Category Archives: Seasons

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.

Winter’s Light

Karl Bodmer, Confluence of the Fox River and the Wabash, Watercolor, 1832

Karl Bodmer, Confluence of the Fox River and the Wabash, Watercolor, 1832

It’s about this time of year, when winter knocks at the door to be let in and winter light already casts its influence over the landscape.

Outside the town of New Harmony, where the Wabash River and the Fox River meet, dying trees trailing vines rise from swampy land and cattle come to the rivers to drink.  The light is soft, the sun’s rays long.  They make even the dying trees seem to glow with life.  The water looks soft and misty. Tree branches bare of leaves make lacy patterns among the cypresses.  The trees in the distance are softly silhouetted against a glowing sky.

Karl Bodmer painted this ‘Confluence of the Fox River and the Wabash’ in early December, in 1832.  He was a visitor to the continent and the region, a Swiss artist contracted to accompany the famous naturalist Prince Maximilian of Weid-Neuwied from Germany to America and record what he saw there.

He traveled with and without Prince Maximilian.  With him he traveled from Boston through Pittsburgh and down the Ohio River to Mount Vernon, Indiana before arriving at New Harmony.  There he left the prince, and traveled on his own to New Orleans.

Along the way he painted the scenery he saw, the artefacts he found, the Native Americans he met.  After he returned to Europe he had many of the scenes he had recorded reproduced as aquatints, and many of these were incorporated into the book Prince Maximilian wrote about his travels.  Bodmer had done his work well – even now it is recognized for its great accuracy.

And in this case, it’s beauty.

I wonder, is it so beautiful there still?

A Note for the End of November

Alfred Sisley, Early Snow at Louvecinnes

Alfred Sisley, Early Snow at Louvecinnes

November is coming to an end.  We are sliding into December, into winter, into the busy-ness of holidays.

It’s a good time to pause, take a deep breath, and look at the world around us.

Because this time of the year has it’s own beauties, here towards the north where winter visits.  Trees’ bare lacy branches make delicate patterns against the green of their evergreen cousins, against the changing colors of rocks, against moving clouds and changing sky.

Denys van Alsloot, Winter Landscape

Denys van Alsloot, Winter Landscape

Morning light is soft and kind, making bare branches glow and creating pools of light and shadow across the landscape.  Long morning and evening rays cast long, elegant shadows across the ground.  Snow, when it comes, reflects its own wintery light.

The sun is more precious, now.  We look for it, enjoy its rising and regret its going more, because the time it spends with us is shorter.

On these mornings when we wake to the glitter of frost (and the sound of scrapers on car windshields) we know that it is just winter visiting briefly, flirting with us.

Soon it will come to stay a while.

Sophus Jacobsen, Sunset in the Forest

Sophus Jacobsen, Sunset in the Forest

The World as One

Frederic Edwin Church, Rainy Season in the Tropics

Frederic Edwin Church, Rainy Season in the Tropics

Frederick Edwin Church saw the world as one physical entity, and he wanted to show it to us that way.

We are looking down; the view is dizzying.  We see rocky mountainsides and water lying on and tumbling over rocky surfaces and a rushing, spray-surrounded fall of water, all through a veil of rain.  And yet the scene is full of light. It glows off the waterfall, off the crags around it, off the water behind it.  The slanting rays of the sun behind the clouds and rain fill them with color.  A beautiful double rainbow circles the waterfall and links the mountains to the palms, trees and bushes that make an island of green where two tiny figures stand.  The abundant vegetation lies against the mountains, as if superimposed.  There are patches of blue sky above, patches of sunlight on the mountains and greenery below.

You can tell that Frederic Edwin Church was one of those painters who was fascinated by light.  You can also see that he took pains to compose his pictures well, bringing the different elements together in a way that pleases the eye and arouses the emotions.  What is less obvious is that here he used elements that did not go together naturally.

