Reaching into the Past, to Find the Future

Five weeks away in a foreign country is nothing to sneeze at when you have it planned far in advance.  I found myself looking at just seven weeks prep time. Combined with teaching and lecture obligations, and closing up the studio, it’s taken precious time away from the easel.

The practicalities of leaving for Italy are somewhat minor in comparison to the real work that needs to be done. Preparing for what I’m walking into: an intensive, intellectually and artistically rigorous program has proven to be intimidating, to say the least.  Civita Castellena is the place where open air (plein air) painting really began and it was a hotbed for luminaries such as Corot, Ingres, Claude Lorrain, and even Goethe.   

So I’ve been hitting the books and scouring online museums.   In looking at the work of great landscape painters of the past, my intention never has been to have my work “look like theirs”.  Their vision, shaped by cultural and historical perspectives, is far different than anyone living in the 21st century.  Trying to replicate that is disingenuous.  Learning from them is another story. 

I’ve been studying in particular, the works of John Singer Sargent (American, 1856 - 1925) and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (French, 1796 - 1875) when they were in Italy.

For John Singer Sargent, most of his time was spent in Venice, which resulted in exquisite works in both oil and watercolour.  I don’t know if he was ever in Civita Castellena, but I can’t help but be deeply drawn to his landscape paintings from all of Europe, as inspiration for this trip. He is one the artists I admire most. His technique is exceptional, his compositions and ideas were so far ahead of his time, many are downright contemporary. His body of work is as fresh and exciting today as they were 100 years ago.  His painting “Staircase in Capri” is as conceptually abstract and novel as any work hanging in the Guggenheim. 

Sargent was a master of what artists refer to as “editing” - leaving out what is unnecessary and focusing on the big ideas.  In particular, the brush marks, colour harmonies, and compositional approach effortlessly convey light, atmosphere and an absolute sense of place.  In lieu of “all the little details”, he nearly slaps you in the face with the directness and honesty of his brush. An over reliance on details would give a strained “look at what I can do” feeling to the paintings.  It’s also free from intellectual “clap-trap” - his work reflects an immediate, visceral experience, with brutal and beautiful honestly.  

Corot, who worked extensively in Civita Castetllana and the surrounding region, is the second major inspiration for this trip.  Like Sargent, Corot simplified everything and shares with us a very specific experience and place. Unlike Sargent, whose work was often intimate and “close”, most of Corots’ work incorporates vast, panoramic views of the Roman countryside.   In his painting Civita Castellana and Monte Soratte" , the foreground is almost “boring” - but vitally important to the composition because you are drawn immediately to the mountain. He lights up Monte Soratte with a few deft strokes of the brush and magnifies its presence, making it the center of interest.

In contrast, View at the Roman Campagna is less about the majesty of one mountain and more about the expansiveness of the land.  The weather, time of day and even the temperature of the air are so beautifully expressed that you feel like you are right there, at that very moment. 

I will be quite literally in another world, with one foot in the past and one in the present, trying to learn from the greats and figure out how I will use their knowledge for my own work. This is not about technique, color mixing or “how to paint a landscape”.  For me, it's about translating an experience and sense of place more effectivly in my work.

The true depth of this program is really hitting home and I can’t wait to set foot on the soil. 


John Singer Sargent: Staircase in Capri

John Singer Sargent; Villa Torionia Fountain

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