No news to any reader — social distancing is taking its toll… This past week I broke my own sanity rule and read political content online. An article caught my eye because it presented a painting by French artist Thomas Couture, featured at the top. The “Roman Decadence” thing — fits into a tradition of moralistic works. I was already familiar with him but decided to get reacquainted. What a surprise. The mystery of Thomas Couture has always been his closeness to greatness. Yet, somehow his works leave many unimpressed.
In fact, most people who are not “into painting” or the history of art, don’t even know who Couture is. Why?
Sister Wendy Beckett style analysis
Well, to answer that question, we really need to take a step back. A step away from old paintings as “early photography.” Also a step away from “Sister Wendy art analysis,” which is about history, fashion, sociology, accouterments, the story within a story.
Makes me want to step back with a bottle of Lagavulin, and consider the whole matter afresh. I mean the mystery of Thomas Couture, and how he fits into the discipline of making images with canvas and pigment.
Sister Wendy Beckett became fairly famous in the 1990s, with her presentations, and comments on old master paintings. Her descriptions were vivid, they made some aspects of masterpieces accessible but… they treated the pictures as if they were mini novels, historiettes, or social commentaries.l
Please, I have nothing against Sister Wendy, who passed away in 2018. In fact, I’m a fan, and not just because it is unique to listen to a nun talk about old masterworks of art. She was perceptive and entertaining. But her descriptions of paintings are sociological, historical, psychological — they have little to do with painting as such.
What she said was not about art as much as they concerned the objects as artifacts of a period. Here are two books by her — favorite paintings, and commentary on icons. Both worthwhile.
What do you mean by “painting”?
Painting has a secret side. Or virtually secret. It is not about representation, it is about cognition, our relationship with the world. How images are treated, how objects are layered and shaped; how the physical stuff of paint is laid on and built. Painting on this level is about light, gesture and perception. The artist interrogates visibility and depicts the fluid presence of the optical field which surrounds him.
Physics has learned in the last 50 or 100 years that the observer is a central part of the visible. Artists have been doing it since Leonardo.
This science of the visible is what led to landscape paintings where mood overwhelmed subject. And thence it led to impressionism, cubism, Cézanne’s faceted apples. Ultimately, to abstraction and back again.
500 years of cognitive science
The vivid surfaces of Rembrandt present cognitive studies of how he saw — the separation of layers, the transparency, the glazing, and the impasto. The dissolving edges and smoky precision of Da Vinci; the accumulation of brilliant pigments in Titian… All these opened up how light moves, how the artist sees. The detail reflects the whole. Truly, an artist sweeps the visual field. He explores not only what he is seeing, but how he sees, to begin with. But he may not pursue this truth about consciousness, consciously. It is the nature of painting.
As to Couture. His drawing is exact, the chiaroscuro, he is amazing; but it leaves a strange absence of chromatic wealth in his works. The capital of the column, toe the left, is well painted, even atmospheric. It’s just a detail from his masterwork. But it is monochromatic, flat, academic. — More faithful to the idea of the column, than to how it actually looks dynamically.
The human eye, Couture seems to remind us, is not a camera. Artists who are the most admired in history often show us how we see, the living texture and fabric of light. For instance, Eugène Delacroix (see a link to a book on him, below). They make a compromise between what the eye reports, and what we know is there. The great painters went beyond the literal — they were exciting in their style, how the paint flowed. But that goes beyond the scope of this little note on Couture.