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When you’re being paid to get a message across, composition is your friend.

Florence, ~1500.  Sandro Botticelli has been commissioned to make a painting in which a baby—quite literally–is the message. The culture Botticelli lives in is built around this theological message. He’s well acquainted with the usual cast of characters, will assemble them again for this painting and he knows he has to work out a composition that makes this baby the focus of attention, again.

Botticcelli yawns, takes out his sketch pad and draws straight lines and arches.  Those are the most important tools for his composition and really all he needs: straight lines and arches.  The arches will enclose the space around the baby.  The straight lines will converge on the baby.  Botticelli concentrates on his scribbling for two minutes.  Gotcha, he says.  He means the viewer.  The viewer’s gaze will not wander, will constantly be led to the point of convergence, the baby. The client, who is powerful and wealthy, better pay him well for this fine work.

It was the custom for a master like Botticelli to have assistants that were trained by the master to specialize in rendering specific parts of a painting. One student might specialize in painting drapery, one in skies, and one in vegetation.   When the master’s name is followed by “and workshop” we can’t be sure that the master actually worked on the painting. It may mean that he only drew the initial sketch (called “cartoon”) with the all-important composition lines and then assigned his assistants (his workshop) to flesh it out on canvas.  It may mean that he painted only the faces and hands and then turned the painting over to his trained assistants.  But it may also mean that the workshop crew had been trained so well by him that they could work in his style without him being present at all.

As for creating the cartoon, that was the main job and usually performed by the master. But, as you can see, once you knew where the focus had to be—and that came with the all-pervasive theology of the time—you reached for your composition tools and, voila, the thing fell together: arches and converging lines.

What about anatomy?  Well, anatomy has to become subservient to composition. Joseph’s left arm is too small and Mary’s right forearm cannot be attached to an upper arm. Both  are squeezed into place somehow. St. John’s right leg is not attached to his pelvis.  The bodies of the two adults are hulking and humongous in relation to their tiny heads.  The new born weighs about forty pounds. But no matter. We accept it all.  Why? Because the composition tells us so.  Enveloping arches and converging lines focus the mind.  The mind loves that.

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Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) is most famous, arguably, as having been the teacher of Rembrandt (1606-1663). Rembrandt was brought up Protestant, Lastman was Catholic. This is noteworthy because it shows that even in religiously torn Holland, people—artists, at least—still managed to respect each other.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century involved a lot of violence, for example, the destruction of stained glass windows, tapestries, paintings and statues in Catholic churches so that these stripped down buildings could then be converted to Protestant houses of worship. Holland became officially Protestant with Catholics being restricted to worshipping in private homes. How did this religious turmoil affect art and artists?  Drastically.   Painters, sculptors and craftsmen lost their primary client, the Catholic Church.

To work as an artist (to teach and to sell your work) you had to be a member of the Guild of St. Luke.  They met regularly and discussed art and business.  You can imagine these discussions when the big client was no longer there.  Paintings with religious themes were no longer being ordered.

Well, what about the genre called history painting? That was still popular. All the more so, since the shipping industry was booming, merchants were getting rich, built themselves huge houses and, ta-tah, needed paintings for their expansive walls. Given the religious-political climate, these had to lean towards the secular.

History painting gave the artist the opportunity to present edifying tableaus with figures, both clad and not-so-much, congregating in idyllic landscapes.  This required some acquaintance with Greek and biblical mythology. The owner of such paintings could throw a dinner party and feel cultured.

The Mauritshuis in The Hague recently acquired the Lastman painting we’re looking at here.  Their website offers a nice entry into the painting:

https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/explore/the-collection/pieter-lastman/

What fascinates me about this painting is the composition.  (No surprise to the reader who has followed this blog for even only a short time).

Shall we?

I’ve asked a couple of people what they see as the most prominent thing in this painting.  One said, the man on the left in that long red coat.  The other said, the huge man on the right, striking that showy pose on that too-small horse.  I agreed with them.  My attention was also drawn to these large figures – but only momentarily.   Then my focus landed in the middle and got stuck there.

Look! Lastman put a white circle smack-dab into the middle of his painting.  What was he thinking?!

If he had made that headband brown it would not stand out.  If he wanted it white but had made the background figure’s tunic light, then there would be no white circle to command our attention.  What was he thinking?

