Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

August 14, 2017

Categorically Speaking

We love categories. As soon as we have a group of things we set about splitting them in to sub categories. Painters and paintings are no exception to this, problems arise however when the categories overlap or combine in varying proportions.

For a painting you might have categories of style, genre, medium or subject. So you can have an Expressionist portrait, a Classical, a Formal, an Impressionist, or even an Abstract portrait. Worse your Impressionist portrait might have Expressionist elements and even “lean” towards abstraction.

Historical categories are pretty straightforward. Time is linear and we can arrange our artists and their works roughly in a row like beads on a string. Difficulties arise however when we try to arrange the other possible properties of paintings upon our temporal necklace. A renaissance painting might have what in a later age we would now call Expressionist virtues. Due to the directional nature of time however we cannot allow that artist to be expressionist as Expressionism didn’t exist in the artists era.

Impressionism is particularly tricky. There are impressionistic passages in most representational paintings as it is nigh on impossible to to convey all the details in a scene so some reliance must be placed upon the viewers eye filling in the details. Artists realised well before the time of Monet that indeterminate areas added to the mystery and mood of a painting.

The difficulties might, I innocently thought,  be best shown best in a diagram.  I’m sure your excitement is unbounded by the thought of pie charts, but I have gone for that old favourite the Venn Diagram.

Diagram

This was just a dry run… so the categories themselves are arguable. It does immediately point out a problem: Are there any pure paintings that fall into the sections where the wording is? The most likely candidate is Abstract I suppose, but you could argue that there is expression in all art. So there are no paintings at all in any of the lettered segments or indeed any of the areas that don’t overlap the Abstract circle. My heart sank when I realised that most segments had no paintings in at all. A little more thought gave me the worrying conclusion that potentially none of the segments at all had any pictures in them…

So my diagram is an abject failure! You don’t seem to be able to have a picture that has only one attribute or indeed a picture that has all or a majority of them. In a way I am delighted as it shows that anyone who bandies about the word “pure” in association with such intangible subjective qualities has like me possibly not thought about the terms or the logical consequences to any degree.

I don’t have any solution to this conundrum, you can chop and change the categories, but always the same problem seems to occur. A work of art cannot contain just one of any set of attributes or indeed all of any set either. I lean towards concluding that trying to label different paintings and sort them into neat piles that have any worthwhile significance by using such terms is a meaningless activity. On the upside it means we may be able to forget about “curation” in those areas as it seems you could as well choose pictures by sticking photos on a wall and throwing darts whilst blindfolded, then make up a story about your choices afterwards. Wait a sec someone is trying to talk to me… “What do you mean, that’s how curators do it already…” “Ah right… I see…just goes to show how innocent I am of the finer points of the uber art of curation.”

It also makes me suspect that when people say painting or its brush marks are so “expressive” are not saying anything of any great consequence. If you said the same thing in slightly different terms the result might be rather insulting, “Oh your painting is so swishy and careless!” doesn’t have the same flatter value as, “Oh your painting is so expressive and free!”.

Oh well, now for some bits of plant fibre that I have carefully dirtied…

Beer, Devon, plein air, oil painting

This is a flying visit to Beer in Devon, I hadn’t really appreciated how near Devon is to me before! Lovely hazy light and lots to paint in the way of fishing boats.  I only did little 8in by 6in as I was very pressed for time. Oils.

Beer, Devon, Plein air, oil painting, fishing boat

I was lucky here, I had just set up and a boat came in. People wonder how you get something down like this when it is only there briefly. The answer is, I cheat! I very rapidly outlined the basic shape and size in a few strokes and then added stick men as they set about hauling it up the beach. I then painted the cliffs, sea and beach. Only with that all done did I decamp up to the top of the beach and do the details of the boat. It isn’t even the boat that came in as that one was between two others so I couldn’t see it from the side! 6in by 8in Oils

