Monday, July 17, 2017

A Good Cup of Coffee

The Coffeepot that Time Forgot

This blog is ostensibly reserved for art-related subjects, which of late have been few and far between, but what’s more important than a good cup of coffee or two in the morning to get the motor running so you can create anther masterpiece on canvas in your home studio. 

There’s not much to the routine.  You boil the water, feed the cat, make the coffee, have that important first cup, then a bowl of cereal, then another cup of coffee, visit with your Internet friends, take the paint out of the freezer section of the refrigerator, exit kitchen, walk through the living room to the lavatory, then clean the cat’s litter box, then stride resolutely forward due west around 8:30 a.m. to what has been your land of hope and glory for the past 35 years, a cluttered 12x20 ft. home studio with two average-size windows looking west/northwest over Broadway on the eighth floor of an old apartment building on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper West Side. 

And when you get really old, as have I, that cup of coffee is far more important than painting another masterpiece that the art market has no interest in, primarily because you allowed yourself to get old without acquiring any predilection for self-promotion.

So you can imagine my distress when the coffee maker I have been using daily for some 25 years or more suffered an accident due to my carelessness.  

This coffee maker is, without any doubt whatsoever, the best coffee maker ever made. While I know this for certain, it is curious that the Internet is awash with pictures of current and vintage models of manual and automatic coffee makers of every conceivable configuration, but there is no image of this coffee maker other than the one posted above by yours truly.

I confess to being very surprised by the absence of images of this fine coffee maker.  All the minor variations of mediocre coffee makers are pictured multiple times, if you are so bereft of meaningful things to occupy your time that you bother to look for them in the first place.

One possible reason that there are no other images of this coffee maker on the Internet is that it is so simple and perfect in its conception that it was completely sold out and everyone who purchased this model has been using it every day like me and wouldn’t dream of parting with it on eBay or Craigslist.  I also think the manufacturer would rather not remind the public that it had once created the perfect coffee maker – planned obsolescence, in my humble opinion.
Now in all fairness, there may have been something like a product recall that I’m unaware of that has caused this particular model of coffee maker to vanish off the face of the earth.  I suppose that’s possible, but as I’ve indicated, I have been in love with it since I first purchased it when it was introduced and it has caused me no problems whatsoever.  Well, the filter holder did come with a thin piece of flexible metal held by a plastic hinge installed at the base that was designed to slow the flow of coffee through the opening, but it eventually broke off and I didn't miss it at all.  Was that enough of a problem to discontinue the model?

There’s really nothing simpler than this elegant coffeemaker.  Pour hot water over the coffee in a filter and a minute or two later you’ve got four to six cups of hot coffee in a thermos.  Screw on the flat plastic lid for a vacuum seal and the coffee stays at perfect drinking temperature for the balance of the morning.  Clean-up is exceedingly easy -- just give the filter holder and glass lining a quick rinse and you are set for tomorrow.  And this model looks so much better than most other coffee makers when sitting on the counter.

But a couple of months ago I set the plastic lid down too close to the gas burner and the plastic melted, rendering the lid useless.  I sent a couple of emails to Melita, the manufacturer, asking if they had replacement parts for this model, or perhaps another one gathering dust in a warehouse somewhere, but got no reply whatsoever.

I’m still using my coffee maker, but with no lid to seal the thermos, I have to heat up additional cups of coffee in the microwave as the morning rolls along.  Oh, the ignominy.  It’s just another irritating life-changing event in the annals of an old starving artist as he muddles through with his Internet alliances – original paintings for sale at and prints and other reproduction art available at  But please don’t tell anybody; otherwise I would be accused of self-promoting!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Anna Belle Crocker

Anna Belle Crocker (1868-1951), Self Portrait ca. 1926, Oil on panel, Portland Art Museum

I was looking on the Internet for some paintings by Frank Vincent Dumond when I came across something special, something extraordinary -- a self-portrait by one of his former students at The Art Students League of New York, Anna Belle Crocker, 1868-1961.  Now none of us have ever heard of this woman in the context of her art career, and I’m not about to track down decent images of any more of her paintings, which would be an enormous task from the look of things.  But her vivacious self-portrait is just one more example of how superior the portrait painters of the past were to those professing to practice this profession today.  

Why do we spend any time at all considering the work of today’s portrait artists, who think their work is done if they render an exact image of the sitter as photographically as possible, whether working from photos or from life.  Ms. Crocker’s self-portrait, painted when she was around 58 years old, is the kind of head John Singer Sargent himself might have painted.  The handling of those glasses and the pupils of her twinkling eyes are right out of his playbook.  Her delightful expression, caught when it appears she had been amused by something and had held in her breath waiting to reply, her nostrils slightly flared, is utterly captivating and convincing.

Let’s face it, animated, true-to-life portraiture left the building with Sargent, Zorn, Orpen and their contemporaries; there is no doubt about that.  Even the 19th Century Academic Realists like Bouguereau managed to paint heads from life that conveyed the message that there was an active brain behind the face mask, something no contemporary portrait artist or academic wannabes seem willing or able to accomplish.  Why won’t today's painters concede that their rendering techniques, so blatantly promoted for all the world to see in YouTube videos, are far less important than the sitter’s mind in creating a successful portrait?

