Friday, July 31, 2015


This post responds to some things that people have been saying to me and about me over the past few years; not you, longtime and much-neglected blog readers, but people on various social media.

Like many artists, I would be happiest if my work acted to encourage other artists. But this is not always the case. On Instagram or Facebook, sometimes I’ll post something that has turned out particularly well, and an artist will comment, “Oh, I’ll just give up now.” This is meant as a compliment, but it makes me feel terrible. I absolutely want to do good work, but my goal is not to suppress others.

There is a weaker form of this comment which offers more room for conversation - that is, for reversing the suppressive effect. This weaker form goes either, “You have so much talent,” or, “What you do is like magic” (they amount to the same thing really). Well! I can certainly argue against that: because I know exactly how much work has gone into producing every one of the pieces in question. I have been remiss, perhaps, in concealing the work. Let me illustrate. Here is a painting in progress of Leah. It is one of my favorite faces to date.

work in progress, oil on canvas, 40”x30”, detail

Pretty nice, right? It would take a lot of talent to paint that, and maybe some magic; maybe the god of painting would have to be smiling down on you that day. And I suppose all these things are true. But then again - what year is this, 2015? Let’s step back to 2001.

portrait study, oil on canvas, 12”x9”

Yes, that is also me; me at the very beginning of this long and arduous road. I had, at the time, been going to life drawing one or two times a week for about three years. I was starting to get interested in painting. So I bought 12”x9” canvas pads from the art supply store, and some brushes and turpentine, and some burnt sienna and flake white - I figured I would start with two colors and work my way up. I never took a class, and had no idea how to move paint onto a canvas. The first year or so was simply that: how do you pick paint up from your palette with a brush, and put that brush down on a canvas, and leave the paint there? It’s a complicated question. I went through a lot of trouble finding my first answer to it, and more trouble still finding the answers that suited me best.

The catastrophically bad study above was no fluke. Here’s another one from the same period.

portrait study, oil on canvas, 12”x9”

As you can see, I am clumsily attempting to paint brown over wet white, and white over wet brown. They do not want to be pressed heavily down on fluid surfaces, so they catch and stutter. I’ve figured out a couple of things, like blocking in the major shape of the back of the hair, and covering my mistakes on the picture-left edge of the cheek with a dark background. But my fixes are also failures. Because at the same time that I cannot paint, I cannot draw. I cannot paint, or draw, and so it could be said in some obscure but real sense that I cannot see. Although I cannot see, I can do what it takes to learn to see: I can think, and I can practice. Have one more mess from this early period.

portrait study, oil on canvas, 12”x9”

I swear to you I am not magic, and to the extent I have talent, I had to sweat for every inch of it that got dragged out of hiding.

There were three primary techniques I used to improve:

1. For drawing, I went to open life drawing workshops between once a week and three times a week for seventeen years.
2. For painting, I ultimately wound up spending hundreds of hours working privately with models from 2004 to the present.
3. For general anatomy, I spent two years drawing my own anatomical atlas based on human cadaver dissections which I attended or performed, at Santa Monica College.

There was surely a role for magic, but most of it was work. So I hope I can convince any of you artists who feel discouraged when you see what I can do - that you can do it too, but you must put in a great deal of work over a very long time; and even then, you will not be like me. I am not like the people I idolized when I began. You won’t be either. The reward of your work is that you will start to become yourself, which is better.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Wasteland

Let me be candid with you. I don't really understand "The Wasteland." I have read it many times, though never in a rigorous way. Perhaps it all means something in particular, though it has the texture of an inspired thing, that is, a thing which arrives without having traveled. I don't mind not understanding it; I live in a world of mysterious colossi; my cultivated ignorance is a method of wonder.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Light on Water

Here is a photograph by Carolyn Marks Blackwood which I found moving and powerful.

Nautical Twilight, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, photograph, 40”x40”, 2012

So I’d like to explain to you some of what I saw.

Blackwood joins in here with the rich history of landscape painting. Landscape is not an easy genre: nature is unruly, and does not wish to order itself into compositions pleasing to our sense of proportion. It is thematically difficult as well. Why do we look at landscapes? Because they are beautiful? Some are, and beauty must surely be a part of it. But beauty, in its fiery and terrible sense, is difficult to keep straight in this context, in which so much treacly prettiness is possible. Let’s leave aside the troubled concept of beauty for now. I think there are three fundamental reasons we learn the difficult skill of seeing landscapes in art, and through art, in nature:

We see in them, as we see in still lives, the soulfulness of things. Soul is not visible to us in human life alone. It becomes visible, through long study, in a stone, a chair, a bowl. And similarly, the texture of light in the woods, the sweep of a valley and ridge of a mountain, make their inner lives clear to us if we gaze at them intently. We do this naturally at first, and when we have grown too old and jaded to see things clearly as they are, artists guide us in learning to do it again.

Second, the study of landscape - of nature - returns to us a sense of awe. It is dramatically and insistently larger than we are. One age after another has discovered for itself, as if for the first time, a sense of the sublime in nature. But surely this sense has persisted and refreshed itself since men first scanned distant horizons and stormy skies.

Finally, we study landscapes because of their narrative resonance. Relative to actual human experience, they are abstract and indirect. But as in the case of music, also abstract and indirect, we can make out in landscape the story of ourselves, of the ideas and emotions and transitions which give shape to our lives.

Blackwood is of a kind with the landscape painters in drawing out the soulfulness, the sublimity, and the humanlike in nature. She is not painting here, but she is scarcely taking a photograph either. The camera has a strong desire to see everything. Contrast that with how much is unseen in Blackwood’s image. The wavelets in the foreground are crisp and clear, but the woods on the far shore are murky, the treetops nearly blending into the overcast sky. The woods and sky are rendered with the simplified economy of painting, subtle gradients all that keep them from flattening into the merest shapes. Not only is key detail edited out of the image, the image, in a sense, is edited out as well. What natural phenomenon does this image depict? It depicts sunlight breaking through cloud, and falling on unquiet waters. So where is the sun? And where are its sparkles on the river? They are nowhere to be seen, because Blackwood has framed them out.

