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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MANY LIVES: Early and late works by famous artists

Early and Late Works: Georgia O'Keeffe's "Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot)" (1908) and "Sky Above Clouds IV" (1965)

“When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than sixty years ago—I wonder who that person is,” said Georgia O’Keeffe. “It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives.”

Look through O’Keeffe’s diverse body of work, and you’ll see just what she meant. “Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot)” is a humble realist work she painted as an art student in her early 20s.  She completed the abstracted, ephemeral landscape “Sky Above Clouds IV”, which is over 20 feet long, when she was almost 80. When they’re side-by-side it’s hard to believe that one artist created both.

The same is true for works that bookend any great artist’s career. Constant evolution is perhaps the most important ingredient to genius, as you’ll see in the images below. While you browse the early and late works of four legendary artists, ponder their differences. Does youthful enthusiasm and bold experimentation move you, or do you prefer a sure hand and a fully realized aesthetic? Join the conversation in the comments section below, or on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Early and Late Works: Paul Cezanne's "The Artist's Father, Reading 'L'Événement'" (1866) and "Gardanne" (1885-86)

Paul Cezanne painted “Artist’s Father, Reading ‘L’Événement'” when he was in his early 20s and still partially under the thumb of his disapproving parent. The paper his father is reading—a liberal publication that the old man wouldn’t have deigned to open—and the still life painting hanging in the background hint at the artist’s growing confidence in his chosen path. Flash forward to the radical perspectival experimentation of “Gardanne”, completed when Cezanne was in his late 40s. The multi-layered cityscape would later inspire Picasso and Braque in their development of Cubism.

Early and Late Works: Frida Kahlo's "The Accident" (1926) and "Still Life" (1951)

When Frida Kahlo was 19 years old she was in a trolley crash that left her in a full body cast. A year after the accident she created the pencil sketch on the left, drawing from the tradition of Mexican ex-voto paintings that blend text and images. A lifetime later, Kahlo was still suffering from chronic pain caused by the accident and drawing influences from folk art, but she’d discovered a subtler way to express her suffering. She painted “Still Life 1951” just three years before her death, when her body was giving out and she no longer favored self portraiture. The fleshy, congealing watermelon nestled among fresh fruits says it all. “I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return,” she wrote just before her death.

Early and Late Works: Pablo Picasso's "Les Saltimbanques" (1905) and "Untitled (From the 156 Suite, 16 mai 1971)"

“Les Saltimbanques” is a drypoint that Pablo Picasso created in his early 20s. The group of frolicking figures are characters from an opera-comique about a circus troupe. Countless artistic transformations later, Picasso etched out “Untitled (From the 156 Suite)“, an image that shows a tangle of prostitutes engaged in a very different acrobatic routine. Innocence is lost, but genius found.

Early and Late Works: Paul Gauguin's "La Seine au Pont de Grenelle" (   ) and "Mahana Atua (The Day of God)" (   )

Paul Gauguin was a 27-year-old family man working as a stockbroker and hanging out at the Impressionists’ favorite cafes when he painted “La Seine au Pont de Grenelle”. By his mid-40s, he’d abandoned his family and job and exiled himself to Tahiti, where he drew inspiration for woodblock print “Mahana Atua (The Day of God)“. The artist learned from one revolutionary movement and then struck off on his own to inspire several others, from Primitivism to Symbolism.

How many lives can one artist live? What do you like better, the earlier or later work? Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest and sound off!