Not only is the white circle exactly in the middle, two diagonal lines (pink 3 and 4) lead directly to it.  Lastman contorts the figure along line 3 so that the leg line leads our eye directly to the white circle.  On the other side, along line 4, the woman’s garment is forced up to conform to a line that leads to the white circle. And then it leads along the dog’s paws, perfectly.

What was he thinking?

The picture purports to illustrate John the Baptist preaching.  There he is.  You look at him because, well, because you’re supposed to.  The title of the painting tells you to.  Then your eye wanders to the more colorful, theatrical characters in the crowd and then, wham, there’s the circle in the middle.

This is not a photo.  Did he work at this carefully, deliberately constructed composition to create an effect in our minds?  But what would that be? Why would he want us to keep coming back to that white circle in the middle? Maybe he didn’t think about that.  Maybe it was a joke. Maybe he was jaded and cynical.

The painting measures only 24” x 36.” Twenty-seven people, a horse (or three) and a dog are crammed into that small frame. Maybe, as the article on the Mauritshuis page says, he wanted to show how well he could draw anatomy in difficult poses and from different angles. Maybe that was good enough. It was a living. The nouveau riches bought it.

His pupil, Rembrandt, created paintings with mystery and depth.  We stand before them, fall silent, are drawn into them. They pose questions that we cannot answer. They silence us. And we come back to Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings and etchings over and over, to be silenced.  We never say, maybe he was jaded and cynical.

More paintings by Lastman:

https://www.google.com/search?q=pieter+lastman&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=uVlE-pYGwlWo8M%253A%252CjZbTIFugtDKwJM%252C%252Fm%252F07hgdr&usg=AI4_-kSDtwmzQCXWf1jxlBs5IvYZWq-qjg&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiH1ZiRvbTgAhURTawKHe3RBkEQ_h0wDnoECAUQDg#imgrc=y5URQBjXaAGrAM

For paintings by Rembrandt, try:

https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=dytiXJnbKOrF_QbVi4mQCA&q=rembrandt+paintings&oq=rembrandt&gs_l=psy-ab.1.2.35i39j46i39j0l4j0i131j0i67.2927.4915..8996…0.0..0.179.1357.0j10……0….1..gws-wiz…..0..46j46i131j46i67.jqZ9b3kqCm8

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

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16septlargedrapepot

Draw a portion of the still life so that your drawing will have a definite shape on the page.  That was the assignment.  I brought in large 20160922_144208textured paper, 30” x 22”, and encouraged everyone to work in charcoal or very soft graphite.

Notice that the pot in reality is big.  Does it have to be drawn big? No.  The pot and the drapery should be drawn in such a way that they sit nicely on the page.  The artist adjusted the size of the pot so that it becomes part of the arc of the composition.

The arc could have been drawn as if floating in space, but the artist suggests some terra firma by putting in a line to indicate a table top.  Notice that the table top line is broken cezanne-sl-applesbehind the pot.  Cézanne plays this game in his paintings all the time. We’re not committed to documenting reality. The goal is to create a lively page.

Drawing by Jeanne Mueller, charcoal on paper, 30” x 22”

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16septcharlstilllife

One of the reasons we draw from still lifes is that they are so forgiving.  A pot looks just as convincing whether you draw it fat or 16septlstilllifeskinny. Drapery can be pushed and pulled and ironed out.  This forgiveness leaves us free to experiment with the feeling of the drawing itself, feeling that comes from line quality, dynamics of light and dark, rhythm and composition.

Working from this pile of round forms and edges, the artist could have chosen to draw any passage in great detail.  He chose, instead, to draw the sweep of the whole arrangement.  It formed and arc.  As he drew from left to right, some aspects captivated him more than others and he shaded them for greater emphasis, time being 16septcharlstilllifearclimited, after all. Limited time is a good thing.  Because with more time, more details might have been filled in and we would have lost this lovely arc.  The drawing now has not only content, which anybody can get with due diligence, but also form, which comes out of a deeper crinkle of your brain. Tickling that crinkle is more than half the trick.

Charles Stern, graphite on paper, ~12” x 16”

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15JanPots

This is how the drawing sat on the page.

You can see that the artist/student, Linné Dosé, has developed a love of composition and form.   The drawing suggests a still life, you know, the usual pottery. But notice, we don’t get details here, no loyalty to the objects, no shadow and reflected-light games.

A work of art tells you how it wants to be looked at. This drawing directs your mind away from literalness.  It says, forget the pots.

