Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Painting the Dunes

16" x20" – Spring Dune

One would think that by shear location, I would paint the Indiana National Dunes Lakeshore a lot. In truth, I rarely paint it at all. Having been born and raised in eastern Iowa, dunes and beaches weren't around me. I think because of that, I don't have any nostalgia or affinity for them. It commonly doesn't interest me. That said, however, like any place, you can always find something beautiful about an area. I often feel the abstract patterns of the dunes are not portrayed well, if at all. So I challenged myself to try to capture that wonderful abstraction where the dunes meet the grassland.

I had taken the photo of this scene a few years ago. While digging through my photo box I found it and painted a little study of it (see below). I liked the study so much I tried my hand at making it into a larger painting. Fortunately, I am not too disappointed in either of them. Though I will say, the main focal area is still trees. For some reason I can't seem to pull myself away from them.

6" x 8" Small Work

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Madame X — Self-Censored Masterpiece

Madame Gautreau was an American expatriate who married a French banker. She was renowned for her beauty and recognized as a new type of Frenchwoman, with elite status and sophistication. Sargent was so impressed by her beauty that he asked a mutual friend to talk to her about posing for him. He believed that by painting her portrait, he could garner attention as an artist and receive more portrait commissions. Although she had refused numerous similar requests from artists, Gautreau accepted Sargent's offer. Sargent was an expatriate like Gautreau, and their collaboration has been interpreted as motivated by a shared desire to attain high status in French society.

When the painting was shown in the Paris Salon of 1884, it immediately became scandalous for its suggestive sexuality, and the relatives of Mdme Gautreau requested that is be taken down. It was left hanging. Initially, Sargent was to give the painting to the Gautreaus, but after their response he feared them destroying what he considered his best work. So he took the painting down before the end of the show, where it stayed in his studio until he sent it to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He was so ashamed by the scandal that Sargent moved to London soon after.

What I find even more amazing is what happened next. Sargent then went back into the painting and repainted the strap of the dress that hung down from Mdme. Gautreau's shoulder, and changed its name from Portrait de Mdme *** to Madame X. This changed the piece drastically. And, it was not discovered that he altered the painting
for close to a hundred years, until the art scholar Trevor Fairbrother discovered it in an old photograph depicting the Salon (see below).

Funny how a little thing like a strap can change something so drastically. Below you can see the final painting as it hangs in the Met in New York, a photo of the painting as it hung in the Salon in 1884, and how it may have appeared (altered by artist
Mike Pieczonka). It may no longer be seen as offensive, but in my eyes is a much weaker piece. The lowered strap changes the composition and feeling of the piece. It no longer has the feeling of a woman acknowledging her independence and sexuality. Now I see it as a true masterpiece and can believe it is one of his best works. And I wonder if he were still around today, in these times, would he change it back.
This raises the question of self-censorship, though. As artists we are influenced by the culture around us, and by the people around us. Can we become too engrossed in what people think about our art that we forget what it was we were wanting out of painting? How easy is it to cross that line? How easy to simply paint what has sold before and sit on our laurels instead of pushing these boundaries and testing our ideas of what art can be? And what it means to ourselves? And as artists can we do this to ourselves? We ask each other for critiques of our work, to improve and grow as artists, also for a fresh eye perspective. And while I know we use these artistic critiques to learn and grow, can asking opinions of others lead to self-censorship? I'd love to hear your thoughts.