Monday, June 6, 2011

Artist’s Studio in Britain (Part 1)

I’m in New Haven for the week-long seminar "Making Art, Picturing Practice: The Artist’s Studio in Britain, ca. 1700-1900" at the Yale Center for British Art, an event about which I first posted not too long ago. The seminar began informally yesterday with a guided tour of the exhibition Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance on its last day. I’m very glad I had a chance to see this show, and the tour was useful, not as a chronological history of Lawrence’s life and career, but as a close study of a few specific works in which we considered how Lawrence was both innovative and a leader in portrait painting from the 1790s to the 1820s. One of the pictures in the show was the work you see here, his portrait of Elizabeth Farren, Later Countess of Derby, which is owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is one of my favorite British paintings in the collection there. Farren was a comedic actress and mistress of the Earl of Derby, whom she married a few years after this portrait was exhibited in 1790 at the Royal Academy. It was Lawrence’s entree into the London portrait painting business and was received well by viewers. Farren appears as if she’s walked onto a stage or garden, and positions her head and body in such a way that she smiles coquettishly and seems to be flirting with the viewer. She is slightly off-balance and asymmetrical, which adds to the charm of the work. The virtuosity of his brush stroke is delightful in his ability to capture the white satin dress, the brown leather glove, and the spot of blue ribbon decorating her fan. I’ve always loved how Lawrence has the dress float to the bottom of the canvas, forcing Farren into the viewer’s space. One of the things we discussed during the tour was that pictures like this were often hung "on the line," resting literally on a railing that ran 8 feet high in the exhibition room at Somerset House, with the top of the frame leaning outward toward the viewer. What this suggests then is that Lawrence quite consciously used features in the painting like the trailing hem of the dress and the white shimmer of fabric to draw attention to his work in a room that would have been overcrowded with hundreds of pictures on display one beside the other. Farren’s presence would have dominated the viewer’s sweeping vista of the works on the wall.

There are about 10 doctoral students participating in the seminar this week. A few are from Yale, but others are from Harvard, Berkeley, the Courtauld, and other institutions, which is giving us all an opportunity to network and learn more about what others are working on with regard to British art. Our primary instructors (I call them that liberally as this is more of a discussion-based seminar than a series of formal presentations) are Martina Droth (Head of Research and Curator of Sculpture, YCBA) and Mark Hallett (Prof., History of Art, Univ. York, England), but we have others giving lectures and leading discussions this week.

Our sessions began today with a consideration of the growth of London and how artists changed neighborhoods from the mid-1700s into the early 1900s as society moved to ever further westward. We also discussed apprenticeship in the studio, how young artists who showed talent were sent to work for masters and learn from them. They would live with the artist in exchange for payment from the family for the apprentice’s training. We also looked closely at a selection of artist training manuals and sketchbooks, showing how apprentices would learn by copying from engravings, then casts, and slowly working up to the living model. The foundation of the Royal Academy school in 1768 offered new opportunities for students to be educated in the basics of draftsmanship, although they still learned the craft of painting in studios. By the mid-19th century, however, this model of pedagogy had evolved with a new emphasis on industrial and graphic design, specifically new state-organized institutional learning centers following the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the mandate to improve British design. We wrapped up the discussion with a consideration of how these new reform movements spread to places throughout the British Empire such as India and impacted local cultures there as well. All in all, the first day has been filled with an incredible amount of information, and having had opportunities to look closely at 18th- and 19th-century books and works of art is always a treat. Topics over the next few days will include sculptural practice and the representation of the artist in the studio, so stay tuned for more...

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