Part of my sister’s wedding festivities were in New Orleans, and I just couldn’t get that close without heading to Ocean Springs and the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. I’m a homing pigeon for that place. It was a good choice. I stopped at my favorite antique mall on the way down, spent a lot of the afternoon in the museum, swung through Shearwater Pottery, and was out on the pier for sunset. I forget how elemental water is. I spent at least half an hour just standing and drinking in the sunset, the pelicans skimming right along the surface of the water, and the moon and clouds playing peek-a-boo overhead. I think I grinned ear to ear the whole time. It was a stunning evening. I did a couple of golden hour sketches before enjoying the sunset, one more successful than the other, but sunsets are dicey that way.
The next morning I took my walk by the water and spotted a row of trees looking across the water to Shearwater from the marina (the complex where Anderson’s family lived), so I walked back for my sketchbook. It was cold, but I did a quickish grisaille study for a print — to get the shapes and the black and white.
For those of you who haven’t had the joy of seeing pelicans lately, here is a small bit of joy for you. I’m home and happily working on the print I drew out now.
I’ve never known that much about abstract painting, and I’m generally drawn to more figurative work, but I’ve been looking forward to getting enough space from show season and crazy family stuff to get over to Dixon to see this exhibition. It’s a stunning one. I’ve been twice this week and could even be tempted to go back another time before it closes on Sunday. Rothko is my absolute favorite of the abstract painters, but I had fallen deeply for a Helen Frankenthaler painting in Omaha a few months ago, and there’s a less totally stunning but still lovely one in this show. There’s also a gorgeous de Kooning, and I loved the second show of just Dzubas paintings (an artist I wasn’t previously familiar with) collected by a local businessman. It was a stunning retrospective of four decades of his work, and a number of them sang to me. I loved seeing the progression too. My only quibble with the main abstract show was that it was only one painting per artist. I really like being able to see two or three of the same artist, compare them together, get more of a feel for the body of work. Their survey of women artists earlier this year (with many less famous names — I was already somewhat familiar with a number of the abstract painters) was even more disorienting that way. I wanted to see more than just one. It’s almost jarring to move artists with every painting and have no compare and contrast ability. But that’s a small complaint about a stellar show overall.
I went back the second time with every colored pencil I own to try to capture a little of the texture of the Rothko, and the Stamos had also been calling my name. I did one small sketch of each. The de Kooning was too intricate for me to take on that day, and I didn’t have any of the right colors for the Dzubas pieces I liked best. With watercolors I can mix anything, but pencils just are what you have. The last two pieces are both by Dzubas.
I visited family over the weekend and also did something of a Midwest art museum tour. Back in college I had taken one summer sculpture class in Omaha and visited the Joslyn, but my memory of it was hazy at best. It was a total delight. A gorgeous variegated pink stone building housing a beautifully curated collection. We had just that morning seen a piece on Helen Frankenthaler on one of the Sunday morning shows. My art knowledge of mid 20th century and beyond, especially in abstract work, is pretty sketchy. I had seen her being mentioned various places and seen a piece or two, but beyond that knew nothing. This monumental piece gobsmacked me in person. It’s the only one I managed to do a sketch of, but I was so glad to have that time to sit with it. Later one of my honorary nieces, which is how I think of several different daughters of people dear to me, wanted to do a collage project. I had told her that I’m always drawn to collage, but I don’t feel I do it well. So we sat down together with my journal page from the museum and each constructed at least an homage to the Frankenthaler piece we had seen together. It was great fun to do, if nothing else.
Here are a couple of other pieces I loved at the Joslyn. I’ve always been a total sucker for Dutch still life paintings, and they had a lovely breakfast piece — well on the fancy end of that category. Pieter Claesz’s super simple ones are my very favorites, but I really enjoyed this one from 1630 by Jacob Fopsen van Es. I was also struck by a Madonna with Botticelli/Fra Lippo Lippi resonances by Lorenzo di Credi, c. 1490. The detail is exquisite. I’m going to flood this blog post with too many photos, so I’ll put up another couple of favorites in a post to follow. Too good not to share.
I'm slowly scanning in at least my favorites from my sketchbook, so I thought I'd write about my last day. I had finished the work I needed to do there (still lifes for my September show and sketches for a graphic essay I'm planning), so I treated myself with another beautifully quiet morning at the Orsay and lunch at one of my favorite bakeries. It was amazing (and emotional) to stand with this self portrait by Vincent for 45 minutes, practically on my own. Two couples came through, saw it, and left. Otherwise it was just Vincent and me. Usually this piece is five people deep with everyone trying to take selfies. I felt so privileged to spend this quiet time with it. I've been thinking about self portraits a lot, had been doing some of my own (an annual Paris occupation for me) and had already done my study of Berthe Morisot's stunning one. I couldn't catch Vincent's likeness, and the background got a bit too dark, but it was wonderful to look at it deeply as I did the copy.
My friend Beth Rowlett so kindly made me a watercolor kit especially for this kind of sketching. It's attached to a wristband with heavy velcro, so I don't have to juggle the paint box as well as the book and water brush when I'm standing up in a museum. I like to sketch from a bench when I can, but there aren't benches everywhere I want to draw. You can see that I use the left side of the page to test colors or blot my brush as needed.
