Those Who Repeat History are Doomed.

Appropriation or Inspiration?

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” So said the great statesman, Winston Churchill. Since Sir Winston was also an artist, I’ll assume he was talking about painting, because to me, everything is about painting. To put his words into a slightly different context, I see far too many artists today trying to repeat history while failing to learn from it. What’s the point of creating paintings that look as though they were painted a hundred or more years ago? What does it say when an artist isn’t willing to come up with something fresh on their own? Why plagiarise the works of past centuries here in the 21st?

I believe there’s a great deal to be learned from the artists of the past. One would have to be blind to not appreciate the fantastic achievements and innovations of our artistic forbearers, but to copy an existing composition, using the same color schemes or emulating someone else’s brushwork is not merely an homage. I’ve heard the rationale, “I want my work to be timeless!” But shouldn’t an artist’s work reflect upon their own times without superficially mimicking the past?  All the great artists created works which were specific to their time. Rembrandt’s work is obviously 17th Century, but it’s his depiction of humanity that’s timeless. We connect with his sitter’s soul because he did. Rembrandt’s sincere and spiritual connection is what makes his work seem genuine. In comparison, paintings that lean on slick superficial emulation feel vapid.

Look at the (above) painting, Reverie, by portrait artist Edmund Tarbell. It’s absolutely breathtaking, one of my all time favorites. If you’re ever in Boston, it’s at the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s worth the trip to just see this up live. It doesn’t look like it was painted today, it’s of its own time. Nor does it look like anything that preceded it. It’s timeless because of Tarbell’s connection. Although we could pick out many influences from other artists, it looks like Tarbell, and Tarbell alone, painted it. What would be the point of me copying it and claiming it as my own?

When I was an illustrator, a colleague, whose work I greatly admired, won a Gold Medal for a painting he copied, stroke for stroke. It was by an artist he evidently thought was too obscure for anyone else to discover. Maybe a client had approached him and said I want you to copy this painting. That’s somewhat understandable, but to accept a medal for it, that I can’t buy.

Parroting masterful paintings is the ultimate irony, since great work is always about substance, and never about style. William Bouguereau was emotionally connected to his subjects and that comes through, loud and clear. This is what we respond to. While many of his contemporaries (and ours) try to replicate the look of his paintings, their attempts are, at best, vapid. In the truest sense, there were no close seconds. This includes his wife, Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau. She said, “I would rather be known as the best imitator of Bouguereau than be nobody.” I think that’s pretty sad.

When we look at a Bouguereau we can’t help but be impressed by his virtuosity, but if we go beyond the surface, there is so much more to learn. What’s the most impressive aspect, to me? It’s his understanding of picture making. My contention, is that all great painters share a similar mindset. In fact, my goal is to get under the hood of all the great painters and dissect their wiring. At the base of everything I teach, is my understanding of their accumulated knowledge. This insight reveals a myriad of choices and the potential for innovation. The idea, as I see it, is to pick, and utilize the knowledge to best represent your own aesthetic vision. That’s what artists like Bouguereau, Ingres, Raeburn, Tarbell, Paxton, Rembrandt, Van Dyke and Kramskoy did.

Study Bouguereau’s compositions, how he used subtle value and chroma changes to turn the form. Examine the intricate way he wove his edges, with the most delicate of variations. Genuflect before the works of great painters (with your eyes wide open). Get in their heads and try to understand what fueled their decision-making, but do not fall into the trap of mindless mimicry. Let your own hand come through. The challenge then, for contemporary realist painters and portrait artists, is to create paintings which are timeless in their portrayal of the human condition, while depicting the world we live in. That’s precisely what all the great artists did. The one’s that copied, like Elizabeth Gardner are just footnotes. When I look at master paintings I’m not thinking about which brush or medium was used. I want to know why they did what they did. If I can’t see beyond the superficial aspects of the past, then I’m forever doomed to try to repeat it.

Until next time…

Comments

  1. I am really starting to look forward to these posts. Thank you Marvin

  2. marcia gorra-patek says:

    Oh, Marvin. I love your scholarly lessons. I learn so much. Thanks again. I never tire of looking at these masters’ work.

  3. Nice….

  4. good post Marv, I highhandedly agree with you that artists shouldn’t copy stroke for stroke other works by masters bygone, but see past that and learn. I’ve been on other artist forums and gee-wiz some chaps actually announce that they are going to try and replicate one of Bouguereau master pieces and that they will let us in on the process… “yikes..!” Sure enough half way through, the work is embarrassing and I wonder to myself if they can really feel to continue on? Sadly, people watching the progress reply with semi honest answers and hail the person forward.
    Going back to what you were getting at. We should see perhaps beyond this and learn where the artist met challenges and how they dealt with them. That’s how we learn, trying to understand their perspectives in going about painting. One thing I must mention regarding painting from our own times. That is true of course, we should paint and represent our own period. but I will say that back in their times the sense of beauty and depth of understanding of art was phenomenal in comparison to our times. Which engulfed every aspect of life from fashion to architecture. Not to say we dont have any of that, but the in-felt aesthetics from bygone times has much more to ponder than ours. I told my wife the other day, I will not paint a car in my picture as a matter of fact ….I will never paint a car in my pictures. I’ll sub it with a bush or rocks..anything else..but.

    • Hi Albert, thanks for your comments. I appreciate your takYouTube time to contribute. We as contemporary artists need to figure out what exactly comprises our own aesthetic. I recently completed a family portrait where the son was holding a magenta colored Gameboy.

      I think overall people today have a greater sense of visual sophistication than people of the past. Not necessarily good taste, however. Art in the past was limited to the higher classes. Even art training was very elitist, requiring membership in secretive guilds. Common folk were too busy trying to survive to even consider art.

      Personally I’d love to paint a car and incorporate it into a portrait. I think it could potentially be very interesting.

  5. In his treatise “On the True Precepts of the Art of Painting”, Giovanni Battista Armenini laid the blame for bad art and mannerisms at the feet of artists who were attempting to imitate a singular artist, rather than take a more broad and eclectic approach with wide-ranging interests. If you look around today, I think his criticism is still highly pertinent.

  6. I agree whole heartedly Marvin. Sometime I think one is better off not seeing other artists’ works , this way your work is truly your own…. but then I think, if you didn’t, look at all the beauty you’d miss. Fact is you can always add to your vocabulary by learning from others but you should speak the truth as you see it, in your own words.
    Love your blog; love you!

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