Quote for Today: Samantha Schutz

 

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I visit him a few times downtown
while he paints.
We talk about how he’s going to Spain
for the fall semester
and he shows me a painting he did
and points to this one part,
a bridge, and tells me he thought of me
when he painted it.
It is so sad
how knowing something
so small
can make me so happy.
Samantha Schutz, I Don’t Want To Be Crazy

Fireworks, Vernon Bridge, Theodore Earl Butler, 1908

Quote for Today: Chaim Potok

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For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the torment of your past and future years, my mama. For all the anguish this picture of pain will cause you. For the unspeakable mystery that brings good fathers and sons into the world and lets a mother watch them tear at each other’s throats. For the Master of the Universe, whose suffering world I do not comprehend. For dreams of horror, for nights of waiting, for memories of death, for the love I have for you, for all the things I remember, and for all the things I should remember but have forgotten, for all these I created this painting—an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.
Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev

Image: Graham Sutherland, The Crucifixion. Photo by Mark Heybo.

Quote for Today: W. Somerset Maugham

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I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men (sic) create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.
W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil

Young Woman Drawing, Mary Denise Villers, 1801

Picturing Wildness: The Beasts of Henri Rousseau

Artists are often told to work from experience, to relate what we know. There is more to knowledge and experience than physical reality, however. When it comes to inspiration, the inner life of dreams and fantasies is as valid as our external story, and often more striking. It is the play between our perceived reality and our imagination that stirs creativity. For some artists, that play stays closer to their everyday life, while for an artist like Henri Rousseau, it ranges far into the realms of dreams and fantasy.

Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897

The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897

The famed primitivist painter Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born May 21, 1844 in Laval, France, roughly 200 miles southwest of Paris. His father was a tinsmith. In 1851, the family fell on hard times financially and lost their home, forcing Rousseau into boarding school. When the family moved to Angers in 1861, he took a position as a clerk for a local bailiff, putting him on track  to be a lawyer, but had to take refuge in the army when he “committed a small perjury.” While in the army he met officers who had served in Mexico and was captivated by their stories of exotic locales, which took root in his fertile imagination. He was released from the army upon the death of his father in 1868 and moved to Paris with his mother, whom he was expected to support. He took a job as a clerk for the government, eventually becoming a tax collector in the Paris toll office. At the age of twenty-four, Rousseau married Clémence Boitard, the fifteen year old daughter of his landlord. The couple would have six children, but only one, Julia, would survive to adulthood. It was a hard life, but Rousseau made it bearable by teaching himself how to paint.

 

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A Carnival Evening, 1886

In 1886, Rousseau exhibited A Carnival Evening, not at the famed Paris Salon as he would have liked, but at the first Salon des Indépendants, which showed work considered too avant-garde. Any artist could exhibit there, regardless of pedigree or training. The flatness and childlikeness of his painting were ridiculed heavily by critics and academic painters, who dismissively called him Le Douanier, the Customs Agent. There is a cartoonishness here which was unacceptable to the artistic establishment, but there is also a poetic dreaminess of form and composition that inspired future symbolists and surrealists.

Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm

Surprised, or Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891

Rousseau’s wife died in 1888 after a long illness, and this made him throw himself even more deeply into painting. The 1891 Salon des Indépendants saw the first of his jungle beast paintings, Surprised! or Tiger in a Tropical Storm. Observers thought he had served with the French Army in Mexico–a fantasy Rousseau did not contradict and even, perhaps, encouraged–but the truth is he never in his life set foot outside of France. Countless trips to the botanical gardens, museums and zoos of Paris as well as to exhibitions from French colonies paired with an active imagination sufficed to create his most famous paintings. His flora and fauna are stylized, his beasts often strangely shaped or wearing odd expressions, but these quirks only add to the mystique of his style. One should note that he was fond of stuffed dioramas, especially those at the Paris Natural History Museum, and often patterned the beasts in his works after them. This explains some of the idiosyncrasies. He also painted Parisian scenes, vases of flowers, and portraits, but his strange talent showed the most in his bold jungle and desert scenes, filled with lions, tigers, monkeys and snakes. I think he must have felt more at home with the world in his head, which was far from the drab world of a tax collector. In 1893, at the age of forty-nine, Henri Rousseau retired from government service in order to pursue painting full time.

Rousseau, Seine and Eiffel Tower in the Evening Sun, 1910

Seine and Eiffel Tower in the Setting Sun, 1910

Rousseau, Exotic Landscape with Lion and Lioness in Africa

Exotic Landscape with Lion and Lioness

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Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo, 1908

Rousseau, Apes in the Orange Grove

Apes in an Orange Grove, 1910

Rousseau was always on the edge of poverty and supplemented his pension by playing the violin on street corners and taking odd jobs, selling paintings when he could. He married Josephine Noury, a widow, in 1898. Young avant-garde artists such as Pablo Picasso, Max Weber, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Constantin Brâncusi, Georges Braque, Alfred Jarry, and Guillaume Apollinaire were drawn to Rousseau. Picasso, upon purchasing one of Rousseau’s paintings, met the man and later held a banquet in his honor. Always an egoist, Rousseau responded, “We are the two great painters of this era; you are in the Egyptian style, I in the modern style.” Despite the growing recognition he received, he remained an eccentric figure. He was increasingly impoverished and unwell and spent some time in jail for bank fraud. In 1910 he developed an infection in his leg, which he ignored. Gangrene set in and Henri Rousseau died a painful death at the age of sixty-six. The Salon des Indépendants held a retrospective of his work in 1911 and Rousseau’s influence and fame grew with his passing.

