Thursday, August 1, 2013

Château-Thierry: The Place, the Subject, and the Picture

In the previous post, “Stories, Pictures, and Life,” I asked you to examine two paintings by William Glackens: Sketch for Chateau Thierry and Chateau Thierry.

Let’s look at them:

Glackens, Sketch for Chateau Thierry, Oil on panel, 1906, © Courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections, San Marino, California.



Glackens, Chateau Thierry, Oil on canvas, 1906, © Courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections, San Marino, California.


Several differences exist between the Sketch for Chateau Thierry and Chateau Thierry. Most conspicuous: the omission of the central French flag flying from the pole tilting right. More subtle: the two figures walking across the path (said to be Glackens and his wife Edith) are further apart in the painting, their bodies more lithe and fluid. The bathing suit worn by Glackens is dark blue with white stripes in the painting and red in the sketch. The figure about to dive from the bank (said to be Alfred Maurer) wears a dark blue bathing suit in the sketch and a red one in the painting. The figure to his left, diving into the river, is caught in the act of diving—almost airborne. In the sketch, he is barely visible—as if Glackens used Alfred Maurer twice or even three times if you add the figure balancing on the makeshift diving board. The atmospheric bank of houses across the river, a crenelated band of soft, lumpy grays becomes, in the painting, light/dark rectilinear blocks that move subtly forward and back in space.

However, illumination and spaciousness are the major differences in the two pictures.  The painting, more muted in tonality, has a centered glow of light that creates luminosity absent from the sketch.  This luminosity has a pearlescent quality as it delineates muscle on the figures, ripples in the water, and the edges of boat sails.  It also creates a gentle glow of windows in the buildings across the river and the clouds in the sky.

We know Glackens, his wife Edith Dimock, and their friend, the artist Alfred Mauer, visited Château-Thierry, a town sixty miles east of Paris.

My point: no matter what we know or do not know about Château-Thierry, the place, what Glackens experienced and expressed in his painting is recorded in his picture.  If we want to know what he discovered, what must we do first?

Really, I am asking you to answer this question.  What must we do first?

I’ll wait.

Look at it. 

We must look at the picture.

Does that still sound silly to you?  It should not.  We must look at the picture, apply the tools that help you uncover the art in it, and see what we see.

Here it is upside down:



Notice how the left side of the inverted picture contains 5 diagonal bands that push to the right. Their generally gray tonality sets off small, light, active color units that move up and down and, in the case of the diving board, create a contrasting thrust to the left and into deep space.

On the right side of the inverted picture, the black, dark gray mass consisting of figures, red-striped umbrella, and foliage pushes forward as the diagonal bands slide behind. That entire right side acts as a repoussoir, enhancing the orchestration of lively, active color units cavorting in atmospheric receding space. These adjustments to the sketch eliminate the need for the second flagpole and flag.
Notice how the dark-gray turreted building rises upward as deep space recedes behind it.  Notice how each illuminated figure walks, stands, bends, or balances in ample space. 

Follow the left thrust of the flagpole, to the left thrust of the fishing pole, to the countering thrusts of the makeshift diving board and the black ropes that set off the swimming area. Notice how they orchestrate space.

Here it is right side up again:

The complexity and subtlety of the space composition accentuates the activity of the figures. The dark/light contrasts interspersed with the deep reds (the stripes on the umbrella to the left; the red stripe of the flag; the deep red of the man’s shirt as he leans on the rail and the arc of the ribbon on his hat; and the two figures with their red swim trunks) act as sense focalizing units, moving our eye in and out, back and forth, in a light, staccato movement.
No accident, this. 

In 1906, Glackens made use of Manet’s flattening of volumes, simplifying of drawing, and the “flat, crisp, quickly and deliberately brushed-on strokes” Manet employed (see Violette de Mazia, “The Case of Glackens vs. Renoir,” p. 21).  For example, look at Manet’s Tarring the Boat:

Manet, Tarring the Boat, 1873, Barnes
Yet, even here, when Glackens early work did not exhibit numerous influences from other sources, and his color scheme of grayish blues, blacks, and browns, show his obvious indebtedness to Manet, Glackens’ brushwork and, therefore, his figures, are more active.

Look at these details:


Glackens’ figures are lighter. The brushstrokes are less sharp and angular. The contrasts of dark and light are more subtle, less abrupt. The color is more mellow than dramatic. The movement is more active, more varied, and more animated. Manet’s figures, in comparison, are solid and heavy. Violette de Mazia said “sprightly” defines Glackens’ figures, a perfect description.
Ira Glackens, William’s son, wrote in William Glackens and The Eight:

Alfy Maurer and the sculptor Edward W. (“Jimmy”) Sawyer also had studios at the Villa Gabrielle, and the G.’s went down to Chezy-sur-Marne where the cheerful Alfy had a cottage presided over by a thin, rather sour-tempered young woman who was presumably his girl.

They went on an excursion to nearby Château-Thierry and swam in the Marne.  W.G.’s canvas of this event depicts them crossing the road toward the riverbank, E. in the bathing costume of the period, and the artist in blue trunks.  The figure in red trunks on the bank is Alfy Mauer.  A crowd swims, and plays, and naturally eats and drinks, and the tricolor floats gaily over all, as it was to do for a few short years more before Château-Thierry, that obscure river town, was on every tongue in the world. (p. 70).

That is Château-Thierry, the place.

When Glackens made his sketch and painting, however, he subjected that subject to an idea. We call this the picture idea.  Glackens made pictures with color on a flat surface. Those pictures speak a different language than “Château-Thierry the Place.”   

The painting I described for you shows sprightly figures depicted in action in compressed but ample space.  It shows a diminution of the bulk of volumes for the sake of accentuating their shape.  It shows interplay of a variety of directions.  It is direction that makes for the compositional activity I described—a brisk, illustrative activity of an event.

Violette de Mazia sums up Glackens’ contribution this way: He enlivened Manet’s type of illustration by emphasizing active representational movement, and he added a “daintiness, an effervescence, a gentle vivaciousness, a mellowness and a graceful sprightliness.”  (p. 26)

We see that in the picture.  The art in Chateau Thierry is the record of what Glackens perceived of an aesthetic nature.  It has what Château-Thierry, the place, never had: important and significant visual details deliberately selected, organized, and presented to express a unified visual idea in a novel and personal way. 











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