Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Something Borrowed--Something New? Cont'd

In the previous post, Something Borrowed—Something New?, I mentioned Dr. Richard Wattenmaker’s rebuke of critics who pointed out Glackens’ debt to Renoir but did not compare their pictures.  He argued that “no writer during [Glackens’] lifetime ever made an explicit comparison with a specific Renoir, such as, for example, his Madame Charpentier and Her Children, 1878 (acquired in 1907 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art), which influenced the composition and scale of Glackens’s Family Group (National Gallery of Art) and one of Glackens’s three entries in the Armory Show.  This failure to identify exactly what the American had adapted from Renoir is a lacuna that has persisted in Glackens criticism.”

Dr. Wattenmaker, throughout his career, has carefully and elaborately illustrated exactly what Glackens borrowed from Renoir and how Glackens made it his own.  Dr. Barnes and Violette de Mazia did as well.  However, as far as I know, no one compared the two pictures Dr. Wattenmaker cited, so I decided I would.

Here is Renoir’s Madame Charpentier and Her Children:

Renoir, Madame Charpentier and Her Children, 1878, Met

 Here is Glackens’ Family Group:

Glackens, Glackens’s Family Group, 1910-11, NGA

Before we go any further, I will share with you what Dr. Barnes wrote about the Renoir painting.  He said, “The general effect is conventional, banal, unexciting, and the color-ensemble is dull.  The blacks…are here mere areas of dull paint, unappealing as color and unsuccessful in rendering textural quality in either the woman’s gown or the dog’s fur.” (The Art of Renoir,
p. 398). 

The only unit in the picture Dr. Barnes complimented is the still-life grouping of objects at the upper right.  Here it is cropped and enlarged:

Dr. Barnes said it is the “sole source of real aesthetic pleasure in the picture…particularly in the distribution and relation in space of its various units—the objects on the table, the chair, the legs of the chair and table, the plane of the floor, the curtain at the back, and the well-realized space receding underneath the table back into the distance behind the curtain.” (p. 399)

Dr. Barnes declared the picture a “typical conventional group-portrait, plastically weak, and only mildly pleasing as a decorative illustration.”   Do you agree?

To find out, let’s look at it upside down:

The three figures establish a central pyramidal unit balancing a diagonal sequence of volumes extending across the canvas from the still-life grouping now on the lower left to the dog now on the upper right.  That pyramidal grouping slopes inward on both sides.  The black/white contrasts of the woman’s dress, dog’s fur, and the children’s socks and shoes rhythmically repeat the ripples of white trim on the girl’s and woman’s dresses as well as the dog’s fur.  These squiggly decorative units contrast with the vertical bands in the screen and the geometric pattern in the floor. 

Examine this detail of the child on the couch:

Shadows are slightly bluish-gray, the flesh shiny-smooth, and while the volume is fully three-dimensional, it is slight and without internal luminosity.  The curls in the hair echo the curls of the dress’s center and contrast with the more crinkly decorative whites of all the dresses. Similarly, short stripes ripple the socks, enliven the sofa’s pattern, and flute the folds in the figure’s  dress’s and hair as well as the dog’s fur, but Dr. Barnes argues this “sort of painting represents the bad influence of Delacroix in color and of Monet in technique.”  I translate this to mean the pattern is “on” the surface rather than integrated into the color volumes, more a “showing off” of brushwork rather than a unified expressive statement.

Glackens’ picture measures 71 15/16 x 84 inches; Renoir’s 60 ½ by 74 ¾.  When the Met acquired Renoir’s painting in 1907, it was the most recent work in the museum’s collection and received extensive publicity, so it could have influenced the scale of Glackens’ painting as well as its composition.  

If it did, how?

Look at it upside down.

From the point of view of subject, this picture also organizes figures in a room.  Ira Glackens, when he was five years old, and depicted in the center, said he was taken to the 1913 Armory Show.  He wrote, “I do not recall seeing, though it was surely pointed out to me, my father’s large canvas “Family Group,” with myself looking like a monkey in it.” (William Glackens and the Eight, 1957, p. 182)

Monkey or not, the four figures in this picture, whether seated, standing, or leaning, bend, turn, and rise upwards with the graceful, delicate elegance of a luminous praying mantis.  The figure now on the left, unlike Renoir’s Madame Charpentier, bends inward, not outward.  The chair back, now on the right, arcs inward more dramatically than the girl in Renoir’s painting.

