Saturday, April 19, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - The Eidolon Series (Shane Wolf)

A few days ago, I wrote about Pietro Annigoni and his influence in 20th century realism.  Annigoni went on to become a master, and among his students were Nelson Shanks and Michael John Angel.  Angel went on to found Angel Academy of Art in Florence, and one of the Academy's students was Shane Wolf.  Today, for the last of the 40 Days of Paintings, I chose Wolf's "Eidolon Series", which is a series of extraordinary figure paintings that literally seems to intertwine the modern abstract with the classic realism comparable to the figure paintings of Renaissance Florence that we see in the paintings of Raphael or Michelangelo.  Although, Wolf's figure paintings appear much more natural. 
As you know, I'm not a fan of modern abstract painting, and I never will be.  But somehow, I think this works because the abstraction is serving a purpose in these paintings.  In classical literature, an eidolon refers to a sort of apparition or phantom image of a person.  And that is certainly the effect that Shane Wolf has created in this series.  We see areas of the figures that are only partially painted with a gesture or subtle suggestion.  The abstraction is not for abstraction's sake.
Apart from the narrative played out in the series, the execution of the paintings is simply amazing.  Wolf has a magnificent technique of highly finished figures with crisp hard edges and lifelike flesh tones and textures.  He is clearly a product of his training of one of the best Academies in Florence.  The anatomy is spot on, and he has a clear understanding of the foreshortening of perspective, which allows him to paint the figure in various poses from various angles.  The paintings also convey a wonderful sense of movement, which is another aspect that the abstraction contributes to. 
The Eidolon Series has a number of paintings in it, but I'll only be posting one here called "Thrust."  The rest are equally as great and mysterious, and can be found on his website

Thrust (The Eidolon Series)
oil on canvas

Friday, April 18, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Tenebrae (Joshua LaRock)

I had a different idea for today's painting, but I thought this one would be much more appropriate for today.  So to the unnamed artist who got bumped for this one, sorry.  In honor of Good Friday today, this is Joshua LaRock's "Tenebrae." 
I don't have many words for this painting other than "Masterful."  It is a classic and masterful depiction of the subject, a masterful handling of color, and a masterful rendering of the figure of Christ in particular.  LaRock's painting of the crucifixion here was one of the inspirations for my own painting of the subject.  Although, his is much better.  Joshua LaRock is truly among the champions of realism in the 21st century.  He has so many great pieces, and this is one of his best. 
The muted flesh tones and subtle grays show a Christ that has been drained - of blood, of energy, and of life.  We see Christ as he has taken his last breath, and has been pierced in his side.  And all around him are the black shadows of clouds.  The wood of the cross beams is old and worn, showing the scars and marks of previous crucifixions.  LaRock has honored and glorified Christ, but has not romanticized the brutality of the crucifixion.
As I've said before, the greatest artists at some point have done or should do a depiction of Christ, and the best artists do an excellent job at it.  Joshua LaRock sets an example for those artists today that would want to brave this demanding subject.

Tenebrae (Shadows)
oil on linen

Thursday, April 17, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - His Holiness, Pope John Paul II (Nelson Shanks)

Over the centuries since the Renaissance, many great painters such as Raphael, El Greco, and Velázquez have had the honor (sometimes the compulsion) to paint the Pope's portrait.  And between Velázquez' portrait of Pope Innocent X and Nelson Shanks' portrait of Pope John Paul II, I honestly cannot decide which is better.  Without question, Shanks has painted the best portrait of a Pope since Velázquez, and I only wish I could find a better quality picture of it. 
I think Nelson Shanks qualifies as one of the greatest figurative and portrait painters of our age, and certainly of all time.  And wouldn't you know it, it makes sense knowing he studied under yesterday's master, Pietro Annigoni at the Academy of Fine Art in Florence.  Before that, he studied in various places including in my home town at the Kansas City Art Institute, as well as the New York National Academy of Design and the Art Students League.  Today he is master and founder of his own Academy called the Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia.
I'm struck by a number of things about this portrait.  The forshortening of the Pope's raised arm, the likeness of him in his older age, the careful handling of the architectural design in the background, the light shining from above, and the incredible detail of the Pope's robe, hat, and staff.  So, I guess I could have basically said I love everything about this painting.  What is so beautiful is the way in which Shanks has taken great care in every detail, including the background.  He doesn't consider the seemingly insignificant parts as insignificant.  He doesn't abbreviate the details, but also doesn't make them equally important as the figure of the Pope.  The reason the painting is so lifelike is because Shanks is a master of understanding how the eye behaves.  He slightly softens the background so that the clear edges of the Pope's figure in the foreground are dominant to the eye.  He depicts the painting the way the eye naturally sees things.  Another great example of this is his painting "What Have We Done to Angels."  It is a magnificent still life that appears as we would see the scene in life.  Yet another example of why the saying "It looks like a photograph" is a total non-compliment to the work of realist artists.  As if photography is the highest standard for realism.  The truth is, Shanks' work does not look like a photograph.  It looks like life, and that is the highest standard for realism.

