FOCUS ON THE FIGURE: The good, the bad and the body

Two Odalisques by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Jamie Chase- Matthews Gallery blog

Two Odalisques by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (left) and Jamie Chase (right)

No matter their preferred medium or subject matter, one of the first things young art students are challenged to do is pick up a pencil and draw from life.

“It’s only by drawing often, drawing everything, drawing incessantly, that one fine day you discover to your surprise, that you have rendered something in its true character,” said Camille Pissarro, mentor to the Impressionists.

Of course, Pissarro had a different idea of what it meant to evoke something’s “true character” than, say, Paul Gauguin. As we discussed in our last post, Vermeer and de Kooning painted female figures in oil to highly divergent ends.

Our FOCUS ON THE FIGURE survey show, running now through the end of December, has us pondering the artist’s eye for the human body. History’s verdict on the success or failure of a particular depiction is often entirely based on the culture that first viewed it. Even in the hands of the most technically talented artists, the human body has a unique capacity to spark fiery controversies. Here are some notorious offending body parts:

SKIN

Michelangelo- The Last Judgment detail- Matthews Gallery blog

The Last Judgment (detail), Michelangelo

Believe it or not, that’s a woman in the image above. Michelangelo (1475-1564) had a hard time depicting feminine grace, probably because he used massive body builders as models. That’s not the reason the artist’s Last Judgment mural in the Sistine Chapel drew the ire of the church, though. Michelangelo left many of his buff bodies unclothed and the clergy was afraid they would provoke sinful titillation. After the artist’s death, fig leaves were swiftly deployed.

TEETH

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun- Self Portrait- Matthews Gallery

Self portrait, Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun

As chronicled in our blog series 10 Women Who Changed Art History Forever, even fully clothed models (with frilly collars) could show too much. When Marie Antoinette’s court painter Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842) dared to flash a smile for this self-portrait she was roundly condemned for diverging from the style of “the Ancients”. Read what one gossip columnist had to say about it here.

EARS

John Singer Sargent- Madame X- Matthews Gallery blogMadame X, John Singer Sargent

Top Paris socialite and legendary beauty Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau couldn’t resist John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) offer to paint her portrait in 1883. When conservative viewers at the Paris Salon were scandalized by Gautreau’s bare white shoulder and bright red ear in the painting, Sargent attempted some damage control by painting in a shoulder strap and renaming the painting Madame X. Alas, Gautreau’s reputation was forever damaged.

FACES

Pablo Picasso- Les Demoiselles dAvignon- Matthews Gallery blog

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) always referred to his seminal painting of a group of Spanish prostitutes as The Brothel of Avignon. The canvas sat in his studio for years before he exhibited it under the title Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon) in 1916. Even after its rebranding, the painting caused a stir because the women’s faces—influenced by traditional Iberian art, African tribal masks and the art of Oceania—were considered savage and their postures barbaric and aggressive.

After the show, the work was rolled up and stored away for years. It wouldn’t be recognized for its visual innovations until later, when designer Jacques Doucet bought it for 25,000 francs in 1924. “It is a work which to my mind transcends painting; it is the theater of everything that has happened in the last 50 years,” Doucet said.

Our FOCUS ON THE FIGURE show features art by Jamie Chase, Kate Rivers, Eric G. Thompson, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Harold Frank, Pablo Picasso and more. Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for more news about the exhibition.

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HOW TO BE AN ARTISTIC GENIUS: Go bonkers.

Gustave Courbet- Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man)- Matthews Gallery blog
Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man)

We all know that Vincent Van Gogh left this world with 1.5 ears and a (probably) self-inflicted gunshot wound in his chest, but when you go on a hunt for the craziest artistic geniuses, the fou-roux starts seeming positively rational.

After all, Michelangelo was so averse to bathing or changing his clothes that his long-suffering assistant once wrote, “He has sometimes gone so long without taking (his shoes) off that then the skin came away, like a snake’s, with the boots.” The Renaissance master would wander off in the middle of conversations and refused to attend his brother’s funeral.

Gustave Courbet went a little nuts after he tangled with the French government and exiled himself to Switzerland, painting several “self-portraits” of bleeding, mangled fish. You surely have to be a bit bonkers to drive so many lovers insane, so Pablo Picasso deserves a spot in the art sanitarium as well. Then there’s Paul Gauguin, who made up romantic, insanely elaborate lies about his dismal trips to Tahiti.

