Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Redhead is one of my favourites. Probably from 1889, this smallish painting shows a partially dressed young woman seen from the back, sitting on the floor of what is probably not a brothel but the artist’s studio. Lautrec was an admirer of the older Edgar Degas, and had undoubtedly seen his pastels at the Impressionist Exhibition in Paris 1886. The influence is clear. It’s easy to mistake the painting for a Degas.
Lots of ink has been dumped speculating whether the girl was a friend, a professional model or a prostitute. For me at least, this is a non-topic.
An oil trying to be a pastel, Redhead is painted on fairly absorbent cardboard. Lots of turpentine in the paint gives it a sketchy, dry look. The painting has a searching, found quality with a few unresolved and amorphous areas. The back and thigh are particularly focal and sensitively rendered — you can read Lautrec’s mind. The unseen face ensures anonymity and allows the viewer to know the girl as one might wish — a newly popular device at the time.
The painting is also an example of FTAS (Fingers and Toes Avoidance Syndrome). As everyone knows, the rendering of hands and feet can be a tough order, particularly where foreshortening is required. Here we see no giveaway amateurishness — even her one exposed foot is covered with a convenient black stocking.
Support oxidation, absorption and yellowing have lent a delicious grayish patina to the tones. Together with Lautrec’s appreciative eye, sophistication and compositional integrity are the result.
Derivative, you might say, and you’d be right. But perhaps without influence there might be little growth. Like natural selection in the evolution of species, artistic influence is a semi-voluntary device that ensures art never stands still. Further, in a state of flux, if not progress, derivation from others can lead to derivation from the self.
PS: “Redhead reveals the artist’s debt to Degas, but instead of the ungainly figures found in Degas’ pastels, Toulouse-Lautrec has created a beautiful, slender figure.” (Jane Kinsman)
Esoterica: I’m laptopping you from an unusually quiet spot in The National Museum of Art in Tokyo. According to the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper, the four most attended blockbuster art shows in the world’s public galleries last year (2009) all took place in Japan. Sociologists claim it’s currently “cool” for young Japanese to go to art museums. Thousands a day jam into this place, some on audio devices, others just thoughtfully wandering. The pressing throng moves slowly by my Redhead. She’s part of a current exhibition borrowed from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The incredibly polite and restrained Japanese show only slight annoyance when a tall, overly-enthusiastic foreigner worms his way toward the front.
What the Japanese do
by Doris Olsen, Sonora, CA, USA
What can we learn from the Japanese? So it is cool for their young to visit museums. How have they educated this group? Here in the U.S., there is very little time for art in our schools and very little money as well. How can we (as artists) contribute to cultural education in our schools on a national basis? What does Japan do?
(RG note) Thanks, Doris. According to an article I read, the influx of young Japanese into art museums is due to widespread and effective advertising campaigns. This may, in some degree, be true. There is also the natural tendency to be part of something greater. Japan, while insular and in some ways xenophobic, is a country that is curious about the rest of the world. Also, attitudes of gentility, politeness and appreciation for nature are bred in the bone. Well educated, well mannered young people are sensitized to culture by their superior schooling. Important artists are honoured with the title “National Treasure” and actively interact with the school system. Further, in Japan, quiet craftsmanship and skilled mastery are highly valued.
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Playing with Red
by Pepper Hume, Spring, TX, USA
I love the drawing in Redhead even more than the painting. The way she is enclosed by furniture and the lilting lines that define that leg, even unto the top edge of the stocking. Bare toes would have cost us the delicious shape of that stocking. I have always been enchanted by the dance of curves in the human body, especially the zigzagging path of thrust down a leg. During a summer drawing class I glanced down and discovered my own right leg. Had to draw the thing. I didn’t connect that experience with this painting until now. I had surely seen it, I’m a big fan of Toulouse-Lautrec, but didn’t realize I was duplicating his drawing. That’s influence! And my toes show why her foot is stockinged.
