Hans Thoma (1839-1924) was a German symbolist artist. Unfortunately, only boring biographical information is available on the web for Thoma. He was a poetic painter who’s work is similar in spirit to the Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin. It’s a loss that his art is not better known. I find his work to be more imaginative than much of the art of his time.
William Henry Bartlett (1858-1932) was a Irish painter of rural life and its landscape. Little information is available about him on the web. But it is known that he was a member of the Royal Society of British Artists. During the 1890s, he passed several summers in Connemara, County Galway drawing inspiration from the local inhabitants and rugged scenery. Bartlett’s Return From the Seal Hunt is typical of his work.
It seems that Hesitation is the only nude figurative painting that Bartlett created. I find it much more appealing than his other paintings, what’s the appeal of hunting seals? I can identify with the meditative figure of the young girl. People often play a recording of tranquil classical music to bring quietness. I find paintings like Hesitation to have a similar effect. The sense that a nude figure can express a state of rest has been lost in our barbaric age.
Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901) was an influential Swiss symbolist painter. Böcklin is best known for his painting The Isle of the Dead. For a long time, I associated him with this kind of haunting imagery. But when I began my research for this post I realized he had a much wider vision. Böcklin had a great gift for composition and poetic painting.
Albert Schweitzer had insightful reflections on Böcklin’s work which are worth quoting:
Böcklin is a poet who has got among the painters. It is the poetic imagination that has led him to the fictions of his wonderful but, in the last resort, unreal landscapes. His visions master him to such an extent that impossibilities in composition, even errors of drawing that are at first sight disconcerting. (What? Böcklin was quite a master draftsman) He had recourse to pencil and the palette because he thought he could thus reproduce most vividly his poems of elemental forces. His paintings are in the last resort symbols of poems that were inexpressible in words. It is thus quite natural that the reaction against him comes from the French painters, who, with their objective realism, have no sympathy (That’s for sure!) with such a relation of poetry and painting, and combat an art showing tendencies of this kind from the standpoint of absolute painting, just as the partisans of absolute music make war on the music that bases itself on poetry.
The French artist Jean-François Millet (1814 – 1875) along with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot ( 1796 – 1875) were founders of the Barbizon movement. Instead of working only in the studio, they established a tradition of painting (plein air) outdoors. Millet is best known for sympathetic paintings of rustic peasant farmers. The public was often unenthusiastic, even hostile, to Millet’s paintings exhibited at the French Salon since the artist’s political sympathies were suspect. I find this difficult to understand because Bouguereau often painted peasants as well. Millet’s work was a great influence on Vincent van Gogh and later in the 20th century, Salvador Dali had a pathological obsession with his painting The Angelus.
Since Millet is known for painting peasants, it was a pleasant surprise to discover his romantic painting Spring (Daphnis and Chloë). The subject of Daphnis holding a nest of baby birds as Chloë tries to feed them reflects a great originality as well as tenderness. Apparently, Millet must have been familiar with ancient literature for him to paint this rather obscure subject. Occasionally, 19th century artists painted Daphnis and Chloë but I have not seen other works depicting this charming scene. The tale of Daphnis and Chloë is attributed to the ancient Greek poet Longus. The tale concerns two abandoned children who are raised by herdsmen and grow up to fulfill their mutual love.
I’m rather impressed with Millet’s rendering of the figures, since his peer Corot never fair well with them. The contrasted warm and cool flesh tones of the girl make her stunning. The hatching strokes show a deep understanding of how to model a figure. It’s a great shame that Millet didn’t paint more Romantic figures.
Millet’s Goose Girl is the only other nude figure I know of by the artist. This painting seems to be better known but I don’t think it’s as impressive as Daphnis and Chloë. The bathing girl resembles Chloe, perhaps Millet painted the same model for both paintings.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot ( 1796 – 1875) was a French artist who was a pivotal figure in landscape painting. He was revered in the later part of his life for his poetic landscapes in which nymphs dance in the forest but he was also influential to the development to Impressionism. Corot made many oil sketches from nature, his rendering of outdoor light inspired Monet, Degas and Renoir to work directly from nature. I find this interesting because he inspired a rational representation of nature while in his mature work he spiritualized the landscape. Corot was so admired for his mythical paintings, the artist Joseph Nichols Hippolyte Aussandon painted a nymph weeping as a memorial to him.
