The Agile Brush

John Singer Sargent and Claude Monet went together to paint outdoors. Sargent asked Monet if he could borrow some black. Monet replies, “black? I don’t have black,” to which Sargent replies, “then I can’t paint!”

I haven’t verified the authenticity of this historical change, and it seems like it could have been contrived to convey the differences in these two impressionist painters. Perhaps if William Gerdts, keynote speaker at a symposium yesterday at Doyle Auctions where he relayed the story, reads this entry he can reveal the source.

The afternoon included four presentations on “Impressionism and Afterward” to coincide with an upcoming sale at the auction house. Gerdts covered Impressionism as it took hold in America, explaining that its arrival coincided with the end of large exhibits in France and that Americans were much more favorable to Monet’s landscapes that the work of Renoir.

William Merritt Chase, Prospect Park Scene
William Merritt Chase, Prospect Park Scene

In addition to Sargent, major American Impressionists include William Merritt Chase and Mary Cassatt. A participant in early impressionist exhibits (mid 1880s) in New York, Chase was taken in by New York’s Parks where he painted landscapes. Beginning in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, a dispute with an official provided the impetus for his relocation to Central Park.

Cassatt joined the impressionists in 1879 and participated in exhibits by the New Society of American Artists, which was formed in 1877 to counter the conservative National Academy of Design. Her work didn’t really enter the mainstream until after the 1893 World’s Columbia Exhibition in Chicago.

Art Historian Susan Larkin picked up the lecture series with a presentation on Childe Hassam in Connecticut. Perhaps most noted for his urban scenes, Hassam visited Old Lyme often between 1903 and 1912. Old Lyme was founded by Tonalist Henry Ward Ranger, however rather than impressionists and Larkin showed how Hassam’s work took on a Barbizon flavor. Old Lyme wouldn’t stay Barbizon, Henry Ward Ranger moved away in 1904 and the flavor of the school moved solidly to Impressionism.

San Marcos by Pendergast (not the same image as shown by Matthews)
San Marcos by Pendergast (not the same image as shown by Matthews)

Some of the interest for me in Nancy Matthews, author of the catalogue raisonne on Maurice Prendergast was the story of Venice itself. With the city impoverished for many years, little in Venice was different that it had ever been for Prendergast. Outsiders may have found this charming, but Venitians may have been frustrated with the lack of modern conveniences. Matthews pointed out, however that even if the financial means had been available to modernize the city, the physical characteristics made it almost impossible to accommodate electricity, telephones and cars.

Matthews showed slides of the Square of San Marcos painted by Prendergast and Whistler, both having a certain amount of the unexpected. I use “unexpected” because I don’t personally like the frequency of use of the term “shock” when talking about art. I appologize to Ms. Matthews for using this as a forum to bring this to attention, but it has been a source of mounting irritation.  The word, it seems to me, is used far too often and I suspect stems from the artists of the 1960s thru the early ‘90s by artists who aimed specifically for to include an element of “shock.” Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ would be an example of a work of art made primarily for shock value. I’m not sure what word can replace it, however. I recall an American tour at the Brooklyn Museum where the word “shock” was used to describe the tall buildings in Hassam’s urban scenes.

Descriptively, a “shock” is a  jolt of sorts that makes you jump, and I don’t think that’s really what happens when we see something unexpected in a painting, which really may vary depending on the painting. Such an element may be a cause for additional introspect or a head turner, but not really a shock. An event like a Presidential assassination comes as a shock. An unusual element in a painting doesn’t quite rise to that level.

While the blur may have been the element of interest in the Whistler example, in the Prendergast Painting it was the Italian flags that may have come as a sinking feeling to those seeing the reality Venice was under “Roman rule.” It would certainly bring an uneasiness. I really enjoyed the presentation and again appologize for such an unfair focus here on the word “shock.” The possibility surely exists it is the perfect word and I’m all wet!

Finally we returned from Europe to New York with a presentation by Valerie Ann Leeds, Adjunct Curator at the Flint Institute in Michigan, on the Ashcan School. Leeds pointed out that the word “Ashcan” stems from a report in the Philadelphia Record commenting on “the disappointments of an ashcan.” The school centers around art and its honesty in worldly observation.

It was interesting to draw comparisons in my mind between the portrait work of Robert Henri and Thomas Eakins, both who seemed to be able to honestly capture not only the form, but the character because they were painting people they knew.

The Doyle auction includes items of interest by Charles Linford, a curious captivating Whistler and many other paintings. Even if you’re not an auction buyer, the preview is this weekend. Stop by and treat it like a rarely on public view gallery exhibit, which it is!

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