She has turned her camera aside from the direct prospect, leaving only the lesser glare upon the water, and the start of a numinous glow which animates the volume of storm-dampened air between us and the far shore.

Two different aspects of this picture recall to me two different painters. One is Bruegel, who hides Icarus in an insignificant corner of his broad landscape.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Bruegel, oil on canvas, 29”x44”, c. 1558

Here too there is a central story, shuffled off to the side, nearly to the point of its disappearance. Two modern poets gave voice to this chokingly painful eccentricity. William Carlos Williams reproduced the offhanded cruelty of it in his Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, describing the entire scene before remarking:

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

While W. H. Auden, in his Musée des Beaux Arts, writes from the affronted perspective of a humanist who has not quite shaken off his expectation that tragedy should take center stage:

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Yes, this is what Blackwood performs as well: an essential turning away. Consider her standing on her cliff, surveying the Hudson River, the storm at its end, the sun returned and shining down on the waters. With the awful forbearance of the artist, who closes the gate on spectacle in favor of humble truth, she frames out the glories of the sky, allowing them to remain only as a suggestion, an implication, in a more austere and profound composition. The ripples on the water, the indistinct far shore, and a vast expanse of air beginning to fill with that numinous glow - these things, she teaches us, are enough and more than enough. More would be mawkish, whereas this fraction that remains already holds all the meaning the scene can offer.

The meaning, however, is not that of Bruegel. In this regard, she recalls to me the other painter, Caravaggio, who has never been surpassed in his identification of light with the spiritual. We cannot help but think of Caravaggio as feverish with desire for his salvation. We conceive him this way because the bare details of his criminal life tangle so wrenchingly with his desperate grasping after light in his work. He paints an enveloping, beckoning darkness, opposed only here and there by light, but he thirsts after this light, and the light fights an uncertain battle to save him from the terror of the void. In Caravaggio, as in Blackwood, the source of the light is unseen: Caravaggio does not depict what illuminates, but only what is illumined. Consider his The Calling of Saint Matthew:

The Calling of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio, oil on canvas, 127”x130”, 1599-1600

Here Christ summons Matthew with pointed finger, though which of the jumble of scoundrels is meant, Caravaggio does not make clear. Each of them turns at the sudden intrusion of light, as if the room had swum in dimness only a moment before. What calls these men, exactly? In bare narrative terms, it is Christ who calls them. But in the picture, it is the light. They were plunged in darkness, and now the possibility of light is offered to them. Christ is not the source of the light; if the light were a character, I suppose it would have to be the Holy Spirit, hiding offscreen right, resting its redemptive authority in Christ. The light occupies space in Caravaggio, as it does in Blackwood, sketching out its shape against the rear wall.

Blackwood’s light, its source and zone of greatest radiance offscreen, reminds me of Caravaggio’s light. It breaks upon a world indistinct and lost in gloom, with a terrific redemptive force. It falls on some but not all objects, suddenly and sharply defining those it touches. It fills volumes of space, as if the gasping world, crying out for it, inhaled it and was transformed. It portends an unbearable intensity, but its touch is gentle, as if it moderated itself to the infirmities of those it would save. Where there was darkness and fear and despair, it brings comfort and hope. The river ripples beneath its touch, tapping out a nearly musical rhythm, and the violent sky is soothed and brought to heel. The entire surface of the image shimmers with it; local colors and values are not those of the landscape alone, but of the landscape with a scrim of light laid semi-visibly atop it. The light is a second character, an active participant, a thing which cannot be touched but which is continuously present.

This density and profundity of meaning - a meaning which I needed from some art, any art - is what struck me so powerfully in Blackwood’s photograph. Photography, which mechanically compensates for the laziness of the eye with a miraculous clarity of unearned sight, breeds endless photographs. We are seized by an undertow of thoughtless photographs, photographs which, when beautiful, often fall into the category of that treacly prettiness we discussed before in landscapes. In contrast with these, Blackwood’s piece feels, to me, considered, digested, expressive. It transcends its medium, as all art must, to speak soul-to-soul. It is the mature product of a mindful eye and hand.

Carolyn Marks Blackwood online:

This post is a continuation of my "single work appreciation day" series, of which other instances can be found in my Huffington Post archive. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

First Session

Here’s a clear instance of a phenomenon I keep noticing in my drawings. I was at Lisa Dinhofer’s life drawing workshop last night, where I drew a model I’d never drawn before, named Dea. I had an impression of great warmth from Dea, but I’d like to try to be specific about the nature of this impression. Dea has a mellifluous voice which reminds me of the voice of another model I know, Natalya, who is a very warm individual. So I tend to assume that anyone with a similar voice is similar in character. This is not so flawed an assumption as you would think. A voice is not shaped by lungs and vocal cords alone. Its actual sound reflects the use a person puts it to. Just as the same body can be indifferent or attractive, depending on the attitude of its owner, so a voice can merely have a nice sound, or sound warm, depending on character. I think there is a high probability that my first impression was right.

The phenomenon I wanted to discuss with you, though, is the transition from a first drawing to a second drawing. This workshop was a single pose, so I had time to draw the same pose twice. Here’s the face from effort #1:

Dea Sitting (detail), 2015, graphite and white pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

I will probably never again get her face this formally correct. We’ve talked in the past about the distinct character of the neurological apparatus responsible for processing faces. It is apart from the more general mechanisms of sight, and the figurative artist must treat it separately in order to bring it into conformity with representation. I have only partly got mine tamed. The density of my recognition of the person in the face precludes my ability to see the face as shapes and forms. I see faces intensely, but not quite formally. Except the first time. The first time I look at a model, they are not yet a person for me, and during a brief window, I can draw them from the cold perspective of sight alone. This is my first drawing of Leah’s face.

