Victor Hugo

Portrait of M. Victor Hugo (1879) by Léon Bonnat. Click for hi-def image. (Via)

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Van Gogh Museum

Detail - Wheatfield With Crows

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has a beautifully designed web site with, apparently, the entire collection available in eye-popping high resolution. It is amazing what detail you can see in these high-res images, right down to the brush strokes and globs of paint. It is as if the museum guards all turned their backs and allowed you to press your nose right up to the canvas. Above is a detail from “Wheatfield With Crows” (1890), one of the last pictures Van Gogh painted before his suicide. The complete picture is below, and you can click the image to see it a little larger. But to get the full effect, go download the insanely huge image at the museum’s web site.

In May, the Met in New York posted 400,000 high-res images from its collection, so this seems to be a trend.

Van Gogh - Wheatfield With Crows (1890)

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Whale and Calf

“Whale and Calf,” artist unknown, ca. 1830.

“Whale and Calf,” artist unknown, ca. 1830.

“What it shows is a whale calf in the mouth of its mother. She is not, of course, eating it. (Those teeth are useless.) She is trying to rescue it. And that, my friends, was all part of the whalers’ fiendish plan. If whalers — big drivers of the economy in early industrial America — could get their harpoons into a whale calf they never missed their chance, because harpooning the baby was a perfect way to lure in the adult. The bigger the whale, the more oil.” More on this painting here.

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Still lifes by Christopher Stott, cont’d

Chris Stott - Inner Conflicts

Christopher Stott
“Inner Conflicts”
24” x 48” Oil on canvas, 2012

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The lost Vermeer

Vermeer - The Concert

The Concert is a painting of c. 1664 by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990. It is considered the most valuable painting currently stolen. Its value has been estimated at over $200,000,000. It remains missing to this day.” — Wikipedia

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Baldessari: Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell

Baldessari - Tips for Artists

Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell
John Baldessari (American, b. 1931)
Acrylic on canvas. 68 x 56½ in.

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Quote of the Day

Sargent in his studio

“Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend.” Sargent in his Paris studio, 1885. (Source. Via Exit Lines.)

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Still lifes by Christopher Stott

While stumbling around the web the other day, I came across the still-life paintings of Christopher Stott and was instantly smitten. Stott’s compositions are very sparse, usually just two or three ordinary objects grouped together against a neutral white background, drenched in sunlight. I have not seen them in person, but to judge from the images on the web his technique is very precise, almost photographic. He handles light beautifully. Even from a distance you can tell that much. But these are so much more than technical exercises or pretty pictures. The paintings I like best are little stories. They show ordinary objects with the patina of age and long use — battered old books, chairs, alarm clocks, suitcases — suggesting the rich stories and lives they have led. The painting above, “Three Vintage Fans” (2010), reminds me of a family — a father and two sons, say. The father is turning to share a moment with his mischievous younger son while the oldest boy looks straight into the camera, dutifully holding his pose. Obviously I am projecting my own life onto these inanimate things; that’s the magic of it. That is what the best still lifes do. They help you see the things around you in a new way. They make you stop and really look.

Chris has graciously allowed me to use one of his paintings to illustrate the home page of this web site. It is a lovely, inspiring invitation to the writing life. Until I sell a few more books, I will have to settle for “owning” one of his paintings this way. (But you don’t have to, I hope.)

Check out Christopher Stott’s paintings at his web site or Flickr feed.

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Drawing Circles

The other day I blogged about the story of Giotto’s O: A messenger from the Pope arrived in Giotto’s studio in Florence one morning. He asked for a drawing to prove the artist’s skill to the Pope, who was seeking a painter for some frescoes in St. Peter’s. As Vasari tells the story, Giotto “immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it.” Of course, Giotto got the job.

I had never heard the story until I ran across it online recently. It stuck in my mind, a romantic parable of what artistic mastery means. To paint an angel, first you must learn to paint a perfect circle — something like that.

Curious, I wandered around the web looking for more information about Giotto and his circle, and, in the hopscotch way of the web, I found an interesting blog post that linked Giotto’s O to a different sort of circle, the ensō, the asymmetric circle of Japanese Zen calligraphy.

In Zen Buddhist painting, ensō symbolizes a moment when the mind is free to simply let the body/spirit create. The brushed ink of the circle is usually done on silk or rice paper in one movement (but the great Bankei used two strokes sometimes) and there is no possibility of modification: it shows the expressive movement of the spirit at that time. [Wikipedia]

The imperfection of the circle — the asymmetry, the visible brush trails, the blobs of ink — is the point. In its very “flaws,” ensō embodies a traditional Japanese aesthetic, fukinsei (不均整), asymmetry or irregularity. Garr Reynolds (one of my favorite bloggers) explains,

The idea of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic. The enso … is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence.

