So many wonderful art exhibitions, so little time! The recent show in Los Angeles and Chicago entitled "Manet and Modern Beauty–The Artist's Last Years" is one I truly wish I could have attended. Manet is one of my favorite painters and to see so many of his works in person would have been a real treat. But it wasn't possible. Instead I asked Santa for the exhibition book for Christmas last year. (Thanks, Santa!)
This is a serious gift; it's a large 384-page coffee table book with gorgeous photos of 90 of the artist's paintings and sketches, many of which were new to me. I won't try to summarize the entire book for you, I'll just touch on what I most enjoyed.
First, some context. The impetus for this show of Manet's later work was the 2014 acquisition of "Jeanne (Spring)" by the J.Paul Getty Museum. The Getty curators felt that this painting was emblematic of Manet's focus in his last years because it shows his growing fascination with contemporary fashion and femininity, as well as his expanding skills as a mature painter.
Manet's work of this era often focused on the stylish young women of Paris that he depicted in portraits as well as genre scenes set in cafes and theaters. In other paintings he showed the details of everyday life; vases of flowers, household interiors, and small studies of fruit, vegetables and other edibles. Art historians tended to ignore these smaller, less controversial pieces in favor of the artist's bolder, much larger works of the 1860's, like "Luncheon on the Grass" and "Olympia". This Getty exhibition showcased the accomplished intimate works of Manet's later years and allowed them to shine on their own.
The exhibition also gave insights into the artist's daily life with dozens of Monet's letters with watercolor illustrations, including charming sketches of flowers and deft portraits of acquaintances. These pages demonstrate Manet's inquisitive spirit, his tireless passion for creating, and his observational skill. It's easy to imagine him sitting at a cafe observing the fashionable footwear of Parisian women as he wrote his letters and sketched in the margins.
Several small paintings depict casual flower arrangements, pieces that are stunning in their intensity and freshness. Viewing these gems is a masterclass in composition, color, and brushwork.
The book contains a fascinating chapter on Manet's painting techniques, gleaned from intense inspection of his work and aided by infrared photographs that showed successive painting layers. Manet's paintings have the look of au premier coup ("first strike") painting, which is painted wet-in-wet in one sitting and has blended brushwork and partially mixed colors.
But in actuality, Manet's work was a combination of wet-in-wet technique and layers of revisions. Manet's process, grounded in his classical art training, started with stages of drawing, ébouche (value underpainting), and preliminary color layers. His modern palate, bold colors, and loose impressionistic techniques belied the planning and revisions of the painting's beginnings.
I was surprised to read that many of Manet's works have scraped paint surfaces that reflect unsuccessful sessions. It's comforting to learn of the struggles of a master painter, and fascinating to find that he used many of the same techniques that I do.
I'm sorry that I missed this exhibition, but the book's in-depth analysis and its beautiful images of Manet's paintings made reading it a delight in itself.
To learn about the exhibition that I did attend, Manet: The Early Years, read this blog post. What art exhibitions have you caught recently? What would you like to see?
Useful Little Gems
I just love my little 4"x4" pen and ink minis! They're quick, loose, and simple. If you follow me on social media you have seen them occasionally in my posts.
I do them as part of my planning process for my larger oils. They help me to define the values of the painting, the areas of light and dark that will create the overall design. To make them, I think in terms reducing everything to only three values–dark, medium, and light–and of having uneven amounts of each. For instance. the one above has more medium value, less light value, and a smidgen of dark value.
The Big Shapes
Another advantage to making these little sketches before I paint is that they force me to identify the larger shapes in my image and not get bogged down with the distracting details. It's the big shapes and values that create the impact of the painting and that plan the movement of the viewer's eye across the canvas. By working on a small sketch with large shapes I have an opportunity to easily play around with the design before I put paint to canvas.
Fast and Loose
Since I'm not trying to create a perfect drawing, I can sketch very freely using only a few lines to indicate figures, buildings, etch. When drawing people, however, I do pay attention to where the head is over the feet, the body proportions, and the line of the shoulders. These little things often indicate posture and mood.
Love Those Sharpies
I work with three different thickness of markers to add texture. My favorite pens are Sharpies because they give a rich dark line. I don't, however, like how they bleed through the back of the paper. But they make such a nice line, I forgive them.
This viewpoint of this sketch is unusual for me, as it's from above. I liked the strong angles of the stairs against the water's edge, and the big repeated shapes of the umbrellas.
In this sketch the placement of the darks draws your eye around the painting. You enter the painting in front of the figures, travel left to the water, and then follow the line of the trees to the right and then left up the hill.
Here your eye starts with the large church against the water, then moves downwards and right following the trees to finally focus on the foreground figures.
I hope you enjoy my little sketches. Please let me know what you think!