A pervasive colorfulness prevails, a rich brightness and vibrancy in the hues and tones.  Acidic greens, deep blues, and orange-reds produce vivid color, a quality Violette de Mazia says has a “sharp, at times even a slightly piercing acidity, a bite and an exotic, piquant, tangy flavor usually associated with oriental color effects.” (“The Case of Glackens vs. Renoir,” p. 10) The green in the face and neck in the diagonal figure now to the right imparts a “phosphorescent gleam,” a translucency and lightness that contrasts with the hot reds and yellows elsewhere in the picture.  De Mazia says, “All these positive features are novel, distinctive, of an aesthetic character and Glackens’ own.” (p. 12)

Three-dimensionality in the Glackens is slighter, the volumes lighter, and that puts the emphasis on color areas functioning as units of decorative pattern.  Unlike the fluid, compositional poise in the Renoir, where one color unit flows into another, in Glackens the beat is light, gentle, and quick, more like a staccato tapping than a legato flow, similar to the rat-a-tat-tat made by the red belly woodpecker on the tree outside my bedroom window that wakes me up in the morning. 

Look at this cropped and enlarged lower section of the painting:

Notice the patterned areas of floor and tiles.  Examine the space under the chair legs, and around and between the feet—especially the four feet shown in the middle.  Check the series of color units and spatial relationships to the right.  A fan-shaped repoussoir constructed from two color units of the dress (the bright red and the striped cerulean/blue and white apron) push back the pocket of space under the chair leg.  This orchestration of patterned areas, gentle movement, and vivid color in intricate spatial relationships sets the motif of the entire painting.

Finally, examine the center of Glackens’ picture with the still life in the upper right of Renoir’s:

In the Glackens’, orange/yellow/red color units recede to the triangular pulled-back curtains.  Each color unit: (from the ultramarine/alizarin dress covering the crossed legs which echo the triangular opening in the background; to the standing boy wearing a cerulean tunic while leaning on a hot orange table top and backed by the orange/cerulean blue pattern of the chair) carries the eye, like a series of tightly orchestrated repoussoir units, to a glowing orange-yellow-cerulean-ultramarine open space beyond the curtains. 

In the Renoir, the spatial recession moves from the foreground slant of the black dress to the rich, warmth of luminous gold, red, tans and deep blues, in an equally geometric series of “steps and risers” (look at the golden horizontal base of the table, the seat of the chair, the shelf and the table top) to the dark space created by the pulled-back tapestry.  However, in the Renoir, each color unit also stresses its illustrative identity: the vase holding the flowers has a silky smooth surface gleaming with ceramic hardness; the decanter bubbles with metallic golden highlights; the wicker chair’s roughness contrasts with the curtain’s heavy wooliness.    

Perhaps the most striking and obvious difference defining each artist’s interest occurs in the vase of flowers.  In the Glackens’, the sharp, cool green of the cone-shaped and flattened vase contrasts with the vivid, red/orange of the flattened, fluted cone-shaped flowers.  In the Renoir, the silky-smooth, blue-patterned fully rounded vase holds a series of pink, white, lavender, and green three-dimensional, puffy, soft, shimmering color units. 

Violette de Mazia described the difference this way:

“[In Renoir], the pattern as such appears much less pronounced than in Glackens.  There are two obvious reasons for this: first, the areas in Renoir are less compartmental (i.e., their boundaries are less sharply defined) because of the continuous, free intermingling of the color-chords as they flow from one area into adjacent areas; and, secondly, the pattern of these areas plays a relatively inconspicuous role in the more conspicuous three-dimensional compositional pattern made up of the color volumes and their colorful intervals as their rhythmic sequence recedes from foreground to deep distance.  In other words, a Renoir unit is so constructed and so related in space to its companions that our perception is made to focus upon the shape of the three-dimensional unit rather than of the two-dimensional area it occupies on the canvas.  In Glackens, the tendency is towards the opposite effect.” (“The Case of Glackens vs. Renoir,” p. 13)

Before Dr. Barnes published The Art in Painting in 1925, he sent Glackens the manuscript version of his essay evaluating Glackens’ work.  Glackens responded, in part: “My Renoir influence is obvious, so I shant mention it—except that I have found out that the pursuit of color is hard on drawing just as the pursuit of drawing is hard on color.” (Quoted in Wattenmaker, American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, p.69)

So far, we have merely compared and contrasted two paintings.  In the next post, I will compare  Glackens’ and Renoir’s drawings and concentrate on line and space to show how Glackens perfected his ability to express what interested him: active movement, colorful light, vivid color, and sparkle.  In so doing, I will further define and evaluate the visual ideas Glackens’ adapted from Renoir as well as other artists.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Something Borrowed--Something New?

This post heralds an exploration of William Glackens’ work. 

In a larger sense, however, I want to evaluate Dr. Barnes’ summary of American painting. In 1925, in The Art in Painting, he said, “…painting in America has followed so closely the European traditions that a distinctively American form of painting does not exist.” (336).

To this, add the following.  Dr. Barnes and William Glackens often looked at pictures together.  Barnes acknowledged his “tutelage” by Glackens in 1915, when he said, “The most valuable single educational factor to me has been my frequent association with a life-long friend who combines greatness as an artist with a big man’s mind.”  (Quoted in “How to Judge a Painting,” Arts and Decoration 5, no. 6 [April 1915], 248).

