Thumbs-up: van Ruisdael; Thumbs-down: Renoir

I’ve loved art as far back as I can remember.  During the summer before First Grade we moved to a farm, and while exploring the barn loft (true story), I was thrilled to discover a bunch of painting gear—half-empty paint cans, rags, and stiff brushes.  I loved it!  I loved the smell of turpentine! That was ‘my smell’ I told everyone.  The smell of turpentine was already familiar to me.  How that was possible, I still don’t know.

I’ve had favorite artists ever since.  I studied artists’ biographies with the same intensity I studied fighter pilots’ and baseball players’.  My first favorites?  Renoir, Monet, van Gogh, and Titian.  How did the latter get on an elementary-school student’s list of favorite artists?  That’s a tale for another time.

Artists’ reputations have waxed and waned for me since then.  How do some of them fare today?

Thumbs Down: Renoir

I thought about creating this post while viewing the current Marry Cassatt exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which includes a Renoir pastel.  The Cassatt exhibition is an extremely small one (which I review here) comprised of drawings and prints from the museum’s permanent collection.

Poor Renoir.  Renoir went through a mid-life crisis—a conversion on the road to Damascus, so to say—when he decided that his drawing was deficient.  He changed direction mid-career in order to correct it.  One guesses that while he was young and producing the paintings for which he is remembered, he was satisfied with his discoveries and assumed his path could take him wherever he pleased.  At some point he determined his technique was insufficient for his changing vision.  I salute him for his honesty.  A lesser man would have been satisfied to rest on his laurels.

I largely agree with his self-assessment.  Renoir comes off poorly in this exhibition when stacked against his luminous contemporaries, many of whom were master draughtsman—artists such as Degas and Lautrec.  Renoir is ‘merely’ an accomplished draughtsman.  Early in his career he had a quick eye and sweet method.  His later works, by contrast, are labored and the sweetness devolves to sentimentality.  Part of my assessment (reached well before this particular exhibition), I am sure, is a reflection of how highly I initially rated him.

Finally, Renoir reminds me of the poet/songwriter Bob Dylan.  Both were inspired to brilliant works when young.  Both subsequently lost the fount of inspiration and struggled to find their way.  I think Renoir did a much better job later on than Dylan, and I also think Renoir is much the better artist.

Thumbs Up: Jacob van Ruisdael

Once upon a time, I did not care for the “Little Dutch Landscape Painters.”  Their works reminded me of the flat landscape of my native Ohio, and so were always low on my priority list whenever visiting a museum.  But since I started my regular visits to the Cleveland Museum last year, I’ve had a chance to study several of Jacob van Ruisdael’s paintings and I’ve completely changed my mind about him.  What a clever, master artist!

The museum’s examples (4) are fairly typical of the artist: domestic landscapes that seem vaguely familiar.  A painting like Landscape with a Church by a Torrent can easily be identified as a van Ruisdael by even the casual museum-goer.

Opening oneself to any of his paintings provides tremendous reward.  The familiar passes and gives way to the mysterious.  The artist’s spirit is playful and delights in teasing the viewer.  The common—trees and rocks—are dignified and given dramatic personas, yet the particulars fit smoothly into a harmonious whole, producing intense delight.

I like all of the museum’s examples, but my favorite is  Landscape with a Windmill.  The reproduction is poor and one suspects that the paint surface has suffered at the hands of the restorer.  Be that as it may, this work is a feast for the eyes.  The color, as in most of his work, is subdued.  The windmill is silhouetted by waning afternoon light.  The painting perfectly captures that most melancholy time of day.  A masterful painting.


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