So these two famous circles, Giotto’s O and the ensō, embody very different aesthetic ideals.

Giotto’s circle is precise mechanical perfection, “a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see.” Even his technique is machinelike: he pins his elbow to his side, turning his arm into a virtual compass.

Vasari adds another detail, as well. In the versions of the story that I initially read, Giotto loads his brush with red paint and paints the circle with a single sweep of his arm. But in Vasari’s telling, Giotto scratches out his circle with a pen (a quill, presumably) rather than a brush. He wants to eliminate even the wavering edge of a brush stroke, the little quivers of the bent bristles.

In writing, that sort of perfectionism is fatal. The very idea of creating “perfect” sentences or stories is paralyzing. No one can write perfectly. I have learned this lesson the hard way. I am a perfectionist by nature. It is no wonder the Giotto story appealed to me. But there are no Giottos in writing. You have to embrace imperfection, you have to accept the little oddities and surprises that emerge in the moment of creation, in the immersive “flow” state that characterizes the best writing sessions. I don’t know the first thing about Zen, but to me the go-with-it philosophy of the ensō feels much truer to the actual experience of writing well. It is not a feeling of abandon; like ensō painting, good writing is never careless or out of control. At the same time, every writer has to accept the little wobbles of his brush, the little traces of his bristles, the funny pear-shape of his ensō. Not because these flaws are unavoidable (though they are) but because they are beautiful.

To a writer like me — who tends to self-edit too much, who sometimes imagines he can write perfectly — the story of Giotto’s O teaches the wrong lesson. I will think of the ensō instead.

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Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas

Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas (1656)

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Giotto’s Red Circle

Pope Boniface VIII was looking for a new artist to work on the frescoes in St. Peter’s Basilica, so he sent a courtier out into the country to interview artists and collect samples of their work that he could judge. The courtier approached the painter Giotto and asked for a drawing to demonstrate his skill. Instead of a study of angels and saints, which the courtier expected, Giotto took a brush loaded with red paint and drew a perfect circle. The courtier was furious, thinking he had been made a fool of; nonetheless, he took the drawing back to Boniface. The Pope understood the significance of the red circle, and Giotto got the job.

James McMullan

The story of Giotto’s O apparently dates from Vasari’s Lives of the Painters. First published in 1550, more than two centuries after Giotto’s death in 1337, Vasari’s profile adds this nice coda to the story:

This thing being told, there arose from it a proverb which is still used about men of coarse clay, “You are rounder than the O of Giotto,” which proverb is not only good because of the occasion from which it sprang, but also still more for its significance, which consists in its ambiguity, tondo, “round,” meaning in Tuscany not only a perfect circle, but also slowness and heaviness of mind.

Like being called “thick as a brick” today.

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Vermeer - Milkmaid

The effort to rival his best works, which was out of the question for anyone else, must have tormented Vermeer, whose self-generated standards demanded a labor-intensiveness scarcely convenient for a father of eleven, working in the middling genre of domestic interiors. Most of his Dutch peers averaged fifty or so pictures a year; Vermeer clocked in with two or three …

Vermeer was about twenty-five when he painted “The Milkmaid.” That’s hard to deal with. What made him so precocious? I hazard that it was the locomotive logic of a simple stylistic idea: to recast conventional genre painting in the terms of a perceptual realism as thoroughgoing as the medium allowed. The conviction of reality that flooded his canvases extended from subtleties of light to significations of character. Loyalty to his technique drew from the artist an approximation of humane wisdom that was probably far beyond his personal capacity, as a young man. This occurs with all sufficiently disciplined creative endeavors — klutzes in life transfigured as seraphim in their work — but seldom so sublimely.

— Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker (subscription required)

Vermeer appears to have stopped painting at age forty. He died three years later. There are only thirty-six authenticated Vermeers in the world. (View a highly detailed scan of this painting here.)

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Richard Diebenkorn: Notes to Myself on Beginning a Painting


The following list was found among the papers of the painter Richard Diebenkorn after his death in 1993. Spelling and capitalization are as in the original. (Via Terry Teachout.)

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

  1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
  2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
  3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
  4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
  5. Dont “discover” a subject — of any kind.
  6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
  7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
  8. Keep thinking about Polyanna.
  9. Tolerate chaos.
  10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Image: Richard Diebenkorn’s painting Ocean Park No. 129, 1984.

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