Sunday, June 27, 2010

A knife fight in a phonebooth

images from and
Above is a Winslow Homer, and below the William Trost Richards that I posted last night. Below that again is another Homer. I said last night that I thought the Homer was artistically a far greater work of art. I want to go a little deeper into that idea tonight. Let's see if I can wring from it a little insight into what things put a painting in the top echelon and what things might keep it from there. What follows is, of course, only my opinion, but you can trust me, I'm a professional.

The Richards are great painting, and I have studied his seascapes a lot. I love Richards and before you log on to defend him, remember I think his paintings are wonderful. But I think Homer is a greater artist. Here, in my clip are some bullets, (plus one in the chamber) let me see if I can explain why I think that.
  • Great paintings tend to be simple, the detail that is in a painting like this Richards is less poetic than the spare breadth of the Homer. That simplification gives the Homers a magnificence and monumentality that the more complicated Richards lacks.
  • There is something like classicism in the Homers, I don't mean of the doctrinaire sort, but the large simplified masses and lack of small information remind me of Ingres or Raphael in the boiling down of the image to its essentials. There is something in the general that speaks more directly to us than the specific, it is more universal and reads more like memory than observation. That slight avoidance of the literal gives the paintings a slightly otherworldly feeling. We subconsciously react to that as being a different type of vision, the paintings seem less matter of fact. We are seeing in a different more exalted manner, and we are aware of that.
  • The simplicity of Homers handling elevates his pictures too, There is a dignity and a reserve they have, that makes the Richards flashy handling and bright effects seem a little brassy. The Richards seems a little too colored and a little too Kodachrome. Richards painting gains in immediacy, but loses something in long contemplation.
  • Homers designs are spare and have enormous carrying power, they would work as a stamp design or could be "read' from a block away. The more big shapes are chopped up with little marks and detail, the more their carrying power is reduced. His designs are stripped to their essentials and the result is boldness and clarity. It also makes them easy to look at for long periods of time. I think detail in a painting is consumable. We use up the enjoyment of it and the painting becomes less interesting. Great design seems to endure for us to enjoy.
  • Homers color is a little austere and that helps move them into the great category, we all can cite an example of a painter whose color is ridiculously happy and major key, the painting that tries too hard to be liked and gaily appealing. At the other end of this continuum are paintings that don't flash a little skin at you or swish their hips too much.
  • Homers paintings of a wave are iconic, they are every wave, the Richards carefully describes a particular wave. The Richards is smaller in its conception. Ironically, I would guess that Richards knew a lot more about the "hydraulics" of the ocean. His wave anatomy is always understood, his waves are technically better, but technique is second to poetry and the Homers have that to burn. There is a weakness in naturalism, perhaps because we see that way all the time or because it is matter of fact. No great painting could be mistaken for a window. Richards is a journalist. Homer is a poet.
  • Homers designs are unexpected and original, the Richards is a default seascape design, it is a template and he plugged lots of pictures into it. It is a relatively conventional view painted with astonishing skill. The Homers are all unique, they are all different from one another and from everyone else's seascapes too.

  • It is evocation and not description that takes a picture to the level of greatness, the 19th century was full of artists who could render astonishingly well, and who are today forgotten. There was a system for teaching that, which is now lost. I don't mean to dismiss technique, only that it is expected as a tool, but is not in itself the end. Just as having a command of vocabulary and grammar is essential to being a writer, it is more important to have something extraordinary to say.


sharprm said...

Just wanted to say I really appreciate your posts on art history and design.

Abel said...

Even though I knew the sensational headline of this post had nothing to do with the content, I still clicked it first on my google-reader-reading-list...

This discussion of technique and poetry is really helpful to me right now. I'm an illustration student and I'm sortof torn between the emphasis on rendering-technique/detail from some of my teachers and my personal aspiration for good design and valuable (poetic) content. I'm going to continue spending most of my time training my technique, even though I might not really care for the resulting work, but this discussion convinces me that poetry will always take precedent when my "complete focus on foundations" days are over.

