Friday, April 29, 2016

Out In The Field - An Improvement

Last week I posted my first effort at painting outdoors in a long time. I included a photo of the pastel sketch and a photo of the field of forsythias I was painting. When I compared my pastel to the photo, I immediately saw some major problems with the sketch. I decided I would work directly over the original pastel instead of doing another painting for the purpose of learning from my mistakes, as well as teaching pastel artists how to rescue their painting when it goes wrong.
First, let me say that no matter how much you love a painting you're working on or parts of it, if it's wrong, you must correct it. It's an absolute rule. There are no exceptions. I once did a really lovely painting of a huntsmen walking his hounds. His face was particularly well painted. After examining it more closely I realized that his head was just a little too big for his body. I put off repainting it for days but finally decided it just had to be done. I thought if I could paint it that well once, I could paint it that well again. That attitude gave me the confidence to repaint it without loosing any of the detail or sensitivity of my first attempt. If I had clung to the idea that I'd ruin it if I repainted it, it probably wouldn't have turned out as well as it did.
Anyway, I certainly didn't love this pastel. I knew it needed help. It seemed unsalvageable.
If you get stuck while working on a painting and don't know how to fix it, don't do anything at all. I like to sit and just look at the painting. It could take hours, it could take days before I see something I feel needs to be changed. Then I can't wait to start painting again. It never fails. I used to be rather timid about painting over something the second day. I work very quickly and would often get the essence of the thing down in a matter of a few hours. When I'd return to the easel the next day, I'd be afraid to touch it for fear of ruining what I had already put on the canvas. I learned to be patient and let the painting speak to me. Try it if you have this same problem. You'll be happily surprised.
Back to the pastel. After looking at the pastel and comparing it to the photo, it didn't look quite as bad as I had originally thought. I took one of my old bristle brushes and softly brushed off as much of the pastel as I could without gouging the paper or ruining the surface (right). You can still see a lot of the residue, but the surface is now clean enough to apply more pastel. I used a dark blue Canson pastel paper. I prefer dark paper to light paper, because the colors always look too dark to me on light paper. Conduct a simple test to see what I mean. Take three pieces of pastel paper - a dark paper, a medium colored paper and a light colored paper. Next, pick three pastels - a light , a medium and a dark color. Make a few strokes on each piece of paper with each color, then compare them. See how the color of the paper drastically changes the way the colors look on the different papers (below left and right). This is why choosing the paper color when beginning a pastel painting is important. Look at the subject and decide whether you want to bring up the lights on a dark paper, or paint in the darks on a light paper.
BTW, an excellent book on color mixing is Ian Sidaway's Color Mixing Bible. It illustrates hundreds of color mixing combinations in various media - oil, pastel, watercolor, etc. - which I find to be much more instructive than a color wheel.
For this demonstration, I chose three pastels, with a light, medium and dark "value" (left), from the red color family to simplify the results. Next I chose three different papers - a light, medium and   dark value, to show how each background value affects the way the pastel looks. Notice how even the lightest pastel makes a mark that is darker than the paper on the light paper (below left).
On the middle value paper (below right), the light pastel looks light, while the middle pastel almost blends into the paper. Squint down and it will almost disappear. Finally, the dark blue paper shows the light and medium pastels as light, while the dark value is very close to the value of the paper. Notice too how it looks much redder than in the other two examples. I assure you, it's the same pastel in all three photos. The paper color affects the value as well as the color or "chroma" of the pastel. Do some experiments yourself, with various papers and pastels and see what happens.

