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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Jacobus van Looy

Opulence in Summer, 1900, Jacobus van Looy
The Frans Hals Museum is now located in what was once the Haarlem Reformed Burger Orphanage at Groot Heiligland. The Dutch painter and writer, Jacobus van Looy was once located in that orphanage. Jacobus Van Looy was born in 1855, the son of a carpenter. However, his father lost his job when his eyesight failed him and his mother died when he was just five years old. His father died soon afterwards. Thus the young boy ended up in the orphanage. He trained to become a house and carriage painter. Fortunately, he was also a talented draftsman and so was given the opportunity to study at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunst in Amsterdam after having been trained as a drawing teacher through financial support from the directors of De Teylers Foundation.

Had Jacobus van Looy lived in any number of countries other
than Holland during the mid-19th-Century without their early form of "social safety net" his life might have been quite different.
In 1884, at the age of twenty-nine, van Looy won Holland's version of the French Prix de Rome, which allowed him to travel. During the next two years he traveled throughout Italy, Spain, and Morocco. Haarlem Orphans (above) was painted by Charles Frederic Ulrich in 1884. Though Van Looy was already travelling by that time, Ulrich's painting shows the uniform for Haarlem orphans that he wore until his teens, having one red sleeve and one blue sleeve. It also depicts the interior of what is now the Frans Hals Museum, when it was still an orphanage. The painting by Jan de Bray (above, top), though dating from two-hundred years earlier when the orphanage was founded, provides some insights into the caring social environment that in van Looy's time had long been a part of Dutch life.

The Dutch author and painter personified the close association between art and literature in the late 19th-Century.
Van Looy wrote first in the direct, personal, “1880” style, in his popular novel De Dood van Mijn Poes (The Death of My Cat) in 1889. The influence of Symbolism at the time is seen in his early story De Nachtcactus (The Night Cactus), of 1888, with the flower representing ephemeral desire that blooms for one night and then dies. In his later work Feesten (Celebrations), from 1902, van Looy appears more objective, describing scenes from lower-middle-class life. In his autobiographical Jaapje dating from 1923, and Jacob, written shortly before his death in 1930, van Looy shows a genius for impressionistic word-painting.

Pussycat at a Window, 1895,
Jacobus van Looy, (the cat
that died in 1889, perhaps?).
Portrait of a Choirboy, Jacobus van Looy
In 1892 Jacobus van Looy married Titia van Gelder in Amsterdam. The couple settled in Soest where they continued to live until 1913. In that year the Van Looys moved to Haarlem where they bought a house on the Kleine Houtweg. From that time on, the artist led a somewhat withdrawn but very industrious life, during which he painted during the day and wrote in the evening. Jacobus died in 1930. His wife would survive him for ten years. In commemoration of her husband she established their residence as a permanent exhibition of his work. She also added some rooms to the house for that purpose.

The Sacrifice of Eve and Abel, 1884, Jacobus van Looy.
The nearby Frans Hals Museum manages the extensive legacy of Jacobus van Looy, which is owned by the Jacobus van Looy Foundation. Over the past two years, this foundation has acquired many Van Looy works, including paintings, drawings, and letters. In 2005, sixty drawings and figure studies were purchased at Christie's in Amsterdam. Several other paintings and drawings have since been purchased by benefactors for the foundation. Over the next years, the foundation has acquired some fifty additional drawings, a few paintings, and a large number of letters from the Evert Jansen heirs.

The Age of Innocence, Jacobus van Looy
Evert Jansen was befriended by Jacobus and Titia van Looy as a child. He came from a poor family and the couple knew of his circumstances. They paid his tuition at the craft school he attended. Throughout his life Jansen remained grateful to the Van Looys. He did numerous jobs for them and worked for several years as a guard and administrator of the van Looy museum. As thanks for his help, he received numerous works from Titia van Looy. These have been added to the collection of the foundation.

The house where Jacob van Looy lived until his death,
and where a museum was opened after the death
of his widow from 1949-1967.


