During the fall of 1872 and continuing through 1874, Paul Cezanne sought out the advice and guidance of the much older Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. They often painted side by side, observing the very same motif at the same hour of the day, in and around the area of Pontoise and Auvers-sur-Oise. They would compare and criticize each other’s work. This began both a personal and professional relationship that had a profound affect on each of them. A recipe for success.
Rooftops of red and a variety of other colors became a kind of theme or metaphor. Robert and Sonia Delauney, Francis Picabia and other French artists took up this subject. Certain American artists as well, in the early 20th Century, also incorporated these architectural forms, such as Charles Sheeler’s barns at Lancaster and Georgia O’Keeffe’s barns at Lake George, along with other works by Ralston Crawford and Marsden Hartley. The roofs got to a point where they became very abstract and even surreal. More so later when painted by Rene Magritte or written about by Marianne Moore.
“The magician’s retreat”
“of moderate height,
(I have seen it)
cloudy but bright inside
like a moonstone,
while a yellow glow
from a shutter-crack shone,
and a blue glow from the lamppost
close to the front door.
It left nothing of which to complain,
nothing more to obtain,
A black tree mass rose at the back
almost touching the eaves
with the definiteness of Magritte,
was above all discreet.”[iii]
[i] The penultimate line could be written in a couple of alternate ways, including “Let them be” and “Let them work” as in certain other culinary procedures.
[ii] Guillevic, Eugene; Seleceted Poems (translated by Denise Levertov); New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; pp. 66-67.
[iii] Schulman, Grace, ed.; The Poems of Marianne Moore; Viking; New York, New York; 2003; p. 136.
“‘All I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house,’ said Edward Hopper (or words to that effect), and there have been legions of poets and filmmakers obsessed with light. I would side with the irrational visionary romantic who says light came first, and darkness but a fleeting shadow to be swept away with more light. (“More light!” cried the great poet, dying.) Poets and painters are the natural bearers of it, and all I ever wanted to do was paint light on the walls of life.”[i]
Painters and poets are indeed the natural bearers of light. And, it would be difficult to overestimate the influence that Edward Hopper has had on later artists. Gail Levin has explained this very succinctly in her essay “Edward Hopper: His Legacy for Artists.” She writes: “Many contemporary painters work on Hopperesque themes in a realist style that he would have respected. Cape Cod scenes by both Philip Koch and John Dowd have been compared to Hopper’s work. . . . Walter Hatke’s Room of the Sun (1979) was one of many pictures in which he explored painting sunlight in interiors in a way suggestive of Hopper’s focus on light, particularly in the latter’s celebrated Sun in an Empty Room (1963). Hopper’s themes reappear in the gas stations, street corners, and trains of George Nick, who studied with Hopper’s friend and admirer Edwin Dickinson….”[ii]
Hopper has also had an influence on several contemporary writers such as John Hollander, Tess Gallagher, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand and especially Lawrence Ferlinghetti. As a poet, Ferlinghetti has written about artists from every period. He often uses the analogy for being an artist as ‘walking on a tightrope’ and applies this to everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Goya, from Morris Graves to Picasso, and from Marc Chagall to Edward Hopper. In fact, he has paid great attention to Hopper in several poems and the two collections titled “Pictures of the Gone World” and “How to Paint Sunlight.” In particular Ferlinghetti was inspired by a photographic portrait of Edward Hopper taken by Arnold Newman in front of Hopper’s house in Truro, Massachusetts in 1960.
[i] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; How to Paint Sunlight; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 2001; p. ix.
[ii] Lyons, Deborah and Adam D. Weinberg; Edward Hopper and the American Imagination; (including the essay “Edward Hopper: His Legacy for Artists” by Gail Levin); W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1995; pp. 115-116.
[iii] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; “At the Hopper house” Pictures of the gone world; City Lights Publishing; San Francisco, California; 1995; #37.
The cataloguing team was walking back from lunch. Titus stopped in the west cloister and looked up at the windows of the Dutch Room. ‘I didn’t know there was a concert up there this afternoon.’
