One summer we rented a home in Pont-Aven. This Brittany village is where Gauguin painted off and on between 1886 and 1890. The pension in which he held forth with Emile Bernard and Paul Sérusier is now a news agency. The section of town where we stayed was called quatre-vents (four winds). Every day, water-laden clouds from the Atlantic blew across my canvasses.
Much has been made of the light in France and other places in Europe. “Pellucid” and “diffused” are words often used. When a strong and clear light is combined with a moist atmosphere, the effect of aerial perspective is enhanced. From the quay in Pont-Aven, the other side of the river, barely a few hundred yards away, often appears abnormally distant.
Pont-Aven was a summer workshop in the use of cooler and bluer tones, softening and obscuring edges for the illusion of depth–a change from the convention of Nordic art I grew up with where distant elements are often socked in, full strength, to carry the design and pattern to the back of the painting. It’s no wonder that Impressionism took its first spin in France–one always seems to be looking “through” something.
As I sat painting on the quay, a man wearing wooden shoes pointed to a house on the other shore which I had included in my painting. He told me that his ancestors had lived there since the last century. I asked him if any of his ancestors might have mentioned seeing Gauguin or Bernard or Sérusier painting anywhere around here. He replied that they might have–but he had never heard of them. Then he asked politely if those gentlemen I mentioned were relatives of mine.
PS: “And what, sir, is the subject matter of that painting?” (Critic) “The subject matter, my dear good fellow, is the light.” (Claude Monet)
Esoterica: Apart from the use of linear perspective, elements can be forced back in the picture plane by cooling and graying. High-key cobalt blue and purple-tinted phthalo are useful for the purpose. Often, just cruising for hard darks in the offskip and knocking them down does the trick.
This letter was originally published as “Aerial perspective” on October 17, 2000.
oil painting on canvas
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