At any rate, despite ample evidence of her painterly skills from that one brilliant self-portrait, Ms. Crocker’s noteworthy legacy was not gained from her painting, but from her long association with the Portland Art Museum, where she served as the chief curator and director from 1909 until her retirement in 1936.  She was a frequent lecturer there, as well, and founded the museum’s docent program.  During those years, she also ran the museum’s art school, now named the Pacific Northwest College of Art.

Anna Belle Crocker was born in Milwaukee, but the family moved to Portland in 1878 when she was 10 years old.  She began studying art as a teen, and became one of the few women admitted to the museum art school in 1891.  She made two trips to New York to study at the Art Students League, first in 1904 and again in 1908, after which she was asked to become curator of the Portland Museum by banker William Ladd, one of the founders of the museum.  She had worked as his secretary while she was studying art in Portland.  Somebody on the Internet noted humorously that Portland had found its new museum director in the typing pool.  It turned out to be a very good find for the city.

To prepare for her new job, Ms. Crocker embarked on journeys to study museums in New York and Europe, where she became aware of the modernist trends sweeping the continent, and she embraced them.  Back in Portland, she brought many touring exhibits to the museum, including one in 1913 that featured Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and related modernist works famously shown at the New York Armory earlier that year.

They say Ms. Crocker remained a dedicated artist, concentrating on portraits and still lifes, but certainly her artistic endeavors took second place to her museum duties, which she carried out with great energy and passion.   The author of a blog called Fifty Two Pieces wrote that Ms. Crocker “worked relentlessly on behalf of the Museum” during her 27 years as director and curator.  ”She was one beautiful, smart, strong woman. There are not enough adjectives to describe Anna Belle Crocker,” wrote the blogger.

I know.  I’ve just seen her self-portrait.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

What's in a Name?

Peach Warbler, Oil on Canvas, 24 by 30 in., Private Collection
Without getting into a discussion on the merits of this painting, or lack thereof, let me talk about its most satisfying component – the title.  Yes, yours truly really hit it out of the ballpark with this one.

Giving a great title to a representational oil painting on stretched canvas is probably not the highest form of human endeavor, but don’t quote me on that.  And I don’t think any art enthusiast has ever collapsed in spasmodic joy upon learning of the title of one of my paintings.  “A perfect appellation, my dear boy! Bravo!”  But I can’t think of many things that are more important in the life of a painter in today’s digital marketplace.  Maybe actually selling the paintings you title is more important, but I wouldn’t know about that.

For the most part, we are advised not to get cute with our titles.  A painting of peonies in a blue and white vase with two peaches and a lace tablecloth, for example, should be titled, Peonies in a Blue and White Vase with Two Peaches and a Lace Tablecloth, because our peonies may look more like roses, our peaches may look more like nectarines and the lace tablecloth might look something like The Shroud of Turin.  That’s one very good reason.  Another is that Google’s little search engine won’t know where to send prospective online customers if the title is Untitled, Symphony No. 1, Composition No. 7, Ode to Opulence, Nature’s Bounty,  Glittering Fantasy, Nocturne, Soliloquy, Keeping Silent Vigil on a Long Summer Night and Praying for the Dawn to Break with News of a Storefront Gallery Representation.  I think you get the idea.

Of course this caution about titling paintings only applies to painters whom nobody has ever heard of, like you and me.  Whistler, Picasso, Pollock, Kandinsky, et al., could get by with any old title that amused them.  Abstract painters have enormous leeway in titling their paintings, of course. Robert Motherwell, for example, gave his bold abstract shapes absurd titles like Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110. 

Well, that’s about all I want to say about titling paintings at this time.  Just wanted to let somebody else know what a great title I came up with for this painting.  I’m not out of words quite yet, so I thought I’d break my initial promise and talk about the painting a little bit.

The painting itself has a couple of things I like and a couple of things I should have done better on.  I like the three birds and the initial wash-in on the right background that I left because it resembles a Chinese landscape.  I tried to get the same feeling on the left side but failed.  Ellipses and symmetries drive me crazy, as they did here.  And the foreground could have used a design makeover, but I had no great ideas and little inclination for that task before I escorted it to a gallery on the edge of Soho, which regrettably closed a couple of years ago.

The gallery owner asked all his artists what they wanted to get for their paintings.  This one is a 24x30 that took four or five morning sessions to complete, so of course I said $300.  A few months later I got a check for that amount.  Don’t know what the gallery owner tacked on, but it probably wasn’t much.  He had low rent for the gallery space and just enjoyed being in the business working with artists whose work he admired.  Would there were hundreds more like him.

And, oh yeah, Peach Warbler.  Perfect, right?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

De Glehn, not Sargent

Wilfrid Gabriel de Glehn (1870-1951), Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, c. 1925, Oil on Canvas, 40 by 30 in., Private Collection
Sisters, 1923, Oil on Canvas, 60.5 by 39 in., Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England

Portrait of Lynn Fontanne (1887-1983) (Blue Jacket and Blue Hydrangeas, c. 1912, Oil on Canvas, 36 by 28 in., Private Collection.  Ms. Fontanne was a struggling actress and favorite model for the de Glehns before she moved to America and became a leading lady, often teamed on stage with her husband, Alfred Lunt.