Shape, Form, Space!

As it sits on the drawing paper it extends horizontally and that suggests a setting, a certain degree of literalness.

Now look what happens when we crop it to a square.

15JanPotsCropRad

The forms are so much more pure forms.

The square format will do that.  Uncanny.  It speaks to our modern sensibility.

Why would that be?

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Steenwijck2

I would like to have met Harmen Steenwijck. I wonder if anybody in Delft, where he was born, or Leiden, where he died, knew how witty he was.

In 17th century Holland artists had to invent themselves and their art.  A hundred years earlier the members of art guilds were kept busy with commissions from the Catholic Church: murals, tapestries, candelabra, gold smithing, marble carving and all that.  Then in 1517 a monk named Martin Luther said, let’s not do that anymore, well, not directly but in a round-about way.  The religious debate got very political, of course, with the Protestants storming Catholic Churches and smashing everything from stained glass windows to statuary to paintings.  In Holland, newly stripped down and whitewashed Catholic Churches were converted to Protestant Churches that tolerated no imagery or decoration.  But, hey, what about us artists!  What do we do now?

Dutch art became secular and humanist.  It became modern!

The Vanitas genre can be seen as a link between the old life-is-a-vale-of-tears theology and the new humanism that stressed living deeply with the reality of death.  But notice, that while theology preached hellfire-and-damnation, this new thing, humanism, gave you images to contemplate and it let your mind roam.

We still had to work with symbols.  Symbols furnished and cluttered our minds way into the end of the 19th century. But you could play with them.  These symbolic objects in your collection didn’t talk back like lace-collared Burgers who sat for a portrait.  You could arrange these things any way you wanted.  You played.

HarmenSteenwijckVanitasBlog

Harmen Steenwijck played. Some of the objects he shows in his still lifes were very expensive, like the Japanese sword, the sea shell, and the antique vase. In his Vanitas paintings they symbolized the futility of wealth.  The sea shell, expired life.  Then there are more common objects to represent the pleasures of life, like pipes and books.  The just extinguished candle is an obvious symbol of death and the skull takes the cake in this department.  Now, since he was painting an image with a message and everybody knew what symbolized what, why didn’t he just paint a shelf or a cupboard, with these things arranged one next to the other?  Wouldn’t that get the message across?

The message, yes.  But nobody would be attracted to the painting.  To pull viewers in and hold them emotionally, he needed to arrange the objects in a compelling composition.  Unlike portraits, still lifes were not commissioned.  A Vanitas, like other genre paintings, had to appeal a collector’s eye and tickle his mind.

In the painting shown at the top of this post, Steenwijck clusters all his symbols into a wedge at the bottom, balanced by the silence in the top triangle where a ray of light dramatically aims for the skull.

Steenwijck2lines

It’s a daring composition.  Spend some time with this painting and you’ll find that the empty gray wall in the background turns out not to be silent at all. It becomes eerie and ominous.

What we get with Steenwijck is a modern feeling for pictorial space.  There is no such thing as negative space or unimportant space in a painting.  That wall is not “empty,” it’s not “nothing.”  It’s an essential part of the drama.

This is an intriguing painting. But still, if he had painted the mirror image, that shell perched so precariously on the tip of the table would have gained so much more tension and character.

Steenwijck2flip

Harmen Steenwijck, 1612 – 1656

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15OctRedBlackYellHoriz
It’s something. But what!
I can explain why you would want to figure out what this represents: 1) there are definite shapes, 2) they’re clearly delineated, 3) they’re centrally placed and 4) there’s even an illusion of a horizon. So, of course, your smart, verbal brain gets to work on this puzzle. As soon as you’ve decided that the yellow square represents a structure, a building, say, you can move to the dip on its right and decide that here you have a valley and then you keep moving to the right and you can see an extended city block and, oh dear, this is not working. It’s just not coherent as a landscape at all. Even if you stick to the landscape-cityscape interpretation, what’s underneath the horizontal black mass just doesn’t compute. I mean, what’s that lavender roundish thing and that blue triangle there and then that blue smudge? Your brain now goes into overdrive and crashes. Wonderful! You’re having an aesthetic experience. You have entered the state of pure seeing. Congratulations.
It’s not easy to make art like this. Takes tremendous concentration.
Painting by Maria Palacios. Acrylic on canvas, 30”x 40”
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