His Holiness, Pope John Paul II
oil on canvas

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Self Portrait (Pietro Annigoni)

Hands down, the undisputed father of 20th century realism, and I believe the reason that the realist tradition was revived later on and is still strong to this day is Pietro Annigoni.  He was born in Milan in 1910, and by the time he was 17, he was already studying in Florence at the Academy of Fine Arts under a number of masters in painting, sculpture, and etching. 
What I love about Annigoni is that he not only was faithful to the realist tradition, but also to some of the really old traditions of the Renaissance such as fresco painting, and working in egg tempera in most of his works.  In 1947, around the same time as this Self-Portrait, he penned and signed the Manifesto of Modern Realist Painters, also known as the Annigoni Manifesto, which made a blatant criticism of the modern abstract movement of the time, and upheld the timeless principles of realism that were central to art from the Renaissance and on.  The manifesto still resonates for realist artists today.
Annigoni created his own very interesting kind of tempera paint in which he would also add oil to the recipe, allowing him to work the paint a little longer before it would dry, and thus allowing him to create more realistic textures of skin and clothing in his portraits.  Otherwise, it would be nearly impossible to create such a realistic effect with egg tempera, as it would dry within minutes of application.  If you look closely at the egg tempera paintings of the early Renaissance, you will see that in order to create effects of shading or roundness of form, the artists would use a very tedious technique of hatching with a very fine liner brush.
I say that Annigoni is the father of 20th century realism, and the reason for its revival because among his own students was a man named Michael John Angel, who would later on become the founder of Angel Academy of Art in Florence - an academy dedicated to teaching the tradition of realism.  Out of this academy have come a number of amazing artists, one of which will be included in this 40-Days series.  Pietro Annigoni is an example of how it only takes one person to have such a great influence.  From his students came a master and a teacher.  And from this master/teacher came an academy full of students who would then become masters/teachers themselves.  And before we know it, we have a second Renaissance picking up speed and spreading like a fire in the 21st century.

egg tempera on canvas

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Samson (Solomon J. Solomon)

Today I finish off the 19th century with Solomon J. Solomon's kind of strange but very cool "Samson."  It depicts a scene from the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, where it appears Samson has woken up to find Delilah has cut his hair, and it appears Samson is having to be restrained from attacking her.  I really love this painting because of the way Solomon has painted the figures using every bit of their strength to hold Samson back.  Solomon freezes these figures in motion.  I love the tension on the figure with his back to us, and the curve of his back really stands out.  Actually, as we look at the painting, we can see how many of the main figures in the painting have this curvature in their bodies, which heightens that sense of movement.
I also love the texture of the fabrics and the tiger fur on the floor, but it's obviously the various poses of the figures that I'm drawn to the most.  They remind me of a contemporary painter that I'll be talking about in a couple of days, who specializes in painting and drawing the figure in motion, and also captures dynamic poses such as these that puts tension on the muscles, making for more interesting paintings.
Unfortunately, Solomon J. Solomon is one of those somewhat obscure painters to me, and I don't know of very many of his works, and I have no idea if any of them are located in the U.S.  But of the paintings of his I do know of, they are usually quite striking both in terms of their execution and their narrative.  "Samson" is, again like many of these 40 Days of paintings, the first work of his that I ever knew of.  I thought it was a very strange piece at first, and I guess I still kind of do.  The facial expressions are so dramatic, as are the poses.  It looks like a scene from a theatrical play version of the story.  Or it looks like a 19th century equivalent to the Baroque style. 
In any case, often when I look at a painting, one of the things I think about is how difficult a painting it would have been to create.  There have been a lot of those in the 40-Days pieces, and I think this is among the top 10.  There is so much going on in this painting, and everytime I look at it, it seems I always find some new detail that I didn't see before.  I also often wonder how an artist went about painting the piece.  Where did he start?  Where did he finish?  I don't suppose it matters, because whatever the process was, we ended up with a masterpiece.