Blue and Gold, 1911, Oil on Canvas, 45 by 32 in., Private Collection
Florence Hooton (1912–1988), 1936, Oil on Canvas, 56.3 by 46.4 in., Royal Academy of Music, London.  Ms. Hooton was a student and professor of the Academy, becoming a leading chamber musician and teacher of many noted British cellists. I hope we all appreciate how hard it is to paint extended bare arms so naturally and accurately as in this beautiful commissioned portrait!
Barbara, c. 1929, Oil on Canvas, 21.5 by 17.5 in., Private Collection
Nude Study (also Barbara?), 1929, Oil on Canvas, 24.1 by 19.5 in., Manchester Art Gallery, England
Under the Willows, 1910, Oil on Canvas, 25 by 30 in., Private Collection
Jane de Glehn by the Stream, Purtud, Val D’Aosta, (Swtzerland), c. 1907, Oil on Canvas, 23 by 30 in., Private Collection
Self-Portrait, c.1944, Oil on Canvas, 35 7/8 by 28 in.,

The astonishing paint handling and drawing skills of John Singer Sargent are the envy of most of us who fall in love with painting directly from nature, with no preliminary sketch on canvas to chart our often wayward course.

Quite a few painters have tried to achieve the same seemingly effortless naturalism Sargent created on canvas. They have failed because they have had nothing to guide them but the finished paintings. Sargent didn’t do much teaching and didn’t like it when he did. And the few things he is quoted as saying about the craft are about as clear as mud when isolated in print or on a computer screen. You must see a painter at work “up close and personal” on a number of occasions to get at least some sense of how it is done if you want to paint like him. There is no other way.

And that’s why Wilfrid Gabriel de Glehn (1870-1951), Sargent’s good friend and frequent painting companion, was able to more closely replicate the look of a Sargent painting than all the others, even though that was probably not what he had set out to do.

De Glehn would have had many opportunities to observe Sargent’s brushwork and paint handling technique – the brushes and colors he used, the way he mixed the paint on his palette, and the way he applied the paint. He also would have gained some insight into Sargent’s highly evolved aesthetic proclivities. And who wouldn’t be happy to incorporate some of what he had learned firsthand about Sargent’s technique in his own work, as de Glehn did in the years he worked alongside Sargent.

Although de Glehn is known as a British Impressionist, some of his paintings look very much like Sargent’s portraits and landscapes; so much so that Wikipedia Commons misattributes de Glehn’s profile portrait of his wife to Sargent. The Wikipedia Commons image, from a German source and given the title, Portrait of Jane Emmet de Glehn, is cropped a little above De Glehn’s signature in the lower right corner of the canvas. Sargent had given up such formal portraiture long before de Glehn’s portrait was created circa 1925, the year of Sargent’s death at the age of 69. The portrait was no. 174 in the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy in London that year, according to notes in a catalog for an exhibit of de Glehn’s work at the Hirschl & Adler Gallery in New York in 1989.

Putting aside this curiosity and moving right along, I remember how happy I was to catch that New York exhibit of 46 oil paintings and 16 watercolors from de Glehn’s estate. Like most admirers of Sargent, I was already well acquainted with Wilfred de Glehn and his wife, Jane Emmet de Glehn, because they were featured prominently in several of Sargent’s most famous outdoor paintings. The de Glehns were said to be Sargent’s closest friends for the last 20 years of his life. The couple lived near Sargent in London and accompanied him on summer holiday painting excursions to the Alps and Italy, which were chronicled by Jane in letters to her family. But until I saw that exhibit, I wasn’t familiar with de Glehn’s own paintings, and I was surprised and very impressed by the high quality of the work and how much his paint surfaces resembled Sargent’s.

Although there are numerous ways to apply paint on canvas to create memorable paintings, I’m especially thrilled by the paint handling technique practiced by Sargent, de Glehn and a few others, which results in a seamless finished work that induces an almost giddy sensation of real life as it appears to the human eye. Of course this is no longer important in our brave new digital world of pixel manipulation. We now prefer slavishly laboring to create unrealistic, high-definition figurative work in a photographic manner, whether from life or photographs, with even the most trivial details in sharp focus. Let me assure you that this tedious approach is a lot easier to follow than learning to create with deep emotion the look of unforced naturalism in your paintings by drawing accurately with a fully loaded brush, as Sargent and de Glehn did.

Many painters today who seek to follow in Sargent’s footsteps quickly realize that they can’t draw the figure well enough in an alla prima manner, so they concentrate on painting landscapes or still lifes, where correct proportions aren’t as critical to the success of the artwork.

I do know of a few terrific painters today who pose clothed or nude models in casual environments to create visually exciting paintings from nature, alla prima, with rapid, fluid brush strokes. While their figures are not as anatomically accurate as those of Sargent and many of his contemporaries, these later artists often choose unconventional poses for their models that are far more challenging to draw with paint. And the contemporary color schemes and settings chosen to accompany their figures are refreshingly personal. The work of these painters unfortunately doesn’t get as much attention in the Realist art world of today as the somewhat cartoonish work of painters who are trying to render like Bouguereau and the other 19th Century Academic masters, in style and subject matter.

