Posts Tagged ‘Renoir’


For how can you compete,

Being honor bred, with one

Who were it proved he lies

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;

William Butler Yeats,

From To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing


I can’t say that I am a big Bill Kristol fan, the conservative political analyst, but yesterday he deftly used the excerpt above from a W.B. Yeats poem to describe the Mueller hearing of the day before. It so well described an honorable man dealing with the current occupant of the white house* and his minions in congress* that I wanted to know a bit more about that particular piece of verse.

It turns out that the poem from which those lines come is titled To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing that was included in a small volume of poems called Poems Written in Discouragement 1912-13.

The poem is at the bottom of the page and at first I thought it referred to someone in Yeats’ universe, a writer or artist or playwright, who had put their all into their work for years and years only to never be recognized for that work while others– who this person at least equals in talent and effort– gain greater recognition. That seems like a logical interpretation.

Turns out there is a different story behind the poem.

It has to do with an Irish art dealer named Hugh Lane who was trying to establish a public art gallery that would bring modern art of that time to Dublin at the beginning decades of the 20th century. He proposed to give the city his collection of 39 modern masterworks from Renoir, Manet, Degas, Monet, Daumier, Pissarro and Morisot so that they might establish a museum/gallery. The painting at the top from Renoir, The Umbrellas, was part of his collection.

To that time, Dublin had yet to display the new art of the age and its city fathers and religious leaders were not swayed by the offer. They viewed the new art as being decadent and with an air of libertinism to it. This turned into a heated public battle in which Yeats and others in the Irish artistic community fought to bring the new art culture to the country. They eventually lost and the collection ended up in the possession of the National Gallery of Great Britain after Lane died in the sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boats in 1915. He was returning from NY where he had sold two great pieces to what would become the Frick Collection. The Lusitania was only eleven miles from the Irish coast.

The battle for Hugh Lane’s collection has been fought continuously for the past century between the National Gallery and the Irish government. There are a lot more details so I am not going to get into the whole affair here. There is great article in the Guardian that goes into everything that transpired.

I just find it interesting how Yeats could turn a poem that dealt with the loss of a public debate about art and philanthropy into a poem that feels like it could be applied to many people who are in creative fields and may never realize the recognition their work may well deserve.

Or to a prosecutor dealing with shameless liars.

Here’s the whole poem:

To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing


Now all the truth is out,

Be secret and take defeat

From any brazen throat,

For how can you compete,

Being honor bred, with one

Who were it proved he lies

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;

Bred to a harder thing

Than Triumph, turn away

And like a laughing string

Whereon mad fingers play

Amid a place of stone,

Be secret and exult,

Because of all things known

That is most difficult.

–William Butler Yeats, Poems Written in Discouragement 1912-1913



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I have a real soft spot in my heart for self-taught and outsider artists, the untrained artists who are driven to create by forces that no one truly understands.  There is something about their passionate need for expression that really fills in the voids of the work they do,  making their sometimes unsophisticated creations sing as a reflection of the artist.  Many of these artists have interesting stories or lives that have been overtaken by their need to create their work.  One of these is the late Lee Godie.

Godie (1908-1994) showed up on the steps of the of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 60’s and for the better part of the next three decades was a fixture there, hawking her rolled canvas paintings to museum-goers and art students.  Her work was often made in ballpoint pen and watercolor and depicted mainly figurative work, often fashionably attired people in a style resembling fashion plates.  Over the years,  her work and her persona became almost legendary in the Chicago area and there was a career retrospective of her work at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1992,  just two years before her death.

I mentioned her persona, which may have been the biggest part of her work. While little is known of her life before her years as an itinerant artist on the steps of the museum, she was a big personality.  Although not French and with work that was not of the Impressionist school of art, she called herself a French Impressionist and often attached the title to her name on the back of the canvases she painted.  It was actually a nod to the inspiration she got from the Imprssionist paintings she saw in the museum.  As she said of her favorite artist , “Renoir was the greatest artist of all time. He always said he painted beauty. Now I always try to paint beauty, but some people say my paintings aren’t beautiful. Well, I have a beauty in my mind, but it isn’t always easy to make paintings beautiful.”  

