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Art Review: Degas & the Nude

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February 12th, 2012

Peering into Women’s Private Places
Degas Re-envisions the Nude

Degas seated, beside a sculpture by Albert Bartholomé (c. 1895, gelatin silver print, 11¼″ x 16½″ [28.6 x 39.4 cm]). Musée d’Orsay. Photo © Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Stepping into the subdued lighting of the brown-walled first gallery of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ comprehensive exhibit, Degas and the Nude, the visitor noticed on the far side the artist’s early foray into the high-prestige genre of history painting, Young Spartans Exercising (1860-62).  A supporting cast of student academies and preparatory drawings adorned the walls around it.

Steeped in the classical tradition, counseled by Ingres when seeking his advice to “[d]raw lines, young man…whether from memory or after nature,”1 apprenticed to the masters on display at the Louvre where he copied almost daily, enrolled in classes where he drew from the nude, and by age 22 ensconced in Italy for three years of onsite study, Hilaire-Germaine-Edgar Degas began his career with a deep respect and natural talent for rendering the details of his observed world.

Upon landing in Naples in 1856, the young artist assumed a humble attitude in relationship to the antique and Renaissance masters he was determined to study; he wrote in his diary, “…I get it into my head that I know nothing at all.  That is the only way to go forward.”2

Several highly resolved drawings in this first of the exhibit’s nine themed rooms speak to the young artist’s delight in describing through line and shading the intricacies of the human form.  In the penciled Standing Male Nude (1856-58), the model strikes a pose similar to that of the classical Greek sculpture Apoxyomenos, depicting an athlete scraping oil off his body following an athletic competition.  Here and in Study of a Male Nude from the same period, Degas used pencil/graphite to sensitively render true-to-life details of bone and muscle, and to describe the individual character of each male model to the level of portraiture.

Apparent in many of the displayed drawings from Degas’ sojourn in Italy (images of which were unavailable), the artist’s intense visual engagement with his subjects demonstrated his patience and discipline, and also suggested his profound enjoyment of the very act of seeing.

Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65, oil on paper, 337/16″ x 57″ [85 x 147 cm]). Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo © Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In the second gallery, themed The Body in Peril, an array of drawings related to the painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65) introduced Degas’s fascination with the vulnerability of women’s bodies and his total lack of interest in their faces, almost always obscured.

One in particular, Nude Woman Lying on Her Back, Study for Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65), drawn in black chalk, exemplifies the artist’s command of his medium.  Using parallel chalk marks, he emphasizes the elongation of the injured/dead victim in a pose that exposes her defenselessness.  In the painting she lies on the mound of earth in the lower left corner.

Interior (c. 1868-1869, oil on canvas, 32″ x 45″ [81.3 x 114.3 cm]). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In the same gallery and accompanied by perhaps only one relevant study, hangs the tension-filled Interior (c. 1868-1869), a masterpiece of narrative art.  The scene takes place in a dimly lit room where a woman sits hunched over on the left, facing away from a man who leans with his back against a door on the far right.  Toward the center, the only visible sources of light–a background lamp and a glowing fireplace–illuminate her white dress, bare shoulder and the bottom corner of her turned-away face.  Despite his cast shadow behind him, he seems shrouded in darkness.

Following from left to right, the viewer discovers:  a heavy brown garment on her lap on which she rests her left arm; a table on which sits a scissor, some lace and a hinged wooden box opened to reveal its brightly lit, blood-red lining–with a piece of white cloth hanging over its edge; on the floor nearby, a white camisole, perhaps the recent object of some mending; and on the bed, a woman’s ribboned bonnet near a coat draped over the bed’s foot grill.  A man’s top hat occupies the surface of the dresser in the background just to her right, on a level with her head so as not to be missed.

He glares at her.  She brings her right hand to her face and presses it against her mouth.  A mirror on the far wall reflects the lamp and the part of the interior within which the viewer stands.  Three framed pictures adorn the walls.

Although some have called the painting The Rape, Degas reportedly described it as a “family portrait,”3 implying a married couple, siblings, or even father and daughter since the age of the woman is indeterminable.  Whatever the precipitant, her posture suggests recovery from a slap, his hat on the dresser that he’s been there for a while, the items on the table and floor that she was interrupted abruptly while sewing, and her bonnet on the bed that she’s not been in the room very long.  Great narratives leave room for myriad interpretations and visitors are welcome to invent their own.

With Interior, Degas crystallized his fascination with women in their unguarded moments.  Whether observing them backstage at the ballet, intruding into their private quarters in brothels or watching them at their toilette, Degas barely managed to camouflage his voyeurism behind the respectable subject of the classical nude.

Degas and the Nude visually documents that particular obsession yet fails to take into account an even more significant development, one that was to have a profound impact on the artist’s subsequent work.  By the late 1870s, when Degas produced his brothel monotypes, showcased in the next gallery–The Body Exploited, the intensity with which he could regard his world was already compromised by failing vision.

Tracing those visual difficulties back to his military service in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, Degas attributed his sensitivity to light to the cold weather he endured there and to the bright sunlight of New Orleans, where in 1872 he visited family and did some painting.  In a letter he sent to a friend from the states, he complained, “What lovely things I could have done, and done rapidly if the bright daylight were less unbearable for me.  To go to Louisiana to open one’s eyes, I cannot do that.  And yet I kept them sufficiently half open to see my fill”4 and to successfully complete The Cotton Office, New Orleans.

Despite his belief that he would eventually go blind, Degas continued to draw and paint and, when he got back to Paris, gravitated toward the comfortable darkness of the ballet and opera.  By 1890 (at age 56) he was complaining to some friends, “I can no longer read.  My maid reads me the paper.”5 Troubled by glare, he also had problems “establishing outlines ”6 and identifying colors, and suffered a loss of central vision.7 In an exhibit where much was made of Degas’s pioneering late work, to omit consideration of this critical variable minimized the artist’s heroic achievements.

The research assistant working with curator George T. M. Shackelford (no longer with the museum), explained this curatorial decision: “…we do not have a clear sense of how much he was impacted by this problem.  There are some anecdotes [that] relate that Degas would complain of his inability to see one moment, and then the next [be] looking at his watch to get the time.  Perhaps because of this lack of quantifiable information about his loss of/or impaired sight the curator decided that it was not a point he wished to make.”8

Ambrose Vollard thought the same and insisted in his Degas: An Intimate Portrait that the artist, “…used to pretend to be more blind than he was in order to not recognize people he wanted to avoid…Immediately after such a refusal, Degas took out his watch and said, without the slightest hesitation, ‘It’s a quarter past two.’”9

The statements of both the curator and Vollard “…reflect the simplistic view that vision is all about acuity and little more.”10 But such a dichotomy is “…not at all inconsistent [with] serious central vision loss.”11 “The fine details of a person’s face…would not have been clear to a person affected by central retinal disease…However, a watch face with large, dark hands [on] a light-colored background would have been easily seen…It’s image spread out broadly on the retina.”12

Dealing with the question of Degas’s vision would surely have demanded a rethinking of his late work, perhaps an undertaking beyond the scope of the exhibit.  But including it would have enhanced visitors’ appreciation of his artwork and opened up scholarly discussion on the impact of artists’ visual problems on their work.

In the mid-1870s Degas produced his brothel monotypes, a striking departure from his early classical work.  His decision to hang out in rooms where women commodified their bodies represented a natural extension of his curiosity about their intimate spaces and men’s intrusion into them.  The dramatic change in drawing style–including the use of monotypes–might have been determined by the nature of his subject matter (hardly academic) but perhaps was also dictated by his decrease in visual acuity.

As risqué as the now extant images can be, even more pornographic versions never made their way to daylight, probably destroyed at the time of Degas’s death.13 In the brothel pictures, any façade of respectability has been giddily discarded by the artist, as he pokes his nose into all kinds of places, wryly commenting on the other men who join him there.

The Serious Client (1876-77, monotype on wove paper, 53¼″ x 47½″ [135.3 x 120.7 cm]), National Gallery of Canada. Photo © National Gallery of Canada. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In The Serious Client (1876-77), a prostitute’s hand clasps that of the customer atop his phallic cane as four ordinary-looking women entice him to sample their wares.  Here Degas’s particular fascination with derrieres crops up–in the back view of the woman reaching across the divide and in the mirror’s reflection of two globes hanging from the ceiling.  The technique has a cartoonish quality, reminiscent of Honoré Daumier’s graphics.

