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Thursday, February 28, 2019

Feeling rejected?


In the end, there’s an audience for nearly everything. The trick is finding it.
The Red Vineyard, 1888, Vincent van Gogh. It was sold to Anna Boch for 400 francs in 1890. Courtesy Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
“I like paintings with buildings in them,” a non-artist friend told me yesterday. “Scenes are beautiful, and I appreciate them, but if there’s a few cottages by the shore I can imagine the lives of the people who live in them forever. It’s more interesting over the long haul.”

I was driving at the time (with Bluetooth, of course) back from picking up paintings at What’s Nude in Boothbay Harbor. I try to send them two paintings every year. A naked person on the living room wall isn’t to everyone’s taste, but every once in a while, someone will express an interest in one and off it goes.

In the evening, someone else mailed me two images of really odd paintings. “My friend does some stra-a-a-a-nge art,” she said. I couldn’t disagree, and yet they were on their way to a juried show.

Ward in the Hospital in Arles, 1889, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Oskar Reinhart Collection.
Recently, I wrote that all art criticism is by nature subjective. That’s never truer than in a particular gallery or show. There, a single juror usually holds sway. There are also factors about which we’ll never know, like where we live, our subject matter, and the media in which we work… or if we’ve somehow offended the gallerist or organizer in the past.

It’s very easy to lose your nerve after a string of rejections, especially in the dead of winter when most show apps are made. Keep on persevering. One never knows what the outcome will be.

“A lot of what we sell is popular because it’s pretty and unchallenging,” says a fictional gallerist in a so-so novel I’m reading. “I do well out of those artists and that means I can keep stocking artists whose output is actually meaningful.”

Wouldn’t we all like to meet such a gallerist in real life! But the truth is that accessible, pretty, and unchallenging does sell most quickly.

The Round of the Prisoners (after Doré), 1890, Vincent van Gogh. Courtesy Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
‘I, for my part, know well enough that the future will always remain very difficult for me, and I am almost sure that in the future I shall never be what people call prosperous,’ Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo.

Legend has it that Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, to fellow artist Anna Boch. This is not true. Vincent sold several works, but his income from painting was never sufficient to support him.

“Nothing would help us to sell our canvases more than if they could gain general acceptance as decorations for middle-class houses. The way it used to be in Holland,” Theo van Gogh wrote back.

The Church at Auvers, 1890, Vincent van Gogh. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Theo was an influential art dealer in his own right, and was able to further the careers of Impressionists like Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. But championing his brother’s ‘strange’ artwork was beyond even him.

Of course, the great barrier was that Vincent was painting farther into the future than his peers. His work wasn’t accessible to the contemporary Parisian in a way that Monet’s and Degas’ were. He had an authentic voice, and it got in the way of his sales.

In the end, there’s an audience for nearly everything, but the great career dilemma for the painter is to find it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A tax break for artists?


Working artists are among the winners in this year's tax season.
Don't mind me; I'm just using details from old paintings to talk about how I feel about preparing taxes.
The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act may have been intended to simplify the tax code, but simple it is not. Still, it has a provision that affects you, if you declare income as an artist.

Self-employed artists fork over a payroll tax of 15.3 percent, which cover both sides of our Social Security and Medicare obligation. Corporate employees pay half that, with their employers covering the remaining half. The change was designed, on paper, to redress that.

More importantly, it preserved the historic tax advantage that sole proprietors had over C corporations. Prior to the passage of the bill, the top effective tax rates for C corporations was 50.47%; for sole proprietors, it was 40.8%. When the rate on C corporations dropped, it had to drop for sole proprietors too.

Starting with the taxes you’re doing for 2018, pass-through taxpayers (those who aren’t a corporation) are entitled to a deduction equal to 20% of the taxpayer’s qualified business income, pr profit. For some people, its calculation is going to be very complicated. Once the broad plan was in place, more and more widgets had to be added to make it fair.

Most of the limitations on the deductions won’t apply to the working artists who read this blog. Singles making less than $157,500 or joint filers making less than $315,000 in total taxable income can stop reading here; they get to take the full 20% deduction. (If you’re between those levels and the ones in the next paragraph, you get the deduction in a trimmed form.)

