Archive for March, 2021

         Cézanne, Le Bassin du Jas de Bouffan, c. 1876

Last year’s  October 8 issue of the London Review of Books published a long  (just under 9,000 words) article by the art historian T.J. Clark, who has taught at British universities as well as at the University of California, L.A.

I am reproducing one of the seven pages to give you an idea of the tone of this piece. (Click image for readable enlargement)  For those of you who can’t get enough of this kind of hand-waving erudition, here’s the whole article:


I do recommend reading it in its entirety if you are interested in how various scholars have dated some paintings, how Pissaro and Cézanne worked together and how blind Clark is to what’s happening in these paintings. 

He is only interested in that pre-modern obsession with the “quality of light:” Cézanne has pinned down a particular kind of light here—sometimes I feel in the painting even a specific time of day, an early evening transparency answering back to Le Champ  de choux’s thickening and diffusion.

Cézanne is the grand-daddy of modern painting. You’re being absurd and blind if you claim that he and his progeny in modernism—Picasso, Braque, Matisse et al– were interested in “pinning down a particular kind of light.”

So I submitted a letter to the LRB and got a reply saying they were considering printing it.  But they didn’t.  Clark’s long piece did not get the attention of any printed letter at all.

Here, then, is the letter I submitted:

If you want to rhapsodize about light in a painting then you can persuade yourself that the quality of light in Jas de Bouffan is what it’s all about.  But look again and notice how Cézanne fools you.

If he were interested in painting a landscape, he would give us perspective with distant objects hazy and more faded than close up objects. Instead, the green stripes of the field are uniformly green, from close to far up on the hill. Don’t just say, ah landscape, look more critically. Start by admitting that the reflection in the basin is laughable.  The reflection of the house on the hill cannot occur at the edge of the basin.  The reflection of the windows does not relate to the windows on the actual house.  Where’s the chimney in the reflection?  Where’s the sloping shed roof?  The little tree in front of that little shed?  For that matter, those large blocks close to the water’s edge would have to reflect in the basin.

I don’t know what T.J.Clark means by “Modernity is loss of world.”  No world is lost in Cézanne, any more than a world is lost when a magician banters your ears full as he does the rope trick while manipulating your expectations.  Jas de Bouffan is a landscape– what else could it be?– but it’s also a banter of colors in a rectangle that manipulates your expectations.  You accept what’s happening in the basin because you’re sentimental about reflections in water.

He places that slender gray tree exactly in the middle. On the top it’s exactly in the middle, then it curves a little.  The reflection is made with the same gray so that the canvas is divided in half, from top to bottom, by this even gray brush stroke.  This gray brush stroke intersects the horizontal  ruler-straight line of the basin’s edge.  Notice how your eye keeps coming back to this intersection, which functions like cross hairs to focus your attention.  Nice.  Your brain likes this clarity in the context of all this hand waiving.  He situates these cross-hairs in the lower part of the canvas, which is where we expect the foreground to be. Voila! I give you a foreground and therefore the upper section must be farther away and you, dear viewer, are happy that this landscape has depth.

Using the same technique, Cézanne persuades us of a foreground in Maison et arbre. (See below)  The “precipitous road and front lawn to the left,” which looks so awkward, serves the same function as the cross hairs of tree-and-basin-edge in Jas de Bouffan. This crude geometry is also in the lower part of the landscape and is also clearly delineated.  Your attention can’t help but land on and linger in that lower left corner.  Location and delineation tell you, this is the foreground.  The green and orange fields to the right of the house are not fading into the distance—as you’d expect—but still they read as distant because the lower left corner of the road and the lawn shouts “foreground.”  Again, you accept this banter of flat rectangles and triangles. You want to believe that this is a landscape with foreground, middle-ground  and  background.  So that’s what you see.

Picasso and Braque called Cézanne their father not because of any atmospherics of light but because the canvases he filled with brushstrokes captivated attention in this new way.

