March 6, 2012
Keichel Fine Art in Lincoln, Nebraska is currently exhibiting a fascinating mystery picture, Landscape with a River and Hills, popularly known as The Bigfoot Landscape. While it has some awkward features and is not included in any of the existing publications about Grant Wood, a number of scholars believe that it is indeed by Wood. But two of Wood’s biographers, James Denis and Wanda Corn, have rejected the piece, though in a recent letter Corn has softened her stance to what I take as a “maybe.” Which way is the truth?
If it is by Grant Wood it’s an important discovery, since paintings in Wood’s mature style are as rare as Vermeers: after Wood developed this style in American Gothic, he produced only a little over 30 paintings.
Decisions like this are resolved through a sort of scholarly consensus. And while we like to pretend that our decisions are based on solid evidence, often our evidence is much less than complete. What’s interesting in this case is that while the attribution depends partly on technical considerations—the materials and techniques employed in the painting—ultimately the decision rests on something more complex and in some ways subjective. Does the picture reflect the mind of Grant Wood? Does it seem to be the product of his imagination?
Let me briefly present the case that it does: I’m one of the scholars who believes that Wood produced the painting. In fact, I wrote about the work in the 2011 Vivian Kiechel Fine Arts catalogue.
I first saw the painting during a research trip to Iowa City, for a book I’m hoping to write about Grant Wood. At that point the painting was in a private collection, and I expressed my opinion that Wood had done it. Doubtless for that reason the gallery asked me to write about the painting when it was put up for sale. I then ran through all the arguments even more carefully than before, and I became more convinced that my feeling about the painting is right.
Let me warn you, I think the artwork is unique: a painting that Wood abandoned halfway through. That would at least partly explain why it looks so odd. (Of course, the final answer to the question of the painting’s authenticity will have an enormous effect on the work’s value.)
What do we see in the work? Like several paintings by Grant Wood, Landscape portrays the sort of gently rolling terrain characteristic of eastern Iowa. There’s a river with a bridge and a road leading into the distance; sprinkled over the landscape are corn fields, corn shocks and a red silo. In the left foreground is a “dancing tree.” The oddest feature of the painting is a hill just across the river on the left, which has a shape that resembles a human foot, with eight green shrubs that seem to form “toes.” It’s precisely this bizarre feature that makes me think the painting is by Grant Wood.
The painting originally hung in Wood’s studio, according to two credible witnesses: Park Rinard, who became Wood’s publicity manager and secretary, and Dr. Titus Evans, a radiologist of international repute, who was Wood’s physician and also an amateur painter. It’s not clear when Wood first hung this painting in his studio. Rinard, who connected with Wood around 1934-35 when Wood moved to Iowa City, once commented “that painting was always around.” According to Dr. Evans’ widow, on several occasions her husband attempted to purchase the painting, but Wood refused, perhaps because he considered it incomplete. In December of 1941, shortly after a cancer operation, Wood gave the painting to Dr. Evans, and he passed away shortly afterwards, on February 12, 1942.
James S. Horns of Minneapolis, who has conserved many of Grant Wood’s paintings, reports in a letter of October 1, 2008 that the materials in the painting are consistent with other paintings by Wood. Specifically: it is executed on a rather heavy cotton canvas similar to some used by him; the canvas was covered with a white ground heavily applied with broad brushstrokes, similar to that found in many of his paintings; and the picture surface contains an uneven coating of pigment that has been partially rubbed off to leave a glaze or scumble, as is often found in paintings by Wood. While Horn notes that analysis of technical issues by itself is not sufficient to provide “absolute confirmation” of the attribution to Wood, he concludes that “the materials and technique would support an attribution to Wood and no features were seen that are inconsistent with his work.”
The general repertory of elements is one that appears frequently in Wood’s oeuvre. The slowly moving river, the gentle hills, the cornfields and corn shocks, the silo, the trees (some with autumnal foliage), the road running at a diagonal and then turning at a right angle—all form part of Wood’s fundamental grammar of expression, which he constantly rearranged, like a writer rearranging words in a sentence. The elements in the foreground are particularly close to Wood’s painting The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, executed in 1931. Interestingly, the composition of the painting seems to follow a design method that Wood employed on other occasions. It is roughly divided into three equal horizontal bands and is crisscrossed by diagonals that point to the corners or to other key points on this geometric grid. Wood taught this method of design to his students at the University of Iowa, and it can often be found in his landscapes, notably his lithograph March, of 1941, where this method is clearly demonstrated.