First Portrait of Leah, January 15, 2009, graphite and white pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11” (drawing much smaller)

It is more formally accurate than anything I have drawn of her since. Now here is a portrait of her which is one of my favorites.

Preparatory Sketch for Meiosis II, 2013, graphite and white pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

This also looks very much like Leah, but in a fundamental way it is less complete than the first rapid little sketch. It shows only one side of her character, as most psychological drawings must. There is no complete state of mind, so there is no complete drawing - except for the utterly physical drawing, the first drawing.

On the other hand, consider the entire drawing of Dea:

Dea Sitting, 2015, graphite and white pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

Her body appears stiff and stereotyped. It is precise as to structure, but without a feeling of mass and the internal tensions of the muscles as they contend with the varying densities and weights of flesh and bone. Also, the perspective on the left side of her rib cage is a little fucked up. This too is typical of my first drawings of models, and for the same reason: I have not yet integrated the model into pictorial person-ness.

This is a paradox. My failure to integrate allows me to make an accurate face, because I am representing forms only. But the same failure to integrate precludes my drawing a convincing body, again because I am representing forms only.

The presence of the body is much more strongly informed by the action of its interior. The face, for all of its animation, is a thin layer of soft tissue on top of a surface of inflexible bone. It is most technically accurate when it is depicted in terms of form.

So then, I finished this first drawing and moved on to a second. By now I had a sense of the pose and more of a sense of the person, and so I began to select and edit what was interesting, and doable in the 40 minutes I had left.

Portrait of Dea, 2015, graphite and white pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

This is more vivid and personal, and the marks have more vigor. A personality is much more present here. And yet it is already less complete. In a face through which one mood and thought flashed after another, I was able to catch only one state of being. That’s fine, knowledge itself is incomplete, especially knowledge of people. I just noticed that this transition, from the cause and outcome of drawing #1 and the cause and outcome of drawing #2, illustrated quite well the mechanics of getting to know a model, so I thought I’d share.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Bright Silence

I have always had very good luck with artwork of Manou, a dancer who has, sadly, left New York. This is my first painting of her, which was purchased before anyone knew who I was for a very decent price by Chicago super-collector Howard Tullman.

The Minoan, oil on canvas, 60”x36”, 2010

This is my second painting of her, which hung for a while at Charles Saatchi’s restaurant in London, and which has gone viral on Tumblr every few months since I painted it.

Hands #1, oil on canvas, 24”x24”, 2011

Manou turns up once in a while, and I work with her as much as I can when she does. On her most recent visit, I did a series of red line drawings of her on white paper.

Red Manou Drawing #16, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2014

Having only a few sessions together, I shot a bunch of reference pictures for work on my own later on. I’m by no means above doing this in such cases. After she’d jetted back to London, I studied what I’d shot and started drawing things I think I might like to do paintings of as some kind of a body of work.

Manou Kneeling, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2014

This hypothetical group of paintings would be composed like the painting of her hands above - high key lighting, no deep darks, and a white background. And in fact I soon had an opportunity to test the concept. I was invited to show a piece in Small is Beautiful, the 40th annual small works show at Flowers Gallery (this year held at the Chelsea, New York branch).

The rule for this show was that the artwork must be no larger than 9”x7”. So I chose 8”x6” panels, and painted two compositions I had focused on from the body of available images (I was asked to provide a backup painting in case the first sold and walked out the door). Here is the first painting I did:

Manou Walks Away, oil on panel, 8”x6”, 2014

This is the one that is currently hanging at Flowers Gallery, a subject we will cover in a future blog post. The second painting, the reserve, is a different take on Manou kneeling:

Manou Sits on Her Feet, oil on panel, 8”x6”, 2014

Once I had painted these two paintings, I sat back and looked at them and thought about them. The more I thought, the more familiar they appeared. If you look at them again, you will see that these stark configurations of the human body against a zero-background take on a grammatic quality. They are like letters. For me, in fact, they are exactly that: letters. They are letters in the long human alphabet.

Our attention gusts backward now to how I thought when I was very little. The whole world, to me, was like these compositions: a glowing whiteness, out of which fragments of things, detailed and various, emerged and solidified. These centered objects came into view, and hovered in fascinating richness before the eye of my attention, and then receded. I am not a hierarchical thinker by nature. Whatever lies before me is the most fascinating thing in the world; all other things are beyond dull, they simply cease to exist.

And yet I was not entirely without hierarchy. I craved one thing before the eye of my attention beyond all others, and this was human being. I wished to see people in absolute clarity. I did it, too, but in a terribly incomplete way. I studied the acts of human beings from a purely physical perspective. The endless permutations of what the body could do made a visual impression on me. This impression vibrated with a numinous quality, and yet it was divorced from psychology, narrative, and anything we would call human meaning. It leapt directly from the physical to the divine, without a trace of the world of men and women in between. I myself suffered emotions, of empathy, of jealousy, of adoration, of desire. But these emotions were not linked to what is generally understood as the human condition. I was a follower of the collarbone, the scapula, the carotid pulse, the bunched bicep.

My experience of human beings hovered at their surface. It was like Aristotle’s reasoning on the concept of place in the fourth volume of the Physics. He wrestles with the question of whether the matter of which a thing is composed is its place, or whether perhaps the form of the thing is its place, before ultimately concluding that place is “the boundary of the containing body at which it is in contact with the contained body… place is thought to be a kind of surface, and as it were a vessel, i.e. a container of the thing.” (Physics, IV: 212, 6-29)

You can see here a formulation of a concept I have raised before, the mystery-in-broad-daylight. One may collect a virtually infinite amount of information, a total documentation of boundary or surface - the seemingness of things - without once progressing beyond it into matter - what they are. Comprehend, if you will, the silence and loneliness of such a conception of humanity. Madly searching, it sees all, and yet it remains essentially outside: an omniscient beetle, a flatlander. This was my primary experience of other human beings. It was sensual, crystalline in its brightness, and strictly inhumane.

