Restraint Over Glamour: A French Baroque Master Tones It Down

With yesterday’s readings at Mass continuing the story of the revolt of Absalom against his father, King David, I started wandering around the infinite rabbit hole of the interwebz, reading up on some Biblical scholarship concerning the dysfunctional Davidic dynasty, and researching some works of art depicting the tumultuous relationship between David, his wives, and his children. In the course of this, I came across a painting by Eustache Le Sueur (1617-1655) who, although he died young, was a figure of great importance in the history of French painting. Yet it was not his striking image of a scene from the calamities of King David’s family that really grabbed my attention, but rather a wonderfully quiet, introspective, and architectural painting of his which I had not seen before.

Le Sueur was one of the founders of the “Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture” (“Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture”) which, after its dissolution during the French Revolution and subsequent reestablishment under Napoleon, became one of the divisions of the “Académie des Beaux-Arts” (“Academy of Fine Arts”.) As was true of many French court artists of his period, Le Sueur’s focus was usually on rich colors, billowing draperies, beautiful bodies, and plenty of action. His “Rape of Tamar” (c. 1640), now at The Met, exemplifies this in spades. It’s interesting to note that, when taken in at a distance, the palette here is a combination of both neutrals and different shades of the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue.) As it is believed that the painting was part of a decorative cycle for a Paris mansion, it may have been that this was the color scheme for the room in which it was originally placed.

Eustache

We can contrast what was fashionable in French courtly art at this period with the height of courtly art in Spain at the exact same time. Diego Velázquez’ “The Rest of Mars” (1640), one of a series of classical/mythological subjects painted for King Felipe IV which are now in The Prado, seems as though it was painted on a different planet in a different century, not in the same year as Le Sueuer’s “Tamar”. Here, unlike the figure of Amnon in the French piece, Velázquez does not idealize his subject at all. We see an old, tired, warrior – sporting quite the handlebar mustache – who stares out at us with a look that is one of both exhaustion and suspicion. It is so unsentimental and realistic, so frank in its unglamorous portrayal of its subject, that it anticipates by several centuries the work of American artists such as Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer.

A 4134

Yet for all of his flash, Le Sueur was not simply a decorator. Between 1645 and 1648 he painted a series of wall paintings depicting scenes from the life of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusian Order of monks, for their monastery in Paris. These works were eventually purchased by Louis XVI, and are now part of the permanent collection at The Louvre. It is difficult to believe that the same artist who painted the rather plastic, artificial-looking “Tamar” in 1640 is the same artist who, only a few years later, painted this rather stark, realistic night scene of a group of monks gathered around the deathbed of St. Bruno. Interestingly however, note that Le Sueur is once again sticking to neutrals, something which, even with the use of primary colors in the “Tamar” picture, he knew well how to employ in his art.

Bruno

But of all the paintings in this series the one that really struck me, which I wanted to share with you today, is this one – “St. Bruno at Prayer”:

Prayer

Le Sueur has depicted St. Bruno in prayer at the most critical juncture in the saint’s life, when he has decided that the time has come for him to abandon the world and devote himself to a life of prayer and penitence. There is a pious story that the saint was persuaded to do so when, at the funeral of Raymond Diocres, a supposedly saintly and well-respected professor at the Sorbonne, the corpse briefly came back to life to exclaim that despite his good reputation, it was all false and he had been justly condemned after death as a sinner. Thus, we see two undertakers in the background, through the archway, preparing to bury the corpse of Diocres in the churchyard.

Despite the questionable veracity of this legend, St. Bruno did, around this time, begin to withdraw from the world, and did go on to found the Carthusian Order, a strict, contemplative branch of religious life which is familiar to any of my readers who have seen the superb documentary film, “Into Great Silence”. St. Bruno got his start as a religious founder rather late in life, particularly at a time when history when people did not live very long. After spending much of the first half of his life climbing the ecclesiastical ladder, he only made up his mind to abandon the world around the age of 47, and really only began that process in earnest at the age of 50.

What Le Sueur does beautifully here is create that sense of Carthusian stillness around St. Bruno, long before the Carthusians themselves came to be, where he has no distractions at all from what is going on inside his heart. Even though the picture is wonderfully simple, in keeping with the values of the Order, Le Sueur still manages to throw in some color, not only in the form of the misty landscape outside of the church, but particularly in the red curtain and altar cloth which provide the strongest tone in the entire picture. There is even a bit of red brick showing through the whitewash and plaster on one of the walls.

The figure of the saint himself, in this elegant architectural space, is beautifully observed. We only see part of his face, hidden under his floppy hair and full beard – both of which will eventually be completely shaved off – but we can tell from his pose that this is a highly emotional and deeply personal moment he is experiencing. St. Bruno is so overcome with emotion that he clasps his own arms, whether to steady himself from shaking, or whether he is symbolically embracing the new way life he has chosen to begin, as he kneels before the crucifix.

Note as well that, although this is a painting from the Baroque period, the most Baroque thing about this image are the complicated folds and falls in St. Bruno’s garment, and in the drapery above and behind him. The architecture of the church, and even the altar itself, are incredibly plain, simple, and serious. The only levity, if we are to call it that, comes from the dangling red tassel, suspended from a red cord.

