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 donein an opera house that destroyed by fire the very next year, probably caused by gaslights.
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.
Archangel Michael, First half 14th century tempera on wood, gold leaf overall: 110 x 80 cm (43 5/16 x 31 1/2 in.) Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens
Gold radiates throughout dimly-lit rooms of the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition, Heaven and Earth: Byzantine Art from Greek Collections. Some 170 important works on loan from museums in Greece trace the development of Byzantine visual culture from the fourth to the 15th century. Organized by the Benaki Museum in Athens, it will be on view until March 2 and then at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles beginning April 19. The National Gallery has a done a great job organizing the show, getting across themes of both spiritual and secular life spanning more than 1000 years. The exhibition design is masterful and includes a film about four key Greek churches. The photography is exquisite and provides the full context for the Byzantine church art.
There are dining tables, coins, ivories, jewelry and other objects, but it’s the mosaics which I find most captivating, and this exhibition allows a close-up view. Their nuances of size and shape can be closely observed here, but not in slides or in the distance. Byzantine artists gradually replaced stone mosaics with glass tesserae, painting gold leaf behind the glass to portray backgrounds for the figures. It was the Byzantines created these wondrous images by transforming the Greco-Roman tradition of floor mosaics to that of wall mosaics.
Van Eyck, St John the Baptist, det-Ghent Altarpiece
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently hosted another exhibition of the Middle Ages, “Treasures from Hildesheim,” works from the 10th through 13th centuries from Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany. Even though Greek Christians of Byzantine world officially split from Rome in the 11th century, the two exhibitions show that the art of east and west continued to share much in terms of iconography and style. Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, from the 15th century, contains a Deesis composed of Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist, in its center, proving how persistent Byzantine iconography was in the West. That altarpiece shows the early Renaissance continuation of imagining heaven as glistening gold and jewels.
Church architecture evolved very differently however, with the Latin church preferring elongated churches with the floor plan of Roman basilicas. The ritual requirements of the Orthodox Church resulted in a more compact form using domes, squinches and half-domes. Fortunately, the National Gallery’s exhibition has a lot of information about Orthodox churches, their layout and how the Iconostasis (a screen for icons) divided the priests from the congregation.
Reliquary of St. Oswald, c. 1100, is silver gilt
Both cultures re-used works from antiquity. In the East, the statue heads of pagan goddesses could become Christian saints with a addition of a cross on their foreheads. In the west, ancient portrait busts inspired gorgeous metalwork used for the relics of saints, such as the reliquary of St. Oswald, which actually contained a portion of this 7th century English saint’s skull. Mastering anatomy, perspective and foreshortening was not as important an aim as it was to evoke the glory and golden beauty of heaven as it was imagined to be. The goldsmiths and metalsmiths were considered the best artists of all during this period in the west.
Mosaic with a font, mid-5th century Museum of Byzantine culture, Thessaloniki Photo source: NGA website
Perhaps the parallels exist because many artists from the Greek world went to the west during the Iconoclast controversy, spanning most years from 726 to 843. Mosaic artists from the Byzantine Empire peddled their talents in the west, particularly in Carolingian courts of Charlemagne and his sons. From that time forward certain standards of Byzantine representation, such as the long, dark, bearded Jesus on the cross. While we seem to see these images as either icons or mosaics in Greek art, they become symbols in the west, often translated into sculptures of wood, stone or even stained glass.
An interesting parallel of the two exhibitions is the early Byzantine fountain, a wall mosaic of gold, glass and stone in the NGA’s exhibition, which compares well to the 13th century Baptismal font from Hildesheim, showing the Baptism of Christ. The font mosaic is from the Church of the Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki. It is thought to emulate the fountains and gardens of Paradise. One can visualize of the context in which the fragmentary mosaic was made by watching the film in the exhibition, which shows another wondrous 5th century church in Thessaloniki, the Rotonda Church.
A Baptismal Font, 1226, is superb example of Medieval metalwork from Hildesheim Cathedral.
The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum had a life-size wooden statue of the dead Jesus, dated to the 11th century, originally on a wood cross, now gone. Wood carvers out of Germany were masters of emotional expression. In the iconic Crucifixion image in the Greek exhibition, a very sad Mary and Apostle John are grieving at the side of Jesus. It’s poignant and emotional, with knit eyebrows, tilted heads and a profoundly felt grief.
