In times past I spent many happy hours in front of Rubens’s magnificent Fall of Phaeton. I made a bunch of drawings of this one horse alone, which are scattered throughout several notebooks.
Sometimes I just stood and looked without a notebook. Phaeton is a mesmerizing tour de force. Once I stood for forty-five minutes in front of the painting, looking, staring, pondering — sometimes getting up close to marvel at details, sometimes standing back to admire the sublimity of the whole.
A museum guard stood nearby, aware of my marathon watching, and deep into my session he finally ventured forward to help me (I must have seemed to need it), saying vaguely, “um, er, if you have a question about the painting, there’s a plaque here with some information.”
That’s when I decided perhaps it was time to go, that I had bewildered the guard for long enough. But I could have stood there a fortnight. Rubens is better than the most gripping movie.
“I should be happy to give 10 years of my life,” said Vincent van Gogh while gazing at Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride in Amsterdam in 1885, “if I could go on sitting here in front of this painting for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.”
That’s kind of how I feel about Rubens.
Copying masterworks is one way both to learn and to delight in looking. Just as I’ve made innumerable drawings of my sea shell, or my fish Pixel, or my favorite spot along my favorite walk — or let’s not forget the many drawings of Doll — so I discover I made more drawings of this lady than I realized. She’s a Renaissance sculpture at the National Gallery of Art, and a charming gal even if she’s made of stone.
It’s hard to really know people, and that fact, I think, applies as much to oneself as to others. It’s hard to know who you are, and it’s sensible and not narcissistic to occasionally inquire into the nature of one’s self.
The means of mirror gazing are many. For artists the self-portrait is one means.
Naturally just as one witnesses different aspects of other people, just in that way it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to discover that one finds different facets to oneself.
And you can portray yourself in different ways. And why not deliberately seek to know these other aspects of the self? Or if one only stumbles upon them, that too is knowledge….
The old masters are so much more complex than any of my ways of understanding them, as I discover when I go back and revisit drawings I made.
“But you cannot let yourself be sad — even — in noting the distance between oneself and them,” I tell myself.
You have to be the artist you are.
[Above, my copy after a Velasquez lady.]
Many years ago I made a very dark and smudgy tribute to graphite and old art in the form of this drawing which copies an old master’s painting. But now I cannot remember who’s the old master.
An early Van Gogh? Any guesses? Is there an art historian in the house?
I drew my parents years ago. My mother, pixie-like.
My dad, engrossed in a television broadcast, coiled with the energy of his attention. His shoe, I find, also expressed somehow his mood, his relaxed and yet intense focus.
Years ago I began a large painting, one of my first large pictures. Painted it in the living room of my parents’ North Carolina home using a ladder as an easel. The motif was based on a parcel of land down the street from their home. I tried to transform it into Renaissance Italy, the sort of place one of Giorgione’s gals would hang out.
These are samples of the several compositional drawings. (There was a bunch. I’m not sure what happened to them all.) Looking through old notebooks, I found this one made in pencil (above) and this other in conte crayon (below). The crayon adds to the Italian feeling, don’t you think?
Le dessin n’est pas la forme, il est la manière de voir la forme.
Drawing is not form, but a way of seeing form. — Edgar Degas