Thursday, February 19, 2009
all images this page courtesy; www.artrenewal.org
I suspect you may have had enough of Willard Metcalf. Okay, this is the last one I promise. This post is going to be different than the last few anyway It is going to be more philosophical.
What I believe makes Willards' paintings special is this. Despite his rough edged personality and a libertine way of life, his art is the opposite of what you might expect from such a man. Rather than being explosive or gestural, Willards' art is quietly reverent. He treats nature with a gentle and and dignified respect.There are no flourishes here that call attention to the man who made them.There are no affectations in these paintings, no idiosyncratic weirdnesses thrown in to make them deliberately stylistic or self consciously unique, they are completely devoid of the pretentious showmanship and hype of contemporary painting. These paintings whisper. Willard was raised in a time when the idea of nature being the face of God was a common. Many of the Luminist painters of the generation before saw landscape painting in a religious context.
I think Metcalf painted a landscape he saw as holy. His paintings quiver with an awed hush before the eternal. They have a careful and symmetrical balance of execution in the following ways.
1 ) they are neither academically tight nor splashy and loose, they are carefully and gently in between the two, both finely drawn and resolved, yet with a visible brushstroke and broad simplification of what in most hands would be complicated passages. Willard is able to maintain the drawing in these pictures unlike the French and some American painters of the era who dissolved form into light. They have impressionist light yet still have form at the same time.There is none of the hardness of photography with its relentless presentation of both the essential and inessential, but a reduction of the scene down to visual purity.
2) At a glance his paintings seem impromptu almost like snapshots, but
on more careful examination they have deliberate arrangement that has been imposed on nature. They are carefully designed, but in a cunning and unobtrusive manner. They are neither random views cropped from nature nor are they synthetic and composed like a Hudson River school painting. They are not artificially formal and gardened like a Claude Lorain. These compositions are balanced and are arranged so as to lead the viewer into and through them. The painting with the river in autumn is a good example of this. His designs are so unobtrusive that we are hardly aware these things have been arranged, we think that nature before him must have just been arrayed perfectly. After thirty years of landscape painting outside I know that this kind of design is virtually never just "found" out there.
3) They are neither extremely colored like a Monet nor are they somber. Again they are carefully in the middle. They seem naturalistic but further study reveals a sort of heightened gem like clarity of color that is more than natural.
4) These paintings are neither particularly high key, nor do the appear dark, they contain a full range of both ends of the value scale. Their values are spread across the full range
and you are not aware of their key. They just look right.
These paintings are without artificiality or theatrics they have no extreme mannerisms, no affectations , and the art in them is concealed and only reveals itself gradually. We are almost unaware of the presence of the artist. Yet no other artists paintings ever looked like them either.They are individual without a deliberate stylishness. It is that subtle and shimmering vision of Metcalfs that gives them a quiet timeless perfection. They seem so real but somehow eternal as well.
It is because of that mysterious clarity, and quality in these paintings of being both totally believable, yet perfected that makes Willard Metcalf in my opinion the finest American Impressionist painter.