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The Story of Painting

The Story of Painting

How art was made
by DK
foreword by Ross King
tagged : painting
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149 Paintings You Really Need to See in North America

Chapter 1


Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Isabella Gardner was a fascinating character. When she was exposed to the art and architecture in Venice, Paris, and the rest of Europe, she fell in love with it. She had a refreshing ability to study all cultures. She had energy with a capital “E.”
Her husband was wealthy and so she could buy many of the great works she loved. Bernard Berenson, the great artistic guru and acquirer, scouted Europe for her. Once she had acquired a substantial collection, she decided that a museum was needed to house it. She herself supervised the building of the Gardner Museum, following it brick by brick. She stood over the stonemasons, plasterers, and car-penters. She came up with the idea of an internal courtyard touched with Tiepolo pink. She bought all the arches, pillars, railings, columns, and sculptures, and applied them to the walls and filled the courtyard. It was all her own scheme.
The result is a building with a Venetian courtyard suffused with plants, framed by Venetian windows, arches, balustrades, and loggias. On the grounds, there are Roman statuary, sarcophagi, and a cloister walk with Romanesque figures and leafy capitols on top of the cloister columns.
This is an eccentric collection, but how lucky Boston is to have it.

1. The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple (c. 1320)
Giotto (Giotto di Bondone) (1267–1337)

How rare to be able to sit in a chair right next to a small Giotto, done in about 1320. I’ve never been able to do this except in the eccentric Gardner mansion’s elegant curio setting. There it is, 18 in x 12 in, all gold backdrop on a small side table. It’s fun to be so snug with the beginning of the Renaissance. Giotto propelled Western art beyond the gold stylized figures that were more ornaments than people. With Giotto, the human figure developed a solidity and a personality.
Here it is, all at once, a little squiggly Christ pulling Simeon’s beard (see Luke 2:27–38, a devout man yearning for a saviour of Israel), yet straining with a child’s telltale reach for his mother. Anna sits like a prophetess on the right, old, haggard, grey of face, accentuated by a green-yellow gown — the pain of age. Behind the Virgin Mother is Joseph, eyeing it all with intensity and focus, the carpenter’s eye.
In the middle of the altar, a hanging vestment, all white, a patterned abstract, taking up a large space. This is the most modern abstract painting possible — lines, tiny squares, and white. Not far from this to Rothko.
This would have been part of a larger altar piece.
Giotto created wonderful art but he himself was not a pretty man. Neither, it seems, were any of his eight children attractive. When Dante first saw the children’s faces, he said, “My friend, you make such handsome figures for others — why do you make such plain ones for yourself?”
Giotto responded, “I paint by day but I procreate at night in the dark.”


2. El Jaleo (The Ruckus) (1882)
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)

Isabella Gardner coveted Sargent’s El Jaleo.  Painted in 1882, shortly after the premiere of Bizet’s Carmen of 1875, which tells the story of a proud gypsy woman torn between an army officer and a toreador. The painting shows a gypsy dancer by herself in front of a musical band. It was first exhibited with the title Dance of the Gypsies.  The setting for this painting obsessed Isabella Gardner. In the end, she set it behind a Moorish arch, so you see it as if it were a performance on a lighted stage — the setting is theatrical in effect. She placed a mirror to the left, slightly angled, but set so it repeats the image. It is difficult to describe what this mirror does, but I think it creates a sense of motion, lightens the picture, and accentuates three dimensions. The frame is perhaps narrower on the bottom than the top. It appears that way and yet you’re not sure. You sit on an ancient stone ledge before blue tiles behind Mexican wall tile and your eye runs to the cement under the painting, the identical colour of the floor at the bottom of the painting.
Sargent was theatre. A gypsy in an Andalusian tavern outside of Seville in full stomp. Her white gown, so unexpected, so eye-catching, so oddly formal, frames the staccato of the feet. The arch of her left forearm, the sexual authority of the pointed wrist and finger, the shadow billowing up from her black lacy blouse, the full throat of the fifth man on the left — leaning back hhheeyyyaahh — you’re there.
You sit in a hall of sarcophagi, medieval statues from Bordeaux, capitols from France, blue tiles before you — what a setting!
My guess is that this is the best marriage of architecture and a painting in America, rivalled only, perhaps, by the van der Weyden in Philadelphia, which I describe later.


