Albrecht Durer

The Real versus the Ideal by Jeannine Cook

I have been reading about the Middle Ages to remind myself about aspects of this key transitional era in our Western history. One of the delights is to have small illustrations of contemporary illuminated manuscripts by artists such as Loyset Liédet of Bruges, who did many of the illustrations for Jean Froissart's Chronicles in the text prepared for Luis de Gruthuuse, a wealthy Flemish nobleman. In these miniatures, people are the most important part of the image, and the landscape behind is purely secondary and very idealised. For instance, the painting of the Battle of Poitiers 1356, shows an idyllic backdrop of blue mountains and peaceful scenery which contrasts sharply with the battle depicted in the foreground.

The Battle of Poitiers, Jean Froissart (Image courtesy of Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

The Battle of Poitiers, Jean Froissart (Image courtesy of Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

The same treatment was meted out to landscapes in medieval wall paintings and tapestries; they were merely the background to human activity. Battles, religious events, societal changes were worth recording. Nature was not of much importance,

This state of affairs continued for many years, with artists paying some attention to landscapes and nature - think of Leonardo da Vinci's studies of dogs, horses, water flowing or landscapes in Tuscany... or Albrecht Dürer's studies of flowers, rabbits, countrysides. But in France, the landscape did not become an independent and valid subject for artists to paint and draw until the 1620s, when it became more of a specialised subject. Claude Lorrain was one of the pioneers in landscape painting, but his works were idealised and romantic to say the least. Interest in landscapes increased gradually until artists such as Jean-Baptiste Corot became a skilled interpreter of the landscape, even if he did do many "pot-boilers" to earn his living. By his time, landscape painting was being taught in the art academies in France, although it was a genre that was ranked pretty low on their "intellectual or moral content" scale. History painting and portraiture were still far more highly esteemed. Landscape painting, which did not require knowledge of anatomy, still had to be idealised really to win respect and admiration from connoisseurs and other artists.

Pastoral Landscape, oil on canvas, 1677, Claude Lorrain (Image courtesy of Kimball Art Museum)

Pastoral Landscape, oil on canvas, 1677, Claude Lorrain (Image courtesy of Kimball Art Museum)

Then came the radical change in France. Pierre Henri de Valenciennes worked hard within the Academy to establish a Prix de Rome for "historical landscapes", advocating that artists paint a "portrait" of a landscape. His publication, Eléments de perspective pratique à l'usage des artistes, (Elements of Practical Perspective for Artists, 1799-1800), was a key influence for artists painting landscapes for decades. By the 1830s, Charles-François Daubigny was painting outdoors in the Fontainbleau region, soon joined by others, like Millet, in the Barbizon School, while another group was forming on the coast near Le Hâvre, led by Eugène Boudin. Monet joined him as a student, and the rest, as they say, is history. Pisarro, Sisley, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne and even Degas on occasions - they all worked outdoors. Edouard Manet tried his hand too at plein air when he painted a small work, "Effect of Snow at Petit-Montrouge", in 1870, when he was on guard during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War.

Edouard Manet - Effect of Snow at Petit-Montrouge, 1870

Edouard Manet - Effect of Snow at Petit-Montrouge, 1870

These artists had all completely altered the concept and quest for beautiful painted landscapes. No longer was anything idealised. Instead the 19th century French artists, and especially those who became known as the Impressionists, turned their energies and their passion towards portraying the landscape as real, as they saw it, experienced it firsthand and interpreted it. They showed not only nature's beauties but also its intricacies and vagaries. Nature had been transformed and placed centre stage, no longer subservient to any human presence in the work of art. A huge change from the careful, tiny depictions of background idealised landscapes of medieval times....

Lines by Jeannine Cook

Lines loom large in all our lives from a very young age. Who hasn't taken a pencil, a pen, even a lipstick, and made energetic, happy scribbles on all sorts of surfaces from early childhood? Those were our drawings, and they often won praise and encouragement.

Later, lines become the underpinning for paintings, the punctuation marks for long columns of additions in arithmetic or the scaffolding for musical notes on a score. So many uses and so many meanings... But for anyone interested in art, a line becomes more and more nuanced and meaningful. Not only does one learn to use line to express oneself in silverpoint, graphite, pen, paint, charcoal or any other medium, but you also see line much more clearly all around you. For me, the contour lines traced out in grassy strips between ploughed fields to prevent erosion on our farm were some of the earliest memories of line. Even an avenue of trees is two parallel lines that speak of time, order, shade, beauty and horticultural skill - another childhood fascination.

When I draw in silverpoint, lines can whisper or speak loudly, in a metaphorical sense. Just like the lines drawn in space by a violin bow as it moves across the instrument, softly, sensuously, vigourously or hesitantly. Or like the traces of an insect when it walks on a sandy surface. I drew this set of tracks on Sapelo Island, Georgia, in the sand dunes.

Sand Dune Colony, Sapelo -  silverpoint, Jeannine Cook, artist

Sand Dune Colony, Sapelo - silverpoint, Jeannine Cook, artist

When one looks at lines drawn by Albrecht Durer (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albrecht_D%C3%BCrer) in a silverpoint drawing, such as those in his 1520-21 Diary of A Journey to the Netherlands, they run the gamut of effect and message. As he records an amazing variety of people, places and things he sees during his trip north, the silverpoint lines show his questing eye, trying to understand the anatomy of a dog, the pattern of a tiled floor, the bone structure of a woman's face... Lines in a drawing can show how the artist's eye, brain, hand and paper surface are connecting together; that is why drawings are so often considered so immediate and fresh.

Dog resting, silverpoint, from 1520-21 Sketchbook, Albrecht Dürer (Image courtesy of the British Museum)

Dog resting, silverpoint, from 1520-21 Sketchbook, Albrecht Dürer (Image courtesy of the British Museum)

Frequently lines become like a golden orb spider's magnificent web, linking together in complex fashion to become a drawing, a painting, an architect's structure. Every time we start to work with lines, something unique evolves. A simple line, short, long, interrupted or continuous, can be an amazing creation.