Although this was my experience, it did not define the limit of my awareness. I was aware of my insufficiency, of my solitude, and I fought to expand the basic form of my perception. I held a firm belief that the long alphabet would someday sound itself out into words, that seas of meaning underlay that broad ocean of letters. Indeed, the very breadth of the ocean hinted at a nearly unendurable abundance of meaning, a fertility of meaning beyond all compare. One day I would penetrate that surface and drown joyfully in the matter of it.

All these things I recalled as I studied the two small paintings of Manou. I recalled them, and I realized I remain as much at the surface as I have ever been. Those of you who know me in person probably know me as gregarious, friendly, and extroverted. I am all of these things, but they are habits built upon an analytic substructure, and the substructure emerged from a decision - a decision to become human - followed by years of practice. Perhaps we all go through this. Perhaps I am unusual only in remembering it, and in recognizing my social nature as alien. Even I forget most of the time what parts of me are original, and what parts I chose and built.

These paintings, these two letters in the long alphabet, brought my original nature forcibly back to mind. What do these two letters mean? Nothing at all. They do not form a word. They are mute, and through them, I am mute. They hover at the very edge of the boundary of humanity, puzzling out and revealing all its formal beauty. But they are ultimately without any form of idea which could be called human.

Compared with other artists of my age and abilities, my work has always seemed relatively devoid of ideas. It is anchored in the sensual, in the surfaces of things. This is not to say that I am blind to what people think of as ideas, or that I do not appreciate them in the work of others. But my fundamental nature does not generate that kind of thing, and so, even in my most humanistic work, echoes of the bright and silent mystery remain. Neither, however, am I a follower of depiction. Others paint with more detail, more verisimilitude, and more rigor than I do. I once set myself in competition with these masters, but I do not any longer. The best I have to offer is not becoming the best at depicting. Rather, it is to become able to catch the beauty and longing of that bright silence. A long time ago, I received a wonderful compliment from an artist I admire very much. She said that she liked my anatomical drawings above others because they plumbed the depths of the dead, and yet were lyrical.

Deeper Muscles of the Neck, ink on paper, 14”x11”, 2002

I dare not say such a thing about myself, but I hope that there is indeed a specific quality of the lyrical - what a wonderful word - that is unique to me and which my endless practice has begun to allow me to convey.

Nothing is so categorical as this description might suggest. I was never autistic; my work is not about surfaces only; some of it contains narrative. But it is also true that if you work with enough models, you will encounter one who interfaces precisely with each of the phases of your consciousness, even the ones you’ve forgotten. Because Manou has been a disciplined dancer for a very, very long time, she has refined her own body into a seamlessly efficient and graceful machine. She partakes easily of purely formal gestures because they yield the letters of her native artistic medium.

Therefore my work with her leads me back to the bright primal silence, the land of cold wind, light, and color. It shows me where I began, a place that must be unburied in order to be known, a strange and lonely place which provided the awful, beautiful, meaningless alphabet in which I transcribe everything I say.

Portrait of Manou, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2014

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Prince and I Sat Down Near the Window

The Find

When I was little and I read stories for young readers, the stories frequently emphasized that their characters were going on an adventure. This seemed very exciting, and I hoped that I too would get to go on an adventure someday. When I got older, I did not see any adventures around me, and I was disappointed. But when I got a little older than that, I realized that having an adventure is a matter of perspective. If you recognize what you’re doing as an adventure, you will tend to find that life is all adventures.

I’d like to tell you about an adventure along these lines that I wandered into last year. It’s been at the back of my mind to tell it, and it involves extraordinary generosity on the part of somebody else, so it needs telling. Here’s what happened.

Spring Street Studio is my usual life drawing workshop. It’s a basement room in Soho with a model stand surrounded by chairs and tables. The walls are lined with bookcases. Often there are papers scattered about, abandoned sketches or photocopies of artwork. One day I found such a sheet of paper, a color copy of a painting. Glancing at it, I saw that it was a fabulous painting of Leah, my favorite model.

I love to see art that other artists make working with models I know, and in this case, I felt a very particular sting - the sting of seeing work better than yours based on your model. But I didn’t recognize the hand. Whose was this? I picked up the sheet and studied it - and realized that it was not a painting of Leah at all. The model had a similar coloring and sense of pose. She had big breasts shaped like Leah’s, and her belly folded when she sat the same way Leah’s folds. But this model had a longer back and sharper features - she was somebody else. In fact, the painting wasn’t even contemporary. It looked like an academic French painting from the early to mid-19th century. Who painted this?

Like a magpie, I made off with the sheet of paper. I didn’t know how to identify the work, but I did have an even more magpie idea: why not make off with the painting itself? That is, restage it. It was a Leah kind of a pose. The artist was most likely dead. Why not steal his composition and paint my own version with Leah? I filed it under next-few-ideas-to-execute - then suddenly I found out whose painting it was.

The Painter

Romanticizing the past is nothing new. Rome has been the eternal city for a very long time. Between about 1800 and 1850, young French painters flocked to Italy to soak up classical art. And not only classical art, but the landscapes which formed the backdrops of its creation. Outside the city, painters made nearly mystical pilgrimages to sketch hills and trees and ruins, blue skies and afternoon clouds. A genre of French painting sprang up: beautiful Italian landscapes painted on little canvases set up on folding travel-easels, painted in a few hours on day trips to the countryside. Decades before the Impressionists arrived, students of the Academy were already making swift records of the fleeting moods of weather, light, and land.