Although Eustache Le Sueur died relatively young, and a number of his most important paintings (particularly those commissioned for the French Royal Palaces) have been lost, this series of images from the life of St. Bruno help to dispel the notion that he was simply another highly decorative, frivolous painter, more interested in nudes and action than in introspection and genuine emotion. Perhaps he was lucky in that, for once, those commissioning his work were interested in things that were not of this world, rather than in the glitter and flash of the visible world in which we find ourselves. And as someone who had not been familiar with his toned-down, more personal work for the Carthusians until now, I’m very glad to have become aware of them.

 

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Thought-Pourri: What’s In Edition

I’m still looking for ideas on what to call this weekly feature, partly because in the future, I’m considering turning it into a newsletter, and partly because I’m tired of the title. Titling it “Arts Roundup” or something like that seems rather dull. So please, if you have any ideas on what to call it – other than “Thought-Pourri”, that is – do share your ideas with me by using this form.

Tate Britain In Disarray

In the world of stupid ideas, this is one whose time – one thought – had come and gone, along with (the unlamented) Sir Nicholas Serota, but which now appears to be returning for another round. Five years ago, Tate Britain undid the art historical damage of Serota and his ilk by putting its collection back into roughly chronological order; now, that work is to be undone by its new director who, no surprise, hails from a Contemporary Art background. To re-hang a permanent collection in a way which makes sense to a temporary administrator and his flunkeys, but not to the vast majority of visitors, is not only short-sighted, but presumptuous and grossly egotistical. As Bendor Grosvenor has observed, “this seems to me reflective of an institution which doesn’t really know what it’s about. Shackled to the mother ship of Tate Modern, Tate Britain seems to see itself not as a museum, but a giant exhibition space, one that’s almost embarrassed by what it has to show. Consequently, the exhibition space – and what goes in it – must be changed every five years or so. A museum which was comfortable in itself, and happy to celebrate its collection, wouldn’t do this.”

Tate

Georgia In Hawaii

The great American Modern artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was a painter of sensuous floral paintings, as well as stark New York or Southwestern-inspired landscapes, but what few may be aware of is that she spent time working in Hawaii on commission from N.W. Ayer & Son, the advertising agency for Dole Foods Corporation – yes, the canned pineapple people. From early February to early April of 1939, O’Keefe sketched and painted the flora and landscapes of numerous sites in the Hawaiian Islands, including the Big Island, Oahu, and Maui; she ended up creating 20 paintings reflecting her time there, some of which were used by Dole in their ad campaigns, as shown below. Later this Spring, the library of the New York Botanical Garden will play host to an exhibition of many of these Hawaiian works, in an appropriately tropical setting, bringing them together for the first time in nearly 80 years in what will no doubt be a very interesting and popular show. “Georgia O’Keefe: Visions of Hawaii” opens on May 19th and runs through October 28th.

Georgia

Vegas In Neon

Few American cities are more closely associated with the use of neon lights than Las Vegas, Nevada, and so it will not surprise you to learn that Sin City has a major museum dedicated to this product of industrial design, creative advertising, and electrical engineering. The Neon Museum opened in 2012, and has become a popular tourist destination for those who want to see the remnants of famous casinos long since lost to the wrecking ball, such as the famous Sahara Hotel. The institution not only preserves and restores old neon signs at its facility, but is responsible for the care and maintenance of a number of historic neon signs in its collection which have been installed as public sculpture in and around Fremont Street. The museum has proven so popular that it has just announced a major expansion of its facilities, as well as the addition of new exhibitions and events, to draw in more visitors interested in these fun, supremely kitschy items of American design.

Vegas

 

 

At Home With Sorolla and Rusiñol: Two Very Different Artists, Two Very Similar Collectors

During my recent sojourn in Spain, I visited two rather impressive house/art museums which, to my surprise, had a more profound impact on me than I had anticipated when I set out to visit them. Originally, I only put them on my schedule in order to kill some time, before having to head to luncheons with different family members. Yet as it turned out, I was drawn deeply into each, coming to a greater level of appreciation for the work, times, and tastes of both of the artists who once lived in these homes.

Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) and Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1931) are two of the greatest painters to have been working in Spain at the turn of the previous century. While many of their paintings are now in museums and private collections around the world, quite a few key works by each artist still hang in their respective homes, both of which are now museums which preserve and celebrate their art. The Museo Sorolla in Madrid is contained in the elegant Neoclassical mansion which Sorolla called home for the last decade or so of his life, and in which his family continued to reside for a number of years after his death, until they donated it and its contents to the Spanish state. The Museu del Cau Ferrat, which is located in the beach resort of Sitges, about half an hour south of Barcelona, was a seaside weekend home and studio for Rusiñol for almost 40 years, where he could get away from the city and invite small groups of artistic and literary friends to come visit; he donated it and his collections to the town to be preserved as a museum after his death.