‘Concert?’ said Aurora, frowning. ‘What concert?’
‘Don’t you hear it?’ said Polly. ‘It’s nice. Really nice.’
‘But it’s Wednesday,’ said Aurora. ‘Concerts are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.’
‘Maybe we’d better take a look,’ said Titus. With Polly at his heels, he hurried up the stairs.
‘Don’t be silly, Titus,’ Aurora called after them. ‘There isn’t any music. I don’t hear a thing.’
“But as Titus and Polly reached the top of the stairs, it was plainly audible to both of them, plangent notes from some sort of harpsichord, a threadlike soprano voice running softly down a scale to the plucked accompaniment of a guitar.
‘It’s probably for some special visit,’ said Titus, striding along the corridor. ‘I didn’t know one was scheduled for today. I must have forgotten.’
But there was no trio of musicians in the Dutch Room, no milling throng of polite guests. And the music had stopped.’”[i]
This is how the writer Jane Langton described one of a series of strange events occurring in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Later, music would also be heard coming from the Early Italian Room, from the Spanish Cloister, and finally from the Chinese Loggia. A “sympathetic displacement of noises” it was suggested.[ii] All of this and other strange happenings, including a murder, occurred in her fictional account of this museum in Boston.
One of the first major purchases by Isabella Stewart Gardner for her collection was Johann Vermeer’s “The Concert.” She accomplished this at an auction in Paris in 1892 and it later became one of the highlights of this important and personal collection.
Unfortunately, we know of it today as one of the 13 pieces that were stolen from the Gardner by intruders dressed in security guard’s uniforms in 1990 and never recovered. The placement of objects throughout the museum is strictly enforced and the current empty frames illustrate the absence of these treasures.
This might remind us of a similar mystery occurring 56 years earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic. A bungling Dutch constabulary spent the evening looking closer at a theft in a cheese shop than he did at another theft that had occurred in the cathedral directly across the street.[iii] It was the theft of the “Just Judges” panel and only the most recent of several incidents throughout history involving the “Ghent Altarpiece” by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.
In the panel of the “Just Judges” from the lower left hand corner of the altarpiece, we see all of the figures facing toward the center of the painting. There are several identifiable portraits amongst the riders: Jan van Eyck himself, his brother Hubert, and one of their patrons, Phillip the Good. They are a set of contemporary portraits of Netherlandish nobles in the roles of Old Testament figures including Philip the Bold in disguise as King Solomon. Sharing a pilgrimage, they form a cadre representing the most honest and just citizens.
These “Judges” show up later in history and mystery when they come to play a part in the novel The Fall by Albert Camus published in 1956. A former Parisian lawyer now holds court, so to speak, in a seedy bar in Amsterdam just after World War II. He has assumed the role of a ‘judge penitent’ of the contemporary world.
We are sitting in the café Mexico City, when this stranger intervenes with the bartender on our behalf in ordering the correct gin. It is Jean-Baptiste Clamence and he goes on to fill in some of the history of the bartender and the interior of this place. “Notice, for instance, on the back wall above his head that empty rectangle marking the place where a picture has been taken down. Indeed, there was a picture there, and a particularly interesting one, a real masterpiece.”[v]
“Yet if you read the papers, you would recall the theft in 1934 in the St. Bavon Cathedral of Ghent, of one of the panels of the famous van Eyck altarpiece, ‘The Adoration of the Lamb.’ That panel was called ‘The Just Judges.’ It represented judges on horseback coming to adore the sacred animal. It was replaced by an excellent copy, for the original was never found. Well, here it is. No, I had nothing to do with it.”[vi]
“False judges are held up to the world’s admiration and I alone know the true ones.”[vii]
Anyone with information about the stolen artworks and/or the investigations should contact Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Gardner Museum, at 617.278.5114 or email@example.com; or ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, www.artcrime.info; or INTERPOL, General Secretariat, 200 quai Charles de Gaulle, 69006 Lyon, France, E-mail: Contact INTERPOL.
[i] Langton, Jane; Murder at the Gardner; Penguin Books; New York, New York; 1988; p. 81.
