Category Archives: artists

Like Real Life

Georgios Jakobides, The Naughty Grandson

Georgios Jakobides, The Naughty Grandson

Being realistic, we know – children are not always happy or good. Sometimes they do things we don’t want them to, sometimes they are upset, unhappy, loudly angry. Sometimes a grandfather can only endure the noise, the flailing arms and legs, the upset.

It is all captured so vividly here. Our sympathies lie with both the upset child and the rueful, enduring grandfather who holds him safe and firm. Grandfather knows that this unhappy moment will pass, knows how to endure until it does. The child, caught up in the moment, does not have the experience to know that things will be well again.

We look at them, both with their eyes closed, both grimacing. They look like people we might know or come across – if we lived in the right place, at the right time. We can see that they are known to the artist who is sharing this moment with us, the Greek artist Georgios Jakobides.

Born in Greece, he began his training as an artist there before going to study in Munich on a scholarship given by the Greek government. He lived and worked in Munich for seventeen years, before returning to Athens to organize the National Gallery of Greece in Athens and teach at the Athens School of Fine Arts. He was and remained deeply influenced by German academic Realism, and you can see that clearly in this painting.

Every detail counts, but none stands out more than it needs to. Light and shadow shape faces, figures and clothes. The light falls across the scene, illuminating the Grandfather’s face and arm and then resting on the struggling child. Earthy tones give it a warm feeling.

It’s the details that make the scene feel real. The grandfather’s skin is tanned, his face wrinkled, signs of a man who spends much time outdoors. His grandchild’s paler skin suggests a more indoor life. We can see the tension in the grandfather’s face, in the child’s body, in the way their bodies arch and curve. Our attention is drawn first to what divides them.

Yet there are things that unite them. The color of the Grandfather’s sleeve is echoed in the child’s clothing, the colors of his vest in the covering he is trying to hold around the child. Light encircles them, reflecting off the wall behind them and fading into darkness at the window above and into the shadows around them.

It all influences how we see what we see, and how sympathetic we feel.

I feel very sympathetic to both…

Besides, there are happier times to balance times like these.

Georgios Jakobides, Grandma's Favorite

Georgios Jakobides, Grandma’s Favorite

Room to Grow

Auguste Renoir, Bouquet of Chrysanthemums

Auguste Renoir, Bouquet of Chrysanthemums

Every artist, every person, needs opportunities to experiment and room to grow.

For Renoir, painting flowers was that opportunity: he could experiment, work differently, try new ideas.

“When I paint flowers, I feel free to try out tones and values and worry less about destroying the canvas,” he told the writer Georges Rivière. “I would not do this with a figure painting since there I would care about destroying the work.” (quote from the MetMuseum)

This is one of those paintings of flowers, and it is a study in contrasts. We see combinations of dark and light, warmth and coolness, texture and smoothness.

The composition looks formal, centered. The flowers are impressionistic, shapes and petals and the interplay of light and dark suggested with strokes of warm color. If you look closely you can see the different colors that, together, create the dense surfaces of the lighter shelf beneath and darker wall behind the flowers. The glossy-looking surface of the vase that holds those flowers, the precise curve of its side, contrast with the softness of the rest of the painting.

It’s a beautiful painting – but then if it had been a failure chances are we would not be looking at it now. I wonder what his failures, the paintings he would have destroyed, looked like? In the end it doesn’t matter – what matters is what he learned along the way.

What we do see is the sense the freedom that comes with worrying less “about destroying the canvas”. It is a freedom that everyone needs from time to time.

Wishing you the freedom and the room you need to try new things, learn, and grow.

The Joys of Spring…

René Lelong, Joys of Spring

René Lelong, Joys of Spring

What are the joys of spring? For most of us, the promise of the approaching summer’s warmth and sun and fruitfulness. Trees blossom again, flowers bloom. We shed our winter clothes and spend time outside, enjoying the sunlight and the fresh air. It is a beautiful time; it is a changeable time.

Sun encourages, rain waters, wind tosses, cold pinches. We hope that the new buds will grow, become leaves, that blossoms will become fruit, that courting birds and animals will find safe shelter to raise their young. But the buds and flowers are still fragile, and a change of weather, a change of temper, can destroy the promise that spring brings.

We see that sense of eagerness and that fragility in this painting. The two slim young women and the eager girl enjoy and embody the joys of a windy spring day. Skirts and scarf are blowing in the wind; the sea behind them is kissed with the whiteness of wind-driven breaking waves; the grasses bend before the gusts.

