Monday, October 7, 2013

Art History's Top 100 - From Baroque to Realism

Whew!  This week's art appreciation class was another whirlwind, starting with Baroque works from the early 1600s and ending with a sampling of Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and Realism from the 1800s.   I have to confess that, much as I try, Baroque art just doesn't grab me (which is probably the reason I'm less than enamored with the Ringling's permanent collection).  It just tends to be too gloomy.   That's not to say that there aren't some incredible Baroque artists, including Rubens, Rembrandt, and Vermeer.

Rubens' Four Continents (circa 1615)
Rubens was a highly successful artist in his time and had many apprentices working for him.  The invention of oil paint made it easier for artists to use apprentices in the actual painting process.  Rubens could sketch out what he wanted, indicate which colors should go where, and let the apprentices loose to lay down the oils.  Since oil paint stays wet for up to three weeks, there was plenty of time for him to go back and fine tune what had been done.  (It turns out that the way Damien Hirst uses "apprentices" today for his dot paintings can trace its roots back to the Old Masters.  Go figure!)    The apprentice system is one reason there weren't many female artists in this era.  Apprentices generally lived with the artists with whom they were training, and needless to say it would have been frowned upon for a woman to bunk with a bunch of men.  In Rubens' Four Continents (which has more color than many Baroque works), you see Rubens' incorporation of dramatic poses and dark shadows, both of which are typical Baroque characteristics.  And of course the nude woman is "Rubenesque" in her proportions.  (Those were the days!)  The chubbiness indicated not that the woman was out of shape, as it does today, but that she lived in a wealthy household that could afford to feed its residents well.

Fragonard's The Swing (1767)
Louis XIV (the Sun King) rebelled against the Baroque and embraced the Rococco style (which you see in spades if you have the opportunity to visit his Versailles).  Frangonard's The Swing is a classic Rococco painting. France in the 1700s was a place without a middle class; you were either wealthy or impoverished.  And since most of the wealth came from family money, people didn't have to work to earn a living.  Instead, life was one big party, and love (or at least sex) was in the air.  In this painting, you see an older gentleman pushing his trophy wife on a swing.  The woman's young lover hides in the bushes, sneaking a peek up her skirt with each push of the swing.  The woman is clearly enjoying the attention of the men and flicks her shoe off in the direction of the statue of cupid.  I can only imagine what reality TV producers would have come up with in this era.

Throughout this period, English painters were doing their own thing, with a heavy focus on portraiture.  The two leading English portrait artists in the 1700s were Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds.  A drunken bet between the two rivals led to the creation of Gainsborough's The Blue
Gainsborough's The Blue Boy (circa 1770)
one of the most recognizable portraits in history.  One night at a party, the two men were talking shop, and Reynolds said that he would never paint a subject wearing blue because it was such an unflattering color.  The gauntlet had been thrown down, and Gainsborough vowed that he would paint his next subject dressed in blue.   In this portrait of Jonathan Buttall, the son of a successful hardware merchant and friend of Gainsborough, the artist persuaded the boy to wear a costume that harkens back to Flemish paintings from 140 years earlier that were well known at the time.   He definitely carried it off (both the model and the artist)!   One other note about Gainsborough:  He used a paintbrush extender when creating his portraits.  He liked to position the subject, the canvas, and himself in a equilateral triangle, with each side approximately six feet in length.  I am sure that he did a fair amount of his work on the canvas from a more traditional distance, but it's pretty interesting to envision.

Next week's class will focus more narrowly on Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.    I am looking forward to the tidbits that Rosalie will share about paintings that are more familiar to me than what we've covered so far.   Stay tuned!  

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