In the New Testament both Matthew and Luke relate the story of Jesus being confronted and questioned by the Pharisees, who were pretending to be ‘teachers’ and trying to catch this young man in his own teachings. When questioned by his disciples later, Jesus described the Pharisees like this:
“. . . they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”[i]
It was a powerful image that caught the imagination of many Northern Renaisance artists, especially Pieter Breughel the Elder. Later still, it continued to influence writers such as Charles Baudelaire and William Carlos Williams, who included this subject in his final collection, Pictures from Brueghel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1963, just two months after that author’s death.
“This horrible but superb painting
the parable of the blind
without a red
in the composition shows a group
of beggars leading
each other diagonally downward
across the canvas
from one side
to stumble finally into a bog
where the picture
and the composition ends back
of which no seeing man
is represented the unshaven
features of the des-
titute with their few
pitiful possessions a basin
to wash in a peasant
cottage is seen and a church spire
the faces are raised
as toward the light
there is no detail extraneous
to the composition one
follows the others stick in
hand triumphant to disaster” [ii]
Paintings by Pieter Breughel and poems by William Carlos Williams have continued to inspire and influence artists and writers today. “Referring to a group of figural drawings he had begun around 1963, Willem de Kooning would say in 1975, ‘I draw while painting, and I don’t know the difference between painting and drawing. The drawings that interest me most are made with eyes closed.’”[iii]
They all looked like scratches, these drawings that de Kooning called ‘blind’ drawings. We first saw them in an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center[iv] in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1979. At the time, this exhibition was known as “Recent de Kooning” and featured paintings, drawings, and sculptures completed since 1969.
What we didn’t know at the time, was that de Kooning completed these drawings in a vertical format and later rotated them 90 or 180 degrees in order to further dissorient the viewer. When re-oriented to their original format certain details emerge: these details include several clear references to Breughel’s great painting, “The Parable of the Blind.”
You wouldn’t believe the number of art students who in studying this painting will draw all of the figures straight across the page from left to right, all in a line, and all horizontally. Totally ignoring the descending diagonal from the upper left to the lower right. This of course flattens both the movement and the composition.
One younger artist who noticed this right away was Casey Roberts. Examples of his brush and ink drawings above and below, clearly show that he saw this diagonal movement and took it to a contemporary conclusion. As long time faculty members in various art schools around the country we could all probably be described as the blind leading the blind. An all encompassing metaphor.
[i] “Matthew 15:13-14” The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinbugh; 1952; p. 770.
[ii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; p. 11.
[iii] Elderfield, John, et al; de Kooning a Retrospective; The Museum of Modern Art; New York, New York; 2011; p. 369.
[iv] Cowart, Jack, and Sanford Sivits Shaman; de Kooning 1969-1978; University of Northern Iowa; Cedar Falls, Iowa; 1978.
“Edward Hopper’s art is highly provocative and often disturbing. His contemplative figures appear to be alienated from society and to occupy a world devoid of interaction and communication. They never smile or frown, and their attitudes and expressions suggest unapproachableness. These introspective figures convey an inner turmoil that can provide questions about relationships, the roles people play in society, and the meaning of life.”[i]
When studying several of Hopper’s sketches for this painting, it becomes clear that he was really searching, working out the space and placement for the lobby and the people inhabiting that space. Five or six different figures were placed in various positions within the composition, including one, a desk clerk, who is hidden in the background behind a lamp in the office. Figures of both men and women are substituted for each other in order to achieve the balance that he desired.
For many years of my teaching career, we would visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art and draw directly from the objects in their collection. There are several works by Edward Hopper housed there, including “American Landscape,” “New York, New Haven and Hartford” and the “Hotel Lobby” from 1943. Especially important in this learning process is to discover the underlying architecture of any work of art, not just the surface illusions. Two such examples are shown above and below this paragraph. Drawings made on the spot in the museum and showing both space and movement and the tonal juxtapositions that occur in the original. They were completed by Darryl W. Hardwick during the summer session of 1976.
