John Singer Sargent

Recurrent Themes in An Artist's Work by Jeannine Cook

Olive trees are an integral part of the Mediterranean landscape, and they have been a recurrent theme in many artists' work.  Sacred trees since early Greek times, they are astonishing in inspiration, as well as generous in their fruit and oil. No wonder artists love to celebrate these astonishing and often very ancient trees.

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Plein Air Art - Looking Back (Part 5) by Jeannine Cook

When John Singer Sargent painted this scene of Claude Monet working en plein air, he recorded the heyday of the Impressionists' love of working outdoors to record and celebrate nature.  Ever since, there has been a long list of wonderful plein air artists on every continent, and we artists, living today, have a rich heritage of landscape art from which to be inspired.  This is the final Part 5 of my blog entry on Plein Air Art-  Looking Back.

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Artists' Expectations by Jeannine Cook

When an artist travels to somewhere new, or goes out on location to work plein air, there is always a sense of expectation. Is that good, or does it hinder one's reactions and inspirations?

I was reminded of this frequent conundrum when I read a statement made by photographer Michael Eastman in Ivy Cooper's interesting article, "From Drive-Ins to Palazzo in ARTnews, summer 2010 issue. Eastman is considering travelling to Japan, New Zealand and Antarctica for new photographic ventures. When he mentioned this, the obvious question to ask was what subject matter will he photograph. His reply really resonated with me. "I'm not sure what I'll find there.

I think the biggest risk to an artist is expectations. (My emphasis) Whatever your expectations are, they always get in the way. If I don't have expectations, if I hit the ground running, if I move forward and start looking, I'll see new things."

When I thought about Eastman's remarks, I realised how accurate he is. I have found, time and time again, that if I switch off my brain when I arrive somewhere, and just let my subconscious 'float' and my eyes wander all over, then suddenly, bang, there is something interesting. If, on the other hand, I have envisaged some scene or object ahead of time, expecting to find that it is what I want to draw or paint, I frequently feel flat and uninspired when I get there. Totally perverse, but there it is! Of course, if one is commissioned to do a specific thing or landscape, then that is another matter. Even so, I try to feel neutral, without any preconceived idea of how I am going to tackle the commission. At least, like that, new angles, new approaches, fresh concepts can all come to mind.

If one thinks of the wonderfully spontaneous watercolours,for instance, that John Singer Sargent did when he was travelling, I suspect that he did not burden himself ahead of time of too many expectations. He just had his painting equipment to hand and let his keen eye spot the opportunities.

Artist in the Simplon, c.1909 - John Singer Sargent (Image courtesy of Fogg Museum (Harvard Art Museums), Cambridge, MA, US

Artist in the Simplon, c.1909 - John Singer Sargent (Image courtesy of Fogg Museum (Harvard Art Museums), Cambridge, MA, US

This watercolour, Artist in the Simplon shows just such an approach. Sargent was following in the footsteps of an earlier master of watercolours, Winslow Homer. He had pioneered the use of watercolours for spontaneous, fluid work that showed an opportunistic artist's eye. English "Cloud Shadows", painted in 1890, is an example of this).

Cloud Shadows, Winslow Homer, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art)

Cloud Shadows, Winslow Homer, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art)

Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, Winslow Homer   (Image courtesy of Portland Museum of Art)

Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, Winslow Homer   (Image courtesy of Portland Museum of Art)

Expectations, in most situations, tend to let one down. In art, they seem to dampen, even stifle, creativity. Spontaneity, openness and an observant eye seem to be good substitutes.

Eyes of the Artist by Jeannine Cook

Everyone can appreciate how valuable artists' eyes are, but not everyone then goes on to think about the different ways artists use their eyes.

Of course, seeing the canvas, paper, marble or other vehicle for artists' expressions is key. The subject of the art piece, often objects gazed at by the artist, is also looked at by the artist. Yet the different techniques of using one's eyes as an artist dictate many different approaches to art. Plein air art requires careful observation in person, usually of landscapes.