Friday, December 15, 2017

Christoffel van Sichem II

The Crucifixion of Jesus, ca. 1657, Christoffel van Sichem II
When someone speaks of an "artist," the first image to come to mind is usually that of a painter, perhaps sitting or standing at an easel. That's a natural reaction for those of us who paint, but it also seems to be the same for most other people as well. Moreover, as I write about art, I'm as guilty as anyone of thinking first and foremost of painters. I suppose that's because painting is what I know best. Yet if one were to break down all the other kinds of artists by media, technique, and content (the most common distinctions) the number of different "adjective" artists (for lack of a better term) would soar into the hundreds. As I was sorting through various artists today I came upon the Dutch "Golden Age" artist Christoffel van Sichem II (or younger). He was not a painter. Actually, he might be touted as being much more skilled than that. He was a woodcut artist.
Biblical scene, ca. 1664, Christoffel van Sichem II. I'm not sure whose Bible or which scene, but that's what the source says.
Young Man with a Turban,
Christoffel van Sichem II
If you want to discuss antique art forms, the woodblock print would be a prime candidate. Even in van Sichem's time, fine art printing had been largely embraced the intaglio printing method of etching grooves into a metal plate, which held the ink until placed in a high-pressure printing press, which transferred it to a damp paper. Since we're talking about the Dutch "Golden Age," we're referring to the 17th-Century. Woodblock printing, it might be said, is exactly the opposite of intaglio in that the grooves gouged by the block carver (not necessarily the artist, by the way) come out white when printed, while the smooth upper surface relief printed the dark lines or masses. Also, relief printing does not require a printing press. An old wooden spoon will do just fine. The inked block is placed face up; the (dry) paper over it face down; and the back of the paper is then rubbed with any smooth tool. The so-called "Biblical scene" (above), does not appear to be one of Sichem's best works, but it does showcase the carving technique quite well. Compare it to van Sichem's The Crucifixion of Jesus (top), or his somewhat crudely drawn Adam and Eve (below). Human anatomy was not van Sichem's strong suit.

Adam and Eve, Christoffel Van Sichem (the younger).
One of the problems in discussing the work of an individual woodblock artist is the fact that it's difficult to know whether the artist was merely the designer or whether he actually cut his designed into the block himself. Many turned that tedious, not to mention time-consuming, phase over to a skilled tradesman to transfer and cut the image. My guess is that only the most successful woodcut artists could afford to do the latter, and that virtually all such artist, at least in the early years of their careers, probably cut their own blocks. I should note that Albrecht Durer, probably the best of the best in this field, definitely cut all his own blocks. No one else was skilled enough to satisfy him.

Last Supper, Christoffel van Sichem II. The intricate detail
a skilled carver could attain is little short of incredible.
As for Christoffel van Sichem II, it would appear that his religious scenes were probably carved by his own hand while his secular images seem not as skilled. He was born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1581. As the name would indicate, he learned his trade from his father, Christoffel van Sichem (the elder). Christoffel van Sichem II also made woodcuts based upon portraits by leading artists such as Abraham Bloemaert, Hendrick Goltzius, and Maarten van Heemskerck, among others. He made these for various publications, then later bundled and published them himself in Der Zielen Lust-Hof (The Souls of the Lust Court).

Merry Company in a Bedroom, Christoffel van Sichem II.
I'm not quite sure what the title here suggests, but inasmuch
as all the revelers are still wearing all their clothes...
It's definitely not a "biblical scene" in any case.
In examining woodblock prints, at first glance it may seem hard to determine just how intricate the carving might be. We are accustomed to art being found in every conceivable size. However, woodblocks are not to be found in every conceivable size. In fact seldom are the much larger than a page from an average-size book. That's because such carving demands a very fine-grained, yet relatively hard type of wood, usually boxwood, or fruitwoods such as cherry or pear. These are seldom large trees, which therefore limits the size of the blank block.

St. Paul, Christoffel van Sichem II

Despite such limitations as to size, woodcuts have long had the distinct advantage over intaglio or traditional litho-printing (from stones) in that they are quite compatible with movable-type, which is also a form of relief print-ing. Thus when words and pictures are desired on the same page, woodcuts are especially convenient. For that rea-son, woodcuts were used in printing books and newspapers until the latter part of the 19th-Century.
St. Peter, Christoffel van Sichem II