When Cézanne in his 20’s lived in Paris he submitted paintings to the Salon, knowing full well he would be rejected. He did this over and over.  It’s fair to assume that rejection strengthened his resolve to find some new way of relating to a canvas.

Later in Aix, when he sat on the grass and watched Pissaro painting, let’s imagine him muttering in his curmudgeonly way,  “Merde, time of day and light effects…blabla…there must be more to painting than this.”

Cézanne, Maison et arbre, 1874

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.






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Christina Quarles’ paintings will be up at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago until the end of August.  My first thought when I saw her work online was: Gladys Nilssen!


Gladys Nilssen’s work first appeared in Chicago galleries in the mid 60’s.  Large watercolors showed human-ish figures, gawky, spaghetti limbed and bulbous in odd places.  Her goofiness remains …smart.  Smart, as in witty.

Christina Quarles’s debt to Gladys Nilssen is apparent at first sight. But nothing I’ve read about the younger artist mentions Gladys Nilssen. 

When I get to Chicago later this summer (hope, hope!) I’ll linger in the Quarles show and ask viewers if they’re seeing the connection to Gladys Nilssen.  Better yet, I’ll ask the curators of the show if they see the connection.  I’ll report back.

In the meantime, contrast and compare.  Here are the links to consult as you do your homework:










Gladys Nilssen, b 1940

            “Vested Interest,” 1987, watercolor on paper, 40” x 60”

Christina Quarles, b. 1985

            “Casually Cruel,” 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 77” x 96”

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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After the horizontal view (discussed in the last post), I turned the camera to the vertical view.   Here there’s even more to draw you in and hold your attention.

We still have the horizontal shadows with their variations.  This time, though, the lines pull you to the full view of the glowing prairie grass, the drama queen in this show.  Ta-tah!

The shape of the glow is roughly circular. A circle in a composition will dominate your attention.  Add to that the horizontal dark ellipse under the background tree and you have a play on the variation of round forms. Your brain loves that.  Then notice that that black ellipse and the glowing circle relate to each other through that tense gap between them.  Tension is good, it pulls you in.

We still have the Golden Section: red lines indicated the equal sides of the big square. In addition, a number of equal distances (greens, pinks) that create repetition in the composition, a kind of rhythm.

At this point, for good company, I’m reminded of Vermeer’s Little Street. He makes the composition run on rhythm.

The nerve of him! Here he is in the 17th century and instead of showing off how well he can create the illusion of depth through perspective and how well he can seduce you through human anatomy and ample flesh…what does he give you?  A flat façade of a couple of buildings.  Yes, there’s a picture within the picture with a little perspective view to the women in that passage way and the cobble stones recede, granted, but only faintly and ever so casually.   There are a couple of gables in the back, but no perspective lines lead to them, so , voila, they’re part of the overall flatness.

This is a modern painting.  One of us painted this.  Makes me wanna cry.  Yes, it’s a flat surface that runs on rhythm, like a drum roll of the same distances—all over.  That’s it, I’m in tears.

You can take a strip of paper and mark off any length on this building and then move that strip around and find the same distance, over and over.  That’s rhythm.  It’s what mesmerizes you.

Johannes Vermeer, 1632-1675


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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My prairie grasses glow backlit in the late afternoon sun.  I grab the phone, step out the front door and frame the shot.

I love this glow.  Oh, how I love this glow, let me count the ways.

What I mean is, if I put the glow in the middle of the frame, the picture will die on me. When we say a picture is “dead” what we’re talking about is our attention.  When an image engages your attention it’s because the composition moves your eye through the frame and lights up your brain.

I can tell you how it lit up mine.

In my first shot I took a horizontal view because of the variety of diagonal lines formed by the A) crack in the cement, B) straight line of the wall, C) shadows of the grass and D) tree in the background. That’s nice because it’s the same element (diagonal lines) expressed by different shapes and reference.

