The Friendship of Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola

The Friendship of Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola

“Cézanne et Moi.”  L- Guillaume Canet as Emile Zola, R-Guillaume Gallienne as Cézanne

The French film, “Cézanne and I” or “Cézanne et Moi,” is excellent, but will be of most interest to those who know the story of Cézanne’s lifelong friendship with Émile Zola. Guillaume Gallienne, an actor of the Comédie Francaise gives an outstanding performance which zeroes in on his character as well as possible. As Émile Zola, Guillaume Canet is also very believable. The film direction and production tells the story extremely well, but also captures the colors and aesthetics well enough to make the viewer feel to almost be there.

A studio that Cezanne kept within the
Bibemus Quarry

Cézanne was the very first artist who really interested me–probably because of his colors.  The most influential 20th century artist, Picasso, said he owed everything to Cézanne.  Matisse claimed “he’s kind of a god of painting.” His popularity is similar to that of Van Gogh, who also was not appreciated in his lifetime.  As for Émile Zola, many of the French claim him as their favorite novelist. So to think that these two giants of late 19th-century French culture were classmates and best of friends growing up is just amazing.  It’s also tribute to the school in Aix-en-Provence which nurtured two extraordinary geniuses.

Fortunately, the movie takes you through some of the beautiful scenery they roamed through in childhood, such as the trails around the Bibémus Quarry and Mont Saint-Victoire.  There’s a glimpse at the richness of color which he portrayed so well in his paintings, with that perfect balance of warm and cool colors.  The movie didn’t show the beautiful house he eventually inherited from his parents.

The film “Cézanne and I” explores Cézanne’s character through the friendship and his relationship with others–wife, mother, father and others, and relates it to his art. Director Daniele Thompson picks up on the many mysteries of this relationship, the character of the artist and the personality of the man.  Most of the film portrays Zola as less complicated and a little easier to understand as a person.  Many people will want to see it to experience the landscape of Aix, which is beautiful. Criticism of the film comes from those who don’t understand the dialogue, but again it helps to have some knowledge on the history of the friendship.

Mont Saint-Victoire from Bibémus Quarry at the Baltimore Museum of Art

In high school, I was given the assignment to choose an artist to study and try to paint in his style. I chose Cézanne and it was difficult.  In grad school, I was required to read Émile Zola’s novels, Nana and The Masterpiece.  (The class was on Manet and Degas.)  The Masterpiece is about an obsessive and frustrated artist who is also a bit of a failure.  When it was published in the 1886, Cézanne interpreted it to be entirely about himself. The descriptions of their childhood wanderings together were true to life. I don’t remember the book so well, but remember it reminding me more of Degas. Zola was a rip roaring success as a novelist by the time he wrote it, and very prolific. The Masterpiece must have seemed like a slap in the face to Cezanne who was just as talented and worked as hard. Cézanne was 47 years old, but only knew rejection at that time.  His recognition as an artist did not come until 10 years later — when in his late 50s.

In reality, I had understood that Cézanne was so offended by the portrayal (parts of it are read in the film) that he would never speak to Zola again. In the movie, they are in contact again.  From the film, I actually sympathize a great deal with both Cézanne and Zola.  Zola claimed that Lantier, the artist in the novel, was a composite of artists he had known. It doesn’t help that he describes their childhood friendship pretty much as it was.  In Zola’s novel, Lantier ends up killing himself, which certainly must have suggested to Cezanne the worthlessness of his artistic endeavors. However, the ending is consistent with Zola’s style of naturalism which exposes the brutalities of life.  As far as I know, none of the painters Zola knew actually took their own lives.  In truth, Cezanne was never that satisfied with his own painting, even after he received some recognition.

Bibémus Quarry, near Aix-en-Provence, one of the many landmarks the artist painted

The time period was great for artists and writers mutually supporting each other, hanging out the cafes together, a tradition that continued through the 1920s. Both Zola and Cézanne went to cafes and on social excursions with Manet and the Impressionists. However, Cézanne was frequently opinionated and offensive and, at the same time, more withdrawn than the others.  After a few years, Cézanne retreated back to his native Provence while Zola stayed in Paris.

