Death and Painting – Skyping in the Blank Spots

Writing these next few essays has felt like untangling a long skein of thread and then carefully knitting it together, making sense out of something that had been chaotic. For an artist, for all of us, life and work are connected, and so it is here.

As it fell out, mostly because of location, I was the “designated sibling” during the final illnesses of my parents. I almost stopped painting, except for my scientific illustration, and I stopped writing. One thing self-help experts will tell you about such times is to try to nurture oneself, and with that in mind I embarked upon a series of Skype classes with a painter named Richard Thomas Scott.How I ended up doing this begins with another painter originally from Norway named Odd Nerdrum.

ManwithHead-copyThe first time I heard of Odd Nerdrum was an article back in the mid-90’s (in ArtNews, perhaps) which included an image of a darkly stupendous painting called “Man Holding the Head of his Lover.” It appealed to my deeply ingrained Gothic sensibility – as a child, my mother had taken me and my sister on graveyard tours, seeking out moss-covered gravestones and speculating on the lives of the ancient dead — and reminded me a bit of some dark fantasy illustrators I’d seen (John Jude Palencar springs to mind) except with freer brushwork and on a scale too grand to fathom. The painting puzzled me too – this was one of the big art magazines from New York, and yet this painting looked almost like something by Rembrandt. I knew just enough about the New York art world in 1994 to know that ArtNews didn’t give the time of day to anyone who painted like Rembrandt, or John Jude Palencar either. What was going on?

On-KitschThen several years later I picked up a book, On Kitsch, vaguely recognizing the author’s name, and struggled through the rather dense philosophical essays. It seemed to be all about a new kind of painting called Kitsch, which was not hokey bad art; in fact, it was supposedly not art at all. This confused me yet again, in fact, I could hardly get my head around some of the ideas at first. Sunsets? Pretty girls? Sincerity? All of us products of 20th Century art education knew this would get us laughed out of any modern classroom and most galleries too.

A few more years passed, and I came across more references to this painter. One day my son, working at a bookstore after college, told me about a co-worker who was a painter, and showed me a photo of his amazingly mature self-portrait. His friend hoped one day to study painting in Norway, with a famous painter who had a very strange name . . . I had to find the book to remember the name on the tip of my tongue . . . Yes, it was that Nerdrum fellow again!

The more I saw of Nerdrum’s work the more he reminded me of some new Rembrandt, although I have to admit that Rembrandt was never my favorite Old Master painter. I remember disliking Rembrandt once, long ago, because I thought he painted heavy women with dimpled thighs. Ha! I shake my head now at my youthful folly. Nor did Nerdrum’s style, impasto laid on heavy linen, immediately appeal to me in that way I’m sure other painters recognize, like wanting to possess a new car or lover: Oh, I must paint like that someday!

And some of his work puzzled me (for the umpteenth time) in light of his writings about lack of irony and sincerity. Surely an exquisite rendering of a row of women defecating in the woods is a joke – right? Or a self-portrait spotlighting the painter’s slightly crooked erection? At the time, I could only imagine these paintings to be sly and contemptuous visual statements: “Art critics, suck on this.” “You won’t look at a nice sunset? How about this?” Perhaps they were simply disingenuous ways to succeed in the Post Modernist art world, that monstrous maw always seeking the next shocking image. Nerdrum seemed in some ways a deeply flawed and vulnerable man, but his best paintings radiated a profound dignity, and a deep mystery too.

I was obsessed for a while with this Odd mystery, bundling it up with my obsession with Renaissance painting techniques, and I discovered there were other people out in cyberspace who were obsessed too.  A lot of them seemed to be artists like me who grew up during the latter part of the 20th century wanting badly to paint “real”, but who missed out on the requisite training.

At the state university where I got my degree in 1984, my oil painting instruction consisted of Fly free, little bird! What I’d wanted to learn to do was paint people, people who looked at least passably real, and not just lying around but flying, jumping, wearing costumes, preferably set in elaborate backgrounds, like the SF and fantasy illustrators who were the only living illusionistic painters I knew. How do I make things look like that? Where do I even start? After graduation, when my children were young, I’d taught myself to paint in egg tempera from a Dover book, and applied what I’d learned to paint well enough in acrylics to get some illustration free-lance work. I could always draw, and finally ended up working as a scientific illustrator, very happy that I’d found a niche. But still I longed to paint in oils and do it well.