Lyme Regis, Dorset, oil painting

After going to Axminster to buy tools I had time to go to Lyme Regis. I rather over optimistically started a 10in by 20in but soon realised time, tide and sunlight were not in my favour. So this is a mostly a studio picture painted over the top of a plein air. Not quite finished yet as I want to glaze the buildings back a bit. Oils

Dorset, Okeford Fitzpaine, plein air, Dorset, oil painting

This is the road fro Okeford Fitzpaine near to where I live. I have frequently thought this little view was paintable and the great oak tree a marvel. The only problem being a fast road and narrow verges… I did this by wedging myself almost in the hedge. Even so the traffic was uncomfortably close especially when it consists of tractors pulling huge spiky, sticky out raking machines. Actually a fairly easy picture to paint as it consists of very few tones. I might do another with a cyclist rather than a car. You have to have something there to explain the hugeness of the tree and provide a focus. 12in by 10in Oils.

Win Green, bowl barrow, Dorset, Cranbourne Chase, plein air, oil painting

Up just after dawn to paint this. I misjudged where the sun would rise so elsewhere would probably been better.. This is Win Green the highest point of the Cranborne Chase. The clump of trees stands on an ancient bronze age bowl barrow. Just had to go for it here as the light was racing. I only was painting for 20 minutes but even in that short time everything was different. I have since softened the light effect to make it less cartoony. 14in by 10in Oils.

Win Green, plein air, dorset, oil painting

An even quicker one from Win Green! The shadows were moving so quickly I had no time at all. 15minutes and that was it. 7in by 5in Oils

Rawlesbury Camp, water colour, painting, Dorset

We have had very wet days so I did a couple of studio watercolours. This is Rawlsbury Camp which always looks lovely in evening light. 16in by 8in Watercolour.

Corfe castle, Dorset, watercolour, painting

One of the “standard” views of Corfe. I think I will go back here in the autumn as it is all bit too picture booky in the summer on a lovely day. 12in by 5in watercolour.

Corfe, Dorset, Castle, pen and ink, drawing

More Corfe, I have walked all sides but the East now. Pen and Ink.

Swanage, pen drawing, Dorset

Swanage on the same day. It was very jolly as they were having a pirate festival. Pirates all wear eyeliner nowadays for which I blame Mr Depp.

Bayeux, Normandy, pen and ink, drawing

Lastly an orphaned pen sketch that has been waiting for its foreground to be completed. This is Bayeux.

June 5, 2017

Innocent X by Velasquez

Filed under: Art History,Italy,Painting,Portraits,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 1:43 pm

I intend to do a series of posts on paintings that knocked my socks off and thereby influenced me. Some famous others less so. I start with a famous one…

A decade or so ago I had a job painting a ceiling in Rome… no not that one, the ceiling of the Hard Rock Cafe which I had to cover in flying rock stars reimagined as cherubs. Working in Italy was great fun, the builders after initially being a little suspicious called me “Maestro” and brought me lovely coffees and treats. So I spent several weeks lying on on my back up on a scaffold tower being wheeled about by my long suffering helper Paul. In Italy work starts early but finishes at 4pm which gave me ample free time to float about Rome painting and looking at all the wonders.

One of those visits was to the Palazzo Doria Pamphili. I am embarrassed now by my ignorance, but I had not heard of it. I had just visited the Pantheon which was bombed out by hoards of tourists and was wandering home when I saw the sign and the entrance. It had that grand palazzo thing where you ascend a stone staircase to the piano nobile. To my surprise I was one of only a few visitors so could wonder around in peace. The place is absolutely stuffed full of paintings and every square inch frescoed and tromped. There are a many wonderful pictures, but I was after several rooms astounded by how much really bad painting had been done over the centuries! On average the decorative painting was better than the stuff in frames.

So I wasn’t prepared when I entered a fairly small room and there it was. I had no idea that the picture was there so it hit me right between the eyes. To say the painting had presence was an understatement. I nearly said, “Whoops, excuse me!” And tiptoed out again.

The picture of course is Velesquez’s great painting of Innocent X.

