Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chicago Culture Center

Tiffany Dome of the Chicago Cultural Center
One of the most impressive buildings I saw in Chicago had to be the Cultural Center which was the city's public library till 1974.  Today it is used for a variety of activities from lectures to art shows to lunchtime concerts.  The concerts that take place at Preston Bradley Hall, which is on the Washington Street entrance of the Culture Center, should not be missed because it is a feast not only for the ears and eyes but also for the soul.   We attended a Wednesday concert at noon under the dome and it was a magical experience.

View of Millennium Park from Preston Bradley Hall 

I couldn't get enough of the mosaic decorations of the walls and the dome. The color harmony, materials used, the elegant design, all appealed to the artist in me and my fingers were itching to get started on a new illumination.

I would definitely put the Culture Center on a must-see list for Chicago. And the best part is of course, it's location, right on Michigan Avenue, across from the Millennium Park.

Chicago Culture Center
78 E. Washington St.
Chicago, IL 60602

Monday, March 21, 2011

Gustave Caillebotte - Paris Street; Rainy Day

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street: Rainy Day, 1877
(The Art Institute of Chicago)
Gustave Caillebotte has always been one of my favorite artists but since he does not have as big a body of work like some of the other Impressionists in the United States, it's not so easy to come across his paintings .  I was really looking forward to seeing one of his most important works, Paris Street;  Rainy Day  at the  Art Institute of Chicago.   Coming face to face with the original work reaffirmed the importance of seeing a work of art in person.  This painting I was so familiar with and studied for my art history classes on many occasions, had the ability to surprise me and take my breath away. I wasn't prepared for it's monumental size - 83 1/2 x 108 3/4" or its dominating presence.  Standing before it, at the entrance of the first gallery of Impressionist paintings, I was transformed to that moment, to that street corner in Paris in 1877.

Caillebotte has captured the transient moment perfectly in this canvas.  He gives the viewer a wide angle view of the modern city with it's inhabitants from all walks of life coexisting within the newly built boulevards of Haussman's Paris.  In the foreground is an upper class couple walking arm in arm, and there are a multitude of other passersby in the background but the sense of disconnect is prevalent in the picture.  All the detached, non-communicative character of the figures occupying the intersection may indicate Caillebotte's disdain for the anonymous and anti-picturesque nature of Haussman's boulevards but also a place with a personal significance, since his family residence that included his studio was just a few blocks away.1  Another typical aspect of Impressionist paintings that is present in Paris Street; Rainy Day - this was probably the artist's own experience.   

Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l'Europe, 1876
(Musee du Petit Palais, Geneva)
Caillebotte was fascinated with the idea of modernity causing a sense of isolation in urban centers and some of his works depict this desolate state of mind very clearly.  Le Pont de l'Europe is another great depiction of this psychological state.  In Paris Street; Rainy Day, the umbrellas seem to reinforce the sense of detachment giving each person their own space.  No one is actually communicating with one another, they all seem to be in their own world. The bourgeois gentleman in the front seems to represent Baudelair's flaneur, the exquisitely turned out, well mannered, gentleman stroller, detached observer.

Unlike most other Impressionists, especially Renoir or Monet, Caillebotte did not represent modernity by ignoring or blurring it but instead giving it a prominent position in his painting.  The gas light in the very middle of his composition dividing the picture plane and the uniformly manufactured umbrellas, as well as the newly constructed, wide boulevards were all products of the industrial innovations of the time period.

Caillebotte's treatment of atmosphere and weather conditions also differs from his Impressionist colleagues.  He has represented the rain by an overcast sky and manipulating different grays to represent the wet cobblestone street. It is not a matter of light reflections and broken brush strokes but highly finished elements in a very deliberately constructed perspective.

Caillebotte was a prolific artist whose style is found to be closer to the school of Realism due to his exacting technique and structured spatial compositions.  He was known for his views of urban Paris as well as interiors with domestic, familial scenes. His interest in photography can be deciphered from the abrupt cropping of some of his compositions and the unusual perspective effects he uses may be due to his interest in Japanese prints.

Gustave Caillebotte was an independently wealthy artist as well as an avid art collector who supported the Impressionists by buying their work and helping to fund their exhibitions.  He left his extensive art collection including some coveted masterpieces to the French government with the stipulation that they exhibit his Impressionist collection as well, which, today constitutes the core of the Musee d'Orsay collection of Impressionist paintings.

I feel Paris Street; Rainy Day is one of the must-see attractions of Chicago.  It is the perfect example of how a great work of art can draw the viewer in, try to understand the time period and contemplate what the artist was trying to get across.

1.  Douglas W. Druick and Gloria Groom, The Age of French Impressionism, Masterpieces from the Art Institute of Chicago, 57

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Renoir's Moulin de la Galette

Renoir's Moulin de la Galette - Smarthistory

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, 1876
(Musee d'Orsay)
Impressionists painted scenes of modern life but in none of the artists' works did the general air of celebration,  joie de vivre prevail, as in Renoir's Moulin de la Galette.  It is easy to see from this painting why Renoir was known as the Romantic Impressionist.  It is a crowd of happy people, talking, drinking, dancing, basically having a good time.  It is almost an antithesis to the issue of disconnect - the female in the foreground has her arm around another whose head is touching her shoulder, everyone seems to be engaged with their companions, looking, leaning towards them in a gesture of genuine interest. Even though there is a chair at the foreground of the painting, the viewer is till invited into it.  Renoir was an optimist and this painting, alone could probably be looked at as the primary evidence of this. All the components of the painting from the composition to the color pallet to the brush strokes evoke a joyous, optimistic feeling.