Jacques-Louis David, Portrait de Madame Récamier, 1800, oil on canvas

Near the end of the previous century, David had imposed a stern neoclassical ideal on French painting. A single generation later, his student Ingres was already remodeling that ideal, his painting slipping into a lifelong erotic reverie of proliferating nudes and fluid, elongated lines. David’s sensibility was well suited to a national style of painting. He survived the factionalism of his day, emerging as a favorite of successive revolutionary forces and then of Napoleon. Ingres, so much more idiosyncratic and personal in his work, was a more awkward fit with his national role. He suffered a hot-and-cold relationship with the French art world, acknowledged as a leading artist of the State, but never entirely admired. In 1834, he retreated in a snit to Italy to direct the Académie de France à Rome. The flow of young French painters with their classical aspirations and portable easels washed up on the shores of his influence, beholding the spectacle of his perpetually in-progress Venus Anadyomene on their way out to take in the tumbled columns and the greenery.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Venus Anadyomene, 1825-50, oil on canvas

She instructed them in the director’s strangely retro vision for contemporary classicism - body lengthened, contrapposto exaggerated - Greco-Roman to be sure, but with a French sexiness: a daringly affectionate nod to the vanished entitlements of the ancien régime, a recapitulation of the middle class fantasy of aristocrats engaged in baroque sexual games.

In 1838, one of Ingres’s students followed him from France to the Villa Medici, and in 1840, a second, his best friend, followed. German-born Henri Lehmann was melancholy, even depressive. His inclinations in his own art at the time were timid, his ambition to become worthy of the tradition his training entrusted to him. His ami, the French Théodore Chassériau, was more high-spirited, an adventurer who, as Lehmann wrote to fellow intellectual (and probably also lover) the comtesse d’Agoult, “on the third day after his arrival in Rome, drew the portrait of a woman, whom in my heart I had coveted for years as the most desirable of models.” Chassériau was that kind of a best friend.

The two of them were largely inseparable during the late summer and autumn of 1840. During their time apart, Lehmann did finally get that model to sit for him, describing her in another letter to the comtesse as one of the “four most beautiful girls that you could have as a model in Rome.” It’s not clear exactly who this model is, but his description suggests she’s a professional model and famous among artists. By resemblance to other work, this makes it as likely as not that she’s Marietta, who sat for Danish artist Constantin Hansen in 1839, and for French art titan Camille Corot in 1843:

Constantin Hansen, Resting Model, 1839 (painted in Rome)

Camille Corot, Roman Odalisque (Marietta), 1843, oil on paper

I’d like to think it’s Marietta, anyway. I think models get the short end of the stick, art historically speaking, and I am always happy when the name and works of one can be dragged back from the maw of forgetfulness and erasure.

Lehmann used his sessions with this overpoweringly beautiful model, Marietta or not, to flesh out a painting idea he was mulling over. The painting started with these lines from Victor Hugo’s 1831 poem Les Feuilles d'automne:

There, pensive willows that weep on the shore,
And, like an indolent and naive bather,
Allow the ends of their tresses to soak in the water.

Lehmann translated this image into a group of nude women on the forested bank of a river - the central figure taking her pose from the Venus Anadyomene, and the others grouped around her, out-languiding each other. One of his first steps in producing the piece was figuring out the right pose for each langorous nude river-lady. That’s what the painting I saw at Spring Street was. It was a Lehmann study of maybe-Marietta (clearly the Leah of Rome in the late 1830’s) in preparation for a bigger, fancier painting.

The Painting

Usually Lehmann made preparatory sketches until he reached a design that satisfied him. Then he would transfer this design to the canvas using the precision techniques of squaring or tracing. He didn’t just do this for the big paintings. He did it for little paintings of the size and ambition of the Study of a Female Nude as well. But infrared reflectography of this painting reveals no evidence of such a method of preparation. This absence tells us something about the painting. It was probably done in a single sitting, maybe three hours or five, with the model present. It’s a live painting.

I am a careful and methodical painter myself, and I use squaring to transfer designs to the canvas before I begin. So I know what it means when you ditch this technique, because I’ve been there. It means that your subject inspires you enough to give in to trust - trust in your subject, trust in yourself - to work on the high wire, without a net: the painting may fail, but if it does not, if it succeeds, then it will pulse with life, the life of having been painted in a series of irreversible choices, each choice awake, vivid, true. To regularly paint over a squared design, and then to choose to paint like this, is to commit to inspiration or death in the work, and nothing between. There is no more vivid testimony to what maybe-Marietta inspired in Lehmann. She inspired him to be better than himself. That’s what muses do.

Henri Lehmann, Study of a Female Nude, 1840, oil on canvas, 14” x 8.75”

There is lettering underneath the tall, beautiful ass of maybe-Marietta. Like Marietta’s own presence in the painting, it may or may not really be there. It seems to read “À Chas” - “To Chas.” If that’s what it says, it would appear to be inscribed by Lehmann to his best friend Chassériau. It would suggest Lehmann assigned the painting as a gift, a gift recalling a moment in the friendship of two creative young men, sharing an adventure together in a foreign land, both of them drunk on talent and prone to intense emotions and sentiments, chasing after the same women - a summertime gift.

But it never made it to Chassériau.

When Lehmann had arrived in Rome, he’d lined up a prestigious gig - a portrait of the wife of the French ambassador to the Holy See. And he was working on securing another commission, a portrait of the famously pious and controversial Abbé Lacordaire. At the time he was painting his Study of a Female Nude, the Lacordaire job had progressed to that stressful and ambiguous point where the client has indicated that the answer is yes, but never in so many words. Nothing is in writing, no money has changed hands, nobody has committed to anything. So you, the artist, just have to smooth your way through a few more days, and if everyone keeps having a good time at these afternoon get-togethers, soon enough a letter will be sent round to establish dates for the sittings, and all concerned will act as if of course it was always understood the commission would take place…

Anyway, Chassériau stole both jobs, the ambassador’s wife and the Abbé. End of friendship; gift rescinded. Ingres had had about enough of Chassériau’s bullshit by then too, and cut him off.

