Monday, February 2, 2009

Color Palettes: Sir George Clausen (1852-1944)

The Girl at the Gate 1889  oil 67.5" X 54.5"

George Clausen, although a respected teacher at the Royal Academy and though eventually knighted, never really got the recognition in his home country that he deserved.  He was a Naturalist, which meant to his critics and detractors, that he was a painter of ugliness:  ugly people doing ugly things, painted in ugly colors.  To those who appreciated truth and representational paintings, he was a hero, who introduced England to an innovative manner of painting, which not only elevated the arts, but also man's relationship to the natural environment. 

It is hard to imagine now that the paintings of the Naturalist movement were radically new in their time.  The painters of this movement, though closely aligned with the academic tradition, consciously made a decision to break with the precepts of the past.  Their works might not have been as startling as those being created contemporaneously by the avant-garde Impressionists, but the Naturalists were nevertheless challenging the face of art. 

These artists were among the first to disassociate themselves with the convention of executing their paintings of landscapes in the comfort of their studio using a formulaic approach.  Instead, they would either paint their canvases out-of-doors, in direct observation of their subject, or they would paint multiple studies outdoors from life, to bring indoors to complete.  Some even had special outdoor closets constructed in which to work, or had glass houses made so that they could paint their models in full natural light, but free from wind and insects.  Gone were the warm shadows and cool light learned while working in the studio and which earlier plein air painters of the Barbizon School were never able to eschew.  In their stead came the warm light and cool shadows of a bright, sunlit day, or the even more subtle pearlescent color effects obtained when observing their subjects under an overcast sky. 

It was the aim of these Naturalist painters to present the regions where each lived in a truthful, objective manner.  They wanted to portray their contemporary world, unedited, with all of its foibles laid bare.  These paintings of laundrywomen, street urchins, and field workers were not intended to make political commentary, per se, but were meant to present "slice-of-life" pictures of a section of modern society that had previously been ignored by historical and religious painters of the Academies.  Instead of painting symbolic archetypes of the poor or downtrodden, which would have read as critiques on the human condition, the Naturalists painted detailed portraits of these subjects without interjecting any of their own personal feelings of their subject's position in life.

Photography, which had made significant advances in portability over the previous decades, became an essential tool for the Naturalists, and shaped how these artists executed their work.
First and foremost, it was an aid in recording daily life, and the Naturalists used their photographs more like sketches for a final composition.  They were able to carry their cameras into locations, such as farm fields, and document laborers at work, in un-rehearsed poses.  These more casual arrangements became the basis for new pictorial compositions unlike those traditionally put forth by previous, academically-trained artists.  It also led to cropping the figures in their paintings in unusual ways, in mimicry of what these artist/photographers were encountering in their photographic negatives.

The Naturalists were the first Photo-Realists, which as a classification, must be examined in relation to the time period they lived and worked, and not judged from a modern perspective.
After all, these artists were limited by the technological advancements of photography to that date, and often by their own mastery of that burgeoning field.  Their paintings were not marked by universal detail, because their photographic reference was often limited in clarity.  What the photographs brought to the paintings, and what marked their canvases as having relied upon photo reference, was the judicious use of detail in the foreground, and the lack of focus in the distance;  a direct influence of limited depth of field in the images made with the portable cameras.  In fact, the artists of the earlier, Realist movement, who did not rely on photographs, created much more exacting pictures than did most Naturalists, and the Naturalists themselves probably did more finely detailed work in their own student academies then they did when fully immersed in the Movement. 

What the public found in these Naturalist canvases was a hyper-reality.  The figures in the Naturalist paintings represented frozen moments of daily life, just as the photographs did in which the gallery-goers had by then been versed.  These were real people as painted subjects, not idealized allegorical caricatures.  For many, the actions described in the images were familiar, and enabled the viewers to relate to the paintings in a way they never could to the heroic and romanticized depictions of political persona, or to the unflawed characters of myth and religion.  Often, the individuals peopling these art works were painted life-size, as the artists were creating large compositions in hopes that their pictures would be purchased  by the government for public display:  these fully-realized figures appeared as actors on a stage and only added to the verisimilitude.  The colors used were studied direct from life, and came closer to representing the natural world than had the paintings of the studio systems of the past.  If photographs were amazing two-dimensional glimpses at reality, then these paintings were photographs nearly made corporeal;  they were so like life, that at some exhibits, visitors would actually gather at a single painting and not move, waiting to catch the person in the frame finally breathe. 

Jules Bastien-Lepage
Joan of Arc Listening to the Voices  1879 
Oil  100" X 109.25"

It is uncertain where or exactly when George Clausen was first introduced to the Naturalist paintings being created in France, but it is clear that his exposure to their movement, and particularly to the work of their premier painter, Jules Bastien-Lepage, made an indelible mark on his career.  What is known is that sometime in the early 1880s, Clausen participated in the art colony at Quimperlé on the Brittany coast, where like-minded artists interested in Naturalist painting gathered to paint the local region.  Between his studies there, and in Paris while in the studio of William Bouguereau, Clausen had assimilated the developing working methods of this novel group of artists.

