Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Not a Man of His Times

He is regarded as one of the most important American artists. Still, most people don't know his name or his art work. He was featured on PBS' "American Masters." Yet, there was no stir or conversation about his art and biography. Who was this artist who mattered so much and so little all at the same time?

He was Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). (Notice that the dates of his lifetime coincide with the rise of the avant garde styles of Impressionism and Cubism.)In spite of the era, Eakins was true to his artistic instincts and that meant he was "deeply traditional."

Eakins was true to his believe in the beauty of nature especially the human form. If that meant going against the tide of popular techniques, so be it. That's not to say that he turned his back on what was new and exciting. (He was fascinated with photography and made many inventive contributions to motion studies.)It was more that Eakins disliked trends and affectations.

He studied in Paris, Madrid and Seville. As Eakins traveled, he gained an appreciation of classical painters from earlier times whose portraitures explored the personality of the model.

Eakins' method was to paint portraits very slowly and meticulously. He spoke very little to his model. Most often, the person posing would relax and drop any facade. These portraits rendered a psychological realism not appreciated at the time - especially with all the interest in the new art movements. However, the passage of time changes many things.

Today, in the world of art, Eakins is highly regarded. In 1964, Tom Canaday, art critic for the New York Times wrote:

Today he seems to us to have recorded his fellow Americans with a perception that was often as tender as it was vigorous, and to have preserved for us the essence of an American life which, indeed, he did not idealize--because it seemed to him beautiful beyond the necessity of idealization.

All of the images on this blog are his paintings. What do you think of his work? Did you already know his name and art?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tragic Beauty

While in an art museum, I saw a portrait of such a stunningly beautiful and elegant woman, I determined to find out more about her when I returned home. (The portrait I saw is on the left.)

She was Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie (1837-1898), Empress of Austria and Queen Consort of Hungary. To her family and friends, she was called "Sissi." Even though her father was a Bavarian Duke, Elisabeth and her siblings grew up some distance from the royal court and the strictures of court life.

Elisabeth was 15 years-old, when 23 year-old Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph, came calling on her older sister, Helene. He didn't know Helene and came at the insistence of his domineering mother. However, when the emperor saw Elisabeth, he disobeyed his mother and insisted on marrying Elisabeth. (Helene on left, Sissi on right)

With the marriage, Elisabeth was immersed into the Austrian royal court and her mother-in-law's, Archduchess Sophie, domination. Elisabeth would have 4 children - all taken from her at birth - to be reared under Sophie's rule. Elisabeth wasn't even allowed to nurse. It was among Elisabeth's many sorrows.

Without the tending of her children, Elisabeth turned her attention to two things: her appearance and her adopted country.

Elisabeth was beautiful. She never wore any makeup and yet her inherent beauty was evident in all her portraits. Her hair was so abundant and long that it took 2-3 hours every day just to style it. Her daily cares involved dieting and exercising. She was adored by her adopted countrymen for her beauty as well as her kind demeanor.

She often used the ear of the her emperor-husband to generate clemency for war prisoners or to help the Hungarian cause leading to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. Through all, she dealt with many personal tragedies.

First and most important would be the death of each of her children. This would be followed by the deaths of her mother, father, sister and her best friend. It was all too much and at age 52, she chose only to wear black. She also contrived to be away from the royal court as much as possible.

Historians consider that her poor health was psychosomatic as she always felt better when she traveled elsewhere. It was while on her way back from a vacation with her lady-in-waiting that she would meet Luigi Lucheni.

Elisabeth's departure was reported in the news and Lucheni was, in his words, "looking for a royal to assassinate" to gain prominence for his anarchical cause. After identifying her, Lucheni stabbed her once and the wound penetrated her heart. (photo shows her day before assassination)

Her death and funeral were the equivalent of the modern-day response to Princess Diana's death. In the end, all the royal court pomp and ceremony that Elisabeth tried to resist were visited on her.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Van Gogh: In the Eyes of the Beholder

This last weekend on NPR, I listened to an interview of a Dutch musician and artist by the name of Van Eck. He was describing and promoting his album titled, "Van Gogh by Van Eck."

Personally, I have always felt that Van Gogh's painting "The Potato Eaters" was a sad comment on the daily lives of farm peasants in those days. The people in the painting are gathered around a single light, a plate of potatoes and what looks like a tea drink. The conversation between the subjects seems intense. The first time I saw this painting, I felt a sadness for what seemed like a harsh life.

Van Eck saw something quite different. In the interview, he stated that upon his examination of Van Gogh's life, he observed that Van Gogh had a difficult relationship with his father. Therefore, Van Eck felt that based on Van Gogh's family yearnings, the artist wanted to portray a poor family sharing a meal and the happenings of the day with the pleasure of being in the bosom of the family. That is the basis for an upbeat mood in Van Eck's musical piece titled, "One of the Family." (You can listen to a sampling by clicking here and scrolling down to song)

What do you feel when you look at " The Potato Eaters?" If you listened to the music sampling, did you find your opinion of the painting shift?