If you rework pastels too much by erasing or other techniques, the tooth of the paper will get destroyed and it won't take any more pastel. I occasionally use a kneaded eraser to lift the pastel after I've brushed off what I can, but again, you have to be careful you don't destroy the paper's surface. I didn't have any workable fixative on hand, which I would normally spray on the surface before applying new pastel. Workable fixative helps the pastel to adhere to the area that has to be repainted. It too can be over-applied, so use it sparingly.
Once I had the surface cleaned, I looked at the photo again to see what corrections needed to be made. My horizon line was too low, (not too high as I stated in my earlier post) and the shrubs went straight back to the middle of the paper - a rather dull and not very interesting composition. I originally wanted to capture the effect of all those delicate branches with their tiny yellow flowers in those large swaths of yellow. In my attempt to paint that lovely effect, I didn't pay enough attention to the composition.
In the repainting, I left the sky pretty much the way I had it. I like the dark blue of the paper showing through the light cerulean blue. Although I didn't make too many changes to the painting, the few that I did make made an enormous difference. I made some sweeping diagonal lines to indicate the rows of bushes on the left. I lightened the grass on both sides, with lighter lines to indicate the ruts in the grass. I softened the center line of bushes by breaking it up a bit so that it wasn't completely straight, as you can see in the photo. Next I turned my attention to the red house in the distance. It was too big and drawn rather poorly, so I made it smaller and less bright, so it wouldn't come forward as much. It already draws the eye back to it because of its color. It's a spot of red in a sea of yellow and green.
The final touch was putting in some of those delicate branches and flowers with a few quick strokes of a light yellow. The pastel sketch is now closer to what I was trying do in the first place and is more interesting as a composition. By redoing the original, I learned I wasn't that far off, but those small changes made a big difference.

AFTER - The reworked pastel sketch (above). It looks very different from the sketch below, but it only took about 30 minutes to modify the composition into a more pleasing picture. The sweeping diagonal lines of the forsythia bushes, the higher horizon line and making the house much smaller, visually putting it farther in the background, help to make this a completely different painting.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Saratoga Dreaming

I got a call from a friend of mine the other day asking me if I wanted to go to Saratoga this year. My reply was, "Do birds fly?"
Saratoga! The word has the power to immediately transport me back to the days of getting up at five in the morning to catch the workouts on the Oklahoma track, putting on my Wellies to cut large swaths of Loosestrife for the gallery, sketching yearlings at the sales pavilion, and watching the current year's champions compete in a seemingly endless parade of top Grade 1 Stakes and Handicaps.
Turkoman, Personal Ensign, Curlin, Storm Bird - the names conjure up wonderful memories of equine beauty, strength and power. Those horses knew they were special! You could see it by the way they walked, the way they held their heads - some serenely calm, others full of fire, nostrils flaring and grooms trying to hang on.

The excitement of catching a glimpse of Summer Bird stepping on to the Oklahoma track late one morning, incognito in blinkers and an unmarked saddle cloth, the only clue to his identity - his "exercise rider", or watching a set of Jonathan Sheppard's jumpers schooling on the infield, or seeing a future champion going through the sales ring as a yearling, is all part of the magic of Saratoga.
I first visited Saratoga in the late 70's. I was told I should go at least once, since I liked horse racing. I went for the weekend. I discovered the Racing Museum and all those art galleries filled with wonderful paintings of horses. Richard Green and other top-notch galleries all had places right on Union Avenue next to the racetrack. It was my introduction to a Saratoga tradition which continues to this day - the fine displays of the best sporting art of the last two hundred years. The seed was planted.
In 1983, shortly after seeing the Munnings' exhibit at the Wildenstein in New York City, I decided it was time to get serious about painting (see my first post, March 5, 2016). I had been working as a commercial artist since graduating high school, and it seemed as good a time as any to take the plunge. I cut my baby teeth painting and photographing the hunt meets along the East Coast for the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association (NSHA).
Jonathan Sheppard gives Flatterer a final blowout before
 the 1987 Championship Hurdle in
Cheltenham, England. I took this photo on foot!
My entrĂ©e into the steeplechase circuit was Joan Hopewell, a British ex-pat who was jt.-MFH of Old Dominion at one time. I had gone down to Southern Pines for a few weeks of warm weather and some foxhunting. Joanie had a nice steeplechase horse named Running Comment and she wanted someone to go to Camden, S.C. with her to watch him run, so I offered to tag along. That little outing to South Carolina in 1984 sparked a lifelong love of the jump races.
Flatterer, Watercolor, 16" x 20"
My timing was impeccable. A historic duel between Flatterer and Census was just heating up. It was steeplechase's equivalent to the legendary rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar. The years between 1984 and 1986 are arguably some of the most exciting ones in the NSHA's history. Flatterer went on to race in England and Europe as well. It took me a while to realize I'd probably never see the likes of him (or Census) again.
Next, I set my sights on the big New York flat tracks - Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga. It seemed like a good place to start since I lived in New York City and all the big horses came to Belmont. I soon discovered it was a tough nut to crack. Getting access to the NYRA tracks was entirely different than the hunt meets. I remember seeing an artist I knew from my days at the Art Students League - who shall remain nameless - in the paddock at Belmont before a big race. I asked him how to get a pass into the paddock. He just shrugged and said he didn't know. Okay! I guess don't blame him. Why help the competition? He was one of the first artists of that generation to paint backstretch scenes. He cut a sweetheart deal with a famous landmark hotel in Saratoga. For thirty-something years, no other artists were allowed to exhibit there. Fortunately, there were many other venues for up-and-coming artists at the Spa.