oil on canvas

Monday, April 14, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - The Carpet Merchant (Jean-Léon Gérôme)

Jean-Léon Gérôme is one of the masters of 19th century realism, and I knew one of his paintings would be included in my 40 Days.  It was choosing which one to include that was difficult.  But I knew I had to choose one of his many Orientalist paintings, and the one that impresses me the most is "The Carpet Merchant." 
This painting brings me back to a fond memory of my Holy Land trip when we were in Turkey.  The most beautiful pieces of art in Turkey are without question their handmade rugs and carpets.  We had a chance to visit a rug and carpet merchant in Turkey, and as our group sat around the perimeter of the room, they rolled out all of their rugs on the floor as we watched in awe.  Some of them were particularly beautiful, and all of them were very expensive.  As I look at this painting and see the way that Gérôme has painted the designs of the carpet, It definitely reminds me of the same designs and colors we saw in Turkey.
Many of Gérôme's Orientalist paintings bring me back to that atmosphere that I felt in Turkey and Egypt.  The Orientalist paintings are ones set in Middle Eastern cultures.  I have recently been able to see a few of his pieces at a current exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.  There are only about 5 or 6 of his paintings on display, and these are the only ones of his that I have seen in person, but they are quite amazing.  They are also smaller than I expected, which makes them even more astonishing - to think about how he managed to create such sharp, realistic figures with careful attention to detail on an average-sized canvas.
The beautiful thing about Gérôme's realism is that he breaks the barrier between the subject and the viewer.  In so many of his paintings, you can actually feel yourself in the picture as an onlooker of what is going on.  Everything about the picture is convincing.  The figures are convincing, the texture of the carpets is convincing, and the light is convincing.  One of the things I noticed about one of the paintings at the Nelson exhibit, and which is evident in this painting as well, is the way in which Gérôme created depth and atmosphere by muting the colors of the background, and bringing up the intensity of the colors in the figures of the foreground.  It creates a beautiful 3-dimensional effect that makes it such a convincing setting, and we can't even say it looks like a photograph.  It looks too real to be like a photograph.  It looks like life.

The Carpet Merchant
oil on canvas

Saturday, April 12, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Martyre de Jésus de Nazareth (Aimé Morot)

As I've said before, I think every great artist has to paint at least one representation of Christ sometime in their career.  Aimé Morot painted what has to be, in my opinion, the most haunting image of Christ on the cross that I've ever seen.  Every once in a while, you'll see a picture of Christ's crucifixion that attempts to make the scene just a little to "beautiful" and celestial, and it misses the point of the crucifixion altogether because it tries to sugarcoat something that should be gravely offensive.  Morot's picture has none of that.
Morot does something much different with his crucified Christ than what we typically see.  He isn't exactly fastened to the cross in the traditional images we see.  He just sort of dangles from the T-shaped cross, and it's difficult to make out if his feet are even nailed.  They are hanging from the side of the vertical beam, and it almost appears as though he is struggling to find a way to get his feet to grip onto the beam for leverage.
Still, Morot has painted beauty in this very ugly and horrific scene.  The way in which Morot has painted Christ's torso, and the ribcage protruding with such an intelligent sense and understanding of the anatomy gives us a visual of the pressure on his chest as he fights for every breath.  Also look at the way in which Christ's arms are carelessly placed on the horizontal beam.  This along with the way his body dangles from the cross illustrates how much his executioners did not care.  It is unlike other crucifixion pictures where we see Christ on a perfectly symmetrical cross, and his arms are evenly spread out, and feet neatly aligned, one over the other.  Here we see Christ thrown on the cross, and his arms hastily tied and nailed down in no particular fashion, and his legs left to hang freely, showing there was not even the slightest reverence toward Christ even as a human being, let alone the Son of God.
The dark, empty void of the background also adds to the eerie nature of the image.  There is no evidence of anyone around him, and so it captures the intense feeling of abandonment of Christ on the cross as he cries out, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?"
The painting is dark and horrific, as it should be.  We should never be desensitized by the crucifixion of Christ, and it should never become something we take lightly.  It should always be something that is heartwrenching and gutwrenching as Morot has painted it here.  We ought not forget that this should have been our cross and our death.  But this image reminds us that Christ was living, walking proof that God's love is stronger than pain, and stronger than death.