De Glehn’s friendship with Sargent began in 1891, when the muralist Edwin Austin Abbey chose him to assist with the first part of Sargent's mural commission for the Boston Public Library, “The Frieze of the Prophets,” which was installed in 1895. The mural project was not completed until 1916, although de Glehn apparently only assisted on the frieze. Like Sargent, de Glehn also spoke French and had a cosmopolitan manner. The two men hit it off right away.

Judging by one of de Glehn’s late self-portraits, he appears to have been the kind of stiff upper lip British gentleman who would make a perfect companion for Sargent, who was described by James Montgomery Flagg as “more English than the English.” Flagg said he worshipped Sargent as a painter. “No painter has ever thrilled me so much,” Flagg wrote in his autobiography, “Roses and Buckshot.” So he was greatly disappointed by Sargent’s “snotty” manner when Flagg met him in London on a “Show Sunday,” when Royal Academicians invited friends to see their work in their studios before the Royal Academy exhibitions. The two men obviously did not hit it off right away.

De Glehn’s self-portrait, created with loose, linear brushstrokes, shows him “dressed in what was quite possibly his working uniform,” according to Messums, the London gallery that handles de Glehn’s estate.

De Glehn’s wife, Jane Erin Emmet (1873-1961), enters Sargent’s world in 1903, when she met de Glehn, who had come to America to assist Sargent and Abbey with the Boston Library murals. De Glehn and Emmet married in 1904 and soon joined Sargent in Venice on what would the first of many painting holidays they enjoyed together and with other artists over the next 10 years, just before the outbreak of WWI, which effectively ended all those idyllic painting sojourns across the continent. It was a childless marriage for the de Glehns, but both probably had so much fun traveling and painting together that having to raise children would have really cramped their style, and certainly would have altered the course of Sargentology.

Jane Emmet might have met Sargent earlier, when she was 17 and in attendance at the big soiree Sargent staged in 1890 in the New York studio of William Merritt Chase to show off Carmencita, the spirited Spanish dancer he eventually persuaded to pose for him. Jane Emmet came from an old New York family that included several women artists, the most famous being Lydia Field Emmet and their cousin, Ellen Emmet Rand, both accomplished portrait artists. Lydia and another older sister, Rosina Sherwood, had helped organize Chase’s summer art school at Shinnecock, Long Island. Another cousin, by the way, was Henry James, also one of Sargent’s great friends. It was a small, small world back then for all sorts of creative types. Now nobody knows anybody in real life. All we do is hunker down in front of our computers, perfecting our digital identities.

Emmet’s engagement to de Glehn some 13 years later caused Sargent to be concerned that his great friendship with de Glehn would now be over; that he would not make friends with Jane and that de Glehn would decide to live in America. But Jane shared Sargent’s love for art and music and determined his friends were “unstodgy,” so Sargent’s fears were unfounded, according to an essay written by Laura Wortley in the catalog for the 1989 de Glehn exhibit at Hirschl & Adler. “She was quickly accepted into a close-knit group of artists whose own lives would greatly affect and influence their own,” Wortley wrote.

Jane Emmet continued to paint during her marriage and after de Glehn’s death, but never anywhere near as prolifically as her husband. Although she produced some excellent landscapes during their travels together, she concentrated on creating sensitive portrait drawings in chalk and charcoal.

In her essay, Wortley chronicles de Glehn’s painting career and the couple’s travels in a manner that quite naturally arouses envy in this aging blogger, incarcerated as he is in an apartment home studio on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper West Side.  She writes:

De Glehn’s life was full of journeys, initially with Sargent, and then, after the First World War, with younger members of his family and friends. Between the wars, it became his habit to spend the first few weeks of each summer with his nephews and nieces in Cornwall before moving on to Italy and the South of France for several months.

Wortley contends it would be wrong to consider de Glehn as merely Sargent’s protégé:

As a landscape and figure painter, de Glehn was affected more by Constable’s atmospheric tonalisn than Sargent’s cosmopolitan Impressionism. Though Sargent’s influence is evident in de Glehn’s early work, particularly his watercolors, ultimately it is more constructive to consider de Glehn’s oeuvre within the broader context of British Impressionism.

Another clear sign of de Glehn’s own artistic personality is his penchant for painting female nudes. He did many such studies over the years. Sargent, on the other hand, painted some male nudes, but his Egyptian Girl, a beautiful full-length academic study from 1891, is the only known female nude that Sargent did in oil. The painting was created in Egypt on his trip there to do research for the Boston murals and was shown at the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. The painting is on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago from a private collection. As somebody online noted, Sargent’s idol Velazquez also painted only one known female nude in oil, Venus at her Mirror. So make of this what you will, given the rumors of Sargent’s homosexuality. I think such talk is nonsense, but that’s just my guess.

Wilfrid-Gabriel von Glehn was born in South London to Alexander von Glehn, a coffee importer of Baltic descent, and Fanny Monad, who was French. Wilfrid changed his name during the First World War to the more anglicized “de Glehn.” He trained at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington and spent six years at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1896 and became a full academician in 1932.

There is much more fascinating information about Wilfrid and Jane Emmet de Glehn on this website: As Ms. Wortley wrote in her catalog essay, de Glehn “is worthy of considerably more attention than he has received until now as a footnote in the Sargent bibliography.”