Nude Woman Combing Her Hair (1877-1880, pastel over monotype in black ink on paper, 127/16″ x 815/16″ [31.6 x 22.7 cm]). Photo © Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The attention to detail that Degas lavished on the pastel-colored monotype Nude Woman Combing Her Hair (1877-1880)–bottles on the sink shelf; hairbrush, basin and pitcher on the counter; open draw in the cabinet; towel over the back of the chair; and colorful fabric patterns–leads one to wonder about the effect it would have had were this petite print realized as a grand painting.  In its current form it reads as an inside joke to anyone familiar with prostitutes’ tales of their johns; rendered large it would have become a scathing commentary.

Performing an activity suggestive of a peri-sexual moment, the stocking-clad woman, with her back to the viewer, combs her hair for the benefit of the business-suited man who leans back and casts a wide-eyed, glazed expression in her direction.  His left hand grips either a pouch of coins (payment for imminent pleasures) or an ice pack (cooling for his ardor).  Whichever, the position of his hand on the neck of the bag strongly suggests masturbation.

Degas continued to create monotypes, narrowing his focus to women at their toilette and experimenting with inky interiors.  These prints, displayed in the next room, The Body Observed, date from the late 1870s to early 1880s.  In another section, Bodies in Motion: Degas and the Dancer, sculptures and sketches demonstrated Degas’s penchant for awkward, off-balance poses that border on model torture.  The gallery contained numerous bronzes, all cast after Degas died, and drawings that spanned a couple of decades.

From this point on (mid-1880s to late 1890s), though each room carried theme names, the art appeared in mostly chronological order.  Consisting primarily of works on paper and an occasional painting, the later galleries reflected Degas’s reliance on pastels as he continued his pursuit of women in their intimate quarters.  As his eyesight grew worse, he devised new ways to keep working.  When he could no longer see his subjects, he traced much earlier pieces and reconfigured them with bold outlines and dramatic colors.

La Toilette (1884-86, pastel over monotype laid down on board, 13″ x 117/16″ [33 x 29 cm]). Private collection.
Woman Leaving Her Bath (c. 1886, pastel over monotype, 1013/16″ x 1415/16″ [27.5 x 38 cm]). Private collection.

In both La Toilette (1884-86) and Woman Leaving  Her Bath (c. 1886), Degas comes upon his subject from behind, catching her unaware as she engages in her ablutions.  In the latter image, she has just grabbed hold of her towel and seems about to stand up, fixed in a precarious position she cannot hold much longer.  Degas brilliantly exploits the chromatic power of pastels, juxtaposing cool blues against fiery red-oranges and yellows, and revels in the cacophony of patterns on the wall and in the drapery.

The black and grey outlines in both pictures result from Degas’s technique of pulling a second print from the inked monotype plate, producing a muted echo of the original print to which he could then apply color.  Because of their manner of creation, monotypes can’t deliver the same level of detail as engraving or etching–a suitable choice for an artist no longer able to discern them.

Instead of the delineation of form through line and shading that captivated him in his youth, Degas now lavished his talent on developing all manner of pastel marks and on experimenting with novel combinations of colors, especially apparent in La Toilette in the blue squiggles adorning the yellow drapes to the right of the figure, the touches of blue in the basin and pitcher before her, and the thick white highlight in the red-filled glass jar on the shelf to the left of her head.

The Tub (1886, pastel, 23⅝″ x 3211/16″ [60 x 83 cm]). Musée d’Orsay.

In The Tub (1886), Degas retained the black outline of his monotypes in a pure pastel drawing.  In a tour de force of composition, the artist contrasted the ovoid tub with the rectangular shelf, mirrored the curve of the bather’s body in the copper and porcelain pitchers on the ledge, and directed the viewer’s attention to the woman’s butt with an orange-handled brush and a white highlight in the tub.

Despite his early years of perfect-pitch nude studies, in The Tub Degas’s anatomical knowledge deserts him.  Perhaps he took artistic license for the sake of its effect or maybe the poor model just couldn’t hold the pose long enough for him to work things out, but there’s something awry in the lower portion of her body and in the position of her feet.  Nonetheless, in the arena of color, he excelled with his coppery reds, golden oranges and bright aqua blues.

After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck (1895-98, pastel on wove paper, 247/16″ x 259/16″ [62 x 65 cm]), Musée d’Orsay.

Under the rubric The Body Transformed: Degas’s Late Years, which grouped together work from the mid-1880s to the late 1890s, After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck (1895-98) epitomizes the artist’s ingenious adjustments to his encroaching blindness.  That he could barely see by that time was common knowledge among close associates like Daniel Halévy who noted in his diary entry of November 4, 1895, after accompanying Degas to an art auction, “…he couldn’t even see the pictures he bought…He would lean over to his neighbors and ask, ‘Is it beautiful?’”14 At the same time, Degas could churn out dazzling pastels like this one.

One of many pictures–charcoal and/or pastel–where fly-on-the-wall Degas eyes a woman from behind as she sits on the edge of a tub, leans forward and towels herself, After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck arranges a riot of colors and strokes into vertical stripes of decorative wall panels relieved by the diagonal line of the tub and, going in the opposite direction, a patch of floor.  The bather, centrally located, leans toward the left.

Close examination of the drawing’s surface reveals the inventiveness of Degas’s strokes.  The variety of lines, splotches, hatch marks and masses of color also imply a physicality and tactility in pastel application, perhaps evolving as a substitute for the artist’s lost vision.  Ever the colorist, Degas added notes of cool blue to the woman’s auburn hair and to the red shadows of her back.  A hint of warm yellow in the lower right sets off the steel grey of the tub while a hot orange throw enlivens the blue patterned chaise longue and reverberates where the form turns around the shaded edge.

One comes away from a visit to Degas and the Nude with a sense that the artist, feeling locked out of women’s private worlds, entered through a side door of artistic intent.  By posing women with their backs to him, Degas eluded their scrutiny and spied on their naked bodies with complete impunity.  When gradual loss of vision threatened to interfere with these personal pleasures, he enlisted the power of his creative genius and gifted the world with a beautiful new art.
1 Daniel Halévy, My Friend Degas, trans. & ed., Mina Curtiss, from Degas Parles (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1964), 50.

2 Anne Roquebert, “The Classical Body: Degas’s Beginnings” in Degas and the Nude (Boston: MFA Publications, 2011), 18.

3 Roquebert, “The Body in Peril” in Degas and the Nude, 62.

4 Eliana Coldham, et al, “Degas’ [sic] Visual Disorder: Retinopathy,” Art, Vision and the Disordered Eye (Vision & Aging Lab-Pace Program, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary, 2002).  <>

5 Halévy, 41.

6 Halévy, 22.

7 Coldham, et al.

8 Email from Katharine Mohana, Public Relations, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, January 30, 2012.

9 Quoted in Michael Marmor and James Ravin, The Artist’s Eyes: Vision and the History of Art (New York:Abrams, 2009), 191.  Thanks to Donald Kline (see note 10) for providing this reference.

10 Email from Donald Kline, Vision & Aging Lab, Departments of Psychology & Surgery (Ophthalmology), University of Calgary, February 22, 2012.

11 Ibid.

12 Marmor and Ravin, The Artist’s Eyes, 191.

13 Xavier Rey, “The Body Exploited: Degas’s Brothel Works in Degas and the Nude, 40.

14 Halévy, 69.

Degas and the Nude
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Avenue of the Arts
465 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115

Musée d’Orsay
62, rue de Lille
75343 Paris Cedex 07
+33 (0)1 40 49 48 14
Now until July 1, 2012.

Catalog available.


Work in Progress: Childhood’s Edge

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February 9th, 2012

Razor Blade & Case Finished,
Moving Ahead to the Skull

An updated image of the painting Childhood’s Edge can be seen on the Work in Progress page.  The razor blade and case are finished and work is about to begin on the skull.


Work in Progress: Childhood’s Edge

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January 3rd, 2012

Blade Case Finished,
Now Painting on the Cutting Edge

An updated image of the painting Childhood’s Edge can be seen on the Work in Progress page.  The blade case is finished and work has begun on the razor blade.