Martyre de Jésus de Nazareth
oil on canvas

Friday, April 11, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Saison d'Octobre (Jules Bastien-Lepage)

Jules Bastien-Lepage was a French naturalistic painter, and many of his paintings portrayed genre scenes of rural life of workers on farms and in gardens.  He grew up living the rural life himself where his father worked a grape vineyard, so many of the scenes in his paintings are probably representative of the typical day's work that he would have been around growing up. 
Bastien-Lepage was in a league of artists within the realist movement of the 19th century that were known as naturalists.  In a sense, it means that these scenes were as real as it gets.  The people were natural-looking, the landscapes were natural-looking, and there were no regards to making anything appear idealized in any way.  There were also not necessarily any political or social statements being made.  They were simply scenes about life and nature.
The scene here in Saison d'Octobre is a simple genre scene of a potato harvest.  Pretty boring, huh?  But then there is the striking realism that keeps your eyes fixed on the picture.  The cloudy, overcast day diffuses the light, and yet it does not affect Bastien-Lepage's ability to skillfully depict an accurate representation of the figures.  The absence of a clear light source doesn't flatten the image at all, and somehow makes what should be natural, ugly colors of the landscape and the figures' clothing beautiful still. 
Yet, when we look up close, much of the landscape, and pretty much everything other than the face and hands of the main figure in the foreground is painted with the same loose, sketchy manner of brushwork that we would see in a typical Impressionist painting.  We see that there is more movement in the painting that what appears at first look.  It is yet another classic example of how a certain bit of abstraction brings the realism to life.  The potatoes are painted with a series of semi-circular strokes of color.  The tiny weeds and flowers are painted with short and quick dabs.  And one of the things I love are the figures in the distant background, which are painted with simple and quick gestural strokes.  It is amazing how intelligent a great painter is, and how well such painters know the behavior of the average eye.  A great painter knows that the eye is able to solve visual equations very quickly, and with even a short glimpse, it is able to recognize an object.  Bastien-Lepage exploits that beautifully in this painting.  He demonstrates just how intelligent he was as a painter, and how such small and abbreviated touches of paint can create tremendous effects.

Saison d'Octobre
oil on canvas

Thursday, April 10, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Un Moulage Sur Nature (Edouard Dantan)

So there's this genre of paintings that I really love, and they mostly come out of the 19th century.  They are paintings that show scenes of the studio life of artists.  Edouard Dantan did a whole series of these paintings, that often showed sculptors working in their studios (including depictions of his father, Antoine Larent Dantan). 
This is one such painting in which we see a sculptor creating a cast of the nude model's leg.  I love Dantan's paintings for the way they give us a glimpse inside the studios of other artists.  As an artist myself, it is a familiar scene, and sometimes I look at these settings and wish my own studio looked like those.  This painting, "Un Moulage Sur Nature," is a great example of how Dantan captured the atmosphere of the studio, with a natural north-facing light source, suggesting a skylight just above them (a dream of mine to have in a studio someday). 
I also love the pose of the model in this painting.  It's a terrific candid moment in the studio, and her contrapposto emphasizing the utter monotony and tediousness of posing in the studio.  She is clearly bored, tired, and ready to be done.  That is a great capture by Dantan.  I also love the items on the shelves in the background, such as the pots and plaster casts... yet another thing I would love to have in my own studio for drawing and painting resources.  Another thing I love about that detail is the way in which it shows just how cluttered the studio life of an artist is.  We can all relate to the struggle to make and find space for all of our projects that we've finished, and space for all the materials we need for future projects.  Sometimes, no matter how clean and organized we try to keep our studios, we can't help but end up with a certain amount of clutter. 
And finally, one of the other specific things I love about this painting is the way in which its appearance suggests the messiness of studio life, particularly for a sculptor working with plaster.  There seems to be plaster everywhere - on the floor, on the stepladder, on the model platform, and on the artist and assistant's clothing.  We see the evidence of past and current projects that have taken place in the studio just by the way the materials and studio furnishings look... how used they look.  As a painter, it reminds me of my easels.  And my floor where there are paint stains or varnish stains, or just dirt in general.  Again, no matter how hard we try to keep things clean, there will always be a certain amount of wear and tear to our things.  This painting encapsulates all these wonderful qualities of studio life.  For artists, it is familiar.  This is a painting that looks like home.  It looks like the enjoyment we have as artists in our studios.  It is our "happy place."