The trails near Bibemus Quarry

The move flashes between childhood, early adulthood and various events in their lives.  There is a third friend named Baptistin who became an engineer, but also was a part of their threesome. Zola’s father died when he was young and his mother struggled to support him. Cézanne had a difficult relationship with his banker father who wasn’t supportive of his chosen profession. As an adult, he was consciously rebelling against his father whom he considered a social climber. As might be expected, Zola became the perfect bourgeois and played the part of worldly success quite well. Cézanne rejected many of the social graces, and was considered uncouth and boorish by some. Certainly many artists also fit the stereotype of being sloppy, such as the great Michelangelo and the great Masaccio whose nickname means “grubby Tom.”

Cézanne was temperamental, as artists often are.  It comes with the territory of obsessiveness. Hefrequently tore up his paintings. It’s the frustration that is expressed well about Lantier, the artist in Zola’s novel. Cézanne actually died of pneumonia in 1906 — on a mountaintop while painting.  He stuck to his goals until the very end, but was never satisfied with his painting.  He was 67.

Cézanne got along well with Camille Pissarro, the oldest of the Impressionists and somewhat of a mentor for all artists in the group. They had a strong rapport and mutual respect. Cézanne and Édouard Manet (my other favorite artist from the period) did not like each other.  This lack of compatibility is curious to me because some of their artistic goals (the way they see form and structure) appear somewhat similar. Each is important for redefining the structure of painting through innovative means of composition that rejected traditional foreground, middleground and background. Both artists were from well-to-do backgrounds, but the elegant Manet, is known to have thought of Cézanne as ill-mannered and coarse.  Both artists received much public derision and criticism, but the younger artists of the avant-garde loved Manet.

A scene near Aix-en-Provence

The movie even puts Cézanne next to the gorgeous Berthe Morisot, known for her refinement and close relationship to Manet. My personal impression is that Cézanne suffered from jealousy of Manet on many levels, especially since Manet was so admired by his fellow artists.  His good friend Zola had written a well-known an important article in defense of Manet.  Zola also defended Cézanne and the other artists who were Impressionists through his essays. However, the novel, The Masterpiece expressed less respect for their style than one might expect.

Cézanne, Mme Cézanne in Yellow Armchair
Art Institute of Chicago

Cézanne’s portraits of his wife have always amazed me for their detachment and lack of feeling. Was he at all in love with her. According to the movie, he loved her  because she could sit hours without moving. Her rigid stillness was important to an artist who was trying to instill stability and geometry while using colors the way Impressionists did. None of his portraits of her show love or any feeling at all, and Thompson explores why.  The filmmaker also suggests that Cezanne Zola’s wife had at one time been involved — before she married his friend.  I’m not sure if that’s the truth or just the filmmaker’s conjecture.

Most of Cezanne’s portraits are all about the structure and composition of the painting.  Generally, they avoid feeling. The love and feeling we find in Cézanne is in his portrayal of nature particularly of portraits of the mountain he idolized, Mont Saint-Victoire.

  There is feeling in the self-portraits — the feeling of intensity and determination in his eyes.  I think his self-portraits are excellent because they capture the strong shapes with contrasts of color.  From these we can trace the formal properties that lead to the Cubist style of Picasso and Braque.

Quality films about artists help us to understand how an artist’s mind works.  This film helps us understand the artist more through his relationships rather than through the art itself. (I personally have a hard time teaching Cézanne.) The theme of denying his feelings and not showing that he cared for others comes up again and again. It’s a selfishness that is in pursuit of art, and/or, ego. Yet, if had been only about ego, Cézanne would have given up years earlier.  He is an artist who died painting.

Self-portrait, Winterthur Collection, Switzerland

In 2011, I went to his home in Aix-en-Provence, his studio and Bibemus Quarry where he did so many paintings. I will never forget the excellent tour guide at Bibemus Quarry, which thrilled Cézanne so much.  The colors of those rocks really are the rich yellow ochres and reds that we see in Cézanne’s paintings.  The quarry had been used for buildings since Roman times, but the rocks had become too salty and sandy and it was abandoned in the1800s.  You can really understand how the quarry’s strong, virile presence inspired Cezanne. I realized that Mont Saint-Victoire and Bibémus Quarry are much further away from each other than in the impression from Cézanne’s painting in Baltimore, shown above.  Photographer Phil Haber’s blog of Cezanne really captures the beauty of his scenery today.  However, Phil had to put together a composite of two photos to get the view in Baltimore.  So we really do know that Cézanne’s compositions broke up and rearranged the reality that he saw.

