Sunday, August 22, 2010

Struggling with the Great Masters

If you're even a casual art enthusiast you've probably been exposed to thousands and thousands masterpieces. History of art classes routinely focus on the most seminal and well-realized works. Art history books feature only the best of the best. Museums prominently display their most prized works and use their web sites to tout the same. While studying the masterworks certainly has value, the focus on great paintings can lead to the mistaken impression that all the old masters ever did was sit around churning out one masterpiece after another.

As a painter, this artistic hit parade can be a fairly disheartening. I'm certainly not churning out one masterpiece after another. (...for that matter, I'm not sure I've even churned out one masterpiece). That's why I get a special thrill whenever I come face to face with a less than successful work by one of the old masters.

The Art Institute of Chicago owns a couple paintings that perfectly capture the not always successful masters in action. Both happen to be seascapes done is successive years. One is by Manet, the other by Whistler. I love both painters dearly, but neither has quite hit the mark with these works.

I've affectionately dubbed this pair "Boats We Couldn't Be Bothered to Paint"; and while each has its own sketchy charms, neither is particularly convincing.

Steamboat Leaving Boulogne, 1864 by Edouard Manet
Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Trouville (Grey and Green, The Silver Sea), 1865 by James McNeil Whistler
Image Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

It's not that these are necessarily "bad" paintings. They're not. And it's not that I take some perverse pleasure in bearing witness to their shortcomings. I don't. Rather, I appreciate their role as a corrective to the idea that great paintings are easy. They're not. Painting is fluid, messy, and imprecise. Success is never guaranteed, and making a really great painting is never automatic - even if your an old master.

No comments:

Post a Comment