Thursday, September 15, 2016

Artistic Influences

Today, I'm going to write about artistic influences, which to me is one of the most important aspects of an artist's development. I've long admired the works of the Old Masters, especially Peter Paul Rubens, Van Dyck, Thomas Lawrence, Henry Raeburn and the more contemporary painters, Sargent, Sorolla, and Munnings. There are countless other painters I admire, but these artists represent the core of my artistic influences. I also want to emphasize once again, the role of the subconscious. We may or may not be aware of what inspires us to paint what we do.
As I've stated in earlier posts, I studied portraiture at the Art Students League with John Howard Sanden. Sanden is a slick, brilliant painter, with soft colors and attractive people in his canvases. I could have studied with one of the more classically trained artists at the League, but I liked the fresh quality of Sanden's portraits, and his excellent draftsmanship. I had just come from Aviano's atelier, where students were required to paint the same thing for weeks at a time, so I was ready for something different.
I learned a great deal from working in Sanden's class. Sometimes I'd paint the same pose for the entire week, sometimes I'd pick a different view each day. Sanden's lectures were lively and informative and I never needed to take notes. I remembered most of what he said, even to this day. He was lavish in his praise for his students' work, and was one of the biggest influences of my life. Although I didn't end up painting portraits of people, the training I got from his class was invaluable.
About ten years ago I attended one of his lectures at the Salmagundi Club in New York City. He was giving another of his memorable performances, telling of his world travels and famous people he's painted over the years. When he stated that he never copied other painters or paintings, I thought perhaps I misunderstood him, but when someone in the audience asked him about other artists' influence, he reiterated that he's never been influenced by anyone else's work or ideas. I find that quite remarkable. Why would any artist want to eliminate a source of inspiration, no matter where it comes from?
For example, I went to see the Joachim Sorolla exhibit at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art on 57th & Madison in 1989. It was a very large exhibition, with many paintings never before seen in this country. We all know about his gigantic murals up at the New York Hispanic Society in the Bronx, but this was a show of his astonishing pictures of children on the beach, women in cool interiors, and the unforgettable "Mending the Sail," a magnificent, life-size study of sunlight and shadow.
"Sewing the Sail" by Joaquin Sorolla
Back in the 1990's, when Thomas Hoving was turning every exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art into a mega-media event, with lots of hype and PR, here was an important exhibition that was flying below the radar. People were overheard asking, "Why haven't we ever heard of this painter before?" Several of the paintings made a deep impression on me. Of course "Mending the Sail" was a marvelous tour de force, but another, smaller and unpretentious painting titled "Picking Raisins" also caught my attention. It shows a dark interior with women performing some unknown task. A broad diagonal slash of yellow light cuts across the plane of the floor, neatly slicing the picture in two. A very thin sliver of light indicates the door, the only clue as to the light source.
Years later, when I was visiting friends in Kentucky I was taken to the Kentucky Training Center, where horses were being walked along the shed row. A thin stream of sunlight was shining on the floor, coming from an open door. As the horses walked through the light. I was mesmerized by the effect. It immediately brought to mind the painting by Sorolla. Of course, when I got home I worked up a canvas of the subject. It's still one of my favorite paintings, although now I'd like to make the edge of the light less square at the end, a la Sorolla.
"Morning Sunlight"
Sometimes we're aware of these influences and sometimes we're not. I recently made a discovery about Munnings and Charles Wellington Furse, one of my favorite unknown horse painters. He was an extremely precocious painter, painting some of the most beautiful pictures I've ever seen (alas, only in books). He was in poor health his entire life and died at the age of 36. I can only imagine what he would have accomplished had he lived as long as his contemporaries, Munnings and Sargent. "Cubbing With The York and Ainsty," a life-size painting of the children of the M.F.H., Lycett Green, Esq., was painted in 1904, the year he died. A large group of children on horseback sweep in from the left, two boys and two girls and a few stray hounds at their horses' feet, with the huntsman and his hounds off to the right. It's a masterpiece of atmosphere and light, even more remarkable considering much of it was done in his studio. Even the size of the canvas, 7 feet x 9 1/2 feet, belies the effort it must have taken, given the extreme frailty of the painter. In 1908, four years after his death, the Burlington Fine Arts Club published the "Illustrated Memoir of Charles Wellington Furse, A.R.A." It's a lavishly illustrated, over-sized catalogue of an exhibition of his work held posthumously at the Club in 1906.  Along with thirty-five black and white reproductions of his paintings are Furse's lectures and letters, including one where he describes working on the picture to his wife. "The picture moves. and the children are almost finished, and to-day I get a bay horse into the room, and hope to get ahead with that. It is exciting as he will have to mount half a dozen steps, and I am a little alarmed lest he put an erring hind leg through the canvas. I am staying on (in London, I'm assuming) to finish as far as may be - the hounds and the bay horse and the head of the little girl's horse, part of which shows." The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy the year after his death, (as far as I can ascertain), since the catalogue states the painting was exhibited at the R.A. before being shown at the Burlington Club in 1906.

