Friday, June 10, 2011

Artist's Studio in Britain (Part 2)

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) has been playing a starring role in the seminar this week. Two of our instructors, Mark Hallett and Matthew Hargraves (Associate Curator and Head of Collections Information and Access), are specialists in 18th-century British art, so the world of the first President of the Royal Academy and his colleagues directly relates to a discussion of the artist’s studio in Britain. It has been refreshing for me to hear much of this, since Reynolds is critical to the history of British art, and yet heretofore I’ve had little opportunity to spend this much time looking at his paintings and thinking about his artistic practice. The image you see here is an unfinished portrait of Mrs. Robinson, ca. 1784, from the YCBA collection. I chose this image because it encapsulates much of the discussion that has been taking place the past few days. As a portrait, it exemplifies but one of many of the society sittings that Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, and others all specialized in. Despite the hierarchical insistence on the primacy of history painting, in fact portraiture dominated Royal Academy exhibitions in the 1780s, from as much as 1/3 to 1/2 of all works displayed, as Marcia Pointon has shown in her book Hang the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (1993). Hallett has done further research into Reynolds’s oeuvre, showing that in his portraits of women, nearly 50% of them show them with turned heads, a new approach to portraiture that would have been recognized as innovative by contemporaries. The turned head could suggest something about introspection and absorption, but feminists also could see this as the woman with independent thought, not simply an object of desire. The work here also is useful because it is unfinished and as such shows the sketch Reynolds made and the layering of paints to create what would have been the finished portrait. Why it is unfinished we do not know. It could be because Reynolds disliked his progress, but more likely it is because the sitter changed her mind or stopped paying for the work (which was more common than one would think).

Painting was labor. Unlike with a digital camera, an image didn’t just magically appear before the viewer. It took numerous sittings, the layering of paints, and time to allow each layer to dry. And yet with the layering of colors and the application of varnish, over time magic did occur. A persona, captured in a mode of idealized beauty or heroic achievement, did appear on the canvas, captured if not for infinity then for at least as long as the canvas would survive. As we also discussed, however, Reynolds was known for experimenting with his paints, and it was not uncommon for his pictures to fade, that he had to repair them in his own day. This problem still exists with some of Reynolds’s pictures and it is up to conservators to figure out ways to slow down if not stop the damage before all color fades completely.

The role of pigments and the formation of color was part of another great session we had on painters’ materials. Tubes of paint as we know them today didn’t exist until the 19th century century, so part of being a painter was mix your own paint colors, a task which frequently fell to young studio assistants. In Reynolds’s case, however, he often mixed his own paints in a conscious attempt not to share his color secrets with anyone. Mark Aronson (Chief Conservator of Paintings) and Jessica David (Postgraduate Research Associate) gave us a fantastic overview of pigments in the paintings conservation lab and we even had an opportunity to blend colors. I confess that the chemistry and other sciences in the making of art is still a mystery to me, but I was comforted by the fact that we had discussions around the notion that even in art history the making of art is something that has passed on to conservators and restorers because most art historians today specialize in the social history of art.

In our discussion of sketchbooks, we had another enjoyable opportunity to work hands-on with a number of 18th- and 19th-century sketchbooks by amateur and professional artist, from Romney’s and Flaxman’s sketchbooks from their travels to Rome, to a naval captain named E. V. Porcher who designed a portfolio of exotic watercolor images of south and east Asia during his time there on assignment ca. 1850. We discussed and practiced using optical devices (camera obscura, the Claude glass, and the camera lucida) in order to understand how they were used by artists to capture the true-to-life landscape and craft it into the picturesque. We also had an engaging talk about painting treatises, in particular Jonathan Richardson’s Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715, reprinted 1725), which was read by every British painter of that century in an attempt to understand why being a painter was important to society and how education and good moral behavior would assist the painter in understanding the psychology of his sitter when painting portraits. There was much discussion about sculpture as well, but I’ll save that for next time.


Sandra said...

Reynolds and Lawrence were brilliant, and that exhibition at yale was great. How are you Roberto?

bklynbiblio said...

Hi Sandra. Agreed! The Lawrence show was excellent. Their new one, "Connections" is very interesting too. Each bay encapsulates a specific artist or theme. Hope you're doing well!