As for the writer’s style, Zola is not closely akin to the Impressionists. Zola’s writing is naturalism and he is important for describing things and the social classes with a gritty truth of lower class life.  Impressionists were more inclined to overlook the brutal side of life. Renoir painted the working class of Montmartre, but idealized them–turning them into angels.  Zola has more in common with Courbet and early Manet.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Sensational Line: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Graphic Art

Sensational Line: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Graphic Art

The Artisan Moderne. 1896, Lautrec was asked to advertise a jeweler/home goods designer
He manages to add some of his own thoughts and observations about human nature. 
This is the last weekend of Phillips Collection’s exhibition,Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the ‘Belle Epoque.’  The Phillips organized the show with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, its only other venue North America. This exhibition is different and distinguished from other exhibitions of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (and I’ve seen a few of them), because it’s primarily graphic art and contains some works that we don’t normally see. There are trial proofs alongside the finished prints, and a few very rare prints. The entire show comes from one private collector in France and we’re very lucky to have it for a short time in Washington. 

Mademoiselle Eglantine’s Troupe, 1895- 1896  Brush, spatter and crayon
lithograph in three colors.  The dance troup included Jane Avril, seen below

Toulouse-Lautrec’s color is magical but it’s really his sensational line that was his greatest gift.  He follows a string of other great 19th century line artists: Ingres, Daumier, Degas and Hokusai, but he broke entirely new ground in the world of graphic art.  In this exhibition, some of the familiar posters are shown in different stages, and it’s a great starting point to understand something of the lithographic process.   Lautrec mastered the medium of color lithography, using multiple stones for the different colors of ink.  

He’s best known for creating poster advertisement for entertainers and other highlights of Paris night life. Certainly he did a lot to bolster the careers of certain singers and performers such “La Goulue,” Jane Avril and Aristide Bruant. His posters were all over the kiosks of Paris and his work began a new trend.  Although Lautrec was from an aristocratic background, he reveled in the demimonde and the bohemian lifestyle.  He captured the people, places and events with so much vitality that the viewer almost wishes he or she could be there.  The “Belle Epoque” is the beautiful era and in the USA it reflects the time of “The Gilded Age or “The Gay Nineties.”

Jane Avril, 1899

Depicting the subjects with wit and whimsy, and it’s clear that Lautrec’s art always captured much more than a photograph could.  Sometimes his faces seem to be sneering at us.  His expressive, calligraphic line is pure magic in how it captures a quick impression.   He also masters the integration of letters into design, an essential for good graphic art.  He portrayed Jane Avril several different times — in 1893, in the Divan Japonais, with Mademoiselle Eglantine’s Troupe and again in 1899.   The poster of Jane Avril from 1899 is particularly effective in design.  Her undulating lines take up the entire picture from top to bottom, twisting to the right and then off the page on the left.  It’s utterly simple, but effective design

Furthermore, it’s not only performers and night clubs that he enjoys. One of his friends, Sescau asked him to advertise his photography studio.  He sets the fashionable lady in the foreground, running away from the photographer.  With his sly humor, he makes suggests that photographer friend is looking at her in other ways, too.  In a brilliant display of his design talent, the frills of this woman’s flowing cape match the rhythms of design in her fan, flowing in the opposite direction off the edge of the page.

Photographer Sescau, 189 Brush, crayon and spatter lithograph, printed in five
colors.  Key stone printed in blue; color stones in red, yellow and green

Like other artists of his time — Van Gogh and Munch — he used jumps in space to heighten the meaning.  It works well with the poster; the graphic artist’s challenge is to say a great deal with a minimal amount of detail and definition.   In one of his most famous works, La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge, the master of ceremonies is at the picture plane.  He’s merely a silhouette with pointed fingers, pointing to the artist’s signature put also to the celebrity whose dancing a can-can.  Le Moulin Rouge was a 1890s version of “Dancing with the Stars.”   Guests were able to mix and mingle with their favorite celebrities, and to dance alongside them.

La Goulue (Louise Weber)

Of course the Moulin Rouge was also memorialized with a fictional character played by Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie, Moulin Rouge. The story, but not the aesthetics in the move, fit with the time and place.  John Leguizamo played Toulouse-Lautrec as an affable, good-natured character.   Since childhood accidents and perhaps a genetic disease kept him from growing to normal adult height, he felt comfortable with other outsiders.