Golden Madonna is wood covered in gold, made for St. Michael’s Cathedral before 1002
The iconographic image of the Theotokos, a Greek type is normally a rigid, enthroned Mary who solidly holds her son, a little emperor. The format expresses that she is the throne, a seat for God in the form of Baby Jesus. From Hildesheim, there is a carved statue which dates to c. 970, carved of wood and covered with a sheet of real good. Both heads are now missing. At one time the statue was covered with jewels, offerings people had given to the statue. In the west, this type became common, called the sedes sapientaie, but the origin is probably Byzantium. Although heaven is more important than earth, and God and saints in heaven are more powerful than humans, sometimes medieval artists have been capable of revealing the greatest truths about what it’s like to be a human being. In the icons, there is great poignancy and beauty in the eyes. At times the portrayal of grief is overwhelming, as we see on an icon of the Hodegetria image where Mary points the way, the baby Jesus but knows He will die. On the reverse is an excruciatingly painful Man of Sorrows.
Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, last quarter 12th century, tempera and silver on wood, Kastoria, Byzantine Museum. On the Reverse is a Man of Sorrows
The Metropolitan exhibition of course could not bring the two most important works from Hildesheim, the bronze relief sculptures: a triumphal column with the Passion of Christ and a set of bronze doors for the Cathedral. Completed before 1016, I often think of the figures on the relief panels on those doors as one of the most honest works of art ever created. As God convicts Adam of eating the forbidden fruit, Adam crosses his arm to point to Eve who twists her arms pointing downward to a snake on the ground. We may laugh because God’s arm seems to be caught in his sleeve as he points to Adam. Though this medieval artist/metalsmith (Bishop Bernward?) may not have understood anatomy and perspective, he understood how easy it is for humans to pass the blame and not take responsibility for their actions.
The Expulsion, before 1016, detail of bronze door, St. Michael’s, Hildesheim
Medieval artists in both the Greek and Latin churches are normally not known by name. After all, their work was for God, not for themselves, for money or for fame.
Detail – Marc Chagall, with Lino Melano, Orpheus, 1971, from the upper right side–Pegasus, Three Graces, Orpheus
The nation’s capital city added a sudden burst of color this season in the form of Marc Chagall’s Orpheus, a glass and stone mosaic. It’s a 17′ by 10′ wall standing in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, between 7th and 9th Streets, NW, Constitution Avenue and Madison Avenue. Evelyn Stephansson Nef, who died in 2009, donated it to the museum. (The composition is one of three new acquisitions in the National Gallery, a must-see along with a Van Gogh, a Gerrit von Honthorst and a loan of the Dying Gaul from the Capitoline Museum in Rome.)
The mosaic stands in the garden behind the restaurant, but in front of the heavily traveled Route 1. Fortunately, a lot trees shield it from view of the traffic, providing a reflective space for viewers. The sculpture garden is on the National Mall, but open only from 10-5 daily and 11-6 Sundays, except for an ice rink in winter which has longer hours.
Evelyn Nef and her husband, John Nef, were friends of the artist who was inspired after visiting them in 1968. The artist gave the mosaic to the couple back in 1971. For years, it was in the garden of their Georgetown residence, vaguely visible from the street. The National Gallery spent years preparing, repairing, moving and re-installing its 10 separate concrete panels, a process described in the Washington Post. The seams aren’t visible.
Detail, Marc Chagall, Orpheus, 1971. Here Orpheus is crowned and holds his lyre.
Chagall did the drawings for the composition in his studio back in France, and then hired mosaicist Lino Melano to complete it. Melano supervised installation which was finished in November, 1971. The artist returned at the time to see it. It was his first mosaic installed in the US. Afterwards, Chagall did the renowned Four Seasons mosaics for the First National Plaza in Chicago.
The composition has the spontaneity, verve and joy we can expect from Chagall. The execution, however, took a highly skilled Italian mosaicist who was steeped in the tradition. Melano used Murano glass, natural-colored stones and stones cut from Carrara marble. On close inspection, viewers can discern where there is glass: in the most brightly-colored passages, the shining blues, reds and radiant yellows. There is a touch gold leaf behind some of the glass, a technique inherited from the Byzantine mosaicists.
(For a good comparison, Byzantine mosaics are currently on view in the marvelous National Gallery Exhibition, Heaven and Earth: Byzantine Art from Greek Collections, until March 2, 2014.) Byzantine mosaics also combine stone cubes and glass cubes, called tesserae, but the tesserae are much, much smaller in Byzantine mosaics.
Melano wisely reserved the gold leaf for a few choice places, but only on Orpheus, his crown and his knee.
Detail, Marc Chagall, Orpheus, mosaic, 1971. Figures cross the ocean, with an angel guide, the sun and mythological horse, Pegasus
The god Orpheus is shown without his ill-fated mortal lover, Eurydice. Eurydice lost him because she disobeyed fate and dared to turn back and look at him while in the underworld. Chagall ignores the pessimistic part of the story. How then do we interpret what Chagall was trying to convey?
