A Very Different Kind of Landscape Painting

5 Oct 2011

Ernest Lawson (1873 - 1939) came to maturity at the dawn of the 20th century, so his work was modern and gritty and real. His are not the idyllic landscape paintings of Corot, nor are they the dazzling light shows in Monet's plein air paintings. They are tough, and yet there is an elegance and beauty to them as well.

Spring Night, Harlem River by Ernest Lawson, oil painting, 1913.
Spring Night, Harlem River by Ernest Lawson, oil painting, 1913.

Like many of the greats in history, Lawson's style was an amalgamation of what he learned from the artists who came before him and what he experienced in his own day. He was heavily influenced by the French Impressionists, like Alfred Sisley, as well as the American Impressionists, like John Henry Twachtman. We see this in his broken color and lively brushwork.

Yet Lawson's purpose in art was completely different from the Impressionists. After settling in New York City in 1903, he became one of the artists of what became known as the Group of Eight, which included Robert Henri, George Luks, and William J. Glackens, among others. These artists were part of the realist movement known as the Ashcan School, and they wanted to paint life--particularly urban life--in all its fierce, ugly, powerful vitality. We see these aims in Lawson's choice of subjects. Even his "country" landscape paintings, like Spring Thaw, show a hint of the working man.

Washington Bridge by Ernest Lawson, oil painting, 1907-10. Spring Thaw by Ernest Lawson, oil painting, c. 1907.
Washington Bridge by Ernest Lawson,
oil painting, 1907-10.
Spring Thaw by Ernest Lawson,
oil painting, c. 1907.

The reason I think Lawson is such an exemplary artist is that his style and his method of painting so completely support his message. He uses gorgeous color to draw you in, but when you get close to the paintings, you find they're caked with paint. He loved to use broad brushes, palette knives, and even his fingers to smear and scumble and layer on the paint. Up close, they're not pretty. And that's the point. Lawson was saying to us, "The modern world is not pretty. It's messy and dirty, but it's irresistible and alluring, too. This is what it means to be alive!"

Now, I'm not suggesting that we all rush out and start loading up the paint like Ernest Lawson. But I do think we should ask ourselves how our style and our means of painting contribute to the conceptual ideas behind our works. Have you ever thought about this in terms of your own paintings? I'd love to hear how you use methods and materials to help communicate your message.

-Jennifer

 

 


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