The Art in Painting: 3 Cameras

Jules-Alexis Muenier (1863–1942), Beautiful Days (1889), oil on canvas, 131 x 137 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

The previous two articles in this series have looked at the creative and artistic elements within classical methods of painting, first in the production of a large fresco, then in the development brought about during the Renaissance. The focus of the painter’s art was most apparent during the early stages of the development of a painting, when they were sketching and producing studies, which then were turned into finished paintings with greater emphasis on craftsmanship.

In the seventeenth century, as the science of optics was developed, artists turned to innovative methods of producing their sketches and studies. These are claimed by some to have been important in the paintings of Jan Vermeer, who made systematic use of blurred edges in paintings such as The Milkmaid, from about 1660.

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), The Milkmaid (c 1660), oil on canvas, 45.5 x 41 cm, The Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

This painting is light and deceptively simple, showing a servant peacefully preparing food in a well-lit corner of a kitchen. The bread on the table is finely textured with seeds, the glaze on the pots glistening in the light, contrasting with the smooth fabrics and flesh of the woman. The edges of her forearms are soft, suggesting movement.

Further examination of the painting has revealed that there was originally a large map covering most of the back wall, which was later painted over to leave the wall almost bare. At the foot of that wall, Vermeer had originally painted a basket of clothes, but this too he painted over later, leaving just the foot-warmer and Delft tiles. A small depression in the paint just above the woman’s right hand marks the vanishing point used for its linear perspective projection, a method inherited from the Renaissance.

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), The Milkmaid (detail) (c 1660), oil on canvas, 45.5 x 41 cm, The Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Edges are sharpest around the woman’s left shoulder and upper arm, and soften as you look away towards her hands and the pitcher. Highlights on that pitcher and the pot below it are also decidedly blurry. These are consistent with the use of blurring to suggest movement, and for photographic depth of field, a focus effect which didn’t become widely known until after the advent of photography.

The claim is that Vermeer used a camera obscura during his initial development of this and later paintings, rather than drawing and sketching freehand. This could account for this unusual use of an edge sharpness hierarchy, a technique still advocated today (without the camera obscura) for controlling the focus of attention. In the absence of any evidence of Vermeer’s preparatory work, this can only remain speculative.

A century later a very different revolution was beginning in the countryside around Rome, as artists took their materials out to make oil sketches of the landscape.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), Farm Buildings at the Villa Farnese: the Two Poplar Trees (1780), oil on paper on cardbord, 25 x 38 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes was by no means the first painter to make landscape oil sketches, which had originated with two made by Diego Velázquez in Rome in 1630, and had been recommended to Valenciennes by Claude-Joseph Vernet. However, Valenciennes sketched prolifically, building himself a large visual library of sketches from nature, and most importantly he published a widely-used book on landscape painting in which he recommended the practice.

Valenciennes’ working method was to concentrate his art in making these wonderful sketches in front of the motif, then, in the studio, to use them as elements within finished paintings, much as had been done by Fra Bartolomeo nearly three centuries earlier.

This was developed during the nineteenth century in two opposing directions. In Britain, the Pre-Raphaelite movement, under the direction of critic John Ruskin, tried creating highly detailed finished landscape paintings in front of the motif.

Florence from Bellosguardo 1863 by John Brett 1831-1902
John Brett (1831–1902), Florence from Bellosguardo (1863), oil on canvas, 60 x 101.3 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Thomas Stainton in memory of Charles and Lavinia Handley-Read 1972), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

John Brett’s breathtaking view of Florence from Bellosguardo (1863) is perhaps the zenith. He probably started to paint this in January 1863, working without the aid of significant preparatory studies, and entirely from the motif. Even with Brett’s apparent eye for fine detail at a distance, much of it must have been painted with the aid of a telescope, and it has been suggested that he may also have used a camera lucida and/or photographs. Regardless of how he managed to paint such great detail, it is a triumph of painting, both technically and artistically, and it came as a shock when it was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1863.

In France, Valenciennes’ oil sketches were recognised for the art that they are, and landscape artists started to exhibit paintings which had been completed in front of the motif in a matter of days or hours, a primary objective of the Impressionist movement. While this new painting spread around the world, from New England to Japan, its original exponents discovered its limitations. Colourful sketchy landscapes are all very well, but this doesn’t transfer as well into figurative painting, and even in landscapes there is more that can be achieved.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), Summer Scene (Bathers) (1869-70), oil on canvas, 160 × 160.7 cm, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Problems with figurative works were tackled initially by Frédéric Bazille, and became apparent in his Summer Scene, also known as Bathers, which he started to paint during the summer of 1869 when he was on holiday in Montpellier. He had already made a series of compositional studies, from as early as February that year, but when he was working on the canvas, he did not find it easy going, and complained of headaches and other pains.

He eventually opted for a composition based on strong diagonals, in which the bathers in the foreground are in shade, while the two wrestlers in the distance are lit by sunshine. The landscape background was painted from the hot green mixture of grass with birch and pine trees, typical of the banks of the River Lez, near Montpellier. He completed this painting in early 1870, and it was accepted for the Salon of that year, where it was well-received by the critics.