The other mythological figures are the flying horse Pegasus and the Three Graces. The winged-horse does not have feet, reminding me of the incomplete depictions of animals painted in the caves of southern France, near Chagall’s studio. Orpheus holds his lyre in a prominent position. Pegasus flies and Orpheus makes music while a little birdie flies. The Graces are not dancing here, but they remind us of our gifts and that grace is indeed possible. Chagall, who escaped Europe in the Holocaust, had a knack for putting a positive spin on events. He obviously chooses the highest potentials of human nature, while not exactly ignoring the negative.
Detail, lower left corner with Chagall’s signature
Of course the myth of Orpheus also conjures up images of the underworld. On the left, there is water where people are entering in groups and fishes are swimming. Could this be the River Styx of Greek mythology? Chagall said it referred to the groups of immigrants who crossed the ocean to get a better life. Above the river is a huge burst of sun. An angel flies triumphantly overhead, with open arms. The artist ignored the rules of perspective and foreshortening on this figure, reminding us that flight, or overcoming limitation, is indeed possible. He suggests that dreams can come true.
A dreaming couple on the bottom right hand side are happily in a paradise, under a tree. The artist’s signature is underneath. Chagall may have thought of himself with his wife, Bella. According to the National Gallery’s website, Evelyn Nef asked Chagall if this was her and her husband, John. He replied, “If you like.” There’s a border to the composition. Everywhere lines are curved, making this composition the image of life as a joyful journey, a graceful dance with much optimism.
Marc Chagall, Russian, 1887-1985, Orpheus, designed 1969, executed 1971, stone and glass mosaic overall size: 302.9 x 517.84 cm (119 1/4 x 203 7/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington The John U. and Evelyn S. Nef Collection 2011.60.104.1-10
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, aview 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.
Albrecht Dürer, The Head of Christ, 1506 brush and gray ink, gray wash, heightened with white on blue paper overall: 27.3 x 21 cm (10 3/4 x 8 1/4 in.) overall (framed): 50 63.8 4.1 cm (19 11/16 25 1/8 1 5/8 in.) Albertina, Vienna
The National Gallery of Art is hosting the largest show of Albrecht Dürer drawings, prints and watercolors ever seen in North America, combining its own collection with that of the Albertina in Vienna, Austria. Across the street in the museum’s west wing is the another exhibition of works on paper, Color, Line and Light: French Drawings Watercolors and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac. The French drawings are spectacular, but it’s hard to imagine the 19th century masters without the earlier genius out of Germany, Dürer, who approached drawing with scientist’s curiosity for understanding nature.
Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at Thirteen, 1484 silverpoint on prepared paper, 27.3 19.5 cm (10 3/4 7 11/16 in.) (framed): 51.7 43.1 4.5 cm (20 3/8 16 15/16 1 3/4 in.) Albertina, Vienna
Dürer’s famous engravings are on view, including Adam and Eve, but with the added pleasure of seeing preparatory drawings and first trial proofs of the prints. Some of his most famous works such as the Great Piece of Turf and Praying Hands, are there also. In both exhibitions, as always, I’m drawn to the beauty and color of landscape art, especially prominent in the 19th century exhibition. However, both shows have phenomenal portraits to give us a glimpse into people of all ages with profound insights.
Dürer drew his own face while looking in the mirror at age 13, in 1484. He still had puffy cheeks and a baby face, but was certainly a prodigy. Like his father, he was trained in the goldsmith’s guild which gave him facility at describing the tiniest details with a very firm point. Seeing his picture next to the senior Dürer’s self-portrait, there’s no doubt his father was extremely gifted, too.
Albrecht Dürer, “Mein Agnes”, 1494 pen and black ink, 15.7 x 9.8 cm (6 1/8 x 3 7/8 in.) (framed): 44.3 x 37.9 x 4.2 cm (17 3/8 x 14 7/8 x 1 5/8 in.) Albertina, Vienna
In his native Nuremburg, the younger Dürer was recognized at an early age and his reputation spread, particularly as the world of printing was spreading throughout the German territories, France and Italy. We can trace his development as he went to Italy in 1494-96, and then again in 1500, meeting with North Italian artists Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini and exchanging artistic ideas. Dürer is credited with bridging the gap between the Northern and Italian Renaissance. I personally find all his drawings and prints more satisfying then his oil paintings, because at heart he was first and foremost a draftsman.
Though we normally think of Dürer as a controlled draftsman, there are some very fresh, loose drawings. An image he did of his wife, Agnes, in 1494, shows a wonderful freedom of expression, and affection. He married Agnes Fry in 1494 and did drawings of her which became studies for later works. She was the model for St. Ann in a late painting of 1516 and the preparatory drawing with its amazing chiaroscuro is in the exhibition.