Rousseau, The Snake Charmer, 1907

The Snake Charmer, 1907

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The Waterfall, 1910

Rousseau, Mandrill in the Jungle, 1909

Mandrill in the Jungle, 1909

His audacity and his ability to codify and create his own imagery, an imagery that was so different from any other artist of the time makes Rousseau a giant of modern art, as well as one of my favorite painters. Without his willingness to break the rules and to do so persistently, the modern art movements of the early 20th century would have moved much more slowly and cautiously. Like his beasts, who sometimes leer from the shadows and sometimes tear into one another, Rousseau’s far flung boldness of form, color and subject matter wins the eye and delights the mind. I think perhaps the beasts that inhabit his paintings are a reflection of his tremendous ego and gutsiness, which were both  cartoonish and sincere. They were what his art required of him to escape the jungles of his poverty and lack of formal education.

Why did you paint a couch in the middle of the jungle?

Because one has a right to paint one’s dreams.

Rousseau, The Dream, 1910

The Dream, 1910

Picturing Woman: Paintings of Jules Breton

Many painters have taken their inspiration from the female form, but Jules Breton is unique. Trained in the European classical tradition, or “grand style” as he called it, he returned home to rural Brittany to produce his masterpieces. His subjects were not grand dames or famous historical scenes as was usual for the period and style, but peasants, country festivals and domestic life. Eschewing hunting scenes and manly exploits, he preferred quieter moments, most often depicting women. He did not paint with a sexualized gaze, but with an honest regard and a desire to hint at feminine interior life. Breton’s talent is such that he can do so without even showing us the woman’s face.

Breton, The Cliff, 1874

La Falaise (The Cliff), 1874

Keenly observant, Breton uses body language and landscape to create an incredible range of mood; resilience, dreaminess, practicality and nobility are all part of his repertoire. Breton’s women are active and relatable. Les Amies is a particularly wonderful example. We aren’t sure what the woman in the center is being persuaded to believe or do, but her discomfort is obvious–arms folded protectively across her gut, wariness in her face–and we are acutely aware of the physical pressure being exerted by her friends who feel the need to lean in and put a hand on her. I’m not sure if they are offering support or asserting dominance. What, if anything, are we to make of the village church lurking in the background? Is there a man involved? Breton makes you want to be there so that you can answer all of those questions. He also paints wonderful feet!

Breton, Les Amies

Les Amies(Friends), 1873

Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton was born on May 1, 1827 in the small village of Courrières, France, where his father managed land for a wealthy landowner. His mother died when he was four years old. Certainly his longing for her shaped the artist he would become and perhaps lay at the heart of his interest in rural femininity. Jules’ life changed when he met the Belgian painter Félix De Vigne. De Vigne saw potential and persuaded the Breton family to send the young man to Ghent to study with him at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium. Jules was fifteen years old when he left home for the big city in 1843. Studying with some of Europe’s finest academic painters, he would move to Antwerp in 1846 and Paris in 1847. He returned home to Courrières in 1854 and married Elodie de Vigne, the daughter of his former teacher and one of his favorite models, in 1858.

Breton, Calling in the Gleaners

Le Rappel des Ganeuses(Calling in the Gleaners), 1859

Jules Breton http://www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com

Les Bineuses(The Weeders), 1868

Breton, Evening in the Hamlet of Finistere

Soir dans le hameau de Finistère(Evening in the Hamlet of Finistère), 1887

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Jeunes Femmes allant à une Procession(Young Women Going to a Procession), 1890

Breton found great pleasure in painting real people and people found his art disarmingly real. This translated into a striking balance between artistic satisfaction and commercial success. His paintings were so popular that he frequently painted copies and had engravings made, all of which sold well. In 1880, Vincent van Gogh walked eighty-five miles to visit the important painter, only to get cold feet and turn around upon reaching the high wall around Breton’s property. By the time of his death in 1906, at the age of 79, Jules Breton was a famous international master, a member of the Institut de France and the Royal Academy of Art and a Commander of the Legion of Honor. He was also a published poet and writer.

Breton, Sur la Route en Hiver

Sur la Route en Hiver(On the Road in Winter), 1884

Breton, Fin du Travail, 1887

Fin du Travail(End of Work), 1884

Painters without experience often weaken the effect they wish to produce by a prodigality which multiplies uselessly the figures and accessories of a picture. It will not be long before they learn that, the greater the conciseness and simplicity with which a thought is interpreted, the more it gains in expressive force.

Breton, The Song of the Lark, 1884

Le Chant de l’Alouette(The Song of the Lark), 1884

Gaurdian of the Turkeys

Gardeuse de Dindons(The Guardian of the Turkeys), 1864

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Mère Nourrir son Bébé(Mother Nursing Her Baby), 1863

Breton, Last Flowers, 1890

Dernières Fleurs(Last Flowers), 1890

It is Breton’s conciseness and simplicity which imbue the rural woman’s mundane experience with value and honesty, even as his romantic light and the warmth and softness of his color elevate her to a level of nobility that approaches the sacred. This celebration of common humanity was extremely attractive at a time when kingdoms were being replaced by democracies and is still quite striking today. If we accept Marie Shear’s definition of feminism as “the radical notion that women are people,” Jules Breton can even be called a feminist painter. What a profound ally we can find in his great talent and meticulous attention!