The mountains you see on the left are from sketches made in the Ecuadorian Andes; the lush vegetation on the right is from sketches made in Jamaica.  Here he unites them in one picture, linked by the beauty of the double rainbow.  They look as if they go together; the detail in the picture makes the scene seem real.

Church was responding to the ideas expressed by the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt.  Humboldt challenged others to travel and observe, as he had. Church took up the challenge, and traveled widely outside his native North America, sketching scenes that would later become the bases for large, carefully presented works.  Many other artists traveled around North America and to Europe and the Near East; he also traveled south to places like Ecuador, Colombia and Jamaica and north to the Arctic.

Humboldt believed that the physical world existed in harmony, that all it’s separate parts were related and worked together.  He brought careful detailed observations together in his writings to show how and why this was so.  Church brought the same ideas to his work as an artist,  bringing different parts of the world he observed in detail together in the same image, to create a picture in which the harmony could be seen.

He was bringing the world together in a different way.

A pity that we cannot so easily bring our own world together!

More of Church’s paintings, courtesy of brendaofohio:

The Politics of Autumn

Grigoriy Myasoedov, Autumn Morning

Grigoriy Myasoyedov, Autumn Morning

It does not look like a political or social statement.

It’s a beautiful autumn morning in the countryside.  The scene looks so real you feel that you could step into it.  Sunlight sifts down through the trees, and already-fallen leaves lie on the autumn-tinted grass beside a small stream, waiting to be crunched underfoot.  Tree trunks rise darkly toward the sky, saplings reaching up beside them.  On the branches, green leaves mingle with the reds and golds of those that have already taken on their fall tints.

The realism of the painting is a very deliberate choice.  Grigoriy Myasoyedov believed paintings like this would build people’s knowledge of and pride in their country, Russia.  Painting the beauties of an Autumn morning in Crimea was as much a part of this as his other work, work which included truthful depictions of peasant life and showed the disparity between their lives and those of the wealthy.  It was a disparity he was all too aware of.

Born into the landed gentry, Myasoedov, unlike the vast majority of the people he hoped to educate, was able to graduate from school, to train as an artist, and to travel through Europe as a young man to in search of more knowledge.  One of the interesting things he saw on his travels was artists using traveling exhibitions to sell their work.  In Russia art exhibitions were confined to Moscow and St. Petersburg and attended by the elite; creating traveling exhibits meant that they – and he – could reach and build a much wider audience.

So Myasoedov helped found a group which we call, in English, the Association of the Wanderers.  The group included many famous Russian artists of his time. In a society ruled by a privileged elite, they saw their art as a way to develop social consciousness and help create a national awareness among other groups.  Their aim was to use their art to help the less privileged gain more rights and power.  They focused on educating them by using themes that their audience would understand and that would appeal to them, and on presenting those themes in a realistic style.  Realism was essential; it made their art more easily accepted and understood.

Which is why, in this context, in Myasoyedov’s hands, a beautiful painting of an Autumn scene is a tool for building awareness, a political and social statement.

As much as the painting below.

Grigoriy Myasoyedov, Reading of the 1861 Manifesto, 1873

Grigoriy Myasoyedov, Reading of the 1861 Manifesto, 1873

(If you are curious about the 1861 Manifesto, the reason for it, and what it stood for you can learn more here.)

A New Way of Sharing Autumn

Alfred Bricher, Autumn (Boston Public Library)

Alfred Thompson Bricher, Autumn (Boston Public Library)

At first glance you cannot tell.

The colours are rich, the subject common among painters of the Hudson School.  A misty light illuminates an Autumn landscape.  The autumn glow of the changing leaves is mirrored in sky and water.  The details – the small figures, the autumn leaves picked out by a shaft of light on the branch above the two women seated on the bank, the reeds and and water plants in the foreground – fade away from us into the softness of an autumn mist.

The picture is carefully composed.  The trees rising from the banks frame the horizontal surfaces of the water and the banks around it.   Dimly seen mountains in the background knit the vertical and horizontal elements together.  The expanse of the sky above and the small size of the man, his boat, and the women on the bank establish the scale, the vastness of the landscape.