Thanks man.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

That's a good statement:

"No great painting could be mistaken for a window."

Robert J. Simone said...

Awfully insightful for a knife fight. By the way, what's a phone booth?

Jo-Ann Sanborn said...

I've always loved Homer, and have never seen the remarkable range of his work so quite defined and well organized. A thoughtful and though provoking series of posts, but this may be the best. Poetry takes precedence will be remembered. You'll get no knife from me.

T Arthur Smith said...

One is a jouranlist, and one is a poet. So what it comes down to is apples and oranges, and which fruit do you like best? Like all art. Best point was how every single Winslow Homer work is completely different. I think it comes from a different work ethic - the difference between searching for the new, versus coming back to the same places at the same time of day. Although there's a zen aspect of repetition and technique.

Philip Koch said...

I loved Stape's line below. My little brain will be chewing on this one all cay-

"There is something in the general that speaks more directly to us than the specific, it is more universal and reads more like memory than observation."

Lucy said...

Some years ago there was a grand retrospective of Homer's work at the Met. The first painting from yesterday's post (red horizon, cool crashing wave on the left) was featured in the exhibit with a quote from whoever reviewed the picture in the late 1800's. The reviewer said it was garish and badly painted!!
I'll bet the same reviewer loved the Richards paintings.
I really like Richard's work too,but maybe it takes time for history to recognize greatness. And don't always listen to the critics!

Lucy said...

The date of the review may have been later. The review was from the New York Times.

willek said...

But, about the Richards... How many times I have looked out on that ocean and said, where is the picture here? It is all horizontals and unbroken likes of surf and horizon. I noticed here that WTR broke up the horizon line with a counterchange just right of center. I don't recollect seeing that too often. It really does the job.

billspaintingmn said...

Very good Stape! You have clairified some major 'moves' to win a knife fight.
...and in a phone booth, one must
make every stab count!(less is more, more or less)

Mike Thompson said...

I suspect the reason Homer has such a sense of design is that he started out as an illustrator. In those days it was black and white woodcut illustration. You have to have a sense of design to make those work effectively. He may have hated being an illustrator but he kept at it for a number of years even after he became an artist. I've also heard that Rockwell was disparaged for being a mere ''illustrator''. Standing before the Four Freedoms is a humbling experience. Too bad they were painted by a mere ''illustrator''.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

You gotta know that stuff, and probably other stuff too.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

I actually saw a phone booth the other day, an old wooden one with the big black iron phone.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't dread the knife, its getting pinned in that bifold door that frightens me.

Stapleton Kearns said...

T. Arthur
I am in the fruit business and judging the apples and oranges is my job.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks, I made that up!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Critics are saying all kinds of stuff. You have to look at THEIR paintings before you decide whether or not to believe them.

-writing about music is like dancing about architecture! -Frank Zappa

Stapleton Kearns said...

Was their a Walter Duranty column in that issue?

Stapleton Kearns said...

You are disassembling them. Richards knew all the moves.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The trick is to back your opponent up and pin them in the bifold door, then you can take your time.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I remember hearing that in art school. I loved Rockwell then and I used to defend him thusly. "so you say everything IS art, except illustration?"

Mary Byrom said...

Stapleton, very nice post! Your thoughts on design and what makes a painting great (and transcend the subject matter) are well written.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Deborah Paris said...

"There is something in the general that speaks more directly to us than the specific, it is more universal and reads more like memory than observation."


Dot Courson said...

Another profoundly brilliant post! You have such a clear way of stating ideas and are such an accomplished and enjoyable writer, Stape! When is the book coming out?
"...detail in a painting is consumable. We use up the enjoyment of it and the painting becomes less interesting." deserved CAPS as well as "There is something in the general that speaks more directly to us than the specific, it is more universal and reads more like memory than observation."