Singles making more than $207,500 or couples making more than $415,000 are subject to different rules. They get no deduction if their business is a personal service firm.

A personal service firm (SSTB) is “any trade or business involving the performance of services in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, financial services, brokerage services, or any trade or business where the principal asset of such trade or business is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees or owners.

To me, that sounded like the very definition of a working artist, whose livelihood relies on his skill. And apparently, others were concerned that this was unduly broad, since it would apply equally to the machinist, riverboat captain, software designer and many other self-employed people. Fortunately, the IRS decided to define that catch-all phrase at the end very narrowly. You’re out of luck if you:
  • Endorse products or services;
  • Allow your name, likeness, etc. to be licensed to sell products like brushes, paints, or a teaching set of pastels;
  • Get paid to appear at events.
But even then, the only part of your income that's excluded is the part you earned doing those endorsements.
As Forbes wrote, “If you ain't famous, as long as you don't provide services in one of the specific disqualified fields, you are not in an SSTB, even if your skill or reputation is the only thing you have to sell.”

Of course, it’s just a law, and it’s up to the courts to determine what it actually means. But until then, I’m going to feel fairly confident taking the deduction. A caveat—I’m an artist, not an accountant, so this advice is worth exactly what you’re paying for it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Writing or rewriting history


We need to redress the artist gender gap in the here and now, not in museums.
Allegory of Fame, c. 1630–1635, Artemisia Gentileschi
I smiled at a headline that read something like, “Artemisia Gentileschi and eight other woman artists found at the National Gallery.” Gentileschi has only been ‘lost’ to those who don’t know art history.

For those of us who study it, she’s exactly where she should be. Not in the first rank of the Baroque, for she was not the innovator that Caravaggio, Velázquez or Georges de La Tour were. But a solid, workmanlike painter, on a par with, say, Zurbarán or her own father, Orazio Gentileschi. That’s no small achievement after 450 years of winnowing.

David and Goliath, c. 1605-1607, Orazio Gentileschi, courtesy National Gallery of Ireland. Artemisia Gentileschi’s father was no minor painter.
Rediscovering women painters is all the rage right now. A recent study found that, in our major museums, 87% of artists represented are men. While I take exception to their methodology (crowdsourcing), I think the overall percentages are probably pretty accurate when it comes to the Renaissance and after.

For anything earlier, it’s pure speculation. We have no idea who created most of the pre-Renaissance art in our museums. We can’t assign gender or race to its creators based on our assumptions, since they’re so often wrong. Starting with Minoan culture, the great classical cultures were empires. Empires are, above all, cosmopolitan.
Judith and her Maidservant, 1613–14, Artemisia Gentileschi, courtesy Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Still, western art, from the Renaissance until the middle of the 19th century, was overwhelmingly produced by white men. This is a fact, and there are only two options—accept it and move on, or rewrite the story of western art.

All art criticism is by nature subjective. That doesn’t make it untrue. We respect great painters not just for the superlative canvases they produced, but for the influence they had on later painters. This is true not just for those who were feted in their lifetimes, but for those who lived and worked in relative obscurity, only to be discovered by later generations. Over time, our culture has reached consensus in the recognition of great art.

To change that, to elevate certain painters because of their gender would be to upset that narrative in an historically inaccurate way. Women primarily worked in the home until the late 20th century. Why try to whitewash that fact?
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638–39, Artemisia Gentileschi, courtesy Royal Collection
Where that falls apart is in the modern era, and that’s exactly where we need to redress the gender imbalance. An excellent example is the disparity between the reputations of Lois Dodd and Alex Katz. They’re contemporaries with similar achievements and resumes. But Katz is represented by innumerable top-flight museums worldwide, while Dodd’s first painting was only recently acquired by MoMA.  

Women in the arts, in 2011, earned 68¢ for every dollar earned by men. That was far worse than in the broader economy, where women could expect to earn 79¢ for every male-earned dollar. I haven’t seen much change in the last eight years.

Let’s put our efforts where they matter, in the here and now, and leave the art canon to mind itself.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: practice seeing values


Value is the most important dimension of color. Here’s an exercise to help you see it better.
On the left, color strips. On the right, monochrome approximations of those colors. Photo courtesy of Kyle Buckland.
This week’s exercise is brought to you by outstanding painter and teacher Kyle Buckland. He graciously allowed me to share it with my class and you.