The poet Raymond Carver in his collection titled Ultramarine of 1987 took on a similar subject. Not directly written after this painting, the parallels however are so striking that one might do a double take. A quiet, perfectly still scene, with the various characters going about their daily routines. Structured and written to lead us into this particular space. Introspective, with the possibility of great turmoil.
“In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo”
“The girl in the lobby reading a leather-bound book.
The man in the lobby using a broom.
The boy in the lobby watering plants.
The desk clerk looking at his nails. The woman in the lobby writing a letter.
The old man in the lobby sleeping in his chair.
The fan in the lobby revolving slowly overhead.
Another hot Sunday afternoon.
Suddenly, the girl lays her finger between the pages of her book.
The man leans on his broom and looks.
The boy stops in his tracks.
The desk clerk raises his eyes and stares.
The woman quits writing.
The old man stirs and wakes up.
What is it?
Someone is running up from the harbor.
Someone who has the sun behind him.
Someone who is barechested.
Waving his arms.
It’s clear something terrible has happened.
The man is running straight for the hotel.
His lips are working themselves into a scream.
Everyone in the lobby will recall their terror.
Everyone will remember this moment for the rest of their lives.”[ii]
[i] Warkel, Harriet G.; Paint to Paper: Edward Hopper’s Hotel Lobby; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Indianapolis, Indiana; 2008; p. 11.
[ii] Carver, Raymond; “In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo,” Ultramarine: Poems; Random House; New York, New York; 1987; pp. 75-76.
“The early sixteenth-century Belgian painter called, for want of his real name, The Master of the Embroidered Leaf.
Those dead birds on the porch when I opened up the house after being away for three months.
Remember Haydn’s 104 symphonies. Not all of them were great. But there were 104 of them.”[i]
This terrible but beautiful image of a dead bird has always been one of the most haunting paintings in the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Just over four inches high it is an important example of works of art that are intimate in size and grand in spirit. Their effect remains with the viewer long after stepping outside of the museum.
Raymond Carver used this technique on several occasions in his work, especially in his collection A New Path to the Waterfall. Small statements, snippets really, are concise and to the point. 16th Century illuminations, dead birds on the front porch, or an incident involving Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington all incorporate the painterly criteria of ‘economy of means.’ Compression.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red and Pink Rocks with Teeth” at the Art Institute of Chicago, Jan Vermeer’s “Girl in the Red Hat” at the National Gallery in Washington and Ryder’s “Dead Bird” mentioned above are all small in size but powerful in scale. Why should this be? Perhaps it was the desire of certain figurative painters and Imagist poets for the significant detail: to rivet the universal with the particular. Or, the suggestion made several times by William Carlos Williams throughout his epic poem Patterson to “Say it! No ideas, but in things.”[ii]
Whether it was the search for an American idiom or a single image out of the mass of chaos, Williams would ask of us: “What common language to unravel?”[iii] For both the poet and the painter it would be the process of finding one’s own vision or voice coming out of “…a mass of detail to interrelate on a new ground…pulling the disparate together to clarify and compress.”[iv]
“Because the sun was behind them
their shadows came first and then
the birds themselves.”[v]
To make an image or an object one’s own is to have a signature that comes out of the process of creating that image. Idiosyncratic imagery, like that in Ryder’s painting, has been the trademark of a certain few artists: as in the work of Musa McKim or Leonard Baskin or Susan Rothenberg; Raymond Carver or Kim Fuelling or Michael Ondaatje. These images will speak for themselves, as any real painting or drawing or poem will.
“Through the Boughs”
“Down below the window, on the deck, some ragged-looking birds gather at the feeder. The same birds, I think, that come every day to eat and quarrel. Time was, time was, they cry and strike at each other. It’s nearly time, yes. The sky stays dark all day, the wind is from the west and won’t stop blowing. . . . Give me your hand for a time. Hold on to mine. That’s right, yes. Squeeze hard. Time was we thought we had time on our side. Time was, time was, those ragged birds cry.”[vi]
“Application for a Driving License”
“Two birds loved
in a flurry of red feathers
like a burst cottonball,
continuing while I drove over them.