Albrecht Dürer, Agnes Dürer as Saint Ann, 1519 brush and gray, black, and white ink on grayish prepared paper; black background applied at a later date (?) overall: 39.5 x 29.2 cm (15 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.) overall (framed): 64 x 53.4 x 4.4 cm (25 1/4 x 21 x 1 3/4 in.) Albertina, Vienna
Also on view are Durer’s investigations into human proportion, landscapes and drawings he did of diverse subjects from which he later used in his iconic engravings. We can trace how the drawings inspired his visual imagery. There are also several preparatory drawings of old men who were used as the models for apostles in a painted altarpiece.
Albrecht Dürer, An Elderly Man of Ninety-Three Years, 1521 brush and black and gray ink, heightened with white, on gray-violet prepared paper overall: 41.5 28.2 cm (16 5/16 11 1/8 in.) overall (framed): 63.6 49.7 4.6 cm (25 1/16 19 9/16 1 13/16 in.) Albertina, Vienna
My favorite drawing of old age, however, is a study of an old man at age 93 who was alert and in good health (amazing as the life expectancy in 1500 was not what is today.) He appears very thoughtful, pensive and wise. The softness of his beard is incredible. The drawing is in silverpoint on blue gray paper which makes the figure appear very three-dimensional. To add force to the light and shadows, Durer added white to highlight, making the man so lifelike and realistic.
Léon Augustin Lhermitte, An Elderly Peasant Woman, c. 1878 charcoal, overall: 47.5 x 39.6 cm (18 11/16 x 15 9/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James T. Dyke, 1996
In the other exhibition, there’s a comparable drawing by Leon Lhermitte of an old woman in Color, Line and Light. Lhermitte was French painter of the Realist school. He is not widely recognized today, but there were so many extraordinary artists in the mid-19th century. What I find especially moving about the painters of this time is more than their understanding of light and color. I like their approach to treating humble people, often the peasants, with extraordinary dignity. Lhermitte’s woman of age has lived a hard and rugged life and he crinkled skin signifies her amazing endurance. We see the beauty of her humanity and the artist’s reverence for every crevice in her weather-beaten skin.
Jean-François Millet Nude Reclining in a Landscape, 1844/1845 pen and brown ink, 16.5 x 25.6 cm (6 1/2 x 10 1/16 in.) Dyke Collection
There are many portraits of youth in the French exhibition, too, including fresh pen and inks such as Edouard Manet’s Boy with a Dog and Francois Millet’s Nude Reclining in Landscape, who really does not look nude.
Camille Pissarro’s The Pumpkin Seller is a charcoal without a lot of detail. She has broad features, plain clothes and a bandana around the head. She’s a simpleton, drawn and characterized with a minimum of lines but Pissarro sees her a substantial girl of character. The drawing reminds me of Pissarro himself. He may not be as well-known and appreciated as Monet, Renoir, Degas, yet he was the diehard artist. He was the one who never gave up, who encouraged all his colleagues and was quite willing to endure poverty and deprivation for the goals of his art. Berthe Morisot‘s watercolor of Julie Manet in a Canopied Cradle has a minimum of detail but is a quick expression of her daughter’s infancy.
Camille Pissarro, The Pumpkin Seller, c.1888 charcoal, overall: 64.5 x 47.8 cm (25 3/8 x 18 13/16 in.) Dyke Collection
Taking in all the portraits of both exhibitions, I’m left with thoughts of awe for beauty of both nature and humanity. The friends I was with actually preferred the French exhibition to the Dürer. There were surprising revelations of skill by little known artists like Paul Huet, Francois-Auguste Ravier and Charles Angrand. The landscapes by artists of the Barbizon School and the Neo-Impressionists, are important and beautiful, but perhaps not recognized as much as they should be. In both exhibitions, we must admire how works on paper form the blueprint for larger ideas explored in oil paintings.
Berthe Morisot, Julie Manet in a Canopied Cradle, 1879 watercolor and gouache, 18 x 18 cm (7 1/16 x 7 1/16 in.) Dyke Collection
It was a curator a the Albertina who wisely connected a mysterious Martin Schongauer drawing of the 1470s owned by the Getty to a Durer Altarpiece. The Albertina is a museum in Vienna known for works on paper, much its collection descended from the Holy Roman Emperors, one of whom Dürer worked for late in his career. The French drawings come from a collection of Helen Porter and James T Dyke and some of it have been gifted to the National Gallery. They’re on view until May 26, 2013 and Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Prints and Watercolors from the Albertina will stay on view until June 9, 2013.