How do I, as an artist, select “the longest threads” to represent the whole, complex tapestry of a piece of the natural world? Perhaps the only way I have found is to draw from life and learn, learn and learn some more of how nature is organised,Read More
It is always encouraging when you read of a great painter in the past expressing what you feel about different subjects. In this case, Delacroix opining about nature.
I bought a lovely book on Delacroix recently entitled Delacroix, Chevaux et Félins/ Delacroix, Horses and Felines. Published in 2011 by the Bibliothèque de l'Image in Paris, it is a wonderful selection of Delacroix' watercolours, drawings and paintings of horses and lions, tigers and even domestic cats. Masterful, vivid, probing and clearly, often, very much working drawings done from life as the animals moved around. Many of these studies later found their way into major paintings he executed, especially his studies of horses.
What especially resonated with me was the page quoted as an extract from his personal journal, dated Tuesday, 19th January 1847. Delacroix opens by stating that the "Cabinet" of natural history is open to the public on Tuesdays and Fridays - in other words, he goes to visit the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. He joyfully lists all the amazing selection of animals to be seen there, both alive and stuffed, from elephants and rhinos to lamas or bison, and even the famous giraffe given to Charles X of France by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in 1827 which was, by 1847, still there in stuffed glory.
Delacroix then goes on to muse, in his journal entry for that day's visit, about the emotions he experienced. "What could cause the emotion that I experienced at the sight of all this? Perhaps that I was taken out of the pedestrian ideas that form my world, away from the street that bounds my universe. How necessary it is to shake oneself from time to time, to stick one's head outside, to try to read from the natural world, which has nothing at all in common with our cities and with the work of men. Definitely, this view I experienced made me feel better and more tranquil."
Delacroix loved watching all the animals he drew and painted - he got to know their movements, their attitudes, their characteristics. He even drew their skeletons and skinned bodies to learn better how to portray them. His depictions of their movements and essence are full of vigour and passion, excitement and wonder. His studies are as fresh today as if they were executed yesterday. To my eye, as so often happens, that vigour and immediacy is however often lost when he uses those studies in his large oil paintings.
A study of a horse that shows Delacroix' probing eye.
The delight that Delacroix experienced from aspects of Nature is an emotion that I can relate to very easily. The endless fascination and wonder that is there for one to observe and learn about does indeed appear as soon as one steps out into the natural world.
It has been a week of dealing with consumer goods - to put it generically - that all seem to be falling apart in very short order after they are bought and installed. The antithesis of the natural world, these are man made objects that horrify by the implications of their impact on the planet's future health, during their manufacture and also during their disposal. Alas, they all seem to be necessary in our life - things like refrigerators, computers, even plastic nuts for bolts.
A welcome break from these concerns came today when I was present during a visit to my Darien exhibition by a group of charming ladies from a St Simons Island Garden Club. This exhibition, At the Edge of the Marsh, continues at the McIntosh Art Association Gallery until 27th May.
As I stood in the gallery, explaining to these visitors about silverpoint and how you create these silver drawings, I was forcibly reminded of a remark I read some while ago. Julie Lohmann, a German designer, said, "There is a paradox at work. On one hand we are distancing ourselves from nature as far as humanly possible, creating our own artificial world, but the more we do that, the more we long to be a part of nature and bring it back into our lives." (my emphasis).
The reaction of many of the visitors to my art today showed how eagerly they related to the depictions of flowers, of marsh scenes – in other words, of nature. It was as though I was drawing and painting a world with which they felt very comfortable, a world that they welcomed in their lives as a very important ingredient of well-being. Their comments made me feel that there is a very necessary counter-balance to our consumer-driven society: nature and the magical, infinite manifestations of its diversity.
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes was a French painter who lived from 1750 to 1819. He was an early advocate of painting directly from nature in order to produce landscapes. While in Rome from 1778 to 1782, he used to make landscape studies at different times of the day to catch the changes in light. As a result of this practice, one of the pieces of advice he developed for fellow painters was, "Work in haste, so as to seize nature as she is".
I remembered this piece of advice with wry amusement as I sat painting in a beautiful Spanish garden, these past weeks, and struggled to keep pace with the changing light and the periodicity of flowers as they opened and closed at different times of the day. Working in the brilliant Mediterranean light of early summer is a delight, but humbling in that every hour makes a huge difference in the appearance of subject matter. Shadows on white walls that are entrancing at nine in the morning are long gone at ten o'clock. Fragrant, subtly-coloured nicotiana flowers (tobacco flowers) that are wide open at seven a.m. shut firmly a couple of hours later and do not open again until early evening. Their timing is closely linked to their attraction to moths who pollinate them enthusiastically in the nighttime hours. But painting under those conditions is another matter!
No wonder Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes was advocating speed and catching the most distinctive traits of that particular landscape when he was painting plein air in the Rome area. He, and every plein air artist since then has learned that nature is a severe task mistress when it come to painting outdoors.