Some Victorian writer, I’m not sure who, wrote about the art swoon: It’s when you see a work of art for the first time and are overcome by emotion. I think it happened to Victorian ladies a lot, and it’s happened to me several times in my life (a coincidence, I’m sure). It really is a little like falling in love, and I bet it makes the same areas of the brain light up.
I remember my first art swoon quite clearly; I was about eight years old. My mom subscribed to the Metropolitan Seminars in Art, which were hardback magazines, each with an article on art history written by John Canaday, art critic for the New York Times. You can still find copies of the series on Amazon.com. I can’t remember which issue it was, because I took it years ago to a used book store, but each of the books had a packet of beautifully printed reproductions, and that’s how I first saw Pierre Cot’s The Storm. Too young to know any better, I was completely entranced. For a long time I had the actual print, until my dog chewed it up in 1990. She also chewed the corner off Ingres’ Jupiter and Thetis. The dog had good taste.
A couple of years later I actually read the article, and discovered that, according to Mr. Canaday, The Storm was pretty,but that’s all. I was puzzled: How could The Storm be mediocre, trashy and sentimental when I liked it so much? Why did Canaday disapprove of that wonderful transparent gown? And why did he like the twisted, harsh Expressionist painting in the book? (I believe it was a Kandinsky, but can’t find it on the internet.) Even at that age, I had strong opinions about art! I was sure that John Canaday, whoever he was, was wrong, and that Cot’s painting was wonderful. Later on, as an adult, I decided Canaday was a prude, and that mid-twentieth century modernism’s distrust of beauty in art was really moralistic disapproval, based on a secret dislike of the physical body.
Now I’ve come around a bit and think I overreacted to poor Mr. Canaday: he drew a lot of flack for his criticism of abstract expressionism, and loved many of the same painters I do. And I can appreciate Kandinsky and the Expressionists now, but I still say that particular painting in the book was hideous. The Storm is still entrancing, to me at least, although the actual subject is in doubt. But who can question that the painting is simply about young love? A subject, IMHO, that can be sentimentalized, but is also not to be sneered at by those too sophisticated for their own good.
Of course, that doesn’t explain why I loved it so much when I was eight years old. Seriously, I wanted to figure out how to paint that dress, but all I had were crayons. When I was about fifteen, I visited New York and the Metropolitan Museum, and finally saw The Storm for real, plus a whole bunch of wonderful Northern Renaissance paintings at the Cloisters too. It was just a continuous swoon.
My next art swoon was also connected with one of Canaday’s Seminar covers which I loved as a child: Simone Martini’s 1333 Annunciation. I was seventeen when I walked into a room in the Uffizi and burst into tears at my first sight of Martini’s Gabriel and almond-eyed Siennese Virgin, the egg tempera and gilding still brilliant after almost 700 years.
While on that same European trip, I also visited the Louvre. Sometime during a long afternoon I stumbled all alone into a series of interconnected rooms, tucked away and ignored, filled to the brim with 19th century French Salon paintings. I was absolutely seduced, and have never turned back in my love for these paintings. It was only many years later that I realized that what appeared to be slick visual confections were created from years of hard work and devotion to craft.
Last week I checked my calendar and suddenly realized that the current show at the Frist Museum in Nashville, The Birth of Impressionism, was about to end on January 23rd. Snow at Christmas and New Year’s nixed my plans to drive down with my friend Theresa Ivey but I knew I would never forgive myself if I missed it. Kevin Ward, an artist friend on FB, said that there were Bouguereaus and <Moreaus in it! Bouguereau isthe painting God of the 19th century Salon. The whole show was from the Musee d’Orsay in France, and I knew that the d’Orsay was the home of many paintings by Gustave Moreau, another favorite of mine who has inspired me. Somehow I imagined that the whole show was about them! I wish. At any rate, my husband was on vacation so I talked him into driving with me to Nashville on the spur of the moment.