A simple value scale.
Value in color theory is how light or dark something is on a scale of white to black (with white being the highest value and black being the lowest value). It’s the hardest dimension of color to match, but it’s also the most important. It’s what we register first when we look at a painting.

“You can never do enough of this type of training the eyes,” wrote Kyle. He’s right.

I made you this approximation of Kyle's stripes, or you can paint your own.
Kyle ran a series of colors across a sheet of paper, as above. You can either copy his technique and make your own stripes, or you can print the image I made, above. A PDF is here.

I printed this on a color laser printer on card stock. If you have an inkjet printer, you may need to spray it with fixative to prevent the ink from bleeding into your greys.

You’re going to make a series of stripes on the right, matching the value of the color on the left as closely as you can get with grey paint. Use acrylic if you have it; gouache or oils otherwise. If all you have is watercolor, you’re going to have to make a separate card and set it next to this one. 
Kyle converted his photo to black and white to demonstrate his close matches. Photo courtesy of Kyle Buckland.
When you’re done with this exercise, I’d like you to photograph it with your cell phone and camera and delete the color information; i.e. turn it into black-and-white. (On my cell phone, I go to picture editing and a b/w filter pops up automatically.)

Cameras can be wrong in value assignments. Both the yellow and green are way off.
Compare your stripes. If you’re way off, repeat this exercise until you’re more accurate. However, this comes with a caveat. The human eye is subjective and not everyone sees value the same way. Software is also in some ways subjective, since it was programmed by humans. In the sample above, yellow is obviously the highest-value color on the wheel. But Photoshop perceives it as darker than orange. Your camera and your eye may disagree.

Why is value so important? It creates a structure for the painting to flow through. If there are dark values in an organized pattern, synchronized with mid-range and light passages, your finished piece will draw the viewer in.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Am I too old for this?


If you want to do something, the time to start is today.
Flood tide, by Carol L. Douglas
A few years ago, I read about a retrospective show for a 103-year-old painter from Staten Island named  Margaret Ricciardi. “She can’t still be alive,” I thought to myself. After all, she was born only three years after my own grandmother, and I’m a grandmother myself.

Yes, Mrs. Ricciardi is still kicking. Furthermore, she has a website, and it’s glossy and well-designed. I’m being passed on the highway of commerce by a woman 45 years my senior.
Pine and spruce on the Barnum Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas
Margaret Ricciardi’s parents and husband were immigrants from the same small Italian town. After marrying in 1937, the couple started a shoe repair business in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. It eventually expanded to include a handbag and shoe boutique.

At the age of 70, Ricciardi started taking classes at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. Two years later, she enrolled full time. At age 75, she earned her BA in Studio Art. She continued to study at the college and elsewhere and in 2017 was awarded an honorary doctorate.
Tricky Mary in a Pea Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
At an age when her peers were looking into long-term care insurance, Mrs. Ricciardi blazed off into the unknown. I’m sure there were skeptics, or reactions of amused tolerance, but she managed to work more than thirty years after graduation from art school. That’s a full second career.

We don’t all have great genes, but if you’re passionate about something, you will live a better, longer life. Research shows that not only does making art extend our lifespans, but that this has been true throughout history.

I have a very unique painting class this winter. Because it’s on Tuesday mornings, only one person is still working; all the rest have retired. They are truly passionate about what they’re doing. They meet on Mondays to sketch, Tuesdays for class, and Wednesdays for figure drawing. With all this practice, they’re progressing at warp speed. In turn, I’m scrambling to keep up with them.
Dead Wood, by Carol L. Douglas
“Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance,” wrote David Mamet. (Well, not at football, I thought, but then remembered this year’s Super Bowl winners.)

The retiree has advantages in the race to excellence. He’s not worried about earning his bread. He recognizes how brief and precious life is. He isn’t all caught up in the emotional muddles of youth. And he takes the long view on nearly everything. These make it easier to sit down and flow into painting.

