The Nature of Painting

Ann and I have been reading Marc Simpson's 2008 book, Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness and the Art of Painting Softly, published on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name at the Clark Art Institute. It has provoked lively studio discussions about the late work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Nocturne in Black and Gold--The Falling Rocket by Whistler, oil painting.
Nocturne in Black and Gold–The Falling Rocket by Whistler, oil painting.

Dissatisfied with what he had learned from his teacher, Gustave Courbet, Whistler set out in 1867 to unlearn all he knew about oil painting and set himself on a new path of experimentation. In a letter to his friend Henri Fantin-Latour, he wrote, "That damned Realism made an immediate appeal to my vanity as a painter! . . .and then people went to see it! . . . canvases produced by a nobody puffed up with pride at showing off his splendid gifts to other painters . . ."

Whistler's contemporaries included the French Impressionists. Unlike them, however,  Whistler did not seek to express the bravado action of his fine art oil painting brushstrokes while recording nature directly.

He was more concerned with the "nature of painting than the painting of nature". Thus, he would form an image of the painting in his mind to the fullest extent possible, and then would create an evocative, suggestive masterwork in the studio. This was the period during which he completed many of his famous Nocturnes.

"The difficulty of appreciating much of Whistler's work is our tendency to try and translate all art into words. 'What is it all about – what does it mean?' But we do not ask such questions about a delicious scent . . . nor of one of Chopin's nocturnes . . . Why, then, may not a painter blend color as a musician blends sound, to express something which cannot be adequately put into words, and call it, for lack of a better term, 'a symphony in color'? or veil his colors in that mysterious luminous shade night flings over nature and call it a nocturne?  We enjoy the fragrance of a scent without putting it into words – why may not our sense of sight be delighted by abstract colors?"–Attributed to C. H. Caffin, Harper's Weekly, 1898.

Nocturne Sun by Whistler, oil painting.
Nocturne Sun by Whistler, oil painting.

Although we view these as masterworks today, they were controversial at the time. Critics brought forward charges that the value of Whistler's paintings was limited by the speed with which they were produced. Whistler argued that the value of the paintings was related to the knowledge he had gained in the work of his lifetime. "In my pictures there is no cleverness, no brush marks, nothing to astonish or bewilder; but simply a gradual, more perfect growth of beauty – it is this beauty my canvases reveal, not the way it is obtained."

Please join us as we explore more interesting and informative topics on The Artist's Road.

–John and Ann

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

One thought on “The Nature of Painting

  1. I’m an artist that loves this period of American and European art and a docent that gives tours at the National Gallery of Art so I will definitely check out this book and the exhibition. Cheers! — S

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