Although they were contemporaries, Sorolla and Rusiñol differed rather substantially when it came to their outlook on their own art. Sorolla came from poverty, and he studied and worked extremely hard to climb to the top of the artistic profession in Spain. He often engaged in friendly competition with other society artists of the Gilded Age, including John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn, (arguably) the greatest American and Swedish painters of the era. Like these artists he was more interested in painting ordinary people than in the well-known and well-to-do, but thanks to his great taste and skill he painted not only Spanish and European royalty and notables, but also famous Americans such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and President William Howard Taft, among others. His catalogue of commissions demonstrates how well-regarded he was internationally, at very high levels.

When not portraying the great and the good, Sorolla’s work focused on his family, traditional scenes from country life, and most especially on images of the seaside. His luminous beach paintings are perhaps his most famous works, and for good reason. In them we see naked children playing in the waves, ladies and gentlemen lounging about dressed in linen and straw hats, and hearty fishermen working on their nets, all enveloped in that intense Mediterranean sunlight which is extremely difficult to capture in photography, but which Sorolla manages to capture in order to give an almost internal radiance to his paintings. A famous example in the collection of the Museo Sorolla is “A Walk On The Beach” (1909), showing the painter’s wife and eldest daughter out for a stroll along the surf, with their white veils billowing in the breeze.

Sorolla

Rusiñol, on the other hand, was one of the original hipsters. Although he came from a well-to-do, bourgeois background, he chose to ally himself with the bohemian and avant-garde art movements of his time. Along with his closest friend, the great Catalan painter Ramon Casas, he painted subjects which would have been wholly inappropriate to polite society: prostitutes, street people, and so on. He became just as familiar with the bohemian hangouts of Paris as he was with the private clubs of the Barcelona bourgeoisie, where his art never quite felt at home, and encouraged the work of other, up-and-coming artists who became his friends, such as Picasso and Utrillo.

One example of Rusiñol’s very different approach to art from that of Sorolla is “The Morphine Addict” (1894), shown below. It is a disturbing image of Stéphanie Nantas, one of his preferred French models, which he painted in Paris during one of his sojourns there; it now hangs in the great hall of Cau Ferrat. In it we see the drug-addicted model in bed, having just given herself an injection that is starting to take effect. Her right hand clutches at the sheets, and her head pushes back into the pillow, as the narcotic begins to do its work. This is a world away from the elegant, languid Sorolla painting shown above.

Rusinol

Yet for all of their differences, and there are many, there is one thing that both Sorolla and Rusiñol had in common: they were obsessive collectors of art, antiques, and decorative objects. After visiting their homes, it becomes quite clear that each of them abhorred a vacuum as much as nature does, and to a greater extent than, today, with our love of minimalism, we would consider to be normal in a family residence. One would expect to see, for example, paintings by each of them, works of art gifted to them by their friends, some family photographs, and the like. But that is just the beginning of what a visit to each of these museums entails.

It’s no exaggeration to state that both Sorolla and Rusiñol wanted ALL THE THINGS: Gothic altarpieces; glazed ceramics; swords and armor; carved thrones; Baroque tapestries; inlaid marble tables; wrought iron candle stands; etc. And not everything was from Spain, either. Roman sculpture, Persian carpets, French ivories, Japanese lacquer screens, English walking sticks, Chinese temple vases – you name it, they had it. It would be impossible for me to try to describe how much *stuff* each of them had crammed into every corner of their houses, because no matter how much time you could spend in either of these museums, you couldn’t possibly see it all.

To get a flavor of what these places look like, you can visit my Instagram account and take a look at the pictures which I snapped at both museums. As this article is already running a bit long, I’ll only draw your attention to two aspects for your consideration. At the Sorolla home in Madrid, one of the most interesting details was the fact that the artist used old, decorated ceramic apothecary jars for storing and separating his brushes. I’ve seen these used before in homes and restaurants, as vases for flowers or for storing kitchen utensils, but I found this was a particularly novel – if indeed, slightly expensive – way of an artist keeping his tools organized.

Museo

Meanwhile, at Cau Ferrat, one of the most striking things about Rusiñol’s design for the ground floor of his house is the use of an intense, almost electric blue for nearly all of the walls in the public spaces. It is such a rich, saturated color, that the decision to use it as the background for his vast display of things such as glazed pottery or drawings by Casas, Picasso, and others, seems absolutely crazy – until you become accustomed to the space and realize that, somehow, the whole thing works. It’s also rather interesting that the (untalented and grossly overrated) French postmodern artist Yves Klein was widely credited with the use of this particular color, yet long before he was even born, Rusiñol was employing it to such a superb effect in what is, essentially, an art installation as much as it is home decorating.

Ferrat

The opportunity to see where an artist lived and worked is a rare thing, but to be able to see the objects that they loved still on their shelves or the like, and to be able to get a sense of how the artists used these things in their daily lives, makes the visit to an institution such as the Museo Sorolla or Cau Ferrat all the more of an intense learning experience.  In this case, despite many years of being familiar with the work of both of these painters, and assuming that they had nothing whatsoever in common with each other besides being from the same generation, I came to realize that both of them loved and appreciated beautiful things: women, furniture, holy water fonts, door knockers, bronze lamps, etc. I may have to do some more thinking about my preconceived notions regarding each of them.