Seeing Past the Details

What is it about certain paintings that affects us so strongly?

When I see a painting at the Metropolitan Museum that interests me, I try spending time thinking about why. What about this painting affects me so strongly? Why do I feel a particular emotion and not another? A painting often presents itself as a unified whole, and our experience of it feels seamless as all of its formal parts give voice to one expression. Because of this I make a point to study these parts separately: the color, edges, patterns, etc. By examining it this way, I’m able to see how the treatment of these parts corresponds to a particular feeling, how this relates to the subject of the piece, and how I might utilize these effects in my own work. These five paintings in the Met’s collection evoke those questions for me.

artist metropolitan museum
Adolph Menzel, The Artist’s Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse, 1851, oil on cardboard, 12 5/8 x 10 x 5/8 in.Purchase, Nineteenth-Century, Modern and Contemporary Funds, Leonora Brenauer Bequest, in memory of her father, Joseph B. Brenauer, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, and Paul L. and Marlene A. Herring and John D. Herring Gift, 2009

1) The Artist’s Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse (1851) by Adolf Von Menzel
In my studio practice I am always sketching small composition studies in oil. These are often preliminary studies that provide an opportunity to think about color choices and overall design. Because of its importance to my process, I’m always looking for ways to improve my sketching, and this painting by Adolph Menzel is one I continue to draw inspiration from. It’s tucked away in the museum’s nineteenth-century wing surrounded by many finely finished paintings. Though his piece is seemingly unfinished, Menzel captured the essence of the light diffused through curtains and reflecting off the walls and floor. He accomplished this effect with a minimal amount of information expressed by carefully calibrated values and broad, yet precise, shapes, which were designed to capture the overall light-effect rather than momentary details. All of this was realized with a color palette of understated elegance.

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Léon Bonnat, An Egyptian Peasant Woman and Her Child, 1869–70, oil on canvas, 73 1/2 x 41 1/2 in. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Bequest of Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, 1887

2) An Egyptian Peasant Women and Her Child (1869–70) by Léon Bonnat
Léon Bonnat was an influential artist and teacher in nineteenth-century Paris. He was a favorite of many American students who found their way to his atelier, including early Art Students League instructors William Sartain, H. Siddons Mowbray, and Thomas Eakins. In An Egyptian Peasant Women and Her Child Bonnat fascinates me because of his ability to construct a painting that reads with clarity from across the gallery without ever compromising the smaller details. How was this effect achieved? Some of the letters by his students provide a clue. They describe Bonnat’s habit of viewing his canvas from across the studio. From this position he would make his decisions, walk back across the studio, place a stroke of paint, walk back, and reexamine. I’ve employed this same practice many times in my own studio, and found I can achieve a similar effect.

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Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Lute, ca. 1662–63, oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 18 in. Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1900

3) Young Women with a Lute (ca. 1662–63) by Johannes Vermeer
In the museum’s European wing one can see many wonderful pictures depicting scenes of seventeenth-century Dutch life, usually containing period objects, people, and a soft light streaming through windows into darkened rooms. These seem to be the common elements that Vermeer and his contemporaries composed with. Why, then, is Vermeer’s work considered exceptional if its subject matter is the same? Distinct from the work’s content is its form. The painting’s edges, color, material, and perspective are among the things that make up its form. The way Vermeer designed these elements gives expression to the seemingly transcendent quality embedded within its everyday content. From Young Women with a Lute I learned that this feeling of the undefinable was no accident, but was rather a product of deliberate arrangements: Every stroke, color, and shape contributes to the interwoven fabric of the design, a design that for many artists will only be for the mere depiction of objects. But in the hands of a Vermeer, it shows us something far beyond them.

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Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Hiawatha, 1871–72, carved 1874, marble, Figure: 60 x 34 1/2 x 37 1/4 in. Base (Granite base): 23 in. Other (Plinth with inscription): 5 3/4 in. (14.6 cm), Gift of Diane, Daniel, and Mathew Wolf, in memory of Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, 2001

4) Hiawatha (1871–72, carved 1874) by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Years ago when I entered the life room as a student for the first time, I was immediately confronted by the complexity of the human body and the seemingly impossible task of drawing it well. Eventually I gained facility by practicing divers drawing concepts, concepts that helped me see proportion, movement, perspective, and other relevant ideas. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that the body is far too complex to draw its every aspect. One must abbreviate. In this case, I asked myself, How should I summarize its form? How to begin to interpret it? While there are as many ways to interpret the form as there are artists, Saint-Gaudens’s Hiawatha was a helpful starting point for me. It’s intelligently summarized topography has a simple geometry and carefully ordered organic rhythm. Also, its academic clarity presents the body’s structures in an almost schematic way, which is conducive to memorization and later recall in the life room. Sculptures like Hiawatha introduced to me the study of form, a discipline that has existed since the first crafted image.

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Vilhelm Hammershøi, Figure reading at a Table in an Interior at Night, ca. 1891, fabricated black and red chalk, Sheet: 9 13/16 x 7 7/16 in. Van Day Truex Fund, 2012

5) Figure Reading at a Table in an Interior at Night (ca. 1891) by Vilhelm Hammershøi
It is sometimes thought that representational art is only about the objects depicted in the work. Yet we can also appreciate in some paintings how evocative the unseen can be. Hammershøi’s Figure Reading at a Table in an Interior at Night is an excellent example of representational art that is as much about what it conceals as what it reveals. Our attention immediately goes to the light orange table and lamp. Surrounding it is only darkness with barely a suggestion of the doorframe and ceiling. My immediate thought was, Where is the figure and book? As my eye searched for them, I noticed only the most subtle scratches at the edge of the table suggesting a book, a hand, and perhaps a face. The concealment of the figure provoked my curiosity, something the perfect description of objects could never do.


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