Tragically, Bazille was killed in the Franco-Prussian War later that year, and it was left to Auguste Renoir to resolve the problems of Impressionist figurative painting. Despite his innovation, and his unsuccessful attempt to incorporate a more classical treatment of figures in Impressionist landscapes in his Large Bathers (1884-87), Renoir was largely written out of the history of Impressionism during the twentieth century.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), Grainstack, Sun in the Mist (W1286) (1891), oil on canvas, 60 x 100.3 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

Claude Monet, who somehow emerged as the champion of the Impressionist movement during the twentieth century, also changed his methods. His new approach is exemplified in the paintings in his Grainstacks series from around 1891.

Grainstack, Sun in the Mist is thought to be one of the later paintings in the series, apparently showing the sole remaining grainstack in the Spring of 1891. It has multiple layers applied wet-on-dry, with many hatched brushstrokes in shades of orange and pink apparently applied over a well-dried surface. These are shown well in the detail (below) of the grainstack itself.

At the right side of the foot of the grainstack, the lowest layer of paint consists of dull blue and green which appears to have been applied at about the same time and has blended in places. When that layer had dried, infrequent and relatively thick streaks of white were added wet-on-dry. When that had dried, brown-orange was applied to form the uppermost layer. That uppermost layer has also been used to remodel the form of the grainstack using thickly-applied flesh, pale yellow and orange paint.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), Grainstack, Sun in the Mist (W1286) (detail) (1891), oil on canvas, 60 x 100.3 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

The evidence points to Monet starting each of this series with a sketch using more dilute paint in front of the motif in the circumstances described in the title. He then brought each canvas into his studio, where he continued to work on it, making further adjustments, adding partial layers of paint, and tweaking each work in comparison to the others in the series. This would have taken place over a period of several weeks: in the case of the canvases which he started at the end of the summer of 1890, such as the painting above, that period could have amounted to six months.

So much for the artistic spontaneity and simplicity of Valenciennes’ oil sketches in front of the motif.

When critics such as Roger Fry and the art theoretician Clive Bell rewrote the history of painting in the early twentieth century, they were careful to exclude popular Naturalist works which had become highly developed and successful in the hands of Jules Bastien-Lepage and his successors, many of whom were influenced by and used the new medium of photography.

Paul Louis Martin des Amoignes (1858–1925), In the Classroom (1886), oil on canvas, 68.5 × 110.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Louis Martin des Amoignes’ wonderful In the Classroom was painted in 1886, less than two years after Bastien-Lepage’s sudden death. It bears unmistakeable evidence that it was either painted from photographs or strongly influenced by them. One boy, staring intently at the teacher in front of the class, is caught crisply, pencil poised in his hand. Beyond him the crowd of heads becomes more blurred.

Even well-established artists like Jean-Léon Gérôme and Gustav Klimt used photography as a tool.

Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), Ria Munk on her Deathbed (1917-18), oil on canvas, 50 × 50.5 cm, Private collection. Image courtesy of Richard Nagy Ltd, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

After the young Maria (‘Ria’) Munk had committed suicide just after Christmas in 1911, Klimt was commissioned by her family to paint a posthumous portrait of her. His first version, Ria Munk on her Deathbed, was initially completed the following year but was rejected by her family. They asked the artist to paint an image of her when she was still alive, from photographs.

His second portrait, completed five years after her suicide, was also rejected by the family.

Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (c 1917-18), oil on canvas, 180.7 × 89.9 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Klimt started his third Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk in 1917, and was still working on it early the following year when he died.

Other artists relied on photography as a matter of routine.

Jules-Alexis Muenier (1863–1942), Study for ‘Awakening’ (date not known), further details not known. Image by Rauzierd, via Wikimedia Commons.

This study for Jules-Alexis Muenier’s large and complex painting Awakening, followed classical methods, and was painted in the studio.

Artist not known, Jules-Alexis Muenier painting ‘Awakening’ with his son Pierre (date not known), photograph, further details not known. Image by Rauzierd, via Wikimedia Commons.

This photograph appears to show Muenier painting the huge finished version of Awakening, with his son Pierre behind him. They are in a beautifully furnished bedroom, which Muenier is using as a studio. The study above has clearly been important in the painting of a central passage in the huge canvas shown. Muenier’s palettes, brushes, and other equipment all give this an air of truth – except that the artist is dressed immaculately in a clean suit, and there are no sheets or other protection on the floor around the canvas. It all looks too neat and clean.

The twentieth century brought another technological innovation to the preparatory phase of making a painting, with the projection of photographic images onto the ground, providing superior guides to the form and appearance of images captured with precious little artistic input. Perhaps the introduction of Augmented Reality in the twenty-first century doesn’t really change much.

But is it still art? Perhaps that’s up to the eye of the beholder rather than a listing of the techniques used in creating the painting.