But the thing I find most interesting about this picture is that it is not actually a painting.  It is a chromolithograph of a painting by Alfred Thompson Bricher, a painting called Autumn.

Chromolithographs were a type of print developed in the nineteenth century.  Artists like Bricher used the then-new technology to make copies of their work which they could then sell for much less than the original.  The technology made his work more accessible to more people, and greater accessibility helped him develop more of a following as well as allowing him to sell to a whole new group of people.  A great asset for artists who had to live on the proceeds from their work.

More accessible did not mean easily produced, though.  Chromolithographs were very complex.  Each colour, each shade in a painting had to be reproduced in the print.  This was done by using a separate plate or stone to print each colour, which meant that each colour had to be placed exactly where it should be on each print – a long, involved process which required a very good eye for and understanding of colour, and great accuracy on the part of the lithographer and his team.

Well done, the layering of the colours created a very rich finish; the end product could look very much like an oil painting, and good prints became (and still are) collectors’ items.  Bricher, an astute businessman as well as a popular artist, had numerous chromolithographs made of his work.

It helped that he had found a niche popular with many – more widely, he created beautifully executed, deftly composed paintings of coastal or lake or river scenes; more narrowly, he was known for his atmospheric paintings of Autumn.  It also helped that his paintings are full of beautiful colours, speak of sunlight, and catch the illusion of depth in the water and movement in the waves.  His ability to do this was no doubt a result both of his hard work and his close observation of the subjects he painted.

The chromolithographic prints increased his reputation by allowing more people to see and buy his work – but only because of his talent, skill and hard work.

Perhaps the lesson is the same now as then: technology may give us new ways to reach out to an audience, but for anyone to care we must have something worthwhile to share.

Alfred T. Bricher, Crashing Waves

Alfred T. Bricher, Crashing Waves, Oil on Canvas

Autumn Scene, Loving Eyes

Jasper Francis Cropsey, Autumn, On the Hudson River, 1860

Jasper Francis Cropsey, Autumn on the Hudson River

Every artist see the world and the seasons through different eyes, with different thoughts.  For an artist like Jasper Francis Cropsey, America was as much a state of mind as a place, and painting her landscapes was a way of declaring his love for and of his country.

It shows in paintings like this one.  It’s in the light that draws your eye, and the way it radiates and draws you into different corners of the scene.  It’s in the deep, rich colours that create a feeling of tranquility, in the way the reds of Fall are mixed with the greens that linger from summer.  It’s in the way the light picks out roots and limbs and rocks and rests light and bright on the blue of the water.

It’s a case of art expressing the thoughts and beliefs of the artist.  Jasper Francis Cropsey believed deeply that nature was a direct manifestation of God, which meant that painting landscapes such as these were the highest form of art.  And he felt that since America’s natural beauty defined her, it was an act of patriotism to paint her natural beauty.

And yet he did not confine his study or his work to the America he loved.  After he married in 1847 he traveled with his young bride to Europe to study the work of artists there, to learn, to sketch and to paint, not returning to America until 1849.

Returned, he spent time traveling around the U.S., and worked again on American landscapes – though he also spent time working up some scenes from his European journey.  And he began to explore other avenues and to create paintings with literary and allegorical themes.

Then in 1855 he auctioned all his works to finance a trip to England.  He stayed there for seven years.  He enjoyed a certain amount of recognition for his earlier work, and sketched and painted English landscapes.  When he was ready to return he once again auctioned his works and all he owned to pay for the journey back to the America he loved.

There, ironically, he found himself less well-off, and turned to teaching painting and to the profession he had first trained in, architecture, to supplement his income.  Fashions in art changed and interest in his work faded, his life and work changed, and by the time he died few knew who he was.  At least until interest in the Hudson School returned, and people once again recognized the beauty of a painting such as this.

A painting that still speaks for the vision he had and the skill, talent and love with which he shared it.

Autumn in America seen through loving eyes…