After graduation I haunted the stacks in the university library, where I had discovered a whole shelf of forgotten books on the painting techniques of the Old Masters.  My favorite was The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters, by Jacques Maroger. I don’t know how long it had been in the library but I was the only person who had ever checked it out, and I suspect I still am. I actually ordered powdered white lead when it was still available and came this close to boiling it with linseed oil until it turned black and transparent, in an iron pot over a fire in my back yard. This was supposed to be the magic medium of the Old Masters that made their paint flow like dark honey from the brush! Odd Nerdrum actually did it, and it ruined some of his pictures, melted them right off the canvas. He had to paint pictures over again, pictures he had already sold, and this led to his terrible tax problems with Norway. So it’s probably for the best I never boiled linseed oil and lead in my back yard, although in my case it would only have resulted in poisoning myself and the rest of the neighborhood.

Like a painting technique porn junky, I ended up cruising the internet for articles about Nerdrum and his fabled technique. These articles had the tone of Maroger’s book – Here is the secret! The final secret of painting! In online forums people talked about Odd Nerdrum’s palette, mediums, and the precise sort of herringbone linen he uses. I knew the information was flimsy, but still my heart beat faster!

Along the way I began running across names of his students here and there.  I would write them down on bits of paper, Google them and bookmark their websites, and then carefully study their work. Nerdrum’s students — and there are a lot of them, both men and women — were representational painters of course, but very much individuals, sharing a hint of the fantastic coupled with a grandeur I’d not found elsewhere. By the way, I hope this doesn’t sound as if I were cyberstalking Nerdrum students. If you are or were a student of Odd Nerdrum, I promise I won’t show up at your house — although it’s possible I might crash your next gallery opening but only if it’s in a city within easy driving distance. Hint: there might be some nice galleries in Atlanta!

I finally stumbled upon ArtBabel, a blog full of juicy information-rich articles, many written by someone named Richard Thomas Scott, a real live student of Odd Nerdrum. He was quite a wonderful painter himself, because there was one of his paintings with very real-looking naked people floating in the ether! Jackpot! I emailed him because there was contact information on the website and an invitation to join something, I wasn’t sure what, but I must have kept dogging him until he finally emailed me back.

At some point Skype classes were mentioned. The classes consisted of me and a few other people in various parts of the world watching Richard paint somewhere in Paris, I think from Odd Nerdrum’s house in exile, while he talked about the philosophical underpinnings of Nerdrum’s “Kitsch painting.” The connection went bad sometimes, but it was great fun, I learned a lot, and watching Richard paint was more useful than anything. We could ask Richard any questions we wanted about mediums, stretching linen, underpainting, and how to pronounce grisaille – mispronunciation being, of course, the awful curse of the Southern painting autodidact.

The Skype classes were during bright day in Tennessee, but the windows in the Paris studio on my computer screen were dark. Richard glanced at himself reflected in the dark window glass with the lights of some Parisian suburb shining in the darkness behind him, and painted his image twice on the canvas. He painted with astonishing facility, without a sketch as far as I could see. Whenever I do this I paint myself off the canvas or make somebody’s head too big. Richard never knew it, but as the weekly classes evolved, the lights in his studio window and his painting began to resemble the night view from the winding road up the mountain where we had moved in with my father during his final illness. I had begun having a panic attack every time I had to drive that road at night, even though I had done it hundreds of times over the years. There was no guard rail and the lights of the city twinkling in the black void a thousand feet below had suddenly begun to terrify me. It was all about dying, I know, the terrible fear of falling into the abyss myself before I had a chance to paint the pictures inside me.

Here is the painting Richard did while he talked to us:


I’m not sure if this was the first time Richard had students, but when I saw the title he gave the painting, “The Blind Leading the Blind,” I wondered if that was how he felt, because I remembered feeling that way myself when I first taught painting years ago. My friend Neil Robinson knew I needed a job and offered me a position teaching oil painting to people at the Senior Neighbors center downtown where he was art director. I told him I didn’t know enough — in fact, I knew almost nothing beyond what I’d learned in college. He said, “You know more than they do.” I’ve never forgotten that. Then he said, “And you’ll learn more than they do.”

The second time I took Skype classes from Richard, I watched him paint “The House on the River Lethe.”


When I saw the “floating” chair, hanging by a rope from some invisible ceiling hook in the studio behind him, I laughed and said, “That looks like something I would do.” I love surreal painted illusions when they’re done really well. Once again, without a sketch, he rapidly painted the light reflecting on the polished wooden floor of his studio. In Greek mythology, the River Lethe is where souls forget their past lives; and in Dante’s Inferno, he is washed in the River Lethe to forget his past sins and complete his atonement. The painting reminded me of how I felt when I started getting rid of things that weren’t working in my life, letting things go one by one. Empty.