3. Europa (1559–62)
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (c. 1488–1576)

Titian painted six “poesies,” love poems based on divine love from Greek mythology and Roman sources. He relied on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The paintings were all for Philip II of Spain.
Aretino had persuaded Titian to court Philip as a patron. He was, after all, head of the world’s largest empire in the sixteenth century.
This story has Jupiter cruising in the sky, he sees the lovely Phoenician princess, Europa, near a herd of cows. Down he goes and changes into a bull. Europa had been picking flowers, went over to the bull, and yes, she stroked him and mounted him. Seems logical. At this point, Jupiter the bull zooms off and reaches Crete. There he satisfies his lust and gives rise to Europe.
From the union, Minos, the most ancient of European civilizations, will be born on the island of Crete. Her brother, Cadmus, the inventor of writing, searched for her and founded the city of Thebes. This is the birth of civilization.
Well, it is a myth.
Ovid’s tale paints the bull’s nature as calm, stating “his forehead was not lowered for attack nor was there fury in his open eyes.” The bull’s expression was one of “love and peace.”
There is an argument by some that this painting eroticizes rape, that Europa’s facial expression is sexually explicit and bears “a look of ecstasy.”
The title of the work was originally Europa. The word rape was not added until fifty years after Titian’s death. Rape, or ratto, had a different meaning at the time of the painting, though; it meant abduction, to seize or take away by force.
However, in the myth, Europa did not fight the bull to stay with her father. While fearful, she did not resist. She was just another of Jupiter’s sexual conquests, the number of which is beyond counting. Leda, Danae, Callesto, Aphrodite, and Demeter were all the recipients of Jupiter’s lust.
The painting itself — how to appraise it in light of some of these arguments?
I’m relieved that it’s not clear at all that Europa is enjoying this ride! She’s holding on to Jupiter’s horn, or she’d slide down to the serpents below. She is gloriously plump, as ideal women were in those days. The cupid is chunky — no dieting here.
The bull’s eye is, I must agree, engrossing — if a bull’s eye can be said to have a personality then here’s one for you. Perhaps you might think that it’s only a muley-eyed bull, but the bull does seem to have an eye looking forward, an eye that conveys the message, “This is going to be fun!”
What do I feel seeing this? Hard to put into words. The bull is improbably gorgeous. Europa’s legs, breast, and throat are part of a lush symphony. A writhing crimson scarf ties into the soft pink sky reflecting the cherubs. It has the look of a painting that might have been created by Tchaikovsky. It is a bit hard to see the detail of the pink sky and fish below.
The Gardner was robbed early on the morning of March 18, 1990, by two men pretending to be policemen. They tied up the only two attendants, art students, and stole six pictures in about eighty-one minutes. One glorious Vermeer — The Concert, and he had only perhaps thirty-six in his total output — and a Rembrandt. They missed this painting in the next room.