Art Review: The Lady and the Tramp

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December 25th, 2011

The Good, the Bad & the Mother:
Images of Women in Early 20th Century
Austrian & German Art

Egon Schiele, Woman with Hat and Veil (1918, black crayon, 18⅜″ x 11¾″ [46.7 x 29.8 cm]).  Private Collection, photo courtesy Galerie St. Etienne.
Egon Schiele, Seated Female Nude (1911, pencil, 22⅛″ x 14¾″ [56.2 x 37.5 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Good girls faced off against bad girls, introducing The Lady and the Tramp: Images of Women in Austrian and German Art.  Displayed on the wall behind the large desk at The Galerie St. Etienne, Egon Schiele’s drawing, Woman with Hat and Veil (1918), joined a possible portrait of his mother and a third ladylike image.

On the opposite wall another Schiele drawing, the euphemistically titled Seated Female Nude, was flanked by other nude images–his own and that of Gustav Klimt.  In the vitrine beneath them, Alfred Kubin’s two naked witches brandished brooms and did battle on donkey and oversized pig in Witches’ Sabbath.

Much of Schiele’s art reflects his unabashed obsession with the erotic potential of the female body, the younger the better.  In this particular Seated Female Nude, the model’s head recedes into the background while her pubis, partially covered by her left hand with its disappearing middle finger, advances toward the viewer.  Shifting his perspective, Schiele could also depict Wally–for a time the great love of his life–with tender respect for her purity.

Creatively curated by the gallery’s co-director Jane Kallir (also the author of the accompanying scholarly essay), the exhibit physically situated artwork to emphasize the split epitomized in the still-current view of woman as madonna/whore, spotlighted chronic male fear of women’s sexuality and illustrated women’s own conflicts about wielding their considerable power.

Past the desk, on the way to the elongated alcove on the left, the visitor could ponder an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner lithograph in which an elegantly dressed lady, with handless arms that meld into her torso, strolls along an avenue.  A man in a tall hat with his back to the viewer enters the scene from the lower right and gazes in her direction.  The print is titled Streetwalker.

Lovis Corinth, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1910, lithograph in three colors, 10⅝″ x 9¼″ [27 x 23.5 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Beyond the Kirchner, on what Kallir called “the wall of bad sex” (when asked about the rationale behind the exhibit layout), men’s castration anxieties found florid expression in Lovis Corinth’s novel conceptualization of Judith Beheading Holofernes.  This is not the intensely serious Judith of Artemisia Gentileschi or Caravaggio but a gleefully villainous vamp with exposed breasts who wields a sword too long to fit within the picture frame and sits on the bed right next to her victim.  The thrown-back head of the poor guy seems awash in blood and his arms extend helplessly beside him.

The wall progresses (so to speak) from there to Max Klinger’s The Proposition (1884) from his series A Life, a pictorial account of a woman’s descent from jilted lover to performer, then to prostitute and, finally, homeless wretch.  Redeemed by Christ, she falls back into depredation, apparently unable to sustain such an elevated spiritual existence.1 In this etching, the nude woman lies stretched out on a bed, one leg extended with its foot pressed up against the face of the overdressed propositioner trying to get at her.  A combination of anger and disgust animates her face.

George Grosz, Sex Murder in the Ackerstrasse (1916-17, photo-lithograph, 7⅛″ x 7½″ [18.1 x 19.1 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Several tamer pictures later, the viewer encounters a pair of blood baths: images of Lustmord (sex murder), a subject of widespread fascination in Weimar Germany following the end of World War I.  “Men’s fear of women was heightened by the feelings of vulnerability and impotence that soldiers had experienced during the war,” Kallir observes in her essay.  “The carnage of combat had accustomed men to violence, and both Otto Dix and [George] Grosz vented their post-traumatic rage on female subjects.”2

In his Sex Murder in the Ackerstrasse (1916-17), Grosz used tilted perspective, angular lines, and clutter to accentuate the organized chaos of the scene.  A decapitated female body stains the bed where it lies, legs draped over a pillow and a bloodied axe nearby.  A large, white, room-dividing screen acts as a backdrop for the corpse.  A man’s jacket and cane draped over it indicate the recent disrobing of the murderer who, in the background, worriedly attempts to rid himself of the stains of his heinous act by scrubbing his hands in a small sink.

Grosz leads the viewer to the perpetrator through his canny arrangement of objects on the table at the foot of the bed, directing the eye up the right edge of the lithograph through the furniture leg behind it, to the clutter on the vanity, and onto the tall lamp with its face-like decoration mimicking the man’s wide-eyed expression.  The culprit’s hanging suspenders, another indication of his recent undressed state, complete the loop by pointing to blood stains on the screen that connect with the dead woman’s right shoulder.  One is left to puzzle out the location of the missing head.

Otto Dix, Sex Murder from the series Death and Resurrection (1922, etching, 10⅞″ x 13⅝″ [27.6 x 34.6 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Not to be outdone, Otto Dix gave the world Sex Murder (1922), one of six etchings in his series Death and Resurrection, which includes such titles as Suicide, Dead Soldier and Funeral.  Nothing subtle here.  Blood streams from the dead woman’s mouth and from the chasm carved into her abdomen, continues in a line to the separation between her labia, and forms a puddle on the bed between her spreadeagled legs.  It spurts from several other wounds sliced into her body.

On the floor in the foreground, a neatly arranged lace-trimmed, short-skirted dress and a brimmed hat, along with a dark-colored bottle, suggest a nonviolent prelude to the murder that followed.  Lest there be any doubt about the nature of that earlier interaction, a black, scraggly mutt mounts a white, shaggy purebred who turns a bewildered gaze at the viewer.

In such images, men take revenge on Judith and Salome, women over whom they lost their heads in the past.  Male fear of female sexual power necessitates strong defensive maneuvers.  Today the burqa keeps women under wraps and in too many places the punishment for adultery is stoning to death, and for being raped, ostracism from one’s family and community.

Käthe Kollwitz, Inspiration (1904-1905, etching in brown on cream wove
paper, 22⅛″ x 11¾″ [56.2 x 29.8 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY

Opposite the “bad sex” wall, two etchings by Käthe Kollwitz pictured a very different female role, that of warrior.  In Outbreak (1903), part of the series Peasants’ War, a woman reaches skyward, her back to the viewer, as she urges on a crowd of peasants brandishing farm tools as weapons.

In another print, related to Peasants’ War but ultimately not part of it, a woman is cradled from behind between the legs of a crouched man, perhaps her husband.  He reaches a long arm down to cover her right hand with his as she grasps the handle of what, on close inspection, looks like a straw broom but could easily be mistaken for an axe or a scythe.  His large right fist rests on her left shoulder and her head obscures his features.  The furrowed brow on her rugged face along with her protruding lower lip express a determination that the man is either restraining or encouraging.  The title, Inspiration, hints at the latter.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer (1913, gouache, watercolor, and pencil, 18⅞″ x 11⅜″ [48 x 28.9 cm]).  Private Collection.  Photo courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Exiting the battle-strewn alcove on the way to a large room in the back where the women gathered as artists and subjects, the visitor encountered two watercolors by Egon Schiele.  One of them, the hauntingly beautiful Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer, (1913) contrasts a pose of virginal self containment with a facial expression that mixes come-hither sweetness (mouth) with only-if-you-dare cruelty (black-lined eyes capped with inwardly descending eyebrows).

The mass of black hair and deeply colored facial features barely manage to draw attention away from the figure’s lower torso, where insistent areas of red, blue and aqua connect with a body-dividing black belt.  Hands resting in her lap, one in the other at the end of curving lower arms, protect their underlying treasure much as the broach on the wide collar secures the neckline.

Egon Schiele, Seated Pregnant Nude (1910, watercolor and black crayon, 17⅝″ x 12¼″ [44.8 x 31.1 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.
Käthe Kollwitz, Pregnant Woman (1910, etching, 14⅜″ x 9⅜″ [37.7 x 23.5 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

In the adjacent watercolor, Seated Pregnant Nude (1910), Schiele presents quite a different view of pregnancy from that of Kollwitz in her etching, Pregnant Woman (1910).  Here, a male artist reduces a woman’s reproductive power to a formal play of circles (abdomen and breasts) and squares (arms and thighs), strips her of individuality by omitting her face, and renders her impotent by amputating her hands and cutting off her legs at the knees.  Schiele focuses the viewer instead on the mysterious black triangle that occupies the space between her legs.

