Archive for Albert Moore

Northern Exposure: The Landscapes of David Milne

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by Liz Hager

David Milne, Dark Shore Reflected, Bishop’s Pond, 1920
Watercolor on Paper, 38.8 x 55.6 cms
(Private Collection)

Feeling is the power that drives art. There doesn’t seem to be a more understandable word for it, though there are others that give something of the idea: aesthetic emotion, quickening, bringing to life. Or call it love; not love of a man or woman or home or country or any material thing, but love without an object—instransitive love.

—David B. Milne, “Feeling in Painting,” 1948

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

The Titans of 19th and early-20th century landscape art were amply represented in last summer’s meaty exhibition “Expanding Horizons: Painting and Photography of American and Canadian Landscapes 1860-1918” at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  The roster of American painters and photographers was an impressive one—Frederick Church, Albert BierstadtThomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keefe,  Timothy O’Sullivan, Edward S. Curtis, Carlton Watkins, and Alfred Stieglitz were among the many whose work filled a seemingly endless array of gallery rooms.

For this American visitor, however, the most exciting discoveries in the exhibition were to be found in the ranks of the Canadian artists, a group not as well known below the border. By arranging the exhibition according to six major themes, the curators provided visual evidence of the ways in which Canadian artists were influenced by styles and events in the US over the 60 plus years covered by the exhibition.  But this organizing principle also made evident clear points of differentiation and, in doing so, highlighted the essentially Canadian approach to landscape art.

David Milne, White, the Waterfall (The White Waterfall), 1921
Oil on canvas, 45.8 x 56.3 cms
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)

Lacking the notion of Manifest Destiny, Canadian artists were never seduced by epic proportions and panoramic vistas. The talented Group of Seven, working in the first quarter of the 20th century, focused on exploring the unique quality of the Canadian landscape.  As a group, their paintings evoke intimate, understated beauty. Additionally, Emily Carr’s soul-full renditions of native peoples and nature were a lovely surprise. American painter Allen Tupper True came to mind as a kindred spirit.

David Milne (1882-1953), however, was far and away the most exhilarating find of that summer day. Present in Milne’s work are the powerful sirens created by Matisse—vibrant line work, sinuous and often voluptuous forms, as well as daring color choices. And yet Milne managed to harness these elements to produce a uniquely expressive statement; his work illuminates the remarkable beauty to be found in the ordinary corners of the natural world.

David Milne, Black and White Trees and Buildings, 1915/6
Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 61.5 cm
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)

A contemporary of the Group of Seven (although not a member) Milne, was every bit as talented, but never attained commensurate public recognition in his lifetime. By choice, he led an often-solitary and financially-impoverished life. Voluminous letters make clear the extent to which Milne chose artistic expression over financial success, though he worried mightily about providing for his family.  As David P. Silcox observes in his David Milne: An Introduction to His Life and Art: for Milne “the making of art meant following a solitary track, not joining art movements or societies, even if it meant living for many years in relative obscurity.”

Milne attended The Art Students’ League in 1904.  Although he attempted a career in fine art afterward, earning an income soon necessitated full time work as a commercial illustrator.  One of only three Canadians, he exhibited five paintings in the 1913 Armory show. In 1915 he exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. These must have been rays of affirmation for the young artist.

David Milne, Side Door, Clarke’s House, c.1923
Oil on canvas, 30.5 x 40.7 cm
(Courtesy McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

Milne’s New York experience was interrupted by World War I. Having joined the Canadian army too late to see action, Milne was sent just after the Armistice to record his impressions of the French and Belgian battlefields for the Canadian War Memorials program. Upon his return to the United States the artist became increasingly more reclusive, relocating from New York to the solitude of the Berkshire and Adirondack Mountains.

Success eluded him over the ensuing decade, however, and in 1928 he moved to a series of locations both outside Toronto and in more remote, rural Ontario. The years of the Great Depression were highly productive ones for Milne. He painted a huge numbers of landscapes, the occasional interior or still life, and, beginning in the late 1930s, an increasing number of fantasy and Biblical scenes. This shift to  “spiritual” concerns corresponded with an almost exclusive return to the watercolor medium. For the remainder of his life Milne produced very few oil landscapes.

David Milne, Painting Place III, 1930
Oil on canvas, 51.3 x 66.4 cms
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Vincent Massey Bequest)

In the last years of his life, Milne was diagnosed with cancer. He sketched and painted until the end, when finally a virulent stroke took his life at the end of 1953. He is buried in an unmarked grave in a Toronto cemetery.

Fortunately, since his death, David Milne’s legacy has become better understood. After Milne’s death, art critic Clement Greenberg remarked:

To claim that Milne was arguably Canada’s ‘greatest painter’ is not extravagant. . . I would class him with such as Marin and Hopper in my own country. But he can hold his own anywhere.

(Letter to David Silcox 12/18/1991, from Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne)

Milne is remembered as the inventor of the multiple place color drypoint (a process similar to etching that does not require acid bath).  The National Gallery of Canada and other institutions have organized retrospectives since his death. The Metropolitan and British museums presented a comprehensive exhibition of Milne’s watercolors in 2005; in fact, in the last decade the British Museum began to acquire a number of Milne works.

This American hopes for more Northern exposure in the years to come.