Like many Outsiders, Godie lived a hard and homeless life, often sleeping in the bus terminal or, when sales were good, in flophouses.  But it didn’t deter her search for beauty.  One of the interesting things she did was to take advantage of the bus terminal photobooth, taking a series of photos over the years of her in different personas, often in heavy stage makeup.  She would often touch-up these photos with the colors with which she painted, creating photos that in themselves are as much works of art as her paintings.

I didn’t know much about Lee Godie before stumbling across her work but there is something quite special in her work, a childishly naive yet full view of her world that reaches out beyond the surface.  Knowing a bit more of her story makes that sensation even more profound.

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My post yesterday was about the guitarist Django Reinhardt and the beauty of the guitars he played.  I replied in a comment that I was surprised more painters didn’t use the guitar as a subject because, to me, it has a feeling of iconic expression.  It’s there in the shape of the instrument with its sensuous curves and neck.  The way the player holds- no, embraces the guitar.  The way they move their hands over the strings. 

It made me wonder how often the guitar had been used as subject and prompted to me to do a quick search. Now I don’t know what most people think and I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of art history but for me the piece that must be the most recognized is Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist from his Blue Period, around 1903.  I have used this piece as the inspiration for paintings of my own and love the expessiveness of the hands and the bow of the player’s neck.

Another was from Georges Braque, one of the prominent names in Cubism with Picasso.  His Woman With a Guitar from 1913, shown here, is a beautiful example of the Cubist style.  I’m not sure it carries the emotional impact of the Picasso piece above but it is a fine piece.

Many of the earlier paintings I found containing stringed instruments were not guitars but lutes.  Perhaps the best of these paintings is this gorgeous painting from Vermeer, The Guitar Player.  On closer examination, you can see that it is a lute.  But it’s such a beautiful piece of painting, does it really matter?

Renoir- Young Spanish Woman with Guitar

Edouard Manet used the guitar player as a subject in several paintings as did Auguste Renoir.  Renoir really seized on the romantic aspect of the instrument which worked well with his style.  His players, usually his female subjects, cradle the instruments in a number of paintings.

There are certainly many, many more paintings out there that I failed to see or mention.  If you come across one that strikes your fancy, let me know.  There are some new kitschy paintings out there that are painted to appeal to guitar owners, not to actually create a sense of emotion which is  what I’m discussing here.  I’m talking about using the guitar as a subject for expression in the paintings, not simply as an object.

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Millet- The Gust of WindIn reading yesterday’s paper, I came across an article describing an exhibition opening at the Everson Museum in Syracuse called From Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces of the Davies Collection.  It is in Syracuse until the beginning of next year when it moves to the Corcoran in Washington, DC.  The exhibit features works from many of the greats- Renoir, Monet and Van Gogh, to name a few.

The thing that caught my eye though, was this painting by Jean-Francois Millet, The Gust of Wind.  There was a real familiarity in seeing it and I immediately recognized the similarity of this piece with the compositions of a number of my paintings.  The tree blown to one side from the wind.  The way the tree sits at the top of the hillock.  Even the shape of the ground and the way it dominates the picture plane.

Of course, I could do this with many, many paintings by a variety of painters.  It’s a simple composition of a tree on a rise, after all.  But because it was Millet, it struck me because I have always so admired his work and often felt a kinship to it.  As a youth, a piece of his at our local museum, the Arnot, was always a favorite.  His paintings of field workers always drew me in with their sweeping fields and expansive skies.

Millet-  The SowerAnd then there was The Sower.

The Sower was arguably Millet’s most famous image, a simple depiction of a farmer spreading seed.  It has great motion and a  beautiful diagonal line through the sower’s body.  Like the painting above, there has always been a sense of familiarity with this image.  I have memories of a pair of bronze bookends from my childhood, probably from a garage sale and now long lost, that had the image of The Sower on them.  Something in that figure clicked in me even then and I have always responded when seeing it.

This image was further immortalized by Van Gogh in several of his paintings, one a pure copy albeit in his own distinctive style.

Millett After   Van GoghMillett's Sower Van Gogh

Seeing Millet’s figure in Van Gogh’s paintings made a huge impression on me many years ago.  It triggered a chain of creative impulses that I still feel to this day.  Seeing The Gust of Wind in the paper brought them back to the surface for me and I may well be working off this little surge of inspiration for weeks or months to come.

So, if you get a chance check out the exhibit and the Millet…

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