Kollwitz, on the other hand, portrayed her Pregnant Woman with gravitas.  She cloaked her in a heavy black blanket decorated with a pattern reminiscent of a chain-link fence and gave her heavy-lidded eyes and a down-turned mouth to reflect the burden of late-term pregnancy and working-class status.  The bright patch of light that is her neck emphasizes the grey of her face against the darkness of the background.  Her form fills the modest sized space, bestowing on this pregnant woman a monumentality foreign to Schiele’s conceptualization.

Pregnant Woman was displayed in the far corner of the large back gallery amidst images by other women.  To counter the unrelenting desexualized view of women as peasants, workers or mothers, Kallir included several paintings by Marie-Louise Motesiczky that illustrated women’s romantic relationships with men.  Unfortunately, in none of them are women represented in a one-up position.

Käthe Kollwitz, Worker Woman with Earring (1910, etching, 13″ x 9¾″ [33 x 24.8 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.
Paula Modersohn-Becker, Peasant Woman in Profile, Facing Left (1898, charcoal on heavy brownish paper,15¼″ x 13⅝″ [38.8 x 34.6 cm]).  Private Collection.  Photo Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Nearby, in a departure from the bifurcated exhibit theme, a Kollwitz etching injects sensuality into a portrait of a working-class woman.  In Worker Woman with Earring (1910), the artist has modeled in three-quarter view a handsome, black-haired woman with bony features.  The subject’s small loop earring and shiny hair, coupled with her regal bearing, confer on her the stature of queen.  Despite a weariness implied by her lowered eyelid and frowning mouth, she retains a masculine beauty not yet snuffed out by her circumstances.  Neither maternal nor aged, she seems to dare any but the most well-intentioned of men to approach her.

In contrast to the Kollwitz print and more in keeping with the tendency of women artists to rebel against the sexual objectification of women by desexing them, Paula Modersohn-Becker presented for contemplation an old woman in a babushka.  In this large charcoal drawing of a Peasant Woman in Profile, Facing Left (1898), the fineness of the technique easily eclipses the personality of the sitter.

More a type than an individual, Modersohn-Becker’s peasant woman displays little emotion other than a slightly upturned mouth.  Gazing straight ahead, her open eye barely discernable amid the engulfing grey shadow, she is more personification than person.

Käthe Kollwitz, Mother with Boy (1933, transfer lithograph, 14⅛″ x 8⅝″ [35.9 x 21.9 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Kollwitz’s images of motherhood similarly focus on a female role rather than on individual women.  Undoubtedly influenced by her own experience raising two sons and losing one of then to the carnage of World War I, she paid homage to mothers as seed bearers, protectors and nurturers of the next generation.

One of four parenting-focused prints by Kollwitz included in the exhibit, Mother with Boy (1933) expresses well the joy of tending young children.  The mother, smiling face in shadow, supports her child as he encircles her neck with his baby arms.  While the boy directs his attention to something below, effectively turning his head away from his mother, she beams down contentedly at him, relishing the pleasure of his freely given hug.

Otto Dix, Sailors in Antwerp (1924 etching, 9½″ x 11¾″ [24.1 x 29.8 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Too often life circumstances interfere with a woman’s ability to safeguard her children and they are left to fend for themselves like the girl in Dix’s etching, Sailors in Antwerp (1924).  As part of his fifty-piece series Der Krieg (War), the artist here takes the viewer into a darkened room, perhaps a parlor, where each of three men eagerly pulls toward himself a female in a dress.

As the scene reveals itself to the viewer, it becomes clear that while two of the objects of desire respond with welcoming embraces, the third does not.  Much shorter than the five others, she stands in high-heeled shoes while her seated suitor attempts to kiss her.  Turning her head away and looking up toward the heavens, she grabs his head as if to restrain it.

Dix never flinched in his portrayals of war and in Sailors in Antwerp, he illustrates how societal upheaval leaves children susceptible to predation.  Likewise, when women acquiesce to their own subjugation by donning the preferred costumes and customs of their overlords, they abandon their powers of generativity, forsaking their responsibility to protect and nurture the vulnerable who depend on them.
1 Jane Kallir, exhibition essay, 2011, 2.

2 Ibid, 3.

The Lady and the Tramp:
Images of Women in Austrian and German Art

The Galerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019


Work in Progress: Childhood’s Edge

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November 29th, 2011

Crayons Almost Finished
Moving onto the Cutting Edge

An updated image of the painting Childhood’s Edge can be seen on the Work in Progress page.  The crayons need just a few more tweaks, then work can begin on the blade case and blade.


Art Review: Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus

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November 20th, 2011

Recognizing Rembrandt:
Searching for a Master’s Signature
In Unsigned Work

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1644, oil on panel, 33″ x 25¾″). The National Gallery, London.

Glowing under its spotlight, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery graced the far wall of the first gallery, an immediate reward for visitors who had advanced slowly on a snaking line waiting for admission to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibit, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus.  In a large room with no other artwork, the painting showcased the best of the master draftsman, printmaker and painter, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn.

Dark paintings like this one photograph poorly, so a first-time viewer might be surprised at the delicate brushstrokes of pure color and sparkling highlights that describe the smallest of details.  In a modest area (about three by two feet), Rembrandt implies a monumental temple interior by shrinking his figures and staging them at the base of the scene.

Within the area of action, Jesus towers over the men around him, listening to the case against the kneeling woman who dons a penitent face and attempts to either cover her face in shame or wipe a tear from her eye–or both.  The accuser lifts the veil to show the audience the face of an adulteress.  His gesturing hand, brightly painted against a background of dark cloth, directs the eye to the narrative’s protagonist.

Close scrutiny of the faces in Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery quickly reveals Rembrandt’s interest in individual character types and facial expressions, and his skill in depicting them.  That passion for portraying emotions seems to have been there from the beginning of his career.

After his father died in 1630, the twenty-four-year-old Rembrandt spent the year producing mostly small etchings (perhaps at the expense of his painting practice), many of them self-portraits titled with descriptive phrases like: “…frowning,” “…open-mouthed, as if shouting,” and “…laughing.”1 In another one, the artist stares out at the viewer with wide-eyed concern and pursed lips.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Christ and Two Disciples on Their Way to Emmaus (1655-56, pen and brown ink with traces of white body color on paper, 6½″ x 813/16″). Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

Whether in a fully realized painting like The Supper at Emmaus (1648) (shown below), where the face of the surprised pilgrim on the right registers perfectly both his recognition and attendant awe, or in a rapidly executed sketch like Christ and Two Disciples on Their Way to Emmaus (1655-56), where just a few lines convey Christ’s sorrowful attention as he listens to the disciple on his left, Rembrandt demonstrates his devotion to, and unerring ability for, expressing a wide range of human experience.

Just as a person’s physiology and educational background produce a signature not so easily replicated, so too do artists manifest their physical selves and histories in lines drawn and brushstrokes applied.  A quick scan of Rembrandt’s ink sketches reveals the spontaneity and confidence with which he used his quill pen to create an assortment of lines from faint to bold.  His paintings delight with occasional accents of color, lights scratched out of the darks, and deftly applied impasto highlights.  Those marks constitute a unique signature to be sought when attributing work to this artist.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Christ Preaching (1643, pen and brown ink on paper, 713/16″ x 91/16″). Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

In most of the securely attributed brown ink drawings on display, the sureness and variety of line set a standard of comparison for the questionable pieces.  In Christ Preaching (1643), thick lines indicate shadowed areas like that of the small child in the foreground, while thinner ones suggest light in the center of the sketch.  Note, too, the brilliance with which Rembrandt develops composition: a diagonal mark runs from the child’s outstretched leg straight to the top of Christ’s proper left foot.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1654, pen and brown ink on paper, 5⅞″ x 97/16″). Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

When thinking on paper Rembrandt worked with abandon, having no qualms about going over figures that didn’t seem quite right, as with the kneeling Thomas and leg of the man to his left in The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1654).  Those pentimenti (in Italian, plural for repentance) reveal the artist’s process.  One can imagine him loading his quill with enough ink to leave lines heavy enough to clarify initial explorations or superimpose fresh ideas over original ones.

In the exhibit, drawings with titles that begin with “Studio of,” “Pupil of” and “Copy after” lack Rembrandt’s assuredness, economy and variety of lines.  They also fail to mobilize gestures and facial features to convey the emotional expression so present in the master’s work.