By the way, that enclosing curve of the tub framing her face has great subjective power. It literally turns her vision inward. Just for fun, I roughly Photoshopped the tub out of the picture. Her focus stretched to something offscreen. Then I discovered THREE returning loops of curves behind her head. Now, Henri could not possibly have placed the tub and the fold of cloth on purpose to make her introspective, but his subconscious did. That’s genius.
Picasso and Degas
by Dorothy Englander, Albany, NY, USA
Your letter was very timely, as an exhibit entitled “Picasso Looks at Degas” is currently at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA, not too far from where I live on NY. I saw the exhibit, going with some skepticism, but was surprised to see that indeed, there seems to be a connection. For one, it appears that Picasso used the compositions and subject matter and even colors of Degas in a some cases. In addition, Picasso actually depicted Degas, as an onlooker or participant, in many etchings, most in, shall I say, a situation with a group of women. Whether this was fantasy or based on life, who knows? In any case, there are some surprising and great works, many from private collections that would otherwise never be seen.
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Arms and legs
by Michael Fenton, New Jersey, USA
I had two thoughts as I read your latest. First, the origin of the expression, “that costs an arm and a leg.” The difficulty and time to paint hands and feet, arms and legs, added costs to portraits. A simple bust was one, lower, price. If you wanted the rest of the body, arms and legs, you had to pay more. My understanding is that during Gilbert Stewart’s time, the expression “arm and a leg…” became popular as he was a big proponent of this pricing method. But, the question at hand about leaving out hands and feet… sometime less is more. We often leave out all the wrinkles and folds in cloth because we want the imagination of the viewer to fill in the gaps. Unless the hands or feet are needed to communicate the message or story of a piece, they may not be needed and why expend that extra energy to no real purpose? In Lautrec’s paintings of dancers the extremities are required to complete the message and he doesn’t shy away… but he does just enough to make the point.
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
After reading about the palettes and mixing I want to know: Is it me or are greens very difficult colours to use properly? I have a friend who virtually never uses them. She prefers the warm colours, yellows and reds, and blacks and says that a lot of people buying art don’t like greens. If you are doing landscapes you pretty much have to use them. There’s the debate- to mix from primaries or to use ready-mades. And then there are all those shades to use for distance and atmospheric effects. Is green a difficult colour to use successfully? It can be for me and sometimes I wonder if it is for others, too.
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Oils emulating pastels
by Angela A’Court, New York, NY, USA
Your comment about Henri T-L’s oil painting trying to emulate pastels interests me. I’m just back from a show in London of soft pastels…. the private view was on Wednesday and throughout the evening there were two questions that were asked: “What is the medium?” and “Are they oil?”
Quite often when I approach a new gallery to show pastel work, they ask me, “Do you paint in oil? This is usually a hint that the work would be easier to sell as oil rather than pastel. The point is that I love working in soft pastel — something to do with applying raw pigment directly onto paper — but ‘pushing stick’ as opposed to ‘pushing brush’ seems to need more persuasion.
It’s not that I don’t like or work in other mediums, but flying the soft pastel flag is becoming a bit of a crusade for me.
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Toulouse-Lautrec just along for the ride?
by Margaret Ferraro, Kinburn, Ontario, Canada
Toulouse-Lautrec never conquered the hands or feet. Always out of proportion and poorly drafted, a tell tale sign of the limit to growth this artist experienced. Going to the museum of Lautrecs work in Albi, France tells other things too. For example, although he never mastered the hand or foot, he was capable of rendering the face quite sensitively. I consider him a master of gesture, and not too bad at composing really interesting perspectives. Mostly, his work had life, vitality, unusual and compelling colour, personality. I figure if he could draw the head and face as well as he did, he could have got the hands and feet, just not inspired to do so. This is a great example of an artist becoming famous because of his place in time and history, when many exciting things were happening in the art world. He was just along for the ride.