Renoir used intense, vibrant colors, hues that are associated with a happy and positive mood.  His composition is unified with the use of dark colors like bright blues and violets which jump all over the canvas, fusing with the warm pastels.  His typical, hazy brushwork adds to the energy of the composition.  There are no sharp angles, everything is soft and curving. The reflections of light on the figures and the dance floor help to unify the composition as well.  This 6 foot canvas has the feel of being painted right there on the spot, en plen air,  but was most probably worked on in Renoir's studio.  He has successfully created a fresh and natural scene.

The modern invention of gaslights which allowed people to stay out at night can be seen throughout the painting.  Moulin de la Galette was an old mill on top of the hill, Montmartre, that was converted into a cafe, restaurant and dance venue.  Renoir painted this picture before it had become a popular place to go for entertainment.  At this time it was a favorite of the working class young people to go dancing where they had Sunday balls from three in the afternoon till midnight. Renoir placed young working class females and middle class artists in this idealized scene; these were his typical models most of whom were his friends.  There is no sense of amoral behavior going on, just young men and women having a good time. The women portrayed are seamstresses, milliners, florists and workers, wearing pretty dresses, come out to go dancing on a Sunday afternoon.  These were the actual clients of this establishment that Renoir had to cajole by giving little gifts and courting their mothers to allow them to pose for him.  As a result there is no sense of prostitution but a clean, country innocence portrayed in this painting as opposed to the cynical approach of Degas in his backstage of the ballet paintings.

Renoir came from a working class background himself, which probably helped him to identify with the people he portrayed here.  This was a time when after France's humiliating defeat by Germany and the horrors of the Commune, the French people needed an escape and gaiety.  Renoir gave them his own vision of the joi de vivre of the young working class people full of life and promise.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Chicago, Chicago...

I wanted to share some more of my Chicago experience here... this song from Frank Sinatra was the music in my head as I walked around this amazing city...
The view from the Michigan Avenue Bridge

I got into Chicago the day after their famous St. Patrick Day's Parade and was lucky enough to get a glimpse of the river they had colored green for the occasion.  The view itself is lovely but the green river added an extra special photo opportunity, I think...

The Famous Water Tower on Michigan Avenue

There seems to be a lot to do and see in Chicago but my limited time was spent on Michigan Avenue walking to the Art Institute or back from the Art Institute and running in and out of interesting sites I saw along the way.
Michigan Avenue is the most major road, and Magnificent Mile, for the most exclusive stores plus the best shopping in the city, and the famous Water Tower are all on North Michigan Avenue.
Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, (Millennium Park)
As I was making my way down to the Art Institute, I noticed this wonderful sculpture and I had to go and see up close.  Cloud Gate sits on a plaza above street level and is impossible to miss.  I had no idea that this sculpture by one of my favorite artists Anish Kapoor was in Chicago, so it was even more exciting to stumble upon it as I walked down the street.       

I was so fascinated with this sculpture that I think I might have gone a little bit over board with the photographs I took.  Honestly, though, I can't imagine anyone passing by it without taking at least a second or a third look.     

Cloud Gate is Anish Kapoor's first outdoor public monument in the United States, and as with all his other works, it has a magnetic quality that draws the viewer in.   

"What I wanted to do in Millennium Park is make something that would engage the  Chicago skyline... so that one will see the clouds kind of floating in with those very tall buildings reflected in the work.  And then, since it is in the form of a gate, the participant, the viewer, will be able to enter into this very deep chamber that does, in a way, the same  thing to one's reflection as the exterior of the piece is doing to the reflections of the city around."
                                                                                                      Anish Kapoor

 These are the two towers of Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain, that are supposed to be the ends of a shallow reflecting pool.  It is recalling the traditional fountains with the faces of mythological figures with open mouths beings portrayed with water, the symbol of life,  flowing out of their mouths.  Due to the season the pools was empty but the projections of the faces of 1000 Chicago residents was still going on.

Frank Gehry, Jay Pritzker Pavilion, 
(Millennium Park)
Millennium Park is like a wonderful mirage in the middle of the city that surrounds the individual with all its tall, modern buildings.  When I was walking around Chicago I felt like a little  figure walking around in an  architectural model.  I really fell in love with this effect of being engulfed within the cityscape yet feeling as if I could look upon the whole from another perspective.  Millennium Park seems to fit perfectly into the rest of the texture of the city since it is not just a park but almost an outdoor museum with all the different parts designed by world renown artists and architects.  

view of Millennium Park and Frank Ghery designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion from
Nichols Bridgeway connecting the Park with the Art Institute of Chicago
Of course, one of the main attractions of the park for me was the bridge that connected it to the Art Institute's Modern wing.  

Frank Ghery, BP Bridge,
(Millennium Park, Chicago)
I wanted to walk through the Park to get a view of Lake Michigan, so we used the BP bridge which was a winding, stainless steel structure with magnificent views of the city and the lake at the same time.  

A Sculpture Group on the riverwalk
We walked down to the Lake and around to the Riverwalk.  We just took where the path led us without any itinerary or end destination in  mind.  

Trump Tower

We actually ended up right below the bridge on Michigan Avenue which was an easy walk back home. 

Chicago ,My Kind Of Town Frank Sinatra

Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt- Two Artist's Gender Related Differing Views

Edgar Degas, Ballerina and Lady with a Fan, 1855                                        Mary Cassatt, At the Opera, 1879
           (Philadelphia Museum of Art)                                                                                  (Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

Although there are only two women painters amongst the famous Impressionists, their different approaches in accordance with the feminine points of view, to the same subjects as their male counterparts is refreshing.  Mary Cassatt was an American artist from a wealthy family, working in Paris.  She became friends with and was invited to exhibit with the Impressionists  by Degas.  He was even reported to have said " No woman, has the right to draw like that."  Being a woman artist from upper class society had one major drawback and that was the spaces of modernity she couldn't depict because she didn't have access to them.  The theater and the opera were two places of entertainment that could accommodate both proper ladies as well as men.  

