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Rachel Cohen

Boudin

Sophie's Painting

Sophie039s Painting

Sophie Degan, Untitled




My cousin Sophie is dying.  She is ninety.  It seems likely that she will die today, and I hurry to write those words to use the present tense one last time.  We were with her, all of us, at different moments in the last couple of weeks.  My mother is there now.

Sophie loved painting.  She took painting classes in New York in the 1960s when she lived there, and there are still many of her paintings, some on squares of canvas with a cardboard backing, some directly on cardboard.  They seem insubstantial, but they have held up for fifty years.  She used a paint called caesin, which, a painter once told me, is actually quite a good paint, now mostly discontinued, and this has preserved the vividness of her choices of colors.  She admired Marsden Hartley, always had a Marsden Hartley still life up in her small apartments, and, from the look of this picture, which I had not seen until last week, Cézanne.

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Maybe it is a very good painting and maybe it is only wonderful to us.  I did not have time to tell.  But perhaps I would not even be able to tell if I spent a lot of time with it.  I like the hot colors, the purples and oranges of a Bonnard, and I like the odd declivities between the shapes, all jumbled together, but not really impinging on one another.  This was like Sophie, she had delight in color, saw no need for fussy restraint, and she was always unto herself, even when generous with other people.  She was self-contained, but not elusive, she had an independent presence that I recognize in the objects she has painted.

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I am sitting in the garden, a midsummer garden in which every plant bears a different combination of different shades of green, each unto itself, the whole so harmonious.  Our daughter, whose middle name is Sophie, is behind me, sitting on the wooden steps, secluded under the arch of vines, reading a book.  There will be a phone call, perhaps in a few minutes.  A painting may say, now, we are here.


Sophie Degan died early in the morning of August 1st.  May she rest in peace.  


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Lenses

Lenses

Cézanne, Study of Trees, c.1904, Fogg Museum, iphone detail


Today I got new lenses for my glasses.  After more than a month of squinting and blearing and pretending, my eyes knew themselves at last understood and the world came through with that almost bulging astonishing hyper-detail.  Learn the task again.  A half an hour, every few years, of seeing everything in the world at once.

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I was running errands and had not planned to go to the Fogg, but, feeling my sudden seeing, I turned left.  With which painting should I use this beautiful straining and adjusting sight?  I thought of a Beckmann triptych that has eluded me for months, and then of a Cézanne I have struggled with for four years, an unfinished painting from 1904.

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It was a wintry day in Cambridge, cold.  A little snow had materialized as I walked to the optometrist, and then was held in abeyance as I walked away again, and back again, and to the museum.  I saw the day first with the impeding old glasses, then with the odd freedom and powerful myopia of no glasses, and then, every branch and twig in dark lines before the gray sky, with the new glasses.

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It’s on the ground floor.  Past the main room of the Impressionists, through a doorway and on the right.  Often when I get to see a painting well, I have the experience that it seems bigger than I remembered.  Before I was even looking, there was the sense of spaciousness.

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With each of the different degrees of seeing I had today, I was aware of the strange effect of the snow clouds.  Sometimes the gray sky is leaden, and at other times is in wondrous motion.  When it actually particularizes as snow, the eyes draw a hundred relations at once.

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My eyes leaped for it.  And went directly to its depths.  It had always seemed very flat to me, an array of touches on the surface of a gray canvas, but now unmistakeable were the curved road and arching branches.  

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All those touches of paint with their several directions clustered together were like little flags indicating the motion of air and light.  

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In the painting, it was summertime, some summer moment in which, by virtue of everything being a little strange, a little distorted, all the relations between things were suddenly clear.

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When I walked on the street again I saw that I and the other people walking seemed made solitary by the gray snow sky.  But we also seemed held up and surrounded by the palpable space.        

Degas Trio

Degas Trio

Three portraits by Degas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At the MFA right now, a trio of Degas portraits are not to be missed.  They can be stumbled upon in a narrow blue-green corridor on the second floor, next to the sealed off construction zone that is normally Impressionism.  It is as if three of the finest musicians – one at the beginning of his career, one at the end – happened to all be passing through a town on the same night and to have the idea of playing some chamber music – and you happened to be staying at the hotel and to walk by the room they’d found for their rehearsal.    

One of the portraits actually is of musicians – of a guitarist and of Degas’ father, listening.  

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Then in the middle hangs the famous double portrait of Degas’ sister and her to my mind supercilious husband.  

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On the right, the formidable Duchessa di Montejasi and her two wavery daughters.  

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Of course they are famous pictures, but hung together in this order the experience is extraordinary.  


Things noticeable: a significant progression in Degas’ style – from the middle couple painted in 1865,

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to the portrait of his father and Lawrence Pagans dated 1869-72, through to the later piece in 1876.  