By 1881, Clausen, following Bastien-Lepage's example, had moved to the country to document his own country's native and familiar pastoral farmlands and farm culture.  He filled notebook after notebook with drawings of English farm laborers and field workers at their tasks, capturing a rustic lifestyle which, though not easy, was romanticized during that time of industrial progress.  To further supplement his studies, and to record firsthand observations of his subjects, Clausen also purchased the portable, Marion Miniature "Academy" camera, which enabled him to produce some of the earliest unposed photographs of field laborers.

Winter Work  1883  Oil 77.5" X 92"

 Combining the processes of photography and field sketches in a similar manner to that being developed by the artists in France, Clausen created his first major, rustic Naturalist painting, Winter Work, in 1883.  Unfortunately, the painting and its preparatory studies were not met with high regard by the English critics, who found them "too stark," and questioned Mr. Clausen's choice of subject matter, and his desire to represent actuality.  They were deemed "displeasing," and painted only for "ugliness' sake."  (from a review in The Magazine of Art).
It was clear that the Naturalist movement which had its naissance in France, would not be as welcome in Great Britain.

To the conservative English, the Naturalist movement was too radical.  They were still holding fast to their traditions, and the Pre-Raphaelite artists, who represented a return to earlier subjects and a simpler time, still held sway.  For the artists of the Naturalist movement to be able to show their work, they would need to challenge the exhibition system in Great Britain, which is what they finally did in 1886, when Clausen and a group of other young painters formed the New English Arts Club.  The NEAC enabled the Naturalists, and the even more experimental Impressionists, to finally get a toe-hold in the British art environment.

This victory seems to have been a double-edged sword for the Naturalist movement, however, as the painters of the Impressionist faction were not supportive of the methods of their brethren at the NEAC.  Charismatic figures like Walter Sickert and James MacNeill Whistler, who advocated Impresionism, openly derided the use of photography in creating artwork, and the public, never hearing a rebuttal from the Naturalists, found themselves siding against photo-realism.  Many of the Naturalists abandoned their methods for fear of public condemnation, and figures like Bastien-Lepage, although deceased, and those who still idolized the him, suffered blows to their reputation as artists.  Those who continued to work in the same manner as before, became secretive about their methods, and often created propagandized photo-records of themselves working directly from life in order to avoid the stigma of being labeled a "photo-realist."

In 1906, Clausen became Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy.  Two collections of his Academy presentations, Six Lectures on Painting and Aims and Ideals in Art, are now available online.  

Though his art probably reached its apex with the 1889 painting, The Girl at the Gate, he was still a respected artist later in his career, albeit not to the degree he deserved.  His 1916 artistic contributions to the wartime effort did earn him special recognition, and in 1927 he was Knighted for his lifelong pursuit in the arts.  Sir George Clausen died, aged ninety-two, in 1944.

According to Harold Speed in his book, The Science & Practice of Oil Painting (1924), the following palette was used by Clausen.  Included is some further information about Clausen's other materials.

  • Lemon Chrome
  • Chrome Yellow
  • Orange Chrome
  • Chinese Vermilion
  • Light Red
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Flake White
  • Cobalt Blue
  • French Ultramarine
  • Emerald Green
  • Blue-Black
  • Burnt Sienna

Lately he has been using Smalt blue as the only blue in skies;  grinding the powder colour as he needs it with oil and a little copal varnish.  He prefers to mix a brown tint rather than use a ready-made one;  and finds Cologne earth useful for greys when mixed with blue.  For thinning he only uses linseed oil and turpentine spirit, never any patent mediums or varnish as he thinks they tend to dull the colours in time, as indeed they do.

He generally uses his colour fairly stiff, but in painting still-life and flowers, etc., he likes it thin and flowing, and mixes wite with oil and turpentine before commencing work.  He gets his effects with solid colour rather than glazes, which he modestly says he does not understand.  Round brushes are preferred by Mr. Clausen, and absorbent canvases.  These are the only safe canvases for thick painting, as the large body of oil that would come to the surface if an ordinary canvas was used, would considerably darken the work in the course of time.  Whereas with an absorbent

 canvas the excess of oil is sucked up by the canvas and very little is left on the surface to darken with time.  Mr. Clausen is left-handed, so carries his palette with his right hand.  For the ordinary left-hand palette the order of the colours should be reversed.

Why Chromes?  Were they better at reproducing the colors of nature?  Not necessarily.

At the time Mr. Clausen was using the chrome colors, there was a disagreement as to whether the cadmiums or the chromes were more permanent.  Many felt that the cadmiums were prone to darkening over time, and were much less stable in oil, meaning that when washing or oiling out a painting not sealed under varnish, that the cadmium particles would wipe right off the canvas.  The chromes on the other hand tended to bind better in oil, and exhibited very little color change over the decades.  Additionally, the chromes, which were available in the same color range as the cadmiums, were much less expensive.  That was the conclusion based on observation then.