These two paintings by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt both are a discourse about looking, spectatorship and dominance.  The main difference between the two is who is doing the looking and does the one being looked at have any power over the situation.  In Degas' Ballerina and Lady with a Fan, although a woman is sitting in the front of the balcony watching the ballerina perform for her, she is also dominated by the male viewer who would be sitting right behind, looking over her shoulder.  

At this time, ballet was an interlude in an opera.  The sitting arrangements at the boxes over the stage with the privileged view were always occupied by women in the front row and men in the back for protection.  In Degas' painting, we the viewers are in the position of the male spectator, which was also the artist's view.  By the use of a compressed space, Degas has created a sense of dominance; the lady dominates over the ballerina who is working, dancing for her while the male viewer is watching the ballerina and his surroundings dominating over the whole scene.  In Mary Cassatt's At the Opera, however, the viewer is beside instead of above and behind the lady and there is a sense of space around the female spectator.  

According the Griselda Pollock social spaces were policed by men watching women, positioning the spectator outside the painting.  In Cassatt's painting we can see the actual man who is doing the policing in the balcony to the woman's right.  Contrary to Degas' female spectator who is holding her opera glasses in her hand, we see a lady more actively engaged with looking in Mary Cassatt's painting because she is holding her binoculars to her eyes and even leaning forward to get a better look.  She does not acknowledge the gaze aimed in her direction, which confirms his right to look and appraise.1

The very proper lady in Cassatt's At the Opera, in a black dress that covers her completely from neck to toe is dressed for a matinĂ©e.  She is also wearing a hat and gloves, the only bit of skin visible is her face and neck.      Since the Degas takes place in the evening the lady's dress with the open shoulders would be considered normal- her arms and shoulders would be the only places she would expose.  On the other hand, the ballet dancers, exposing their arms and legs, would be objectified and considered sexual commodities. This was also reinforced because of their origins from the lower classes while the ladies are from the upper classes.

The main differences come into being, I think in how the different genders choose to approach the process of looking and spectatorship.  The female artist, although acknowledges her subject is being regarded by a male gaze, she depicts her as having some power of ignoring it by watching the performance herself.   Meanwhile, in the male artist's painting  the ballerina is on stage displayed for the male gaze, and the lady with the fan, although herself is a spectator, is positioned in a space that puts her under the dominant gaze of the male sitting behind her, giving neither subject any control over her faith what so ever.  

Chicago - What a delight!

I am visiting Chicago for the first time in my life.  I came here because my niece was having a baby and never gave a thought to much of anything else but Chicago turned out to be a delightful city.  Of course, I knew about the Art Institute of Chicago, and was planning several trips to see their world renowned Impressionists collection.  I just wasn't prepared for all the other wonderful prospects Chicago had to offer.

On my second day, I left the apartment with the intention of going for a walk for an hour and half an hour later, ended up finding myself on the steps of the Art Institute... surprise, surprise...

First, I joined the museum so I could come and go as I pleased.  Then I went in with the intention of just taking a quick peek at their Impressionist collection.

When I walked up those steps and sighted Gustave Caillebotte's Paris Street; Rainy Day for the first time, I nearly lost my mind.  It was so much more than what I had expected.  I am not sure if it was the size, which was bigger than I expected, or the placement within the gallery, which was the first wall in front as you entered... whatever it was, I was enchanted.

Art Institute of Chicago

As I walked thorough the first gallery, it felt like walking within the pages of my art history text book.  All of the paintings we are studying were hanging on the walls in front of me to be devoured.  They were so real, so radiant with an indescribable luminosity...  just stunning.

After the first shock was over, I was like a kid in a candy shop, running from one painting to another, trying to absorb as much as I possibly could within a limited time.  There was always something to get excited about.  I ended up going around all of the galleries with Impressionist and European art before 1900.  I had to drag myself out of there knowing I would be back very very soon.

The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60603-6404
(312) 443-3600

Edgar Degas - In a Cafe (The Absinthe Drinker)

Edgar Degas, In a Cafe (The Absinthe Drinker) 1875-1876
(Musee d'Orsay)
Here is a painting by Edgar Degas, which at first sight, seems to be a portrayal of another aspect of modernity - two individuals, sitting side by side, in a cafe, completely disconnected from one another, not communicating in any way, wallowing in their isolation.  Typical of Impressionist paintings, it looks like a snapshot of a scene anyone might run into on the street, a slice of life.  The subject is one impressionists are very interested in depicting, that of the urban lifestyle lived in the cafes.

The influence of Japanese prints that Degas collected, can be seen in the placement of the  table in the front, at an odd angle that is blocking the viewers way into the picture. The geometric shapes of the tables that lead us into the composition and the placement of the woman almost slightly off center can also be attributed to Japanese prints. The tables are actually geometric shapes that don't have legs with a folded newspaper forming a bridge between the two.

Degas takes on the role of the artist/reporter observing the scene without making any kind of a moral commentary, he even signs his name on the newspaper with the baton, in the front. He gives us the life in the cafe as it is, noting problematic issues of the day along the way.  The drink in front of the woman is known to be absinthe due to its light green color and the water jug sitting on the table next to her.  She looks frazzled, her shoulders stooped, her clothing and hat seem to be in disarray, her feet apart. Degas' use of brown and umber tones adds to her bedraggled appearance. A desolate figure, one of the lost souls who had no life outside of the cafe.  The whole canvas is worked in earth tones with a muted, limited pallet adding to the sense of despair.  Women at cafes and drinking was a big issue of the day and absinthe particularly was frowned upon and later prohibited because of it's hallucinogenic, addicting qualities.  Emile Zola had written a story about a woman who became an alcoholic which horrified the public.  The man leaning on the table completely oblivious to the woman, has a brown drink in a tall footed glass in front of him which was mazagran, a coffee that was drunk to cure a hangover. We can tell it is morning by the light entering form the right side, so they may have been here all night.