Each has their own look, their own character, but they are all moving forward together, against the wind. The red-haired young woman is leaning and moving forward and yet turns, attentive, toward the other two. The dark-haired woman is poised, erect, looking down smilingly at the young girl beside her, one hand raised to her windblown hair. The young girl looks as if she is laughing, leaping (springing?) forward between the two women, her movement supported by their hands. They hold her safe between them; she unites them.

Whites and pale colors light up the painting – the whites in blossoms, dresses, shoes, flowers in the grass, all touched gently with pinks and blues. Spring green touches the land behind them and hides among the darker greens of the patch they are passing through. It is warm enough for them to wear only short sleeved jackets or a scarf over their dresses. The young girl’s legs are bare, she wears a white flower in her hair, her short sleeved red jacket adds a touch of bright color. The dark haired woman’s jacket adds a subtler touch.

Even the sky is touched with white, full of clouds. Sky and sea hint at turbulence, a changeability like the changeable weather of Spring. In contrast, the rock behind the three looks both immovable and worn, dark in the shadow, sunlit where it frames the sea. Its shadows give us a quieter space to rest our eyes on.

At first glance it looks simple, like an illustration. And the artist, René Lelong, was well-known and highly respected for his work as an illustrator and his knowledge of that art. But he was also known for his work as a painter, and was a member of the Salon des Artistes Francais.

So it’s not surprising that a second glance tells us there is more to see. We look again because those figures moving forward are intriguing. They seem to be coming toward us, calling for our attention, inviting us to look around them.

We see in them the joys, the eagerness and the fragility that are a part of spring.

The Fertility of Spring

Jozsef Rippl-Ronai, Spring

Jozsef Rippl-Ronai, Spring

Spring is tantalizing. It teases us with its suggestion of all that is to come. Trees are budding, crops being planted, trees and grasses showing their spring greens, early flowers lend a touch of color. But it is only a beginning – a fertile beginning.

In the same way this painting is a suggestion of spring, a sketch really, a promise. The yellow-greens of meadow and tree leaves are spring colors. The lights and darks of freshly turned soil, waiting for planting, are other signs of spring. The red hues of earth in the background suggest fertile, waiting soil.

Nothing looks complete. The trees and houses are blocks of colour – our mind completes them. The roofs in the distance are red, echoing the roughly blocked in colors of the soil. Those hues are picked up again in the glimpse of sky at the top of the painting, in areas of the trees in the background.

The figure in the foreground catches our eye – he is outlined darkly, filled in simply, his shadow lying across the ground behind him. He is working along lines of tilled soil. It looks as if he is hoeing a field, getting it ready for planting.

Behind him trees rise vertically, crossing the horizontal lines of fields and low hills. Only the man and the tree beside him curve away from those lines, each leaning toward the other, and his shadow breaks the ploughed line running across behind him. The trees lend their roundness to the painting, their leaves and branches barely suggested within the shape of each tree.

The painter was Joszef Rippl-Ronai, a Hungarian artist who studied art in Munich and Paris, where he came to know and appreciate other artists working in various styles. His fertile mind was influenced by the naturalistic tradition of Munich, then by the Impressionists in Paris. When he returned to his own country he developed his own style, loose and full of light, very different from that traditionally accepted by his countrymen.

Change is not easy, and new approaches are not always welcomed. At first his work and ideas were not readily accepted.  It took time for them to be appreciated and enjoyed, and then he found himself at the forefront of artistic change in Hungary.

This painting gives you an idea of how he worked. Rather than tell the viewers what to see, it invites them to complete the picture in their own minds. And yet there is a formality to its lines and composition.

Like Spring, it teases and is fertile – fertile ground for the imagination.

A Gentle Softness

Gabrielle et Jean, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, c1895

Gabrielle et Jean, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, approx. 1895

It’s a soft picture of a gentle, intimate moment. Nurse and child are playing together. Their faces are softly lit and softly colored.

She smiles as she holds and moves a toy cow; he smiles, copying her movement with the figure he holds. Cow and figure seem to melt into the surface below them. A wisp of her hair falls, curving, over one eye and the rest of her long hair seems to be trying to escape its confinement. His shorter hair is coiled over his collar and lies in short wisps along his forehead. There are blue shadows on their fair skin and pink brings cheeks, chins and mouths to life. Their clothing is softly moulded around their bodies.

All the edges are soft – there is nothing hard to disturb or distract. Behind the two the colors on the wallpaper flow together, suggesting flowers. The walls around them meet gently and we can barely see the edges of the table they are playing on.

Nurse and child are the focus, the most fully realized. Lights and shadows shape and round them, bringing them to life. Everything else is flat – the walls and table are literally flat surfaces.

The child is Jean, son of the French artist Pierre Auguste Renoir. The young woman is Gabrielle Renard, a distant cousin brought in to help in the household. The scene reflects a cosy intimacy, seen and shared.

