Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Hi! It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but I’d like to start posting again. Today’s painting is “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth”, by John Singer Sargent. I am especially excited about talking this painting over with you because I’ve just seen it in person, at the Tate Gallery in London.

This painting has a fascinating history. It is a portrait of the famous stage actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, a part she was celebrated for. Here’s a picture of a young Ellen Terry taken by one of my favorite photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron, in 1864:

I got that photo from The Getty’s wondeful website.

The dress in this painting has recently been fixed-up! You can read a great article about in here. I was astonished to learn that those are BEETLE WINGS which glitter all over the dress.

This painting gives me a feeling of how Ellen Terry played Lady Macbeth. Look at the way Terry’s eyes are widening. Look at how she holds the crown with both hands and all of her fingers, as though there’s something ceremonial about the way she’s putting the crown on her head – not as though she’s putting on the crown like an article of clothing, but as though she’s performing an actual corination. “Macbeth” certainly is a play about conflating symbolism with reality: maybe Lady Macbeth actually believes that if she has the crown, she has a ruler’s power.

What does this painting make you think about Ellen Terry? Does it remind you of any theater you’ve seen? How does it match up with your image of Lady Macbeth?

I got the image of “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth” from Artchive.

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Woman in Peasant Dress

Let’s talk about “Woman in Peasant Dress”, painted by Paul Klee (“Klee” is pronounced like “clay”) in 1940:

Last time, when we were looking at “Tea”, I said that Matisse’s lines were loose and cartoony. It’s interesting to compare Klee’s painting with Matisse’s; both paintings are cartoony – in both cases, the dots for eyes strike me especially – but Klee’s lines are the opposite of loose. The shapes in this painting have corners. They look as though they’ve been fitted together carefully. They remind me of those wooden blocks they use in Montessori schools’ preschool play times, and public schools’ advanced geometry classes.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to compare this painting to a stained glass window. The glass pieces’ shapes in old stained glass windows are often irregular, because it isn’t the glass’ shape which is important; although the glass is in fragments, it’s put together to appear whole. Look at the blue background behind the king in that window: it’s supposed to look like one solid background, not a bunch of pieces stuck together.

What do you think of this painting? Did it remind you of a stained glass window, or something else?

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Today let’s look at “Tea”, painted by Henri Matisse in 1919 (“Matisse” is pronounced “mah-TEES”, with the s really soft, as in “lease”.)

One of the things which interests me about this painting is that it is at once photographic and completely stylized! I say it’s photographic because the characters – even the dog – are aware of the person capturing their image; they’ve all turned around to look at him. And I say it’s stylized, of course, because Matisse’s lines are loose and cartoony. And yet, this scene feels so real to me!

What is it exactly about this painting which makes it seem real to me? Maybe the characters’ poses; maybe the dapples of light, exactly in the right spots; maybe that napkin, hanging partly off the table, as though somebody’s tossed it down there. Maybe it’s all the different greens Matisse uses in the plants.

I wonder what the woman’s hat is made of, and if she’s hot in it. It looks like a cloche, not a sun hat, which means that it’s more fashionable than practical. I wonder why she’s left it on.

This photograph of “Tea” does NOT belong to me. It was taken by Beesnest McClain on Flickr, who is NOT in any way associated with this blog.

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Portrait of Charles and Georges Durand-Ruel

On this blog I want to show you that art is approachable, that a painting doesn’t have to be seen as a problem to be solved – “How does the painter lead the eye?” “What does this say about society?” – but that it can be enjoyed the way you enjoy anything you look at, like trees or people or films or photographs.

Today let’s look at “Portrait of Charles and Georges Durand-Ruel”, painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in 1882.

I like Renoir, and this painting in particular, because his pictures are half-classical, half-new. If you saw this painting from a distance, it would probably look like a typical old painting to you, because it’s got people in it rather than shapes, and the way it’s “framed” – in the film sense – is not very unusual.

But when you get up close, you see that the background is all done in squashes and dashes of paint; you see that although the hair of the men’s heads is complex with many colors, Renoir has not painted individual hairs but has indicated individual hairs by using all those many colors to suggest light falling over an uneven, and slightly reflective, surface.

Most importantly, maybe, when you get up close you see the way the men are dressed. How cool to see what looks like an old fashioned painting, only to realize that its subjects are wearing clothes you could pretty much wear today!

What do you think of this picture by Renoir?

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Why You Should Look At Art, and How

You were probably told in high school that there is a particular way to look at art: you were probably told that paintings lead the eye with careful use of geometric shapes. You were probably told to look for complimentary colors, and the use of lighting to create drama. If you took art classes in college, you were probably told that most paintings are really vehicles for sexual innuendo, and your professors probably talked about how art helps people find a voice and expel their personal demons.

Your teachers lied. You don’t need to look at a painting as though it’s a problem that needs to be solved; and you don’t have to look at art to make yourself or the world better. You can look at art this way, and for these reasons, but those aren’t the rules.

Here is the best way to look at art: look at it. Look at it the way you look at a blossoming dog wood tree, or two people arguing at a gas station.

And here is the best reason to look at art: it is interesting to look at things.

You don’t have to be a part of a special club to enjoy a painting, and you don’t need to have some advanced degree. It makes me sad that most people are embarrassed to talk about art. You wouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about a movie, would you? Talking about movies is half the fun of going to see them. The same is true for art.

Here’s one of my favorite paintings:

It’s called “Still Life With Fish” and it’s by Edouard Manet, and it was painted in 1864. I like it because I like how the Manet’s brush strokes are thick and full of gestures; look at the fin on the fish’s side. It looks like a solid fin, but really it’s just a series of quick strokes: gray line, darker gray line, yellow-gray line. I say “full of gestures” because I can imagine Manet making those lines with a flick of his hand. That makes the painting seem full of personality to me, as though Manet left his thumb print in the paint.

On this blog I’m going to post pictures of works of art, and I’ll talk about them with you as though we were standing together in a museum. Art is special because somebody made it – it didn’t just happen, like mountains, or trees. It was created by a person especially so somebody would look at it and think about it and talk about it.

I don’t have a degree in art history. I don’t work in a museum. I’m twenty-one years old, and really my only claims to authority are that my dad’s an artist, and that I’ve spent a lot of time looking at paintings and talking about them. Looking at art is one of the chief pleasures of my life. I hope I can help you enjoy it as well.

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