The Treasure Trove

December 2004.

On a recent trip to Boston, I couldn’t wait to get to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. On most of my trips, whether they’re for work or play, I always try to carve out time for a visit to a local museum or collection. On this trip, I was on a quest to spend some quality time looking at the works of several of my personal heroes: John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn and William Merritt Chase, just to name a few. After spending considerable time in front of many of these paintings, I began to think about why I’m so attracted to hours of study and observation of the work of great artists. What am I hoping to achieve by my time in the museum?

A dose of inspiration

First and foremost, as an artist, I visit museums to be inspired. Seeing the work of great artists excites me about the possibilities for my own potential. The most successful teachers are the ones who do more than simply teach; they inspire. And our greatest teachers are the artists whose works hang in museums throughout the world. There’s nothing more motivating and humbling than to spend time studying the works of master artists. They excite us with the quality of their work, the power of their imagination and the clarity of their vision. After every visit, you’ll find yourself returning to your own studio with a renewed sense of purpose and a clear measure of your growth as an artist.

A trip through history

Through the works of great artists, we’re transported to a different time and place. We see the subjects as the artist perceived them, in many cases, hundreds of years ago. As though through a window to the past, we’re there in the streets and alleys of Sargent’s Venice; we’re witnessing the Battle of Trafalgar with Joseph Mallord William Turner; or we’re gazing into the soul of Diego Velazquez’s servant, Juan de Pareja, as he looks directly into our eyes from more than 350 years ago. It’s the responsibility of the artist to record the people, places and things of their time, as well as to create works of art that transcend generations. These artists looked at their subjects with honesty and passion, painting what inspired them or disturbed them. Certainly Francisco de Goya did not paint the tragic The Third of May, 1808 because he felt it was beautiful; he painting it simply because he “felt.” He wanted to depict the scene for what he thought was the truth of the moment.

An appreciation of effect

As you enter a museum and a piece catches your eye from across the room, consider how the artist has captured your imagination. Initially, look at how he or she has used the arrangement of shapes, light and color to create an image that grabs you. Feel the mood of the work through the strength or tension of the masses. These are some of the things that make up the effect of the work. The artist’s ability to create a masterwork lies in his ability to capture your imagination from 20 feet away. Then, as you move closer to the piece, it’s like a flower that blooms before your eyes, subtly revealed through color, detail, paint handling, technique, style, etc. But without the strength of this initial effect, all the information seen from close inspection would be useless.

A lesson in composition

When you see a painting that impresses you, consider how the artist has arranged the composition. Is the painting unique in its arrangement of the big shapes? Would it be as interesting upside down as right side up? Has the artist experimented with a more dramatic or unusual composition as Sargent did with Daughters of Edward Darley Boit? Both hailed and criticized for its square dimensions and unique arrangement of the figures and space, this painting is a masterpiece of unconventional composition and group portraiture.

It’s also often striking to see the size of works in a museum. It’s simply not the same to look at a photographic reproduction. To really see and immerse yourself in the work, you must be with the piece. After all, these works were not created for reproduction but to be appreciated by a viewer standing or sitting in front of the work, just as the artist stood or sat directly in front of the work in the studio. I’m often surprised by the relative smallness of some pieces, just as I am by the relative enormity of others. Would you ever believe that Eugéne Delacroix’s Paganini is actually 17 5/8 x 11 7/8? It’s so small! You can read the size in a book, but until you stand in front of it you don’t realize how tiny and remarkable the painting is.

A sense of style

No matter whether an artist’s approach is recognized as realism, impressionism, abstract expressionism or any other label, the work will still be as unique as the artist who created it. Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, for example, were both Impressionists, and they had many of the same goals in mind with their work, but each artist’s style is every different. Artists are storytellers. No two people can tell a story exactly the same way, even though the core truth may be the same.

To further illustrate, two different artists can handle the same subject differently. Take William Merritt Chase and Frank Duveneck, for example. Each painted the same subject and worked in a similar “style,” but each painter’s handling of the subject is very different. An artist’s life experiences, motivations, dexterity with the brush, interests and even outlook can affect the treatment of the subject. This diversity among artists who work within a given period or style is one of the most interesting facets of a museum visit. We learn from this that the greatest works of art in the world are honest expressions of the artist’s interest, passions and sensitivities.

A shot of color

I’m always fascinated by an artist’s color palette. Some pieces are subtle and gray, with the artist relying on only a few pigments and stressing a nearly monochromatic approach. At other times, an artist has made use of a large variety of colors – maybe even dozens – to create a vibrant effect. Even further, an artist such as Joaquin Sorolla used only five or six tube colors to create the illusion of vibrant color by stressing value. Is color a “subject” itself or a lesser component used to illustrate the artist’s story or vision? What I always discover in the works of great artists is that they have an amazing control of color, showing they understand its role in their work, and they clearly know the power of more or less color in their compositions. The mood of a work can be greatly affected by the use of particular pigments, and I’m intrigued by how the artist employs this method to further support his or her interpretation.

An encounter with brushwork

When looking at a photographic reproduction, you often can’t see the quality of the brushwork. Generally, reproductions seem somewhat flat and lack dimension, and certainly they lose the feeling of the variety and depth of the paint. When you’re standing in front of a Rembrandt, notice the thinness of the dark shadows and the boldness of the thick paint built up in the light areas. Sorolla’s paintings display such a variety of thin and thick paint that sometimes even dripping paint is evident. I’m also generally struck by the simplicity of the actual works. Many times reproductions tend to “tighten up” the painting, giving it a more detailed appearance, whereas detail is only suggested in the actual piece. Our eyes are infinitely more sensitive than cameras are to the subtleties of painting, including color, value and softness of edges. Pay particular attention to lost-and-found edges. In most great paintings, you’ll see many edges that disappear and flow into one another. The tendency for most artists is to “find” too many hard edges. Only in person can you sense these subtleties.

A look around

You can’t visit a museum without considering the importance of frames. From the simple to the ornate, framing has long been considered one of the most important elements in completing a work for display and often plays a pivotal role in the work’s success. From the highly ornate Baroque frames to the simple contemporary moldings of modern work, the frame can set a tone or mood that accentuates the work. Have you noticed the elegant, subtle curved frames on a beautiful woman’s portrait as compared to the simple, more masculine frames on a man’s portrait? Frames can accentuate a certain quality in the work as well as subdue areas of the composition. The color, detail, size and width of the molding all can play an important role, and much of the works in museums are framed in examples of some of the finest craftsmanship that are really works of art in themselves.

by Michael Shane Neal