The painting had its roots in Renoir’s varied and eclectic mix of influences and learning. He began as a painter of designs on fine porcelain when he was fourteen, then found work painting hangings and decorations on fans when the company went out of business. Meantime he learned by studying the work of French artists on exhibit at the Louvre, and in 1860 he was given permission to copy there.

He began formal studies at the art school in Paris in 1861, when he was about twenty-one, and began to show his work at the Paris Salon a couple of years later. Then the Franco-Prussian War disrupted life in France, for him as for so many others. It was not until he showed his work in the first Impressionist exhibition some ten years later that his ability and talent were recognized.

Less than ten years after that Renoir broke away from the Impressionists to follow his own path. A trip to Italy and study of the great masters there led him to apply a more formal, more classical approach to his work, and he returned to showing his work at the Salon.

Then in the 1890s his marriage and the growth of his family shifted the focus of his work closer to home. His paintings became softer, his techniques closer to those he had learned and used when he was younger.

But now you can feel and see a comfort with his work, as there was in his life. This painting, like his family, is a product of his maturity.

Time had softened his outlook, changed his viewpoint and allowed him to build on all he had learned. Which allowed him to paint us this warm and gentle picture.

Rolling the Easter Egg…

Nikolai Andreevich Koshelev, Children Rolling Easter Eggs

Nikolai Andreevich Koshelev, Children Rolling Easter Eggs

When I was a child, an Easter Egg was a gift we received on Easter Sunday. The chocolate egg came wrapped in cellophane, and in its own fancy pottery egg cup which we would use later to hold our breakfast hard-boiled eggs. Memories of those Easter eggs are all wrapped up with memories of dressing up and going to church for the Easter Sunday service.

For many those chocolate eggs are now just treats to be bought and consumed. But for the children we see in the painting above Easter eggs were much more.

The Easter Eggs they are using are real eggs, boiled and colored. A young boy watches closely as a young woman concentrates on the roll of the egg she has just let go. We can see that they are serious about what they are doing.  The little ones are too young to care, but their lack of interest only emphasizes the concentration of the older two.

Whose egg will roll further down the polished wooden chute? Where will it stop on the heavy coat that covers the floor, cushioning the precious eggs so they do not break as they leave the chute and stopping them from rolling too far? Will hers hit or tap another egg?

The picture was painted by the Russian artist Nikolai Andreevich Koshelev in the nineteenth century. At the time he was painting depictions of village life and traditions – later he went on to develop a great reputation as a painter of historical and religious pictures. Here he was painting a traditional Easter game.

Egg rolling is still part of Easter in places in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States. So why are they rolling eggs? And why do people continue to do it?

Before the coming of Christianity, the egg symbolized fertility, the coming of Spring, and the rebirth of the land. Easter falls at about the time that Spring arrives; egg rolling competitions and games probably celebrated the arrival of Spring. When some pagan customs were absorbed into Christian holy days eggs became a symbol of Easter and the rolling of the egg took on an added significance. It came to be seen as a symbol of the rolling away of the stone from Christ’s grave.

Just a seasonal chocolate treat? Maybe it’s time to look at the Easter egg a little differently…

Sleeping in the Hay

Albert Anker, Boy Sleeping in the Hay

Albert Anker, Boy Sleeping in the Hay

A boy lies in the hay, abandoned to sleep. His snowy white shirt stands out against the green of the not-yet-dry hay strewn around him,  his soil-stained bare feet are pointed toward us, his wide-brimmed straw hat lies abandoned beside him. His overalls are crumpled and stained; his vest lies open in the sun-lit warmth.

The wooden walls behind him frame the hay he lies on, and we see the color of his hair echoed in the detail of those walls. His feet rest on sandy-colored soil. As he sleeps he lies sprawled diagonally across the scene in front of us, so that our eye follows his figure from feet to head, from light to darker.

We look up from the lightness of the soil past his soil-stained feet to the pale circle of his face. Every detail we notice tells us something about him. It is an idyllic and beautifully composed picture.  

In his clothing we see his activeness, in his rest innocence, in his person fragility.

The Swiss artist Albert Anker worked in the late nineteenth century.  His paintings focused on life in the small provincial town he lived in. He showed life there both as he knew it and as he hoped it could be.

The children he painted were busy about their lives. In his work you can see the care with which he observed and recorded them at work, as they learned, and at play.  He knew well what those lives were about.

He also knew how fragile their lives were –  both his siblings died, leaving him his parents’ only surviving child. As a father, he enjoyed – and observed – his own children, and also grieved. Two of his six children died when they were young.