After queuing up to examine these small ink drawings, visitors enjoyed quicker access to the works in the next gallery, site of the main event.  There on the right wall hung a group of seven paintings, each titled Head of Christ.  Although all were originally attributed to Rembrandt, some have since been demoted to “attributed to” or “studio copy.”  Dated between 1648 and 1656,2 they depart from the standard portrayal of Jesus in that the models inspiring them were Jewish men, most likely secured from the artist’s immediate environment.

From at least 1639, Rembrandt lived and worked in a house (now The Rembrandt House Museum) in a Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam.  Two years before having to vacate the house in 1658 because of dire financial straits, the artist petitioned the court for relief.  As part of the subsequent bankruptcy proceedings, an inventory of his assets was conducted.  It listed among his personal possessions two heads of Christ painted by their owner and an unattributed one with the curious description “done from life.”3

That the ultimate destination of those three paintings remains unknown has not prevented hoards of historians from weighing in over the years with their speculations.  In Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, recent scholarship combined with technical analysis of the relevant portraits, complicated by the deteriorated condition of some of the pieces, raised questions about all the attributions.

With that in mind, visitors could play connoisseur and decide for themselves which paintings came from the brush Rembrandt.

Attributed to Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn and Studio, Head of Christ (c.1648-56, oil on oak panel, laid into larger oak panel, 141/16″ x 125/16″). Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection.

The Philadelphia Museum’s own portrait seems to embody the best of the master’s touches.  Here the underlying drawing situates the model’s features accurately, unlike in some others where the eyes don’t line up correctly–a common mistake in three-quarter-view heads.

The paint application includes many deft touches such as a brushstroke that creates a shadow under the sitter’s right eyelid.  The hair–on the head and in the beard–reflects the confidence and experience that Rembrandt brought to its creation.  He used transparent darks to define the masses of waves and indicate a few strands, scratched in a couple of lights at the hairline to the left of the part, and produced highlights with a thin layer of opaque color.

Looking down to his right, Jesus parts his lips as if speaking.  His lowered eyelids and slightly knitted brow imply sadness.  Rembrandt portrays Christ with an expression of world-weariness that perhaps echoed his own state of mind at the time.

In another version of the Head of Christ (in a private collection, for which no photograph was available), the artist briefly indicated–in the same dark color as the garment–hands clasped in supplication; the eyes, with white showing under their pupils, direct the request heavenward.

Where in the Philadelphia head the shadow between the lips curves slightly upwards at the corners, mitigating the sad expression, here the shadow pulls the mouth corners down, imparting a sense of despair that, coupled with the lowered upper eyelids, suggests this study might have been for a painting of Christ shortly before his crucifixion.

In addition to being one of the most expressive of the paintings, the private collection version (one strains to imagine it hanging over someone’s couch!) retains a rich variety of brushstrokes and color.  Red in the corners of the eyes, in the complexion and in the lips infuses the image with warmth, emphasizing Christ’s mortal aspect.  The combination of thick impasto in the lights and thin washes in the darks, focuses attention on the exquisitely drawn facial expression.

Attributed to Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn and Studio, Head of Christ (c. 1655, oil on oak panel, 9⅜″ x 77/16″). Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, on loan to Bijbels Museum, Amsterdam.
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Portrait of a Young Jew (c. 1648, oil on panel 9⅝″ x 89/16″). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Germany.

A beautiful painting in its own right regardless of its creator, the Head of Christ from Amsterdam depicts Jesus looking down with eyes almost closed, a hint of pupil peaking from beneath the lid of his left eye.  The portrait contains the same fine drawing and confident use of color seen in the other Rembrandts.

A refined quality in the paint handling, however, differs from the gruffness with which Rembrandt could apply paint, most notably in his Portrait of a Young Jew, on display opposite in the same gallery.  Perhaps in this Head of Christ the artist deliberately suppressed his exuberant brushstrokes to reinforce a quiet mood of contemplation.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, The Supper at Emmaus (1648, oil on mahogany panel, 26¾″ x 259/16″). Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

Before exiting the room filled with paintings, the viewer encountered The Supper at Emmaus, another modestly sized painting with grand proportions.  Rembrandt’s signature touch reveals itself in the strokes of red-orange that define the shirt sleeves of the pilgrim on the right, in the sweeps of grey that create the metal plates, in the red wash that hints at blood down the front of Christ’s garment, and in the light patches of color in the aura that surrounds him.

Dwarfed by architecture suggestive of a holy space, the ordinary looking pilgrims and serving boy contrast with the otherworldly-appearing risen Christ, whose oddly drawn face calls attention to eyes that seem to peer into an ethereal realm.  The brightest area of the composition, the tablecloth, leads to the blessing of the challah bread, while the handle of a knife projects over the edge of the table in typical still-life fashion.

In The Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt referenced the Jewishness of Christ (the challah) in like manner as the Semitic models he used for the head studies.  In the exhibit, earlier prints in the first gallery set the stage for the dramatic changes to come in the artist’s vision of Jesus, as evident in the later prints in the final galleries.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Raising of Lazarus: The Larger Plate (c. 1632, engraving and etching on paper; plate: 14½″ x 101/16″; sheet: 14⅝″ x 103/16″). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In one of those early prints, Raising of Lazarus: The Larger Plate (1632), the barely visible face of Christ allows for a generic depiction of his countenance.  Likewise, the faces of those gathered around him contain few discriminating characteristics.

Rembrandt focuses on the drama inherent in the story.  The raised arm of Jesus begins a curve that flows down through the shaded back of his robe, ending at a darkly inked figure who recoils in astonishment at the miracle beheld.  Bright light floods the scene from the right, revealing the opening eyes and mouth of what minutes before had been an inert corpse.  Christ stands above the action, hand on hip, bathed in the glory of the power of the divine he channels.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Christ Preaching (“La Petite Tombe”) (c. 1652, etching, engraving, and drypoint on paper; plate: 61/16″ x 8⅛″; sheet: 6¼″ x 85/16″). National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Flash forward twenty years to Christ Preaching (“La Petite Tombe”) (c. 1652).  Rembrandt still uses compositional devices to set Jesus apart from others but now portrays him as a man not so unlike those encircling him.  In the lower third of the print the artist leaves several patches of paper unmarked, effectively creating a triangle at the apex of which stands Christ.  The outstretched leg of the seated onlooker in the lower left quadrant, coupled with some hatching below it, leads to a boy who has abandoned his toy to direct his attention to something on the ground.  Jesus seems to look at the child.

The head of the preaching man tilts downward, his humble appearance reminiscent of the faces in the Head of Christ paintings.  The attitudes of audience members reflect Rembrandt’s longstanding skill at using gestures and facial features to portray emotional expression, and his later interest in exploring character types.

The grandeur of Christ in the earlier print, created when Rembrandt was in his mid-twenties, was replaced twenty years later by a naturalism that puts emphasis on the real-life struggles of Jesus and his followers.  The shift seems to echo the course of Rembrandt’s own life.

In 1634 he married his beloved Saskia van Uylenburgh, but their first child–a boy–survived only two months and by 1640, the couple had lived through the birth and immediate death of two daughters.  The next year they welcomed into their lives a son, Titus, who years later would predecease his father by a year.  In 1642, only eight years into their marriage, Saskia died and left Rembrandt with an infant son for whom he had to secure care.

Troubles did not end there.  The nursemaid he hired became his mistress and later sued for breach of promise when Rembrandt took up with another woman, whom he never married but who bore him a daughter in 1654.  The artist had the nursemaid committed to avoid having to deal with her.  As already noted, several years later with finances in complete disarray, Rembrandt was forced to sell first the contents of his house and then the house itself to raise money to pay his debts.4

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, The Hundred Guilder Print (Christ Preaching; Bring Thy Little Children unto Me) (c. 1649, etching, engraving, and drypoint on paper, 11″ x 15½″). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The young man who perhaps had identified with the creative power involved in breathing life into the dead had grown to view the world with a realism borne of serial losses.  In The Hundred Guilder Print, Rembrandt gathered on the right a mass of afflicted humanity desperately seeking healing from their radiant savior in the center of the composition.  On the left, less graphically resolved, stand and debate the skeptics.

Dated 1649 in the midst of Rembrandt’s tribulations, the print depicts Jesus with the same heavy-lidded eyes of sorrow that came to imbue the artist’s later faces of Christ.  While retaining his ability to transform suffering through divine inspiration, the great man now shouldered the burden of repeated exposure to life’s hardships.
1 Gary Schwartz, editor.  The Complete Etchings of Rembrandt Reproduced in Original Size: Rembrandt van Rijn (1977), 8.