My first "exhibition" in Saratoga was at the Saratoga Gallery of Art. I don't remember what year it was. Like so many galleries in Saratoga, it came and went. Roger Hyndman, the owner/proprietor, was a school teacher the rest of the year. He was a nice enough fellow, but he was a small fish in a big pond. I was one of maybe thirty other artists, and my work was hung on the stairway up to the gallery. My next venue was a bigger gallery. The owner was an innovative sort, who tried various locations in town including a movie theatre, temporarily converted into a gallery! Eventually the owner found a private house to rent on Union Avenue. Every inch of available wall space was hung with paintings. Even the kitchen, stairwells, bedrooms and bathrooms had paintings. My paintings were hung in the bathroom and on the stairway. Dissatisfied with the limited space I was given, I sent inquiries to other galleries and was finally accepted to one of the top galleries in Saratoga. When the former gallery owner, a figure straight out of a Wagnerian opera and not one to be trifled with, got wind of this, she unceremoniously dumped all my paintings on doorstep of the new gallery! I suppose I could have handled it better, but I've never subscribed to the idea of "exclusivity", which prohibits an artist from exhibiting their work anywhere else within a certain radius. All the galleries in Saratoga demand it. It seems patently unfair to me that a gallery can limit an artist to only one gallery, while they're free to take in as many artists as they like, all painting the same subject. I can understand the expectation of loyalty if the gallery is heavily promoting an artist, but not if they're just one of the herd.

I enjoyed what can only be described as modest success in these galleries. I came to the conclusion that I could do a better job of selling my own work. In 2003 I decided to rent a space at the Prime Hotel on Broadway. Frost & Reed held their annual exhibition there, as well as Quest Royal, so I was in excellent company. I operated the gallery as a co-operative artists' space the first year, charging each artist a share of the rent, but there was very little cooperation going on, as is so often the case with artists' co-ops. I became sole owner the next year. It was tremendous fun. I met many wonderful people. Many of my clients became good friends. And I sold a lot of artwork.

The inaugural Saratoga Exhibition poster. I couldn't afford much advertising,
so I hung these posters in all the shop windows up and down Broadway.
It brought in quite a few customers. And sold the painting as well!
All good things must come to an end, I suppose. Within five years the hotel was sold (yet again), this time to the Blackstone Group, and a decision was made to focus on the convention business during the racing season. With one or two food & beverage turnovers a day in the conference rooms, plus suites of rooms booked for convention attendees, it was the kiss of death for the art galleries. We were considered deadbeats for monopolizing the conference rooms for the entire racing season. Frost & Reed was the first to leave. They saw the writing on the wall. What Blackstone (Hilton Group) failed to understand was what an asset the galleries were to the hotel, and what an integral part art and artists play in the Saratoga scene.
I've noticed that the number of galleries fluctuates greatly from year to year, much like a microcosm of the stock market. It seems to go in cycles. Some years there's a glut of artists and galleries, and other years there's just a handful. I think it's the law of supply and demand. When there are fewer galleries, sales go up, which in turn, encourages more galleries to open the next year. There's the inevitable bust (every six years or so), when the supply is far greater than the demand and only a few galleries can weather the economic downturn. Then the cycle begins again.