I saw William Bouguereau’s gigantic Birth of Venusand one of my favorite early Moreaus, Jason, through the glass doors of the main gallery and once again felt myself begin to choke up with emotion. I had to look away for a moment so I wouldn’t burst into tears, just like I did in front of Simone Martini. I circled through the front room and quickly checked out the Bouguereaus, two Moreaus, and two more Salon nudes: Jules LeFebvre’s La Verite and Elie Delauney’s Diana. It was just so much I could hardly absorb it. There might have been a couple of other pictures in the room but I ignored them, entranced by the ones I liked. I’m still bad that way.
Moreau’s Jason was especially stupendous. I moved in really close, but stood to the side, so I wouldn’t get in the way of other people, held my hands tightly behind myself, so the guards wouldn’t think I was trying to touch it, and bent over to look carefully at the brushstrokes. While I stood there a child behind me asked his father, “Which one is the girl?” He was right. Jason and Medea (yes, the girl is Medea, his witch-wife who kills their children, but I think this scene is before the marriage turned sour) look like a pair of beautiful androgynous fifteen-year-old twins with shoulder-length golden hair and skin to match. Jason’s dark green helmet appeared to be actually built up about a half-inch from the surface with carefully shaped paint, or perhaps some sort of early modeling paste. I love Moreau’s fantastic settings and costumes and weird background landscapes, his mystical Symbolist leanings, his opulence, his glittering, decadent Gothness, and find the slight flatness of his early work interesting and decorative. And I love the way he paints toes like Leonardo da Vinci.
Years ago at Dragoncon I got a chance to talk with the Brothers Hildebrandt about painting: they told me if the light is cool, the shadow is warm and if the light is warm, the shadow is cool. I kept thinking about that and went back and forth, trying to figure out what colors the painters had used and whether their light was warm or cool. I was almost sure that all the Salon painters used a cool, reflected studio light for their figures, (that was one of the things the Impressionists didn’t like about them) but how could I be sure? I remembered what another painter told me: look for the cool highlight.
But the Moreau confused me. How do I tell if the light is cool if the whole painting has a golden cast? Or maybe the varnish had yellowed. I decided to look at the highlights on the inanimate objects (and it wasn’t easy because the paintings were so enormous): Jason’s spear, his dark green helmet, and Moreau’s favorite compositional accessory, the decorative antique column. The hightlights on the helmet looked cool, gray-white, but I realized that even if the highlight paint had been a pale gold it would have looked this way, unless it were painted very thickly, since a sheer layer of warmish light over dark will always cool off. I backed away and looked closely several times.
The other Moreau, Galatea,isn’t my favorite Moreau but it’s still a Moreau. In his later work the figures become paper dolls hanging motionless in an over-decorated, very shallow space. I noticed that the paint even had tiny bits of actual glitter suspended in it, which you can’t see in reproductions. I hadn’t realized he liked to experiment with stuff like the glitter and the sculpted paint on the helmet. It was charming, and there are those toes again.
Then I moved on to Birth of Venus. It is simply stunning from across the room, and a lot of it depends on the beauty of the models Bouguereau so faithfully renders. I noticed that Venus and the ocean nymphs all look like they could be the same model, and so help me, I think she might be the same girl who modeled for The Storm. Cot worked with Bouguereau and Birth of Venus is from 1879 and The Storm is from 1880. Up close, the backgrounds are simply rendered, almost stylized, and yet from a distance, it all looks perfectly real. The emphasis is on the stunningly painted figures. I notice that Bouguereau paints a clean, liquid line of warm sienna around the shadowy limbs that are closest to me (and somehow does it without making the line hard), but does that show the shadow temperature or is it a reflected light on the edge of the forms? Not sure. These paintings were so large that most of the details on the heads are too high for me. I would have given anything for a ladder, a bright light, and a magnifying glass.
The other Bouguereau was a religious subject: A black-clad Madonna of Sorrows, The Virgin of Consolation. A grieving mother bends over on the Virgin’s lap, and her dead baby, its limbs faintly greenish instead of pink, lies at the Virgin’s feet. It’s easy for the 21st century viewer to see this painting as actually silly in its religiosity and sentiment, until you realize how common infant death was in the 19th century. The painting was completed in 1875, only two years before Bouguereau’s own wife and child died (I checked on the dates because I wondered if he painted it afterward as some sort of memorial, but no.) The figure of the Virgin in her black robes appears flat and iconic, but the infant is perfectly foreshortened.