Corot’s The Bridge at Narni is a good example of his early work which he painted directly from nature. In a sense, his painting is a recording of the ‘facts’ of the effects of light. H.R. Rookmaaker recognized “The study of landscape was parallel to the observations of science. I say the study of landscape, as there is a marked change here from the seventeenth-century type of landscape as created by Jan van Goyen or by his contemporary Claude Lorrain. Constable was the first to make scientific studies in painting clouds, and many of his landscapes picture actual places”. For example, Claude Monet did a series of paintings of hay stacks, he was interested in the effect of light at different times of the day. Many traditional artists considered the efforts of Impressionists to be absurd because traditional did more than record the effects of light in an aesthetic from, it expressed human truth.
Morning: Dance of the Nymphs marks the turning point in development of Corot’s style. It was the first of his atmospheric landscapes which brought Corot fame. His work appealed to an inner need for peace as well as a longing for a better world, his enchanted landscapes can be seen as a counter to the one-sided rationalism of modernism. The figure holding up a cup to the far left of the painting is apparently Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and passion.
So much was lost when artists turned away from myth. This painting shows Orpheus leading Eurydice from the underworld. Orpheus was a legendary poet who had such skill with his lyre he was able to charm all of nature, trees and rocks as well as beasts. He was married to the wood nymph Eurydice, after she died from a snake bite he descended into Hades by the power of his music.
Maxfield Parrish (1870–1966) was the most popular American illustrator in the early 20th Century. Time magazine reported in 1936 that “as far as the sale of expensive color reproductions is concerned, the three most popular artists in the world are van Gogh, Cezanne, and Maxfield Parrish.” His ethereal paintings of girls on rocks were an influence on my early work. My earliest memory of Parrish comes from when I was in a gifted and talented art program in high school. The teacher asked us to find a work of art that reflected the idea of rebirth. I choose Parrish’s illustration for the cover of Collier’s Easter issue of 1905. In retrospect, I find it a bit amusing. What publisher today would feature a nude lad on the cover of an Easter issue of a magazine? I suspect a bunny with Easter eggs would be a more likely choice. But I think Parrish’s image is a better image to represent Easter than bunnies and eggs. Although the figure doesn’t look like Christ, Christ was most likely not wearing any clothes when he was crucified and he is depicted as nearly nude in many paintings of the Resurrection. This would have been understood in 1905, homosexuality would not have been even considered, this was before the media was saturated with images of Disneyland.
My favorite painting by Parrish is probably Evening, which was used for the cover of the October 1921 issue of Life. I find the painting to be more mystical and sublime than the paintings of the Hudson River School, a school of painting which sought to reflect God’s presence in nature. I think Evening is more effective because of the figure gives the viewer a person to empathize with, one can imagine being in the serene place. The girl appears to be the spirit of the water, she could be an image of the anima archetype. Carl Jung proposed that archetypes are primordial images which are in the reservoirs of the collective unconscious, these images are not gained by experience, rather they are inherited from one’s ancestral past. The archetypes reflect aspects of one’s personality, the anima archetype is the feminine side of the male psyche. It should be understood that when artists painted female figures, very often they were in a sense painting their soul.
Of Parrish’s paintings, his painting Daybreak was by far the most popular, it has been estimated that 1 in 3 American homes had a reproduction of Daybreak during the 1920’s. What accounted to its popularity? The image is not just an “everyday” scene, one would not drive past a barn on a country road to find this scene. It functions like great art of the past, it creates an other dimension of reality as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos. Every culture has its idea of the archetypal paradise, like the garden of Eden, in which humanity existed in peace and harmony, a paradise which once existed and will exist again. This archetype gave society a standard of what the world ought to be like, an image in opposition to the “dog eat dog” world. To lose faith in this archetype can only have tragic consequences. Jean Baudrillard recognized,”the soul of Art– Art as adventure, Art with its power of illusion, its capacity for negating reality, for setting up a ‘other scene’ in opposition to reality, where things obey a higher set of rules– in this sense, Art is gone’.