The Curator

How do I know all of this? Because of the way I found out whose painting that was in the color copy at Spring Street. I was flipping, as one does, through the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, volume 70, no. 3, winter 2013, and, astonishingly, came across a picture of the same obscure painting. It was part of an article on those landscapes the French art students were busy painting in Italy - it turned out the Met owned a lot of the landscapes, and also that mesmerizing Study of a Female Nude that wasn’t Leah after all. Here’s the cover of the article:

I don’t know how you do things, but here’s how I do things. If I find something interesting like this, and I have more questions, and the writer isn’t dead, then I’ll try to get in touch with him or her, and ask what I want to ask. In this instance, I wanted to learn more about the history of the painting, so I emailed the Met and asked if I could get in touch with the guy who wrote the article - one Asher Ethan Miller, assistant research curator, European paintings department. Lo and behold, he got back to me.

Over the phone, he sketched out the story of the painting, setting it not only into its historical context, but its personal context for him. He’s a little bit in love with this particular painting, and its tiny little perch in the tumultuous emergence of modern art. He’s in love with its subject, and its paint, and its canvas, and the story it may or may not contain. He’s in love with the letters between Lehmann and the comtesse. He wants that ambiguous inscription to read “À Chas” - if it reads “À Chas,” then the copious correspondence of everyone involved nails down the rest: which afternoon the model came by, which afternoon Chassériau dropped in on Lacordaire and guiled away the portrait commission, what day Lehmann meant to give his precious gift to his friend and what day he found out the truth… and if the inscription does not read “À Chas,” well, all these things happened, but they don’t make such a good story with a little painting for a prize. Therefore Asher Ethan Miller has sat down, as others have before him, with Study of a Female Nude or its infrared reflectograms, under a magnifying glass or a microscope, puzzling out the tiny, sloppily written letters that do or do not loop together to form “À Chas.”

Miller is the extraordinarily generous individual I mentioned at the start. His generosity is the generosity of the scholar-enthusiast, who wishes above all to share his excitement in his subject. Such enthusiasts of esoteric, unknown, beautiful things can be found everywhere, and wait only on the passerby who shows an interest, to offer everything they have collected and safeguarded. Perhaps I am such an enthusiast myself; if not, I ought to be. It is a good and pure way to love and to live.

Not long after our call, I found myself at the Met, invited to go over the records of the painting. Perhaps you’ve been to the Met, and strolled its majestic halls and rooms, in awe at this or that part of the collection. It turns out that this nearly universal mode of appreciating the Met is much like reading only the even-numbered pages in a book. There is at least one more Met in the same building as the public one. It is a network of offices, hallways, and rooms in which the scholarly staff goes about its quiet business. This space is not separate from the space you and I know. It is interleaved with it: it constitutes the odd-numbered pages. It is right there in plain view, accessed by subdued and handleless doors you will never notice if you are not looking, and cannot open without official assistance.

A colleague of Miller’s ushered me through the looking glass, and I found myself in a tall, simple room dominated by a long wooden study table. Desks on the periphery held antiquated computers, a bulletin board displayed several notices, and one side was devoted to wire mesh racks, on which were hung for storage some minor, you know, masterpieces of the Renaissance and the Baroque. A folder was pulled from a file cabinet for me. Inside of this folder were hundreds of pages of information relating to Study of a Female Nude. One such folder exists for every item in the Met’s vast collection. I couldn’t photocopy any pages, but I could transcribe whatever I liked onto my laptop. So I sat at the wooden table for some hours, grateful once again for my desultory high school French, reading everything, from the laments of Lehmann about his crappy finances (June 4, 1839: “What a misfortune to be poor when one is an artist at heart.”)(true) down to the modern-day logistics which led to Lehmann’s painting winding up at the Met, grouped with a world-class collection of 19th century academic French landscape studies of Italy. This nude is not really a 19th century academic French landscape study of Italy, in any way at all, but it tends to get lumped in with them on account of time, place, style, and some dabs of dark green paint in the background.

A few weeks later, I visited the Met one last time in connection with this adventure, and walked the galleries with Asher Ethan Miller himself. He is a shy and well-dressed man, on the young side of middle age and sturdy of build, with spectacles and sandy hair and a quiet voice. He is plainly uncomfortable discussing anything with a stranger but the artwork itself. This he rhapsodizes about with great fervor, and great fidelity to responsible scholarship - much more responsible, I’m afraid, than the soap opera I am spinning here. He demonstrated a dimension of appreciation of the Met which had generally occurred to me, but which I had never contemplated in a clear and specific way. Starting with the Lehmann, he led me from painting to painting, across dozens of paintings, tying elements of each to the next, drawing a map of influence, of common sensibility, of dialogue and progression, of analogy and accidental and purposeful similarity, so that as he skillfully pulled the ropes, it was as if the great and complex tent of the nineteenth century before Impressionism rose again from the ground and took shape before my eyes. The awesome, globe-spanning virtue of the Met is that the relevant paintings were all there, all within a few rooms of one another, on display and ready to unfold their stories.


I got down to work with Leah. We were painting together each week anyway, and we took a break from our other projects to paint this one. I started with a preparatory sketch; I wanted to compare what Leah’s body naturally did, with what Lehmann depicted maybe-Marietta doing. At this point, I realized something that should have been obvious: you learn a masterwork from the inside by copying it.