Today, after many more years of testing, observation, and improvements made in tubing colors, the consensus has shifted.  Cadmiums are once again the preferred color choice.  The chromes have been found to be more fugitive.

Ralph Mayer in The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques describes the chromes thusly:

CHROME ORANGE.  CHROME RED.  CHROME YELLOW.  Lead chromates.  A large variety of shades, from pale primrose yellow to a deep orange-scarlet, are produced by variations of the process of manufacture.  They are opaque, work well with oil, and are used in large quantities in cheap paints.  Even the best grades are not permanent, turning dark or greenish.  They may also react with some of the other colors.  Replaced perfectly by cadmiums for artists' use. (emphasis mine)

The emerald green mentioned is most likely emerald chromium oxide, better known as viridian (PG18).  Viridian is considered completely lightfast, whereas "emerald green" (copper aceto-arsenite), is often fugitive, can darken when exposed to other pigments, and is poisonous.  In fact, in France, copper aceto-arsenite, was sold as an insecticide under the name "Paris Green."  Viridian was known as emeraude green in France, and it is likely the similarity in the words "emerald" and "emeraude" led to the confusion in properly naming the pigment in English speaking countries.

Detail Images of paintings by Sir George Clausen

My gratitude is extended to Dr. Gabriel Weisberg, without whom I would scarcely have had enough information to write a single paragraph of this post.  I looked to several sources, but Weisberg's history, Beyond Impressionism:  The Naturalist Impulse is the ultimate treasure trove of knowledge  on the subject.  Weisberg is the leading authority on 19th Century and early 20th Century Academic art and  I cannot recommend his book highly enough.

In a recent email from Dr. Weisberg, I was assured that "big things" were about to happen for the Naturalists, and I will be sure to share his good news on this blog as soon as he ends my suspense and lets me know what is on the horizon for the artists of this all-too-ignored movement.


Dan Corey said...

Great post!

Rob Rey said...

Great post, another great artist I've never previously heard of! I can't wait to hear what Dr. Weisberg has to share.

Frank Gardner said...

Hey Matt, lots of great stuff in this huge post.
Thanks for pulling it all together. I have never seen a lot of these paintings.
I'll be back a few times just to look at these paintings. The subject matter is similar to many that I have been painting. Workers in fields and slices of life.
I liked reading the comparison to the impressionists too, since I am so fond of both schools of thought.

jeff f said...

Great post and I too love these painters and Clausen was a fine painter. Some of the work reminds me of Millet. I would love to see his photographs. I wonder if they are like August Saunder's.

Clausen's palette is very close to the one I use except I use Cadmium's which as you stated are better. I think that the Cadmium's of Clausen's period where not a s pure as the pigment we have come to know. Hence the preference for Chromes at the time.

This is why in some books on painting from the early part of the last century have warnings about mixing Cadmium's with Lead white, except for the Red's, which for some reason was not a problem.

Gregory Becker said...

What can you say except, Incredible.

Gregory Becker said...

I find myself visiting this post often. What an incredible artist. I cant stop looking at these. It's just beyond words.
Great post.

Diana K Gibson said...

Fantastic post bursting with information and gorgeous images. The majority of the images are new to me! Thank you so much for taking the time to draft and post your entry! Wow! Excellent research!

Gene said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I found myself staring at my screen for so long, just absorbing the image. It's like I could smell the air, feel the temperature and experience the mood of each image, almost as if it were a moving picture. Well, I'm not an artist, but I came to this site after finding a beautiful Clausen reproduction. Having read every word of your article, I can't wait to find myself another high quality print. (Surprise Bonus: Sir George and I share a birthday!)

Anne Shingleton said...

Thank you - and well done!
I'm so pleased to see that Clausen, who is one of my great heros, given the appreciation I think he deserves. Good to see so many of his works there too, many I've not seen before.
Thank you for all that research.
~Anne Shingleton

Joan Breckwoldt said...

Thank you for this wonderful post! I think I'm going to have to order the book you recommended.
The painting you featured by Bastien-Lepage was in Houston a few years ago and it was amazing to see. Saw it again at the Met a couple of months ago, now I wish I had taken more time to search out some of the other naturalists when we were there.
Your blog is amazing, thank you for all the treasures you post!

croasdale said...

Great paintings - I have a signed copy of G Clausen's "Aims and Ideals in Art", dedicated to 'James Wilson Esq, with kind regards from George Clausen Feby 24 1907'

Richard Ayling said...

A wonderful post. If I ever had enough money to own a Clausen I would sit and look at it for days, weeks, months and years and find something new to see each time. Ive only seen the girl at the gate at the Tate in London, It just took my breath away.