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Then there are the family relationships – the father, a little weary but firmly engaged with the music, seems almost to see his outward-gazing daughter as he looks toward the middle portrait – the mother and her two daughters on the right suggest a different balance between the generations.  

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The heights of the paintings, the textures, and palettes, go beautifully together. And then formal resonances: from far apart, the musician and the pair of daughters face each other, while the Duchessa and the married couple have the prominence of facing the viewer squarely, even demandingly.  

And who would have thought the cramped hallway, 253, with its poor lighting and difficult bluish-green paint would make such an astonishing space for them. You have just enough room, by dint of backing and turning, to see all three at once and it is good to look from the long angles the hallway affords and to be brought into such direct confrontation with the pictures.

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Degas’ beautiful-ugly palette is perfect against the wall color, which flattens out most paintings, but seems to make these only more astringent and demanding.  

It is all the strictest happenstance – because the museum is renovating its main Impressionist gallery, where two of these portraits often hang, but in no clear relation to one another; because the renovation has been made the occasion of the “Boston Loves Impressionism” show; because when offered the choice of fifty great Impressionist works the public voting online chose thirty pictures and not one of these Degas portraits; because the curators, possibly a bit frustrated with the limits of curating by public taste saw an opportunity; because the cramped and difficult space is actually better for seeing these paintings then the larger halls in which they more often hang, because of all of this, a rare chance…

Do go.  A little further along the hallway, you will also get to see what is possibly Cézanne’s last self-portrait, hung immediately next to his wonderful “Woman in a Red Armchair,” (moved since I last wrote about it here).  This, too, is a powerful juxtaposition, strong in the tight hallway, not before displayed in like fashion.  The shadow show, the Impressionism Boston does not love, is as revelatory a sequence of paintings as the seven works in the Frick’s Piero show were last year.    

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Close Observation

Close Observation

Paul Cézanne, Woman in a Red Armchair, about 1877, MFA, Boston


A woman, long blue shirt carefully tied over striped skirt, sits in a red chair.  She leans a little to her right, our left, elbow on the arm of chair.  Her hands are folded.

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Cézanne’s way of painting faces means that you can look at them or not.  Everything has surfaces and depths.  Much of the meaning of the figure is not in the face.  The folded hands are important and beautiful.

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Between the forefingers and thumbs are a green that relates them to the skirt below, a blue consonant with the blue shirt above.  Shapes of laced fingers echo shape of dark what seems to be locket or pendant about neck.

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Somewhere Roger Fry writes about the courage of Cézanne’s face-on verticality.  The painting ought to be static, there is so little motion in the way the figure and face are arranged.  All the motion has to come from the paint itself.

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The red armchair.  Faces, designs, flowers in it.  Begins to have an unusual kind of softness around her.

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The model is Hortense Fiquet, for many years his mistress and eventually his wife.  He painted her almost thirty times.

The skirt.

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Another place of conjunction.  Red tassel over yellow wall with blue wainscoting, edge of blue shirt over skirt.  All this is beautiful, orderly, loved, observed, and yet paint.

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Trying to be Taught

Trying to be Taught

Courbet, Rocks at Mouthier, 1862


Reading about the early years in the lives of the Impressionists – the period in the late 1850s and early 1860s when they began to arrive and to meet one another in Paris – I have been thinking about the necessity and difficulty of finding teachers.  Unlike writing, the craft of painting has always been passed on in ateliers and schools.  Sometimes it seems like every painter in the mid-17th century in the Netherlands spent a productive period in Rembrandt’s studio.  Painting is an apprentice trade.  You watch the hand of a master and your hand becomes knowledgeable.  You practice under a master’s eye and the lines of your drawings lose their clumsiness.

The men and women who became known as the Impressionists were desperate for teachers.  As a young man in Le Havre, Monet was fortunate to stumble on Boudin and Jongkind.  In Aix, Cézanne, arguing with his banker father to be allowed to study art and confined to the study of “dusty plaster casts” and “black and white engravings after paintings,” was, John Rewald estimates, “in dire need of guidance.”[i]

But in Paris there was a surprising paucity of genuine help.  The Ecole des Beaux-Arts, controlled to calcification by the persnickety academicianism of the followers of Ingres, had made a decades-long practice of excluding Delacroix and the fiery energy he would have brought to students in search of more expressive means.  Delacroix himself, though his studio was open to any sincere seekers, was isolated and growing old. Teachers like Gérôme were fiercely critical of what seemed to them the ugly uncouthness that resulted when younger painters attempted to render realistically the world around them.