Degas carefully composed this scene of real life and painted it in his studio with an actress and a bohemian artist from the Impressionists' circle posing for him as models.  He got criticized for his use of  recognizable individuals as degenerates and according to Musee d'Orsay's website he publicly had to declare that they were not alcoholics.

There is a connection between this painting and the naturalism literary school, which Emile Zola was a part of. Zola started a serial publication, in the spring on 1876, of a scandalous novel about a laundress's slide into alcoholism.1  Both Degas and Zola were telling the dismaying stories of modern society.  In a Cafe, is Degas' detached observation of a contemporary problem that started with the Second Empire in France.  

1  Robert L. Herbert, Impressionism - Art, Leisure & Parisian Society, (Yale University Press, 1988) 74

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Edgar Degas - Portrait of Henri Michel-Levy

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Henri Michel-Levy, 1878-1879
(Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal)
Degas was known to exchange portraits with his artist friends. This is a portrait of his friend, Henri Michel-Levy, although here, he is not represented as an artist dominating over his studio.  Instead of the traditional way of depicting him working at his easel, Degas has him leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets.  We can deduce this space is Henri Michel-Levy's studio because the paintings on the walls are known to be his  paintings.   Only the box open in the front with a pallet and  brushes attests to his profession as an artist.  Upon closer inspection, the odd shaped mannequin by the artist's side on the floor can be picked out as the figure in the painting hanging on the left. This is Degas' way of reinforcing how artist's setup their compositions by using artifice plus the fact that these paintings were made in the studio, using props and not in plen air with real models. 

The influence of Japonism is apparent because the objects in the foreground transition the viewer into the painting as can be found in Japanese prints.  In this painting the pallet and brushes are the first objects the viewer encounters before observing Degas' choice of the subject represented off-center in an odd angle.

This little painting, Portrait of Henri Michel-Levy, might be taken as the perfect visual example of Degas' theory of art being artifice. 

Edgar Degas - The Bellelli Family (Family Portrait)

Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family, 1858-1867
(Musee d'Orsay)

Degas was living in Italy and completing his artistic training when he painted this Family Portrait.  Degas' Aunt Laura, her husband Gennaro Bellelli and their two daughters, Guiliana and Giovanna are represented in their rented house in Florence where they were at exile because of Gennaro's involvement in a political plot back at their home in Naples.  

Although at this time, the tradition of posing for portraits was an unsmiling demeanor, the palpable tension separating each member of the family is still a little peculiar.   There is no sense of togetherness or hierarchy where the mother stands tall, a severe expression in her face with the two daughters by her side, while the father sits off to the side, his back turned to the viewer.  Laura has a lack hand on one girl's shoulder and the other on the desk near but not touching the other daughter.  The husband and wife are at the farthest corners of the picture plane, not even connecting thorough their gazes.  As a matter of fact, there is a collective distraction where all the figures are looking at different directions.  The little portrait of Laura's father hanging on the wall behind her is calling attention to her genealogy and not to her husband's.  The father is in profile and his chair blocks the way so even the viewer can not connect with him.

Degas further emphasizes the  sense of disconnect by the cool colors in his pallet as well as his outlines.  He uses a lot of blues and only a little bit of yellow in the carpet to add dynamism.  Degas' aunt and her daughters are in black while her husband, in gray, does not match them.

Laura had to marry Gennaro as a last resort because her father had not been satisfied with any of her other suitors until she was 28.  She was extremely unhappy in her marriage and shared her misgivings with Degas.  There is even speculation that she might be pregnant in this painting, hinting at marital rape.

There was a lot of concern at this time about the state of affairs in middle class and upper-middle class families.  People were becoming more mobile and not living or working together all the time, on a farm.  The government emphasized the importance of procreation and the family where people could get the proper education, after the devastating defeat of the Franco-Prussian war and the upheaval of the Commune. All these factors were affecting families and Degas, especially, was obsessed with the disconnect in relationships.  His family portraits all share the same, odd, dissociated figures.  Ironically, his brothel images are a more unified group than his family portraits.

Degas painted this interior scene because he could not paint outdoors due to a problem with his eyes.  The whole composition is artifice because it has been very deliberately constructed by Degas. He emphasized the bigger social issues by the placement of the figures, the use of bold colors, and the horizontal and vertical planes in this composition.  

Even though Degas used the mirror in the back  to open up the space, allowing a little bit of light to come inside the room, this still couldn't dispel the general gloomy mood of this painting.  This family in their rented house far away form their own home, with faces devoid of all expression was Degas' direct experience.  I think in representing them in this manner he not only allowed what he knew of their private situation to be displayed but also used this pretext to touch upon a major concern of society which in turn makes The Bellelli Family a picture of modernity.

Edgar Degas - Odd Man Out

Edgar Degas, Two Dancers on a Stage, 1874
(The Courtland Gallery, London)
"Art is Vice. You don't marry it.  You rape it.  Whoever says Art says Artifice."   Edgar Degas

I grew up with a print of this painting hanging on my wall.  To me it represented everything that was elegant and lovely.  I went to bed dreaming I would be just like these ballerinas when I grew up.  Ignorance is bliss?  Maybe, maybe not... It is hard to reconcile my little girl dreams with the above quote...

Although Degas was friends and exhibited with the impressionists, in reality he hated improvised compositions, rapid brushwork and plein air painting.  He believed that art is artifice; it should be based on the real world but not be an exact replica of it. He set his compositions with deliberate arrangements.  Due to a problem with his eyes, he was extremely sensitive to light and could not paint outdoors.

