Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Iconography of The Times of the Day

Doing artworks in a series has been common since the Renaissance. Not only just the Times of the Day, but also the Four Seasons and the Ages of Man.

We are more familiar with the expression of these concepts in music (perhaps because this music is still played and recorded for current listening). Fans of classical music are familiar with Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Respighi's The Pines of Rome, Copeland's An American in Paris and more recently the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed.

In this series of Gericault's Times of the Day, the artist follows the current accepted moods for each picture.

In the first, Morning: Landscape with Fishermen, the colors are cool with early dawn light and four fishermen are pushing off their boat for a day of work. The craggy mountain in the middleground and the two exotic trees in the foreground are quite strange looking. The mountain certainly couldn't hold together for very long in a temperate climate and the palm tree fronds never looked like any palm I had seen in life or photographs.

In Noon: Landscape with a Roman Tomb, the imagery is more sinister. There are storm clouds appearing from the left, blocking out the blue sky. In the foreground a family is begging a boatman to take them across the river from the island with the tomb and gibbet before the storm breaks.

This picture is more effective than Morning since there are no odd-looking mountains and trees to distract the modern viewer. Noon pictures at this time always feature storms or other bad weather since the bright, top light is often flattening and difficult to compose with according to the ideas of that time. There are modern paintings that take advantage of the bright, top light and the resulting dark shadows for pictorial effect.

Evening: Landscape with an Acqueduct is the best of the lot in my opinion. The raking evening light illuminates the buildings, river, trees and the naked men swimming in the foreground. It has a peaceful, carefree mood.

If this series was finished Night would be a scene of a storm at sea and a drowning. Gericault had done some smaller paintings of the Deluge and several versions of the Tempest showing a drowned woman and child on the seashore. The Biblical Deluge has been a perfect opportunity for painters to have a history painting with lots of naked men, women and children in distress, the moral being the wrath of God on wicked people.

Surprisingly these examples of the Deluge and the Tempest have less emphasis on the human figures and more on the stormy seascape they are in. Despite of his love of the human figure, Gericault was trying for emotional impact through the landscape than with the people.

Despite Gericault's early death, he has made his mark on Art History, though these landscape paintings would be secondary to his paintings featuring animals and humans. I have been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art twice for two day visits, I don't remember seeing Evening: Landscape with an Acqueduct. The painting is very large (8.2 feet by 7.2 feet) but it must not have made any impact on me when compared to so many other great works of art on display. What did impress my husband and I was George Washington Crossing the Delaware. We are very familiar with reproductions in books and prints but were never aware of how huge it is!
This does give an idea of why history painting had high standing for so long.

Link to Gericault's Landscape with Acqueduct

I figured a picture would be useful in this discussion so here is the link to the Metropolitan Museum's page about Evening: Landscape with Acqueduct
I couldn't find images of the other Times of Day paintings on the Web but there are several businesses offering prints of Gericault's paintings for sale.
Just do a Google Search!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The French concept of the sublime landscape

The concept behind French landscape painting at this time was very different from the English and German sense of the romantic landscape. Paintings by Gericault's contemporaries Constable and Friedrich are very different in mood. Constable and Friedrich also did more sketching on site and appreciated the natural landscape as a vehicle for ideas and moods.
In keeping with the French desire for classification, in 1708 another theorist divided landscape into two categories:Paysage heroique, high-minded and moral; and paysage champetre, bucolic and more naturalistic. The concept of the sublime was introduced to elevate the status of landscape painting's ability to communicate ideas.
What is sublime? According to the critic Diderot: "all that stuns the soul, all that imprints a feeling of terror, leads to the sublime" (in that case many a horror movie could be considered sublime, and about realistic as many of these paintings!) The author of this bulletin further clarifies with "To stun the soul, to stir the mind . . ." (well that has made it clear as mud!)
The increasing interest in artists going outside, sketching and using these sketches as models for paintings instead of examples of previous artists had some some pundits outraged. After all Poussin, Claude and others had done it right and idealized nature, one couldn't do better. By the turn of the nineteenth century many submissions to the official Salons were realistic landscapes instead of idealized, "composed" landscapes. Fearing moral decline because of this, the government created the Prix de Rome for landscape painters to study in Italy for inspiration of the ideal.
The point is that Gericault went against the current trend of looking around him at nature and went to the old practice of using themes and motifs from other artists to create his Times of Day series.
Much of this article is like a treasure hunt in which experts go looking for precedents for the buildings, figures and themes used in Gericault's Times of Day in other artworks, particulary in prints which are easily accessable to the artist and some are known to have been in his possession.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The French Hierarchy of painting

Last time I mentioned the French Academy ranking of paintings by subject. By coincidence I started to read another MMA bulletin (Winter 1989/90) about Jean-Baptiste Greuze by James Thompson. Greuze was a genre (typical scenes representing everyday life) painter during the eighteenth century.
The author (Thompson) has given a brief synopsis of the rankings:

