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December 13, 2007

Donald's Art Book of the Year

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

"I can resist anything but temptation."

I'm not certain who first came up with that line, though I associate it with Mae West.

Not many things tempt me, but I'll publicly admit that one of them is books. Notably books about art these last few years that I've been blowharding. Moreover, books about realistic/naturalistic art centered around the late 19th century, plus/minus 100 years. Especially books dealing with realist paintings of people done during that period. (That's because painting a person convincingly is one of the hardest things to do artistically, and that's what I attempt when I find the time to paint.)

So I whipped out my credit card without hesitation when I spied this book at the Seattle Art Museum store.

The cover is Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, and Her Son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill by Giovanni Boldini, 1906.

The subtitle "From David to Warhol" is, fortunately, not entirely descriptive. That's because only six pages are about post-1950 portraits, a merciful thing in my estimation. In fact, about 140 of the 205 or so basic content pages deal with the period 1795-1915 and 25 or so more are devoted to setting the scene. Even so, the book's point of view can be characterized by this chapter title: "The Belle Époque: Portraiture at the Zenith."

Most of the major Western European portraitists are represented, along with a few I'm not familiar with. The 13.3x10 inch format is usefully large for studying the full-page reproductions. Better yet for artists, there are a number of full pages devoted to details of paintings; not as good as visiting a museum to study technique, but quite helpful nevertheless.

Here's an example of a portrait and artist unknown to me:

Portrait of Madame Leroux by Jean-Jacques Henner - c.1898

I suppose it can be taken as given that a society portrait is not likely to be brutally honest in its depiction of its subject. It can be interesting to compare portraits to photographs. Still, I'm not particularly curious about the exactitude of the portraits in the book. Most of the paintings are interesting to savor as art alone, not as some sort of social record.

Speaking of things social, I suppose there are folks out there with a Social Conscience who would get in some sort of huff because the portraits were commissioned by rich folks and even royalty. To which I say: Get over it and enjoy the art.

(Science fiction writer Larry Niven asserted to the effect that: "The word 'social' in a sentence negates the meaning of the word following it." Think Social Justice, Social Sciences, etc.)



posted by Donald at December 13, 2007


Oscar Wilde.

Posted by: David C on December 13, 2007 6:39 PM

David -- Oscar Wilde? Yep, I can believe he said it first.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 13, 2007 7:38 PM

I wouldn't be surprised if Henner was aware of and somewhat influenced by Whistler, based on the date, downplaying of detail and near monotone of Madame Leroux.

Posted by: ricpic on December 13, 2007 9:40 PM

I've read about Consuelo Vanderbilt, in some book or other on American heiresses marrying British titles around the turn of the last century. If she seems to have an unusually long neck in the portrait on the cover of your art book, Donald, it's because the artist was being true to life. Judging by her photographs, she really did have a neck as long as the portrait shows. Perhaps the interesting point is that the artist didn't attempt to hide or disguise that unusual feature, but simply painted her as she was.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on December 14, 2007 3:37 AM

Great so none of my social diseases are diseases?

Posted by: J. Goard on December 14, 2007 9:24 AM

Looks like a beautiful book!

You've got me thinking about something that's puzzled me for years. It seems like many people, including many intellectual/professorial/artworld people have no trouble with glamor photography: ads, Hollywood portraits, etc. It seems to be generally accepted as a fine thing to do, the Hollywood portraits from the studio years are seen as fab and elegant, Annie Liebovitz is quite the presence on the NYC art world scene ... No one seems to have to apologize for digging, in a straightforward manner, glamor photography.

But where painting is concerned the same (or at least similar) people seem to have grave reservations. Sargeant -- "well, he was just doing glamor/society portraits. Where's the truth?" That kind of thing. As though the only kind of painting-of-the-rich-and-famous that's of real worth is stuff that's Goya-esque, harsh and critical, or at least in which we can discern something (anything!) subversive and disrespectful.

Weird, no? Why are the attitudes different where photography and painting go? If it's OK to celebrate George Hurrell as a great glamor photographer, and it's OK to straightforwardly enjoy his work, why shouldn't Sargeant and other glamor painters be celebreated and enjoyed similarly?

Is it because painting is still thought of as an innately deeper, more substantial, potentially "greater" medium than photography?

Incidentally, I'm not as up to date on artworld attitudes these days as I once was. For all I know, people in the artworld are coming around to a more open point of view on this matter ... As always, eager to learn.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 14, 2007 11:25 AM

Michael -- Hmm. I hadn't thought of the photography angle. Richard Avedon comes to mind. And there's a new book out with Slim Aaron's pix of swimming pools & owners. I've seen it on the shelves and the WSJ mentions it in their holiday books review today.