Dulcimer Player,
Christoffel van Sichem II


Thursday, December 14, 2017

François-Léon Benouville

The Mockery of Christ, 1845, Francois-Leon Benouville. This
painting one the artist a three-year-long trip to Rome.
There's surprisingly little religious art created today, especially in the way of painting. Most of what is created tends to be aimed at a juvenile or preschool market. It's about all that's left of what once was one of the most prestigious types of painting an artist could produce. Today that type of painting is now limited to scriptural illustrations done almost solely for publication in various Sunday School and Vacation Bible School program packages. That's unfortunate, but also to be expected. Just as motion pictures and animated video has largely replaced most other forms of narrative art enjoyed by children (as well as adults), then same is true of such storytelling of biblical scenes. Today I came upon a French painter from the 19th-Century, little known to the art world, but one who contributed to the religious genre at a level simply not to be found today. His name was Francois-Leon Benouville.
It's hard to decided which of the two brothers was the better artist, though Francois-Leon certainly chose a much more demanding field in which to work.
Francois-Leon Benouville was born in Paris in 1821. His older brother, Jean-Achille Benouville, born in 1815, was also a painter, though landscapes were his specialty. And, given the number landscape painters living and working in the French capital during the mid-century period, that doesn't make him very special at all. Neither were his landscapes. In fact, the competition from other artists led him to spend most of his career painting Italian landscapes. (For reasons I've never been able to understand, paintings of Italian landscapes were considered by the French at the time to be superior to those of French landscapes.)
Samuel Anoints David, 1842, Francois-Leon Bénouville
At any rate, Léon Benouville first studied with his elder brother in the studio of François-Edouard Picot before transferring to the École des Beaux-Arts in 1837. His Samuel Anoints David (above), dating from 1842 is typical of the younger Benouville's early work--rather static and sculptural. In 1843, Benouville won a second place medal in the annual Prix de Rome (prize of Rome) competition for his painting Oedipus Exiled from Thebes (now lost). His preparatory drawings, however, remain, indicating an almost excessive attention to detail, a hallmark of Benouville’s work. Indeed, he was known to strive for perfection and, as noted by the critic, Philippe Burty in 1859, he created countless preparatory studies of fragments and details for all his compositions.
Cincinnatus Receives a Deputation from the Senate,
1844, Francois-Léon Bénouville.
Benouville was best known for his portraits, mythological, and religious compositions in the Neoclassical and Orientalist styles. He worked in oils, ink and chalk. His Cincinnatus Receives a Deputation from the Senate (above), from 1844, is typical of his history paintings from this period. The following year, Benouville managed to win the Prix de Rome competition for his painting, The Mockery of Christ (top). Coincidentally, his brother apparently shared with him this honor for his painting, Ulysses and Nausicaa. Francois' works produced in Rome are influenced by early Christianity and often show depictions of Roman antiquity.
Christian Martyrs Enter the Amphitheatre,
ca. 1855, Francois-Leon Benouville.
After studying in Rome for a year, Francois-Leon went back to Paris. His brother remained in Rome for two more years before moving on to fresh landscapes elsewhere in Italy. Leon Benouville's Christian Martyrs Enter the Amphitheatre (above), dates from some ten years later and has a far more dynamic, exciting quality than his earlier work. Francois-Leon Benouville's works are much more limited in number than those of his brother in that Francois-Leon died in Paris in 1859 at the age of thirty-eight. His older brother, Jean Achille lived to be seventy-six.
Saint Francis of Assisi transports the Dying to Saint
Mary of the Angels, 1856, Francois-Leon Benouville.


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Thomas Donaldson at Work

What is it? It's an abstract expressionist painting. More accurately,
it's simply paint--pigment and vehicle--deftly applied to a firm surface
by British artist, Thomas Donaldson, in such a manner as to only
incidentally appear to suggest a closed, heavily-decorated human eye.
Usually, when I come upon a contemporary artist whose work I like, I tend to concentrate on the work itself, rather than the artist. That's largely because, the artists, too, do very much the same, exhibiting dozens of works both past and present, sold, and unsold. Rarely does the artist make much effort to show their work in progress. Sometimes one gets the feeling the artist simply conjures up the image in his or her mind, sleeps on it, and, "presto" the next morning it suddenly appears on their easel, the paint dry, the canvas framed, ready for packing and shipping off to their dealer. I'm sure every artist reading those words is bound to say (or think), "Damn, I wish it were that easy."
No, Donaldson is not finger-painting, he's applying glitter to the wet paint.
11-16-17 Heads,
Thomas Donaldson
The British artist, Thomas Don-aldson, would not be one of them. It may look haphazard, but it's not. The artist spends nearly as much time studying his work as he does painting it. You can tell he thoroughly enjoys the entire creative process and would quick-ly eschew any magical force short-circuiting it. Moreover, Don-aldson doesn't just paint pictures, he produces art; and from the looks of his factory-like studio, where he juggles as many as half-a-dozen works in progress at the same time, he stops just short of mass producing art.

