Tag Archives: American artist

Watercolours of the Caribbean by Winslow Homer

27 May

Last summer I fell in love with Winslow Homer’s watercolours so I thought now is the right time to finally write about them.

Winslow Homer, Rest, 1885

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was an American painter from the East coast, famous for his Realist style landscapes and scenes of turbulent blue seas. He started his artistic career by studying lithography for two years, and he made illustrations for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly but this didn’t stop him from pursuing his dream of being a real artist and he made a successful transition from illustrator to oil-on-canvas painter. In 1859 he moved from Massachusetts where he lived with his family to New York City where he opened a studio and started taking classes at the National Academy of Design. He first started using the medium of watercolours in 1873 and he was instantly good at it; he successfully sailed the seas of watercolours. His mother was an amateur water-colourist so it is possible she inspired him to take up watercolours, since the two were close throughout his life.

In this post we’ll take a look at Homer’s watercolours that capture the beauty of the south and the mythical tropical lands that are perpetually so dazzling to the imagination of the Western people; a place where rains don’t fall down hard and sad, the sky isn’t a monotonous grey, a place where pink and golden sunsets play Apollonian melodies and love lingers in the air; the Caribbean. Homer was nor the first nor the last Western artist to take inspiration in lands that were exotic to them; Albrecht Durer travelled to Italy, Delacroix’s travels to Morocco changed his colour palette and brought a whole new set of subjects, Paul Gauguin’s well-known Odyssey to Tahiti resulted in many vibrantly coloured canvases. And what an experience it must have been for Homer who was so used to the grey sky and green meadows to come to a world of sunshine, light breeze and glistening blue ocean, inviting and warm. Homer travelled to Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas in winter of 1884-85 to paint the tropical heaven scenes commissioned by the Century Magazine.

Winslow Homer, Sponge Fishermen, Bahamas, 1885

“Sponge Fisherman” has such a meditative vibe, perhaps it’s because of the horizontal composition, or the dreamy way in which the sky and the ocean meet, both so serene and blue. Even though the painting shows workers and it’s probably very hot, something about it makes me so relaxed. The palm trees here look as if they are carried by a gentle breeze and the workers seem bubbling and chatty, not exhausted or sad.

The sponges in this painting reminded me of something from Márquez’s novella “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and her Heartless Grandmother” which I was just reading. In one scene the grandmother is talking in her sleep and she mentions sailors from foreign lands who brought sponges that were alive and crying and made children in the house cry just so they could drink in their tears! Ha ha. That wonderful magic realism.

Winslow Homer, Along the Road, Bahamas, 1885

“Along the Road” is a rather interesting example because we have a human figure again; a dark-skinned beauty dressed in white walking down the street. it seems to me that she is holding her headdress with her hand so the wind doesn’t blow it off. Behind her we see a row of houses and the ocean is glistening in the distance. The palm tree swaying its branches wildly and the sky both indicate the weather condition of strong winds and an approaching storm possibly. I hope this lady got home before rain. Homer managed to create a sense of depth in the sky and the rest of the painting despite using a limited colour palette of greys and muted tones.

Winslow Homer, A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Winslow Homer, Orange Tree, Nassau (also known as Orange Trees and Gate), 1885

The two paintings above both show gardens in Nassau and here Homer had wonderfully achieved the mood of a hot summer day. Many and many shades of green and blue seem to be playing a sonata in “A Garden in Nassau”. The tree looks ever so grandiose with those large leaves painted in intensely vibrant shades of green. A little boy stands in front of the gates and a tall white stone wall. Half-frightened, half-curious. The little red flowers in the right part giggle with curiosity as he bows his head down. The palm tree is silent, casts its shadow in the midday heat instead of a respond. Its leaves don’t sway, for the wind is having a siesta. In the painting “Orange Trees and Gate” it is the orange tree which got Homer’s spotlight. Again, everything is so luminous and bathed in lightness. Thousand little brushstrokes of green colour make an orange tree and dots of orange stand for the fruit which weighs the tree down. Ground is left in white but a sad dark shade of blue is coming from the lower right corner, from the space unknown to us.

