Posts Tagged ‘James McNeil Whistler’

Another Sunday morning and I am ready for a little music. I was looking at some of the Nocturne paintings of James McNeill Whistler that I so much admire, like the one shown above from  1877, and thought I’d use that as the theme for this week’s music.

There are a lot of songs that use night as a theme but I settled on the classic Night Life written by Willie Nelson back in the late 1950’s. It has been covered by a lot of folks over the years, some good and some not so much. But  for me  while Willie’s version remains the truest and best of the bunch, I am partial to this performance by the great Marvin Gaye. He inserts his own special feeling into the song and the night life he creates is indeed his life. Good stuff.

Give a listen. Enjoy. Have a great day…


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Aline Smithson Arrangement in Green and Black CompilationJames McNeill Whistler- Arrangement in Grey and BlackI have written here in the past about the composition from the iconic James McNeill Whistler painting Arrangement in Grey and Black— better known as Whistler’s Mother.  It’s a beautiful, solidly structured composition that works as a wonderful template for creating a solid visual image of any subject.

Several years, ago, contemporary photographer Aline Smithson used Whistler’s image as the basis for a series of photos that she called Arrangement in Green and Black: Portraits of the Photographer’s Mother.  Inspired by a print of Whistler’s painting that she found at a rummage sale and using her then 85 year-old mother (an obviously loving and patient woman who unfortunately passed away before seeing the finished series) as the subject, Smithson created 20 images with varied takes on the famous composition.

They are quietly comical individually and as a group. I just find them interesting.  Below are some of my favorites.

For more on Aline Smithson’s work, please follow this link to her website where you will find many more portfolios featuring her distinct eye for observation.  She also has a current exhibit, Aline Smithson: Self & Others, at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Massacusetts.  It closes May 1 so if you’re in the area, don’t waste any time in getting to the museum.

Aline Smithson_Arrangement-14 Aline Smithson_Arrangement-11 Aline Smithson_Arrangement-10 Aline Smithson_Arrangement-1 Aline Smithson Arrangement Aline Smithson Arrangement in Green and Black a Aline Smithson_Arrangement-3

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Watching the coverage of the disaster taking place in Japan has brought to mind the many Japanese influences on my work.  I have always been drawn to the work of the Japanese print masters such as Hokusai, who I have written about before, and Hiroshige.  I was influeneced by their work before I was even aware of it, mostly through their influence on the European artists in the late 19th century.  Artists like Whistler and Van Gogh were enthralled by the beauty of their woodblocks, Van Gogh even going so far as simply copying them for some of his earlier paintings.

When I began to look more closely at the work of Hiroshige, I too was captivated.  There is great unity and totality in the work, a harmony of color and line rhythm that fills the picture frame.   The colors are softly graded yet there is deep saturation  that is like a feast for the eyes.  The landscapes seem to grow organically with lovely curves and lines that evoke that sense of rightness I have often struggled to describe here.  They have a great polarity as well.  They are bold yet subtle.  They are quiet yet not timid.  they are simple yet complex. They are both earthly and ethereal. 

In short, they are just wonderful.

Take a look at this beautiful work and how it reflects its homeland.  If you can, take a few minutes and donate what you can to relief organizations whose help a great part of this nation is desperately desiring in this time of disaster. 

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Yesterday I wrote about how I have often used in my own work the composition from the James McNeil Whistler painting popularly known as Whistler’s Mother.  I did so without illustrating the point so I thought I’d take quick moment to show how I might block in my own work with Whisyler’s composition.

Going into my archives, one of the first things I look at is a painting from a few years back, The Way of Light.  At first glimpse, this piece has nothing in common with the Whsitler piece.  First, it is not portraiture ( although I often view my trees as such) and it is a landscape.  It is obviously a different palette of color than that of Whistler and the elements are rendered in a less realistic fashion than you would see in Whistler’s work.

But if you put those differences aside and quickly take in the shape and form of each piece, you can begin to see the similarity.  The line of trees on the small mound of land in my piece take the place of Whistler’s dark curtain on the far left.  The water in mine becomes the floor of his. The body of his mother is replaced by my island and her head becomes my red tree.  The framed print is now my moon.

Here, I overlaid my piece with the Whistler piece to further illustrate the point.  Obviously, there are worlds of differences separating the two pieces, as I pointed out above.  But the composition and use of blocking and light help us each achieve a sense of mood that is the primary goal in both cases.  Like Whistler, I am often more concerned with the mood and emotion of a piece of work than the actual subject matter.  In this pursuit I have come to view much of my work as Whistler did his, as musical compositions rather than merely representative images.

In color and shape there is rhythm, tempo and tone.  The placement of the compositional elements of a piece are much like the placement of individual notes in music, each affecting and reacting with those around it.  All trying to evoke feeling, response.

Well, there’s my illustration of how Whsitler’s iconic piece fits in with what I try to do with my work.  Hope you can now see the connection…

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This is James McNeil Whistler’s most famous piece, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1:  Portrait of the Painter’s Mother.  It is, of course, better known as Whistler’s Mother.  It was a painting that I was casually familiar with as I grew up but it wasn’t until I looked more closely at it after I had started painting that I saw the brilliance of it’s composition.

Whistler always asserted that the painting was not about his mother but was more concerned with creating mood with color and composition, which the primary focus of almost all his work. This piece achieves it’s mood with beautiful diagonal lines formed by the woman’s form and contrasting verticals and horizontals that create great visual tension and energy.  The stark whiteness of the matted print on the wall behind shines like a full moon against the pale blue-gray sky that is the wall itself.  The head of the old woman seems to be almost lit by the light from the moon/print.

This is not a portrait of an old woman.  It’s a nocturnal landscape.  That’s what I saw when I looked at it as a painter trying to glean what I could from it for my own use.  This was a composition that had a geometry that just felt so right immediately.  It had such a sense of perfection in the way color and form combine with sheer simplicity that I knew I would have to use it for myself.

And I have, quite a few times over the years since I first really looked at it, sometimes with slight variations in the placement of the elements but still basically with the same compositional base.  And inevitably, they are pieces that great immediacy in their impact, pieces that carry great mood whatever their subject matter.

And for that I thank you, Mr. Whistler…

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