In actuality, La Goulue was Louise Weber, who had moved from the country (Alsace) into the city as a teen. She was approximately 24 at the time of her stardom as one of the most popular dancers in Paris.  Her nickname, “the glutton” probably refers to how she took from others — food and drink.By the time she was 30, she was tired, wasted, impoverished and alcoholic. (In his prints, and paintings, she’s always recognized by her topknot. ) Unfortunately, there’s similar sad tales played out by some young stars today.

La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge, Brush and Spatter lithograph, printed
on two sheets of wove paper.  Final print

Many other famous posters are on view in full splendor, including images of Aristide Bruant and Marcelle Lender.  This must-see exhibition is pure visual delight. It also offers a great deal of technical information about Lautrec’s astounding graphic techniques.  This is just a small sampling of the many fantastic posters, paintings and graphics that are part of the exhibition.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
The Floor Scrapers and the Making of Caillebotte’s Masterpiece

The Floor Scrapers and the Making of Caillebotte’s Masterpiece

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875  Musée d’Orsay, now on view
at the National Gallery of Art, Washington,

Right now the National Gallery is having an exhibition of an Impressionist whose reputation has grown over the last 25 years, Gustave Caillebotte.  Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye will be on view until October 4.

It’s interesting how his first masterpiece, The Floor Scrapers was rejected by the Salon in 1875, but part of the Impressionists’ exhibition the next year. The masterful painting granted Caillebotte entry into the Impressionist group. He repaid his dear friends by buying up many of their works and then donating them to the French state after he died.  Many of the paintings he owned are part of Paris’ great early modern museum, Musée d’Orsay. It’s appropriate that the museum that houses so many Impressionist works is a former train station, since modern trains inspired viewers to observe the transient views of the world that the Impressionists transience painted so well.

There are so many reasons The Floor Scrapers is my favorite work by Caillebotte.  The composition is extraordinarily well balanced with an artful asymmetry. There’s the tilted floor plane, a view that artists would only start to use after they discovered photography and how it frames pictures differently. There’s also the dignity given to labor and the beautiful anatomy.

Finally it’s incredible to see how Caillebotte painted tactile contrasts on wood in the various stages of sanding, what looks like with or without varnish, and in the light and shadow. Compared to the other Impressionists, Caillebotte painted with definition and a moderate amount of precision. Yet when he illuminates the floor with natural light from the window, we see a wonderful scintillating values, colors and textures.  Yellow shines through with touches of blue, but in the distance it becomes an earthy brown.

To understand how good this painting actually is, it’s useful to compare it with another version of floor scrapers that he did.  It’s a simpler composition from a different angle, with fantastic lighting effects. Enlarging the photo here will really show off the reflections on the floor. (It isn’t in the National Gallery’s show, but was also part of the 2nd Impressionist exhibition in 1876.)

Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers

Many of Caillebotte’s other paintings in the exhibition give us a view into his amazing sense of perspective: Le Pont de l”Europe, 1876, for example.  He lived at the time that Paris had just experienced a major rebuilding campaign.  Paris, A Rainy Day gives an impressive viewpoint of how the new city must have looked to the public, in the eyes of a new bourgeoisie class.  Since streets corners were set up in star patterns, the linear perspective has multiple vanishing points and appears to go very deep.  The even greater and more famous artist, Georges Seurat, borrowed from the composition of Paris: A Rainy Day when he did his iconic narrative painting of Paris on a sunny day, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte.

Monet and Van Gogh are two more prominent artists who shared Caillebotte’s deep perspective space.  Degas went even further than Caillebotte to exploit the unusual viewpoint. Right now there is an important Impressionist exhibition is in Philadelphia, Discovering the Impressionists, until September 13.  The exhibit showcases Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who took a gamble and went into great financial risk by buying up Impressionist painters because he believed in them.  The exhibit includes Monet’s beautiful Poplars series.  However, one of the really important works in the group is by Degas, The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the rue Le Peletier.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Foyer at the the Opera on the rue Le Peletier, 1872,
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