Un Moulage Sur Nature
oil on canvas

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Garden of Les Mathurins at Pontoise (Pissarro)

This is another treasure that I'm fortunate to have locally.  Camille Pissarro's "Garden of Les Mathurins at Pontoise" is another favorite of mine at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.  And Pissarro is probably my favorite Impressionist painter.  Everytime I go to the Nelson, this is one of the paintings I go to and wish I could be in the scene.  Wherever this place is, I want to be there.  It's understandable why Pissarro painted in this garden, because just from the looks of it, it looks like a place where I would want to set up my easel and paint as well. 
Like Monet, Pissarro would to the optical illusion with color by breaking it down so that the eye would visually mix the color.  This technique was the beginning of a new, post-impressionistic style called pointillism, which Georges Seurat would be made famous for.  And the effect is outstanding in Pissarro's work.  I do think he took the technique to a more impressive level than Monet, which is why Pissarro is my favorite.  The colors were vibrant, and yet at a distance they became more naturalistic, and this is true with the Garden of Les Mathurins.  The brushwork is loose, but also controlled at the same time.  Each color goes where it is supposed to go, and you can still read the edges clearly.
This is another painting where I don't have a whole lot of profound insight to share.  I really do think that the painting along with Pissarro's style speak for themselves as to why it is a favorite painting. 

Garden of Les Mathurins at Pontoise
oil on canvas

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight (Monet)

For the next couple of days, I'm going to break from the Realists and talk about a couple of Impressionists.  Let me just say for the record that I am not a die hard fan of Monet, or of Impressionism as a whole.  But I do like some of Monet's work, and he's one of a few Impressionists that I admire.
The thing with Impressionism is that it is a great style of painting to an extent.  There is a certain level of abstraction that happens with impressionistic painting that makes it interesting, but after a certain point, the abstraction causes the painting to lose its appeal.  That's what's so difficult about impressionistic painting.  You have to know how to exploit the abstract qualities of painting without taking it too far.  Take a look at Velázquez and Rembrandt.  When you stand back from their portraits, you see an amazingly convincing depiction of realism.  But when you look up close, you see this dazzling technique that uses those abstract qualities of paint to create the realism - if that makes any sense.  Basically your eye and your brain work together to, in a sense, "edit out" the abstractions so that you are looking at a cohesive, harmonious image.  Velázquez, Rembrandt, and Titian would intentionally leave areas of their paintings with a sketchy look not for the sake of abstraction, but because the abstraction created realistic effects.
So getting back to Monet, we can see how he did the same thing, but to a greater extent.  Monet had some academic training, and he could have stuck with a more academic technique to painting, but chose the impressionistic style.  Colors are more intense, and brushwork is more loose.  Monet seems less interested in making objects look real, and more interested in exploring the effects of light on those objects.  He was a plein air painter, meaning he worked exclusively on the spot outdoors.  But unlike Shishkin, he broke down the subject into pure colors (much like a prism) to create an optical effect in which the eye would visually mix the colors together when viewed from a distance.  I do have to hand it to Monet here... this is a brilliant technique, as is his loose, broken brushwork technique which captured the effect of the natural, atmospheric light of the outdoors.
One of my favorite paintings by Monet is this one here, his "Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight."  This is Monet, and Impressionism, at their best.  What I love about this painting is that Monet has taken his use of optical color mixing and loose, rhythmic brushwork and applied it to painting a convincing depiction of architecture.  Architecture is no easy subject to paint in the first place, but to paint it with an impressionistic style is astonishing to me.  It is quintessential impressionism in that it does not rely on giving us the full story of intricate details, but it edits down those details and gives us the important facts about the architecture of the Cathedral.  In other words, it gives an impression of the architecture that is convincing without seeing every detail.  And again, this has to do with the way in which Monet has depicted the light.  In all of art, the key factor and often times what separates a bad painting from a great painting is dependent on the lighting, and the balance between light and shadow.  After all, light and shadow are the two things that give us color in a painting.   His harmony between warm lights and cool shadows are what make this, and many other paintings by Monet so great.

Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight
oil on canvas

Monday, April 7, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - In the Wild North (Ivan Shishkin)

As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to 19th century landscape painters, it doesn't get much better than Ivan Shishkin.  Again, a Russian realist painter and acquaintance among the Itinerants like Repin and Kramskoi, Shishkin's main focus in painting was exclusively rural Russian landscapes.
One of the things I love about Shishkin's landscapes is the way he handles the depiction of snow in his paintings, and this is one of my favorites, called "In the Wild North."  Another painting of his, simply called "Winter" is another example of how ridiculously amazing he was at capturing the image of snow in natural light and local color.  It is one of the most difficult things to do in landscape painting because you are still dealing with color even though you are painting a material that is pure white in nature.  But there are still subtle yellows as the sunlight hits it, and blue-grays in the shadows.  So often I see painters use pure, unnatural-looking blues and purples in the shadows of snow.  And while it works for the overall color palette of the painting, it still does not look like what the eye sees in nature.  Very seldom do we actually see such vibrant blues even in the coolest of shadows of the snow.  They will still be more on the gray side.  Ivan Shishkin depicts those natural shadow colors wonderfully in "Winter," and here with "In the Wild North" we see a more appropriate use of blue in the shadows, as the snow-covered tree is lit by the moonlight, which also gives the sky its deep blue color to reflect into the shadows.  But even here, he doesn't use pure blue, and particularly in the cast shadow of the tree, we can still see how he has toned it down to a more natural-looking blue-gray.
This is just one example of how excellent Shishkin was as a naturalist with color in his paintings.  This is one of the things that makes his paintings so beautiful and accurate representations of what we truly see in nature.  Of course, he wasn't the only landscape painter of his day to capture such beautiful depictions of nature, but I have to say he is my favorite.  He is an inspiration for my own work because the chief inspiration for all the work I do is to worship and honor God by emphasizing and imitating the beauty of His creation, both in nature and humanity.  Shishkin excels at the nature part of that as we can see in this and many other of his paintings. 

In the Wild North
oil on canvas

Saturday, April 5, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (Church)

I just saw this painting in person (again) last night at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.  I always love visiting that place.  Frederic Edwin Church is perhaps my favorite American landscape painter of the 19th century.  All of his landscapes are these grand scale masterpieces that always seem to have this majestic glow to them.  He's somewhat characterized as a painter of Romanticism, and his paintings show it.  Church kept in close friendship with Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School.  This painting by Church, my local bias notwithstanding, is among his greatest pieces.
Okay, so I actually have a lot of bias with this painting.  Not only is it local to Kansas City, but I also happen to have been blessed with a trip to the Holy Land that allowed me to see Jerusalem from this very spot on top of the Mount of Olives.  And as I look at this painting, I can even identify some of the buildings that are shown.  This is not at all how the actual Jerusalem looks today, but this painting shows how some things about this holy city have not changed. 
Although you can't see it from this painting, but to the far right and bottom corner, as you move along down the hill, you would be able to see a small garden of olive trees which is of course the Garden of Gethsemane.  Church has painted a couple of very beautiful olive trees that look very much like the ones you would see today.  One of the things that stands out in the city, and in the painting is the Dome of the Rock.  We didn't actually visit the Dome, but we did visit a little place just behind it called the Western Wall of Jerusalem, or sometimes called the "Wailing Wall."  It was amazing just to touch that enormous stone wall and to see the thousands of written prayers stuffed in the cracks of the wall.  Just to the right of the Dome of the Rock in the painting, you can see a couple of small domes sticking up above the rest.  They're small, but still more prominent than the ones surrounding.  I believe this is supposed to be the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, according to my knowledge of the city.  And the way we made it to that site was actually pretty amazing. 
After visiting the Western Wall, we walked a long road that led us to the Via Dolorosa, which is the road that Jesus walked with the cross on his back to his crucifixion.  And along the Via Dolorosa walk, we could see the various Stations of the Cross that were marked with Roman numerals.  The Via Dolorosa was a long, crowded walk along a very narrow road which was more of a walkway with all sorts of touristy merchants on either side.  It was sadly very commercialized.  But then again, I imagine that Jesus was even walking through this road and there were probably some markets of some sort on either side of him even in his day.  But probably nothing called "The Holy Rock Cafe" (yes, seriously).  Anyway, by the time we reached the end of the Via Dolorosa, we were met by this small, subtle sign that simply said "Holy Sepulchre" with a little entryway, and all of a sudden we were at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and there were what had to be thousands of people waiting outside to get in.  And when we finally did get in, it was like a pack of sardines.  It was very stressful, and our tour guide Nadav actually warned us and instructed us at the very beginning before we got inside to push our way through if we had to.  But no matter what, we had to stay as together as we could.
I could go on and on about my experience in Jerusalem, but this goes to show why this is a favorite painting for me.  Just the sight of it brings back lots of memories of my trip to Israel, and as chaotic as it was at times, it is unquestionably one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives
oil on canvas

