Paul Cézanne, Bathers, 1894-1905

20 Dec

Influenced by Impressionism, Post-Impressionist French artist Paul Cézanne was often compared to established Academic painters like William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Alexandre Cabanel. When compared to the careful modeling of the human form, perfectly blended colors, and hidden brushstrokes of Bouguereau and Cabanel, Cézanne’s flat figures, sketchy brushwork, and unmodulated colors were seen as unintentional and incompetent. Eventually, and thanks to the precedents set by artists like Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet, Cézanne’s style began to be seen as intentional and exemplary, allowing works like Bathers to influence later artists and styles.

Bathers is Cézanne’s endeavor to not paint like Bouguereau or Cabanel. The conscious absence of those Academic elements allowed Cézanne to define a new way in which to relate to the world. The eleven nude female figures are abstract and sculptural instead of carefully formed to represent the ideal nude body. Cézanne moves from color to color instead of tone to tone, rejecting photographic likeness of body and landscape. The brushstrokes are sketchy and used to show a change in color and light. Cézanne uses plains of color to suggest dimension, but the collapse of the figures within the landscape makes it hard to forget that you are looking at a two dimensional painting. Cézanne  plays with illusion, as the brushstrokes don’t conform to the optical qualities of an object but to the tactile qualities. This changed how one interacted with a painting and defined a new, Modern tradition of looking at a painting.



Francisco Goya, Third of May, 1808, 1814-1815

16 Oct

Third of May, 1808 by Spanish court painter Francisco Goya was painted to commemorate the Spanish resistance during Napoleon’s occupation in 1808. At Goya’s suggestion, the painting was commissioned by the provisional government of Spain in 1814. This painting marked a turning point in Goya’s style as Third of May, 1808 deviated away from traditional Christian art or traditional portrayals of war, making this painting one of the first paintings of the modern era. This revolutionary painting conveys the brutality and cruelty of the executions of the Spanish by the French with groundbreaking realism and paved the way for the modern era of painting.

Third of May, 1808 represents the brutal execution of Spanish prisoners by a French firing squad. The French soldiers stand in a straight line aiming their weapons at the frightened prisoners. The faces of the soldiers are not visible, but the terrified faces of the Spanish rebels can be clearly seen. There is a man on his knees, with his hands up evidently about to be shot. His outstretched arms suggest a crucified Jesus. He is bathed in the most light and is the focus of the painting. Other men, in darker light, cower behind him. A few men are already dead, their dark red blood contrasting with the yellow ground. Your eye is drawn to the man in white on his knees. The whiteness of his shirt represents the innocence of the many Spanish citizens who were senselessly executed during the resistance and he represents the ordinary men who lost their lives fighting for something they believe in. The French soldiers form one dark gray and brown mass, becoming an anonymous killing machine and representing the inhumanness of war. Their mechanical efficiency when it comes to killing is truly horrifying and nightmarish. The solidness of their line and bodies represented the control and organization of these killings and unyielding line of the French soldiers contrasts with the chaotic and unorganized group of the rebels.

Third of May, 1808 paved the way for modern art because it broke away from the traditional depiction of war. War was depicted through the genre of history painting, which were paintings based on historical, mythological, or biblical narratives and were regarded as the highest and noblest form of art. History paintings were rooted in historicism where artists paid strong attention to the institutions, styles, and themes of the past. Contemporary subject matter was rarely dealt with in history paintings. Goya centers his painting around a contemporary event and doesn’t heroicize any of the men. It is not traditionally composed like history paintings with clean lines and clear perspective, which gave history paintings their power to move the viewer. The power of Third of May, 1808 comes from its bluntness and rawness. This portrayal of human slaughter in all its unpleasantness and baseness inspired a new and more realistic style of representing the world.

William Sidney Mount, Eel Spearing at Setauket, 1845

2 Oct

The year 1825 signaled a new era in American visual arts as artists searched for a national style that was different from the European tradition. The push westward fueled the search for a new national form of expression and for some American artists, like William Sidney Mount, the key to that new expression was held in the soil of the nation itself. In Eel Spearing at Setauket, Mount used pigments that were indigenous to Long Island. He also refused to travel abroad so that no foreign characteristics would become influential upon his paintings. Mount believed that by using pigments extracted from the Long Island soil, he would be better enabled at representing the local color, light and atmosphere of the nation. Many of Mount’s paintings, like Eel Spearing at Setauket, became political statements that expressed the fatal discord within the nation.

Painted for a wealthy New York lawyer who wanted a nostalgic picture of his childhood on Long Island, Eel Spearing at Setauket is one of Mount’s most famous paintings. Painted in the gorgeous morning light, two figures- a little boy and a female slave- fish for eels on the smooth river in Setauket. The manor of the commissioner, the Strong family estate, stands in the background, on the horizon. The slave stands in the foreground and wields a spear as she prepares to spear an eel. The position of her body calls to mind the traditional pose of St. George, the legendary dragonslayer. The boy sits in the back of the boat, watching as the woman spears the eel. The subtle coloring of the sand, water, and landscape speaks to Mount’s fervent study of the Long Island landscape and his use of indigenous pigments. The painting not only represents Long Island, it is Long Island. Reception for Eel Spearing at Setauket was mixed, as some did not like that it represented the young boy’s apprenticeship to a slave. By placing an armed slave at the height of his composition, Mount sullied the accepted agreement of a divinely ordained social hierarchy. Despite the smooth, docile, and geometric quality of the painting, Mount brought forth the fears upon everyone’s mind during this racially charged time in American history. At a time when the question of slavery was in debate, even a woman slave wielding an eel spear could call into question the stability of a nation. Mount succeeded in capturing scenes from everyday life in order to express a new national identity, but he also succeeded in capturing the instability and fragileness of the American nation in 1845.