Lesser-known prodigies only suffer more, it seems. French painter Leon Bonvin was found dangling from a tree after a dealer refused to show his paintings. Dutch artist Abraham van der Doort, who was Charles I’s art conservationist, thought he’d lost one of the king’s favorite pieces and offed himself. Dutch painter Herman Kruyder ended it all in a psychiatric ward, and Polish writer Stanislaw Ignacy Witkierwicz fed his lover poison and slit his wrists after the Second Army invaded Poland.

Does true artistic brilliance come hand in hand with insanity? Perhaps to see things in revolutionary ways, you have to take a trip off the edge. What do you think? Join the discussion on our Facebook and Twitter pages, or in the comments section below.

The 10 Artists Who Changed Art History Forever, Pt. 1

Over the next two weeks, we’re paying tribute to 10 painters who changed the course of art history. Our first five picks range from Il Divino to the “painter of light”. Who do you think we missed? Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to join the discussion, and click here to read part 2!

Giotto, "The Kiss of Judas"
Giotto, The Kiss of Judas

1. Giotto (1266/7-1337)

The Italian painter and architect was most likely born in Florence, the city where he would live and work for his entire life. Legend has it that the young Giotto was herding sheep and stopped to sketch the animals on a rock when famous Tuscan painter Cimabue strolled by and took him as an apprentice. One of art history’s most passionate debates centers on whether Giotto completed parts of Cimabue’s frescoes at Assisi. Regardless, it was Giotto’s break from the traditions of Cimabue and his contemporaries that helped spark the Italian Renaissance.

In Giotto’s frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel, the stylized Byzantine figures that were popular at the time are nowhere in sight. His figures are solid and sculptural, their robes draping naturally from their frames. This is a painter who drew inspiration from what his eyes could see. 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote that Giotto started “the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years.”

The Matthews Gallery, Michelangelo
Michelangelo, The Last Judgment

2. Michelangelo (1475-1564) 

In contrast with Giotto, this prolific sculptor, painter, architect, poet and engineer left behind a paper trail that makes him one of the most well-documented artists of his time. Michelangelo completed the Pieta and David before he turned 30 and redesigned part of St. Peter’s Basilica at 74. In between, he completed the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, spent 40 years creating Pope Julius II’s tomb and worked on a multitude of other projects. Even in his time he was known as Il Divino, “the divine one”.

The Last Judgment fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, one of Michelangelo’s final works, is the fulfillment of Giotto’s artistic legacy. His massive figures seem to press from the wall with all of the terriblita (awe-inspiring grandeur) of living giants. Giorgio Vasari, who wrote a biography of Michelangelo during his lifetime, called the artist’s works the apex of the Renaissance. They also inspired Mannerism, the movement that proceeded the Renaissance in Western art.

The Matthews Gallery, Caravaggio
Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath

3. Caravaggio (1571-1610) 

It’s no secret that Caravaggio was an unpleasant guy. A public notice from 1604 accused him of crashing gatherings armed with a sword, “ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” Perhaps that’s why he was swiftly forgotten after his death in 1610 and wasn’t recognized for his great influence on art history until three centuries later.

The artist was born in Milan and grew up in the city of Caravaggio. His parents were both dead by his teen years so he started an apprenticeship with painter Simone Peterzano, who was Titian’s pupil. He moved to Rome in 1592 and rose to fame as he developed the style that would come to define Baroque painting. His figures were incredibly realistic, their skin pocked, their feet dirty and their faces full of emotion. They were illuminated by high key chiaroscuro lighting. Caravaggio fearlessly placed the common people in the spotlight, a coup that would serve the Counter-Reformation well.

The Matthews Gallery, Velazquez
Velazquez, Las Meninas

4. Velazquez (1599- 1660) 

Diego Velazquez’ oeuvre mostly consists of pompous portraits of the Spanish royal family and other powerful and privileged Europeans. It was a twisty play on this genre that would secure his place in art history. Velazquez was born in Seville and educated well. He worked his way up the ranks of painters in his hometown and then hopped to Madrid, where a connection with the king’s chaplain and the timely death of the Spanish royal court painter helped him land the coveted position in 1624.

Four years before his death, Velazquez painted his masterpiece Las Meninas. The painting shows Spanish princess Margaret Theresa standing next to the painter himself, who’s working on a large canvas. In a mirror behind them are the faces of the king and queen. The sophisticated work’s bifurcating viewpoints throw its true subject into question and place Velazquez far ahead of his time. More than two hundred years later the painter’s work would inspire the Realists, the Impressionists and the Modernists.

