The Boston School – A Portrait Painting Pilgrim’s Progress
William McGregor Paxton – Two Models
There are a 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 much more 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 analyze the 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.
Joseph Rodefer DeCamp – The Kreutzer Sonata (The Violinist II)
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 to seventy 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 be well worth your while, if not, here’s a little summary of the highlights of my pilgrimage.
Joseph Rodefer DeCamp – The Kreutzer Sonata (The Violinist II) – detail
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 previously happened — was the impetus behind putting this 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!
William McGregor Paxton – The Blue Jar
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.
William McGregor Paxton – The Blue Jar – detail
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 the painterly head to his Portrait Of A Young Woman In Blue with its enamel-like surface, which is more indicative of the way he normally rendered flesh.
William McGregor Paxton – Portrait Of A Young Woman In Blue – detail
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 4×5 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.
William McGregor Paxton – Two Models – detail
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 like dioramas set within the picture frame.
William McGregor Paxton – Two Models – detail
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 to model the back of 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.
William McGregor Paxton – Two Models – detail
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’s gift shop in 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 are Tea Leaves and The Breakfast, and now of course Two Models.
Joseph Rodefer DeCamp – The Blue Cup
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 the The Blue Mandarin Coat, but this one comes within a whisker.
Joseph Rodefer DeCamp – The Blue Cup – detail
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 able to 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 — in which every aspect comes together flawlessly, regardless of whomever painted it — as: Paxtonesque!
Until next time…