The tremendous shift in our culture is revealed by comparing Parrish’s Evening and Daybreak to a typical painting by Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade is famous for his paintings of cozy cottages with windows and lampposts aglow. Kinkades paintings may not seem very different from Parrish’s in their charm, but they reflect very different philosophical subtexts. Instead of depicting an other dimension of reality as Parrish and the old masters, Kinkade acts as if the world can be transformed into Eden by the power of one’s bank account. As long as we pay the electric bill to keep the lampposts glowing, everything will be alright. The Cranach blog featured an article by Daniel Siedell on the danger of Kinkade’s work,”the Edenic world Kinkade projects is pretty much the fallen world without the dirtiness of the city and the inconvenience of other people, a weekend getaway in the country. All we need to do to return to Eden, is to get our lives in order.”
Kinkade’s work is an example of work is an example of what I call persona culture. The word persona originally referred to a mask worn by an actor in a play, in Jungian psychology, the persona is the role one plays, the way one presents oneself to be accepted by society. In our advanced industrialized society, the expectations are so high for the persona, the actual soul of a man, the anima, remains underdeveloped. Since the yoke of the persona cuts one-off from the significance of the archetypes, there is a loss of faith in truth, everything in the culture is just a sales pitch. The persona culture is a banal conformist culture in which images are taken for their exchange value, not for their symbolic content. Cultural objects are not valued for meaning or for actual aesthetic enjoyment but rather, for how they make one appear to the crowd.
Baudrillard claimed that,”Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of hyperreal and of simulation.” America is represented by local media, as in the paintings of Kinkade, as a utopia of cottages, barns, old mills, and lampposts. I’m an artist who lives outside of Bucks County Pennsylvania, the area is known for landscapes painting, many artists have made a career of painting a Disneyland of barns. I painted some landscapes for the local scene but keep the landscape pure without any buildings. I did a painting of a young girl walking into a field, a year later I learned that the girl who had modeled for the painting had developed an anxiety disorder because she was afraid to go to school, since girls in her class had bullied her. She is only 10. We live in a good area, actually one of the best in the US but even the local schools are still violent. Our society is falling apart due to the impoverishment of symbols, but artists like Kinkade continue to perpetuate a facade utopia. Every thing will be alright as long as we pay the electric bill to keep the lampposts glowing.
The only solution I see for the arts, is a return to archetypal images, to represent an other dimension of reality. Baudrillard claimed that Disneyland is a no exit world of self referring hyperreality. But I am certain there is hope, the very fact that Parrish was able to create some art with soul at the time of mass-production and that some souls like myself are inspired by him many years later, is proof. Parrish’s daughter Jean modeled nude for Stars when she was about 15, the fact that many people today would criminalize this, reflects their alienation. Since the mass media, the persona culture has saturated the conscience with sexual images we have lost contact with aspects of the anima, such as storge. Storge is unconditional love one usually has for family members, a developed anima in a male artist enables him to paint with the sensitivity of a mother.
I think there is a sweetness in the photograph of Jean posing for Stars which is lost in the painting, this may be due to the technical problem of making the figure stand out from the sky. I find images like this to be the most precious in the universe. I recall showing my great-aunt Betty a painting I was working on with a figure similar to Jean in Stars, my aunt Betty died years ago, if she were alive today, I think she would be 108. When I show her the painting I recall how she was delighted by it, she thought it was warm and beautiful. I know a lot of artists who go to paint local landmarks, like the Phillips Mill but they only do it because everyone else is doing it, they are so out of touch with their humanity because of the persona culture, they never could create a painting like Stars. They are like the sad tourists in Don Delillo’s novel White Noise who follow the “MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA” signs.
In the mid 1930’s Parrish stopped painting “girls on rocks”, as he called them, to focus on landscapes. Although his landscapes never went as far into Disneyland as Kinkade’s paintings, there was something he lost when he stopped painting the figures. His paintings with buildings are for the one-dimensional man, paintings like Daybreak refute this reality and give us an other dimension, an ideal for us to live up to.
Graydon Parrish is a descendant of Maxfield’s, in my opinion, he is one of the greatest artists living, his work can be found here.
Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928) was American Symbolist artist, who enjoyed great success in his lifetime. In 1924, the art collector Duncan Phillips, founder of Washington’s Phillips Collection, wrote, “Arthur B. Davies is already recognized, not only in this country but in Europe, as one of the few men of original and authentic genius among the painters of our contemporary world.” However, like many artists featured on Celestial Venus, his work is not well-known today. He is mainly remembered for organizing the Armory Show which introduced modern European painting styles into early 20th Century America. Davies was working during a drastic turning point in culture, for those who are not so thrilled about the current culture’s skepticism and vulgarity, this piece is revealing in how culture came to be what it is today.