But back to dreaming about Saratoga. I haven't been there in at least six years, maybe longer. I no longer subscribe to any horse racing periodicals, except Joe and Sean Clancy's excellent online magazine, "This Is Horse Racing", I wonder if I can get up to speed after being away so long. It's such short notice. It's already April. I should have rented a house by now. And I should have been painting all this time. I need to dig out some photos and choose a subject. I don't know where to start. It's exciting to be planning something this big for the summer. I'm thinking of all the old friends I'll see, all the new horses on the track, the yearling sales, the backstretch. I just hope I'm up to the task! I'm not getting any younger. Saratoga, here I come!
Note: My memory, usually pretty sharp, has failed me for this post, which is surprising. For example, I thought I went to Aiken, not Camden with Joan Hopewell. I looked through many thick books of slides sheets and NSHA yearbooks to check dates. The year was 1984, not 1981 as I had previously stated. Nor do I remember the first year I exhibited with the Saratoga Gallery of Art. It had to have been in the mid-eighties, but I can't find a scrap of paper anywhere with a date on it. I'm finding lots of inconsistencies while writing this blog, which is why it's taken me two days to write it. I'll update this post if I find any corroborating evidence.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Out in the Field - You Win Some, You Loose Some!

Just a quick post to show you the results of my outing at the forsythia "farm" last week.
I couldn't get out of the car because it was so windy my eyes kept watering and I couldn't keep my paper still, so I sat in the car. I felt a little cramped in the front seat of my Ford Explorer, but it was better than fighting the elements! I took a few photos for reference, in case I wanted to work up a painting back at home.
The sketch took me 30 minutes and I could see without looking at the photo, the values (lights and darks) are all too dark. I lightened the sky back in the studio, because it looked off to me. I looked at the photos for the first time today, and I'm shocked to see how far off I am in so many ways. I'm definitely out of practice!
The values are definitely off - way off! Look at the forsythia. Look at the grass. And the sky! All too dark. And then there's the composition. The bushes in my painting go straight back, cutting the picture perfectly in half. It's too symmetrical and static, which is not good. The photo has a dynamic diagonal going off to the right in the central line of bushes, giving the composition movement and interest. And the horizon is too low in my painting. See how a higher horizon gives the composition even more balance? So my next project is to redo the painting from the photograph. I hope it will teach me to see things more clearly when I'm out in the field. It's a great learning exercise.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Swimming With Dolphins