There are those painters who work in neat, nearly pristine surroundings...and then there is Thomas Donaldson.
4-4-14 Head Study (detail).
Thomas Donaldson
Although Donaldson is British, he's based in Thailand. His instinctive works utilize the human figure and/or head rendered in a manner to resemble, at first glance, ab-stract, non-representational painting. This is achieved through the application of thick impasto paint, dragging and smud-ging the surface plus the occasional intervention of serendipitous chance. All these elements contribute in the process of making, or more accurately, building a painting. The abstract qualities to be found in Donaldson's work further empha-size the deliberate close-cropping of his subjects. The works also acknowledge certain aspects of the existentialist prem-ise that one cannot fully know or exper-ience the reality of another person. This separateness underlies our daily consci-ousness, thus the closely cropped, frag-mented surface speaks to this awareness in that only a small part of the individual is revealed.

For those geographically challenged--
Thailand is a part of Southeast Asia.
3-18-17 Heads,
Thomas Donaldson
Thomas Donaldson is a figurative painter and lecturer living and working in Southeast Asia. He received his Master’s Degree from Newcastle University in 2000. Since then he has taken part in numerous exhibitions globally. His work is nothing if not visceral. He depicts the portraits and nude figures which are tra-ditional within the historic context of paint-ing. As such, they are easily recognizable, but also bear the burden of having been painted over and over again. This famil-iarity with the subject and the associated ideals of beauty in this overly Photo-shopped era, allows Thomas to develop the process of painting through abstract-tion, yet at the end of the process still have something that remains familiar al-beit imperfect and somewhat awkward.

Is the content secondary to the process?

Head Study, Thomas Donaldson
Donaldson's studio. I could never work in such a "mess."


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Charles Courtney Curran

Lotus Lilies, 1887, Charles Courtney Curran
Having spent quite a bit of time highlighting artists of northern Europe the past few weeks I feel I should give some time to an outstanding American artist from the same turn of the century era as the others. Not only that, but he spent much of his life as a resident of my home state of Ohio. Charles Courtney Curran is as interesting for the surprising similarities inherent in his art to that of his European counterparts as well as the noticeable differences. Insofar as differences are concerned, Curran's art seems to have a certain, hard-to-define "happiness" (for lack of a better term) than that which we've seen the past few weeks. I suppose part of that might be simply the man's personal disposition, but I can't help but think that it goes deeper than that, having social and cultural elements coming into play. Keep in mind that Europe was at that time still very much a squirming conglomeration imperial political entities whereas the United States, while still licking its wounds from a recent Civil War, was well on its way to becoming a massive industrial giant without parallel anywhere else in the world. Peace and prosperity begets, if not great art, at least an impressive quantity of very good art. Charles Courtney Curran falls into that category as a creator of very good art.
On the Heights, 1909, Charles Courtney Curran.
If the work of Charles Courtney Curran appears to have a certain "dated" look to our eyes, keep in mind the virtually all Victorian art, on either side of the Atlantic, bears the same burden. It was a time bound to be quite foreign to our technological lifestyle and way of thinking. Today, class distinctions, where they still exist, are fairly subtle and fluid. During the late 19th-Century they were neither. Curran painted the sweet life, lovely young ladies of all ages living in a sort of dream world, a largely carefree, refined elegance, that was both a gilded birdcage and an enviable privilege. If it appears unreal, that's because it was.

