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.


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.

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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.


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”:


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.


Tim Eitel: German Realism in a Grey Age

A new exhibition at the Rochester Art Center gives us a chance to look at the work of German artist Tim Eitel, one of the leading exponents of a group of artists known as the “New Leipzig School” of painting.  The group got its name from the fact that the members all attended the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts in the 1990’s.  While the members of the New Leipzig School paint works which often differ substantially from one another, and they are not strictly realist images per se, there is a certain sense in looking at their work that that they are building upon the past history of examining realism in Western Art and branching out from that tradition, rather than cutting themselves off from it.  Now in their 30’s and 40’s, this group of German artists produces interesting, often highly accomplished examples of actual figurative painting, showing that not everything in the contemporary art world consists in the display of detritus from the bathroom wastepaper bin spread on a floor underneath a video screen of a woman reciting a grocery list in Sanskrit. (Ooops, I’ve just previewed Tracey Emin’s latest work of “art”.)

Eitel is among the more prominent members of the New Leipzig School, and it is not difficult to see why.  If the 20th century Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte had studied under the 15th century Florentine painter Fra Angelico, his work might have looked something like Eitel’s.  It is paradoxically both flat and three-dimensional, giving a sense of space and depth through the simplification of shapes almost to the point of abstraction, and yet at the same time allowing us to recognize figures placed into various degrees of recognizable settings.

Perhaps because of his experience in a very gray East Germany, Eitel is often most effective when he uses his signature limitation of detail in combination with a gray and neutral color palette.  His figures are frequently shown from behind, engaged in activity or in thoughts which we are not privileged to share.  And when his figures are turned toward the viewer, their features are often highly simplified, or represented merely with hints of shadow.

Because Eitel is a painter with an aesthetic owing much to the world of design and photography, his work may seem by some to be cold, geometric, and lifeless.  Yet I find it an expression of a modern understanding of image which at the same time hearkens back to the study of composition and the effects of palette and light upon a finished work, of art.  While Eitel has in many respects made his name among collectors and curators for his often rather dark paintings and prints, his understanding of how intense light can both illuminate and flatten at the same time reminds me not only of the Surrealists, but also of those exponents of the Italian Renaissance who were trying to bring greater realism to their work without quite being able to break out of the two-dimensional point of view that had dominated much of Medieval painting.

Take Eitel’s engaging 2003 oil “Hill”, now in a private American collection.  On a hillside sometime around twilight we see a young man with his hands clasped behind his back, who has probably been out for a stroll.  For some reason he has paused, and is looking down at the viewer, who appears to be standing a distance below him on the hillside.  We do not know what we have done to momentarily capture his attention, but clearly we now have it.  Despite the fact that all is quiet and still, it is an image which suggests a forthcoming dynamism, as a result of the undulating crest of the hill, and the sense of paused motion on the part of the young man walking across it.


Eitel’s prints are equally fascinating. Take for example his 2010 work “Monks”, showing a group of three men, one in a hooded religious habit and the other two in cassocks, who are looking at something which we do not see.  The balding monk on the right is gesticulating, while the priest in the center is holding what appears to be a sheet of paper behind his back; he and the taller priest on the right appear to be listening to what the balding monk is explaining to them.  We are left wondering what they are talking about : perhaps the fellow on the right is explaining the plans for a new building,  which are held by the priest in the middle, and they are trying to imagine what the finished project will ultimately look like.


If Eitel’s priests preserve their anonymity by not showing us their faces, Eitel’s policemen do so by not really having faces at all.  In his “Professionals” print from 2008, Eitel shows a tall police officer with his hands in his jacket pockets, looking out over his left shoulder at something we cannot see. His partner is a short police officer who stands at the ready with his hands at his sides, facing directly at the viewer, in a stance that calls to mind the gunfighter of the Old West.  Are they standing outside on a wet pavement, or are they standing on a polished museum or office building floor? Eitel does not give us answers, but allows us to think for ourselves.


The reason I appreciate Eitel’s work is that the detachment of the painter and the anonymity of the subject are elements which mirror the times in which we live.  For rather than strictly trying to revisit and live in the past, Eitel takes a long, hard look at the world he lives in.  We are so often pushed about in crowds, whether by transit systems, marketers, or nanny states, that our individuality is often lost in the crush of larger forces.  Eitel recognizes that even though we find it difficult to perceive our own individual features clearly any more, they are still there, albeit illumined only dimly.

The Haunted World of a Great American Artist

For those of my readers in the Kansas City and Athens, Georgia areas of the country, be on the lookout for the exhibition “To Make A World: George Ault and 1940s America”, which recently finished its run at the Smithsonian American Art Museum here in the nation’s capital. Although George Ault (1891-1948) is perhaps not quite a household name among American modern artists as are some of his colleagues, such as Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe, he ought to be better known. His work not only captures a bleaker side of America with which all Americans are familiar, but is also deeply personal and introspective.