Here’s my sketch alongside the Lehmann painting:

left: Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for Interlude I, pencil on paper, 2013, 15”x11”
right: Lehmann, Study of a Female Nude

If you compare it with the original, a few interesting points emerge. Leah’s head looks enormous compared with maybe-Marietta’s, and her arm looks very long. I happen to know that I got Leah’s proportions right, which means that Lehmann’s figure is something like nine heads tall - unrealistic superhero proportions. Stated another way, Lehmann’s figure’s head and limbs are normally sized, and her spine is unnaturally long.

Another observation about the spine: Leah’s lower spine curves backward when she sits in the Lehmann pose. Maybe-Marietta’s does not. Leah’s back bows out and to the left, while maybe-Marietta’s rises straight up. I pondered this difference at length, and ultimately realized I was seeing the same curve, with one key difference: Lehmann rotated his entire depiction clockwise. For whatever reason, the straight rise of the spine was tremendously important to him. So in my squared underdrawing for the painting, I made the same rotation. In doing that, I ran into the same problem Lehmann ran into - I lost track of where the figure’s foot belonged. You can see my erasure here:

underdrawing (detail), Interlude I

And you can see it in Lehmann. It turns out the foot is the one spot where you lose what you’re doing when you rotate this pose. In a 2009 article about the painting, Miller wrote:

“The canvas was larger when Lehmann first painted it: the left tacking edge is original, but the right and bottom edges are fully painted, indicating that they were cut down, while the top edge barely extends around the stretcher member. Other evidence that the canvas was cut down is the model's truncated foot at lower right.”
- Asher Ethan Miller,
A Study by Henri Lehmann for his Femmes près de l'eau, Master Drawings, Vol. 47, No. 4, 2009

It’s truncated because he fucked it up. The uncertainty about where her artificially-rotated leg stops is visible in the final painting in no fewer than four attempts at placing it, and it was probably more of a mess before he trimmed a few inches off the right side of the canvas. I’d wager he left the leg unpainted in his painting not only because it worked, but because the waist was the last juncture on her body where he could stop without awkwardly calling attention to the never-resolved problem with the foot.

Following Miller’s note that the undercoat was sienna, I placed a raw sienna undercoat on my canvas:

the undercoat in raw sienna thinned with turpenoid

And I got to work with Leah, painting my own Lehmann. For the painting, I asked Leah to hold the more difficult head position maybe-Marietta held.

As I painted, I began to understand the strange distortions in Lehmann’s figure. Consider another painting:

Notice the accentuated line of the back, the simplified forms, the three-quarters light which glows upon the figure, giving her strong, drawing-like outlines. Notice the pastoral wooded scene which rounds out the composition. This is an 1807 painting, Half-figure of a Bather, by Lehmann’s teacher, Ingres. It is under the strange hand of Ingres that the female figure softens and becomes supple, lengthening to a dream-like eternity of back; it is in Ingres that we find the calligraphic stroke of the spine, the thick dark hair, the glowing skin, and the unending show/don’t-show tease of the half-hidden face and breast, which makes the slight rear view so natural in his work.

The oddities in the Lehmann painting are nothing more than the adoption of the tics of the instructor in the art of the pupil. Most pivotally so, perhaps, are the broad smooth cheek, and the dark piercing eye. In their Ingrism, they tell us that Lehmann’s vision at this early point in his development was so profoundly shaped by Ingres that when he went looking for beauty, and found it, he saw it through his master’s eye.

Lehmann the Man

My adventure with Lehmann started with a monofocal interest in the startling resemblance of the single painting to Leah. But it expanded over time because things are usually very interesting if you follow where they go. I hope I’ve shared the fascinations of Lehmann the artist and Lehmann the melodrama character. But there is another Lehmann who speaks most to me, Lehmann the man, and it is in relation to this final Lehmann that I ultimately did my work on the painting. Why restage an old painting? Well for one thing it was easy. But as an artist, it was this - the implication of Lehmann the man I saw in the painting, and unfolded in the research - this was the Lehmann I wanted to converse with. Art lets us speak to the dead; or rather, it lends a kind of ongoing life to the voice of those who passed away long ago.

Who is Lehmann the man, at least as I understand him? Consider for a moment Lehmann’s portrait of the comtesse d’Agoult’s primary lover, Franz Liszt (the comtesse was a famous author and knew everybody).

Lehmann, Portrait of Franz Liszt, ca. 1839

This is quite different from the Study of a Female Nude. It’s more hard-edged and glossy and decisive. It is a paradoxically sharp expression of a soft thought; the soft thought is Romantic melancholia. The sensitive hand, the hunched back, the half-shadowed face, expressive mouth, heroically flared nostril, haunted eye, and furrowed brow - all are marks of the torment of the awakened mind, as conceived by the Romantics. Lehmann ascribes these markers to Liszt, playing up Liszt’s artistic genius. But, of course, he is depicting himself, as artists tend to do. In a letter dated September 19, 1840, he writes, “I absolutely cannot take art seriously. I have read things about it so fictitious as to be absurd… items of genuine human interest quickly lead me back down false paths.”

I find this very moving because I share these same doubts. I wake up thinking about art, I think about art all day long, and I go to bed thinking about art. But I often have trouble taking it seriously. It seems insipid and futile - certainly beneath the dignity of anyone with any self-respect. What does it amount to? We argue about it, look at it, write big fancy words about it, and assign limitless depths to its meaning. But in fact it is stupid pictures on cloth, boring and of little use to anyone.

I understand that my flashes of indifference to art are symptomatic of a deeper indifference, a sense of the entire Earth as a stark and nasty theater-set, large enough to support the illusion of weather as it turns around its single large stage lamp; and beyond the Earth, the universe itself as a cold and listless region, unanswerable in its lack of purpose, true motion, or hope.