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait, Standing, 1910

28 Sep

Egon Schiele’s extremely personal and expressive style, developed over a relatively short career, marked him as a major figure of Austrian Expressionism. Schiele’s early works show how influenced he was by his mentor Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession, who were interested in exploring the possibilities of art outside the limitations of academic tradition. Under Klimt, Schiele’s works were sumptuous and overlaid with shimmery abstraction. But in 1910, Schiele began to explore the human form and his style took a dramatic turn as he began to exhibit works with sexually and psychologically intense subject-matter. His Self Portrait, Standing is one such work that exhibits Schiele’s raw and radical new style.

The background of Schiele’s Self Portrait, Standing is plain, foregrounding his fully nude body. He stands facing the viewer with his left arm twisted behind his back and his right arm bent at an odd angle. His dramatic use of line makes it look as if his skin was rubbed raw, exposing the muscle underneath. He wears a painful grimace upon his face and looks straight out at the viewer. There remains no trace of the sumptuous and shimmery gold inspired by Klimt, only a raw and tortured body; a body that reveals its true self. Here, Schiele is positing a body that is honest and authentic. He is expressing the truth of the human experience in 1910.  His contorted body reveals the painful truth of modernity. Schiele believed in expressing his intense, inner feeling to the world through art and he did that by portraying a body with nothing to hide. Everything is on the surface, raw and emotional, in order to show the true face of the modern man.

Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972

27 Sep

Women artists, such as Betye Saar, challenged the dominance of male artists within the gallery and museum spaces throughout the 1970s. Organizations such as Women Artists in Revolution and The Gorilla Girls not only fought against the lack of a female presence within the art world, but also fought to call attention to issues of political and social justice across the board. Betye Saar addressed not only issues of gender, but called attention to issues of race in her piece The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Even though civil rights and voting rights laws had been passed in the United States, there was a lax enforcement of those laws and many African American leaders wanted to call this to attention. Through the use of the mammy and Aunt Jemima figures, Saar reconfigures the meaning of these stereotypical figures to ones that demand power and agency within society.

The background of The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is covered with Aunt Jemima advertisements while the foreground is dominated by a larger Aunt Jemima notepad holder with a picture of a mammy figure and a white baby inside. The larger Aunt Jemima holds a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other, transforming her from a happy servant and caregiver to a proud militant who demands agency within society. A large, clenched fist symbolizing black power stands before the notepad holder, symbolizing the aggressive and radical means used by African Americans in the 1970s to protect their interests. Aunt Jemima is transformed from a passive domestic into a symbol of black power. She has liberated herself from both a history of white oppression and traditional gender roles.

Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait), 1796

5 Sep

In post-revolutionary America, grand, heroic, and idealized portraits of American leaders held no appeal for the country. Distrustful of what those grand and romanticized paintings stood for, Americans preferred simple and realistic portrayals of their patriots and leaders. One such realistic portrait was done by American artist Gilbert Stuart in 1796 and is now known as the Lansdowne Portrait because it was given as a gift to William Petty of Lansdowne. The painting is full of symbolism and representations of the new country and appealed to the vision of a government for the people that appealed to American citizens.

Washington is portrayed standing, in a black suit and powdered wig with his right hand outstretched in an oratorical manner and his left holding a ceremonial sword. His demeanor is commanding, yet open. The background is inspired by the Roman Republic with Doric columns with red drapes wrapped around them. A rainbow shoots through the sky symbolizing God’s agreement with the new country after the Revolutionary War and the prosperity that will follow. Washington’s suit is simple and not adorned with medals and ornaments typical of portraits in Europe. His sword is ceremonial and signifies his role in the Revolution and his role as commander-in-chief, but also stands for a democratic form of government over a monarchy. On the table beside Washington are volumes of the Journal of Congress and The Federalist Papers with the Constitution underneath them. They are all together on the table to symbolize the balance of powers within the new American government. Despite fears that glorifying a war hero would encourage a dictatorship, the simple characteristics of Washington and the importance placed on democracy appealed to Americans.

Mary Cassatt, Woman in Black at the Opera, 1879

4 Sep

In late nineteenth century Paris, everyone went to the Opera. It was the place to see and be seen. Women, knowing they were there to be looked at, would wear lots of jewelry and dresses that showed the appropriate amount of skin. Men would wear black to disappear within the loge (opera box) so they could look without being seen. The view of the stage from a loge was actually not very good because people came to look at each other and often ignored the performance completely. Because the Opera was a symbol of Modernity, it became the subject of a number of Impressionist paintings. The Opera was an important space for women artists like Mary Cassatt because they were able to gain access to this space whereas other public areas were unavailable to them.

Most loge paintings offer up the woman’s body as a spectacle; all dressed up to be gazed at by male eyes. Their gaze is non-confrontational, passive and serene, allowing the viewer complete access to look upon her. Cassatt’s Woman in Black at the Opera is a different take on the typical representation of women in the loge. Viewed in profile, the woman looks intently and severely through opera glasses at the stage. Her body is not offered up as the viewer cannot see her form underneath her black dress and there is no skin visible. Because she is represented in profile and holds the glasses to her face, the viewer cannot get a good look at her. Instead of gracefully displaying her fan, she holds it sternly and wields it like a weapon. She is here to see the play and wants to be left alone. Behind her, men and women are using their opera glasses to gaze at one another. To poke fun at the role of the man at the opera, Cassatt has a man leaning far over the balcony, comically staring at the woman in black through his glasses.