Ault is often considered to be a member of the Precisionist movement, which is a distinctively American style of painting that emerged after World War I. It is characterized by a mixture of Realism and Cubism, most often focusing on buildings and landscapes, but sometimes producing unusual mixtures of symbolism and graphic art. The result has a wonderful “feel” of the Art Deco period about it, though it often lacks the glamour we expect of that age. This is art that features, not the world of Gatsby and Daisy’s homes in the Eggs, but rather the Wilsons and their garage in the Valley of Ashes.

While the Precisionists often looked with wonder and appreciation at the rapidly changing landscape around them, Ault did not fit particularly well into this grouping. He abhorred skyscrapers, for example, and gradually came to retreat from the industrial world of New York City, as he found it more and more difficult to function within it. When he settled in the country, it became apparent that Ault suffered from what today would probably be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. His second wife described how he would have to clean the entire house and studio himself, inside and out, from top to bottom before he could sit down to paint. He would also get down on his hands and knees with a pair of lawn-trimming shears along the garden path, and cut back the edge of the grass, in order to have as precise a line as possible.

However Ault had many other demons, not the least of which was his alcoholism, which was brought on by the beginning of such horrendous family tragedies that it staggers the mind to think that he was capable of functioning at all, let alone as an artist. First, one of his brothers and sister-in-law killed themselves in a suicide pact. Then Ault’s mother died after being placed in a mental institution. Ault’s father subsequently died of cancer in 1929, when the family fortune disappeared in the stock market crash. Ault’s two other brothers killed themselves over the following two years.

It is perhaps this psychological profile that, even if we did not know Ault’s family history, we pick up from his paintings, which often have a haunted, foreboding sense about them. His cityscapes are astonishingly devoid of activity, not reflecting the hustle and bustle of urban life, even if we see evidence of human activity such as smoke rising from a chimney or lights on in a window. There is something crystalline and cold about his work; there is a detachment from human emotion that makes us not want to visit the places he is representing.

As Ault’s neuroses deepened and his mood darkened, shutting himself off from his friends and colleagues, his colors became correspondingly darker.  Man in the natural landscape, when he finally got out of the city to try to free himself from this darkness, turned out to be just as oppressive to him as man in the urban landscape. We see a huge drift of snow on the roofline of a house become a menace, as if it was going to trap the people within and smother them. Another painting shows a frozen waterfall in the mountains, cascading over some rocks under a grey sky; Ault paints the frozen spray to look as though it has giant skeletons trapped within it.

Many critics would probably consider Ault’s masterpiece to be his “Bright Light at Russell’s Corners” of 1946, one of a series of paintings he did of this same, lonely rural intersection in Upstate New York. It is a scene which any one of us who has had to walk or drive at night down a country road will be very familiar with. Certainly the clapboard-style architecture of the house and the old, sagging red barn tell us that we are in New England, but with slight variations we can imagine this location almost anywhere in the country, from Maine to Nebraska to Wyoming.

We can see from the orange leaves on the tree peeping around the corner of the house that we are well into autumn. The grass is still tall in the field to the left, meaning it is probably sometime in October, before the first hard freeze will finally kill off anything growing. However there is no sense of joy here in the fall and winter festivals to come: no harvesting, apple cider, trick-or-treating, turkey and stuffing, or Santa Claus.  Instead, we have a sense of isolation, thinking of the impending, harsh winter snows and storms which are going to cut the people who live in the house off from the outside world for months.

On December 30, 1948, on his way home from one of his not-infrequent benders at a local tavern, Ault decided to walk along the icy banks of the local creek, which was swollen from recent, heavy rains. Somehow he ended up in the water, and drowned. Whether he suffered an accident or whether he killed himself we will never know. Because of his family history, it is reasonable to assume that he committed suicide, but I have never been so sure.

Clearly alone amongst the members of his family he was the one with the will and determination to survive and to push on, which makes me question whether his death was intentional. Even if he was encumbered by neuroses and these personal tragedies – the last of which had occurred 17 years earlier, at that point – Ault still managed to go on painting and creating, and making a life for himself. It is a pity Ingmar Bergman never did a film about Ault’s life, for I suspect there would be a great deal of kindred spirit there.

The art of George Ault, while perhaps not what we would call inspirational or indeed aspirational, has a great deal of beauty in its haunted reflections of the American landscape, both urban and rural. The benefit of this traveling exhibition is that more people will be exposed to his particular vision, and that he will become better known. This can only be of benefit to the study and preservation of great American art of the previous century.

“Bright Light at Russell’s Corners” by George Ault (1946)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.