Friday, April 4, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - The Sea of Ice (Caspar David Friedrich)

I have to admit, I'm not sure exactly what to say about today's painting.  It's so strange, and it's a hard one to read as far as its intention.  But one thing is for sure, it is extraordinary.  This is Caspar David Friedrich's "The Sea of Ice."  I've known this painting for a long time, and when I first saw it, I was pretty young and so I didn't know much about art.  So if you'll pardon my horrible cliché, I thought it was a photograph.  And I thought it was a photo of some old pile of trash or something in a metal scrapyard (the brown ice in the lower foreground just threw me off that much).  It didn't hit me until much later on that this was a painting.  And then even later on than that, that this was a painting of ice.  My vision of this painting was way off.
So as I said, I really don't have any attempt to say something profound or meaningful about this painting other than I am simply mesmerized by it.  It is said that Friedrich fell through some thin ice at a young age, and that traumatic experience was something of an inspiration for this painting.  The thing that I cannot get over about this painting is the dramatic light from above that illuminates the sharp icy pinnacles, and the beautifully geometric block-like nature of the ice that has somehow discolored with age, and makes it seem as though this ice has been literally frozen in time and has been stacked this way for eons.
On the right side of the composition, we can see the remains of a boat that has crashed and is partially sunken in the sea, giving the indication of a tragic incident that has happened.  Friedrich has done with this painting what the best artists try to do, and that is to show beauty in the midst of ugliness or tragedy.  The almost celestial light from above makes me think of how God is there even in tragedy.  He is not distant, and the hardships are never hidden from His view, even in cold, icy, remote locations.

The Sea of Ice
oil on canvas

Thursday, April 3, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Christ in the Desert (Ivan Kramskoi)

My opinion about art and artists is this:  A truly great artist can and will at some point in their life create a gripping and masterful image of Christ, either in painting or sculpture.  And Ivan Kramskoi has done so here in his "Christ in the Desert."  Except this is not the glorified and majestic Christ that heals and restores, or brings food to the hungry or hope to the oppressed.  It's frankly the most miserable I've ever seen Jesus aside from hanging on the cross.  This is the scene where he is travelling through the desert and fasting for 40 days.  So let's face it, you would look just as miserable if not more so. 
I absolutely love so many things about this painting, it's hard to know where to start.  Again, as I've mentioned before, many of these paintings are the first ones of a particular artist that I had ever seen, and that is true today of this painting by Kramskoi.  I suppose the first thing that struck me about this painting when I first looked at it was the naturalism of both the figure of Christ and especially the landscape.  Kramskoi was one of the leading figures of the Itinerants, so he was against the rigid standards and expectations of the academic life.  But I am so glad he did not stray from the academic approach to painting, and just start following the ways of French impressionism or something.  Otherwise, this painting would probably look a whole lot different if he had ever done it. 
I also love the way Kramskoi has muted the colors here, even in Christ's robe.  The grayness of the color gives a convincing, sickly and malnourished look to the figure of Christ as if this was his lowest point of his 40-day fast and trek through the desert. 
The dark figure jumps out front and center as it sits in front of the light background.  It is a beautiful image where I imagine Christ settling on this as a camping spot for the night as the sun sets in the background.  But I see something else too.  I see the beauty of God's creation all around with the sunset and the rocky landscape, and yet Christ is in very bad, ugly shape.  It sort of makes me think of how the entire sum of all of God's creation is beautiful, and yet there is still pain and hunger in the midst of it.  And Christ knows that feeling firsthand.  In a way, he suffered through all of the pains of the world in those 40 days.  The pain of hunger, loneliness, exhaustion, and he experienced the lure and temptation of Satan just as we all do every single day.  And who knows what Jesus was feeling in that moment.  He may have really really wanted that bread.  He may have really wanted everything that Satan was offering.  But I think Jesus knew full well that it wasn't gonna happen.  As much as he may have wanted it, there was no way he would take it because he knew what his mission was.  He knew what his purpose was for that 40-day fast and for his entire life for that matter. 
I think each one of us needs that kind of conviction in our faith and in our life.  That no matter how rock bottom we hit or how tempting something is, we just know by natural instinct that we won't deviate from our faith and God's purpose for our lives.

