There area relatively small number of artists whose work I would classify as extraordinary. These artists all make paintings that showcase finely modeled form,enveloped by atmosphere and bathed in light. When artfully applied, those effects make compelling images that muchmore so, and are, most importantly, never an end unto themselves. Though each great artist has an easily recognizable and seemingly unique style, it occurred to me that there must be common denominators, some kind of underlying framework they all share. After all, don’t all great minds think alike?
Looking at reproductions offered very few answers. I needed to see originals, to analyzethe actual colors and the way the paint was applied. So I made it a point, whenever the opportunity would arise, to check out original art by the painters I admire the most: Rembrandt, Velasquez, Vermeer, Van Dyke, Ingres, Raeburn, Lawrence, Kramskoy, Bouguereau, Gerome, Monsted, Paxton and DeCamp.
Living just a hop, skip, and jump from New York City, I’m privy to great museums, galleries and auction houses. So in essence, a plethora of great works have practically deposited themselves at my front door, so I rarely feel the desire to travel afar. However, I recently paid a visit to Vose Galleries on Newbury Street in Boston to see their current offering, The Boston School Tradition: Truth, Beauty and Timeless Craft, a collection of close toseventy paintings by Boston School artists, including six each by two of my very favorites: William McGregor Paxton and Joseph Rodefer DeCamp. The show runs until July 18. If you have a chance to check it out, I think it would bewell worth yourwhile, if not, here’s a little summary of the highlights of my pilgrimage.
According to my calculations, at one time or another, I’ve seen 23 original Paxton paintings and a mere three by DeCamp. Paxton’s Tea Leaves at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, here in New York, and DeCamp’s The Blue Mandarin Coat at the High Museum in Atlanta, have had as profound an effect on my ideas about picture making as any other paintings I’ve seen. This would be the first opportunity for me to see and compare so many by both artists. Carey Vose, one of the galleries’ owners, told me that having that many DeCamps available — something that had never previousl yhappened—was the impetus behind puttingthis show together. And just to sweeten the pot, for me, The Museum of Fine Arts Boston – according to their website — had two paintings on view, one by each artist, that I had never seen in person. That’s seven paintings each!
Vose Galleries is located in a brownstone built in 1899. It’s composed of a series of rooms located on 5 levels. According to my fitness app I walked up (and down) 17 flights of stairs going back and forth comparing aspects of one painting to the next. The most impressive DeCamp at Vose was The Kreutzer Sonata (The Violinist II). It’s a painterly tour de force. Virtuosic! The violinist’s left hand is pure alchemy, simultaneously understated, and at the same time, profoundly informative. Unlike most of the artists who attempt to work this way, DeCamp never swirls the brush for its own sake. By his own volition, he was first and foremost a tonalist, like his idol Velasquez. The credo of another Velasquez disciple, Carlos Duran, perfectly sums up the genius of DeCamp: to achieve the maximum by means of the minimum. DeCamp's brushwork is unparalleled but his ability to break the form down into totally abstract yet supremely coherent shapes is also second to none. Unfortunately, DeCamp's portrait Mr. Joseph Baker which I was very interested in viewing — since I have never seen an original by him of a male subject — had already been shipped to a buyer. That was disappointing.
I was taken aback as I stepped up to examine Paxton's The Blue Jar. Based on the reproductions I had seen —including the one I’ve posted above — the light areas look very smooth and bleached out. I couldn’t believe how much broken color and impasto paint texture was there.It was interesting to compare its painterly head to his Portrait Of A Young Woman In Blue with its enamel-like surface, which is more indicative ofthe way he normally rendered flesh.
However, the Paxton which impressed me the most was his figurative masterwork Two Models. I had seen it reproduced numerous times previously – I even possess a 4x5 transparency — but I wasn’t expecting what I saw. The original just blew me away. The contrast was far more subtle. The cast shadow on the back wall wasn’t nearly as dark as I assumed and there were more subtle value shifts within its shape. The modeling of the flesh was absolutely exquisite, with very life-like coloration. I could almost discern the subtle rise and fall of the ribcage on the closest model.