There was another young whipper-snapper exhibiting at the Academy in those days - Alfred J. Munnings. Now you can't tell me he didn't see Furse's painting. It's a gigantic masterpiece, one not easily missed or overlooked. One can just imagine the impression seeing it must have made on the young Munnings. He was exhibiting two pictures that year, "Leaving the Fair," and "The Low Meadows." He was only twenty-seven at the time and quite impressionable. His influences were still tied to the German painters of the late 1800's, as Brian Sewell notes in his article in the Evening Standard, "These (paintings of gypsies and horse fairs) were a response to the lively, even urgent, compositions and fluid brushwork of Heinrich von Zügel, a now forgotten animal painter long established in Munich, where Munnings was again in 1909; it should not be forgotten that Munich was then still one of the great European schools of painting, particularly of academic realism."
Fast forward twenty years to 1924, when Munnings was in great demand as a portrait painter. He was asked to paint a large group portrait of Lord & Lady Mildmay of Fleet and their two children on horseback. The painting has remarkable similarities to the Furse painting. I discovered this likeness while perusing Christie's sporting art catalogues in my library. There on the cover of the December 1999 sale is a detail of the Mildmay painting. Because of the way it's cropped on the cover, its striking similarity to Furse's "Cubbing With the York & Ainsty" is clear. The turn of the girl's head, the positioning of the riders and their mounts, even the horse with his head lowered, have their origins in the Furse painting. Now, I'm not saying Munnings deliberately copied the composition, but I am suggesting that the influence of Furse's picture is clearly evident. I think Furse's painting has more movement and is exciting to look at, while Munnings' portrait has a stiffness I associate with commissions in general. We never seen to be able to paint the picture we'd like to paint, but rather have to defer to some degree to the wishes of the client.

The degree to which we're influenced doesn't necessarily depend on whether we choose to be influenced or not. At times we make a deliberate choice to use something in our work, but there are often times when we're unaware of the source. Earlier in this post I stated that Furse was an "extremely precocious painter." Imagine my surprise when, checking some of the information, I came across this description of him in the introduction to the catalogue, "precocious artist." I know I must have read this intro before, proving my point!
All the information for this post has come from books in my own collection. It's quite a luxury to be able to research what paintings Munnings was exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1905. Thanks to Jean Goodman's, "What A Go! The Life of Alfred Munnings," I was able to find the complete list of paintings he exhibited at the Royal Academy, starting in 1899 and ending sixty-one years later. After I finish writing this, I'm going to go back and count how many paintings Munnings exhibited at the Academy. It's rather impressive!
Books are a great resource for me and one of my greatest pleasures is to peruse volumes long out of print. I urge everyone to maintain as large a library as possible. There is so much information to be found in books. Of course, the Internet is a great resource too, but there's nothing like a thumbing through the pages of a good book to find just the information you're looking for.
I'd love to hear what influences you. Please write a comment below.
Reading List:
"Illustrated Memoir of Charles Wellington Furse," Burlington Arts Club, 1908
"The Painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida" by Edmund Peel, 1989
"What A Go! The Life of Alfred Munnings" by Jean Goodman, 1988
Christie's New York, Sporting Art Sale Catalogue, Wednesday, 1 December 1999

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