I also did a copy of a Bonnard painting. One of many things I love about the Orsay is that it has an absolute host of paintings of women and dogs. This one is completely charming, with their heads so intimately together. It speaks of the love in that relationship, and I was missing Mr. Darcy. I'd meant to copy it two or three years ago but hadn't gotten around to it that first summer of spending time here. Then it disappeared. The Orsay rotates paintings regularly. So when it reappeared this summer, I knew I had to take the opportunity.
I have a new art hero. The Orsay had a solo retrospective of Berthe Morisot while I was there, and I was transfixed. I’ve always been drawn to her paintings when I’ve seen them, but (unlike so many of the other Impressionist painters who seem to be ubiquitous), there just aren’t that many out there in museums. A telling fact in this show was that fully half the paintings were in private collections, which was a shocking percentage. What it means is that museums weren’t collecting her when they were eagerly buying up works by her male peers. Monet is in a category all his own for me — he invented a new way of painting, and while all artists (especially prolific ones) produce some uneven paintings, every period of his work is fully realized and exquisite, which is not something you can say about all artists. Even great ones. But I feel that Morisot holds her own with any of the other Impressionists and more than outdoes some of them.
I spent a lot of the show tearing up, frankly. It was amazing to read that she began showing at the Salon, the pinnacle of the French art establishment, at the age of 33 and continued to do so for a decade, barring one year when they rejected both her submitted works. I kind of doubt it’s a coincidence that that year was the same year she also showed in the very first Impresssionist show (called the New Painting). She exhibited with that group as well for all eight years of their organized shows. She participated with them against the advice of male painter friends, including Manet. She knew what she wanted for herself, and she went for it. She also continued painting under her own name even after her marriage to Manet’s brother. I have to think it would have been advantageous for her to assume that well known name, but she wanted to paint under her own name on her own terms.
Morisot was written off by many for painting mostly domestic scenes, much like her contemporary Mary Cassatt. But Degas painted a ton of interiors and women at their own daily lives scenes and never got downgraded for it. Even more, Vuillard made a career of interior, domestic scenes, but it’s ok if you’re a man. Morisot’s work reminded me of Vuillard and the Nabis as well as of the other Impressionists. Both groups of artists looked at Japanese prints and worked on compositions echoed the flat picture plane of those prints. Vuillard and Morisot both went further and echoed a lot of the surface pattern found in many of the prints. Look at this fragment by Vuillard on the left (it’s part of a huge piece, so I couldn’t get it all) and a very early portrait of two sisters by Morisot. I’m also adding a second, very typical Vuillard that has both the sense of pattern and the domestic interior theme.
Morisot subverted the domestic conventions, though. She painted women at work, even if it was the domestic work in her home and in her circle. These women have more dignity and power than many of the other Impressionist paintings of women at work in cabaret settings, where they were often victimized by men. She also painted her husband and her daughter repeatedly. In a striking role reversal, these pieces show her husband entertaining and caring for their daughter while she is the one at work. It was a quietly revolutionary act.
Her self portrait as an artist, holding her palette and looking out at the viewer full of self confidence, moved me greatly. I did a small sketch of it in my journal. I couldn’t catch the likeness, but it was good to spend that time looking deeply. I also enjoyed studying the way she used paint. One contemporary art critic called her “the angel of the incomplete.” Her brushwork depicts objects with a spare, graceful economy of paint. She catches the essence of things quickly without overworking, and she uses the bare canvas in bold and radical ways. Apparently not everyone understood this, and that very boldness was denigrated as feminine tentativeness and indecision. Some thought she was afraid or unable to push her pieces across the finish line. But she knew exactly what she wanted from each canvas and didn’t feel the need to keep working to appease some outside sense of what a painting should look like. She said what she wanted to, and she left it to stand.
I especially loved the paintings of her daughter Julie. These late ones have an almost Munch-like feel to them to me. Morisot nursed Julie through influenza before dying of it herself, far too young. I would have loved to see where her art took her next. Please excuse the glare on these shots. They’re all just my camera phone as I passed through the exhibit, but I wanted to show you some of the pieces I saw and let you get a taste of the show.
I had such a good time being back at the Rodin Museum the other day that I returned today. It’s my last couple of days here, and I’m spending them in my favorite museums. I started off at the Orsay and then went over to the Rodin for tea in the garden with my lunch and more sketching. This place always fires me up. I did the top one in my big watercolor sketchbook. I felt like getting out a real brush and really playing. The rest are in my small 5.5” book with the water brush. I sketched my tea because I liked the cute little teapot.
Last was the gray pencil again with watercolor. It’s a fun place to try a bunch of new things, and I really love drawing Rodin’s statues.
The weekend was rainy, and I had a lovely time anyway. I went to the market to buy my favorite tomatoes, and then I had tea in my favorite cafe right next to it, which has a totally fun Art Deco mural inside. Just as I was finishing up, the heavens really opened, so I settled back in and did a second, quicker drawing.
After doing two in gouache, there wasn't much time, so I did one fast, small watercolor just to have the day in my journal as well. I was missing line and wanted to play with my green ink a little too. The two gouaches are on freestanding Kraft brown paper. It's always fun to sketch Elizabeth in her nifty sketching hat.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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