This panoramic ballet scene of dancers offers a wonderful comparison with the Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers. This painting is also asymmetric and appears to look spontaneous, while it is actually exceptionally well-planned. Degas offers many more layers of observation: into another room and out the window, through a mirror (?) or another room in the back center. We imagine that the major source of light is a an unseen window to the right. Whites and golds predominate the scene, with touches of blue and orange. Degas’s dancers, though quite strong may seem delicate next to Caillebotte’s muscular workers. In truth, Degas’ dancing girls and Caillebotte’s hard-working men are much the same.  Their work is a labor of love, as the Impressionists saw it. The same can be said about Caillebotte, Degas, Durand-Ruel and those who left us with a wonderful record of life in Paris in the 1870s.  The ballet painting was done in an opera house that destroyed by fire the very next year, probably caused by gaslights.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

“The Little Dancer” Brings Art to Life

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878–1881,pigmented beeswax, clay, metal armature, rope, paintbrushes, human hair, silk and linen ribbon, cotton and silk tutu, linen slippers, on wooden baseoverall without base: 98.9 x 34.7 x 35.2 cm (38 15/16 x 13 11/16 x 13 7/8 in.) weight: 49 lb. (22.226 kg)  National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

It was a joy to see the Kennedy Center’s world-premiere production, The Little Dancer, which closed on November 30th.  Tiler Peck, principle of the New York City Ballet had the lead as 14-year-old Marie van Goethem, the ballerina who posed for Degas’ famous statue, Little Dancer.  Although Peck is definitely far more mature than Degas’ model was, she certainly was a good choice for the role.  Boyd Gaines, as Degas, really does not look like him but I guess it doesn’t matter.   Some of the settings and compositions are the same as you will see in his paintings.  (My blog about Degas’s paintings of dancers)


The music is delightful, and most of the story is fairly credible, so I do hope the musical will go to more venues. The Kennedy Center audiences loved it.   The musical fits in with what I’ve been writing about, Degas and Cassatt and the relationships between artists.  The story opens in 1917 with a visit to Degas’ household after his death.  Mary Cassatt is there, wishing to turn the ballerina away, but she came back to see the sculpture he did of her many years earlier.   It’s fairly funny as it refers to the yellow coat with a fur collar that was annoying to Marie.

Tiler Peck in front of the National Gallery of Art’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen , from Tiler Talks Blog, October 15, 2014 

The story is truthful in that portrayed some of the challenges in the lives of the dancers who were working class girls.  Marie’s mother was a laundress, and I’m guessing she posed for Degas, too. Laundresses — like dancers and race horses — were part of Degas’ continuous subject matter, as he studied the movements of muscles and limbs at work and in stress. (While we think of dancers and race horses expressing consummate grace, we don’t think of laundresses that way.)  In the play, Marie was put into a competition with snooty, upper class girl who had a stage mother, a story for a Disney movie or a story which would be more truthful today.  Wealthy girls were not so likely to be ballerinas in the 19th century, as their parents wouldn’t have subjected them to gawking men.  Class differences, as a major theme of the play, are historically correct for the time.  Other details of biography, Degas’ grumpy outer shell that hid his softness, his sensitivity to strong light and fear of going blind were woven into the tale.  Of course, the close companionship and artistic relationship with Mary Cassatt, especially during the time Marie would have posed, were very true.

Tiler Peck as Marie, the Little Dancer, in the Kennedy Center Musical of that name

The musical, too, has flashbacks to old the older and younger Marie.  Rebecca Luker, an experienced Broadway star who plays the older Marie, has a powerful voice.  The musical is similar to a recent genre of books which use a work of art to create a historical fiction.  Like Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier’s book about Jan Vermeer and his famous subject, much of the details are imagined.

For the importance of the statue artistically, the National Gallery of Art will have Little Dancer Aged Fourteen on display in an exhibition with other sketches, paintings and sculpture until January 11, 2015.  I think the importance of Degas’ wax sculptures as comparable the importance of his sketches.  Waxes to bronzes are like drawings are to paintings, although not necessarily the case here.  It helped him realize his vision for his paintings.