Winslow Homer, Shark Fishing, 1885

Winslow Homer, After the Hurricane, Bahamas, 1899

Two paintings above, “Shark Fishing” and “After the Hurricane” shows us that Homer didn’t just capture the idealised notion of the Caribbean world and presented it as a world of sunshine and magic, as Gauguin had perhaps done in his Tahiti paintings. Homer didn’t hesitate to paint the everyday reality and people doing what they normally would, whether it’s a brave and dangerous act of fishing a shark, or capturing the sad reality of the fragile Caribbean world after the hurricane. Notice again what a virtuoso he is with watercolours, how gracefully he painted the transitions of colours, how he created a dynamic mood; that threatening dark cloudy sky, that unforgiving sea, the blades of grass so thin and vibrant, and the figure of a man washed up on the shore, a poignant focus of a painting that we can all empathise with. Nature is interesting, yet wild. As you may have noticed by the dates, some of the watercolours were made a decade later, in 1899, and not in 1885. It’s because Homer visited Florida and Nassau again in winter and stayed there from December 1898 to February 1899. His very colourful and vibrant watercolour “Flower Garden and Bungalow” was also painted during that trip. I didn’t even notice the bungalow at first because my eyes were so captivated by the sea of tropical red and yellow flowers in the foreground. And the view of the dreamy blue sea in the background is just mesmerising.

Winslow Homer, Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda, 1899

My infatuation with the Caribbean and Latin America started last summer when I read Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which I thought was absolutely fabulous and I intend to reread it this summer. To feed my Caribbean infatuation I read poems by Cuban authors, Latin American writers, Reinaldo Arenas, listened to Omara Portuondo and Agustin Barrios, gazed at Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and so when I discovered these gorgeous watercolours by Winslow Homer it was love at first sight. This is how I imagine the sea when Reinaldo Arenas writes about it in his memoir “Before Night Falls”. Sandy beaches, pink skies, a breeze through the palm trees, rare birds with colourful feathers, a world of exoticism and vibrancy comes to mind when I gaze at these watercolours and daydream of the Caribbean islands and seas.

John Singer Sargent’s Watercolours – Ladies with Parasols

9 Apr

It so happens that most of the paintings I talk about here on the blog are oil on canvas, but deep down in my heart I am an ardent lover of watercolours. I think it’s a medium full of spontaneity and feelings. So, let’s take a look at some beautiful watercolours with a mood of spring and indolence by an American Impressionist John Singer Sargent.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911, detail

A beautifully dressed woman with a parasol, in nature, enjoying the sunshine and summer breeze; not quite a foreign subject to the artists, especially not to the Impressionists; Claude Monet for one painted plenty of such scenes. Still, I feel that John Singer Sargent’s explorations of this theme are particularly interesting. Firstly because they are made in watercolours, and secondly they were made in moments when Sargent was taking a break from his highly appraised oil-on-canvas portraits of Victorian and later Edwardian nobility, therefore they are more experimental and more intimate. These show Sargent’s heart, not his business.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911

In “The Lady with the Umbrella”, a beautiful woman dressed in a beautiful white gown is lying on the grass; her umbrella has just rolled over and she has to hold it gently with her hand, lest the summer’s breeze might blow it away. There is an air of sweetness and delicacy about her, she looks like a large white anemone flower, but there is a hint of sensuality as well; her flushed cheeks and direct gaze, the way her little hand is holding the umbrella, the S-silhouette of her body, so typically Edwardian, clad in soft whiteness. The sitter is actually Sargent’s niece Rose-Marie Ormond. I like how closely cropped her body is; look how her dress and the umbrella are delightfully ‘cut-off’. The artist hesitates to show us all of her charms, but rather invited us to daydream of the nature surround this beauty and makes us believe her dress is indeed a flowing sea of white silk that goes on and on, lavish and soft. The painting reminds me of a scene you’d find in Merchant-Ivory films such as “A Room with a View” (1985) or “Howards End” (1992) with the beautiful Helena Bonham-Carter. Also, because of the woman’s gaze, pose and the way she’s closely-cropped, it almost reminds me of fashion photography, from the sixties and seventies as well as now. Example of what I mean is right below:

John Singer Sargent, Madame Roger-Jourdain, 1883-85, watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 55.8

Still, “The Lady with the Umbrella” isn’t the first painting of this kind that Sargent made. After 1900, Sargent often used the motif of woman lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but when he painted Henriette, this was a new thing for him. His watercolour portrait of Madame Roger-Jourdain made decades earlier is perhaps the painting that started it all. Henriette Roger-Jourdain was a daughter and the wife of two artists; her father was Henri Moulignon, and her husband was the artist Joseph Roger-Jourdain. Henriette was not just a society hostess but also a friend and a muse to many artists; composer Gabriel Fauré dedicated his composition “Aurore” to her in 1884, Paul Albert Besnard and Sargent both painted her. Sargent became acquainted with the Roger-Jourdain family because they were neighbours in the boulevard Berthier in Paris.

