Posts Tagged ‘ecole des Beaux Arts’

Copying an admired work of art is a highly recommended exercise for any art student and for any artist at any age.  We know that as a student Matisse spent many days at the Louvre copying paintings,  by Chardin, for example, and that he continued the practice as a mature artist.

Or take Picasso.  In 1957 Picasso—at the age of seventy-six—did more than fifty variations (“riffs”) on Velazquez’ Las Meninas, a painting he greatly admired.


So when we took Chardin’s Still Life with Peaches and Mug (Cup) as our subject for study we were following an honorable tradition.

One of the students in that class copied and then riffed on the motif by plopping a hand full of peonies into the mug.  Peonies?  Or a riff on peonies?  Pure invention!

You may think the peonies are a decorative embellishment, an indulgence of prettiness.

But I think this is witty. I see drama. It’s the centripetal vs the centrifugal.

The cluster of fruit with pear and peaches reads like a classic still life, perfectly executed as if were a 19th century submission for entrance into the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It is serene and balanced, rendering the spheres convincingly three-dimensional with faithful observation of shadow gradations and reflected light.

If you try to stay centered in this serenity, good luck, because the turbulence at the right is coming to get you.

The petals of the peonies are as exquisitely articulated as the peaches, but they are of a different vitality.  Where the round fruits say “centripetal density,” the peony petals are centrifugally chaotic.

Notice that the flower petals do not touch the fruit. The student/artist shows us these ordinary objects arranged on a shelf, fruit and flowers, but they are of two different domains. The knife cuts right through the divide. If the flower petals overlapped the fruit spheres, this “still life with fruit and flowers” would be just what you’d expect, harmonious.  It would be uneventful.

At its best, the work of copying an admired painting is not an act of obedience, but a conversation. My guess is that Chardin would enjoy this conversation and would encourage more of “le riff” on his paintings.

Drawing by Selina, graphite on paper, 12”x18”

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





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Goldfish and Palette,oil on canvas, 57-3/4 x 44-1/4. Some sources give the date as 1914, others 1912-17.

Today is Henri Matiisse’s birthday. He was born December 31, 1868 in northern France, near the Belgian border and grew up in Bohain, where the main commerce was beets and weaving. His father owned a seed shop. When he was about fifteen, his mother gave him a paint set and he knew that he wanted to be a painter. Becoming a professional painter was out of the question since that was a disreputable occupation. He was sent to Paris to study law and worked as a law clerk for a while. He studied at the École des Beaux Arts, with Gustav Moreau, copied paintings at the Louvre to make money and lived in abject poverty with two roommates, also painters, who had one decent pair of pants between them.
He married in 1898, saying to his bride, “I love you mademoiselle, but I will always love painting more.”
Until his late thirties, his work met nothing but ridicule. When he visited his family in Bohain, the town folk called him “le sot Matisse” (the Matisse idiot). In Paris, when he exhibited his paintings at the Salon des Independents (non-juried shows) people congregated around his work in uproarious laughter. Matisse played the violin and had a reputation among friends as a ham actor, who did  satirical impressions. But about his work he was so serious that young artists called him “the Doctor.” His concentration on his work caused insomnia throughout his life. In 1903 he wrote to a friend “describing the state of misery and emotional numbness to which insomnia had reduced him, and which he feared might end in total disintegration.” (I, 250) He “approached the act of painting (with) a tension so extreme that those closest to him risked being sucked in with him to the verge of breakdown or vertigo.” (I,324)
In 1910 he had a one-man show at the Bernheim Gallery. “The critics responded with a dismissive brutality that even Matisse had scarcely encountered in this scale before. They accused him of vulgar excess, willful confusion and gratuitous barbarity. Even the more serious reviewers found him incapable of following any consistent line or evolving a style of his own. “(II, 41) The same year, the Bernheims tried to swindle him and Matisse fell ill. A doctor explained that “there was nothing clinically wrong with him, that black despair would inevitably follow bouts of such intense nervous pressure and emotional exhilaration, and that all he could do was learn to manage his condition by sticking to a regular work schedule and by being less exacting towards himself. “All artists have this particular make-up, that’s what makes them artists, but with me it’s a bit excessive,’ Matisse told his wife, adding optimistically, ‘perhaps that’s what gives their quality to my pictures.’” (II, 59)
matisse-f9d8dTowards the end of his life, Matisse was in a wheel chair and incapable of painting. He worked with scissors to make “cut-outs.” He did not buy the paper, he painted the paper he used for cutting. He worked with an assistant in placing the pieces. There was nothing restful about this work process. The current exhibit at the MoMA has people sitting in quiet contemplation of these often huge cut-outs. People generally perceive them as tranquil. The largest one is hundred and four feet long.

About Goldfish and Palette, André Breton wrote: “I’ve examined this picture twenty times. In truth it possesses at once innovation, profound penetration of every object by the artist’s own life, magical colors, it has everything…I’m convinced Matisse has never put so much of himself into any other painting.” (II, 168)
(The quotes are from Hilary Sperling’s two-volume study of Matisse.)
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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