But Landscape completely lacks the fine detail that we generally find in Wood’s paintings after 1930: if it is a work by Grant Wood, it must be one that he left unfinished.
To me, the most compelling reason for the attribution is the curious sense of humor in the work—a sense of humor that is rather childlike. Wood’s paintings are filled with pun-like elements, which are sometimes downright naughty, as in his Daughters of Revolution, in which the three elderly women resemble Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in drag. In Landscape, the most peculiar and remarkable element in the painting is the hill in the shape of a human foot, with shrubs for toes. In some fashion I believe this is a reference to a silly hoax Wood once carried out, a prank that was significant to him and formed part of his personal mythology.
In 1916, while in his mid-20s, Wood and his friend Paul Hanson constructed two small homes in Kenwood Park, Cedar Rapids, one for the Hansons and one for himself, his mother and his sister. Around this time, after reading about the alleged discovery of human bones and a kitchen in Horsethief’s Cave, northeast of Kenwood, a hoax which brought crowds of spectators to view the cave, Wood decided to create a “Superhoax” of his own. As his first biographer Darrell Garwood reported:
He carved a foot eighteen inches long out of wood and made footprints in the ravine leading from Cook’s Pond. With his monster picture and the footprints as proof, he tried to convince the newspapers that a giant had risen up from the pond and then clumped off down the ravine. As it turned out, he didn’t succeed in luring the newspapers. But he did use the footprints: he cast them in concrete and laid them as a sidewalk from front to back of the house he was to occupy; the concrete footprints were spaced so that it looks as though a giant had just knocked at the front door and then hurried around the corner of the house.” (Darrell Garwood, Artist in Iowa, A Life of Grant Wood, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1944, page 53.)
The same story is told with slight variations by Wood’s sister Nan:
About two miles away was Cook’s pond, which Grant called “Corot’s pond.” On hot summer evenings, he and Paul Hanson would swim there. As a hoax, Grant made molds and cast some giant footprints, pressing them into the sand to make tracks leading to the pond. Then he dove in and came up with his head covered with decaying leaves and dripping mud. Paul took a picture of this horrible creature. Grant made more of the giant footprints in concrete and used them a stepping stones from our house to a rustic bridge he built over a tiny stream in our back yard. (Nan Wood Graham (with John Zug and Julie Jensen McDonald, My Brother Grant Wood, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1993, pages 25-26.)
My belief is that the hillside shaped like a foot in Landscape is an allusion to this hoax—or, if you wish, an extension of it into a new and somewhat different artistic statement. In other words, the huge foot visible in the hillside conjures up the fantasy that “Bigfoot” is at loose. In my opinion he was sufficiently taken with this theme to execute the work at least to the stage of under-painting the canvas; but then he ran out of energy or enthusiasm when faced with the task of perfecting the finish of his creation—perhaps because the conceit was too slight and too whimsical to justify a fully polished painting. Instead, he hung the incomplete painting in his studio, waiting for some further bit of inspiration to complete the painting—a moment that never came.
So I believe the mystery painting is by Grant Wood in part because of its provenance, in part because its materials are consistent with Grant Wood and in part because its composition ties in with known works by him. But the most compelling factor is that the piece’s strange humor fits with what we know about Grant Wood’s personality—and not with that of any other artist.
Someday, perhaps there will be a scholarly consensus. But as of today, the jury is out. Am I correct that Grant Wood made this picture? Have you been persuaded?
January 26, 2012
One of the most provocative exhibitions in the United States right now was organized by an institution that’s a bit off the beaten track: The Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City, Nebraska. David City was the birthplace of the Regionalist painter Dale Nichols (1904-1995), and the Museum of Agrarian Art was founded just a little over three years ago when it acquired four paintings by him; it is still not an AAM accredited institution. This year the museum launched a major retrospective of the work of Dale Nichols, complete with a well-illustrated book-length catalog written by Amanda Mobley Guenther.