White Turkeys, 1898, Charles Courtney Curran
As an American Impressionist, Charles Courtney Curran was memorable both for his elegant interior and exterior portraits of women and children, as well as for his leadership role at the Cragsmoor Art Colony. He is often compared to fellow American Impressionists Mary Cassatt, Frank Benson, and Edmund Charles Tarbell. Curran’s iconic paintings featuring graceful young women in flowing dresses set against the vast expanse of nature captivated art critics and the public, as well as his fellow artists. Curran’s impressionistic techniques utilized the classic loose brushstrokes and a vivid palette which, when combined with his nostalgic subject matter created a lighthearted interpretation French Impressionism.

Although Curran experimented with several contemporary styles of his time, he never departed from either the time-honored domestic content or Realism.
Charles Courtney Curran was born in 1861 in Hartford, Kentucky, though with the advent of the Civil War, his family moved north to Sandusky, Ohio. He studied under Thomas B. Noble at the Cincinnati School of Design for a year before moving to New York City in 1882. There he first attended the National Academy of Design, then later studied at the Art Student’s League (below)under Walter Satterlee. At the age of 23, he made his public debut at the Academy of Design, a venue that showcased his work for the remainder of his career. In 1887, Curran’s paintings also began appearing at the Pennsylvania Academy where he continued to show his work for nearly three decades. He left for Paris in 1889 to study under Jules Lefebvre at the Académie Julian for two years. Upon his return to the United States, the artist settled in New York and began teaching at the Pratt Institute and Art Students League.

An Alcove in the Art Students League, Charles Curran
A Deep Sea Fantasy,
Charles Curran
Around 1903, fellow artist, Frederick Dellenbaugh invited Curran to visit Cragsmoor, a bourgeoning summer art center started by Edward Lamson Henry. Cragsmoor was located along a plateau in the Shawangunk Mountains of the Hudson River Valley. Captivated by the landscape and creative atmosphere, Curran set up a summer home and studio. He soon established himself as a central figure of the art colony, painting, teaching, and with the help of his wife, editing the student art publication Palette and Brush during his summers in Cragsmoor. While he is best known for his sweeping landscapes featuring young women and children, Curran also painted many portraits and even documented the process in several of his other paint-ings, from drawing the model on canvas, to presenting the finished work to his clients (below).

Fair Critics, 1886, Charles Courtney Curran. This work strikes me as quite strange as the eye contrasts the brightly lit model with the overly dark "hole" where Curran's critics are all but indefinable.
Curran's two years of study at the in Paris likely influenced his impressionistic use of form and light in his subsequent works. He seems to have been influenced by fellow American James McNeill Whistler's nocturnes as well (below). After two and half years abroad, Curran, his wife, and infant son returned to the United States in June, 1891. Curran spent the remainder of his life dividing his time between New York City and his house and studio at Cragsmoor along with months-long periods in Ohio where they had extended family and spent most summers.

A sampling of Curran's nocturnes, influenced by Whistler, but bearing a stronger degree of Realism than those of his fellow American.
Curran often used family members as models when he painted on the shores of Lake Erie, experimenting with a variety of artistic styles including impressionism, symbolism, tonalism and naturalism. Curran died in l942 at the age of eighty-one. During his life, Curran received much recognition for his figure paintings, but his style was not limited exclusively to that genre. The widely traveled artist also painted landscapes, portraits and a series of views of the Imperial Temples of Peking. Charles Curran's work is represented in numerous museum collections, and his outdoor paintings of youthful women have remained popular with individual collectors. It has been estimated that he produced more than 1500 paintings during his career.

One title, two paintings...