Yesterday I was talking about Lucian Freud's horse paintings, saying I didn't understand what he was trying to do with them. It's an odd thing to ask, I guess. I'm not trying to assign some deep meaning to them. Maybe he just wanted to paint something else for a change. All those ghastly nudes! Or paint something for Debo, a close friend. Most horse pictures are pretty straightforward: a portrait of so-and-so and his favorite hunter, or a champion racehorse. Munnings went a lot further, painting vibrant pictures of horse fairs, hunt meets and racing scenes - horses and English life. (There's actually a book of his paintings with that title.) There are countless other horse painters - Stubbs, Herring, Ferneley, Landseer - who've elevated the genre to near legitimacy, but that's a post for another day.
I wanted to become an artist because I liked to draw. I didn't actually know how I was going to achieve my goal. I couldn't afford college. I had taken art classes all through high school and had put together a portfolio of my best work, so I thought I'd be able to get a job in New York City. That's as far as my planning went. I had a vague idea that I would paint more pictures, put together a better portfolio and maybe even take an art class or something. I stumbled into publishing, taking a job as a paste-up and mechanical artist. (It had "artist" in the title, so I figured I was on the right track.) I soon learned there was no art in the work I was doing, but I was supporting myself and needed a steady job.
I moved around a lot, finding better positions and earning more money. Eventually I found a job as an artist working for Karl Mann. He had a painting factory (literally) on West 13th Street. I created original works of art, copying a "master" painting that someone else had created. A client could order artwork seen in the catalogue or showroom up on 59th Street. Sometimes, I'd be painting five of the same picture at one time! It was excellent training. It was also loads of fun, since I got to paint in all kinds of different styles - abstract, collage, realism. Not to mention it's where I met my future husband.
As a young artist in New York City, I was talented, confident and technically very agile. I could put paint on a canvas in a way that intimidated other people. I'm not bragging or blowing my own horn. I'm making a point. For years, I allowed my natural ability to just carry me along. If a thing was in front of me, I could paint it. Other considerations must have entered into my creative process - perhaps I wanted to capture a particular light effect or show the humor in a frisky foal's antics, but I wasn't aware of them. The act of painting was and still is, intuitive for me. I just painted what I saw. I learned how to see (and paint) hue, value and chroma from Michael Aviano in his atelier on 79th Street. I learned how to paint portraits in John Howard Sanden's class at the Art Students League. My ability to "slap paint around" served me well. I took figure drawing classes at Evie Fisk's place (not actually a class, just a model), visited museums and galleries, and had serious discussions about art and artists. It was all very vital and exciting.

When I decided to specialize in equine art, that was exciting too! I found my way around the race tracks and hunt meets, which provided plenty of new subject matter and entry into a different world - the world of owners, trainers and riders. I had lots of commission work, as well as gallery exhibits. I traveled a lot. I went to the Kentucky Horse Park and visited the legendary Calumet Farms. I went to Aintree to watch the Grand National (National Velvet and all that), I visited Munnings' house and studio, Castle House, Dedham and saw where he created all those masterpieces. It's been a wonderful ride, and I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to do what I love for so many years. But I have a caveat. Selling my artwork has changed me. I can no longer differentiate between painting to paint and painting to sell. Artists have wrestled with this problem for centuries, I know, but it worries me because I don't know how to solve the problem.