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Monseuir and Madame Eduoard Manet,1868-1869  

Degas thought of himself as the artist-journalist and the scenes he depicted were little snapshots of life in the streets of Paris, at the ballet, the cafes and the races. Similar to Manet, he was the quintessential flaneur, going around, observing and making commentary about the spectacle that was Paris and its inhabitants.  He painted mostly interiors and very few landscapes, aside from horse races.  Three quarter of his work was about women, he was obsessed with them but never married.  He was also known to be a misogynistic and anti-semitic.  Even though he had some odd notions, the ambiguity and the sense of disconnect present in his work and his unique perspectives are so intriguing that one can't help but be fascinated with him.

Edgar Degas, The Green Dancer, 1880
(Thyssen Bornemizsa Museum, Madrid)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Camille Pissaro - Kitchen Garden at L'Hermitage, Pontoise

Camille Pissaro, Kitchen Garden at L'Hermitage, Pontoise, 1874
(National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)
"Everything is beautiful, all that matters is to be able to interpret."  -Camille Pissaro

There was an increased interest in leisure gardens in the late 1800's in France. We can see this in Monet's Gladioli( the previous post) which is actually his own garden setup to look like a pleasure garden, Pissaro on the other hand would have detested a garden like Monet's.  Pissaro's Kitchen Garden at L'Hermitage, Pontoise, is a working garden with a man in the background plowing the field and two women working, picking up vegetables.  Pissaro wanted to depict everything the way they naturally existed in his environment and he did not appreciate the artifice involved in a deliberately setup garden. The Kitchen garden, in the real world, would be practical, useful, and geared towards feeding people.

There is a solidity to Pissaro's composition; his landscape is organized and there is a sense of order to his garden and the range of things. The front of the picture plane is easily comprehendable but he uses the trees behind the field to hide the house.  The landscape is divided into three horizontal planes with the garden in the front, the hills and the obscured houses in the middle and the sky on the top of the painting.
While Monet's painting is a series of broken brush strokes, Pissaro uses outlines and solid, flat planes in the Kitchen Garden at L'Hermitage, Pontoise. As a result of the differences in their techniques, Pissaro's painting has a quiet dignity while Monet's painting is a combination of vibrant colors giving it a lively dynamism.

This is yet another perfect example of the Impressionists' depiction of everyday life only instead of individuals from the bourgeois taking their pleasure in a contrived garden, it is hardworking peasants engaged in honest labor.

Claude Monet - Gladioli

Claude Monet, Gladioli, 1876
The Detroit Institute of Arts
"Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing."
                                                                                                                     -Camille Pissaro

I felt this quote by Pissaro were the words to convey my feelings when thinking about Monet's work, especially this one, Gladioli.  I have been writing about the landscape, the artist, modernity and industry, and this painting can be viewed as a culmination of all of these factors since, in a way, I feel it's Monet's reaction to industry, modernity and its effects on the landscape.  I previously mentioned that modernity encompassed the new concept of leisure time and day-trippers going out to visit the country, as well as the factories and other signs of industrialization intruding into the landscape.

According to T.J. Clark, Monet was often at his strongest when he spelled out the encroachment of pleasure on the countryside, but insisted, in the way he handled it, that the scene had lost none of its unity and charm. As a rule, industry could be recognized and represented as long as it was masked, distanced or immobilized.  But Monet's immediate world in Argenteuil was constantly changing shape, with new roads, cafes and building projects, which must have seemed like a nuisance. Having grown weary of the incoherence of the daily life taking place around him, he seems to have turned his back on it, instead to paint the interior of his domicile where he could create his own landscape, a place he could fill with intimate things, hoops, hats, coffee, children, wives, maids.  It would be an interior a fiction with his wife, Camille, pointing to its artificiality. 1

In Gladioli, Monet paints a pleasure garden with the latest fashionable flowers in a circular bed in the middle of the picture.  The flowers portrayed and the setup of the garden would all be very familiar to the contemporary viewers since the flowers were the kinds that were available to them and this was a popular garden designs of the time.   The woman with a parasol in the background lets us know that this is a pleasure garden to stroll in and enjoy.

All of the features of Monet's art can be found in this work. He has broken down each element of the painting with individual brush strokes.  The flowers and the butterflies in the air have all been represented as dabs of color that come together and we perceive as a blooming flower garden.  The sun is shining through the left side of the picture plane casting multicolored shadows on to the woman's path and illuminating the flowers in the bed while leaving the red flowering bushes in the back in shadow.

The composition is setup so that we know where to enter the garden and which way to go, due to the path on the bottom left of the painting. It is a composition that surrounds us and guides our eye to go traveling around the path to finally to the circular flower bed right in the middle of the composition.

Gladioli is an artificially constructed scene of a transitory moment in Monet's Garden on a spring day in Argenteuil.  Even though in Gladioli, we are not afforded an actual view of Argenteuil's streets with it's inhabitants going about their daily business, we still get a feeling for the time Monet lived in and the effects of light on our vision, as well as the concept of pleasure in the landscape.

1.  Mary Tompkins Lewis, Critical readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, ( T.J. Clark, The Environs of Paris)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Another Little Miracle... Baby 'Can'

Rumi says that 'Love is the Water of Life' but these days I tend to think 'Babies are the Water of Life.'
Aydan, whom I feel is a sweet friend and confidant as well as being my niece, has just had a baby.  His name is 'Can' which means 'Life.' A perfect name for such a perfect little man.  He is life itself and I feel so blessed for having the privilege of being here in his first days of life and being able to hold him and love him to my heart's content.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Claude Monet - Boulevard Saint-Denis, Argenteuil, in Winter

Claude Monet, Boulevard Saint-Denis, Argenteuil in Winter,1875
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The changes taking place in Paris in the name of modernity were spreading to its environs as well.  The countryside was starting to buildup with new houses, industry and places of recreation side by side. The whole landscape was changing; wide new roads were built and old ones resurfaced, drains were laid, saplings planted a la Haussman, land given over to home builders and the rest fenced off in readiness for the developers.