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Valentine for Ms. Schjerfbeck

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946), Yellow Roses, circa 1880s, Oil on Canvas, 10 by 11 ½ in., Private Collection

The Convalescent, 1888, considered a hidden self-portrait, Oil on canvas, 36.2 by 42.1 in., Atenium Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki

Dancing Shoes, 1882, Oil on Canvas, 21 3/4 by 25 1/2 in., sold for $4.3 million in 2008 at Sotheby's London, Private Collection

Picking Bluebells, 1880s, Oil on Canvas

The Nursemaid, 1880s, Oil on Canvas

Portrait of a Girl, 1880s, Oil on Canvas

Drying Laundry, 1883, Oil on Canvas, 38.5 by 54 in., Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki
Self-Portrait, 1884-85, Oil on Canvas, 19.69 by 16.4 in., Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki

Self-Portrait with Red Spot, 1944, Oil on Canvas, 17.7 by 14.52 in., Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki
Helene Schjerfbeck, undated photo

Helene Schjerfbeck paints at her home in Tammisaari in 1937

In a private art collection somewhere resides a quiet little oil painting on canvas of two wilting yellow roses in a drinking glass.  It measures just 10 by 11 ½ inches.  And it is one of the world’s greatest paintings.

In its apparent simplicity, this little work contains all the deep secrets of the unfathomable art of oil painting and loyally refuses to yield them to those who seek the same perfection in their own work.   Don’t ask me to explain why this is so.  I can’t.  And I’m certain the painter couldn’t have either.

The creator of this masterpiece was the iconic Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946), whose rise to fame in her later years and after her death was no doubt aided by a life filled with “illness, loneliness, pain and suffering,” as summarized by one chronicler, a surefire recipe for public adoration of a gifted artist.  This shy, introverted painter left behind about 1,000 paintings and 2,000 letters, so there is a lot of material for scholars to ponder over.

An art critic for The Independent of London, in a review of a big Schjerfbeck exhibit in The Hague, Hamburg and Paris in 2007, wrote, “Imagine the life of Frida Kahlo yoked to the eye of Edvard Munch, and you’ll begin to get the measure of this oeuvre.”  Kahlo endured a similar life of physical pain, but she confronted and publicly glorified her infirmities in her artwork.  Schjerfbeck on the other hand, became reclusive and introverted, spending most of her life isolated in small towns in Finland and Sweden.

Schjerfbeck wrote to a friend in 1917 that she hadn’t known one day of good health in 50 years.  “One gets so tired of fighting,” she wrote.   She somehow managed to complete all those paintings, despite sometimes being able to paint only one or two hours a day.  Her self-described lifelong illnesses are not identified in any of the online articles I read.

Here’s a brief rundown on some of the troubles she suffered early on that may have contributed to her shy and reclusive personality.  When she was four years old, she fell on a staircase, breaking her left hip and leaving her with a permanent limp.  Her twin siblings (a brother and sister), died at the age of one, her elder sister died shortly before her birth, and when she was 13 she lost her father to tuberculosis, causing her mother to take on boarders for a time to make ends meet.  A brother, Magnus, survived and grew up to be an architect.  Because of her poor health she was home-schooled in early childhood.  She was “silent and gloomy.”  As an adult, Schjerfbeck spent many years caring for her ill mother, a frequent model for her paintings, who died in 1923. 

Considered a child prodigy for her drawing skill at a very young age, Schjerfbeck was admitted to the Finnish Art Society Drawing School when she was only 11 years old.  In 1880, when she was 18, she went off to Paris to study in the academies, with Léon Bonnat and Gustave Courtois, among others.  During the 1880s, she spent time painting at various art colonies, including Concarneau and Pont-Aven in Brittany, and St. Ives in Cornwall. Her work in that decade is very much influenced by the plein-air naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage and others, including Stanhope Forbes.  And that’s the work of hers that I really love.

In 1884 she had her own studio in Paris, which she longed for again in her final years, and she lamented losing her drawing ability as she settled into her expressionistic, modernist phase by 1905, which she pursued for the remainder of her life.  In a 1914 letter to a friend, she complained that "I don't know how to draw anymore."  Her later figurative work is marked by simplified abstractions of line, light and color.

Schjerfbeck had moved back to Finland around 1890, due to her declining health, and began teaching regularly at the Art Society drawing school.  But in 1902, she became too ill to teach and resigned her position.  She kept in touch with the European art scene through black-and-white reproductions in art magazines and books, which artist friends sent her, leading to her experimentation with line, color and abstract shapes from magazine illustrations. When no models were available, she would use photographic portraits as a source of inspiration for her modernist works.  It is noted that living with her mother in a predominately female community gave Schjerfbeck the artistic freedom she desired.  She once mentioned that Degas, also, could only settle down to paint by disdaining society.

In 1913, Schjerfbeck met the art dealer Gösta Stenman, who arranged numerous exhibits of her work and began paying her a monthly salary in 1938.  She continued to paint actively, even during her last years.  During her final two years of life she lived in the Saltsjöbaden spa hotel in Sweden, where she created her now-famous “final burst” of reductive self-portraits.
Schjerfbeck painted at least 36 self-portraits throughout her career.  These works became increasingly abstract and analytical, eventually recording her physical deterioration, ending with ghostlike skull imagery.  The later self-portraits, created during the Second World War are “haunting and cartoonish,” in one critic’s view.  Schjerfbeck is said to be best known today for those self-portraits, painted from 1878 to 1945. “Now that I so seldom have the strength to paint, I’ve started on a self-portrait,” she wrote to a friend in 1921. “This way the model is always available, although it isn’t at all pleasant to see oneself.”