Of course, those are also attitudes young people can adopt if they wish. The younger you start doing what you love, the more years you’ll have to enjoy it.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Art for the masses can be a mess


It’s just as bad as that Italian Alps painting your Uncle Louie bought from the back of a truck, but it’s really expensive.
I'm not sure what the heck it's supposed to be, but it's a thousand dollars.
Last week I saw a bloated bit of bad ‘original’ art for the equally-bloated price of $999 at my local HomeGoods® store. “And thus is demonstrated the failure of public schools to teach art appreciation,” commented Michael Chesley Johnson.

In 1914, Elsie De Wolfe wrote, “Our ancestors hung their walls with trophies. Our pioneer of to-day may live in an adobe hut, but he hangs his walls with things that suggest beauty and color to him, calendars, and trophies and gaudy chromos. The rest of his hut he uses for the hard business of living, but his walls are his theater, his literature, his recreation.”

The earliest mass-produced art was woodblock printing on paper. It originated in China in the 7th century. By the high Middle Ages, it was common throughout Europe. It was labor-intensive, and the plates broke down after multiple impressions. Thus, woodblock prints were too precious to hang.
Central-Park Winter: The skating pond, lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1862, courtesy the Museum of New York.
Then came engraving and etching, and from them lithography, which uses a limestone plate and a water resist. It allows for much longer print runs. From it was born the American printing house of Currier and Ives.

In 72 years, Currier and Ives produced 7500 lithographic plates, totaling more than a million prints. These were all hand-pulled. More impressively they were almost all hand-colored. A team of women artists worked assembly-line fashion, each with her own color.

Currier and Ives prints were given the imprimatur of The American Woman’s Home, a popular 1869 guide to “formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes" by two of the crusading Beecher sisters.

“The great value of pictures for the home would be, after all, in their sentiment. They should express the sincere ideas and tastes of the household and not the tyrannical dicta of some art critic or neighbor,” they wrote.
Daybreak, 1922, by Maxfield Parrish. This was the most popular art print of the 20th century.
Currier and Ives closed in 1907, the victim of the invention of rotogravure. It is fast, cheap and reliable. Suddenly, the world was awash in printed images—including advertisements and Sunday supplements. This was so much the rage that Irving Berlin mentioned it in Easter Parade in 1933:

On the Avenue, Fifth Avenue, the photographers will snap us,
And you'll find that you're in the rotogravure.
The Heilige Schutzengel hung in many 20th century nurseries, including mine.
Along with that came art prints. They ranged from the mawkish, like the so-called Lindberg Heilige Schutzengel (Holy Guardian Angel) that graced so many children’s bedrooms, to nostalgic art prints of the immigrants’ home countries, to sophisticated prints of good paintings. The middle classes were spoiled for choice, and with that, they entered the world of connoisseurship. And, yes, Michael, they studied art appreciation in school.

By the middle of the twentieth century, even middle-class Americans could afford real art, as long as it was imported from East Asia.
In the 1970s, we began to see cheap hand-painted art from East Asia. These are done with brushes by actual humans, but with no artistic intention behind them. Often, they are copies of western masterpieces, flagrantly disregarding our copyright laws. But back then they were—above all--affordable. Now the middle classes could own an ‘original’ painting for little more than the cost of a print.

This artwork at HomeGoods® just completes the circle. It’s just as bad as that Italian Alps painting your Uncle Louie bought from the back of a truck, but it’s really, really expensive. You could own a real painting for that price.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Georgia O’Keeffe has an acne problem—and she’s not the only one


Artists are, for the most part, practical chemists with no education in the subject.
Pedernal, 1941, Georgia O’Keeffe, courtesy Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. All three paintings in this post have been identified as suffering from saponification.
For decades, conservationists, scholars and even Georgia O’Keeffe herself assumed that the tiny bumps along her paintings were grains of sand from the desert of New Mexico. Eventually, those bumps began to grow and flake off.

The bumps are metal soaps, formed by a chemical reaction between lead and zinc pigments and the fatty acids in the linseed oil binder. Medieval alchemists made boiled linseed oil by exploiting this same reaction, tossing lead oxide in to make the oil thicken.