Monet had moved into a brand new house in Argenteuil, right next to his old one and he painted a couple of scenes of his immediate world, his street, the way he went to Paris, his glimpse of open country. His house can be seen in this painting on the right with the green shutters, as brand new as the boulevard.   From his vantage point on a hill, looking down, he has depicted one of the new roads leading to the railway station.  The painting is more populated that his river scenes, full of commuters using the train to get to Paris, although more desolate.

Here snow  takes the edges of most things.  Monet's interest in the effects of light and different weather conditions (he was known to have painted in the middle of a snow blizzard) can be seen in the sun coming out of the winter sky.  It reflects its yellow light and a lavender mist surrounds the background.  The influence of Japanese prints can be seen in the pattern of the falling snow on top of the picture plane.  Monet, once again, uses triangular shapes to block in his composition and snow gives Argenteuil the unity it otherwise lacked. 

At Boulevard Saint-Denis, Argenteuil, in Winter, we are given a transient moment that has been caught by the artist, the rough brush work, the unique colors, the sense of immediacy, all typical characteristics of the  Impressionists.  The couple of paintings Monet depicted of his street, similar to this one stood too well for everything painting was suppose to ignore:  the litter of fences and factories, the town seeping like a stain into the surrounding fields, the incoherence of everyday life. But according to the art critic Frederic Chevalier, even these discordant elements might be understood as a coherent world view; together, their subject and technique could stand for the idea of modernity.2 When Monet couldn't tolerate the incoherence of the streets anymore, he was back to painting landscapes that he would construct himself, just for the purpose of painting them.

1.  T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life - Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton University Press, 1999)
2.  Mary Tompkins Lewis, Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism,(John House, Framing the Landscape)(University of California Press,2007) 90

Monday, March 7, 2011

Camille Pissaro - Factory Near Pontoise

Camille Pissaro, Factory at Pontoise,1873
The visitors to the countryside whether 'tourist' or 'traveler' perceived nature differently depending on their engagement with the sites they were visiting. Among the different ways of seeing was the one that viewed a place as 'landscape.' The process of finding a prospect, of seeking out a viewpoint for a landscape was dependent on distancing and framing. In a broader sense, the 'landscape' view of nature was not about the site itself, but about the image that was made of it. Landscape painting was viewed in terms of both art and nature.

Impressionists, as landscape painters were engaged differently with nature and took different approaches to their depictions.  While Monet attained his goal of depicting the effects of color and light in unified compositions by editing and idealizing the landscape, Pissaro was concerned with portraying nature realistically, without artifice or grandeur.  Most Impressionists' work had an ephemeral quality to it but Pissaro's landscapes were solid and seated, they demanded the viewer to stop and take a long look.

Pissaro achieved greater solidness  in Factory at Pontoise by using broad and heavy, horizontally oriented brush strokes.  His solid lines as opposed to the broken, small brush strokes of Monet, helped to ground his compositions and build what Emile Zola referred to as a 'wall of nature'. What is interesting in this painting is the subject portrayed in this 'wall of nature.'

Knowing Pissaro was an anarchist and egalitarian, who believed in rural, agrarian communities, it is hard to figure out the significance of such an obvious symbol of capitalism, the factory, portrayed almost like a portrait in his landscape Factory Near Pontoise.  Pissaro's favorite subject was the peasant and typically his work didn't have any modernity or industry in it.  Plus, here, Pissaro has not even bothered to edit or idealize the unpleasant aspects of a factory, like the black smoke emanating from the smoke stacks into the clear blue sky.   He paints a realistic depiction of a factory sitting in the middle of his landscape blended perfectly with its natural surroundings. Since he liked to portray nature as it sat before him, we can conclude that he must have seen the factory as part of nature as well.

Impressionists all depicted modernity in their own way within their own vision.  For someone like Pissaro who in his political beliefs and visual presentations chose a naturalistic approach to the depiction of peasants instead of the byproducts of capitalism, Factory Near Pontoise stands in ambiguity. We are not sure if this is a criticism or a celebration of industry but the commanding presence and the appeal of the factory as a motif  is indisputable.

1.  Mary Tompkins Lewis, Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, (John House, Framing the Landscape) University of California Press, 2007. 80-81

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Claude Monet - The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil

Claude Monet, The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil, 1874
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
In nineteenth century France there was an increased interest in the countryside. First, at the beginning of the century, monuments and picturesque sites began to be visited by the help of guidebooks and then with the development of the railway system, reaching even remote regions of the country became conveniently possible.  With these new notions the concept of the 'tourist' or 'traveler' came into being.  Travelers saw themselves as solitary, independent, free-ranging and fascinated by the unknown, while tourists stuck in groups and followed prescribed paths, seeking only what could be accommodated within familiar frameworks. In either case, they were basically 'outsiders,' people who were not from the area originally.  The  artists that were living and painting in these areas outside of Paris were somewhere between the two since they were not born there.  There was also one category which was even worse than being a tourist and that was the day tripper, which was the worker, artisan or petite bourgeois.1 According to all that was written in contemporary periodicals, it seems that the weekends, especially Sundays, were very crowded, rowdy and disturbing in places like Argenteuil.  Monet rented a house and was living in Argenteuil between 1872 and 1878. He was painting the countryside but was still close enough that he could easily go to see his dealer in Paris or his friends could come to visit by train.

Looking at Monet's landscapes from this period, it is hard to imagine the boisterous crowds littering the countryside.  Beside the fact that Monet preferred to work during the week when it was less crowded, he tended to edit his pictures to include certain elements while excluding others. In The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil, we are faced with a tranquil, idyllic scene that does not have any figures or any of the clutter that was in the cartoons of the day.  Even when he did put in a very distinct product of industry, the railroad bridge, he turned it into a part of his landscape.  He cleaned up what should have been dark coal smoke to lavender and yellow puffs in the sky creating a harmonious, unified vision.