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The Way It Is

The Way It Is

The Life of Greg Curnoe
also available: Hardcover
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Greg Curnoe had a supremely happy childhood and cherished memories of it his entire life. As a man and an artist, he fed off those recollections. Unlike some who experience idyllic happi¬ness as youngsters and then feel deprived by the rigours of adult experience, he was never cut off from his early formative years. In fact, he refused to part with them. Even as an adult when faced with failure, sadness, and anxiety, he retained a childlike surety that his was a blessed existence. He had a confidence that he could overcome any obstacle thrown in his way. This sense of security he received from his parents. For him, his childhood home was, in many ways, a place of refuge.
He was born a bit after his due date on Thursday, November 19, 1936, in Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario. Despite his tardy appearance, mother and baby were fine.
Greg was the first child of Nellie (1909–99), née Porter, and Gordon (1909–85; always called Gord) Curnoe. Gord’s father, Richard, arrived in London, Ontario, in 1879 at the age of nine with his parents, John and Elizabeth, née Rowe, from Sunny Corner, County Gwennap near Redruth, Cornwall. The sur¬name Curnoe is derived from Old Cornish and signifies a person originating in Cornwall. John had been a miner and immigrated to Canada when the tin mines in his native county were shuttered.
The parents of Richard’s wife, Sarah, née Cundick, had immigrated to Canada in 1869 from Westminster, Dorset. Her sister, Emily, was born in England in 1869, but Sarah was born in Canada in 1871, probably in Watford. The two sisters moved to London, where they worked in a laundry. There, the two sisters met two brothers: Richard Curnoe married Sarah, and John Curnoe married Emily. John and Emily operated a bakery and had eleven children. Richard and Sarah had four children: Verna, Hilda, Gord (Greg’s father), and Lorne.
Richard, a painter and striper (someone who paints stripes on railway cars), was employed as a foreman at A.B. Greer Carriage Makers until 1917, when he left that firm for the London and Port Stanley Railway. He died in 1936 of, according to family legend, lead poisoning. Apparently, he was miserly. “Dick doesn’t give me much money,” Sarah com¬plained. As a result, she would secrete money in various parts of the house, even behind picture frames. However, Richard did purchase, in 1917, a Model T Ford. As an older woman, Sarah developed diabetes and when gangrene set in, one of her legs was removed above the knee. She was apparently active in local women’s groups and would “even lend her best Bridal Rose china to the church for social events, not caring if they came back chipped.”
Richard and Sarah’s son Gord attended Chesley Avenue Public School and then London Central Collegiate, where he completed junior matriculation (grade ten). He then became the office boy at The Farmers’ Advocate, originally a populist magazine devoted to the concerns of farmers. He took night classes to learn about the printing trade and eventually became office manager. As a young man, he was known for his dapper clothing and good looks.
Nellie was the fourth child of William and Grace, née Peak, Porter, who immigrated to Canada in 1907. Like his father and grandfather, William also came from the docks area in East London and Bromley and was a carpenter and joiner specializing in making the wood-lined cabinets for passenger ships. In 1898 he married Grace Peak in Ilford, northwest of London. When William wanted to move to Canada, Grace demurred, largely because she did not want to be separated from her mother. Eventually, the elder Peaks agreed to go with them.
In Canada, the Porters and Peaks settled in London but then moved to the more rural area of Glendale, south of the city. When their prospects living on the land did not improve, the Porters moved back to London, where William established William Porter and Son, a building company. He built a number of small and large houses, some of them extremely expensive. However, during the Depression, when several contractors he had worked for declared bankruptcy and could not pay him, he suffered severe financial losses.
When Nellie was ten, she and her parents moved from Glendale to London, where she went to Wortley Road Public School and then Beal Technical, where she completed grade ten. She then found employment in the office of Smallman and Ingram, London’s largest department store. For three years her steady boyfriend was Seth Trusty, to whom she wrote every other day. When he moved to Chicago for further schooling, their romance trailed off, and she took up with Gord Curnoe after they met ice-skating at the London Arena.
Nellie, who was performing in a play, invited Gord to attend. He did. They met again after another play at Hyatt Avenue United Church. After a three-year engagement, they married, both age twenty-six, on June 29, 1935. They had decided on a lengthy engagement because Gord wanted them to be financially secure when they began married life. Nellie cashed in an insurance policy and Gord added in money from his savings, and they purchased a plot of land in South London on Langarth Street, where Nellie’s father would build their house.