O’Keeffe’s paintings aren’t the only ones suffering from these surface pimples. The problem is found in works by artists as diverse as Rembrandt and Vincent Van Gogh. As many as seven in ten museum masterpieces may be affected.
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, 1632, Rembrandt courtesy the Mauritshuis 
Anecdotal evidence shows that moving paintings, exposing them to daylight, and changes in humidity contribute to the problem. “There seems to be some correlation between the number of times the paintings have traveled to public exhibitions and the size and maturity of the surface disruption. The more times the paintings have traveled, the more likely it will be that the protrusions are larger and more numerous, said Dale Kronkright, head of conservation at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.
Detail of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), John Singer Sargent, 1884, showing saponation in the black dress.
To test this theory, a team from Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering has developed a handheld scanner to document continuing changes in painting.

“If we can easily measure, characterize and document these soap protrusions over and over again with little cost to the museum, then we can watch them as they develop,” said Oliver Cossairt, an associate professor of computer science at McCormick. “That could help conservators diagnose the health and prescribe treatment possibilities for damaged works of art.”

What does this have to do with us working artists? After all, we’re not using lead paint anymore, and if we’re smart, we don’t use zinc white, either. The problem is, most artists are all practicing chemistry with very little education in the subject, self included.

Falling Leaves, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum
Don’t think you’re getting away from the metals because you’ve moved to a modern palette. Metals are naturally-occurring elements of great usefulness, and that includes making pigments. An incomplete list of the metal pigments we currently use includes cobalt blue and violet, manganese blue and green, ultramarine blue, the cadmiums, Prussian blue, viridian, the iron oxide pigments (sienna, umber, and black), and titanium white. In other words, you can’t get away from them. Nor can you get away from the fatty acids in oil binders. Whatever the binder you’re using—walnut oil, beeswax or linseed oil—it’s an organic fatty acid.

This process of saponification is also what is going to make you and I dissolve into a pile of grave wax someday. Even the ancients knew that nothing lasts forever: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun,” (Eccl 2:11)

Meanwhile, we’ve managed to keep paintings intact for a few thousand years and we can continue to do just that. Just continue to paint fat over lean, avoid known fugitive or reactive pigments, and don’t follow untried, crackpot approaches, and your work should last a long time.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Fugue State


I may be the only plein air painter in the world who comes home and says, “I wish I’d simplified less.” 
Late winter along the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
I know the rules of good design. In my studio, an informal formal analysis always runs in the back of my mind. I have goals for each painting, and my work is a challenge to meet those goals.

Get me in the field, however, and I enter a sort of fugue state. I paint almost unconsciously. The more difficult the physical challenges, the truer that is.

Horno in the snow, by Carol L. Douglas
Fugue state is an old-fashioned term for a rare kind of a dissociative disorder where the patient forgets who and where they are. I don’t mean to deprecate the sufferings of people with dissociative disorders, which are exceedingly serious. But if the American Psychiatric Association wants to abandon the term, I’m going to adopt it. It perfectly fits my mental state when I’m plein air painting.

Having painted alongside many, many artists who flail around in anxiety, I think I’m very blessed. I can just cut out the world and think about nothing at all.
Below the Ridge, by Carol L. Douglas
A fugue state often involves putting on a whole different identity. That seems to be what happens to me, because my plein air and studio work have very different characters. I may be the only plein air painter in the world who comes home and says, “I wish I’d simplified less.” Everything is mosaic with very little form, and less and less detail as the years go by.

Snow along the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
My husband obliquely challenged that while we were in New Mexico. To challenge myself, I spent one morning in New Mexico staring at pictures of Peredvizhniki paintings of log cabins. Then I went out to paint log barns. I think some of that Russian technique permeated the deepest parts of my brain, because I was able to do the log walls with enough detail, without getting fussy. But overall, the painting was pretty similar to everything else I painted that week.
Upper Reaches of the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
I can set out to consciously paint a certain way, and it makes no difference. Get me in the woods with my brushes and instinct crowds out all my thinking. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know, but it does reflect that I’m happiest outdoors.

Occasionally, readers ask me why I travel to paint—after all, I live in America’s Vacationland. It’s not the studio that’s the problem, it’s my desk. Sometimes I just want to go away and let the paperwork pile up somewhere I'm not. 
Snow at higher elevations, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s like a vacation for the brain, except it’s not restful. I work very hard on the road, but mercifully none of it involves marketing. That's exactly why you should consider a workshop, as well. Mine are here, if you're interested.