Davies’ work reflects a love of fantasy which is rather rare in American art, which was due to European influences. Davies made regular trips to study the work of European masters, he was inspired by the Barbizon School artists, Corot and Millet. Davies’ early paintings were atmospheric landscapes painted in the Barbizon manner. After 1900, the mood of his work changed, he began to include allegorical figures in his paintings. Corot occasionally included mythological figures in his paintings, but Davies’ paintings are much more whimsical than any of the paintings of the Barbizon School.
Of Davies’ works, Unicorns: Legend, Sea Calm, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, seems to be the only work known to the public. Davies was not interested in any subject mater that was available to paint, he had an inner vision that I find to be much more evocative than a banal recording of reality. He had more in common with the European Symbolists Puvis de Chavannes, Arnold Bocklin and Ferdinand Hodler than he had with his American peers.
Davies was a member of the Eight, a group of painters who in 1908 organized an exhibit at the Macbeth Galleries in New York as a protest against the conservative exhibition practices of the National Academy of Design. To compare Davies’ work to the rest of the work of the Eight is a bit like comparing Lord of the Rings to a book report on Thomas Jefferson, Davies’ paintings are an enchanted world in contrast to paintings that are just boring. The work of Robert Henri (1865-1929) is characteristic of the group. According to Robert Hughes, Henri “wanted art to be akin to journalism… he wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter.”
Henri’s painting Salome (which as interesting as the Eight could get) and Hodler’s painting Dialogue with Nature reflect contrasting views of desire. According to Mark 6:17-29 and Matthew 14:3-11, of the New Testament, the daughter of Herodias danced before Herod and a party on the occasion of his birthday. Although the New Testament accounts do not mention a name for the girl, the daughter of Herodias is identified as Salome. After Salome had danced, Herod was pleased and offered to give anything she could wish for. She asked her mother, who bore a grudge against John for stating that Herod’s marriage to her was unlawful; she encouraged her daughter to demand that John be executed. Salome has been represented as a wicked, dangerous seductress, but is her reputation as a seductress deserved? Since Salome was likely very young when she danced.* Henri’s painting is colored by the puritanical view of desire, for many Americans in Henri’s time as well as today, desire is equated with sin. although Henri’s painting is a transgressive response to the puritanical view, Henri never the less accepts it; desire is bad.
In contrast, Hodler’s Dialogue with Nature is colored by the thought of the Renaissance. Prior to the Renaissance, there was an overwhelming emphasis on the things of heaven with little interest in nature. Thomas Aquinas, under the influence of Greek philosophy, introduced a respect for nature which contributed to the birth of the Renaissance. Francis Schaeffer reflected on the benefits of Renaissance thought, he writes, “From a biblical viewpoint nature is important because it has been created by God, and is not to be despised. The things of the body are not to be despised when compared with the soul. The things of beauty are important. Sexual things are not evil of themselves. All these things are involved in the fact that in nature God has given us a good gift, and the man who regards them with contempt is really despising God’s creation. As such he is despising, in a sense, God Himself, for he has contempt for what God has made.” When Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed “God is dead” in the 19th century, some artists turned to nature to rekindle the mystical flame. Hodler painted several pictures of nude figures gazing into the distance with the expression of yearning. It seems that Hodler’s paintings may reflect C.S. Lewis’ concept of Joy.
C.S. Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy and his allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress, give an account of how a distinct desire influenced his pilgrimage to Christianity. Early in his childhood, Lewis had brief sensations of desire that would come over him. The experiences were caused occasionally by natural beauty, literature and art. Lewis described it as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from happiness and from pleasure.” When Lewis in school, he had a great love for northern myths and sagas which stirred this longing, at the same time his education had destroyed his faith in God. The inconsolable longing stirred by art contradicted the atheism and materialism that his intellect embraced. Lewis illustrated the two hemispheres of his mind in turbulent conflict:”On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth: on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’
A rational existence can not fulfill the desire of the soul. The popularity of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars is due to in part to this craving for the mystical. But the over exposure of images from those myths has a deadening effect. Paintings of figures like Davies seem to be the only thing (besides great music) that I find Joy in, since they represent the beautiful truth that lies outside the rational production. For Lewis the source of the Joy was the desire for heaven, which is “the secret signature of each soul’. Some of Davies paintings, such as Morning Glories have effected me with an inconsolable tranquility with their unspoiled beauty.