Writing in an online journal of 19th Century art at the time of the European tour of Schjerfbeck’s work, the Belgian art historian Marjan Sterckx offered an analysis of the painter’s late modernist philosophy and technique:   She attained an expressive imagery through the reduction of the narrative and her color palette, by leaving out more and more detail, and working with fields and two dimensions, without abandoning depth. Schjerfbeck herself wrote: "A work of art always lacks the last few details; the finished is dead."  In literature, she also saw confirmation of the principle that "we do not [need to] list every detail; a hint brings us closer to the truth."  So she went in search of the essence and the power of emptiness through the simplification and blurring of pictorial elements, and the omission of the unnecessary. Helene Schjerfbeck tried to express as much as possible with as little as possible.

Her conviction that “the finished is dead” is apparent in the way she treated her exquisite painting of the two wilting yellow roses.  It is far from finished in the photographic sense, but it is “finished” to absolute perfection.  From her vantage point, she saw clearly and felt intensely what nature had created, and that was that.  She seemed incredibly perceptive as to the right time to stop working on a painting before killing it with narcoleptic “finish,” even in her most realistic paintings from the 1880s.  Whenever you see most painters’ photographic record of the creation of a painting, the best image is invariably the one shown one or two stages before the completed work.  Try to tell that to all of today’s photographic finishers!

Riita Konttinen, a Finnish art historian, writes:  Schjerfbeck's own way of working was very slow; she painted and erased her works many times in order to achieve the effect that she wanted. She was very self-critical and never felt that she had achieved what she was really aiming at. "One should paint with feelers, not with brushes and fingers", she once remarked.  But Helene Schjerfbeck was not so ethereal and incorporeal as people have often fondly imagined, and her work is not mere aestheticising but an intensive exploration of the depths of existence, an exploration tied in many ways to general developments in her era and in art.

Schjerfbeck never married.  She had a brief engagement to an unnamed English artist she met in an art colony in Brittany, but eliminated any traces of that relationship.  Konttinen writes that Schjerfbeck’s fiancé broke off the engagement because his relatives suspected that her hip problem was of a tubercular nature.  And she had a long-term unrequited friendship with the lumberjack, writer and artist Einar Reuter, who wrote the first biography of her in 1917.  “They corresponded regularly,” Konttinen writes, “and Reuter adopted a caring attitude towards her; Schjerfbeck for her part became deeply attached to him. The news of Reuter's engagement to the Swede Tyra Arp in 1919 came as a shock to her, as she was afraid of losing this friendship. But Reuter and Schjerfbeck continued to be close friends.” Konttinen surmises that having no children seems to have been particularly sad for Schjerfbeck, who later thought of adopting a child, but her environment was hostile to that notion.

So that’s my funny valentine to Ms. Schjerfbeck for creating one of my favorite works of art.  And that’s my Valentine’s Day story for all you lovelorn painters out there.  You will just have to face the fact that, like Schjerfbeck, painting is going to be your only true love.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Spooner of Nottingham

Arthur Spooner (1873-1962), Summer, ca. 1930, Oil on Canvas, 38 by 48 in., Private Collection

The Goose Fair, Nottingham, 1926, Oil on Canvas, 72.01 by 96.5 in., Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Apple Fallings, Oil on Canvas, 36 by 36 in., Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Nymph in a Wood, Oil on Canvas, 42.13 x 20.28 in., Private Collection

Freshwater Bay, Oil on Canvas, 27 by 32.1 in., Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, Lancashire, England

Sulby Glen and Snaefell, Oil on Canvas, 16 x 25 in., Private Collection

One of 59 demonstration sketches acquired by one of Spooner's students, Oil on Canvas Board, 12.5 by 15 in.

The lazy days of summer in Nottingham, England, circa 1930, in the sun-dappled vestigial environs of the legendary Sherwood Forest, was the setting for an exceptionally vivid recumbent figure painting by Arthur Spooner (1873-1962). 

It caught my eye in an auction catalog for British and Irish Art, one of my favorite artist groupings.  I soon discovered that it is just one of many memorable paintings created by this native of Nottingham, who stayed close to home all his life to carve out a successful painting career, which earned him celebrity status among the locals.  And bully for Spooner that he was able to cleverly conceal both hands and arrange the arms decoratively in a convincing full-figure pose.  Depicting those integral appendages is often a painting’s downfall if they are poorly executed. 

The woman posing languorously on a deck chair was none other than the artist’s favorite model – his wife.  Perhaps the empty deck chair beside her was reserved for Spooner at break time.  A shaggy dog is superbly added to the composition as well.   I’m told it was their dog and not the neighbor’s, or a stray.  How could I possibly confirm that, or answer all the other questions painters routinely have about the creation of a painting, such as what exactly is that light-struck background imagery behind her head?  Perhaps that mystery is solved when viewing the original painting.  I’m sadly imbued with the grade-school admonition, “We never guess, we look it up,” but you can’t look up everything you find interesting or important to relate on the Internet, can you?  One has to move on.