I got home from New Mexico a week ago today. Yesterday was the first day in which I managed to unpack and photograph my work. Because it has been cold and my paint was thick, most of them were still wet when I left. That necessitated building a more stable carrier system, which I did with an old box, tape and slender strips cut from an old Coroplast political sign. (Jane Chapin throws away nothing, bless her heart.)

Snow below the summit, by Carol L. Douglas
Interesting, the only one which sustained any damage in transit was in a PanelPak carrier. A drop of thick white paint migrated on its surface. That had nothing to do with the carrier, and everything to do with how fat the paint was.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: an exercise in color


This exercise teaches you to think of the three aspects of color as separate properties.
Water lilies (Yellow Nirwana), 1920, Claude Monet, courtesy the National Gallery, London. Much of Monet's work was experimenting about the nature of color.
When we ask people, “what’s your favorite color,” we’re using the word color in a simple way, and we expect a simple answer. In fact, color has three basic characteristics:

Value – How light or dark is the color? Blue-indigo is the darkest color, yellow is the lightest. Red and green fall somewhere in the middle.
Hue – Where does it sit on the color wheel? All colors fall into one of the following hue families: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Within those families, however, are many subdivisions.
Chroma – How much intensity, or “punch” does the color have? Grey is low-chroma; fuchsia is high-chroma.

For more detail, see here.


Complementary colors are opposite positions on the color wheel.
Analogous colors are a set of colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel.

This exercise teaches you to hold value and chroma steady and manipulate only hue. It's hard to make these judgments subjectively, so your samples may not look exactly like someone else's.

Go to the paint store and select paint chips in two different color schemes—complementary and analogous. I want you to choose paints with the same value and chroma but the hue will be different.
Complements where the value and chroma are the same.
They don’t necessarily have to be high-chroma combinations. Here’s a pair of complementary hues which have less saturation (lower chroma):
An example of an analogous color scheme where the value and chroma are the same for all three hues:
Once you’ve selected the three paint samples, chop them up and arrange them on a little card as a design. Glue them down in a pattern that pleases you. Try to leave no space between the different colored tiles so your finished work looks something like this:
Above: my chops. Below: Photoshop's evaluation of how close I came with the values. (Remember, Photoshop is interpreting as much as I am.)
I don’t care what kind of shapes you make or how complicated your design is. I just don’t want white showing between the sections.

If it proves difficult to get out, and you want to get started, you can always make your own paint swatches. But it’s fun to get them from the hardware store, cut them up and make patterns.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Radical feminist of the Victorian era

Cropped-haired, chain-smoking, pants-wearing lesbian, she was a darling of Victorian collectors.
The Horse Fair, 1852-55, Rosa Bonheur, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Henry James, who invented the fictional New Woman of the 19th century, made his heroines pay a price for their independence. Was that accurate?

Recently I wrote about les trois grandes dames of Impressionism and the early feminists who came to be known as New Women. Their rise coincided with James’ novels, so it’s hard to say which came first, the fiction or the truth. Either way, the accepted story is that they made great sacrifices in order to be true to themselves.

Americans know Rosa Bonheur mainly for the sprawling The Horse Fair in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bonheur was a genre painter, an animalière, as they were called in the 19th century.

Weaning the Calves, 1879, Rosa Bonheur, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bonheur was a fractious child and an indifferent student, but she was an apt draftsman from a very young age. That’s not surprising, since she was from a family of excellent artists. Her father was painter Oscar-Raymond Bonheur. Among her siblings were painters Auguste Bonheur and Juliette Bonheur and sculptor Isidore Jules Bonheur. Improbably, they all focused on animals as their subject. All of them were highly competent artists. None of them were as successful as their sister.

Bonheur was the eldest. It was not until she failed an apprenticeship as a seamstress at the tender age of 12 that she returned to her father’s studio for serious training. He set her to traditional study, copying works from books and sketching plaster casts. From there she moved to dissection and anatomy studies of animals in the abattoirs of Paris.
Bonheur’s permission de travestissement from the Paris police.
To make The Horse Fair, Bonheur visited the Paris horse market twice weekly for 18 months. She sought and gained a permission de travestissement (permission to cross-dress) from the Paris police to avoid drawing attention to herself. Earlier forays to the slaughterhouse, she said, had resulted in harassment.