Eventually, Gord and Nellie became well-suited to each other, but that was not the case at first. Gord found it difficult to adjust to married life. He had been hesitant to set a date for the wedding because of money worries. Nellie wanted to give notice at Smallman and Ingram, but Gord procrastinated. In addition, in their early married days, Nellie found Gord “vague, distant, and unable to explain to her why he seemed upset. The carefree beau she had known had changed into a worried husband.” She was very upset when he somewhat offhandedly remarked one day: “We can always get a divorce if we don’t get along.” Early in his marriage, Gord went to his mother’s home for dinner every noon (his father had died in 1936). His mother, Sarah, had to remind him: “Your place is with your wife.”
Gord and Nellie did not like the damp, sour-smelling house they rented on Springbank Drive, near the Coves, a closed loop of the Thames. Gord, anxious to be rid of that place, drove every day to Langarth Street where William Porter was building the house for his daughter and son-in-law.
The house was ready at the end of August 1935. Although the couple had wanted to construct their house of brick, they could not afford this luxury. Instead, they settled for a blue-painted stucco that was given a half-timbered treatment at the front of the bungalow. The roof was steeply pitched, the entrance red brick, and a small elevation made it slightly higher than nearby residences. With her father’s assistance, Nellie designed the interior: a central hall, a small kitchen, a dining room, a large living room, a large master bedroom with a walk-in closet and another bedroom overlooking the backyard.
William Porter installed baseboards and a living room man¬telpiece from chestnut; there was a bevelled-glass-panel door in the front vestibule; the kitchen counter was inlaid with tiny diamond-shaped ceramic tiles. Most of all, Nellie treasured the three leaded glass front windows.
Langarth Street is on a grid pattern, and most of the houses were bungalows on small lots. Many had been built piecemeal by local contractors; a few homes looked like simple cabins. Some of these houses in the forties and fifties still had outhouses in their backyards. Wharncliffe Road, where Grandmother Porter lived, was west of the house. To the east was Wortley Public School, to the north the Thames and the London Arena. Farther north was the downtown section of the city.
Two months after the Curnoes moved to their new home, their first baby arrived. Greg believed he was named after Gregory Peck, although it is possible he was named after a character on the long-running (1933–60) radio soap opera The Romance of Helen Trent. Greg’s cousin Gary Bryant was named after Gary Cooper and is of the opinion that the Curnoes used a similar process in naming their eldest child.
Gord and Nellie’s marriage became much more harmoni¬ous after the move to Langarth Street and Greg’s birth, but there remained a marked difference between them, originating in the fact that they were from slightly different social classes. Nellie considered the Curnoes a bit rowdy; they were certainly earthier than the Porters. Gord constantly felt he had to prove himself a good manager of the limited resources available to him; if, as is likely, he felt he had married above his station, he wanted to do everything in his power to prove to Nellie that she had made a good choice in selecting him. He remained a worrier whereas Nellie was a much more poised and self-assured person. As a couple, they worked well together. Gord did everything he could to sustain his family; Nellie assured Gord that his efforts were the right ones.
Nellie and Gord took the baby with them everywhere they went, especially the Porter home on Wharncliffe Road and the Curnoe home on Hamilton Road. After the great London flood of 1937, the three of them — Greg on Nellie’s lap — drove to Springbank Drive, where water rose to the top of the verandah of their old home.
On the day Greg was christened at Hyatt Avenue United Church, the Curnoe family church, Gord, a derby hat roguishly perched on his head, smiled at the camera as he held the infant aloft. The baby had to have a regular schedule, the new mother had been told. So when Greg slept through the four hours allotted between feeds, Nellie would wake him up. Later she remarked, “That’s why he always hated regimentation.”

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A Rocky Mountain Sketchbook

A Rocky Mountain Sketchbook

A Step-by-Step Guide to Watercolour Painting and Drawing in the Mountain Landscape – Volume 1
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The Joy of Mountains

The Joy of Mountains

A Step-by-Step Guide to Watercolour Painting and Drawing in the Mountain Landscape – Volume 2
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