Showing posts with label Sisley (Alfred). Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sisley (Alfred). Show all posts

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Purpose-Driven Life

Born May 2, 1806, Charles Gleyre fills perfectly the definition of a late bloomer. Born in Switzerland, Gleyre moved to France as a small child after the death of both of his parents. After a few years of art school, Gleyre rambled through Italy to drink in the Renaissance before spending six years in Greece and the Middle East, including Egypt and Syria. While on this vision quest, Gleyre contracted ophthalmia, an inflammation of the eye that threatened his eyesight for the rest of his life. Gleyre, however, waited until his return to Paris to begin creating art based on all that he had seen. Gleyre’s Evening (later re-titled Lost Illusions; above, from 1843) won an exhibition medal and, more importantly, recognition from the art world. Remembering a dreamy evening he spent on the bank of the Nile River in 1835, Gleyre paints himself as a lyre-wielding poet watching a boatload of muse-like singers float away. Although Gleyre dipped often into his mental storehouse of Orientalist imagery, he had a clear-eyed view of the work of the artist and worked with a pragmatic single-mindedness that became legendary.

When Gleyre’s teacher, Paul Delaroche closed his teaching studio in 1843, he recommended that his students continue on with Gleyre as their teacher. Gleyre ushered in a golden age of the French atelier that would continue with the next generation of Jean-Leon Gerome, Leon Bonnat, and others. From 1843 through 1864, when Gleyre’s eye problems forced his retirement, great artists such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley studied under Gleyre, yet he never took a fee for teaching. Whereas other teachers try to create disciples molded in their own image, Gleyre imparted to his students a seriousness of purpose in the art life rather than a specific style of painting. Renoir loved Gleyre specifically for the free hand he gave to his students—allowing the young Impressionists to paint outdoors while he preferred working in the studio from memory. Gleyre’s Separation of the Apostles (above, from 1845) perfectly captures this sense of teaching and trusting that students will find their own way.

Gleyre lived an almost monk-like existence. He never married and actually saw marriage as an impediment to the careers of other artists. Gleyre literally married his work. Despite the sensuality of such works as La Danse des Bacchantes (above, from 1849), Gleyre was reportedly celibate his entire life. For him, the flesh painted on the canvas in mythological scenes always remained a myth, an unfelt abstraction. Gleyre earned a reputation for perfectionism that many of his students took away from his atelier. The way that Gleyre returned again and again to the same works can be seen, for example, in Monet’s obsessive series of water lilies, haystacks, cathedrals, etc., etc. Gleyre and Monet differ widely in style, but their commitment to depicting a personal vision is exactly the same. Like Michelangelo, one of Gleyre’s Renaissance heroes, Gleyre’s only secret was hard work, free of illusions of an easy life in art.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Maiden Voyages

When Daniel Ridgway Knight’s Hailing the Ferry (above, from 1888) first appeared in public, the gallery owners had to replace the carpeting in front of it, which had been worn out by admiring crowds. Born March 15, 1839, Knight studied alongside Thomas Eakins and Mary Cassatt at the PAFA, but it was in France that he truly found his ideal subject matter—the beautiful peasant girls going about their daily tasks in the bucolic scenes of the French countryside. Seeing Hailing the Ferry at the PAFA today, you’re struck first by its immense size. The two women are nearly life size. You next begin to visually wander around the scene taking in all the tiny details of the flowers and grasses. When looking through Knight’s oeuvre, it’s easy to be distracted by the continual appearance of the fresh-faced young ladies in all kinds of settings and moods, from the active to the pensive, and overlook the amazing technique that built up the landscape they so fetchingly inhabit.

Knight first went to France to study in 1861, returning to fight in the American Civil War in 1863. During the war, Knight sketched scenes of battle and the everyday life of the soldier. After marrying in 1871, Knight worked as a portrait painter until collecting enough funds to return to France once again. Once again in France, Knight became friends with the Impressionists Alfred Sisley and Pierre-Auguste Renoir as well as Ernest Meissonier. Drawn to scenes of rural life, Knight later sought out Jean-Francois Millet, the painter of peasants who would later inspire Van Gogh. Millet’s too-realistic depiction of peasant life had the opposite effect on Knight. Knight chose to concentrate on the picturesque, joyful aspects of rural existence. It’s easy to say that Knight chose the easier path of pretty pictures over the harsher reality, but after seeing the bloodshed left in the wake of clashing armies, scenes such as Girl by a Stream, Flanders (above, from 1890) offered the perfect escape.