Monet blocked off the corner of his composition by painting a triangular, green hill to the bottom right corner. The sense of geometry is also picked up in  the way the bridge is situated at an angle creating another triangle in the middle of the picture plane.  He gave solidity to the composition with the open sail of the boat and the feet of the bridge. Dynamism is reinforced with his brush strokes in the water.

Monet was always interested in light and the way it reflected off of surfaces.  In this painting the light is entering from the right side, turning the feet of the bridge blue and white and causing yellow and lavender reflections to ripple down the water. By repetition of similar tones throughout the picture plane, Monet has achieved a unity of tone.

As a by-product of capitalism, people didn't have to work year round and ended up having free time and the concept of leisure came into being.  The mobility of people, the trains and factories were all part of the visual language of modernity in the countryside but most impressionists preferred to construct their landscapes to ignore or disguise these very prominent features; Monet's paintings are the best examples of these. Although there is a sense of immediacy to Monet's paintings, he actually very deliberately constructed his compositions.  As a result, through his carefully planned and worked out studies of the countryside, Monet gave us the impression of the idyllic, transient moment.

1.  Mary Tompkins Lewis, Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, (University of California Press, 2007) 78-80

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Camille Pissaro - Wash House at Bougival

Camille Pissarro, Wash House at Bougival, 1872,
(Musee d'Orsay)
"A work of art is a corner of creation viewed through a temperament."  - Emile Zola

Camille Pissaro was working at Bougival, just a little further down the river from where Monet and Renoir had painted La Grenouillere.  Instead of depicting Parisians at their leisure, Pissaro concentrated on the landscape with the local people that actually belonged on it.  He was very interested in the lives of the peasants and liked to depict them in their natural environment, occupied in honest labor.  In Wash House at Bougival, we see a young woman standing by a tree, on top of a hill, holding a white cloth or towel. Her dress and apron are not new or pristine clean. The wash house is a little further down, right on the river, occupied by women already at work.  In the background are the factories and the boats carrying people to Paris. There is nothing idealized or glamorized in this painting, only reality.  It does not have the dynamism nor the  frivolity of Renoir's work, only a quite dignity.

Claude Monet, La Grenouillere, 1869 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The appeal of Renoir or Monet's work to a city audience was not to be found in Pissaro's paintings.  His work was more connected to the older tradition of Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet.  All the figures fit into his landscape creating a harmonious whole. Critical audiences saw Pissaro's art as simple, tonal, naive, harmonious and above all, attuned to the faculty of vision.  Impressionists' works were about the impression of a quick look while Pissaro required a more stalled vision.  In order to absorb the details of his painting, one has to stop and contemplate what is before him.  Pissaro gives us a corner of nature, as the art critic Theodore  Duret wrote in 1870, "a faithful and exact reproduction of a natural scene and the portrait of a corner of the world that actually exists."1

Pissaro is depicting the landscape in the fall using a darker pallet in a limited range of earth tones.  He is still interested in the effects of light but not to the extent of obsession like Monet. He has chosen a time of year that would be grayer with a lot less light.  The river is not the blue green patches of color as in Renoir's La Grenouillere but it is still sketchy dabs of colors shimmying down the stream as shadows. Like his other compatriots, Pissaro was also influenced by the Japanese prints that were all the rage in Paris at the time, he claimed that he liked the calm, subdued radiance of these prints.

Pissaro was an actual outsider, he was Jewish and born in the West Indies but he was also the most staunch supporter of all the young artists. He had a different point of view, was a revolutionary through his portrayals of the 'common man.'  Pissaro expressed a different aspect of contemporary life with his paintings which help us identify a broader perspective about French society in the second half of the 19th century.

1.  Rachel Ziady DeLue, Pissarro, Landscape, Vision, and Tradition, The Art Bulletin 80, no.4 (Dec 1998) p. 719, 724

Auguste Renoir - La Grenouillere

Auguste Renoir, La Grenouillere, (The Froggery), 1869 (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden)

"Like a child, I paint before nature with an artless soul and the instincts of my fingertips."  -  Renoir

La Grenouillere is a perfect representation of the Impressionists' evolving style of depiction and choice of subject matter.  It is a scene of  'joie de vivre' - modern Parisians frolicking in the water, enjoying a bright and sunny day on the Grenouillere, a popular weekend destination for the middle classes that was a favorite haunt of both Renoir and Monet, at the time.  The growing railway network, expanded out to little towns along the Seine, carrying Parisians to the bathing and boating establishments on the weekends for leisure activities. Bougival was considered the cradle of the Impressionists because Renoir, Monet and Pissaro were living there as well as a host of others that came to visit or to paint.

As with most Impressionists, Renoir, was trying to capture the delights of the countryside for a city audience.  The impressionists' treated the countryside as a scene of modernity where in the backdrop of industrialization, leisure activities of boating and swimming could take place.  Renoir and Monet's paintings were criticized by some critics because they idealized the landscape and  excluded most of the polluting existence of the factories and a public of petite bourgeois, of small tradesmen, mixed up with real workers that flooded the countryside on Sundays.1

Critics thought that Impressionists put too much emphasis on color and not enough on line, in contrast to traditional landscapes where the importance of objects could be determined through the use of light and shadows, everything in their paintings were the same shade.  In the traditional school of thought that accepted disegno (line) to be about the intellect and  colore (color) to be about the senses, this style was alarming for putting the senses above the intellect.

In La Grenouillere, the viewer is invited into the landscape through the boat in the foreground and the eye moves around from one object or person to another all the way throughout the composition. Renoir's fascination with people and fashion is apparent even in this distant group of figures that are individualized with their clothing.  The tree branch that is hanging on the front surface of the painting, blocking a part of our view points to the influence of Japanese prints on Renoir.

