaps sixty miles from Giverny, where he lived and worked. He could probably sometimes hear the guns.





Fitz Hugh Lane, early and late

Contemplate the tranquility of this late piece by Fitz Hugh Lane (1804 – 1865).


Owl’s Head Penobscot Bay, Maine   1862   16×26″    Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It’s painted in glazes (thin, transparent layers). Oil paint grows increasingly transparent as it ages, which sometimes reveals details about how a work was executed. Here, for example, the background was painted first, then the foreground. After a century we can see the silhouette of the distant hills through the ship’s sails. Overlaying shapes in this way avoided having to fill in a lot of niggly little bits. (Of course, one painter’s niggle is another’s method; Seurat, for example, dissects all shapes, large and small, foreground and background, into dots of equal presence.)

Part of Lane’s genius lies in his ability to keep the eye engaged with his apparently minimal forms. Imagine if that distant boat to the right were not there. Or that sagging post and its reflection just offshore. Reflections in the water. That sweep of ripples from side to side. Or that sawback pattern of trees on Owl’s Head, or the buildings on the shore to the left. No detail is dramatic, but everywhere you look there is something going on.

Lane achieved his luminist masterpieces toward the end of his life. His earlier work (example below) is robust rather than visionary. It records details for their own sake rather than disciplining them into one deftly modulated hit. The clouds are freely painted, but the clipper is not: every halyard and stay is mercilessly rendered (he must have used a straightedge and the teensyist brushes). The ship doesn’t share the same light with the clouds or with the two ships on the left. The mechanical little whitecaps resemble those carpets that oppress one in hotel lobbies.

We see the same development from visual smorgasbord to lean decision in Lane’s fellow luminist, John Frederick Kensett (December 10). A vast improvement in both cases.

Clipper Ship “Southern Cross” Leaving Boston Harbor. 1851 Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts















Harnett and Peto

Last week’s post included pieces by William Harnett (1848-1892) and John F. Peto (1854-1907). Here we take another look. For many years their unfashionable work was thought to be by the same person, but there are lively differences between them. 

Detail decisions make a huge difference in results. Harnett aims for the trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) effect. His colors are naturalistic, his tonal distinctions subtle and minutely observed.

Harnett        “Job Lot Cheap” 1878        (W’ped)

Peto is bolder and less literal. He doesn’t model as realistically as Harnett does. He doesn’t use highlights, so his principal tones don’t have to be held down to preserve contrast. His colors are brighter, his shapes flatter, his tonal gradations more abrupt. His shadows are harder and constitute positive shapes in themselves rather than merely evoking the decaying of light: compare the shadow cast by Harnett’s projecting piece of paper with Peto’s projecting books. Peto’s effect is not so much one of objects lovingly observed but a lively, almost abstract pattern of shapes and colors.

Peto “Discarded Treasures” 1907 (smith.edu)

Newer and Older

I don’t know whether in the pairings below the more recent artists were  influenced by the earlier ones, or whether it is simply that there are engaging subjects all around us that don’t change much from century to century. These aren’t the Great Themes (The Three Graces, the Last Judgment) in which the elements are dictated by tradition, but little spritzes of order and delight.

These first two are by John Frederick Peto (1854 – 1907) and Edwaert Collier (active 1663 – 1708). We don’t do letter racks anymore, but they remind me of refrigerator doors & magnets–personal accumulations of the moment.

Peto – old time card rack – 1900 – Phillips Collection

Collier – letter rack – 1699














Harnett – Job Lot Cheap – 1878











de Heem -still life with books and violin – 1628


Then William Harnett (1848 – 1892) and Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606 – 1684). (De Heem did his piece when he was twenty-two. He still had a thing or two to learn about the pleasures of color, but there’s plenty of variety and nicely observed detail.)









And then Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1978) and Cornelius Gijsbrechts ( c.1630 – 1675). The Cornell is an actual box with objects in it, while the Gijsbrechts is a painting of a box, but the sensibility is very similar.

Gijsbrechts – cabinet of curiosities – 1670

Cornell – untitled (The Hotel Eden) – 1945















Roy Lichtenstein (1923 – 1997) and Gijsbrechts again–both paintings of the backs of paintings. The joke still works after 298 years.

Gijsbrechts – reverse of a painting – 1670

Lichtenstein -stretcher frame – 1968 – sluxshop.se