I would have loved to buy “The Blind Leading the Blind,” but it was beyond my budget.  But then early this year Richard had a Kickstarter campaign to support him doing some insane number of small paintings in a month.  I bought a share to get an 8×10, and ended up with this little jewel, “The Gloaming.”

the-gloamingThe first thing I noticed about the painting when it arrived was the facility of the execution, because I am above all else an admirer of beautiful painting. The swift little highlight on her nose caught my eye, done in a second, I am sure. I have seldom been able to paint with that assurance – except, for some reason, when I’m doing a demonstration for students.

But I have a confession: after admiring the lovely technique, for reasons I could not quite fathom, I carefully put the painting away in a cupboard. Every time I walked by, I would see it in the shadows and ask myself why I didn’t take it out and have it framed. I finally realized that her downturned face and hands (has she been twisting them? Could she be clutching a damp handkerchief?) subtly conveyed some mix of raw emotions — loss, regret, resignation — with such intensity that it almost broke my heart. Having received many well-meaning suggestions to “paint more cute stuff” over the years, I don’t believe the mood of a painter’s work can be changed, or should be. Being largely unconscious, deliberate efforts to lighten mood risk losing that connection with spirit that make a painting truly powerful. I’m stunned by Richard’s ability to convey deep feeling so delicately, so economically, in such a small painting. She is alive.

In fact, even more than skills, this is the single most important lesson I learned from Richard: Painting in the 21st Century may now legitimately embody human concerns and sincere emotional connection with the subject. Richard was a wonderful teacher and a fascinating person, and I’m thankful to him for filling in almost all the blank spots in my oil painting education. I finally stopped obsessing about Odd Nerdrum and his painting technique and realized that there is no magical formula for oil painting. Oh, there are mediums and recipes, and some work, or they don’t. In the end, you just have to do it.

A lot of people are talking about a new movement in representational painting, asking if it’s real and if it is what to call it, whether Kitsch, NovoRealism, or Post Contemporary. I can tell you that even here a fresh breeze is blowing through the open windows of my studio. Change is in the air.

Art Swoon Identified!

In my last entry I wrote about how, when I was 17 and in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I burst into tears upon first seeing Simone Martini’s lovely Annunciation.  I thought I had read somewhere that John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, had written about the phenomenon of swooning before great art, but I wasn’t sure.  Well, it wasn’t him —  but there really is an art swoon, and it’s named after the famous 19th century French author Stendhal, the pseudonym of Henri-Marie Beyle, who wrote about it in his book Naples and Florence:  A Journey from Milan to Reggio.

Wikipedia says: “Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal’s syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place. . . Although there are many descriptions of people becoming dizzy and fainting while taking in Florentine art, especially at the Uffizi, dating from the early 19th century on, the syndrome was only named in 1979, when it was described by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who observed and described more than 100 similar cases among tourists and visitors in Florence.”   Another source says that victims are usually young, unmarried women who are seeing the original art for the first time.  So apparently I had a textbook case!

While reading up on Stendhal Syndrome, I stumbled across a reference to a movie called The Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome de Stendhal), a European cult film written and directed by Dario Argento.  Argento said the film was inspired by his own experience of disorientation while visiting the Parthenon as a child.  It sounded pretty interesting, so I ordered it from Netflix and watched it one Sunday afternoon.  It sucked, not least because it featured my unfavorite thing in movies, prolonged scenes of torture.  The movie was about a woman who is overcome by a bad case of S. S. in Florence, while working as a police investigator on a serial murder case.  She is kidnapped by the killer, a handsome blond man named Alfredo, who rapes and tortures her in a romantically decayed medieval catacomb beneath the city.  She kills him, then becomes possessed by the killer, which causes her to start wearing a blonde wig and kill people.  In between all this, she is swooning over the art in the Uffizi, although what that has to do with the serial killer I forget.

While watching the movie, I remembered my own very short and innocent fling with a handsome blond Italian fellow named Alfredo while I was in Florence in 1969 — although he was an architecture student, not a serial killer as far as I know.  After I came home, he sent me a letter written in his charming Italo-English, which I tossed out of a moving car on Kingston Pike in Knoxville — I distinctly remember hesitating, my eyes on the return address, the wind sucking it out the window, watching it flutter down the highway — while the man who became my first husband sat beside me, never noticing what I had done.  Thus we make our choices.

