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October 02, 2008

Art Book Pictures Are Fine, But ...

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I have a lot of books about art -- painting and illustration, actually. The quality of the reproductions in the newer ones is a lot better than it was for the old books. Even if the printer was in a back alley someplace in Ceylon, the quality seems pretty good. (Yes, I know the place is now called Sri Lanka or some such moniker. But my choice of place-names happens to be whimsical with a tendency to favor the names I learned when young. Bombay, anyone? Burma? Chungking? Peking or maybe Beiping? However, I much prefer St. Petersburg to Leningrad -- but hey! St. Pete came first, right?)

Anyway, before I distracted myself I was about to make the point that I rely heavily on the color reproductions for understanding the works and to form judgments. That's because I have little choice. Seattle's far more big-time than it was when I was growing up, but its art museums aren't yet first-rate. So to experience lots of top-notch painting, I need to travel to Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington or major European cities. Those of you living in the BosWash corridor really have it lucky if you're art fans.

When traveling, I prefer strolling city streets to museum-going. But if I have the time and there's a major museum handy, I'll step in and check out the galleries that interest me. On my recent visit to Boston, I finally made it to the Museum of Fine Arts. It's undergoing expansion, so I don't know how representative the displays were. My main goal was to see what they had in the way of John Singer Sargent's work, and I had a few other items in mind.

Among the hangings were:


Isabella and the Pot of Basil -- John White Alexander, 1897
This was one of those "other" paintings. I'm pleased that it was on view and not in storage.

Promise of Spring -- Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1890
Boston was the first city we visited on a 16-day trip, and traveling tends to give me a memory-wipe. I definitely saw a Tadema, and I'm almost sure this was the one. A small painting, and not one of his best. Still, Bravo! to the MFA for displaying an artist whose works were laughed at 50 years ago.

A Caprioti -- John Singer Sargent, 1878
I didn't have to travel all the way to Boston to see this one: a near-duplicate is in a Seattle collection and was on display recently at the Seattle Art Museum. This is one of a series of paintings Sargent made on a visit to Capri.

Mrs Fiske Warren and Daughter Rachel -- John Singer Sargent, 1903
One of Sargent's later society paintings. It's a little high-key for my taste, but I was fascinated by his brushwork on the clothing.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit -- John Singer Sargent, 1882
In recent years, art critics and commentators have allowed themselves to get tangled up in pop psychology regarding the placement and posing of the three older girls. This is of no special concern to me because ...

This is a great example of why the actual painting needs to be seen. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit hit me hard because it's huge -- nearly seven and a third feet (2.2+ meters) square. The colors have impact as does the strong value contrast. And of course there's Sargent's brushwork to marvel over.

If you've never seen the actual painting, do so the next time you're in Boston.



posted by Donald at October 2, 2008


Gorgeous, thanks!

Posted by: Sister Wolf on October 2, 2008 5:57 PM

The Daughters is a masterpiece. Isn't it amazing how few masterpieces there are and how immediately obvious it is that a masterpiece is a masterpiece?

Also, my hunch is that despite the size of the painting Sargent painted it at whirlind speed and with barely any, maybe no corrections. There's something about the just right placement of the girls -- he saw something, knew it was right and bim-bam-boom got it down.

Posted by: ricpic on October 2, 2008 7:37 PM

Hmmm... several of Tadema's works would fit nicely in the wall space between Maxfield Parrish and Willam-Adolphe Bougereau-- though he predates both, doesn't he?

According to Wikipedia, Allen Funt of Candid Camera was a serious collector of the man's art when no one else would touch it. Unfortunately, he was forced to sell after his accountant ran off with much of his money.

Tadema is a Frisian name, and those are always fun to plug into this Netherlands surname map. (Pittenger, though, doesn't show up on the German, Austrian or Swiss maps.)

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on October 3, 2008 1:43 AM

Two thoughts occur to me.

You noted the "brushwork on the clothing" in the Mrs Warren. ISTM that in a lot of portraits, most of the detail is the subject's clothing and not the subject.
For instance, this Velazquez portrait. That's not quite so true here, what with the neckline and bare arms. But ISTM (again) that the depiction of the clothing is far more detailed and distinctive than the faces, which are rather pro forma. (Velazquez, though, seems to really get his subject, even if the face is about 1% of the canvas.)

2) You noted that living in Seattle, there is even today not a lot of "top-notch" painting to be seen there, and that you have had to travel a lot. I would say that is true of a very large part of the world. How much "top-notch" painting is on view in any non-major city - Grand Rapids, say, or Buffalo, or Tulsa? One might travel not all that far from such places to cities with great collections; but what about Australia? There can't be that much, even in Sydney and Melbourne, and there isn't anywhere else to go without serious expense. Or South America?