Velasquez, portrait, Rome, painting

A few details, painted about 1650 and 141in by 119in. The Pope was apparently suspicious of painters in general and Velasquez in particular and reluctant to be painted. He got Velasquez to paint his barber first to check him out. I suspect he was mainly concerned how any picture might reflect on his perception by others. In the event the picture was kept private by the subject in his own lifetime. There are two other versions that are probably studies. We don’t know but presumably these were done from life. There is an amazing consistency between all three in the likeness. Here are the other two:

Velasquez, Innocent X, portrait

This one is just a head study and is in the Washington Met.

Velasquez, Pope, Innocent X, painting, portrait

This is a head and shoulders and is in Apsley House in London

Though the studies are wonderful they don’t have quite the impact of the Rome picture. This is perhaps because of Velasquez brilliant structuring of the larger picture. Side to side the figure only just fits, indeed the paper held by the Pontif which holds the artist’s signature is cropped by the frame. The gilt work frame of the chair is broken by the Innocent’s head which both places the head in 3d space and anchors it in two dimensions. The background is an indeterminate russet then the chair fabric is a tad redder and then finally the Pope’s vestments a brighter red still. This progression pushes the figure towards us. All three reds are much the same in general hue which in turn gives harmony and subtlety.

The white of the rest of the vestments is where I feel Velasquez has had to work hard, I suspect they got painted and repainted a fair few times. The brief crisp shadow of the red papal fanon on the white makes the pope’s upper torso appear the float. The clever shadow of the right hand and the arm of the chair fixes the casually posed hand in space. There is the merest hint of lace to suggest opulence but not excess.

The hands describe a man who is relaxed. We cannot somehow imagine them fidgeting. They rest imperturbably on the fore-square arms of the gilded but rather severely formed chair.

Velasquez, Innocent X, Pope, Portrait

So to the head. Innocent was a lawyer and had been a representative abroad to both France and Spain for previous pontiffs. Here is a face that has seen much and would be hard to surprise. Worldly, he had a mistress, but not prone to any excesses although occasionally cruel and capricious he was a politician through and through.  He was not I suspect much of an art fan. Although Bernini was closely associated with Innocent’s enemies the Barberini he was left in charge of the works in St Peters and did a fine bust of Innocent. So although reportedly paranoid and suspicious, a calculating, worldly and pragmatic man. Velasquez catches this by having the head held forward little, not tense but wary. The eyes consider us with, if we can believe the mouth, a wry edge of amusement.

There is tremendous control of the edges. The hat is sharp and cuts across the forehead except as it approaches the ear where it is softened by hair. To the right of the brow there is a darkening of the gilt of the chair to pull the head forward. The line of the cheek is softened and wonderfully subtle. The shape of the chin is hidden by the Pope’s wispy beard. The collar cuts the neck sharply tone wise but the drawing indicates it is softly turned. The ear is strongly lit and describes the very slight turn of the head towards us. Velasquez has arranged it so the the eyes are turned further still which gives animation to the  square on pose of the body.

The features in themselves are ordinary, the fleshy nose the wispy beard, Velasquez has made no attempt to flatter. There is no real record of the Pope’s reaction to the painting, though rumour has it he commented, “It is all too true.” In any case the picture was hung in his family home where it still is today.

Finally a detail of the Washington study.

Velasquez, InnocentX, portrait, detail

Many layers of refinement are visible but the whole remains fresh. He decides what should be clear and what obscure what marks of making should appear and which blended.

For the sake of interest here is Bernini’s bust of Innocent.

Bernini, Innocent X, Sculpture, marble

He is given a more youthful air, Bernini hopes to flatter I suspect. This bust also stayed in the Palazzo and was not for public consumption.

Another by Alessandro Algardi who was Innocent’s favoured artist:

Alessandro Algardi, bust, sculpture, Innocent X, bronze

This image was I suspect more how Innocent preferred to imagine himself, more in the mode of an apostle weighed down by his office.

Algardi also got to do the official sculpture:

Alessandro Algardi, statue, Innocent X

Now this one was definitely for public consumption!

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