By the way, lots of married painters in the old days were fortunate to have spouses willing to pose for them.  If there were kids in the equation, that was even better, because the little tykes were obliged to pose for daddy’s or mommy’s pictures as well, especially if they were girls.  This was before Nintendo and Pokemon, remember.  The Boston Impressionist Frank Benson would have remained just another obscure but talented painter if he hadn’t had three lovely daughters to depict on canvas.  And it was a great blessing for the world of art that he did, because the girls posed during summer vacations for some of the most beautiful paintings ever created.  Benson’s son got a little posing time as well.  I’m not sure married painters today can count on their spouses and children posing for them, since easel painting is no longer front page news and everybody is now advised to “do their own thing.”  Posing for pictures that nobody cares about is not high on anybody’s list of things to do in this digital age.

Spooner and his wife had two children, a boy and a girl, and I’m certain he made use of them for pictorial purposes when they were youngsters.  A portrait of his daughter, Edyth, apparently painted when she moved back home after her divorce, was added not long ago to the collection of Nottingham Castle Gallery, which houses Spooner’s magnum opus, The Goose Fair, Nottingham, painted in 1926. The work shows one of the last times the festival, which dates back to the 13th Century, was held in the city center, before it was moved to the outskirts of Nottingham.  Spooner’s portrayal of a bustling crowd at dusk was painted from his rooftop studio, which overlooked the town square. The prominent clown figure in the painting is a self-portrait.

The painting was purchased at auction in 2004 by Sir Harry Djanogly, a wealthy textile manufacturer and knighted philanthropist, for the “staggering” price of $401,048, after a bidding battle to acquire the painting. It is now on long-term loan to the castle gallery. According to the BBC online, the work is said to be a visitor favorite and Nottingham's equivalent to the Louvre's Mona Lisa.  Sarah Skinner, Keeper of Art at Nottingham Castle, said the oil painting brings a “sense of noise” to a very quiet space as well as the smells of frying onions, mushy peas and candy floss.  "People like the picture for what it showed then [compared with] now."

I’m not crazy about paintings of crowd scenes in general.  The reportage tends to overwhelm the pictorial, unless it is a crowd scene in a carefully composed history painting. The phenomenal Russian painter Ilya Repin (1844-1930), for example, created several gigantic history paintings teeming with people that are supremely artistic.  But I think Spooner did a remarkable job composing what must have been a very chaotic street scene as witnessed from his studio above.  I can understand how it would be a real crowd pleaser.

Spooner studied painting in the traditional Victorian manner at Nottingham School of Art, but went on to paint in the British Impressionist style, which is marked by hazy, atmospheric light effects and subdued color.  He is best known for painting landscapes, horses, nudes, and flattering portraits of Nottingham’s notable citizens.

Spooner taught landscape and figurative painting at his alma mater in the early 20th Century and was one of the founding members of the Nottingham Society of Artists, serving as its President from 1946-62.  He exhibited locally and nationally at the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists and other important venues in England.

One element of Spooner’s teaching method might interest all art students who get hold of their master’s doodles by hook or crook.  Spooner required a pupil he instructed in the 1950s to attend class with a 12.5 by 15 in. primed canvas board, upon which he would demonstrate painting techniques.  A collection of 59 of these studies and sketches compiled by the pupil, ranging from seascapes to landscapes, horses and portraits, was put up for auction in 2012 at Bonhams Chester.  Bonhams said the collection provided “a rare opportunity to purchase works by an artist considered in Nottingham to be a local hero and very fine painter.”  One Internet art source reports that the collection was sold for $4,263, short of its estimate of $4,400-5,800.  Some of Spooner’s demonstration sketches look pretty good, and you can view a few of them online.  No painter today would ever think of giving away a demonstration painting, which is usually purchased by an audience member as soon as the applause dies down.

As a member of the Royal Society of British Artists, Spooner was a popular figure and much feted during his lifetime.  And he was a major artistic influence on the city of Nottingham through his teaching and painting career.  Apart from painting vacations abroad, his whole career was spent in Nottingham.  Spooner was unable to work in his final years because of failing eyesight, and he died in Nottingham in 1962 at the age of 89.

In looking into Spooner’s career, I wondered if he was related to William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), the Oxford don who is said to have humorously mixed up syllables on occasion, giving rise to the word “spoonerism” to describe that habit.  I couldn’t find any common ancestry.  But having dressed himself in that clown costume for his most-famous painting, it is possible Arthur Spooner would have been amused by W.A. Spooner’s comical legacy.  At any rate, the Spooner name is associated with some very fine art, not nonsense wordplay, in the fabled land of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Valentin Serov's Portraits

Valentin Serov (Russian,1865–1911), Portrait of Yevdokia Sergeyevna Morozova, 1908, Oil on Canvas,  44.9 by 29.5 in., Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova, 1911, Oil on Canvas, 93.7 by 63 in., State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova, Detail

Portrait of Henrietta Leopoldovna Girshman, 1907, Tempera on Canvas, 55.11 by 55.11 in., Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Portrait of Henrietta Girshman, 1906, Tempera on cardboard, 39 by 26.8 in., Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Portrait of Mara Konstantinovna Oliv, 1895, Oil on Canvas, 34.6 by 26.9 in., State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Portrait of Maria Akimova, 1908, Oil on Canvas, 30.3 by 24.4 in., The Picture Gallery of Armenia, Erevan, Armenia

Model with Her Hair Down, 1899, Watercolor and White on Paper, mounted on Cardboard, 52.4 x 35.5 cm., Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
It is truly astonishing to me that the Art Nouveau aesthetic, which influenced or inspired the greatest portrait painters of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, is passé for portrait painters of the early 21st Century. Despite paying homage to Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla, Boldini, Kroyer, Klimt and many others, today’s portrait painters avoid the flowing line, the elegance of pose and the expressive feeling those masters captured on canvas.  All that really matters in the business these days is high-definition photographic accuracy.