Paxton’s chroma and hue gradations created so much spacial illusion. His deft turning of the form, using neutrals, was perfect. He created such a convincing sense of space and atmosphere, a quality I’ve rarely seen matched. When he’s at his best, Paxton’s paintings feel likedioramas set within thepicture frame.
My two favorite details were: a neural plane next to a chromatic halftone, of the same value, on the near cheek of the closest figure, and the way he alternated soft and sharp edges tomodel the backof the far figure. I also love the neutral edge plane under her breast, as well as the hue and chroma shifts starting from her right arm and progressing over to her left arm. These are the kind of touches which clearly demonstrate to me just how intelligent a painter he was. Every aspect worked perfectly. The boldly stated smaller touches never called attention to themselves or superseded the overall effect. As I closely examined the painting, I felt like I was inside Paxton’s head and could fully appreciate the decision making behind each stroke. It was a very validating moment for me.
Eventually I departed and I made my way over to the Museum of Fine Arts, which I had last visited ten years ago. Since then the Museum had expanded significantly, perhaps almost doubling in size. Last time there I had seen the The Guitar Player by DeCamp and Nude Seated by Paxton. Now, thanks to the additional gallery space, a greater number of Boston School artists were on display. This time, both artists were represented by two works apiece, the aforementioned ones plus The Blue Cup by DeCamp and The New Necklace by Paxton. Both paintings at the MFA were gorgeous. A reproduction of The New Necklace was actually the first Paxton I had ever seen. It was on the cover of the catalogue for a Paxton show that took place at Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1974. While browsing at the Met’sgift shopin 1988, I serendipitously picked up a copy. So finally seeing the original brought me full circle. It’s a great work but my all-time favorites areTea Leaves and The Breakfast, and now of course Two Models.
Decamps’s The Blue Cup was a breathtaking symphony of brushwork and subtle tones, even better than the The Violinist II that I had just seen at the Vose. I love the way he reduced the chroma on her left arm to push it back into the atmosphere. I still love theThe Blue Mandarin Coat, but this one comes within a whisker.
My takeaway from all of this was an even greater admiration for both artists, but particularly Paxton. Both he and DeCamp were constantly searching out new ideas and approaches, technically as well as compositionally. To me, Decamp’s brushwork beats out Paxton’s by a nose, but I prefer the way Paxton handled edges. I am definitely nit-picking here, but I feel that Decamp’s edges are sometimes a bit too sharp and more apt to flatten the space. But it’s Paxton’s use of color that truly distinguishes him, in my book. The way he creates compositional color harmonies to convey a sense of illusion within a strong abstract design are incredibly innovative. I feel no artist, before or since, has so succinctly married academic form and the Impressionist notion of true color notes.
Was either artist always successful? Of course not, but they both obviously learned from their miscues and were able to grow. In fact, The Blue Manderin Coat was the DeCamps’ last painting. I can definitely relate to their penchant for seeking more. Hunger is what drives an artist to excel.
Although I love many aspects of both artists' works I have no interest in making paintings that resemble theirs. That, in my mind, is a fools errand. I see things differently and I am a product of another time. However there are very valuable lessons to be learned and I like to think I’ve been abl eto tap into this shared mindset with regard to the choices I make. These same ideas serve as the cornerstone for all my teaching.When it comes to painting, the pictorial strategy used by great artists in their representation of spacial illusion, within the context of brilliant composition, is what intrigues me the most.
I refer to any such a painting—where every aspect comes together flawlessly, regardless of whomever painted it — as: Paxtonesque!
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Until next time...