As you can tell, this is an ambitious undertaking, and unless some other topic catches my interest, I expect to pursue it for the next few months, motivated also by the necessity to build a course in Glackens’ work to coincide with the exhibit opening at the Barnes Foundation on November 8, 2014. 

Violette de Mazia provided, as she called it, a “Glackenspiel,” a four-hour class lecture later published in 1971 as a 27-page essay, “The Case of Glackens vs. Renoir.” (The Barnes Foundation Journal of the Art Department, Vol. II, No. 2, 3-30).

In this essay, she did what Dr. Richard Wattenmaker said few writers pointing out Glackens’ debt to Renoir did (see American Paintings and Works on Paper in The Barnes Foundation, 67-68).  De Mazia described and evaluated Glackens’ work by comparing, picture to picture, what Glackens borrowed from Renoir and other painters.  She also showed how Glackens transformed his borrowings into something new.

That’s what we will do—picture to picture—the objective way to determine creativity.

I decided to start with the following two paintings because, in March, when I saw Glackens’ picture, Lenna Painting, in the permanent collection of the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale (MOA/FL), I immediately connected it to Renoir’s painting Child Reading at the Barnes Foundation. 

Here they are:

Glackens, Lenna Painting, 1918, MOA/FL

                                    Renoir, Child Reading, early 1890s, Barnes

At first glance, those who said Glackens imitated Renoir had a point.  The subject facts are remarkably similar: a young girl with flowing auburn hair leans on her arms and paints a picture or reads a book.  Both compositions profile the “girl” in a pyramidal composition.

Upside down, however, the differences become apparent:

Upside down, the Glackens' picture contrasts a fiery red background with a cool gray-blue “blouse,” flattens volumes set in shallow space, sandwiches objects, and arranges color units in circular motifs .

The Renoir picture orchestrates a vertically oriented background with a horizontally raised foreground.  This squeezes the figure into a clothespin-like taut volume of soft, round, warm, luminous color in relatively deeper space. 

After I explored the paintings upside down, I decided to start with the “hair.” 


I noticed only similarities in “style,” in length, and in brushstrokes.  I wondered if, indeed, this was going to be a very short post.

Here are both color units that were hair:

A part divides the “top of the head” color unit in the Glackens.  The left side of the part curves like a parenthesis to the right; the right side, wider and rounder, bulges like a deflated balloon.  On the left, “strands” of color lines hang in space.  On the right, strands of color ripple and flow diagonally downwards from the soft mound above in brown, green, red, tan and orange “strands.”  The effect is wooly, like that of a Raggedy Ann doll.

A banana-like volume and a larger triangular mound divide the “top of the head” color unit in the Renoir.  A tiny wisp of a curl hangs down on the far left.  A softly curvilinear diagonal cascades the remaining “hair” downward to the right, with an arabesque tendril hugging the shoulder before the color unit continues its downward flow.  The “hair” unit shimmers with highlights of gold, pink, and soft orange contrasted with darker shades of brown and black.

Since both cropped pictures display the faces as well, I studied them next.

Here the differences are more pronounced.  The Glackens’ profile is flatter, more sharply delineated, and closely related to both the background red and the shoulder.  A slight, green-gray shadow barely separates the tip of the nose to the chin from the blouse. 

The Renoir profile, however, gently moves from forehead to chin in a series of in and out triangular wedges. The darker green-gray shadow to its left creates ample space for this three-dimensional volume to be suspended in space while, at the same time, be cushioned by the “billowy” arm to its left and the larger, rounder, more solid bulging shoulder to its right. Cradled on both sides, it hangs in the space in a quasi-rosette pattern that includes the hands. 

Now the hands:


I hope you let me know your reaction when you first examined these two cropped and enlarged sections.

I said “WOW!” 

In the Glackens, the “hands’ move to the left and right, the greens and whites surrounding them enhancing that movement with wisps of pulled color bands undulating around and between them.  The paintbrush sets each color unit forward or back, and its tight, vise-like “grip” in the child’s grasp feels palpable. 

In the Renoir, two mitt-like soft, luminous round “hands” rendered in a prayer-like triangle, and packed in closely by shoulder, book, and sleeve, are motionless.

Stated simply, both pictures exhibit each artist’s delight in the subject of a child busy painting or reading.  Aesthetically excited by the colorful aspects of life, Glackens stresses the moment, the here-and-now sense of actuality, of crisp gentleness, zest, and energy.  The endeavor of a child painting, for Glackens, becomes that child, those hands, that paintbrush.  The endeavor of a child reading, for Renoir, becomes a series of lush, warm substantial color volumes coiled in deep, colorful space. 

As we continue to explore Glackens’ work, we will further define his relationship to the Impressionist tradition, his stress on the illustrative character of a picture’s subject, his awareness and utilization of twentieth century painting, and the effect of all this on his work.