The Guidecca (A Summer  Day on the Giudecca, Venice, watercolour, John Singer Sargent

The Guidecca (A Summer  Day on the Giudecca, Venice, watercolour, John Singer Sargent

Life drawing too implies careful study of the nude model posing, as do still life studies which are usually based on arrangements made and set up for the artwork. Portraiture gets even more decisive, obviously, because a portrait implies a need to reflect some fidelity to the person being depicted. However, the methods of achieving that portrait are varied; one in particular depends very much on the use of the artist's eyes. I am referring to the use of sight-size, when an artist sets up the easel at such a distance that the subject of the portrait (or life drawing and painting too) is the same size as the image being created. Few artists learn this method today, but artists as diverse as Henry Raeburn, Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargent all employed this way to convey a unity of impression in their art, rather than copying all the details. A few ateliers do teach artists how to use and trust their eyes in this fashion - Charles H. Cecil's Studio in Florence, Italy, is one, the Bay Area Classical Art Atelier in California is another, the New York-based Grand Central Academy of Art is yet another.

JUlia Chapin Alsop, 1909, John Singer Sargent

JUlia Chapin Alsop, 1909, John Singer Sargent

Working directly from life for drawing and painting is a time-honoured tradition down the centuries for artists - learning to trust one's eyes as you seek to capture the image. Quickly capturing the gesture of a moving person, the characteristic flight of a certain kind of bird, the essence of flowing water, the gait of an animal - all these require careful observation from eyes that become more and more trained as the artist grows more experienced. Practice does indeed make perfect or nearly perfect, as the eyes learn to observe. As an aside, I was fascinated recently to read about a current exhibition, "Michelangelo: Anatomy as Architecture", at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at The College of William and Mary through April 11. Twelve drawings on loan from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence apparently are unusual in that they reveal Michelangelo jotting down visual ideas in a hurry, alongside verses of poetry and various notes. We associate Michelangelo drawings with wonderfully accomplished and often very finished works, but this exhibition includes works that show a much more down-to-earth approach to devising and executing an idea. Apparently it is obvious from some of these drawings that Michelangelo was carefully scrutinising ancient sculptures for his human figures, as well as using his knowledge of direct dissection, after he had peered carefully at muscles and tendons in human bodies - in other words, using his eyes a lot.

There is another aspect to artists' eyes that is vital and fascinating. In the March 2010 edition of Art+Auction, Marisa Bartolucci wrote a long and interesting article on "Zen and the Art of Axel Vervoordt". She recounted that it was apparently the Belgian painter, Jef Verheyen, who taught Vervoordt about the Zero movement and introduced him to a fresh manner of seeing. "The way one looks at things is of the utmost importance. You must feel things with your eyes" (my emphasis). This is a wonderful concept, going to the heart of any art, whether it be the eyes of an artist or those of someone viewing a created artwork. Trained eyes, which imply study, practice and much thought in many cases, allow deepened appreciation and skills. Everyone is enriched by the eyes of artists and art-appreciators.

Dutch Utopia tour at Telfair Museum by Jeannine Cook

Today's visit to the Telfair Museum's exhibition, Dutch Utopia: American Artists in Holland, 1880-1914, was a fascinating delight for a huge group of art lovers from Savannah and beyond. Curator Holly McCullough led everyone through the genesis, choices, history and social background of an exhibition she had worked on for long years.