Goldfish, Charles Courtney Curran


Monday, December 11, 2017

Harriet Backer

In a Farmhouse,  Harriet Backer
There's a tired old saying that "Money can't buy happiness." There are those who would argue both for and against such a definitive statement, and in the final analysis the validity of such words depends upon one's definition of "happiness." The price of happiness also becomes a factor as well. It keeps going up, and as it does, the amount of happiness it might buy seldom increases proportionally. There are even those who would also point out that money sometimes buys unhappiness. With few exceptions money also changes people...for better or worse (usually the latter). One item money can buy, which over the long term, may surpass happiness, or at least contribute to it considerably, is a good education, if not for oneself then for the next generation. A good education allows you to choose the direction of your life, rather than simply following the money trail in passive acceptance wherever it might lead.
A postage stamp sampling of the work of Harriet Backer. A more detailed compilation can be found in the video at the bottom.
The Norwegian painter, Harriet Backer decided to pursue a career rather that simply accept whatever cards life dealt her. Born in 1845, it was a time when women were expected to accept the best man who showed a romantic interest in them. This choice of the most attractive man, one most likely to succeed, was virtually the first, the one, and only really important choice she would ever make. Harriet Backer came from a well-to-do upper middle-class family. She was one of four girls, the daughter of a ship-owning merchant. She started life in a small southeastern coastal village in Norway named Holmestrand. Virtually everyone in the family had talent and, better still, the time and money to develop them.
Harriet Backer never married. As an artist, she was always too busy.
In 1857, when she was just twelve, Harriet's parents moved to Christiania (now Oslo) where her father started the company Becker and Backer. After a while, he pulled out of the business, and when the merchant house in Holmestrand went bankrupt in 1878, the family's economy was reduced to chaos. Harriet Backer was to struggle financially until 1908, when Olaf Schou (a wealthy art collector and philanthropist) awarded her a lifetime scholarship of 1000 kroners per year. Her childhood home was cultivated, and the four gifted daughters were given the opportunity to excel in reading and, most of all, their music interests. The unusual music talent of the younger sister Agathe was soon discovered, and Harriet Backer's own development in the early adolescent years was characterized by the family's efforts to give the sister a professional music education. Thus she accompanied Agathe on many of her foreign travels. This was obviously culturally enriching, but at the same time gave her a late start on her art studies. (She had once wanted to be a novelist.) Her father was very religious, but in a free-spirited direction that also influenced his daughters.

Big Brother Player, 1890, Harriet Backer
In Christiania, Harriet Backer went to Mrs. Autenrieth's school, where she picked up great language skills. After graduation in 1860, at her own discretion, she began to work in the women's class at J. F. Eckerberg's school of painting. In 1863 she completed a one-year government course at Hartvig Nissen's school, thus gaining the highest formal education available to women at the time. In the following years, she was occasionally engaged as a teacher at Autenrieth and Hartvig Nissens kindergarten schools. During her stay in her home country, she resumed her art studies. During the late 1880 she was a student of Christian Brown. Then from about 1871 to 1874, she was a regular student in the classes of Bergslien's school of art in Christiania. It was about that time the desire to educate herself at the professional painter began to take shape. Along with Lille Rødhette, she was rated as Bergslien's most talented female student. When she studied Munich in 1874-78, it was the first to educate herself as a portrait painter.

The Farewell, 1877, Harriet Backer
Later, Backer turned her interest to the figure in the interior, where the room itself, and not least of all the lighting problem, eventually became the main role. Women at that time did not have access to the art academy in Munich, and were therefore dependent on private teachers. A few pictures from 1877, where motifs are added from the past, clearly show the influence of the Munich environment in general, and Eilif Peterssen in particular. In addition to the careful rendering of material qualities, particular emphasis is placed on the psychological characteristic. This also applies to the painting, Divorce (above), where she shows a young woman who is seen parting with her parents. The painting is sometimes called The Farewell. But there's something new. For the first time Harriet Backer places the scene in an environment from her own home. At the same time, the interior has gained a more prominent place. Harriet continued her work on the interior on the same summer in Solitude, where the motif is a farmhouse in Schliersee at the foot of the Bavarian Alps (top).

Scandinavian Scene, 1890, Harriett Backer
In 1888, Harriet Backer moved back to Norway permanently. There she settled in Sandvika, outside of Christiania (Oslo). Some of her finest paintings were created over the next five years. She began to paint interiors by lamplight, resulting in long shadows which gave the rooms a sense of mystery. At this time she also began to paint church interiors. This was a new subject for her. She spent several years completing the painting Christening in Tanum Church from 1892. Harriet began to give private painting lessons and in 1892 developed into a school where she taught until 1910. She focused on encouraging and teaching female artists, recalling how hard it was for her to obtain instruction. During the summers she always travelled in search of new subject matter. Backer always staged her interiors, using models and choosing props for the scenes, including those in churches. During her career she painted 180 paintings, mostly of farm and church interiors. It is interesting to note she never did paint her sister, Agathe, at the piano, although she did use her as a model in some of her paintings. Harriet Backer died in 1932 at the age of eighty-seven.

Chez Moi, 1881, Harriet Backer
Click the video below for a visual compendium of Harriet Backer's work.