Christ in the Desert
oil on canvas

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Ceremonial Meeting of the State Council on May 7, 1901 (Ilya Repin)

Today we have the painting with the longest title ever brought to us by the great Russian master Ilya Repin.  This is his "Ceremonial Meeting of the State Council on May 7, 1901."  As long and boring as the title is and sounds, this is an incredible multi-figure piece, painted a couple of years after the actual event.  It is an historical genre piece, and to be honest I couldn't care less about the subject of the piece.  I am mostly impressed on a superficial level with this painting.  I love the lighting.  I love the composition.  I love the realism. 
Speaking of the lighting, we see this quite often in paintings of the 19th century, where the light source is a natural glow from above, or a natural north light source that beautifully illuminates the figures.  And this is one of my favorite paintings that does that.  Often with a multifigure painting like this, particularly historical paintings, the artist would have models sit for the poses, and then would paint the likeness of certain famous historical figures over the face.  With the dawn of photography in the 19th century, this became a pretty convenient practice for such paintings if the actual person was unable to sit for the painting.
One of the things that makes Repin so interesting to me, as with a number of 19th century Russian realists is that he was a member of what came known to be as the Wanderers, or the Itinerants.  These were a group of Russian artists who rebelled against the academic rigidity and formalism of the Academy.  They felt it set barriers between their art and the people.  So as Itinerants, they would basically take their work on tour for the people to see and appreciate.  Otherwise, an academic painter's only audience would be the high members of society, and that is not who they necessarily wanted to reach.  Though ironically I am posting a painting that portrays higher members of society, Repin loved to paint genre scenes of Russian life of common rural folks.  As an Itinerant, many of his subjects involved statements of injustice and inequity, although he made a point to bring out the strengths of the poor and oppressed in his work.
For Repin, it was important to make his paintings exclusively Russian and of Russian culture of the time both in terms of history and everyday life.  And as with this painting, his pieces demonstrated a skill that made a powerful statement.

Ceremonial Meeting of the State Council on May 7, 1901
oil on canvas

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Street in Venice (John Singer Sargent)

John Singer Sargent is one of the great American heroes of art in the 19th century, and in all of western art for that matter.  Like Zorn, he has a lot of great work ranging from watercolors to oils, and was among the great portrait painters of his time.  And also like Zorn, he was greatly influenced by my favorite Old Master Velázquez.  And I can see that very clearly in their work, both in their palette of colors and their techniques. 
My favorite piece of Sargent's, and the one I am writing on today is his "Street in Venice" scene.  One of the things I love about this period of art is the way in which the realists were able to capture such naturalistic colors in their work.  We saw that with Zorn's "Summer Vacation" and we can see it here with Sargent's "Street in Venice."  And yet, painters like Sargent would often employ a bit of an impressionistic style in their brushwork so that there was no mistaking it for photography.  On a side note, for those of you who are not artists, but like to compliment artists by saying things like, "It looks like a photograph!"... Well, we don't like it.  We're trying to create something better than a photograph.  We are trying to imitate life.  And in the case of Sargent, he was a master of it.  We appreciate the sentiment very much, but our work strives to be higher than the almighty photo. 
And certainly what we see with Sargent's work is indeed higher than photography.  It was realism.  And in the case of this painting, it was realism that photography cannot capture.  There is depth and atmosphere.  There is real texture in the paint that is imitating life. 
One thing I love about this painting is that I have seen photos taken by friends who went to Venice standing in narrow alleyways just like this one, and so I know just how wonderfully Sargent has captured that environment.  And I'm sure my friends who have been to Venice would say the same.  And getting back to the influence of Velázquez, we can see Sargent's mastery of the alla prima technique in this piece.  In the same way that Velázquez used his brush, Sargent appears to have been very spontaneous and loose with his technique.  And that is partly true.  It is that way, but make no mistake that Sargent, as Velázquez, knew exactly what they were doing, and were very intentional about what color was going to go where, and how it was going to be applied.  In no way was Sargent haphazardly dipping his brush everywhere on his palette and just seeing what would happen.  Everything was intentional.  It was planned out.  As with alla prima, sometimes it is planned out in the moment, but it is still planned.  But part of alla prima painting is also letting the paint do its thing as well, which is what makes it so fun, and why alla prima paintings such as this are so fun to look at.  The evidence of the brushwork is still visible and has not been blended away, so we are able to get a glimpse into the technique of the artist.  The movement of his hand, and the pure colors on his palette can be visualized and discovered.

A Street in Venice
oil on canvas