Let's back up a little. Years ago, when I was a member of the American Academy of Equine Art (AAEA), I accepted an invitation to teach a week-long painting workshop in the Kentucky Horse Park. One of the lessons required the students to take a story from a magazine such as The Thoroughbred Record or The Blood Horse and illustrate it.
As an example of what I wanted, I showed them a painting I had recently done. The viewer was underwater, looking up into the sunlit surface of the bright blue water, with a shadowy silhouette of a horse and dolphins swimming around it. I'd been looking through a copy of The Thoroughbred Record and came across a story about a racehorse in Australia, who'd been training on the beach (I guess that's what they do down there). Suddenly the horse threw his rider and galloped right into the ocean. He continued to swim farther and farther out and soon began to tire. He was in distress and certainly in danger of drowning when a school of dolphins suddenly appeared and herded the hapless equine back to shore or to a rescue boat. I was captivated by the story. Why did the horse head for the ocean? How did the dolphins know he was in danger? What did the horse look like? I considered doing something from the point of view of the exercise rider and trainer looking on helplessly as the horse swam out to sea, or a close-up of the horse, with just his head above the water and the whites of his eye showing the panic in them. I considered adding a few dolphins, leaping or nudging him or something, but it just didn't convey what I was feeling. Then I started thinking about the dolphins and what they would have seen. Why did they rescue this strange creature? Clearly it wasn't anything from their watery world. Could they sense his fear and panic? (I'm sure they did.) So I chose the dolphins' point of view to convey the bizarre story.
That's an example of conscious planning. Now I have a story about subconscious influences.
On one of my many sojourns to the hunt country of Unionville, PA, I was following the hunt by car with some friends from the area. All day long, we kept running into another follower, Mrs. Nancy Hannum in her banged up old Jeep. (She was Master of Cheshire for many, many years.) She drove through creeks, over hill and dale, off-road and on to keep up with the hounds. I was told it was a common sight, as she could no longer ride to hounds. I didn't pay too much attention to her when I was taking photographs, because the exciting part was seeing the pageantry of the hunt - pink coats, beautifully turned out horses and riders, and hounds everywhere. When I got to my studio to paint a scene from that day however, I discovered I had one photograph of Mrs. Hannum right behind the huntsman and hounds as they were heading home. I knew immediately that was my subject - the spirit, dedication and determination of that legendary lady! Titled, "Mrs. Hannum Riding To Hounds", I consider it one of my most successful paintings. It tells a story. It was not a conscious choice of subject. But in spite of all the noise and excitement, somewhere in the quiet recesses of my mind, I recognized Mrs. Hannum's indomitable spirit that pushed her to continue doing what she loved.
Getting in touch with the subconscious (or trying to) will make you a better artist. How do you do that? I'm not really sure. Ask yourself questions. Reflect. Examine. Muddle through. I find looking through my photos is a good way to discover subconscious influences. (While looking through my Grand National photos for a new subject, I discovered I had photographed the same police horse year after year without realizing it.)
This post was supposed to be about planning a picture, about having an idea of what you want to do in a painting before sitting down at the easel. It's not a subject they cover in the how-to books. They're full of techniques: how to mix colors, paint skies, use watercolors. Very few focus on how to find what motivates you to paint. Just ask yourself, "What do I want to do with this picture? Why do I want to paint it?" If you have an answer, your painting will be more successful. I guarantee it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Brian Sewell, R.I.P.