The painting is similar to the one we’ve seen above; a lady lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but here her body isn’t closely cropped and she is surrounded by grass; freedom all around her. One can imagine her laughing when tickled by the grass, stretching her arms and breathing in the fresh air, laughing at the tree tops that open before her eyes, wishing she could fly with the birds and be one with the baby blue sky… Dressed in a white dress, lying on that dark green grass she looks like a lotus flower on the flickering emerald green surface of a lake. The portrait oozes that fantastically indolent and sensuous “dolce far niente” mood.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Parasol, 1888, watercolour on paper, 17.2 x 24.1 cm

Now, this third example is a tad different; the colours are darker and the woman appears more demure. She is depriving the viewer of her coquettish gaze, choosing rather to stay hidden underneath her gauzy white scarf. I really appreciate the sketch-like brushstrokes here; look how the parasol was painted with its taupe brown shadings and details in white, then the grass in a strange moss-green colour, perhaps it was an autumn day. Again, the woman’s hat and her parasol are slightly closely-cropped which helps us imagine that we are there with her, it gives an immediacy to the scene.

All painting/drawing techniques have their strengths and beauties. Drawings with pencil exude sincerity, those with charcoal possess the gloom and the strength of a tall oak. Pastels are raw pigments and their vibrancy is so psychedelic and childlike. All yet, I adore watercolours! Painting with them is such a thrill; you dip your brush in that watery paint, press is gently to the paper and let is either sink in or mingle freely with the colour next to it… and you feel like a magician, like a witch over her cauldron creating a love potion. Pure magic! Everyone should try it, it’s really therapeutic, it feels like travelling on a rainbow and making friends with each colour. I feel that, with watercolours, the painting almost creates itself; you can make a brushstroke in blue and add a mere drop of red, when water touched the two, you’ll see purple. You can play with it and see where it takes you.

James McNeill Whistler’s ‘Nocturnes’

22 Dec

When James McNeill Whistler first exhibited his Nocturne series in 1877 at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, he enraged John Ruskin who wrote of the exhibition that Whistler was “asking two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge circa 1872-5 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Gold; Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-75

Whistler sued Ruskin, and their little ‘art quarrel’ reached the court in 1878. Ruskin couldn’t understand why Whistler asked for 200 guineas for a painting which needed merely two-days work. On that question Whistler cunningly replied that the amount of money wasn’t for the two-days of work, but for the knowledge he had been acquiring all his life. This is a wise thought which could easily be applied to all artist; all the emotions, memories, thoughts and associations which the artist imbued in his artwork will forever remain a mystery. What is known, what I write here, is only scratching the surface, and endless interpretations which are subjective. Just like Marcel Proust said: ‘An hour is not just an hour, it is a vessel full of perfumes, sounds, plans and atmospheres.‘ (In Search of Lost Time) A painting is all those things as well.

Another thing that angered Ruskin, and majority of art critics, were the titles of the paintings, such as ‘Nocture’ in this case. Other typical Whistler-style names were ‘harmony’, ‘symphony’, ‘study’ and ‘arrangement’. In 1872, he wrote to Frederic Leyland, an amateur musician who inspired Whistler for his musically inspired titles: I say I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me—besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all that I want to say and no more than I wish. As for the composition, it was clearly derived from Japanese woodblock prints which Whistler loved just like his contemporaries, the Impressionists.

This case symbolically represents the deep gap that divided artists in the second half of the 19th century. Ruskin, who was older, hoped he could raise an awareness of beauty among people by appealing to their morals, while Whistler, who later became the leading figure in ‘aesthetic movement’, argued that the artistic sensibility is the only thing in life that has value. As the 19th century progressed, both viewpoints gained in importance. Which viewpoint is more your cup of tea?