My Blog About Art

Indecision: Post-Modern Vanitas vs. Spare Luminism September 11, 2016 15:16

Kensett, Eaton NeckI have been thinking about starting a new series (well, two, actually) of paintings based on industrial buildings and having a connection to the vanitas genre. I mentioned this last week and today am planning to gesso a couple canvases so I can get started. But then I happened to see this painting, which I have loved ever since I stumbled across the Luminists a couple years ago (and read everything I could get my hands on about them). It's a view of Long Island by John Frederick Kensett painted in 1872.


Kensett, Sunset on the Sea, 1872Some say the reason why this painting is so spare is because he didn't finish it, but there are other paintings from this time, the end of his life, that are similarly spare, such as this one, "Sunset on the Sea" (1872).

There's something almost abstract about these paintings, but further, they are for me serene without being sentimental and beautiful without any showboating. They are what they are--acomplished landscape paintings that for me have a spiritual or dream-like quality. 



Roth, Moon Over WaterWhen I started painting again, I had no idea where I was going with it. But I well remember the first painting I felt was really me, the original of which I have framed for myself (Moon Over Water). I had never seen Kensett's paintings when I did this one, but you can see why I'd like Kensett's late works when I came across him. I think it's the combination of his attention to color and light, the smooth painting surface (no thick brush marks), and absence of a lot of "stuff" (people, animals, boats, roads, whatever). His paintings maintain the traditional "view from a window" approach of older landscapes, yet there is something about these landscapes that feels like we would not see this view in real life, that they are unreal and therefore dreamlike. It is that quality, the unrealness, that fascinates me most.

Kensett was a very popular painter, not least of all because a lot of the places he painted were (and some still are) vacation spots for the robber barons. He was successful enough to buy himself a little island off CT where he had his studio in the warm part of the year. I don't know if anyone wants to buy paintings like this nowadays, and I would like to sell paintings. But I know that this dream-like quality, this straddling of a careful rendering of an actual scene on the one hand and on the other the capture of a fleeting moment like sunset or a sea and shore basically without a human presence attracts me very strongly, more so than any post-modern or surreal vanitas.

My problem is that I just want to do all sorts of paintings. I get a little greedy that way or feel like if I don't go down all possible roads, I will miss something. But honestly, life just isn't long enough for me to master all these different kinds of paintings, and I need to focus my painting more so I can truly master what I do--so that I can best portray on canvas the beautiful, dream-like quality I often feel out in nature. 

So I put my vanitas ideas aside for now and dug through my reference photos of the lake and the hills of upstate NY to see what I can come up with next. I found about five that are good candidates and now that I've gessoed a couple canvases, I'll start putting on a ground today.