Last year, while in the middle of a nasty disagreement with a friend about modern art, in particular Lucian Freud's horse paintings, I came across an article written by one of Britain's most well-known and controversial art critics, Brian Sewell. I was looking for that infamous speech Sir Alfred J. Munnings gave in 1949 at the Royal Academy's awards dinner. It was his final speech as president of the R.A., and not being one to care much about what anyone thought of him, A.J. proceeded to rail against the likes of Henry Moore, Picasso and the "affected juggling" and "shilly-shallying this so-called modern art". The article didn't provide me with the speech, but it did give me an introduction to one of the clearest minds in the art world. I became an instant fan of Mr. Sewell. He wrote for the London Evening Standard for 30-odd years, lambasting the most prominent figures in English contemporary art. He was kinder to more traditional artists - he thought Munnings was an honest, competent painter, who didn't deserve the bad rap he got from his final, fatal act of defiance. Here is the link to that article:
After reading many of his columns online, I bought "Naked Emperors", one of several books he's written about the movers and shakers of the British contemporary art scene: Damien Hirst, Lucian Freud, Nicholas Serota, Charles Saatchi, et al. He points out that selling art nowadays has very little to do with talent and a lot to do with wealthy gallery owners promoting artists they invest in. I'm not quite sure how I got on this subject. I recently saw an article in the New York Times about an art installation coming to Rockefeller Center titled, "Van Gogh's Ear".
It's an empty swimming pool turned on its side and plunked down in the middle of the plaza. The "brainchild" (that's sarcasm) of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, a duo from Berlin (it took two people to think this up?), it was snapped up by the Public Art Fund's director, Nicholas Baumer. It's a silly joke, not art. In The NY Times article the writer, Robin Pogrebin, seems hard-pressed to come up with a description that doesn't sound completely ridiculous. Mr. Baume, however is confident in his ability to see it for what it really is. "It is a... surrealist object in the shadow of this extraordinary iconic building that represents so much of the U.S. industry and architecture".  Mr. Sewell is turning over in his grave. It saddens me to think the voice of one of the staunchest critics of the contemporary art scene has gone silent forever. Especially when I read about something like this.
Let's return to the subject of Lucian Freud's horse paintings. I haven't the faintest idea what he was trying to do when he painted them. A close-up profile view of the back end of a brown and white horse is titled, "Skewbald Mare". (At least he got the lingo down. I almost fell out of my chair when Julian Fellowes, the estimable creator of Downton Abbey and a stickler for veracity has Lady Mary say, "Just give me a hand up!" when she comes off her hunter in the first episode of Season Six. The correct term is a "leg up" for all you of the non-horsey persuasion.) The painting looks like it's been cut in half - a King Solomon solution to two collectors fighting over the same prize. It's badly composed and just plain uninteresting. As if to emphasize its importance, there's a photo of the Duchess of Devonshire standing next to it in his studio. She looks a bit bewildered. "Tell me again, Lucian, why exactly am I standing here?" My friend rallied to Freud's defense, claiming they were painted from life. Very commendable! All artists should work from life as often as possible. It doesn't mean every effort an artist makes is noteworthy or exhibition material. Don't all artists throw away their unsuccessful works, or paint over half finished canvases? Freud's portraits of dogs lying next to grotesque naked homo sapiens are more successful as paintings, but they're extremely unpleasant to look at just the same. Give me Anthony Van Dyck any day. And a "Brian Sewell is Fab!" coffee mug.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Van Dyck Redux