"Since the formation of the French Academy in the mid-seventeenth century, there had been a codification of the relative importance of different types of paintings. Andre Felibien, friend and biographer of the premier French painter Nicolas Poussin, had in 1666 ranked them thus:
1. History, 2. Human Portraits, 3. Animals, 4. Landscapes, 5. Still Lifes. . . . Although our modern impulse is to rate works on their quality and intensity of execution, irrespective of their dimensions, subject matter, or type, the eighteenth century thought quite differently, and there were good commonsense reasons for so thinking. Such grand-size productions were
universally regarded as more important, partly because they were seen as morally elevating but also because they were known by the practitioners to be more difficult to bring off successfully. In the first place, it is much harder for a painter to maintain correct proportions and compositional coherence on a large scale. Furthermore, a history picture often must demonstrate mastery of the other painting types, such as background landscape or foreground still life, in addition to establish the credible dramatic animation and interrelationship
of figures, one of the most difficult tasks of the painter's art and one that most clearly demonstrates the prized power of imagination."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Comments on Gericault's Heroic Landscapes

I was recently reading The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin Winter 1990/91 Gericault's Heroic Landscapes: The Times of the Day. I bought several of these bulletins at the latest library sale at the LaCrosse Public Library and are reading them before posting them on Ebay. (If I kept every book I have read, my house would collapse from the weight!)
In 1989, The MMA acquired Gericault's Evening: Landscape with an Acquaduct. This prompted the writing of this article about Gericault's landscape painting in general and the series The Times of the Day in particular. Gericault (1791-1824) is better known for his paintings of horses, soldiers and other human figures. His signature work is The Raft of the Medusa, (1818, 16.3 feet by 23.66 feet). FYI: The Medusa was a French frigate that foundered off of the coast of West Africa. 250 of the officers and crew went into the boats and the 150 civilian passengers were put on a makeshift raft. The raft was supposed to have been towed by the boats but the captain abandoned them. After 18 days, another ship rescued only ten survivors. Two of these survivors were educated men and published an expose accusing the captain of the Medusa of murder, leaving the civilians to death by thirst, starvation, madness and cannibalism. This was sensational and prompted Gericault a reason for a painting to show strong emotions and displays of male anatomy.
Many contemporary critics found it ugly and corrupting, not beautiful and uplifting.
Now back to the Times of the Day series, There are three known paintings by Gericault in this series; Morning: Landscape with Fishermen (Munich, Neue Pinakothek), Noon: Landscape with a Roman Tomb (Paris, Musee du Petit Palais) and Evening: Landscape with an Acquaduct (NYC, Metropolitan Museum of Art). For this series to be complete there should have been a fourth painting for Night, but the only evidence is a statement by a very old art dealer that he sold Night to a collector in Rio de Janiero in 1949, but had no photographs, only a crude drawing as evidence. Research has shown that three canvases matching the dimensions of the known paintings were delivered to the artist's studio in 1818. He may have planned a fourth but got distracted by another project, The Raft of the Medusa. (In my opinion a good thing, The Raft of the Medusa worked to Gericault's strengths and interests, as a landscape painter he is rather mediocre.)
The Times of the Day is not an original idea with Gericault, it was a common theme for paintings and prints during the previous century. Gericault's paintings were the last known series done on this theme.
One thing must be made clear: these paintings were not portraits of any particular location, mostly generalized Italian views. The artist spent two years in Italy, but did very little landscape sketching, most of his time was spent studying works in collections. Indeed, much of the official art of the time disdained working from nature (except for figure drawing) and insisted on using past painters like Poussin, Claude, and others as models. The French were very fond of hierarchy in art by putting history painting at the top with portraits, landscapes and still life at the bottom. Even though to our eyes, The Raft of the Medusa would be considered a history painting, it featured contemporary events in contemporary dress. The pundits of the time insisted that in order to be serious art, contemporary historical figures should be dressed in classical costume and related to ancient history to be legitimate. This has led to curious pieces like George Washington dressed in a toga!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Finished Mower County Winter

I finished this drawing a couple of days of ago. The next step is to put it away and forget about it for awhile, then take it out, attach to the wall and determine what changes are needed to make it a better picture. I tend to be fond of my current work and time gives perspective on a picture's quality.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Further work on Mower County Winter

Here is a close up of the basic drawing for this picture. The picture could easily be just this part but extending the format and showing more fields, trees and barn in a subordinate role makes for a more isolated, cold feeling. (Ah, sweet melancholy!)

The washes were done by a light layering of watercolor pencils and wetted and smoothed out. For the sky I prefer to put the paper upside down. The sky was more blotchy than I liked so later it was rewetted and smoothed out with a natural sponge.
The trees in the fence line were traced on and preliminary coloring done lightly with indigo colored pencil.