2 Mark Tucker, Lloyd DeWitt and Ken Sutherland. “The Heads of Christ: A Technical Survey” in Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus (2011), 45.

3 Lloyd DeWitt, editor.  Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus (2011), x.

4 Schwartz, 9-11.

Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus
Philadelphia Museum of Art
26th Street & Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19130
(215) 763-8100

Catalog available.


Work in Progress: Childhood’s Edge

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October 27th, 2011

Crayon Box
Near Ready for Crayons

An updated image of the painting Childhood’s Edge can be seen on the Work in Progress page.  The crayon box needs just a few more tweaks, then work can begin on the crayons.


Art Review: 19th Century French Drawings

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October 16th, 2011

Ingres & Company
Strut Their Stuff
At the Morgan

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Guillaume Guillon Lethière (1760-1832) (1815, pencil on wove paper). Photograph by Graham Haber, 2011.

Fans of the endangered art and craft of drawing had a visual feast at a banquet laid out by The Morgan Library & Museum.  The appetizer–taken from the museum’s own holdings–was an array of seventeen images on paper (plus three letters) by the not-so-neoclassical master, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of a Young Boy (Graphite with red & green watercolor). Photograph by Graham Haber, 2011.

On display in the Morgan’s intimate Thaw gallery just off the atrium, the exhibit led off with a small graphite drawing, Portrait of a Young Boy, whose subject is not much younger than Ingres was at the time.  Undated, the skillfully rendered profile portrait, perhaps a copy from a print, is all the more remarkable considering that the artist “was a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old student at the Académie Royale in Toulouse when he executed this roundel portrait.”1

Developmentally, early adolescence does not lend itself to such feats of sustained attention and concentration.  Hormones rage and limbs grow faster than the torso, resulting in emotional turmoil and physical awkwardness.  Yet even at eleven, Ingres could skillfully copy a drawing.  His earliest known work, Jean Moulet (1791), obediently replicated in red chalk from a profile portrait by his artist father, demonstrates the child’s talent and the parent’s determination to foster it.2

Born in 1780 in the south of France, the eldest of seven children, Ingres received encouragement and instruction in art at home.  In the same year as that first drawing, he was whisked off to Toulouse for formal schooling.  Chaperoned by his father, who seemed to have made a project of developing the boy’s artistic ability, the young Ingres earned several prizes in drawing during his six years in attendance at the Académie Royale de Peinture, Sculpture et Architecture.3

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Frau Reinhold and her Daughters (1815, graphite). Photograph by Graham Haber, 2011.

The graphite portraits comprising most of the exhibit at The Morgan attest to Ingres’s skill as a draftsman.  Appreciated by today’s art lovers, they held little value for the artist who produced them.  Instead, Ingres aspired to create magnificent, acclaim-winning history paintings, in his time the genre at the top of the artistic food chain.

In pursuit of that goal, the young artist advanced to Paris in 1797, joining the studio of then art star Jacques-Louis David.  Within two years, Ingres qualified for admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, the prestigious school of fine arts.  By 1801 he had won the Prix de Rome, an award that included funding for study abroad in the eponymous city.  Unfortunately, because of France’s precarious financial situation–a result of recent internal tumult and too many wars–the artist had to wait until 1806 to travel.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Forestier Family (1806, graphite). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Michèle Bellot.

Shortly before leaving, the up-and-coming Ingres became engaged to Julie Forestier.  His affection for her is evident in The Forestier Family (1806), drawn for her before his departure to Italy.  Julie’s uncle (left) and her father (right) gaze admiringly at the star of the production, whose hand on the keyboard speaks to her own talents, while her mother, wearing an expression of smug satisfaction, looks out at her daughter’s catch.  Curiously, Ingres depicted the exiting maid (left) casting a mildly disapproving glance at the proceedings.  Despite the de rigueur symbol of loyalty–the well-drawn dog–this graphically celebrated relationship was not to endure.

Soon after arriving for his four-year term at the Académie de France in Rome, Ingres had several paintings accepted to the 1806 Paris Salon.  Undoubtedly looking forward to rave reviews, when word reached him about the critics’ less-than-favorable comments, he witnessed his dreams of glory dissolve.

Angered at the French art elites for their inability to recognize his worth, he determined never to exhibit at their Salon again.4 Deciding to stay in Rome, he wrote to Julie and broke off their engagement; she eventually sent him back the commemorative drawing of happier times.5

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Charles-Désiré Norry (1796-1818) (1817, pencil on wove paper). Photograph by Graham Haber, 2011.

Though history paintings garnered more respect, commissions produced income.  Having already established himself as a portrait painter, Ingres could peddle those wares within the French community in Rome–hence the many astutely observed and sensitively drawn graphite portraits constituting the majority of work in the Thaw Gallery.

Painting commissions followed, rebuilding Ingres’s self-confidence.  By 1814, he was ready to again send work to the Salon in Paris.  The disappointing critical response that followed seems not to have deterred the French aristocracy in Italy from bestowing lucrative painting commissions on the artist.  The ensuing financial success enabled him to comfortably establish two studios in central Florence by 1820.6

After finally gaining the critics’ blessings for work he brought to Paris in 1824 and then receiving the Cross of the Legion of Honor, Ingres resettled in Paris.  At the time, the city of the Salon and the École was home to a crowd of artists engaged in challenging the prevailing neoclassicism of David.

Evidence of that desire to break with the past was on view at The Morgan just a brief stroll away from the Ingres show where, in a large gallery, the visitor could wander among eighty examples of nineteenth century French drawings in David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre.  There, keeping Ingres company, were luminaries from in and out of the French academy.

Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), The Artist’s Left Hand (1824, watercolor with black & red chalk). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Michèle Bellot.

One of the pieces included, The Artist’s Left Hand (1824) by Théodore Géricault, a brilliant painter (think cnt_id=10134198673226914&CONTENT<>cnt_id=10134198673327664&CURRENT_LLV_CHEMINEMENT<>cnt_id=10134198673327664&bmLocale=en” target=”_blank”>Raft of the Medusa) whose life was truncated by a riding accident and recurring illness, illustrates an artist’s passion for his craft.  On his deathbed, Géricault occupied time creating pictures of his hand, the only accessible subject, by tracing and then watercoloring it.7 The act of making art absorbed the ailing artist’s attention, and provided a respite from suffering.

Historically, drawing was used primarily for preparatory studies leading to finished paintings.  When several sketches coalesced into a final version, an artist prepared it for transfer.  One technique–squaring–involved drawing a grid on the finished image and a proportional one on the support, be it canvas, panel or wall.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Sabine Women Intervening to Stop the Fight Between the Romans and the Sabines (ca. 1799, graphite, retouching in pen & black ink, gray wash, heightened with white, on two joined sheets of beige paper). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Thierry Le Mage.

In The Sabine Women Intervening to Stop the Fight Between the Romans and the Sabines (ca, 1799), David worked out his first ideas for the painting, cnt_id=10134198673225717&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE<>cnt_id=10134198673225717&FOLDER<>folder_id=9852723696500815&baseIndex=35&bmLocale=en” target=”_blank”>Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799).  Tacked-on changes bring the artist’s process to life.8 Here the grid might have assisted him in transferring initial thoughts to subsequent sketches.

For draftsmen like Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, drawing was an end in itself.  Known for his splendid académies (nude studies from life) like the example here, Standing Female Nude Resting Her Arms on a Branch (n.d.), he epitomized the classical approach.  Using black chalk on blue paper with occasional white chalk highlights, the artist elevated such studies to a new level.

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758–1823), Portrait of Constance Mayer (ca. 1804, black & white chalk, with stumping on blue paper, darkened to brown). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY.

Early on in his love affair with one of his students, Prud’hon captured the sweetness and youth of the object of his affections in Portrait of Constance Mayer (ca. 1804).  Although time has turned his blue paper brown, it has not altered the magical effect of black and white chalk on toned paper, a technique unparalleled for depicting three-dimensional form in space.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Rouecy-Trioson, Portrait of Firmin Didot (1823, black chalk, stumped and heightened with white chalk). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

In a roomful of great works on paper, another portrait catches the attention by virtue of its solidity and attention to detail.  In Portrait of Firmin Didot (1823), Anne-Louis Girodet de Rouecy-Trioson (called Girodet), wielding black and white chalk, and a stump to smooth and darken, conjured up a moving representation of his close friend, an accomplished typographer.9

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Study for Liberty Leading the People (ca. 1830, graphite & black chalk lightly heightened with white chalk, on wove). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photograh by Thierry Le Mage.