I finally got into the city yesterday to see the Van Dyck exhibition, Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture at the Frick. The exhibition, which focuses on his portraits is the most comprehensive one ever organized. It's arranged chronologically into important periods: Antwerp (first and second), England, and Italy, and provides an unparalleled documentation of the artist's development as a portrait painter. It's an absolute must see.
Although it was extremely crowded, Sunday being "Pay What You Wish Day" (from 11:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M.), as well as the last day of the Tri-State area's Easter/Spring break, it was not difficult to see and enjoy the paintings. The show starts downstairs in two small galleries hung with drawings and oil studies for paintings and engravings. Never one to follow the crowd, I made a bee line for the upstairs galleries on the main floor, where twenty-four magnificent portraits of kings and queens, clergy, colleagues and beauties of the day were on view. I wanted to see the paintings before I got too tired fighting the crowds and standing for hours on end. I was immediately treated to some of the best paintings Van Dyck did in his short, illustrious career. There were six familiar gems from the Frick's own collection - the pair of paintings, "Frans Snyders" and his wife "Margareta de Vos", the resplendent "A Genoese Noblewoman", the large family portrait of "James Stanley (7th Earl of Derby) with His Wife & Daughter", "Lady Anne Carey" and "John Suckling", as well as his best-known self portrait from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (above right).
There are no religious or mythological paintings here except for the painting, "The Abbe Scaglia Adoring the Virgin and Child" (left). Scaglia was an important patron of Van Dyck's and this commissioned piece is a fine example of how Van Dyck's talents could be put to good use. The catalogue notes the sitter for the Virgin bears a striking resemblance to Marie-Claire de Croz (she does), the subject of another painting in the exhibit. The catalogue further states, "Unfortunately, no documentation has yet explained a connection between the Duchess and Scaglia". As my husband suggested, it may just be that Van Dyck, having recently finished her portrait and needing a face for the Virgin, used hers. Interesting theory, right? The dates certainly bear that out: 1634 and 1635. Sometimes, it's just not that complicated.
The most rewarding moments however, came from seeing three paintings - two of which I had never seen before in person, and one I had probably seen in my travels in Europe many years ago but don't remember.
The first painting is the large portrait of "Marie-Claire de Croz with her son, Philippe-Eugene", (the woman mentioned above) (not shown). The expressions of the sitters are so realistic they look as if they could step right off the canvas. The gesture of the small child is very endearing as he reaches for some trinket or toy that is obviously used to get and keep his attention, while his mother, proud and supremely confident, lovingly fingers the brim of his hat. But for their opulent silk and brocade costumes, this could be a contemporary portrait. No painter today, however, comes close to this kind of mastery.
The second painting is "Prince William II of Orange, and Mary, Princess Royal" (right), which is the wedding portrait commissioned by Prince William's parents. It was done in 1641, the year of Van Dyck's death at age forty-two. One can only imagine what he might have accomplished had he lived another twenty-five years or so. I think it's one of his finest portraits. Everything - the composition, the deft painting of the fabrics, lace and jewels, the background - contributes to the spell it casts over the viewer. Curiously, the expressions of the two children are almost devoid of emotion. It's as if Van Dyck is deliberately trying to keep his own feelings about the bizarre spectacle of a 9-year-old bride and her 15-year-old bridegroom in check. And yet, there seems to be just a glimmer of pride in their faces... or is it bemusement? Their expressions are as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa's. This painting comes from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, one of the many museums I visited in my youth. However, I don't remember it, or it just didn't impress me at the time. That's a subject for another day - how one's views of a painting can change over time.
And lastly, there is the portrait of Van Dyck's beguiling mistress, Margaret Lemon (not shown). Delicately and sensitively painted, it clearly shows how much she meant to the artist. It's no coincidence that it hangs next to the portrait of Van Dyck's wife, "Mary, Lady Van Dyck, nee Ruthven". They invite comparison and speculation about their respective relationships with Van Dyck. Their expressions say it all. His wife has a cold, haughty look, while Margaret's gaze is warm and inviting, with a dose of mischievousness thrown in. The painting had been lost and was only recently recognized as Van Dyck's original. The catalogue states, "In this portrait, long considered lost, Lemon appears in three-quarter profile, delicately touching the fabric at her shoulder. Only recently has this version been recognized as Van Dyck’s original, the source of many imitations. At some point, the canvas was cut down, truncating the gesture of Lemon’s left hand. Private Collection, New York". I just love stories like this. I suppose the signature may have been cut off too, which explains why it went unidentified for so long. Imagine the privilege of having that on your wall! It reminds me of the unbelievable story of the lost Third Imperial Faberge Easter Egg recently discovered by Wartski, a London jewelry firm. But that's a post for another day...
Finally, the drawings are marvelous study guides for the paintings. Van Dyck's preliminary sketches show how the finished paintings evolved from those first impressions put down with charcoal and chalk. Van Dyck regarded these simply as guides rather than preparatory drawings to be copied exactly, and often used them to study the folds of the drapery or the pose, rather than the features of the sitter, which he did right on the canvas. For example, the "Portrait Study of Nicholas Lanier" (above left) shows how the artist originally posed his subject, with a higher three quarter head set and the right hand visible in a typically languid pose. The painting (right), untypically, looks a bit labored. The sitter looks tired of having to sit so long, and if you examine it closely, you can see the pentimento (evidence of repainting) above his right shoulder which is awkward and anatomically impossible - a rare misstep for the Maestro. It's the only drawing in which the pose is more successful than in the finished painting.
 Overall, there are about one hundred works in the exhibit, spanning his entire career as a portraitist. I felt only a slight pang of disappointment when I saw the brilliant drawing "Two Studies of a Greyhound" (right)and realized I wouldn't be able to compare it to the finished portrait, "James Stuart, Duke of Richmond & Lenox" (left) which is not in the exhibition. Luckily, it's just a few blocks away at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I recommend you go and see that too, because there's an exhibition of another of my all-time favorite artists - Madame Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun through May 15th.
If you can't get to the Frick before the show closes on June 5, make sure you visit their website. It's one of the very best websites ever created: beautifully designed, informative and easy to navigate. It has a complete checklist where you can see every work in the exhibit, as well as the commentary. Visit it at:
P.S. Click on the images in the blog to enlarge them.
P.S.S The sculpture, "The Dead Thrush" is still at the Frick, so make sure you visit the Portico if you go. I had mistakenly written in my first post that it's no longer there. There's also an incredible selection of Sevres Porcelain on display from the Frick's own collection.
P.S.S.S. If you see any glaring mistakes in these posts, please let me know. Did anybody notice I was spelling Van Dyck incorrectly? (Corrected now)