Like Father, Like Son

The illustration above is of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Promenade, painted in 1870, and on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I have always been partial to Renoir’s paintings, particularly when they have these luminous portraits of women. In the painting, the man’s face is in shadow; he is reduced to a polite gesture of leading his lady on. The young woman, on the other hand, lights up the canvas.

What I find truly amazing is that much of the same sensibility was passed on to his son, Jean, who became one of the great motion picture directors. There are times when the viewer feels that the father could have directed the same scene in the same way.

Above is a still from A Day in the Country (1946), which is set in the same period and shows us a picnic in the woods—with the same feeling of the radiance of the female character. Some of the same feeling is in his earlier The Rules of the Game (1939), which is set in the present day. The men in the film all fly around the Marquise de la Chesnaye (played by Nora Gregor) like moths circling a flame.

Of course, Jean Renoir was very conscious of his father’s work, appearing in several of the paintings. He also wrote a beautiful biography of him called Renoir, My Father, which is available in a New York Review edition and is well worth reading.

Rome in God’s Eye

The title of the illustrated painting is “Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino.” It was painted in 1839 by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). It is the third of five paintings that moved me during my last visit to the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

There is something about the quality of light in J.M.W. Turner’s work. The painting is described as follows by the Getty’s database:

Ten years after his final journey to Rome, Turner envisioned the Eternal City through a veil of memory. Baroque churches and ancient monuments in and around the Roman Forum seem to dissolve in iridescent light shed by a moon rising at left and a sun setting behind the Capitoline Hill at right. Amidst these splendors, the city’s inhabitants carry on with their daily activities. The picture’s nacreous palette and shimmering light effects exemplify Turner at his most accomplished.

When first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839 with its pendant, Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, the painting was accompanied by a modified quotation from Lord Byron’s masterpiece, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818): “The moon is up, and yet it is not night, / The sun as yet divides the day with her.” Like the poem, Turner’s painting evokes the enduring sublimity of Rome, which had been for artists throughout history less a place in the real world than one in the imagination.

Note the characters and livestock in the foreground of the painting. In the background, ancient and contemporary Rome are intermingled as the light at the end of day washes out all the details. It looks almost as if Rome is in flames.

Campo Vaccino literally means cow pasture or cattle field in Italian. For years, the location had been a cattle market. According to the Princeton Art Museum, “Essentially in ruins since the fifth century A.D., by the seventeenth century the still-to-be excavated Roman Forum was popularly known as the Campo Vaccino, or cow field, alluding to its dual role as pasture and cattle market; it was also a popular sketching spot for artists.”

Nine Apples

Illustrated above is Paul Cézanne’s “Still Life with Apples” (1893-1894). It is my second posting in my Gallery Talks series, based on a visit last week to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I find that, whenever I visit an art museum, my mind tends to linger on the artworks that struck me the most.

To my mind, Cézanne is the modern master of the still life, easily rivaling the Dutch masters of that genre. Take a good look at the painting. What catches your attention?

Whereas most of the colors are muted greens, blues, grays.and off-white, what stands out are the nine red apples in two groupings, one of seven around a platter, and two more between two pieces of pottery. The table cloth is interesting in that we have no idea of how it covers the table, or how large the table is. Note that there is no real attempt at perspective: The folded dish towel at bottom right is clearly in front of the two jugs, yet the two jugs are not diminished in size. Then, too, what about those two vertical lines that emanate from the table up to the supposed ceiling. It is impossible to speculate from these what the shape or size of the room is. Or are those lines there just to direct our attention to the apples?

Each of the elements of the still life are nicely depicted, though the relationship between the various elements is difficult to ascertain. Was Cézanne telling us to keep our attention on those apples, especially the ones in the dish which seems to be on the point of dumping its contents onto the floor, or wherever?

According to the Getty’s own description of the painting:

During the last thirty years of his life, Paul Cézanne painted the same objects–the green vase, the rum bottle, the ginger pot, and the apples–over and over again. His interest was not in the objects themselves but in using them to experiment with shape, color, and lighting. He arranged his still lifes so that everything locked together. Edges of objects run into each other; for example, a black arabesque seemingly escapes from the blue cloth to capture an apple in the center; the sinuous curves of the blue ginger pot’s rattan straps merge with other straps on the body of the bottle behind. Giving form and mass to objects through the juxtaposition of brushstrokes and carefully balanced colors and textures, he gave the painting a sense of comforting stability.

I do not get a feeling of “comforting stability” from this painting. What I do come away with is a feeling of mastery with a touch of threatened instability. Cézanne knew what he was doing, and he probably enjoyed overturning the rules established by his forebears to point out new possible relationships between the depicted elements.

Rembrandt Laughs

Rembrandt Laughing—Self Portrait ca. 1628

One thing about the later paintings of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s later paintings: They were pretty somber. Not only somber, but Old Testament somber. Therefore, it was nice to see something he painted in a lighter vein when he was in his early twenties.

What made Rembrandt laugh? He must have seen me accidentally dump a bowl of clam chowder in my lap at the Getty Center. The original is a small painting, only 22.2 cm × 17.1 cm (8¾ in × 6¾ in).

I think that, as we get older, we sometimes forget to laugh.We look at the news and are dismayed. We examine the younger generation’s report cards and strange subculture and are nonplussed. We visit the doctor and realize we are not immortal. But we can still laugh. If we can laugh, I think we will live longer and better. The young Rembrandt knew that. The older Rembrandt? Not so much.

For Rembrandt to yuck so heartily while wearing an uncomfortable-looking steel collar is all the more remarkable. I like this Rembrandt. He is fun without being quite so Harmenszoon, and that is a good thing.

This is the first of a series of posts I refer to as gallery talks, based on my visits to various art museums. This particular painting is at the Getty Center.