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Delacroix, Tiger and Snake, 1862


Ingres, Turkish Bath, 1863









At that time, Courbet was the enfant terrible of realism and the Paris art world was shot through with partisanship. At the end of 1861, some students even left the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in protest and petitioned Courbet to teach them.  He tried.  For a few crazy months he rented a large space and everyone went there with great enthusiasm and he had horses and bulls brought in to be painted ‘from life’ and cartoons of this ran in the papers.  But he was haranguing and repetitive, good at the manifesto of his own work but not at helping students discover their own and the experiment was given up in April of 1862, just at the time that Renoir enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and a few months before the arrivals of Sisley, Monet, and Bazille.

They met instead at the school run by affable, old-fashioned, unimpassioned Gleyre.  He looked at a study of a nude that Monet had done and he said, “not bad!... but it is too much in the character of the model – you have before you a short thickset man, you paint him short and thickset – he has enormous feet, you render them as they are.  All that is very ugly.”  The vigorous, impatient Monet remembered this vividly when he was interviewed about it some forty years later.  Gleyre had continued, “I want you to remember, young man, that when one draws a figure, one should always think of the antique.  Nature, my friend, is all right as an element of study, but it offers no interest.  Style, you see, is everything.”[ii]  After that, Monet came to the studio just enough to pacify his family, who were already quite uncertain about letting him pursue painting.

Gleyre’s interaction with Renoir is also illustrative.  Renoir remembered, again decades later, that Gleyre had said to him, “No doubt it’s to amuse yourself that you are dabbling in paint?”  And light-hearted Renoir replied, “of course… if it didn’t amuse me, I beg you to believe that I wouldn’t do it!”  Renoir thought Gleyre was “a second rate schoolmaster but a good man,”[iii] who at least “left them pretty much to their own devices.”[iv]  And Gleyre made a place where they could work.  Determined to learn, Renoir, Bazille, and Sisley went on diligently in that studio, meeting afterward to talk through all their own ideas.

When these just-emerging painters looked around them in 1862, the teacher who seemed just a few steps ahead of them on the path was Manet. In those first heady conversations as they walked out of Gleyre's, Bazille told Renoir "Manet is as important to us as Cimabue or Giotto were to the Italians of the Quattrocento; and as the Renaissance is beginning again, we must be part of it..."[v]

Part of the excitement of studying Impressionism is to watch how this quite large group of people was able to teach one another and themselves.  In the lives of writers, two, three, four friends may have a long effect on one another’s understanding, but in painting, large groups – in this case there are easily twenty figures of great significance, perhaps many more – may teach one another in a very substantial, personal way.

“Each of Renoir’s friend brought him a gift for which he was grateful,” the painter’s son judged later.  “Bibesco [a prince and patron] gave him his first opportunity to see the bare shoulders of women in their beautiful evening gowns; Cézanne revealed to him the precision of Mediterranean thought; Monet opened his eyes to the wild imagination of the people of the north European countries; and Pissarro formulated in theoretical terms his own and his friends’ researches… Sisley’s gift was gentleness.”[vi]


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Manet, Concert in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862








[i] Rewald, The History of Impressionism, p61-62.
[ii] Rewald, p70-71.
[iii] Renoir, Renoir, My Father, p97.
[iv] Rewald, p73.
[v] Renoir, p95.
[vi] Renoir, p107.

The Large Bathers

The Large Bathers

Cézanne, Large Bathers, 1898-1905

Since my father’s death I’ve been twice to look at the Cézanne Large Bathers that our museum has borrowed from the one in Philadelphia.  I might have gone more often but with the baby there hasn’t been so much time.  It’s a vast painting – eight feet high and nine long.  The wall text says its vault of tree trunks makes a cathedral and this is right, not merely architecturally.  These tree trunks, along with a general impression of blue, and the gathered naked bathers, are the things you’re aware of before you know you’re looking, and the trees – four major lines on the left, two which join on the right – organize the space and direct your view.  The groups of people are at ease because they are gathered under and near the trees; the relationship of the figures – to the ochre ground, blue of water with swimmer, huge blue leafy cloudy sky – makes sense because of the curved, triangular view through the trees.  

One of the things your eye is drawn to, small in the distance, is a church with an oblong blue roof over the main building, and a little higher, a triangular blue over its steeple tower.  When I first saw this pair of roofs I thought they were one very beautiful shade of perhaps a cobalt blue.  After I had been looking at the painting for some time I realized that the roofs incorporated many shades of blue.  This was so obvious that I was quite surprised by how definite my early impression of a singular shade had been.  I already knew that the relationships among colors take time to see in paintings, but I hadn’t realized before how dramatically an impression of an individual color can change.  In studying the painting, I had been acquiring subtleties of comparison and distinction, a general blue was becoming various enough to give me back figures, water, distance, sky.  It was all there from the first, but I didn’t have enough experience to see it.  
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