Even though it is not as pronounced as in Monet's painting of the same scene, painted at the same time, with the same title, the small patches of blue and green color in the foreground giving the effect of a shimmering water are distinct characteristic of Impressionists. The background has Renoir's typical brushwork of hazy colors of  greens and yellows that represent trees on the opposite bank.    As a matter of fact, even his group standing on the le Camembert, the circular swimming platform is blurry.  Renoir was renown for his paintings of atmospheric color display and figures subsisting of light and color reflections.

This lovely painting of a popular weekend destination by a struggling artist illuminates, the courageous experiments in light, color and form that were taking place in the 1860's and brings us his impression of the world before him at this time of modernity.

1.   Mary Tompkins Lewis, Critical Readings in Impressionism and and Post-Impressionism, (University of California Press) 106

Frederic Bazille - Family Reunion

Frederic Bazille, Family Reunion,1867 (Musee d'Orsay, Paris)
Frederic Bazille came from a very wealthy family in Montpellier. Unfortunately he died at age 28, on the battlefield in the Franco-Prussian war.  He was very good friends with Monet and Renoir and gave them financial and moral support.  He let them use his studio and supplies, making sure they were able to continue to work.

Although he didn't live to exhibit with the Impressionists, Bazille was interested in the figure within a landscape and painted en plen air.  Light effects were very important in his work.

In Family Reunion, each individual face is a distinct portrait.  The eye moves around the picture plane picking out the different family members looking out at us with their unique expressions.  Light filters through the trees, coming from the right, accentuating the bright colors of the landscape in the background, hitting the surface on some areas.

Unlike Monet's paintings, Bazille is concerned with representing his family than just a group of figures in the latest fashions.  This family seems to be in accord somehow. Even though they are situated in little groups around the terrace, there is a sense of unity the artist has achieved with the direction of their gaze and the color of their clothing - they are all in harmonious blues and whites and grays.

Bazille's family looks very well situated in this place, in their own landscape - a big family firmly grounded, underneath the branches of a huge tree, confident of their place in this society.


Claude Monet - Boulevard des Capucines, Paris

Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines,Paris, 1873
(Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri)

Truth to nature and truth to human vision were the core beliefs of the the impressionists. There is a great myth surrounding impressionists that they just represented what they wanted to, actually their work was far more calculated than that.  The paintings they produced were the interpretations of what the artist was seeing.  The world around them was changing and they captured those transitory moments and specific places.

 Haussmanization of Paris was a transformation that the impressionists were eager to record and Boulevard des Capucines, Paris is Monet's impression of what he saw out of the window of photographer Nadar's apartment.  He has captured the grand boulevard revealing the order of the city where everyone and everything has a place, their own zone - pedestrians, trees, carriages. By taking this angle, Monet is choosing to represent this. The viewer has a bird's eye-view of the street.

While Monet is painting the modern Paris with its grand boulevards, carriages and aligned trees, he is using atmospheric perspective as well as concentrating on the light effects on a cold, wintry day.  We have an immediate vision that is blurred and has a sketchy quality. Certain areas on the left side of the canvas are very hard to clearly differentiate. Pastel blues and lavenders shroud the indistinct part of the city that can be seen at the horizon and the top of the trees.  The same light effects also reflect off the roofs and the store fronts of the buildings.  

Monet wanted to get at light the way it reflected off things; his treatment of the hubbub of the city in Boulevard des Capucines, Paris, the city has become a landscape that he could use to capture the reflections of light. Monet's style was thought to be very radical by the critics.  They thought it looked unfinished, like a sketch. Monet's sketchy technique and transitory effects, together could stand for the idea of modernity.  

Friday, March 4, 2011

Manet - Portrait of Emile Zola

Edouard Manet, Portrait of Emile Zola,1868
(Musee d'Orsay)

Emile Zola was an influential author of the naturalism literary school.  He was very interested in the changes taking place in society due to industrialization and the second empire in France.  A great supporter of Manet's, Zola actually published a pamphlet 'A New Manner in Painting: Edouard Manet' emphasizing the 'truth' of his art  which, Zola insisted, aside from the formal and technical qualities, was the truth of "the contemporary girl we meet everyday on the pavements."1.

The Portrait of Emile Zola is a realistically rendered portrait by Manet.  In this painting, the author is shown sitting at his desk with the symbols of his trade, ink and pen, reading what is probably History of Paintings which attests to his interest in art. There is a blue manuscript next to his books, on his desk, behind the quill, which probably represents the pamphlet he wrote about Manet. There are three prints hanging behind his desk on the right corner that identify his preferences in art - there is a Japanese print, a print of Manet's Olympia partly covering a print of Velazquez' The Feast of Bacchus.   Manet has visualized  his admiration for Zola by painting Olympia as looking at Zola, admiring him. 

There was an intense interest in Japanese Art at this time and both Manet and Zola admired Japanese prints greatly. In 1850, after 200 years of seclusion Japan opened it's doors and the Westerners that became exposed to their culture were fascinated. The furor that followed was called  Japonisme.  The Japanese screen on the left side behind Zola, also references his interest. 

Contemporary artists were  influenced by the subject matter, composition and style of Japanese prints.  They depicted everyday scenes, using juxtaposition of patterns, great  attention to detail and solid colors laid down next to each other separated by an outline without any transitions. Zola said that Manet should be compared to the Japanese woodcut prints in his use of similar techniques.

In this friendship portrait, Manet portrays a realistic depiction of Emile Zola giving us the inner essence of the writer with his interests and qualities painted in his own unique style. Zola's words sums up Manet's ascend into the art world perfectly "A young painter has obeyed, in a very straightforward manner, his own inclinations concerning vision and understanding; he has begun to paint in a way which is contrary to the sacred rules taught in schools Thus, he has produced original works..."2

1.  Emile Zola, 'Edouard Manet', p.554
2.  Emile Zola, 'Edouard Manet', p.555
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