Friday, October 16, 2015

Painting Under the Radar

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Believe it or not, history can be fun.
“Head of a Lady in Medieval Costume”
Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola.
1900. (Private collection)

Around the time when modern art was going through growing pains and gaining momentum, the world in general was running on a track to become unglued and divided. Not that this sorry rock has ever done well in the why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along department, but global powers were once again jostling into position against one another, just as the art world was beginning to splinter into various cells.

On the art front, artists were attempting to find a place in the wake of the Impressionist movement. Some stuck with older ideals. Others were experimental. Yet others straddled lines, while being influenced by change. Like-minded artists gravitated toward each other, seeking visual and ideological comfort zones.

Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola was a product of the late 19th century French Symbolism movement. This particular movement was an evolutionary product of the old way of doing things, and kept elevated standards handed down from the grand salons in Europe. Their work, however, focused on metaphorical meaning behind images. Figures were usually larger-than-life heroes from times past. Working primarily in pastels, de Scévola had one foot in the strongly-modeled realism of the École des beaux-arts de Paris, where he received his education, and another foot in the loose techniques of Impressionism. His female portraiture is also reminiscent of Rosetti’s indulgent opulence, and at other times shows influence of Art Nouveau – another post-Impressionist movement to come out of France.
Abbott Handerson Thayer. 1887.
(Smithsonian, Washington D.C.)

de Scévola’s “Head of a Lady in Medieval Costume” is a handsome piece that is also a good indicator of art style in flux. While using an symbolist’s device of placing the sitter in an obscure historical context, it shows influence from several artistic movements, but doesn’t really fit well in any of them. If anything, it strangely foreshadows trends that will later show up in illustration.

Across the pond in the U.S., American artist Abbott Handerson Thayer was also trying to find his niche. His art education began at the Brooklyn Art School and the National Academy of Design, but he later wound up in the same Beaux-Arts academy that de Scévola attended. Thayer studied there under Jean-Léon Gérome, a leading figure of yet another splinter group, the Academicists. Thayer’s work runs deeply in the group’s vein of artistic classicism. It clings to the old school and its high academic standards. His portraiture of idealized women appeals to a classical revival of Greek and Roman mythology. There is neither a hint of Impressionism nor of other modern trends.

In his attempt to elevate the feminine ideal, Thayer finally resorted to giving his figures wings and [erroneously] named them ‘angels.’ His “Angel,” painted in 1887, is typical of this feminine ideal, and he would crank out several variations on this theme.
“An Aztec Sculptor”
George de Forest Brush.
1887. (Private collection)

When studying at the École de beaux-arts de Paris, Thayer met fellow artist George de Forest Brush. They were to become close friends, occasional antagonists, and neighbors. Brush had a strong interest in native Americans, and translated the same ideology and approach of the Academicists to images of the dwindling indigenous people. However, instead of following in the train of George Catlin’s near-scientific approach in recording the native Americans, Brush stripped his figures of most cultural minutiae and placed them in classical settings – sometimes with ridiculous props such as leopard skins and marble bas-reliefs. His portraiture leans heavily on the “noble” profile to a fault, and elevates a people to places they would neither recognize nor desire to visit.

This odd lot of post-Impressionistic artists serves as a sort of sampling of what was happening in an art world going through modern growing pains. These relatively unknown artists flew under the radar that otherwise highlighted artistic movers and shakers with names such as Klimt, Gauguin, Munch and Matisse. Their work, however, was indeed influenced by the splintering visions of the artistic ideal. They, like all artists, were also influenced by growing global tension, the threat of war, and its ugly manifestation.

This artistic trio became immersed in the threat of war as perhaps few others.  While truly capable artists in their own right, de Scévola, Thayer and Brush garnered fame in a much different arena – they all were major players in the design and development of military camouflage. I bet no one saw THAT coming.

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