It’s impressive that such a small community has produced an ambitious exhibition and book of this scale, roughly on a par with those produced by America’s largest museums. More than that, the show shows the virtue of bringing new viewpoints into the discourse of art history, for seemingly without intending to do so—with seeming artlessness—the catalog explodes most of what we’ve been told about Regionalist American art of the 1930s and shows that we should take another look at what was actually going on.
Dale Nichols operated in a zone that was midway between “high art” of the sort exhibited in prestigious museums and calendar art and commercial illustration. He himself viewed his work and his calling in an extremely lofty light. He liked to think of himself as on a par with the great old masters, such as Caravaggio, and he also believed that he had special insights into the workings of the universe and thus was something of a prophet or seer. But Nichols also regularly worked in the sphere of practical commercial art, doing lettering and advertisements, and designing packaging. His paintings were regularly reproduced for advertising purposes on tin cans, plates and playing cards, by companies such as General Mills. In 1942 one of his winter scenes was even used for a U. S. postage stamp. Because of his close ties with the commercial world, some art critics would describe his work as kitsch.
While he did paint some other subjects, Nichols is best known for just one, which he painted in seemingly endless permutations: a red barn resting in a snowy field against an intensely blue sky, with a foreground containing figures engaged in traditional agrarian tasks, very often with a figure in a sleigh or wagon. It’s the sort of imagery one finds in the work of the 19th century American painter, George Henry Durie (1820-1863), although Dale Nichols handled the theme with a clarity of light and a simplicity of geometric shapes that’s more in the manner of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), and it has a distinctly Art Deco feeling.
Nichols’s reputation reached its height quite early in his career, in the 1930s, the last decade when popular imagery of this sort also enjoyed the support of major art critics and museums. Then his reputation began a downhill slide. But recently his paintings have experienced something of a revival, if not among art historians at least among collectors, who have started paying large sums for his work.
The son of a farmer, Nichols performed back-breaking farm chores as a child and walked two miles to school. We don’t know how he decided to become an artist, but by the age of 20 he had landed in Chicago, where he attended the Chicago Academy of Art. Like many artists, he was not easy to teach, and his career as a student lasted only two months, though by the time it ended he had assembled a portfolio of his work and landed a job in an advertising agency, where his initial specialty was fine lettering. During his 15 years in the Chicago advertising business he seems to have worked in every possible angle of the trade, from lettering and illustration to package design.
Around 1933 he decided to embark on a career as a painter, and almost instantly he settled on the sort of red barn subject matter. In fact, he had been painting for less than a year when he produced what is still his best known work of art, End of the Hunt, 1934, which won an award from the Art Institute of Chicago and which was purchased in 1939 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—then as now the most important museum in the United States—where it remains today.
For a few years, Nichols was viewed as one of the leading painters in America, a major figure of the Regionalist movement: in 1939, a dean at the University of Illinois declared that he “has already achieved a standing in art circles comparable with that of John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, and Thomas Benton.” But Nichols’s career began to slip at that point, in part because Regionalism began to slip out of favor, and in part because the difficulties of his personal life made it difficult for him to settle down: Over the course of his career he had five marriages, some of them so brief their exact date and the full name of his partner is not known.
In the 1930s his center of his activity was Chicago, but in 1940 he moved to Arizona, where he adopted a cowboy persona, and supported himself as an art teacher. In 1948, he purchased about half the buildings in the town of Tubac, Arizona, to use as a campus for an art school that he named for himself, but this over-extended his resources and the venture lasted for only about a year. Throughout the 1950s he seems to have been in constant financial difficulties, and he became a roaming wanderer, moving from Brownsville, Texas, to New Orleans, to Marquette, Michigan, back to New Orleans, and finally to Biloxi, where he lived until 1960s, at one point making his home in a small yacht named Nefertiti harbored along the Wolf River. Yet somehow, no matter how down-and-out he might be, he never lost his immaculate look or sense of self-assurance. Photographs of him posing beside his boat might almost be confused for fashion illustrations.