These are not healthy thoughts. They tend to tie a weight to the hand so heavy that the hand can scarcely grasp the brush and make the mark. Therefore I do fight them. I have fought them for years, and largely banished them. But they murmur beyond the edge of things, and can sometimes be glimpsed through a gap in the drapes. I have a, ha ha ha, series of paintings I am working on which confronts the problem square. But I am also attracted to Lehmann’s sense of disgust with art, a disgust which bleeds before he can stop it into a general contempt for humanity.

What is so attractive about this? For one thing I identify with it. And for another, he doesn’t let it stop him. Suffering from his doubts, he goes on. He makes things. He wishes to croak out a final “no,” but instead resolves to say “yes.” So when I paint my version of his painting, I am saying back to him, “I hear the no, and I say yes too.”

Lehmann sometimes found consolation, as many do, in favorite authors. In the same 1840 letter, he writes, “Victor Hugo, with the strong conviction and beautiful eloquence of his [writing], revives me a bit, and to him I owe that slight effervescence that still raises my spirits.”

Let me refresh your memory of Victor Hugo with an extended excerpt from a dream he transcribed on November 14, 1842. It is not the writing Lehmann was speaking about. But it makes the point.

“I was at home, but in a home which is not my own, and which I do not know. There were several large reception-rooms, very handsome, and brilliantly lighted. It was evening - a summer evening. I was in one of these rooms, near a table, with some friends, who were my friends in the dream, but not one of whom I know in waking life. A lively conversation was going on, accompanied by shouts of laughter. The windows were all wide open. Suddenly I hear a noise behind me. I turn round, and I see coming towards me, amid a group of strangers, the Duke of Orleans.

“…The prince and I sat down near the window, which looked out upon a splendid prospect. It was the interior of a city. In my dream I perfectly recognized this city, but in reality it was a place I have never seen.

“Underneath the window stretched for a long distance between two dark blocks of buildings a broad stream, made resplendent in parts by the light of the moon. At the far end, in the mist, towered the two pointed and enormous steeples of a strange sort of cathedral; on the left, very near to the window, the eye looked in vain down a little dark alley…

“The sky was of a tender blue and a lovely softness. In one place some trees, barely visible, were wafted in a genial wind. The stream rippled gently. The whole scene had an indescribable air of calm. It seemed as though in this spot one could penetrate into the very soul of things. I called the attention of the prince to the fineness of the night, and I distinctly remember that I said these words to him: ‘You are a prince; you will be taught to admire human politics; learn also to admire Nature.’

“As I was speaking to the Duke of Orleans I felt that my nose began to bleed… The blood which I felt streaming down my mouth and cheeks was very dark and thick… At length I turned to M. Blanqui and said, “You are a doctor; stop this bleeding, and tell me what it means.” …I continued to converse with the prince, and the blood continued to flow.”

- Victor Hugo,
pp. 49-51, Things Seen and Essays, Wildside Press, The Works of Victor Hugo, Volume 14

This passage has a number of qualities which bear upon the question of what Lehmann saw in Hugo. Note, first, how full of life Hugo is, how he brims with it. This is not only a detailed world finely observed, but one utterly invented inside the man. Being a description of a dream, it consists more profoundly than other texts in his own substance. One senses in it the larger-than-life quality which Hugo himself had. He is a city and its surrounding countryside. The scale of his life is greater than that of other men, his colors brighter, his thoughts more insightful, his emotions nobler. And yet he never takes leave of a relaxed and brotherly empathy. You understand in the passage that Hugo does not see himself as larger than other men. He sees all men at his grand scale, and if they have lost the knack for spotting it too - he can remind them, with a little helpful advice.

But he is not without his shadow. He so overflows with life that he cannot contain it. He bleeds terribly, blood covering his face. No doctor can help him. He perseveres, carrying on regardless, his mighty organism replenishing as swiftly as it sloughs off.

It is this ferocious, all-too-human vitality which revives Lehmann from his torpor, like an electric shock to the sciatic nerve. Lehmann, in the depths of his melancholy, is only the shadow. He is all nosebleed and no dream city. He is empty and dull; there are no details in him. To become complete again, he turns to Hugo to be reminded of the rest of life.

He writes “in my heart I had coveted [maybe-Marietta] for years as the most desirable of models” - but from shyness, from lassitude, from inertia, he did nothing. It took the bristling initiative of a Chassériau, the wild acquisitiveness of a Hugo, to prompt Lehmann into action.

For my part, I like Chassériau very much. I think his awkwardly-drawn Toilet of Esther is a sexier take on the Venus Anadyomene than either Ingres or Lehmann ever produced.

Théodore Chassériau, The Toilet of Esther, 1841, oil on canvas, 18”x14”

But I also like Lehmann, and I like Hugo. I am all of them, and none of them. I have Chassériau’s lust but I lack his animal impulsiveness and will to dominance. I am afflicted with Lehmann’s sense of the curse of mere being, but I am not eclipsed by it. I am not so livid as Hugo. I can see what might save a stranger, or think I do, but I would not any longer grab him by the shoulders and roar salvation in his face. I tried that, and it didn’t work.

Each of these men had a will to greatness, which he fulfilled or failed to fulfill in the measure of his own capacity. I too have this will to greatness, but whether anything will come of it, I can never know. Increasingly I measure it in terms of what I can give away, and so the ambition consists in making fine things to pass along. This may not be much of a measure, but it’s a work in progress, and has the virtue, at long last, of making the process nearly as pleasing as the goal.

Here is how my restaging of Lehmann’s painting finished up.

Daniel Maidman, Intermission I – À Lehmann, 2013, oil on linen, 20”x16”

I learned in it what I could from Lehmann, and from Ingres too, and from maybe-Marietta, and from Leah; the eye of each of us stares back from the painting, although only mine and Leah’s are living now.