The other compositional whammo is the Golden Section. This seems to be built into my retina, because here it is again.

In summary, we have three compositional dynamics working here.

  • The horizontal frame establishes a tranquil, thoughtful mood.
  • The diagonals, varied and upward moving, are restless, energetic and optimistic.
  • The Golden Section anchors you in our aesthetic tradition.

How can this be a worthwhile image to look at?  It’s such an ordinary subject matter.  If you frame this — not cropped!– somebody coming to your house could make a face and say, are you kidding me?  What if you had it as an image filling your 50” TV screen!  Ha, look at that.

Consider the composition, pure and simple:

In the next post we’ll go vertical to see what can happen there.


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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Orazio Gentileschi was born near Florence in 1563.  From 1626 on he lived in England and worked for the Stuart king Charles I, who on the occasion of the birth of his son in 1630 commissioned Gentileschi to paint “The Finding of Moses” as a gift to his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria.

As moderns we are accustomed to seeing all art—musical, literary, pictorial—as invention. We know that the artist constructs his work. He plans out his composition.  It’s always been done that way.

Let’s take apart this invention, this construction called “The Finding of Moses.” 

What a lovely English landscape we have here in the background, with meadows leading to a river–the Nile/Thames–and a verdant hill on the other bank.  The women are gathered in front of a stand of tall trees, in full summer foliage, possibly maples or elms.  Not a palm or papyrus reed in sight.  Gentileschi had never been to Egypt and neither had Henrietta Maria, so all’s well with the English shrubbery here.

The pharaoh’s daughter, in gold-yellow, is eight heads tall. We know that our ancestors, including royals, were shorter than we are now. No matter, tall looks commanding and besides, a tall figure will display more fabric, which allows the painter to create a more colorful painting.

The figure on the left is Moses’s mom, a slave and also six heads tall. Gentileschi wants her tall because that way the he aligns the tops of the heads in a horizontal line. Thinking ahead, we now notice that on the right the bodies are also aligned in a straight vertical line. He clusters the figures together into a compact geometry, which makes the composition cohesive and easy to read.

Now what about all these arms?!  The two women pointing over yonder to the Nile/Thames clarify where the baby was found. Compositionally these two arms lead the viewer into the center of the drama.  Three more arms converge on the center of attention, the baby in a basket. And what long arms they are. Gentileschi gets away with this anatomical distortion because the bodies are kneeling.  If the two women in the font were to stand up, their hands would dangle at their knees.  No matter. Composition rules.  Composition directs the viewer’s attention. That’s what counts.

The baby is contentedly lying high on bedding piled up in the basket.  So high, that it would have tipped over while floating in water.  No matter.  You’re a painter; therefore you invent what needs to be invented to make the picture work.  The picture works if it FEELS right to the client and the occasion.

The baby is naked.  And it’s a boy!  The ancient Egyptian princess, dressed in 17th century English royal garb, is pointing to his genitals.  Queen Henrietta Maria must have been pleased to project a parallel into this painting between Moses and her own newborn son. Gentileschi knew his craft, technically and politically.

Perhaps an ambassador described the charms of this painting to Philip IV, king of Spain, who might have expressed a desire to have a painting by Orazio Gentileschi. The king was known to appreciate art, visiting the studio of his court painter Velazques to sit quietly in his own regal chair just to watch Velazquez paint.  Gentileschi, ever the diplomat, then painted a copy of “The Finding of Moses” for Philip IV and engaged his son to personally deliver it to the king in Spain.

Notice that he changed the overall composition.  He makes two alterations to change the composition from a rectangle to a quarter of a pie. The two arms pointing to the Nile are gone and the woman at the far right who is kneeling while holding the basket is now heavily draped and conspicuously plump compared to the other women in the group.  She is plump because she has to support the curve of the composition.

This painting hangs in the great central gallery at the Prado.  Eight women in a painting!  You can see from a long distance away that this has to be a Gentileschi.

His daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi, will be next.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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