Thinking about it, it feels like reproducible art, especially that which can be digitized, will displace everything else by sheer accessibility.

Posted by: RIch Rostrom on October 3, 2008 1:48 AM

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has four Alma-Tadema's, including Sappho and Alcaeus, which is another one of his classic "look how well I can paint marble" paintings.

The Walters is one of my favorite museums. The collection is only moderately sized but exquisitely chosen.

Posted by: CyndiF on October 3, 2008 10:26 AM

The Mrs Warren one is good but to my old eyes there seems to be, lurking in the background by the candles, Adolf Hitler.

Posted by: dearieme on October 3, 2008 12:00 PM

Reg -- A small point, but Bougereau was born around 11 years before Tadema and died about seven years earlier. But in the larger scheme of things, they were essentially contemporaneous.

As for my last name, it was probably given an English or French spelling based on its Rhine River pronunciation. In German, P and B can be spelling variants of the same sound, for instance. And the "g" probably had a hard, German sound rather than the French soft form. So the family name is probably the same as Pettinger, Bettinger, Bittenger and so forth. I'm not much into Genealogy, so what I just stated is my own conjecture.

Rich -- Yes, the clothing almost always comprises most of the real estate. And in many pre-19th century portraits, a lot of attention was given to the costumes and jewelery, probably at the demand of the client. In Sargent's time, what the sitter was wearing was less important, so he was able to indicate it rather than detail it. How he (and others) did that indicating interests me as a technician.

CindiF -- Thanks for the info; I didn't know that. While in the army I was stationed near Baltimore 1962-63 and the Walters never registered on me. I suppose I was mostly interested in chasing girls and using weekend passes to go to New York. The museum I did visit was the National Gallery down in DC which was a trifle better known than the Walters.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 3, 2008 12:13 PM

If any Alma-Tadema aficionados are looking for a good book of his life and work, I can personally recommend this one...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 3, 2008 1:26 PM

Great Post. I was wondering if someone could direct me towards some art or artist that depicts streetscapes, villages, courtyards, canals, village life, etc, really, anything that has some focus on the look and feel and architecture of urban or village life.

Thanks so much.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on October 3, 2008 3:09 PM

Sargent is an interesting, if somewhat frustrating guy. For example, in one of his late watercolors he deals with the death and destruction of WWI by painting a bombed-out sugar [?] factory. The displacement/replacement of flesh by machinery is actually a very similar strategy to a lot of the Dada painting which followed almost immediately. Not, of course, that Sargent gets any Modernist street cred for anticipating Duchamp and Picabia, but it suggests a far more active mind than he's ordinarily credited with.

My only disappointment is that he didn't paint enough nudes, a lot more nudes. Whenever I spend time with Sargent all the energy and skill devoted to drapery always ends up seeming like evasion, or something, unlike, say the draperies of El Greco or Rubens. (And yes, I know about Sargent's murals, but those were aptly criticized by Bernard Berenson as being excessively 'ladylike.') Both Sargent and Frederick Leighton should have painted during the Renaissance; it would have liberated them.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 3, 2008 10:22 PM


Sargent painted most of his portraits in the Victorian Era. They saved their nudity for the mythological scenes. Sargent didn't seem to interested in the mythology stuff. He seemed a lot more interested in genre scenes. Academic nudes are a dime a dozen, but a good genre scene is pretty rare. I like Sargent for that reason.

I've seen a few of Sargents nudes. There really good. There's a nice female one at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Posted by: BTM on October 4, 2008 2:32 PM


Maybe I'm being unreasonable, but I've been looking a lot at Holbein recently, and that's a standard that only a very few of Sargent's portraits can be compared to. As Sargent is quite possibly as talented as Holbein technically, I can only conclude that he wasn't as interested in most of his sitters, and especially in the physical details of their faces, as Holbein. (Or even as his more direct model, Van Dyke, was.) Sargent's gifts are much more convincingly displayed in his treatment of atmosphere and the unity of figures and their surrounding spaces than in the pure drama of the physignomy of sitters. Hence, I think he had much more to contribute to a genre like the painted nude, in which historically the integration of the central figure(s) with the surrounding space and culture has been underdeveloped, and remains so.

Also, the nude is an inherently charged subject, emotionally, and Sargent's work could have used a good deal more straightforward emotion (even if that emotion was fraught with sexual anxiety.) His various nudes strike me as being more emotionally direct and, well, fully human than the significant majority of his portraits.

Granted, he would have been a less well-paid painter. His early foray into such sexually charged territory with Madame X, which is also, in passing, a jim-dandy nude/figure study of sorts, and which resulted in his relocation from Paris to London, suggests that he would have paid a price in career terms. But we would have had better paintings to look at.

C'est la vie.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 5, 2008 10:57 AM

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