The Matthews Gallery, JMW Turner
JMW Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed

5. Turner (baptized 1775-1851) 

JMW Turner was known as the “painter of light”, but the artist with the ethereal subject matter had a very solid impact on art history. The Romantic landscape painter was born in London to a barber and wig maker. He showed his drawings in his father’s shop as a young boy, and studied under architects and a draftsman before enrolling in the Royal Academy of Art as a 14-year-old. His reputation swiftly grew, and he had his own studio by 18. However, when he verged away from picturesque landscapes in favor of stormier subject matter, Protestant society was shocked.

In his famous oil Rain, Steam and Speed, Turner depicts a locomotive as a surging pillar of tumbling air with a black smokestack as its only identifying characteristic. As details melted away and Turner focused on the continuous flux of air and light, critics started turning against the artist. An 1802 review called his works “too indeterminate and wild”, and writers were keen to tie his chaotic paintings to radical new political and social movements. Turner became increasingly isolated from society and often refused to sell his paintings, but his work had an undeniable influence across Europe, inspiring Claude Monet and other French artists in their steps toward Impressionism.

Sound off on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest and tell us who we missed, and click over to part 2 for our last five picks.

Top 10 Art Movies, Part 2

Where can you find a character big enough to fit a charismatic actor’s personality? Try looking in the art world. Our final five selections for best art movie present unique challenges to bright stars, and they deliver.

Our picks:

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) ~ Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston were hot property when they signed on as Pope Julius II and Michelangelo for this Carol Reed classic about the painting of the Sistine Chapel. You can feel the actors sizing up each others’ Oscars in the battle of the wills between two of the Renaissance’s biggest egos, and it elevates both of their performances. We know that Michelangelo is destined to finish the monumental project, but we can tell the Warrior Pope means it when he screams, “Michelangelo will paint the ceiling! He will paint or he will hang!”

Basquiat (1996) ~ “No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh,” says poet Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) early in Julian Schnabel’s film. The statement is packed with the sort of hysterical hype that made Jean Michel Basquiat incredibly famous, and probably killed him. That’s not to say that Basquiat, played here with comfortable charm by acclaimed stage actor Jeffrey Wright, wasn’t a top talent. The film’s cast and crew is populated by people who witnessed firsthand the artist’s incredible rise and fall, from David Bowie, who briefly collaborated with Basquiat and plays a fantastic Andy Warhol, to visual artist Schnabel, who makes his directorial debut here. These folks know what made Basquiat and his work so special, and keenly understand the power and vanity of the world that devoured him.

Surviving Picasso (1996) ~ Newcomer Natascha McElhone plays Pablo Picasso’s long-suffering lover Francoise Gilot in this project that was blacklisted by both Picasso and Gilot’s estates. Perhaps that’s because the real draw is Picasso’s (Anthony Hopkins) string of fiery mistresses, played by some of Hollywood’s most beloved character actresses. While we’re meant to focus on the moody Gilot, it’s hard not to delight in the antics of Julianne Moore’s Dora Maar and Susannah Harker’s Marie-Therese Walter. It seems that surviving a relationship with the wayward artist was truly a matter of dispensing with sanity.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) ~ Colin Firth plays Johannes Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson his mysterious subject in this slow waltz of a film by documentarian Peter Webber. Vermeer takes notice of his new maid Griet and decides she’ll be his painting assistant and model, much to the consternation of his family. It’s a careful acting exercise for the leads, who must keep their growing interest in each other bubbling under the surface to make way for the film’s real star: the soft grey light of 17th century Delft. The visual vocabulary of Vermeer and his contemporaries rules here, with characters forever pulling back curtains and pausing by glowing windows. It’s simple, spare and gorgeous—much like the painting that inspired it.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) ~ A self-made billionaire, bored with riches and romance, takes up art theft in one of the best vehicles ever crafted for the suave Pierce Brosnan. Mr. Bond plays Thomas Crown, who singlehandedly steals a Monet from the MOMA and arouses the suspicions of beautiful detective Catherine Banning (Rene Russo). A very stylish, wonderfully silly game of cat and mouse ensues. One lesson you’ll learn: if you steal a painting, don’t hang it on your wall.

Click here to browse our first five selections, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more meditations on art.