The Protestant Reformation brought a disenchantment of nature, under Catholicism, artists were allowed to represent heaven but the Protestants rejected holy images which were based on nature as idolatry. This led to the development of great music, J.S. Bach and Handel transformed the vision of heaven into music but even this was rejected by some puritan denominations as too excessive. Ironically this view of nature led to the “rock bottom realism” of the Eight and finally wide-spread atheism. Since the rational mind would not accept any images of heaven, this led to lack of faith in heaven. I believe that C.S. Lewis’ reflections on Joy to be as significant as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, it could transform culture. Conservatives often criticize postmodernists for being irrational but the contemporary distrust of tradition is due to a state of over-selfconsciousness. For postmodern culture is the manifestation of anti-Joy which has its roots in the puritanical view of desire.
Lewis, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien, held a view of pagan myths which corresponds to the view before the Reformation, rather than see the pagan myths to be in conflict with Christianity, the myths were seen to foreshadow it. Much of the great art of Europe was drawn from Greek and Roman mythology, very often the figures in the art were nude. Rather than see the figures as just an object of lust, very often the figures reflected a desire for the prelapsarian state. In Transposition and Other Addresses, Lewis wrote: “We do not want merely to see beauty… We want something else which can hardly be put into words, to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves.”
In the early 20th century, I believe there was a cultural tug of war going on between American and European culture, a conflict of interests between the American patrons and the creative direction of the European artists. I’ll put it this way, the nude was essentially nonexistent in American art while it was a primary subject of European art. Are we to believe the account given to us, the reason why beauty therefore the nude was rejected by modern artists was due to the fact that modern artists were reading the philosophy of ivory tower eggheads like Kant? I think it makes more sense to look at the circumstances, by the early 20th century the US had become one of the wealthiest nations in the world, modernists like Duchamp were not really innovators, they just sold out to the wealth in the US which had a puritanical background and therefore a negative view of nudity. Of course of European culture influenced American culture as well, which what we find in the lovely work of Davies and in the work of the illustrator Maxfield Parrish. But unfortunately the American perspective won in the end which held a negative view of desire.
Kenneth Clark in his classic study The Nude (1953) recognized, “The dwindling appreciation of antique art during the last fifty years greatly impoverished our understanding of art in general; and professional writers on classic archeology, microscopically re-examining their scanty evidence, have not helped us understand why it was that four hundred years artists and amateurs shed tears of admiration before works that arouse no tremor of emotion in us.” Read that again, Clark said that artists and ordinary people shed tears before nudes, this is something most people can not understand today but would have been understood by Lewis. It not understood today due to a one-sided incomplete view of desire, which has its origin in the puritanical view of man. Men are regarded today as trousered apes, an interest in human beauty is assumed to be only an interest in sex. This is what we find in the psychology of Freud, everything is a disguise for sexual drives. This of course denies the complexity of human beings, one could shed tears before a nude due to Joy.
The view of humanity as a sexually driven trousered ape is what we generally find in Feminist Marxist theory and postmodern art. Although feminist texts on art are highly elaborate they fail to account for complexity of human relations: traditional works of art are created for the “male gaze” and females are represented as sex objects. Feminists should be embarrassed by the fact that their one-sided view has its origins in puritanism: an interest in beauty is sin. Although mass culture is saturated with sexual imagery, it is a mistake to assume this “culture” reflects the actually desire of the heart. Unfortunately, most postmodernists take commodity culture as truth without understanding the possible dimensions of culture. The vulgarity and transgression of postmodern culture actually has its roots in puritanism.
The work of Veronika Bromova is an example of what is often found in a contemporary gallery today. Bromova’s installation Effect Defect seems to represent a complete apathy for life. Three dummies bear cheerful expressions across their chests that are obviously intended to be cynical.
Below the dummies, lies a pile of empty bottles and snack bags. On a wall across from the dummies a large photograph of an apparently nude young girl, who is surrounded by the same pile of trash as are the dummies. The installation betokens an underlying lack of belief in the dignity, complexity and freedom of the person.
In contrast, much of the art of the early 20th century challenged the punitive rationalism. Davies’ paintings reflect a rare innocence. The crudeness of his painting technique of some of his paintings actually give his work a charm. His painting On the Banks of the Arethusa, seems reflect a longing for what has been lost.