Fourth Position Front, on the Left Leg, c. 1885/1890 pigmented beeswax, metal armature, cork, on wooden base
overall without base: 60.3 x 37.8 x 34.1 cm (23 3/4 x 14 7/8 x 13 7/16 in.)
height (of figure): 56.8 cm (22 3/8 in.)
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Degas built the statue in wax over an armature, and he did it in an additive process. In the play, it is called a “characterizing portrait.” and As such, it was quite innovative. Details are not the important part as much as the essence the characterization.  The play opens with a famous by Degas: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”  What Degas did so brilliantly make us see the essence of the practice, the work, the attitude and the dedication which made the ballet become what it became.  Most of his paintings are of rehearsals rather than performances.  Seeing his work makes our lives richer, and seeing “Little Dancer” enriches us.  Even the 6-year old boys near me were entranced by it.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Cassatt and Degas: An Impressionist Duo in Portraits

Mary Cassatt, La Loge, 1878-79

Mary Cassatt was several years younger than Edgar Degas, but when he saw her work he exclaimed, “Here’s someone who sees as I do.”   Currently, the National Gallery is showing Cassatt side by side with Degas, comparing how they two worked together and shared.  Both are remarkable portrait artists.

Like Manet and Morisot, their relationship was especially helpful for each of them reach the fullness of artistic vision.  They spent about ten years working closing together.  As their artistic visions changed, they grew in different directions.  They share same daring sense of composition. Both are excellent portrait artists.  I just finished reading Impressionist Quartet, by Jeffrey Meyers.  It’s the story of Manet, Morisot, Degas and Cassatt: their biographies, their art and their interdependence.

Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt

Degas and Manet were good friends, too, and had a friendly competition. They had much in common, having been born in Paris and coming from well-to-do backgrounds.  Both had a strong affinity for Realism, but Degas was the greater draftsman, and probably the greatest draftsman of the late 19th century.  (Read my blog explaining Degas’s dancers)  Cassatt and Morisot also were friends, as the two women who were fixtures of the Impressionist group. They were very close to their families, and their subjects were similar. Their personalities were quite different. Berthe Morisot was refined and full of self doubt, while Mary Cassatt was bold and confident. Cassatt did not have Morisot’s elegance or her beauty.

Her confidence shines in all of Degas’ portraits.  She was not too pleased with the portrait at right, but Degas often did get into the character of his subjects. Degas painted her leaning forward and bending over, and holding some cards. He put her in a pose used in at least two other paintings, but I’m not certain what he meant by this position.  The orange and brown earth tones, and the oblique, sloping asymmetric composition are very common in Degas’ paintings.

Degas may have been somewhat shy, but caustic, biting and moody.  By all accounts, it appears that Cassatt made him a happier person. Degas was the one who invited her to join the Impressionist group in 1877, three years after it had formed.. They worked together to gain skills in printmaking.  In addition, to their common artistic goals and objectives, both had fathers who were prominent bankers.  Mary Cassatt was an American from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, while Degas had relatives from his mother’s family who lived in New Orleans.  Some of his father’s family had moved to Naples, Italy, and had married into the aristocracy there.

No on seems to know if they were lovers. Both artists were very independent, remained single their entire lives.  Neither was the type who really wanted to be married.  However, each of them had proposed to others when they were very young, and before they knew each other.  Writers don’t spend a lot of time speculating about their love lives, still an unknown question.  Most art historians believe Degas sublimated his sexual energies fairly well while exploring the young girls and teens who were ballet dancers.

Degas, Henri De Gas and His Niece Lucie, 1876

I have always loved this painting of Henri De Gas and his niece Lucie, from the Art Institute of Chicago.  It seems a very sympathetic portrait of his uncle and cousin, both of whom have kindly faces. Sometimes it’s been explained that the chair as a vertical line showing the separateness of the relationship.  I see it differently.  The composition has a large diagonal, and an arc brings are eye from the upper right side to the lower left corner.  A continuous compositional line from their heads down to the edge of his hand and the newspaper pulls the older man and young girl together. There heads are nearly at the same angle, single expressing their togetherness.  The uncle looks like such a kindly man, and both look at us the viewers.

Marry Cassatt, Portrait of Alexander Cassatt and His Son Robert Kelso Cassstt

Mary Cassatt also shows an even stronger family bond in the Portrait of Alexander Cassatt and His Son, Robert Kelso Cassatt, her brother and nephew.   Her brother ultimately rose to be President of the Pennsylvania Railroad and may have been somewhat of a robber baron. You would never see his harshness in his sister’s portrayal.  He seems like the ultimate warm, affectionate father.  The two faces are placed so closely together, and they’re similar.  Degas and Cassatt often portrayed individuals in relation to each other to show their great affection for each other, so differently from the way Manet did.  In most of his group portraits Manet makes us keenly aware that each individual is a unique soul.  He emphasizes differences and oppositions,
One the best of Mary Cassatt’s portraits is the Young Girl in a blue armchair.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Into the Fields With Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh,  Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890 at the National Gallery of Art,
a recent gift from the Collection of Mr & Mrs Paul Mellon

Vincent Van Gogh’s Green Wheat Fields, Auvers came into Washington’s National Gallery of Art on December 20, 2013.  It’s a windswept scene that sucks us in with intensity and urgency.    Green Wheat Fields, Auvers is among the 70 or so paintings he did during the two months of 1890 when he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise.  Experts believe he painted it in June, 1890, the month before he died.