Wider Connections

David Milne cybergallery at National Gallery of Canada
David P. Silcox—Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne
Group of Seven repository—McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Katherine Lochnan—David Milne Watercolours
Maureen Mullarkey—“Gilding the Lily” (review of the “Painting Toward Light” Milne exhibition)

“The Melody of Ineffable Color”: “The Six Projects” of Whistler

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2009 by Liz Hager

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Above left— James McNeill Whistler, Variations in Blue & Green, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery); Above right—James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White & Red,  1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery)

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was the personification of contradiction. Born an American, he straddled the French and English artistic traditions. Firmly planted in neither, the artist remained outside the European art scene for much of his lifetime. Although a dedicated and hard-working artist with extraordinarily high standards, Whistler’s reputation as an artistic genius wasn’t secured until the last decade of his life.  While interest in his career waned between the two World Wars, Whistler returned to favor beginning in 1960s. The reopening of the Freer Gallery in 1993 with its some 1700 works helped support new scholarship on the artist. As a result, Whistler’s oeuvre has come to be viewed as a unique bridge between the French stylistic focus on color and form and the English narrative and portrait traditions. For his pursuit of art for art’s sake (i.e. art having no meaning other than the beauty it creates), many consider him a precursor of abstract art. 

For many years the brilliance of Whistler’s work was eclipsed by the achievements of the twin French giants of his time, Manet and Monet, who also concerned themselves with the atmospheric effects created by light.  Additionally, Whistler’s notorious reputation as an egomaniac, dandy, Bohemian, provocateur and instigator of lawsuits interfered with more serious consideration of his work. Finally,  in the face of the pre-Rafaelite rage that swept England in the 1870s, many critics disdained the artist’s work for its lack of social commentary.  (John Ruskin famously pronounced Whistler’s art “unfinished,” “overpriced,” and a “wilfull imposture.” Whistler sued for libel and won.)  

Whistler left American to live in France in 1855 at the age of 21. He moved to London, where in 1863 he discovered the art of Japan, and began zealously collecting all sorts of objects. Within two years he had so integrated Japanese principles of composition—a preference for tonal harmonies and flatness of perspective—into his already delicate, ethereal style that the two were often indistinguishable in his work.

 

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Above left— James McNeill Whistler, The White Symphony, Three Girls, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery); Above right—James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Blue & Pink, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery)

In 1865, when the second Symphony in WhiteThe Little White Girl was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Whistler met Albert Moore, a minor English painter in the romantic pre-Rafaelite style with a preference for classical themes. (Whistler was already “thick as thieves” with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, although it doesn’t seem that the latter influenced him stylistically.) Together they explored the ideals of “Art for Art’s sake;” that is to say, they immersed themselves in the decorative to the exclusion of overt narrative and moral content.  As a result, Whistler became one of the most visible members of the Aesthetic Movement

In 1865 Whistler embarked on a commission for his London patron F. R. Leyland. The resulting oil sketches, known as The Six Projects, featured classically-draped women and flowers. They were conceived as preliminary explorations of various color harmony, executed as studies for a series of larger paintings. The influence of Moore can be seen in the sketches; they display a fusion of Whistler’s particular hybrid japonisme style with an entirely different tradition: that of classical Greece.

The Elgin Marbles played a role in Whistler’s execution of the sketches, as did 3rd century BCE Tanagra figurines from Boetia, tombs containing the figures having been discovered in the mid-1860s.  We know from his sketchbooks that the artist preoccupied himself with both the linear and the textural quality of these statues.  Whistler’s handling of paint in The Six Projects references the English watercolorists of the 18th and early 19th centuries— Thomas GainsboroughJohn Robert CozensJohn Warwick Smith and William Blake. By thinning his paints with a mixture of turpentine, linseed oil and copal or mastic resin in the manner of Gainsborough, the artist achieved truly sublime suggestion of form using just the slenderest trace of a gesture with his brush. The thin ribbons of brushstrokes and glaze work brilliantly with the ground wash to create mood and mass. 

Poet Algernon Swinburne wrote this about The Six Projects in his Notes on Some Pictures of 1868

The great picture which Mr. Whistler has now in hand is not yet finished enough for any critical detail to be possible; it shows already promise of a more majestic and excellent beauty of form than his earlier studies, and of the old delicacy and melody of ineffable colour. . . In all of these the main strings touched are certain varying chords of blue and white, not without interludes of the bright and tender tones of floral purple or red. . . They all have immediate beauty, they all give the direct delight of natural things; they seem to have grown as a flower grows, not in any forcing-house of ingenious and laborious cunning. This indeed is in my eyes a special quality of Mr. Whistler’s genius; a freshness and fullness of the loveliest life of things, with a high clear power upon them which seems to educe a picture as the sun does a blossom or fruit. . . 


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Above left— James McNeill Whistler, Venue, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery); Above right—James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Green & Violet, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery)

After 1870, Whistler abandoned the The Six Projects (the commission was never completed) for portraits and night scenes. However, the wash and glazing techniques, as well as attention to decorative design, was to stay with him for the rest of his career. 

Wider Connections

Whistler’s Studio Methods

Soodie Beasley—Harmony in Blue & Gold

Artorg.com—the impact of Asian Art on American Artists (Guggenheim show)

Whistler images

The correspondence of James McNeill Whistler

James Whistler as the Invisible Man


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