In 1960 he moved to Guatemala, married a native woman, and supported himself in large part by making rubbings and drawings of Maya sculpture, which he sold both to tourists and to American archeology museums. During this period he founded a new intellectual specialty, which he called Psycho Symbolic Investigation Archeology, and wrote books with titles such as Pyramid Text of the Ancient Maya and Magnificent Mystery Tikal. These set forth his belief that he had discovered the secret code of ancient Maya writing and art: a sort of astrology based on the number nine, the day of birth, and the positioning of the sun and other stars and planets. He proposed that it would be applied to modern life as well, and created striking diagrams to assist modern users of his system. It’s not a document that Maya scholars take seriously.
After an earthquake in Guatemala disrupted life there, he became mobile again. In his later years he separated from his wife and moved repeatedly back and forth among California, Alaska and Nevada, where he attempted to start an art school. By the end of his life he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; he died of prostate cancer in 1997 in Sedona, Arizona.
In the course of these moves, Nichols turned for subject matter to the region where he was living at the time. In Arizona he painted scenes of the Southwest; in Guatemala he painted tropical jungle scenes. But throughout his life he continued to paint scenes of red barns in snow in a Nebraska-like setting, and to fiercely insist that he was the leading artist of Nebraska, a claim that often put him in conflict with other artists. His late barn scenes, executed in the 1960s, or even later, are almost indistinguishable from the first one, painted in 1934.
To a large degree his ideas about art were formed while working in print shops and advertising agencies in Chicago. Notably, he worked for a time for the printer and publisher R. R. Donnelly, which in 1930 published what has sometimes been described as the greatest American illustrated book: Rockwell Kent’s edition of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. To his credit, Nichols seems to have recognized that Kent’s work had a strength and nobility that stood head-and-shoulders above anything else being produced around him. While sometimes responsive to other influences (such as the work of another very talented illustrator, Maynard Dixon), to a large degree Nichols modeled everything he did afterwards on Kent’s style. Indeed, in the summer of 1937 Nichols even made a trip to Alaska in emulation of Kent, who had spent a year there in 1918-19. The most notable traits of Nichols’ work—the clean lines, the clear sense of light and dark, the wonderful sense of design and proportion—are based on Kent.
For decades Regionalism has been dismissed as an essentially realistic, documentary mode of creating art, which consequently lacks any significant expressive or esthetic content. To cite phrases that are often used, it is “mere realism” or “conventional realism.”
In her catalog, Guenther shows that this assumption is completely incorrect as applied to the art of Dale Nichols. Actually, Nichols himself saw his art in an entirely different light. In a letter to his niece Ruth (the daughter of his brother Floyd) he stated: “Hell, Ruth, I’ve never painted a realistic painting in my life.” Nichols attributed the power of his art to what he called “applied psychology.” What he meant by this is sometimes difficult to figure out, but loosely speaking it seems to have meant that he saw his paintings as “symbolic.” His goal was to create forms filled with symbolism which would connect with the deepest truths of human existence, whether the workings of the universe or the inner mysteries of the Freudian unconscious.
Nichols’s paintings were not copies of any actual scene. He started with a set of geometric elements, which he moved around as if they were children’s blocks until he found the formal arrangement that satisfied him As he explained, in his idiosyncratic fashion, which sometimes takes more than one reading to understand:
I first compose my painting in an euphonious arrangement of rect-hedrons, tetrahedrons and spheroids, then relieve the resultant static effect by opposing line, adding textures, symbolic abstractions and certain fragmentations (following Freudian interpretations) in colors which relate to preconceived mood.
The word “rect-hedron,” of course, is a Nichols coinage. Incidentally, the above quotation, and the quote blocks that follow, all come from Guenther’s fine catalogue, one of whose best features is that it, in turn, quotes extensively and directly from Nichols’ writings.
Next, for Nichols, after this composing of forms, came the placement of a source of light—generally the sun. Central to his belief system was a devotion to “our galaxy of stars (of which our sun is one” which “forms the cosmic ocean of radiant energy on earth.” He believed that the unifying power of light was what filled his paintings with harmony and spiritual truth.
