A Painterly Truth

Art can affect us to the point of obsession. Oil canvases, parchment drawings, bronze sculptures, and computer generated simulations, to name a few, have the potential to compel us—the human spectators—to physically react. With each human breath, the work in question is given renewed life. A representation of the lived past, it pulsates.

This fixed socio-political document unhinges us, disturbing our status quo. It confronts us with that which we cannot grasp. Yet, we do not run. Rather, we stay, seeking to absorb the knowledge of our beautiful and horrific predecessors. Much is left up to the wieldy human imagination. In the case of portraiture, we see real people. Caught in a moment of awe, we contemplate the places these people have gone, the sights they have taken in, and the quality of life they enjoyed. They are us—our ever so distant ancestors. We gain a privileged view into their world whereas they are not privy to enter ours. Viewing such portraits is more somber than joyful. From observing their likeness, will we internalize their follies? Will we gain the keys to their accomplishments? Will we ever be as great as our forefathers? As a single spectator, I have no concrete answers, only an unflinching curiosity to seek them out.

In the past weeks, I have been confronted with a litany of serious, gay, and enigmatic sitters. In Gallery 610 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I encountered seven of Diego Velázquez portraits that command consideration. The small one-room show entitled ‘Velázquez Portraits: Truth in Painting,’ which opened November 4, 2016 and runs until March 12, 2017, features the Metropolitan’s masterpiece, Juan de Pareja (1650), as well as two recently restored works from the Hispanic Society of America, Portrait of a Young Girl (1640) and Cardinal Camillo Astalli-Pamphili (1650-51).

Yet, it is Velázquez’s Portrait of a Man (1630-35) bequeathed by the Jules Bache Collection in 1949 that captivates my attention. The work is familiar. It is the cover piece of Laura Cumming’s critically acclaimed work ‘The Vanishing Velázquez,’ which I had finished the week prior. Swiftly, I approach the canvas, matching the unknown sitter’s gaze. I immediately feel the man’s presence. His identity—a witness to the Surrender of Breda or possibly the artist himself—bothers me not. His truthful demeanor compels me.

While conceived between 1630-35, the work is characterized by a striking freshness. The gestural strokes both blur and form, recording the sitter’s likeness while restricting him to the canvas, which is his physical being. Velázquez restricts his palate; he dabbles in grays, blues, and browns. With these subtle gradations, Velázquez captures the sitter’s singular human experience. However, in recording the singular, Velázquez transmits the universal. His honest emotions and mannerisms transcend time. When viewing the portrait almost 500 years after its conception, I identify with Velázquez’s unknown man. I too shift my weight, set my jaw, purse my lips, and make eye contact with the world around me.

Top Image: Velázquez’s Portrait of a Man (1630-35).

Unassailable Forces of Nature

Standing mesmerized in front of J.M.W. Turner’s Field of Waterloo at the Tate spawned my passion to pursue a career in art. Transported into the battle’s aftermath, I felt the penetration of light searing across the canvas. Illuminating the uncharted darkness, Turner’s canvas speaks without a filter. Simply by being, it, like many great works, is courageous. I was drawn to the daring nature of Turner’s work, his uncensored representation of the carnage as well as his ability to make the grotesque seemingly beautiful.

So began my first cover letter.

From the age of 13, I have felt an uncanny affiliation with the pioneering British painter J.M.W Turner. Attracted to the unabashed manner in which Turner paints, I have spent the past 8 years processing his painterly genius. Artifacts of the past, his controversial works, while abstract, grasp the unassailable forces of nature that persist into today. Raw, unfiltered, and pathos-laden, Turner’s landscapes have a magnetic ability; spectators move ever closer to his canvases, hoping that proximity will lead to greater clarity. Yet, clarity is not to be found. Offering up a myriad of interpretations, Turner’s works thrust the spectator into the picture field, forcing him to comprehend an uncertain reality.

Thus, while hoards of spectators rushed to the Met’s “Manus X Machina,” I eased up the grand staircase making my way to “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” an exhibit on view between May 10 and August 7, 2016. Organized 120 years after the Met acquired Turner’s Whalers ca. 1845, “Turner’s Whaling Pictures” reunited the artist’s quartet of Whaling pictures, which were shown in pairs at the Royal Academy in London between 1845-6. The three companions from Tate Britain along with relating whaling instruments accented the walls. Commanding the spectator’s gaze, the Met’s Whalers hung centered. The exhibit endeavored to link Turner’s whaling works to Melville’s epic novel, Moby Dick. While intrigued by the loose literary link, I found the canvases to stand-alone; their sheer presence required full attention.

Turner’s all-powerful whaling works capture nature in terms of the sublime. As stated by the exhibit’s cataloguer: “seascapes were a laboratory for the development of Turner’s style.” Nearly 1/3 of his extant works are classified as marines. In Turner’s whaling works, nature supersedes man. In the Met’s Whalers, man is rapacious, desiring to harness superior marine creatures. The water churns. The whale thrashes. The gale encircles the beast, boat, and man. Pirouetting across the canvas, the spectator’s eye finds no respite; there is no calm.

Rather than gravitating to contemporary revolutionaries, I am ever drawn back to my artistic beginnings: Turner. Harnessing the sublime power of nature while checking the power of mankind, Turner’s works are pioneering in content and execution. Far from dated, Turner’s bold perspective provides a lexicon for understanding radical contemporary creations.

