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…