The next generation of French artists followed the lead of Eugène Delacroix who broke from the constraints of the academy in favor of a more dynamic approach to painting.  In his Study for Liberty Leading the People (ca. 1830), the viewer can sense the artist’s presence as he grappled to come up with just the right pose for the protagonist of his great painting, cnt_id=10134198673237674&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE<>cnt_id=10134198673237674&FOLDER<>folder_id=9852723696500815&baseIndex=2&bmLocale=en” target=”_blank”>July 28: Liberty Leading the People (1830).

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Louis-François Bertin (1832, graphite). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photoraph by Thierry Le Mage.

In contrast to Delacroix’s sketch, which reveals his preliminary thoughts on paper, Ingres’s Portrait of Louis-François Bertin (1832) represents the end of an agonizing process.  Legend has it that Ingres, having sketched Bertin in other poses for an oil cnt_id=10134198673226310&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE<>cnt_id=10134198673226310&FOLDER<>folder_id=9852723696500815&bmLocale=en” target=”_blank”>painting (completed the same year as the drawing), caught his subject during a casual moment with friends and knew immediately he had found the solution.

The painting captures the toughness of the sitter who, at the time, was a force to be reckoned with in the newspaper business.10 In the drawing, perhaps done to accompany the portrait of Bertin’s wife (also in the exhibit), Ingres softened his friend’s expression but used the same commanding pose as in the painting.

By 1834 Ingres was back in Italy, though he would continue to move between Rome and Paris as work dictated, and to react strongly in the face of occasional lackluster responses to his paintings.  After one particular disappointment, he vowed to restrict his output to requests from friends.11

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Odalisque and Slave (1839, graphite, black and white chalk, white gouache, gray and brown wash). Photograph by Graham Haber, 2011.

In Odalisque and Slave (1839), a drawing at The Morgan related to one such commission, the viewer encountered the draftsman at the height of his powers.  Fully realized, perhaps for use by a printmaker,12 the finely wrought piece dazzled first with its composition.

In an interior packed with decorative elements, Ingres’s placement of the three figures and his use of one-point perspective draws the eye to the background, establishing convincing depth in a compact work.

Like a classical sculpture, the undulating form and marmoreal flesh of the odalisque’s torso attracts immediate attention.  Her hair, cascading over her left arm, intercepts the feathery fan and echoes the shape of the satin cloth, the triangular end of which points to the musician strumming a tambour, which in turn leads to the man in the background.  His flowing robe completes the circuit where it is overlapped by a portion of the satin cloth on the far side of the bare-breasted woman.  The picture abounds with such relationships and it can be great sport to discover them.

Ingres rendered every detail with exquisite care and took his usual license with female anatomy.  Unmarred by any suggestion of creases, muscles or bones, the skin of the odalisque is flawless–a perfect object for the omnipresent male gaze.

These epitomes of draftsmanship almost took to their graves the skills required to develop their artistic talent.  With the rise of Impressionism and subsequent modern modes of representation culminating in abstraction, followed by exaggerated rumors of the death of painting, academic training all but disappeared.

A few devoted practitioners of figurative and other realistic art kept alive those traditions and today, with a growing number of ateliers and schools offering opportunities to study the way the old masters did, classical training has become a burgeoning industry.  Perhaps not too far in the future, The Morgan will host an exhibit showcasing new master drawings of the 21st century and, this time, not have any trouble finding women artists to include.
1 Morgan label text for Portrait of a Young Boy.

2 Philip Conisbee in Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch, 1999, 25.

3 Ibid, 26.

4 Ibid, 546.

5 Louvre, Prints and Drawings: 19th Century, The Forestier Family

6 Conisbee, 548.

7 Morgan label for The Artist’s Left Hand.

8 Morgan label for The Sabine Women Intervening to Stop the Fight Between the Romans and the Sabines.

9 Morgan label for Portrait of Firmin Didot.

10 Conisbee, 300-303.

11 Morgan label for Odalisque and Slave.

12 Ibid.

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016-3405


Work in Progress: Childhood’s Edge

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September 22nd, 2011

Playing with Crayons

An updated image of the painting Childhood’s Edge can be seen on the Work in Progress page.  The crayon box has taken on colors.  Lettering will be next and then come the crayons.


Art Review: Lyonel Feininger

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September 11th, 2011

Living at the Edge:
The World of Lyonel Feininger

On April 29, 1906, Lyonel Feininger launched his comic strip, The Kin-der-Kids, with a charming caricature of himself as puppeteer and the caption, “FEININGER THE  FAMOUS GERMAN ARTIST EXHIBITING THE CHARACTERS HE WILL CREATE.”  A tag affixed to his ear by a loop of string identifies him as “your Uncle Feininger.”

Self-Portrait (Selbstbildnis) (1915, oil on canvas, 39½” x 31½”), Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Skip ahead nine years and Feininger, now a successful and “serious1 fine artist using oil on canvas, reveals a decidedly different aspect of himself.  No longer the impish uncle introducing his rag-tag crew, he seems to scowl angrily at a visitor’s intrusion or perhaps the adult in the mirror’s reflection.

In a wide-ranging retrospective, Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World, the Whitney Museum of American Art chronicled Feininger’s evolution from cartoonist to painter and printmaker, early adopter of photography for its own qualities and for preparatory studies, and in later years, a proponent of abstraction in the service of the spiritual.

The conflicting tugs on Feininger’s psyche originated in his childhood.  Born in 1871 to a German emigre and civil-war-veteran father and a German-American mother, Feininger spent his first sixteen years living in Manhattan’s East Village.  Raised in an environment permeated by the sounds of German compositions played by his parents, accomplished musicians, by age nine he was studying the violin with his father and by twelve, performing.

Both his parents believed in the power of music to act as a conduit between the artist and a beneficent almighty, a tenet that found its way into Feininger’s art.  He wrote as an adult of his “‘unbounded faith in the goodness of the Almighty’ and in art’s capacity to express it,”2 and he strove to create work in the service of those beliefs.

Frequently left alone by what he would later refer to as his “‘almost hypothetical parents,’”3 who traveled abroad to perform, young Feininger spent many hours with his running buddy and life-long friend, Frank Kortheuer, observing trains in Grand Central Terminal’s rail yards and ships on the island’s two rivers.  They sketched what they saw and used their drawings to enrich the stories they told each other about the two fantasy kingdoms they devised and inhabited, and continued to embellish over time.

A Group of Houses and Figures (c.1949, painted wood, dimensions variable), Art Institute of Chicago, © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph © The Art Institute of Chicago.

Like many a child left to his own devices, young Feininger found comfort in imagined worlds like these, where events unfolded and characters acted in ways he could control.  That childlike delight in conjuring alternative worlds and their inhabitants, “like something out of a fairy tale,”4 animates his most engaging work–the comic strips and early paintings–and finds literal embodiment in small wooden toys he carved over the years (between about 1920 and 1955) as gifts for his and others’ children.

Well into the exhibition and in their own gallery, in one large central vitrine and four smaller peripheral ones, these handcrafted figures populate streets and houses amid other architectural structures, trains and animals.  Here the visitor encounters Feininger at his most charming and whimsical.  Not surprisingly, many of the objects make appearances in his paintings, prints and drawing, perhaps indications of an ongoing desire to find a way back to a childhood paradise lost.

And lost it was, precipitously, when at age sixteen Feininger was shipped off to Germany to pursue a career in music.  Despite the boy’s superficial obedience to his parents’ wishes, evidence suggests some subterfuge.  The facts are fuzzy, but apparently upon arrival, when learning of the absence of his intended music teacher, the teenager gathered up the drawings he had been unable to leave behind and applied to art school.  He gained immediate admission and quickly excelled.

The rest of the story unfolded, though not quite chronologically, on the white-box walls of the Whitney.  Opening in a large room with the artist’s early paintings–his first forays into the world of fine art–the exhibit announced its focus on Feininger’s oils on canvas, which began about 1906.

The tale of the career that Feininger abandoned at age 35, one in which he achieved prominence as a cartoonist and illustrator, remained tucked away in an easily-missed gallery, on the left, of mostly comics, a few cartoons and several illustrations.  For much of his life, Feininger entertained himself and others with caricatures and then, during his first few years in Germany, parlayed his hobby into income-producing commissions from a humor magazine, hoping to save enough money to return home.

