Lessons from five paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.
by Sharon Sprung | June 23, 2015
Shortly before the age of twenty, I decided I was to become… a Painter. What proceeded from that decision was the obstacle course that has since shaped my life. I was essentially on my own, with no support and, frankly, little visual proof that studying art was to be a sane course of action. So at twenty, I found myself in the class of Harvey Dinnerstein at the National Academy School. I was struggling, but determined, working on a painting of my own at night. It was a back nude of myself conceived through two mirrors—a ridiculous way to pose. I was proud of this painting and anxious to bring it in to show to Mr. Dinnerstein.
Harvey duly critiqued my painting, conveying succinctly that it “wasn’t particular,” that it “didn’t capture the moment,” and lacked the “specifics” of the setting. At least I think that was the essence of his critique. Doing my best to grasp the lesson, I’m sure my eyes welled, and I was filled with disappointment, confusion, and hurt. Fortunately, the learning did not stop at this nadir. Harvey followed up his harsh but, I’m sure, accurate assessment by inviting me for a hamburger and fries after class and following that a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tour included an impromptu, ambulatory tutorial in the essence of quality, in art and the life of an artist, that taught me more than any other single experience in school. My memory was of following an energetic older man through the labyrinthine galleries of the Met, led by someone very well-versed with the placement of each painting. I could barely keep up with him. And all he did during this educational jog was to point out paintings as we zipped past: “This one has it … that one has it!” And, miraculously, I understood. Now, I must be honest, although most of the paintings on Harvey’s whirlwind tour are lost to my memory, I do remember the lesson. What was imparted, beyond an appreciation of his generosity and kindness, was indelible and has been a constant companion. Now I knew what to “have it“ was.
The one painting I do remember distinctly from that afternoon was Thomas Eakins’s portrait of his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins, looking up from a book, dressed in blue in a scene from their home with a large dog napping on the floor. This painting brings me chills even to this day. It clearly contains and expresses Harvey’s dictum: a universal, yet specific, particular moment. Eakins’s portrait is a visual description of their home, their relationship, and a clear focus of who she is in relation to herself and the artist, a life seen and palpable in a small rectangle of paint. The blue light in the glowing dress reveals the wearer as strong, yet fragile, and diminutive in a costume that portrays the gesture, the weight, and the architecture of her being.
There are so many paintings in my mind’s tour of the Met, but four stand out in my thoughts now, which I would want to share with my students.
A Woman Ironing (1873) by Edgar Degas is a favorite. The composition alone is compelling, a silhouette of a figure awash in laundry and light. It is exactly a particular moment in time: a woman caught absorbed in her work, the force and weight of her body a singular, powerful image. A quote from the diary of French art critic Edmond de Goncourt gives us insight into Degas’s process:
Yesterday I spent the whole day in the studio of a very strange painter
called Degas…. He placed before for our eyes, with their various poses
and graceful foreshortening, washerwomen and still more washerwomen,
speaking their own language and explaining the technical details of the
motions of pressing and ironing.
The next on my tour is Vermeer’s Maid Asleep (ca. 1656–57). I have spent hours studying the mystery of this painting. Why is the woman resting or sleeping? Is the wine in the jug responsible? Was she alone or did someone just exit? The room in the background is lighter and implies activity, while there is a beautiful, soft tranquility at the table of the maid. As a young art student, I would gaze at the still life on the table while trying to grasp the ingredients of its softness and beauty. The face of the maid also captured my attention, so beautiful, a moment of exquisite, sensual rest—palatable and delicious.
The fourth painting on my tour is a portrait of Jacques-Louis Leblanc by Ingres from 1823. I love this portrait. It depicts to me someone exaggerated and plumped by success, a man whose round fingers and plush torso push out from the confinements of his suit and finery. This is a seemingly self-satisfied man. The pleasures of life’s luxuries and comforts are settled on his face, a face devoid of stress or concern, rounded by ease. This portrait hung with a twin of his wife. Upon his death, Edgar Degas bought both LeBlanc paintings from their daughter, considering them to be among the finest paintings in Ingres’s oeuvre.
The final stop on this tour is The Sofa (1894–96) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. This is one of several paintings Lautrec did documenting the lives of prostitutes. Revealed in this glimpse of two “working” women, assumed to be lovers, in a warm, intimate, relaxed moment at a brothel. Here, we meet two tired, uninhibited people, naturalistic in gesture and expression, women resting, half-dressed and at ease. It is a private moment made public but casual by Toulouse-Lautrec’s brush. I love the ease and realness of their bodies, unselfconsciously observed
What are the commonalities of these paintings? Each is specific and particular in mood, composition, personality, and place. These are palpably real people. So, Harvey Dinnerstein’s lesson, all those decades ago, has stayed within and helped me develop my own unique vision.
Sharon Sprung is an instructor at the Art Students League.