As for painting, there was a spell especially during the Great Depression when proletarian stuff was Good and the rich were hated, not just envied. That mindset might have been carried through since then by painters, critics, etc. who wanted/needed to maintain their lefty cred. There can be a lot of inertia for some ideas. But this is total speculation on my part. Friedrich is the guy with Deep Thoughts on such matters.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 14, 2007 12:49 PM

A few thoughts rattling around in my head:

- While the portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt may be true to life, the proportions of the figure in the portrait of Madame Leroux by Jean-Jacques Henner don't quite sit properly with me. Her hands seem too small for the length of her arms, and how much of her figure is clothes and how much is her, for some reason, I feel a bit uneasy about. She doesn't seem to articulate quite convincingly--is she standing on both feet or what? I know many society portrait painters reduce the size of the head to anchor the image on the bulk of the body, and play other games like making hands long and aristocratic, but such distortions at least occasionally bother me. Like here. Very nice subdued color scheme, of course.

- Too bad we weren't around to take advantage of the proletarian fashion in art; we could have picked up John Singer Sargent paintings (which were quite expensive around 1900-1910) for a few thousand dollars in the mid-1930s. His reputation almost completely disintegrated on his death, and stayed down for probably 30-40 years. So much for "objective" standards in art.

- An explanation for the changing view of social class in art: prior to the consolidation of the New Deal state in WW2, the New Middle Class Progressives (professionals, university professors, government bureaucrats, art critics) were aggressive about challenging the power of the industrial capitalists. (They were a new group on the make, after all.) These New Middle Class intellectuals were most aggressive in attacking the place of the industrial rich at the top of the prestige order of society (since they wanted to knock them out their place in the food chain and take their place.) When they had securely replaced the industrial rich at the top of society in the post-Industrial era towards the end of the 20th Century, it became okay to like society portraiture again, both painted and photographic. After all, it now showed the correct elite...!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 14, 2007 1:39 PM

I think Madame Leroux's portrait is beautiful. I think portraiture from that era is all pretty cool---some of my most favorite art. The colors---whether bright or monotone, the brush strokes, the composition. I dig it. Neat book.

Posted by: annette on December 14, 2007 2:58 PM

Friedrich -- Thanks for mentioning the arm business in the Madame Leroux portrait (in the book, the painting is truncated just below the bracelet).

It seems that Ingres did a lot of arm-distortion too in his portrait work.

And fashion illustration, back in the day before photography took over, had a convention that a full female figure be one head taller than the norm of 7 to 7 1/2 heads tall.

For some reason, for art to "look realistic" or "natural" there needs to be a whiff of exaggeration. But perhaps Ingres and Henner pushed too hard.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 14, 2007 3:51 PM

It is interesting that a book that one presumes to be written and produced in recent years retreads familiar territory, the Belle Epoque, and shows intellectual laziness in not exploring the work of contemporary portrait painters, of whom there are many, labouring away these days.
May I bring to your attention the work of a very much alive contemporary painter who makes wonderful portraits - Kathryn Jacobi (currently residing and working in Santa Monica, showing at Jan Baum Gallery in L.A. and at LACDA. Website - .
The painting by Henner of Madame Leroux is amazing. Here is a solemn looking woman, fully dressed in matronly black, cradling what appears to be a 7 months pregnant belly - or so it appears. This somber portrait is ever so much more compelling than any of Boldini's chocolate-box attennuated and glamorous beauties, who really are interchangeable and represent not individual but type.
A boook like this is certainly seductive and attractive to own, but does it really further discussion on portraiture, photographic, painted, sculpted? Check out Jerome Witkin's portraits -they are a tour de force of painter's ideas and methodology - and they certainly don't leave one cold and unaffected. G

Posted by: Gabriella Morrison on December 14, 2007 4:20 PM

Our olde friend Oscar Wilde, in "Lady Windermere's Fan"

Same guy who on his deathbed said something like, Either this wallpaper goes, or I do!

Posted by: Glenn Abel on December 14, 2007 6:28 PM

"...shows intellectual laziness in not exploring the work of contemporary portrait painters..."

Probably not "intellectual laziness" but economic rationality. The book-buying public is not interested in paying out good money for the "intellectual" productions modern and contemporary artists, generally speaking.

I was in a barber shop the other day. They had a bunch of magazines, including one thick glossy thing full of contemporary art. There was not one thing in it I would look at twice. I am happily unintellectual in my art appreciation, along with most people out here in the middle of the country. Bravo to the publishers of this book for finding something worth looking at to publish.

Posted by: Lexington Green on December 15, 2007 1:41 PM

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