Fortunately the new painting entered the museum at the same time Washington’s Phillips Collection is hosting an exhibition, Van Gogh Repetitions, until February 2, 2014. The exhibition of 14 paintings examines why the artist repeated compositions in the same format with different colors and very minor design changes. It features several portraits, The Bedroom at Arles and two magnificent Van Goghs owned by the Phillips Collection, The Road Menders, 1889, and The Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles, 1888.  

Vincent Van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889, from the Phillips Collection, Washington

Like the National Gallery’s new canvas, the paintings from the Phillips Collection are also landscapes with sweeping roads veering to the right side.  They have predominantly yellow-green color harmonies, rushed perspective and ground levels that are tilted.  Although people are included in these paintings, they’re small compared to nature.  Trees and rocks are more powerful than the people and nature is a force to behold.  Like many Japanese artists, it seems that Van Gogh felt the power of the natural world more powerful than an individual.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888, Phillips Collection

To gain an historical perspective, he painted The Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles during the period he lived in Arles, and he did The Road Menders during his sojourn in the asylum of Saint- Paul de Mausole in St-Remy de Provence in 1889, the year after his notable breakdown.  The National Gallery’s new painting comes from the next year, the last phase of his life, when he returned to northern France.  Most of his landscapes from this time period totally lack figures, as it seems to him that the power of nature, as in Rain, Auvers, was taking over more and more in Van Gogh’s view.

 
 

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, hung in a private residence from 1955 on, but now hangs with other Van Goghs:  a very intense self-portrait, a vase of Roses, The Olive Orchard and Roulin’s Baby.   Each of these paintings have variations of the magnificent Van Gogh greens or blues, including olive-greens, chartreuse, lime green, forest green, blue-greens and mint. 

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers gives feelings of total immersion as the best Van Gogh paintings, including The Starry Night, do. It’s hard to imagine walking in this field without sinking or drowning in it. The road is very irregular and there is a roughness to this place.  Texture is thick and  visibly tactile even in the reproductions. The swirls of clouds feel like the swirls of fields.  A swiftly rushing road on the right suggests the wind also flows from the same direction and brings field and clouds together. Colors of field and cloud are not the same, but they are in the same family of colors, analogous blues and greens.

Van Gogh was swept into this landscape, but a strong upright shaft of wheat in center seems to have brought him back to his center.  It is here the viewers can be brought into focus, because the painting would not hold together as well without this strong vertical focus. 

Van Gogh, Enclosed Field with the Rising Sun, 1889, painted in St-Remy
Private Collection, photo taken from www.vggallery.com
   

In the same way,  the power of the sun brings the viewer into focus on Enclosed Field with the Rising Sun, a view he painted looking out of the asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence.   He expanded the natural vista, using a very wide-angle perspective.  Tilted landscapes, openings in the foreground, and exaggerated perspective are some of Van Gogh’s best tools for making us feel his perspective.  

Jean-Francois Millet, The Sower, 1850
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

He painted wheat fields over and over, but some of the best renditions of man in nature come from his portrayals of The Sower, of which he did several versions, acknowledging the artistic legacy of Jean-Francois Millet.  These are my favorite paintings by Van Gogh because they remind us of mankind’s dependence on nature and the interconnectedness of nature.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower with Rising Sun, 1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Van Gogh felt a oneness with the natural world, as if he saw the separate parts of the natural world as one unifying force.  The best of his landscape paintings, are so powerful when they remind us, like Green Wheat Fields, Auvers or The Starry Night, of the interconnectedness of all things.

In the end,  we, the viewers, are swept into his psyche and feel an empathy for him and his vision. 

View from Van Gogh’s room in the asylum of Saint-Remy de Provence, 2015