That may have been a polite fiction, as Bonheur routinely dressed like a (male) peasant at home. This was not solely a political statement; she felt that trousers were more practical when working with farm animals. She wore her hair at collar length—slightly longer than the male styles of the time, but too short to be worn up as most women did. And while she wore trousers at home, she dressed in feminine style for formal portraits.
Rosa Bonheur in her garden at By, c. 1890s, provenance unknown
Bonheur was openly lesbian; she lived with her childhood chum Nathalie Micas for over 40 years, until Micas' death in 1889. Later, she lived with American genre painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. “I am a painter. I have earned my living honestly. My private life is nobody's concern,” she wrote.

What effect did this have on her career? Apparently, none. She exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon from 1841 to 1855, winning exemption from jury approval in 1853. Her greatest sales, however, were in the United Kingdom, where she was introduced by her dealer in 1855. She made many trips to England and Scotland to sketch. On one of these trips, she was introduced to Queen Victoria, who was a fan.
Changing of Meadow, 1863, Rosa Bonheur, Kunsthalle Hamburg
As she grew older, Bonheur's work gained popularity among the new American millionaires, including Cornelius Vanderbilt. When he bought The Horse Fair in 1887 on the secondary market, it was for a record sum.

By 1860, Bonheur was wealthy enough to acquire a chateau at By, near Fontainebleau. She remodeled it extensively, including adding pens for her animal models. She was the first woman to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, in 1865. And she was famous enough to paint “Buffalo Bill” Cody when his Wild West show visited Paris in 1889.

Bonheur made a success of her life, on her own terms. It’s the work, not the artist, which ultimately sells.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Reflections of a recovering coffee addict


Love may be an addiction, but it’s at the heart of everything we do. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Birthday, 1915, Marc Chagall, courtesy Museum of Modern Art
Yesterday I quit drinking coffee. This wasn’t my choice; it was on the advice of my medical professional. He’s loads of fun; this regimen also precludes alcohol, sugar, wheat and dairy. None of those other things caused me a moment’s trouble, but the coffee? I’ve been drinking it since I was nine years old. I like the taste, the smell, the buzz. Coffee is a very mild stimulant, I thought, and dropping it out of my diet should be no big deal.

Wrong. I have withdrawal symptoms in spades: headache, tremors, and the need to sleep forever. I looked out at the snow piling up in the driveway, said a bleary “fuggetaboutit” and cancelled my appointment for the afternoon.
Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow, color woodblock print, c. 1767, Suzuki Harunobu, courtesy Art Institute of Chicago
Clearly, coffee is a much bigger player in my biochemistry than I thought. It’s clearly a physical addiction, but it’s one I’ve never paid attention to. That got me wondering what other habits are running in the background, messing with the fine-tuning of my operating system.

When I’m on the road, I can be outside in the field painting by the time the sun clears the trees. My blog is written, I’m showered, my lunch—such as it is—is made, and my gear is set up. Why, then, does it take me until late morning to get into my studio at home? I’m not lazy; in fact, I’m pretty darned disciplined.
The Cradle, 1872, Berthe Morisot, courtesy Musée d'Orsay
It’s this infernal machine I’m holding in my hands. Much of what it shoots at me is chaff, but some things are important. Is there a way to quit my computer like I quit coffee? I don’t think so.

“Back when I first decided to become a painter, of my ‘art’ time, I spent 80% of it painting and 20% on marketing. Now, a couple of decades later, I spend 20% on painting and 80% on marketing,” lamented Michael Chesley Johnson yesterday. I feel his pain.

That’s not all I do on this machine. I use my computer to ‘talk’ to my friends, read the news, and keep in contact with my adult kids and grandkids. But those are things I enjoy. Relationship is programmed into our minds; our systems rise to it like fish to a lure.

On the other hand, that’s what I said about coffee.
The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924–7, Sir Stanley Spencer, courtesy the Tate
Next week, I’m going to gum up my productivity still farther, by having my grandchildren here for the week. We’ll go see if Little Bear is still sleeping, take a twirl or two on our skates, and visit the beach. All painting will be with tempera on a very short easel.

Love may be an addiction, but it’s the heart of living. Happy Valentine’s Day!