Of course he did eventually transform his geometric compositions into scenes that looked like red barns and other objects. But when he transformed his geometric blocks into “realistic” objects, he tried to paint them abstractly, in a way which expressed their inner reality, their spiritual essence. Thus, for example, when he painted a tree he tried to express the way in which it grows. And then he tried to go even further. He tried to connect with the deepest levels of the human brain. As he explained in a letter to his niece:
Now, what else can the tree do? Well, it can be forced into what is called a Freudian form to touch a “button” in the brain and make us feel again the warmth and security of mother: This extra liberty taken in the form of anything is called poetry.
In fact, beauty for Nichols was fundamentally an attribute of desire. He was fond of quoting the 17th century Jewish mystic, Baruch Spinoza: “We do not desire a thing because it is beautiful, but it is called beautiful if we desire it.” And for an understanding of desire, Nichols turned to a field of knowledge that was in active ferment in this period, Freudian psychology, with its focus on the unconscious, the subconscious and sexual desire.
Nichols’s interest in psychology appears to have been an outgrowth of his involvement with advertising. It was in this period that advertisers first became aware that subliminal, subconscious messages could play a major role in stimulating sales, particularly messages with a sexual content. Nichols believed that we respond to every object symbolically, that we see it in terms of metaphors, and in terms of the projections of our desire. The skillful artist should exploit this fact. Thus:
For example, the mountain is the most dramatic shape encountered by man. Man looks up to this pinnacled pile of rocks and feels its overwhelming power. He is conscious of its greatness over himself. It becomes a symbol of strength and stability. The basic shape of a mountain is triangular. To build the elements of a picture into a triangle is to put into the painting the awe-inspiring strength and stability of the mountain.
Seen in this light, a Nichols painting is the symbolic expression of human desire and of man’s relationship to the cosmic forces of nature. For Nichols his End of the Hunt of 1934 was not a painting of barns and snowy fields so much as it was an exploration of the mystical union of the male and female essence:
Foundations of building are at eye level for cathedral effect. Female curves in snowbanks, and other female symbols, especially in tracks and soft lines of snow on roofs and general shapes of trees, in the trees (buildings, of course, are also female) these give the charm of female appeal which is the strength of women. Also gives the picture gentle feeling of mother. The vertical lines of the man and his rabbit, including the trunks of the trees, are the strength of men, which is the theory of Havelock Ellis, English psychologist (studies the psychology of sex). Other gender symbols mentioned are Freudian. Also people tend to enjoy excavations, so I selected a farmyard with a hollow near the barn.
Of course, Nichols may have been misguided in his understanding of his art and of the reasons it had popular appeal. But then again, could it be that the strange appeal of a Nichols painting lies at this deeper level of expression?
Whatever one thinks of his art, the impulses that led him to make a painting are clearly very different from those which lead painters to create “mere realism”—they’re something much stranger. And this raises the larger question of whether Regionalism as a movement—the art of figures like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood—can accurately be dismissed as “mere realism,” or whether it’s also something more complicated and peculiar.
November 29, 2011
What’s the best new work of art in the world? Good question. The most interesting and mind-bending new artwork that I’ve encountered is a remarkable garden in Paris titled Who to Believe?, recently designed and assembled by Francois Abelanet. We’re accustomed to the idea that paint can form an illusion. But it’s a bit startling to find this effect created with grass and trees. Yet this is the conceit of Abelanet’s work, made from 3,500 square feet of turf and many truckloads of dirt and straw and assembled with the help of about 90 carefully supervised gardeners. Here’s a pretty good video of it:
When you stare down at it from the steps of the City Hall in Paris, Abelanet’s carefully designed garden resembles a terrestrial globe. It’s a nearly perfect sphere, with neat lines marking latitude and longitude and two trees growing out of the top. It looks like one of those planets sketched by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince.
But move a little and its appearance changes. From any other angle, it’s an irregular crazy-quilt of shapes—a weirdly configured, Alice-In-Wonderland world. Abelanet has brought together two seemingly divergent artistic traditions—the French garden and Anamorphosis.
Gardens are one of the most notable accomplishments of French culture and reached their height in the work of André Le Notre (1613-1700), chief gardener for King Louis XIV (1638-1715), most notably at the Palace of Versailles. The distinguishing trait of French gardens is their geometric logic and mastery of vistas. From a vantage point at the center of the great terrace at Versailles, the eye is directed down grand avenues in which lines of trees, and strategically placed lakes, fountains and statues, lead the eye seemingly to infinity. Happiest when working on a grand scale, Le Notre sometimes moved entire villages to create the strictly regulated vistas that he wanted.