Family circumstances intervened and mandated a two-year stint at a Jesuit college in Belgium after which Feininger managed to convince his father to finance his art education.  Soon turned off by the staid academics with whom he regularly came into conflict, the young artist struck out on his own and, by illustrating stories for a Berlin publication, raised enough money to travel to Paris in 1892.  Combining time in front of art-class nudes with on-the-street sketching, the 21-year-old artist ignored the groundbreaking work being produced at the time by Monet and his ilk.

Wee Willie Winkie’s World, from The Chicago Sunday Tribune, November 25, 1906 (Commercial lithograph, 23½” x 17 13/16″), © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Back in Berlin after less than a year, Feininger found work for an American publisher  and then as a cartoonist for a weekly humor magazine.  His illustrations were soon published by others and in 1906 he was approached by the Chicago Tribune to pen a comic strip.  The Kin-der-Kids were born and following that, Wee Willie Winkie’s World.

Feininger reinvented Sunday comics.  He broke through the traditional rectangular frame, filling the spaces around them with decorative elements that enhanced the mood of each episode.  In the borders of the strip of November 25, 1906 (pictured above), roosters perch atop art deco style houses while a centrally located, sideways-glancing sun menacingly flashes its teeth.

In Wee Willie Winkie’s World, a small child describes to Uncle Feininger his impressions of a world where everything in the outsized landscape–trees, clouds, houses and even a locomotive–sports a face and occasionally limbs.  At turns his surroundings amuse, awe and threaten him.

In one episode, Wee Willie Winkie notices a row of dormer windows in a house roof.  To the imaginative child, “There is one tiny garret window, like a squalling little baby, with a drowsy, grumpy old nurse next it, who seems to say:  ‘Let it squall if it will;  I’m tired and can’t be bothered.’”5 Such is Wee Willie Winkie’s experience of adult’s attitudes toward upset children and a hint at what it was like for Feininger when his parents tossed him unceremoniously into a foreign land.

In a Village Near Paris (Street in Paris, Pink Sky) (1909, oil on canvas, 39¾” x 32″), © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

The rich fantasy life that sustained the artist as a youngster and brought him fame and prosperity as a cartoonist remained a vital source of imagery even after he moved on from illustration commissions and comic strip creations.  The pedestrians going about their business In a Village Near Paris (Street In Paris, Pink Sky) (1909) step right out of Uncle Feininger’s imagination and onto the canvas.

By 1906 when Feininger was finally able to afford a second trip to Paris, the garish colors of Fauvism had been around for a while and Cubism was coming into its own.  That year Picasso completed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the death of Cezanne inspired a memorial retrospective in his honor, making his radical ideas about painting more widely available.

Carnival in Arcueil (1911, oil on canvas, 41.3″ x 37.8″), © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph © The Art Institute of Chicago.

The influence of the Paris art scene followed Feininger back to Germany and appears in paintings like Carnival in Arcueil (1911) where the yellow of the buildings complements the violet of their roof tops and of the viaduct, setting up a visual vibration that enhances the action of the paraders who march off the canvas in the lower left.

In a departure from the gaiety of many of Feininger’s fanciful pictures, Untitled (Deserted Child) (1915)–a watercolor produced during the war years–depicts atop a hill three men with walking canes, outfitted in brown suits and turning their backs as they walk off, two to the left and one toward the background, while an orange-colored man heads off to the right.  They leave behind a small, seated, blue figure positioned at the base of the hill, bent over by its contours and the booted foot of the central adult, a reflection of the artist’s position during World War I.

Weighed down by the constant news of the deaths, injuries and psychological traumas suffered by many of his artist friends, Feininger was unbearably torn between his loyalty to Germany and his status as an American citizen.  While some of the work he produced during those years, like Untitled (Deserted Child) and Self-Portrait (Selbstbildnis) (pictured above), suggest this emotional state, others reflect the minimal impact the war had on the practical aspects of his daily life.

The Green Bridge II (Grüne Brücke II) (1916, oil on canvas, 49⅜” x 39½”), © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Feininger continued to labor at his oil paintings and The Green Bridge II (Grüne Brücke II) (1916), a remake of an earlier version, demonstrates the mastery he eventually achieved.  Brush strokes are deliberate, colors are thoughtfully layered, and the artist has fully developed his characteristic style of indicating form with gradations of tone across each surface, dark meeting light wherever one plane turns into another.

Entering the sixth gallery of the Whitney exhibit, the visitor meets Feininger after he joined the Bauhaus, one of many organizations that sprouted up after the war, when the establishment of a German republic sparked new optimism for the country’s future.  His new status as faculty member, with its accompanying studio space, served as a tonic for the war-wearied artist, providing him with financial stability.  In 1921, disillusioned with the Bauhaus’s shift away from nature, Feininger was relieved to be freed of his tedious teaching duties and to accept the appointment as head of the school’s print workshop.

Nearing his fiftieth birthday, Feininger began to incorporate into his paintings an awareness of Cubism and lessons learned about light from his experiments with photography.  In a tour-de-force of color and contrast, the awesomely beautiful Church of the Minorites II (Barfüsserkirche II) (1926) epitomizes the unique qualities that set this artist apart from others.

Like many of Feininger’s paintings from this time onward, the Church of the Minorites II brings to mind the geometric elements and luminescent clarity of stained glass windows.  In this oil on canvas, the artist portrays the figures with the same angularity as the forms of the church and, by miniaturizing them, establishes a humbling effect similar to that engendered by the interiors of many towering cathedrals.  Here he comes closest to fulfilling his quest for the spiritual in art.

A few years later, Feininger painted Calm at Sea III (Stiller Tag am Meer III) (1929), another example of his singular vision.  Using variations on the primary colors of red, yellow and blue, he has taken two sailboats and created an abstract study in stillness.  Indicative of the relative obscurity of this artist, few images can be found online for referencing, providing yet another motivation for seeing the exhibit and/or buying the excellently written and lusciously illustrated catalog.

In 1933 when Hitler came to power, Feininger–despite having a Jewish wife–was initially enthusiastic about the possibilities such a strong leader offered Germany.  After awhile, unable to maintain his denial of the dangers of Nazism, and determined to keep his art a central focus, he sought refuge in a seaside village that he knew well from previous visits.  Though producing few oil paintings between 1932 and 1936, he continued to express himself in drawings and watercolors, finding solace in his peaceful surroundings.

By 1937, realizing that as a modern artist and an American it was no longer safe to remain in Germany, and invited to teach at a college in the United States, Feininger fled back to his country of origin, where he would reside until his death in 1956.

Docking in his hometown after fifty years abroad was disorienting for the 66-year-old adult.  Where once low-lying buildings had brought visual access to rail yards and docks, now canyons flanked by tall buildings limited the view.  In an effort to get his bearings, Feininger once again sought comfort in scenes of boats on water.  Paintings done years later in his eighties have the ephemeral quality of a late Turner, depicting light on water and sky, in search of the sublime.

In the last gallery of the Whitney show, sharing the walls with more familiar subjects were new ones of Manhattan skyscrapers.  Returning to New York seemed to have stirred to life the imaginative child for whom the city had once served as playground.  Like the young child that had been drawn to trains and boats, the now much older one looked up at towering buildings, the new emblems of progress.

In a small and simply rendered watercolor, Untitled (Manhattan at Night) (1937),  the artist places the viewer high above the street looking up at a powder blue sky punctuated with four twinkling stars between office buildings covered with rows of lit windows.  Overwhelm turned to wonder.  Inspired by the Manhattan cityscape, Feininger recovered the playfulness of his earlier years.  Buildings took on cartoon shapes again and in Moonwake (1945), a gigantic figure walks among the houses.

Uncle Feininger reappeared with watercolors done in the fifties of odd looking creatures called “Ghosties” (1954).  Most notably, in a watercolor and ink of Montmartre, Paris (1938), two cartoon characters, looking for all the world like Boris and Natasha of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame, approach each other from opposite directions on a night-darkened street.  One longs to see the next frame of this nascent comic strip.


1 Barbara Haskell, Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World, 2011, 24.

2 Ibid, 3.

3 Ibid, 2.

4 Overheard comment at exhibit in front of The Green Bridge II.

5 Wee Willie Winkie’s World, The Chicago Sunday Tribune, September 16, 1906.

Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York, NY 10021

Catalog available.