Money, Morality, and the Preservation of Beauty

In relocating ancient treasures, are we truly seeking to preserve historic objects for posterity or are we selfishly hoping to acquire objects of foreign beauty for our own enjoyment? In a debate that considers both money and morality, I find it hard to justify that it is our moral side driving these foreign acquisitions. While seeking out beautiful things is not a folly, it is erroneous to believe that money entitles one to beautiful things that another person or place holds in its possession.

However, money and morality are not always applied in isolation of each other. In some instances, it is the moral drive to preserve beauty coupled with the monetary capital to fund the act of preservation that results in the successful acquisition and transportation of treasures. The Cloisters located in Washington Heights and operated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an example of such. Comprised of precious artifacts from religious monasteries in Europe, the Cloisters in New York were constructed to preserve artifacts that were degrading due to lack of upkeep. While, these treasures have been taken from their context of creation, they were not robbed.

Funded primarily by John D. Rockefeller, the Cloisters exemplify the positive outcome of artifact relocation. Salvaging pieces of history that would have been destroyed from neglect, the Cloisters now function as a cultural and educational center. The respectful structure is renown for its beauty and tranquility. Home to the The Unicorn in Captivity tapestry, which is famously featured in Harry Potter, as well as to well-curated small-scale exhibitions, the Cloisters is both familiar to a repeat visitor and intellectually surprising.

From my beginnings in high school art history, the Merode Altarpiece, which is housed at the museum, has been a source of inspiration. The Deutsch masterpiece is revolutionary for its time and remarkable for its high degree of religious symbolism. The presence of the altarpiece at the Cloisters is more than fitting; it functions both as an educational tool and a source of intellectual inquiry. Thematically linked with its surroundings, the altarpiece is both enhanced by and enhances its surroundings.

In totality, the Cloisters promotes the production of artistic beauty, highlights the ingenuity of the Medieval Era, and champions the need to preserve past great works.

Poignant Portraits

Exploring the intimate relationship between the sitter and the artist, the Metropolitan Museum of Art utilizes John Singer Sargent’s work as a case study. The exhibition entitled Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends focuses on Sargent as a career portraitist, which deviates from the comprehensive study of Sargent as a watercolorist launched last year at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Rather than investigating the mechanics behind how Sargent painted, the current show at the Met delved into the process behind how Sargent chose his sitters.

Having established himself as a premier portraitist of the era, Sargent was highly sought after for his realistic and emotive portrayals. While his monetary success derived from these commissioned portraits, Sargent often sketched sitters whom he intimately knew to experiment with color, form, and composition. Sargent painted prolifically.  Crafting canvases of his friends, family, and landscapes, he, with time, devolved his formal style to adopt the more informal mode of watercolor. It is this very devolution of formality that enlivens Sargent’s portraits shown at the Met. Full bodied, stoic portraits of well-off aristocracy are juxtaposed with Sargent’s informal depictions of his panoply of acquaintances. Traversing the exhibition, one notes the abstraction and personalization that comes to dominate his later works. His portraits capture not only his sitters’ physical attributes but also his sitters’ personal peculiarities.

Initially intrigued by the subject matter of the show, I left pondering not aspects of Sargent’s artistic style, but rather facets of his lifestyle. Living in 19th and early 20th centuries, Sargent had access to the great thinkers, businessmen, actors, and aristocrats of his time. He was in constant dialogue with those who held unprecedented influence, and was afforded the opportunity to investigate their physical and intellectual fronts. While the era that Sargent painted posed many obstacles to societal advancement, it is our own that isolates those who seek to impose societal change or alter the status quo power dynamic. At dire times such as these, I often wonder what it would have been like to live in an age where people lusted after knowledge, prized honest artistic depicts, and championed revolutionary ideals, rather than one where people are driven solely by the instant reward of monetary wealth.

Equestrian Elegance

While conducing prospect research at work, I stumbled upon an unmarked George Stubbs exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An under-recognized late 18th century British artist, Stubbs is renowned for his exquisite equestrian portraits, which expertly depict the musculature of wild and domesticated horses. In his works, the horse is elevated to the position of a human protagonist. Stubbs meticulous brush details both the physical attributes and the unique character of his animal sitters. First encountering his impressive portrait of Whistlejacket (1762) at the National Gallery in London, I was captivated by the energy emanating off of the canvas. Emphasizing the horse’s independent energy, rather than portraying the stallion as a docile pet, Stubbs respectfully paints the horse with stoic pride.

Coming from an equestrian background, I am deeply moved by his honest and strong depictions. Thus, I was thrilled to learn that the Met was temporarily exhibiting a number of Stubbs works in gallery 629, located in the rear of the British Art Wing. Eight works are on loan until the Yale Center for British Art completes its renovation in 2016. Braving the rain and relentless crowds, I navigated the Met to look upon two of his works in particular: Turf, with Jockey up, at New Market (1765) and Lustre, held by a Groom (1762) Astounded by the symmetry of his works, I sat in quiet contemplation. Stubbs paintings are not only materially beautiful, but also they instruct the viewer on how he or she should act towards animals—always with kindness and deference. The power of art to act as a beautiful guide is by no means limited to Stubbs’ animal portraiture. Slyly seeping into the consciousness of humanity, artists’ agendas are often conveyed covertly to the viewer. Figures and subjects are chosen to reinforce common notions, promote political agendas, and even implant seeds of change. While some artists go forth and boldly present their own personal and political viewpoints, I value the genius behind the simple subtlety of Stubbs whispered messages.