Holland became a magnet for many American artists, men and women, who chose to work, sometimes in colonies, in many small towns throughout the country. They created paintings that reflected Holland's silvery light, seascapes and dunes. Other work depicted Dutch society, selectively and with an emphasis on older, traditional mores. People were portrayed as sober, hardworking, church-going, mostly garbed in costumes that were chosen more for their pictorial value than any accuracy of local costume. Gari Melchers, one of the main artists represented in the exhibition, with dramatic paintings large and small, had close ties to the Telfair as he was Fine Arts Advisor to the Museum early in the 20th century. His choice of art to be acquired, during his tenure at the Museum, led to holdings of these American artists working in Holland, such as Walter MacEwen and George Hitchcock. Other artists represented in the exhibition range from Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase, John Twachtman and John Singer Sargent to women like Elizabeth Nourse and Anna Stanley. They all spent time in one or more of the small towns and villages favoured by the artists for their timeless beauties.

Self Portrait, Elizabeth Nourse , 1892

Self Portrait, Elizabeth Nourse , 1892

Venice, watercolor over traces of pencil, 1891. Elizabeth Nourse, (Image courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum) 

Venice, watercolor over traces of pencil, 1891. Elizabeth Nourse, (Image courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum) 

Girl carrying Sheaves (Harvest - Holland), c. 1895, Anna Henry, Private collection

Girl carrying Sheaves (Harvest - Holland), c. 1895, Anna Henry, Private collection

The 17th century influences show in much of the art, from Franz Hals to Rembrandt or Vermeer, and the silvery light is a hallmark of many of the paintings. I delighted in some of the depictures of the leaded glass windows, always with spindly pot plants reaching for the light but managing to add touches of background colour to interior scenes. Other aspects of the paintings dwell on the essence of Holland - windmills, tulips, orderly streets and fishing boat scenes. It was thus not surprising that a number of these paintings had been in European public and private collections from the time they were produced, although many others had been purchased by the new collecting public in this country. The Telfair had assembled this show from public and private collections and many had not been exhibited in public for long years.

If you miss this exhibition in Savannah, you can catch it at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and finally at the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands. Thanks to Holly McCullough and her team, this exhibition is an unusual, fascinating and often very lovely exhibition well worth visiting.

Dutch Utopia exhibit at Telfair Museum by Jeannine Cook

Savannah's Telfair Museum of Art has just opened an unusual and most interesting exhibition, Dutch Utopia. Using art already in the Museum's permanent holdings as a springboard, curator Holly Koons McCullough and her team have assembled a large number of works by American artists who worked in artists' colonies and small unspoiled villages in the Netherlands during the second half of the nineteenth century.

There are plenty of canvases large and small by artists who remain well known today, from John Singer Sargent to Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase. Then there are the delights to be savoured thanks to many artists whose names are less familiar today, from George Hitchcock to accomplished women artists like Anna Stanley and Elizabeth Nourse. Traditional compositions of landscape or interiors suddenly change to daring works which feel much more contemporary to us today. Watercolours hold their own with oils on canvas, some huge. It is an interesting mix of works and takes one to a totally different time and place, in a tight society living beneath amazingly luminous Northern skies, where wind and sea dictate every aspect of life and, according to one contemporary comment, there is a great deal of the colour blue in sunlight. The American artists lived there for varying lengths of time, but they all seemed to concentrate on eliminating from their work any hints of the changes that Europe had been undergoing as the Industrial Revolution reached its zenith. The Holland they portray had barely changed from the work Rembrandt and Franz Hals knew.

I found myself contrasting many of the scenes of Dutch women, be-coiffed and be-clogged, monumental and utterly Northern, with those by the Pont Aven school of artists who were depicting the Breton women with their typical coiffes and, yes, clogs too, on occasion. Working at about the same time, Gaugin, Sérusier, Emile Bernard and a host of other French artists were working in the sleepy little Brittany towns of Pont Aven or Le Pouldu. They were, to my eye, far more adventurous in their approaches than the Americans in the Netherlands, but each community produced some wonderful art.

The Ghost Story , 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

The Ghost Story, 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

In Holland,  1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

In Holland, 1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers
Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

The Telfair's exhibition runs until January 10th, 2010, before moving to the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands.
It is well worth seeing at one of its venues.