After gaining financial success, Knight built a home in Rolleboise, a suburb west of Paris. A garden terrace overlooking the Seine provided material for many of his paintings. Knight even built a glass studio so that he could paint from nature regardless of the weather. Knight’s Normandy Maid (above) basks in the warm glow of the twilight that he applied to all his works. Although he returns again and again and again to the theme of a young woman in nature in peasant dress, Knight does his best to give each of these subjects a sense of individuality. Knight allegedly found the subjects for his paintings from the local population, finding a seemingly never-ending supply of unblemished youth to stand in harmony with the never-ending abundance of natural abundance. It’s easy to see Knight as objectifying these young women in these scenes as mere props, but I think he found a real connection between the blooming fertility of these women and fertility of the landscape itself. In a world in which death had been a too-powerful reality, Knight choose life in all its promising ripeness.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Stop Making Sense

Few artists made less sense yet said more in their careers than Francis Picabia. Born January 22, 1879, Picabia helped bring Dada to America and the world with works such as Portrait de femme aux allumettes, No. 1 (above, from 1923), in which Picabia creates a woman’s face with match sticks for hair and safety pins for eyes, repurposing those household items to create a wholly new way of looking at the human face. Marcel Duchamp hailed Picabia as the individual who bridged Europe and America for many artists as they fled the madness of World War I. Like Duchamp and his other Surrealist friend Man Ray, Picabia lived his life of Dada nonsense, rejecting the world that itself seemed to no longer act rationally.

Like the Italian Futurists, Picabia embraced the machine as the answer to all of the excesses of romantic humanism, creating works such as Machine Turn Quickly (above, from 1916-1918) as the wheels of destruction decimated Europe and wiped out a generation (including most of the Futurist artists themselves). Unlike the Futurists, Picabia knew when to stop, rejecting the dogma of the cult of the machine the same way he rejected all ideology and authority. Picabia actually began studying art with Alfred Sisley in the Impressionist style and later fell under the influence of the Cubists, but shed each of those influences in his personal journey to something uniquely his own.

In addition to painting and sculpture, Picabia wrote poetry, little of which has been translated into English and, from what I understand, wouldn’t make much sense if it was. In the 1930s, Picabia traveled in the French social circles surrounding Gertrude Stein and her literary salon, adopting the difficult, multilayered style of writing that he translated into paintings such as Hera (above, from 1929). Picabia creates a sense of three-dimensionality and depth through the multiple portraits superimposed upon one another, a form of Cubism that “surrounds” the figure yet, unlike classic Cubism, leaves the figure itself intact. Despite seeing Hera’s face several times, you never see her fully at any given time. Picabia always denies you the satisfaction of a connection. Picabia’s life itself denies you the same satisfaction, bordering often on nihilism in his Dadaist rejection of rationality but simultaneously and frustratingly suggesting the possibility of some great answer hidden beneath.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sun and Fog

One of the second-tier figures of Impressionism, Alfred Sisley was born on this date in 1839. Sisley befriended both Monet and Renoir (who painted Sisley and his wife in 1868), painting many of the same subjects as they did, yet lacking the same spark of endless experimentation that those two used to rise to the next level. In works such as Fog, Voisins (above, from 1874), Sisley shows the influence not only of his fellow Impressionists but also that of J.M.W. Turner, whose paintings Sisley would have seen during his time living there from 1857 through 1861. The famous atmospheric fog of the late Turner seascapes appears here in the rural landscape of Sisley’s France, contrasting starkly with the usual Impressionist affinity for sunlight and clarity, a rare deviation from the Impressionist norm for Sisley, who depended on the financial support of his affluent parents through much of his life, a safety net that may have prevented him from flying too far or too high.

Another British influence on Sisley was that of John Constable. In Sisley’s Environs de Louveciennes (above, from 1873), Constable meets the Barbizon School, the generation of French painters painting out of doors around the Fontainebleau region just before the Impressionists came upon the scene. Renoir also painted around the region, attempting to recreate the landscapes of Corot, which must have influenced Sisley as well. Sisley moved to Fontainebleau in 1880, after the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s ruined his father’s business and forced him to rely on his painting to support his family. In Environs de Louveciennes, we see Sisley’s sure, confident touch with landscape, a comfortable type of Impressionism that shows great skill but little of the boldness of Monet or Renoir.

Moret-Sur-Loing (above, from 1891) shows Sisley’s famous affinity for blue skies, which mimic those of Turner in their intensity and echo Turner’s own influence, Canaletto. The light in these skies seems more Mediterranean than French, an imaginative fancy amplifying an already beautiful scene. Sadly, Sisley’s work blends in with that of many of the second-tier Impressionists, mainly due to his choice of subject, which draws too direct a comparison with the first-tier artists of the same school. If nothing else, Sisley’s work demonstrates the link between Impressionism and the giants of nineteenth century England, especially Turner and Constable, proving that Impressionism wasn’t exclusively grown on French soil.