Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Dissecting a Metcalf 2
image: www.artrenewal .org
I know you are asking ,Who the heck is Willard Metcalf? Well here he is, born in Lowell Massachusetts in 1858. His family moved to and his early years were spent in Searsmont, Maine. From a family deeply involved in the then very popular spiritualist movement, that is communicating with the dead through seances etc. Willard was, like many of the landscape painters before the 20th century influenced by Emersonian transcendentalism. We will certainly return to the religious influences on American landscape painting, but that is for another post. He was also very fond of strong drink and women many years his junior. In 1911 he married his second wife Henriette, who was then 23 years old, he was 53.
Trained in Paris, he didn't really develop his mature style as an artist. until in his fifties. He spent much of his earlier career doing illustration for magazines. It is in the last twenty years of his life that he becomes the preeminent and enormously successful impressionist painter of the New England landscape. Much of his painting was done around Cornish, New Hampshire although he painted in Old Lyme Connecticut with Childe Hassam earlier, and also in and around Chester, Vermont and Stockbridge, Massachusetts..
Below I have again reproduced our Metcalf painting, ( last reproduced on Saturday February 14) on which I have drawn some lines.
The design is a diagonal rising from left to right. This diagonal orientation is very typical of his arrangements and he returns to it again and again. It is an excellent skeleton upon which to built a painting. This is of course "installed" rather than perceived in the landscape. Certainly the elements out there before him, facilitated and suggested the diagonal construction of the painting, but it is a deliberate act. This is an EXTREMELY important idea for you to grasp. The great landscape painters are not mindlessly recording that which is offered them in the landscape. They are using nature as a set of elements from which to assemble a painting on an armature of their own, called design. We will spend a great deal of time on this idea in future posts. But note it well. This is crucial to understanding the making of fine painting.
I will again, as I do so often, make a rock and roll metaphor. We instinctively seem to understand music better than painting. We know without being told, that a musicians' composition is not mimicking for us some series of sounds he heard out in the world somewhere. We understand that the sounds he makes are a new arrangement that he has crafted himself, not found and reproduced. They are invented not discovered.
" A painting is an arrangement of lines and colors that set one another off" said Degas. That it is a picture of the world is secondary to that.
LANDSCAPE PAINTING IS POETRY, NOT JOURNALISM!
Making a laundry list of the objects before you will not make a fine painting. Painting well, requires the ability to select, design, eliminate the nonessential, characterise that which is essential and subordinate all of the disparate parts to the larger image. The landscape painter must lead the viewers eye deliberately through the painting, and hold the viewer long enough to make them think about what they are seeing. A fine painting must have UNITY OF EFFECT, that is, it must be one image on the canvas, perceived as a whole, rather than half a dozen lesser ones each clamoring for our attention. I would add that ideally, although not essentially, a painting should have dignity, reserve, power, poetry and should look as if it could have been made only by that particular painter and no other.
I have just thrown down an enormous amount of information and ideas of tremendous scale and importance to landscape painting. I would ask you to review the preceding paragraph several times. Every phrase above could be a chapter in a book on painting. This blog will return to these ideas repeatedly and if you can keep them in mind they will guide you to better paintings of your own.
Chew on that till tomorrow, when I will return to dissecting the Metcalf.