The Nature of Painting

The Nature of Painting

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Ann and I have been reading Marc Simpsons 2008 book, Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness and the Art of Painting Softly, published on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name at the Clark Art Institute. It has provoked lively studio discussions about the late work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Nocturne in Black and Gold–The Falling Rocket by Whistler, oil painting.

Dissatisfied with what he had learned from his teacher, Gustave Courbet, Whistler set out in 1867 to unlearn all he knew about oil painting and set himself on a new path of experimentation. In a letter to his friend Henri Fantin-Latour, he wrote, That damned Realism made an immediate appeal to my vanity as a painter! . .and then people went to see it! . canvases produced by a nobody puffed up with pride at showing off his splendid gifts to other painters . .

Whistlers contemporaries included the French Impressionists. Unlike them, however, Whistler did not seek to express the bravado action of his fine art oil painting brushstrokes while recording nature directly.

He was more concerned with the nature of painting than the painting of nature. Thus, he would form an image of the painting in his mind to the fullest extent possible, and then would create an evocative, suggestive masterwork in the studio. This was the period during which he completed many of his famous Nocturnes.

The difficulty of appreciating much of Whistlers work is our tendency to try and translate all art into words. What is it all about – what does it mean? But we do not ask such questions about a delicious scent . nor of one of Chopins nocturnes . Why, then, may not a painter blend color as a musician blends sound, to express something which cannot be adequately put into words, and call it, for lack of a better term, a symphony in color? or veil his colors in that mysterious luminous shade night flings over nature and call it a nocturne? We enjoy the fragrance of a scent without putting it into words – why may not our sense of sight be delighted by abstract colors?–Attributed to C. H. Caffin, Harpers Weekly, 1898.

Nocturne Sun by Whistler, oil painting.

Although we view these as masterworks today, they were controversial at the time. Critics brought forward charges that the value of Whistlers paintings was limited by the speed with which they were produced. Whistler argued that the value of the paintings was related to the knowledge he had gained in the work of his lifetime. In my pictures there is no cleverness, no brush marks, nothing to astonish or bewilder; but simply a gradual, more perfect growth of beauty – it is this beauty my canvases reveal, not the way it is obtained.

Please join us as we explore more interesting and informative topics on The Artists Road.

–John and Ann