Art reflects the lives and thoughts of the person creating it. Here we see an active young boy resting for a little while, sleeping in the hay – and we also see his innocence and his vulnerability.

And the vulnerability of the artist?

Sleeping Innocence

Bernardo Strozzi, Sleeping Child

Bernardo Strozzi, Sleeping Child

A baby sleeps so innocently.  Resting quietly they seem at their most vulnerable and yet most full of possibilities. We look at them knowing what they do not – that they have so far to go, so far to grow.

We see that childish innocence in Bernardo Strozzi’s painting. A little child lies turned toward the light, covered against the dangers of the darkness behind her. There are bracelets on her small chubby arms, probably coral bracelets meant to protect her from unseen threats. Her cheeks are pink, her lips baby-small. She is wrapped in a richly colored red blanket to protect her from the cold of the night.  It is a color as rich as her life may be.

Strozzi was a 17th century Italian artist who led an interesting life. He studied painting for a short while then, when he was seventeen, entered a Capuchin monastery. While he was a friar there he used his skills and talent as a painter to produce devotional works. Then his father died and he was allowed to leave the monastery to look after his mother and sister.  Again he used his skills as a painter, this time to support them and himself.

After his mother died and his sister married he was expected to return to the monastery. But after twenty years working as an artist outside the monastery’s walls he refused to go back to that life. He was taken to court, even imprisoned briefly, in an effort to make him return.

Instead he fled from his home in Genoa to Venice, where he continued his work as a painter.  There his talent and skill brought him considerable success and recognition. His was not an innocent’s life, but the life of a talented and determined man.

Still he saw the beauty of a sleeping child, and shared their “innocent sleep” with us.

 ***

“Innocent sleep” – Shakespeare, in Macbeth, described sleep this way:

…the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
 

Those Crooked Faces

Amadeo Modigliani, Portrait d'une jeune femme au chapeau (Jeanne Hébuterne avec un grand chapeau), 1917

Amadeo Modigliani, Portrait d'une jeune femme au chapeau (Jeanne Hébuterne avec un grand chapeau), 1917

These days I feel like a painting by Modigliani. You know the ones – the portraits he created showing people with distorted faces. Eyes that don’t line up, long noses, mouths that are not symmetrical. When I look in the mirror what I see reminds me of them.

I know the people in those portraits did not actually look like me. The distorted faces and elongated bodies he painted were an expression of Modigliani’s ideas and thoughts. Which makes me wonder why he chose to portray them the way he did. Was he working toward abstraction? Simplification? Trying to integrate the African masks he was drawn to into his work? Was he saying something about who he thought they were?

Perhaps he was thinking of the words of a sculptor he admired and briefly worked with, Constantin Brancusi:

When you see a fish you don’t think of its scales, do you? You think of its speed, its floating, flashing body seen through the water… If I made fins and eyes and scales, I would arrest its movement, give a pattern or shape of reality. I want just the flash of its spirit.

 Was this how he saw their spirits?

His nudes are quite different. Rich and sumptuous, beautifully posed, their faces and bodies seem to reflect an enjoyment in their being, and in their being there. Or his enjoyment in painting them. Or both.

Amadeo Modigliani, Nude Sitting on a Divan (The Beautiful Roman Woman) oil on canvas painting, 1917

Amadeo Modigliani, Nude Sitting on a Divan (The Beautiful Roman Woman) oil on canvas painting, 1917

It would have been interesting and illuminating to follow the arc of his work as he developed. But he destroyed his early work and died too young, before he might have reached his maturity as an artist. He was known for his heavy consumption of alcohol, absinthe and drugs, but it was the tuberculosis that he had fought for years that took his life when he was only thirty-five.

The same tuberculosis that would have made many shun him  had they known he had it, for fear of being infected themselves.

Perhaps that’s what he saw when he painted those portraits. A difficult life, a crooked path, people he did not completely trust, people with crooked faces.

JR’s Change the World Project

Margaret Mair, Thinking (of Interesting Things), Original Art

Margaret Mair, Thinking (of Interesting Things), Original Art

The InsideOut Project is one of the interesting things I came across last year.

Have you ever felt the desire to change the world, to make it better?  And then thought, the world is so large, the problems so all-encompassing, that no one person could make a difference?

This year, many people tried to find a way to make a difference.  They said, “We can do something.”

Sometimes the action is simple, at least in concept. Like JR, using photographs to change people’s perceptions of each other and themselves one image at a time.

And we can help by sharing our own images.  He explains in this TED talk.

Would you like to be part of this change?  Visit the insideoutproject.net and see what you can do…

Mahatma Gandhi said “Be the change you want to see in the world.”