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Degas and Lautrec
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Influence is very valuable in art. No matter how one emulates and imitates another artist’s style, a personal view emerges. Lautrec’s attitude towards women couldn’t have been more different than Degas. To Degas, the woman was more of a fascinating object with curves and colors that fired his interest in design. He had little interest in women on a personal level. His colder, critical personality informed his life and work. He was a loner. Lautrec hung out at brothels and partied heavily with actresses and prostitutes, dancers etc. He liked and was interested in women and I get a sense of that in Redhead. His paintings of women are always ‘personal’ and have a feeling that he knew and admired each sitter. Many were his friends. It is interesting that Lautrec imitated Degas pastel style. Lautrec was a graphic artist and put drawing first in much of his work. Degas’ oils are much more painterly and polished than his pastels. The freedom of Degas’ late pastels was somewhat related to his failing eyesight. He was working from memory in many instances and drawing on his vast experience in figure drawing. Later on the early Picasso paintings are clearly derivative of Lautrec but Picasso moved on. That is what is so cool about influence; you learn and move on.
by Susan-Rose Slatkoff, Victoria, BC, Canada
I have heard people decry, “Derivative,” in tones dripping with uncensored scorn. Frankly, I’m sick of it. Anyone who has lived, viewed, or studied has seen the works of others. We are all affected by what we have already seen, and trying to pretend we are not is absurd. There is a story about Brahms. He premiered a new symphony (alas, I am not well versed in the musical arts so I cannot provide details), and one reviewer challenged him, saying, “One of your themes was very similar to one of Beethoven’s!” Brahms replied, “Of course it is. Everyone steals — the important thing is to do it brilliantly.” I say, let “derivative” rest in peace.
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Inspiration by copying the masters
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Ah! Where would we be without the influences of the masters? I’ve been copying the masters forever and can’t relay here the knowledge I’ve acquired in doing so. I’ve even started putting the results onto my website in hopes of influencing others to take a stab at it. What is also important here is they can also be for sale — as copies — and people love them. I usually do them when exhibiting in public. People can relate to my work when they can see the ‘original’ (print) I’m using. I’ve even received a commission from the process. The public also believes that if you can copy, you can paint. Which isn’t always true of course but they believe it so. Whenever I feel stale of at a crossroads, I always go back to my books on the great masters for inspiration.
The value of instruction
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
Many years ago, I attended one of Richard Nelson’s tri-color workshops on Kauai. No matter what medium I have worked with since, his ideas have influenced me and the way I lay on color. I have made many good pieces using that technique, and a lot of “How do you get that rich opal-ly look?” questions.
Recently, I’ve been experimenting in acrylics so I could go down to the beach and paint, because oils and the beach = nightmare. My basic application of paint had depended on layers of color, as per Richard Nelson. But after getting nowhere but many layers of hideous color, I finally threw up my hands in disgust. It came to me that I ought to Genn-ify my technique — lay on the colors as I see them, the way I see you doing. So I went back and watched your videos again and paid closer attention.
Then I tried a new painting where I simply laid on the color as it appeared. To my surprise, it worked! I Genn-ified my technique! I’m stoked. Not that it is a particularly fantastic painting, but it sure was easier and it sure looks a whole lot better than its predecessors! The colors are as bright as the scene I worked from — and it was so much simpler. Thanks, Robert, for all your videos!
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Kathryn Sorci who wrote, “I finished reading the book, Mistress of Montmartre: Life of Susan Valadon by June Ross. Suzanne Valadon was a model and artist of Toulouse-Lautrec and this book is a wonderful historical read that I recommend.”
And also >Angela Jane McCumber of Peterborough, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Toulouse-Lautrec did many sketches and paintings of this redhead… and the intimacy in which she was depicted in all of them shows his pure understanding of the character of the girl. It was obvious he admired her and took care to render her every mood. Some paintings show her as youthful and pensive or flamboyant and streetwise and still others soft and feminine.”
And also Michael Pendergrass, who wrote, “Imagine trying to paint similar subjects in a “brothel” today. With my luck I’d wind up on an episode of Cops! Me and my easel being loaded in the back of a police car.”
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