More Stendhal Syndrome madness

A few weeks ago, in a used bookstore, I came across a book I’d noticed before:  Leap, by Terry Tempest Williams.  I knew it was about Bosch, one of my favorite painters, and I’ve never seen his work in person, as far as I can remember.  I’d opened the book before and scanned a few pages, hoping it would snag me, but decided her writing style was disjointed and overblown.  I like clarity in a memoir.  But something made me buy it this time.  When I got home, I sat down and started reading and was amazed —  although she never calls it by name, right there in chapter one she’s having a major attack of Stendhal Syndrome in Madrid’s Prado Musuem in front of Heironymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych!  Her experience goes far beyond mine at the Uffizi. She seems to have had an almost psychotic break, leaves her husband (they are Mormons who have taken a marriage vow for all eternity), and spends months or even years in Madrid, becoming “the woman who stares at Bosch.”


Then while slowly slogging through Leap last night, a strange synchronicity occurred. The book had no illustrations, so I dug up an old article I’d saved about Bosch, from the Smithsonian magazine, which often has informative articles on famous artists with color pictures.  The article detailed the theories of Wilhelm Fraenger, who believed that Bosch had been a member of the Brethren of the Free Spirits, or Adamites.  I read the words, “. . .  a secret, heretical sect that practiced nudity and sexual promiscuity in an attempt to re-create the innocence of the Garden of Eden.”  At the very moment I read the word “innocence,” downstairs I heard someone on television boom “Innocence!!”  followed by something about sexual orgies and witchcraft.  Holy crap.  The coincidence was so striking I went downstairs to see what on earth was on tv.  It turned out my husband was watching old episodes of Blackadder:  Blackadder, Rowen Atkinson’s comic 15th century misfit, is tried for witchcraft and is being interrogated by the Witch-Smeller Persuivant (that made me snort out loud).  I have no idea whatsoever about what such a coincidence could mean, except that the universe is laughing at me.

Bravo’s Work of Art:  The Next Great Artist

The other day while watching during the afternoon after work, I ran across a rerun of the last episode of Bravo’sWork of Art:  The Next Great Artist.  I’d heard about the show before, and had meant to watch, but I never can keep up with what’s on tv anymore, and it slipped my mind.  I was glad Abdi Farah won, not only because of his obvious talent, but because he seemed more positive and upbeat than the others, with a real will to draw and paint which would not be denied.  One of the judges, Jerry Saltz, Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine, sniped at Abdi a bit for his traditionalist approach (a sketchbook of drawings — so art school; figurative paintings on a wall), but thankfully the other judges must have disagreed.

Reading an article on the internet about Peregrine Honig (I had to look on Google to find her last name; the Bravo site refers to all the contestants by their first names only, demeaning I think), she seemed to be pursuing the same conceptual themes that she has for the last several years:  drawings and prints of people vomiting, and an obsession with a pair of stuffed fawn fetuses she found in a shop years ago.  She made wax casts of apparently purchased kitsch toys and figurines, and used her project money to have the fawn fetuses professionallly photographed.  I can’t believe I read that correctly. The judges went wild over the photos of the fawns, which Peregrine said symbolized creativity and birth.  Miles Mendenhall — an art-school golden boy, having won competitions and scholarships — took cell-phone photos of a homeless man who, by happenstance, died soon after the pictures were made.  Then Miles enlarged the photos until they became completely unrecognizable dots and printed the dots super-large-scale to create a series of visually connected but meaningless abstract images.  He said the homeless man’s death moved him emotionally, but his empty images distanced both himself and the viewer from any hint of feeling.

Peregrine and Miles both seemed fairly ordinary art-school submissives — nervous and washed-out.  I was intrigued to read that Peregrine’s inspirations include the underground comic legend, R. Crumb. He’s one of my favorites, too. I wonder when she gave up drawing, or trying to learn to draw. I’m convinced that most people go to art school for a simple reason — because they want to draw — but so many end up having that simple desire put down until they finally give up and go home, or learn to play the Art Game.   Peregrine looked so sad and drawn. Perhaps the dead fawns symbolized something in her that had died. I dunno. I’m probably going over the line here.

Art Swoon! Bouguereau and Moreau at the Frist

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.

MeSevenI 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 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.

FlorenceMy 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.

The-birth-of-venusI 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.

JasonMedeaMoreau’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.

GalateaThe 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.

WomanwithmirrorI 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.

ClassicNude1I 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. General

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:FristPortrait

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.