Notably, Le Notre was also interested in the dramatic impact of surprising effects which can be discerned from only one place. There’s an effect of this sort at the garden of Vaux-le-Vicomte, for example, created just before Versailles for the Minister of Finance, Nicholas Fouquet. Stand before the statue of the Gallic Hercules, which marks the end of the Grand Avenue, and look back at the Chateau: The reflection of the distant building floats, seemingly miraculously, on the surface of a body of water that’s very close to you. Visually, it seems impossible, although in fact it’s simply a careful application of an optical principle that had recently been enunciated by Descartes—“the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.” In other words, if we carefully choose the right vantage point, we can see the world in a way possible nowhere else.
This concept of a unique, privileged vantage point provides the basis for Abelanet’s garden. But unlike Le Notre’s work, it discloses a world which is not predictable and logical, or under our control, but topsy-turvy and unpredictable. In essence, he has combined the techniques of Le Notre with an approach to representation normally found only in painting.
Anamorphosis. The word, which is Greek, refers to an image that needs to be seen from a special angle to be seen without distortion. It’s a kind of zany extrapolation of the principles of perspective, and it developed early in the Renaissance, very soon after vanishing-point perspective was developed. The masterpiece of the genre is arguably a large and imposing painting by Hans Holbein in the National Gallery in London, The Ambassadors.
An ingenious visual puzzle, executed around 1533, The Ambassadors shows two nearly life-size figures who have been identified as Jean de Dintevile, the French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII and George de Sleve, Bishop of Lavaur. Behind them are a two-tiered table on which are piled a selection of books, globes (one terrestrial, one celestial) and scientific instruments, including a quadrant, an astrolabe and a sundial. There’s also a lute with a broken string, next to a hymnbook in Martin Luther’s translation. Scholars have long argued about what these objects signify. Presumably the instruments are saying something about the world of knowledge, or about the celestial and terrestrial world. The hymnbook and lute seem to allude to strife between scholar’s and clergy.
But the oddest thing in The Ambassadors is a strangely distorted shape in the lower center, which when viewed from the painting’s right (or the viewer’s left) takes the form of a skull. Surely this alludes to the fact that death is always present, but we only see it if we look at reality from a particular angle.
Holbein’s painting alerts us to the fact that Anamorphosis is a device that can not only amuse us with its strange visual distortions, but can provide a metaphor. Part of the wit of Abelanet’s marvelous garden is that it functions in a way that carries metaphorical and metaphysical punch. Probably no form on government on earth is so famously centralized and bureaucratic as that of France. Decisions made at the top are carried out rigorously to the lowest level. It’s been said that if you enter any schoolroom in France you’ll find that the students are studying the same page in the same book as in every other schoolroom in the realm. But how do the people at the top make their decisions? What do they see from their vantage point?
Abelanet’s garden reminds us that the view from City Hall can be quite different from everywhere else—that, in fact, the seeming logic of its view of things can be nonsensical. To fully grasp reality we need to see how it looks from more than one place (politicians, take note). Like much of the world’s best art, Abelanet’s creation is at once silly and profound.
Is this the world’s best new work of art? I’d welcome other suggestions.
October 14, 2011
The robber barons loved the portraits of the 17th century Dutch painter Frans Hals, and nowhere did these barons congregate so thickly as in New York. Not surprisingly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has this country’s largest collection of paintings by Hals, donated by rapacious financiers who made rivals quake during the early industrial age, such as Collis P. Huntington, Henry Marquand, Benjamin Altman, H. O. Havemeyer and Jules Bache. Stroll across 5th Avenue and you can see more Frans Hals paintings in the Frick collection, amassed by the ruthless Pittsburgh steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.
The Metropolitan recently gathered its impressive holdings of Hals paintings into a sort of mini-blockbuster exhibition. Organized by Walter Liedtke, the museum’s curator of Dutch art, the show contained 13 portraits, two from private collections. There are also a few works formerly attributed to Hals, and by his contemporaries, that set his achievement in context. The show is loosely divided between early exuberant works by Hals, such as the Merrymakers at Shrovetide (circa 1616) and Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart (1623), and the later, more sober portraits, which sometimes have an introspective, even brooding quality reminiscent of Rembrandt.