The accepted conventions of the past are now generally ignored or poorly executed -- a tilt of the head, which is turned in opposition to the torso; a facial expression of any kind, coordinated sensitively with all the mobile features (eyes, eyebrows, nose and mouth); a pronounced placement of the pose, whether linear or curvilinear, existing in dominant harmony with the sitter’s environment.

I often reflect on this inexplicable rejection of grace and beauty by today’s hard-working painters when an unfamiliar portrait by one of the past masters of the art catches my eye as I ride herd on the vast Internet art range, a poor metaphor that reminds me of a line from a sentimental cowboy song written by Gene Autry:  “Riding down the canyon to watch the sun go down, a picture that no artist e’er could paint.”  The “Singing Cowboy” sure got that one right.

But an artist was capable of creating the painting I recently came across, and in such a fabulous manner that Mother Nature herself would bow her head in humble submission.  It was the 1908 portrait of Yevdokia Sergeyevna Morozova, wife of the art collector Ivan Morozova, and it was created by one of Russia’s greatest painters, Valentin Serov (1865-1911).

After admiring the beautiful, vivacious face of this woman, I noted the graceful position of her right forearm and skillfully cropped hand resting upon her bosom.  Perhaps this gesture is too theatrical for today’s cynical world, but Serov found it an effective way to add rhythmic movement to a pose, and he used variations of it for some of his most important portraits of women, as well as for a couple of his famous portraits of men.

It is a terrific way to handle painting of those appendages.   Faces are a snap by comparison, and clients are satisfied if you simply copy a flattering photograph exactly.  But if you don’t give the arms at least a slight bend at the elbow, you are better off keeping them covered with sleeves.  And if you don’t give the hands a bit of a turn  or something to do, they are better off left in pockets than lying dead on the arms of a chair.  Also, depicting one hand is usually enough for any portrait.  Serov knew that.  So should everybody else.

Serov was trained as a realist, but he is said to have worked very hard to achieve a look of “freedom, artistry, effortless ease” in his paintings, eschewing any hint of photographic precision in the finished portrait.  “He painted his portraits slowly, sometimes agonizingly,” wrote one critic.  Serov himself said, “Each portrait is for me an illness.”

I wonder if today’s digital toilers, working under the intense glare of LED lights day and night, are able to empathize with Serov, who once said:

Any human face is so complex and so unique that you can always find in it traits worthy of portrayal, be they good or bad.  For my part, each time I appraise a person’s face I am inspired, you might even say carried away, not by his or her outer aspect, which is often trivial, but by [the] characterization it can be given on canvas.  That is why I am accused of sometimes having my portraits look like caricatures.”

And as often happens when a painter like Serov is “in the zone” seeking some primal truth about the sitter, the resulting portrait often ends up being as much about the emotional state of the painter as that of the sitter.

Dmitry Sarabyanov, the author of a brilliant essay on Serov in a 1982 catalog of the artist’s work published by Aurora Art Publishers, St. Petersburg, Russia, suggests that:

In Serov’s world the subject of spiritual beauty in man was one of the most controversial.  In the 1870s and 1880s [Ilya] Repin saw his ideal in real persons.  Unlike his teacher, Serov looks for true beauty, a beauty inaccessible to an eye not endowed with artistic vision; he seeks to fathom human emotions, to divine the human drama involved.  It is these aspirations that brought Serov’s artistry into being, investing him with a penetrating insight into nuances and minor details and an abhorrence for the insipid “verisimilitude” that, in Serov’s opinion, destroys art. 

Serov never depicts character “in general.”  He is interested in a specific facet of that character, the all-important facet that most tellingly reveals the aesthetic worth of the person portrayed.   He uses all the pictorial possibilities of the portrait – pose, gesture, composition, color scheme, the painterly style itself – to bring out the aesthetic merit of the sitter in the most vivid fashion.

From 1890 on, Serov’s portrait work was his most important genre.  His favorite models were actors, artists, and writers, including Konstantin Korovin (1891), Isaac Levitan (1893), Nikolai Leskov (1894) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1898) -- all in the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow.  After 1900 he painted several outstanding portraits in the grand manner, as well as intimate portraits of women and children.  In addition to oils, he worked in tempera, watercolors, pastels and lithography.

Serov was a creative genius who bridged the gap between the Russian Realists and the Russian modernists with his paintings. What bridges are today’s portrait painters building with their fealty to pixel counts?  Aw, who cares anyway?  We’re heading more and more to a digital world of virtual reality, where a retrograde painter’s vision of the natural world is completely irrelevant.