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on these extraordinary artists. I really enjoy your discussions about color. I read an interesting exchange between you and Graydon Parrish about the use of limited palettes. I have a slightly different take on the subject, but I moved from painting to computer graphics about fifteen years ago and had to learn new concepts about the physics of light and color to create similar illusions in a new medium. Reality has more photons than a computer can simulate, so getting one sample to represent billions produces a grossly imprecise depiction of reality and requires a different form of trickery to create a believable illusion. In turn, this has shed new light on my experience as a painter. I find your observations to be rich and thoughtful and informed by years of experience. Thanks again for posting this very interesting story.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Although Mr. Parrish share some common ideas ultimately we are coming from quite diverse directions. He seems intent to try to replicate the colors he sees in nature, whereas my focus is in representing the relationship between colors, intensity and values. I believe that’s what you are alluding to when you talk about trickery. The way I phrase it is ‘visual deception’, making the viewer believe they are seeing a 3-D illusion as opposed to looking at a flat surface. Trying to copy reality doesn’t work in my experience.
Yes. In the conversation I am referring to, Mr. Parrish insisted in the importance of local color at the highest chroma to produce the illusion of realism; whereas you insisted on the benefits of using a restricted palette. In my opinion, the solution proposed by Mr. Parrish works great for low-dynamic range scenes (similar to the concept proposed by Carder or Tim’s Vermeer) whereas a restricted palette is more appropriate for a high dynamic range scene. Moreover, light is almost never neutral and color, and reflectance is a subtractive operation, so one wavelength is likely to prevail in the lights and another in the shadows, creating almost a bitonal (two-hue) color space; not to mention that the high contrast of high dynamic range scenes implies that the artist must reduce chroma to accurately maintain the chromatic relationship of the scene. This is why most realists use restricted palettes. There are other issues, of course, that elude most realist artists trained to paint from photographs. It not only changes the method of projection (leading to keystone deformations and lens distortion) but also clips the non-linear values of light, and introduces unnatural hue shifts such as the Abney effect. I completely agree with you that convincing ‘visual deception’, as you name it, requires painting directly from nature and within the fluctuating ranges of exposure of the human eye, and a thorough understanding of linear perspective like architect Francesco Borromini and Augustinian mathematician Giovanni Maria Bitonto. Thank you again for your words of wisdom.
Thanks for expounding on this matter. I wasn’t previously aware of the ‘Abney effect’, but I was aware that color can change in unpredictable ways. It’s my experience, that utilizing one’s observations, within the context of manipulation for strategical purposes, can create a more convincing illusion of reality. I think that’s where the majority of realists fall short in that area. That’s why I’m opposed to quantifying specific rules in response to given situations. This approach only can lead to formulaic and repetitive picture making. Finding the little variations, the quintessential nuances, add life and spice. I agree that learning to paint from photos has its shortcomings, but copying, even when working from life is limiting. Reality must be understood, as well as manipulated, to create the illusion of space.
Thank you for your time!
Fantastic article Marvin. Sometimes I don’t know what artists to study. This article reminds me of the painters you admire. That always points me in a good direction.
I am the quirky art techaer with hair standing straight up on my head and mouth wide open admiring your work!! You are so talented. God bless and keep creating.
Thank you. Much appreciated.
Thanks for the wonderful images and commentary, Marvin. Question: What do you think Paxton’s palette consisted of in “Two Models”?
I believe his palette was pretty consistent regardless of subject matter. Can’t confirm that without a time machine, though. To the best of my knowledge: Lead White, Ivory Black, Raw Umber, Yellow Ocher, Genuine Naples Yellow Light, Vermillion, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blur, English Red and Persian Red. Some of the colors are problematic (Alizarin and Vermillion) and should be replaced with more modern versions. Cerulean Blue was added for landscapes.
Thank you! Wow, four different reds–some for flesh tones and some for fabrics? By the way, what makes alizarin and vermillion problematic? Alizarin crimson seems to appear in the palettes of various neo-classical painters.
Alizarin is extremely fugitive and Vermilion is highly toxic and may darken. There are safer and more permanent alternatives available today.