What’s So Great About Frans Hals?
As a painter, Hals made two great contributions. One was to combine an intense sense of realism with flamboyant brushwork—which gives his work a highly personal quality. When we stand at a distance the image seems “real”: but when we’re close all we see is gestural marks, made by the human hand. At a sort of middle distance there’s a moment when the two modes of seeing precariously coexist, or at which one mode of seeing shifts into the other. The “real” and the “abstract,” the “objective” and the “subjective,” interact with each other in endlessly fascinating ways.
Hal’s other contribution is to fill his paintings with evident psychological intensity, the quality known as “psychological insight.” His figures feel as if we could speak to them.
There are many tricks that Hals used to create this effect, including his dashing brushwork, which gives mobility to the muscles of the face, as if the figures were alive. Another fascinating trick was also used by Rembrandt. Hals recognized that the human face has two halves and the expression on one side differs subtly from the expression on the other. Particularly in his late work, Hals exploited this effect in a dramatic way: the two sides of the face are two slightly different people. The lighted side portrays the sitter’s “public self,” and the shadowed side the “private self”—generally somewhat sadder and more thoughtful, perhaps with an eye that wanders a bit and looks out of focus. Without even being conscious of this difference, we respond to it. Because a portrait by Hals reveals not a single but a divided self, the act of looking at a Hals painting is one of penetrating through the surface presentation of the figure to the inner person.
It’s surely no accident that Hals’s life (1580-1666) overlapped with that of Shakespeare (1564-1616), and the way he evoked a sense of character provides interesting parallels to the characters in Shakespeare’s plays who are generally two or more people in one body, engaged in internal dialogue. In that sense, Hals’s portraits document the emergence of the modern self: they display a new awareness that the “self” is not a single, uniform thing, but the product of conflicting forces and disparate impulses, ruled by a consciousness filled with self-doubt.
I suspect that the robber barons’ fondness for Hals has something to do with this psychological penetration. Success in business depends on an accurate assessment of the person across the bargaining table, and this assessment often depends not only on what is presented on the surface but on facial expressions and gestures that reveal deeper, hidden motives. Is this person telling the truth? Will he double-cross me? Can I trust him? One might add that the rich brown palette of a Hals’ portraits fits nicely in the dark cave-like interiors of the gilded age.
Where to See Frans Hals
After the Metropolitan Museum, the largest collection of Hals in this country is that of the National Gallery in Washington, with an impressive cluster of portraits, most of them assembled by the industrialist Andrew Mellon. But perhaps the best way to get into the Hals spirit is to see his work in the actual home of a robber baron.
Two of these settings come to mind. One is the Frick collection in New York, already mentioned, in a mansion designed by Carriere and Hastings for Henry Clay Frick. The other is at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, the home of Charles P. Taft, the brother of Supreme Court Chief Justice and U. S. President William Henry Taft. (It has a remarkable group of works not only by Hals but by two other top figures in the art of portraiture, Rembrandt and John Singer Sargent, including the latter’s wonderfully nervous Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, showing the author in a wicker chair, nursing a cigarette.) Of the Taft Museum’s portraits by Hals, surely the most remarkable are those of a married couple: A Seated Man Holding a Hat and A Seated Woman Holding a Fan. Each is a masterwork, and there’s a delightful interaction between the two.
There are other Frans Hals experiences worth seeking out in the United States.
I always feel a bit wistful when I look at Hal’s Portrait of a Woman at the St. Louis Art Museum, or the Portrait of a Man in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. They’re a couple, but somehow got divorced, and ended up at opposite ends of the state.
Finally, it’s well worth studying the two examples of Hals’s work at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The larger of the two, Tielman Roosterman (1634), is not only one of the artist’s best large-scale portraits but one of the very best preserved. Its condition is near perfect. The other, portraying an unknown woman, has a surface that’s been abraded and rubbed, like a garment that’s gone too many times to the drycleaners. If you study these two paintings you’ll see the distinction between a painting in good condition and one in poor condition, and you can apply this knowledge to every old master painting you encounter.