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Posts Tagged ‘Boston Museum of Fine Art’

Robert Henri- Irish Girl (Mary O’Donnel) -1913

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Because we are saturated with life, because we are human, our strongest motive is life, humanity; and the stronger the motive back of the line the stronger, and therefore more beautiful, the line will be.

–Robert Henri (1865-1929)

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I came across this quote from the highly influential painter/ teacher Robert Henri and it made me think of two separate incidents that influenced my work.

The first comes from the quote itself, about how a strong belief in humanity and life should manifest itself in one’s art, creating a stronger and bolder and more beautiful line. It brings to mind the only art training I ever received, a night course, Drawing 101, from a local community college. I was taking it because at the time I had an interest in pursuing architecture and needed a portfolio. All the drawing I had done up to that time was just, more or less, doodling on bits of paper, in journals, or in the margins of magazines and newspapers. I thought a course on drawing would get me to some work that might help in putting together a portfolio.

The course ended up being a travesty. The instructor had little interest in being there and gave only cursory instruction. He kept an eye fixed on the clock and often ended the sessions early so that he could get to the local pub a bit quicker. I didn’t get much out of the course and dropped my quest to go into architecture but I did get one bit of advice that I carried with me.

The instructor pointed out that he preferred strong, bold lines even if they were not completely accurate or correct in the context of the drawing. They exuded confidence and that was more important that accuracy, especially if the lines were weak and tentative. That really struck a chord with me and stuck with me through the years until I began painting.

I think his words line up well with Henri’s assertion above. That confidence the instructor referred to is much the same as Henri’s saturation with life and humanity.

The other incident that I was reminded of upon stumbling across Henri’s words is my encounter with the painting at the top of the page. It is titled Irish Girl ( Mary O’Donnel) and was painted by Henri in 1913 and is at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. When I first saw it, I was showing my work at several galleries and was about a year away from my first big solo show at the Principle Gallery.

I encountered this painting in a large gallery in the museum and was struck how people would immediately head to this painting, even though it was one of the smaller pieces in the large space. I couldn’t figure out why this was. I mean, it was a strong painting but the way people were attracted to it seemed out of line with what I was seeing. Looking at it dispassionately, I finally settled on the color of her sweater as being the reason. It was deep crimson that really popped off the wall.

It made me examine my own palette of colors. My colors at the time were more earth toned and red was certainly not a large part of it. When it did come into play, it was usually more subdued and washed out. Pale. To tell the truth, I was a bit afraid of it as a color. When I tried it in a bolder way, it often skewed to harsher, sharper tones that were not to my liking and usually didn’t align with the emotional context of the painting.

But seeing Henri’s use of it made me better appreciate the power of the color. I began to work with it more and soon was incorporating in my work on a regular basis. It became a vital part of my visual vocabulary. It showed itself in a big way with my first show at the Principle Gallery which was titled Red Tree. It has stuck with me and I have Henri’s Irish Girl to thank.

It’s interesting how sometimes failed attempts, like my college course, or confounding encounters, such as mine with Henri’s painting, have impacts on you that you could never foresee. You never truly know what will come from anything we stumble across. Inspiration comes in many forms.

Have a good Saturday.

 

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I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
–Ozymandias, PB Shelley
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If you have ever been to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, you have no doubt seen the painting above. I’ve only been there once and the image of this painting and its strong presence in the space really sticks in my mind. It was painted in 1863 by artist Elihu Vedder, an American expatriate who lived and worked in Italy for over 60 years.

Its title is The Questioner of the Sphinx and it shows a man listening intently at the lips of the ancient monument with the hope, no doubt, of hearing some eternal truth. The skull in the sand makes clear that the Sphinx will not easily relinquish its secrets. The kneeling listener is said to represent man’s futile desire to find immortality.

With the still sand covered Sphinx and the scattered toppled columns, the painting presents us with echoes from ancient history of once mighty empires that are long fallen and forgotten. It is reminiscent of Shelley’s great poem, Ozymandias, shown above, that speaks to the hubris and folly of those who think they can lord over this world.

This was painted at a time when the US was in the midst of the Civil War and there was great doubt as to whether the county would be able to endure the struggle. The US was not an empire at that point. It was still young and finding its way but we still represented a great triumph of democracy, a country ruled by its people and  not kings or dictators or despots– a rarity in the whole of history. But in that civil war we found ourselves in an existential crisis, a tipping point, that put us in peril of being consigned to the dustbin of history before we even grew into any form of our potential.

I write about this painting this morning because it feels to me that we are again at a tipping point, divided in many ways as a country. It feels like there is going to soon be some sort of revelation that is either going to set us on a course that will either allow us to continue to grow our American experiment or will cause us to plummet into a darker and much more dangerous future.

It all hinges on people who are ethical and principled standing up and doing what is right and exposing the truths of our time.

But in the meantime, I find myself feeling like that man with his ear anxiously pressed to the lips of Sphinx.

 

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