Bouguereau’s work is always impressive, with never a false step technically, although he can be accused of being overly slick, but so what? His technique is absolutely perfect. Is it too perfect? I mean, that’s the worst thing I can say about him: he’s so freaking good I Just. Give. Up. I can never, ever be that good in this lifetime. His skill with the brush intimidates me and flattens my emotional response after a minute, sated as I am by photography, not to mention Photoshop. Perhaps in the end I like Moreau’s stranger, darker world better than Bouguereau’s clean, light-filled paintings. But still, looking at anything by Bouguereau is practically a religious experience for me.
I spent more time thinking about color. La Verite (left), supposedly an inspiration for our Statue of Liberty, is icy in her ivory paleness (more so in the gallery than in this reproduction), holding aloft what is supposed to be a mirror, but looks more like a light bulb. But there are those tricky gray shadows on the flesh. How do I tell if gray is warm or cool, anyway? So many flesh tones have grey in the shadows and I always want to read it as cool. Suddenly I think I get it: Verite’s skin is lit by an icy white light, and the shadows on her flesh are a relatively warm gray. It’s all relative, perhaps even an illusion, but I can see it. For a second. And Diana (below, right) seems to be standing in a bright shadow with no direct sunlight, so I’m sure the light is cool there.
I wandered through the rest of the show in a lackadaisical manner but couldn’t stop thinking about Moreau and Bouguereau. I had to go back to the front room three times in all, mostly to look at Jason and Birth of Venus. Finally I reluctantly dragged myself from the front room and the Bougie Man, walked through the other rooms and did find some magnificent pictures. There was a huge crowd and all the people except me were obediently listening to their audio tours like little art cows in front of the Impressionists, so I was free to sneak in and look at the stuff I really liked for a long time: for instance, Gustave Dore’s stupendous grisaille Enigma is about the Franco-Prussian War and the burning of Paris; the Sphinx is whispering the secret of peace to the angel of Paris. The actual painting, while dark in tone, is perfectly calibrated in value. Up close Dore’s drawing is free and easy, like he just whipped it out in about a week, and maybe he did. The brushstrokes are loose, sure sign of a really knock-out painter, yet clean and precise. As far as I could tell, it was painted entirely in black and white, although there might have been a trace of yellow ocher. It was huge and beautiful and no one but me was looking at it!
Another exceptional painting that Ken and I both noticed was Henri Regnault’s equestrian portrait of Gen. Juan Prim. Regnault lived in North Africa for a number of years and painted many beautiful pictures of everyday life there which you can check out on the web. But he died in the Franco-Prussian War at an early age. Pierre Cot died young too.
Carolus-Duran’s Lady with a Glove attracted us too, and I spent a lot of time looking at this painting. But once again, it was huge! These paintings were meant to be seen from across the room, but the artist in me can’t resist trying to stick my nose into the details, which you can’t see any of in the tiny image below, so now you know how I felt:
I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I realized that the show was really all about the Impressionists, whom everyone loves so much, and how they triumphed over the mean picky Salon painters who preceded them. Really, it’s not that I don’t like the Impressionists — I mean, how could I? — but in the end they are painting reality — pretty girls, not goddesses, baskets of fruit and flowers, people in restaurants — in a straightforward, even flatfooted manner, and that kind of bores me in the end. At least it did that gray day at the Frist. The Impressionists lack grandeur, in fact they were sick of it, and sometimes their technique looks, well, dauby to me. Go ahead, hate on me. They haven’t been really avante-garde for a hundred years or more, but they’re still around.
Some art makes me cry; some inspires me to go home and paint; some I like but it’s not what I want to do; some I don’t like so much but I respect the work; very little I hate, but some is indifferent to me. It’s still unfashionable to love the academic painters as much as I do, but I can’t help it, I’ll always love their refined drawing, delicate brushwork, the grandeur and imagination. The Salon painters remind me of my favorite science fiction and fantasy illustrators: They paint a reality that doesn’t really exist so skillfully that the viewer can believe in it without a thought. The only way to do that is years and years of practice. The Salon painters make me cry, I respect the work, I want to go home and paint: The whole Art Swoon package.