Once art reflected the desire for transcendental beauty, which is not just a Eurocentric concept. In the Taoist thought of China, the purpose of artistic beauty in its highest form was more than “aesthetic pleasure”, it was the shen-yun, the “divine resonance.” Since western religion forgot its mystical flame and attempts to fill the void with rational dogma, western culture fell into skepticism, transgression and vulgarity. It seems that Lewis did not realize how profound his reflections on Joy were. For there to be a true renewal of the arts, it would involve more than skill and technique, but also the embrace of Joy.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) was revered and was arguably the most influential artist of his time. Yet today his name is not known to the public as are the names of Van Gogh, Monet nor even Rodin. His style and mood was somewhere between the Academy artists Bouguereau and Gerome on one hand and the Impressionists Manet and Degas on the other. This made his work a model for many younger artists who wanted to retain the ideals of tradition while experimenting with a different approach to painting. Historians tend to make the error of giving the Impressionists too much credit while overlooking the influence of Chavannes, Camille Corot, likely the most influential landscape painter of the period, has suffered similar neglect.
The history of modern art tends to be accounted for in linear terms which supposedly starts with Impressionism followed by Post-Impressionism; it continues with Cubism and abstraction. This account has always been problematic because it does not explain for the content, mood and style of many works created in the early 20th century. The catalogue Toward Modern Art from the major exhibition of Chavannes’ work at the Plazzo Grassi in 2002, set out to rehabilitate Chavannes’ position in history. The curator of the exhibit proposed that “modern art does not descend, as is commonly thought, from Manet and Impressionism, but from the French painter Puvis de Chavannes.” The catalogue is excellent, the documentation is extensive and there are many works in the book that I had not seen before.
Judging from the sales of reproductions and the number of copies made by admiring artists, Hope was Chavannes’ most popular work. Most of Chavannes’ paintings are multi-figure compositions, with the figures interacting within a landscape, Hope differs from this format in that a single figure is engaged with the viewer. Chavannes also did a clothed version of the painting but the clothed figure never received the admiration that the nude version brought. Clothing grounded the figure in banal reality, the nude figure was better “suited” to reflect the ideals such as hope that stand outside of rationalism and materialism.
Paul Gauguin, who is famous for his paintings of Tahitian islanders included a reproduction of Hope in a still life he painted in 1901. Gauguin was disillusioned with the modernization of the world, he withdrew to the primitive environment of Polynesia and found inspiration from the peaceful vision of Chavannes. The long frieze compositions and flat uniform colors of Chavannes can be found in the major compositions of Gauguin’s late period as in the masterpiece Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Many artists were fond of Chavannes’ work although often little influence from the master is apparent in their work. Van Gogh seemed to find the peace and harmony in Chavannes’ painting Pleasant Land which he lacked in his troubled soul. In June 1890, just one month before he shot himself to death, Van Gogh shared his feelings for Chavannes’ painting in a letter to his sister Wilhelmina, “There is a superb picture…. All of humanity, all of nature simplified… one gets the feeling of being present at a rebirth, total but benevolent, of all the things one should have believed in, should have wished for…a strange and happy meeting of very distant antiquities and crude modernity.”
Throughout Pablo Picasso’s life he painted figures, very often they were bathers. There are striking similarities between Picasso’s Woman and Child by the Sea and Chavannes’ Charity. So long after Picasso’s stint with Cubism (which was likely a way to appeal to the alienated tastes of modern patrons), the influence of Chavannes remained.
The account of history can have a profound effect upon the perspective of succeeding generations. Since contemporary art is taught to have its origin in impressionism, art is generally thought of in aesthetic terms. But this perspective is oblivious to the essence of art. An artist is not just a person who makes an aesthetic record (as did the Impressionists) of the existing reality that he or she stands before. Rather, nature for the artist is a medium by which a truth or idea can be expressed. Since ancient times, art was related to religion in that it expressed the meanings of human existence. The nude was once a way to depict the soul, but since the superficial aesthetic perspective has prevailed, the body is more often seen as an object to satisfy lust. Chavannes is usually classified as a symbolist, since he was almost written out of history. Since the art critic Clement Greenberg claimed that “subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like a plague,” the essence of art which is symbolic fell into obscurity by the mid 20th century.