When I was a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late 1970s, I knew I had landed an art student’s dream job. While doing my duties on the early watch from late afternoon to midnight, I routinely spent time with the Met’s extensive collection of paintings. Depending on what I was struggling with in class in the morning, I’d study during the evening how various artists solved that very problem. Not wanting to feel overwhelmed by everything I needed to learn at once, however, I kept my aspirations realistic.
As I tried to understand David A Leffel’s words to paint “flat,” I gravitated toward an unlikely mentor, Camille Corot. He had some rare figure studies dotted among his poetic landscapes, and at the time, these crude efforts were a comfort as I felt vindicated that even the great Corot shared my struggles with painting the nude. Of course I couldn’t help but admire more accomplished work—like John Singer Sargent’s The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant and Madame X—but extraordinary paintings of the figure only added to the feeling that my chosen vocation was beyond me and impossible to achieve except by a chosen few. So I stayed with a more modest choice like Corot’s Bacchante by the Sea. His brushwork was unsure, searching, even clumsy, so his work seemed doable and gave me a modicum of hope, which, as a new art student, I desperately needed.
At some point in my development, I felt emboldened to put the nude in an environment. When my rounds happened to take me through the massive halls of the American Wing, one painting always seemed to attract my eye. Along the way of course I lingered with such artists’ skillful figures as William Merritt Chase, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, and Cecelia Beaux but eventually I gravitated to Thomas Eakins’ painting, Arcadia. I would stand in front of it for as long as I dared before my security duties weighed heavy and I had to tear myself away. Eakins had composed some young nude boys—two lying in the grass and one upright, all playing flutes. It was part of a series heralding the use of the human form as the foundation for learning to be an artist, and so I thought, a most appropriate piece for a young art student. In class at the Art Students League, part of my struggle with the nude was justifying its existence in a space other than a bathroom or bedroom. A naked man standing and holding a staff always seemed odd, so I was fascinated by the idea of making nudes seem a plausible occurrence in nature. And as I was exploring compositional ideas, Arcadia’s size and placement also had a strong allure.
All the warm tones and lights of the painting were concentrated in the boys, which made a strong focal point—small though it was compared to the background. The figures could easily have gotten lost in the landscape, but Eakins kept the trees and sky cooler and darker, with less detail, bathing the boys in a light so simple and strong that they made a compelling image. The size of those nudes compared to the “empty” space appealed to me, and they represented a theme that strikes to the core of my artistic inclinations: a little bit of “something” and a lot of “nothing.” My teacher, whose work exemplifies this idea, often spoke these words, so it is no wonder that I so readily abandoned my Oklahoma roots to move to New York City where the mysteries of that idea might unravel. And consistent with my strategy at the time, Eakins’ brushwork was not of the dazzling type, so in my naiveté, his feat in paint seemed more possible than ever.
When I found myself fully ensconced in a love for dramatic light effects, I found Frank Duveneck’s juicy brushwork in a chiaroscuro piece called Lady with a Fan. It was a large painting of a woman where most of it was sketched in loosely, with only one thing truly finished—the eye. I stared up at the painting wondering how such a small part of the painting could carry all that loose brushwork?
First he painted the subject’s hat, fan, and hands with the barest of information—the right information—so that, with some distance, they coalesced into a convincing illusion. His selection of what to put in and what to leave out was a lesson in itself, like his choice to make her dress almost disappear into the background. Next he paid attention to the movement of light throughout the form—undulating from lighter to darker light—so the painting would have movement and not feel static. Finally, he put more detail in the eye, giving the viewer a place to rest. Although this painting is not one of my favorites, it gave me permission to eliminate needless information and made me realize how much the viewer completes the illusion in any painting. This was a revelation: when a painting is successful, the artist has actually created a dialogue with the viewer.
As a student, I was looking for work that seemed attainable. I was attracted to paintings with bravura brushwork because they seemed to give up their secrets more readily, though I would see the fallacy of that thinking soon enough. But eventually my confidence grew and I began to look at the paintings that did more than that. When I finally indulged my true inclinations to study the work that resonated more deeply with my artistic vision, it was obvious that one artist had already stolen my heart.
The consummate master of doing more with less is, arguably, Diego Rodriguez Velázquez. The Met doesn’t have a large collection of his work, but having Juan de Pareja compensates for what they lack in numbers. This painting soon became the pinnacle of what I was striving for in my own work. It took me years to appreciate the skill required to make a few brushstrokes describe complex anatomical information. As I studied the hand in perspective, searching through the magic of the illusion to find how he could have accomplished this visual miracle, his genius seemed more evident than ever. A simple shape of dark describes everything we need to know about his hair with subtle manipulation of its edges to appreciate its texture. With a few highlights placed in exactly the right places, he describes the structure of the face while conveying a sense of Juan’s actual presence all these years later. The paint was fresh and displayed an ease of painting that is rare in the history of art.
Velázquez was John Singer Sargent’s hero, and much like Velázquez, had the skill to suggest a lot with a few deft brushstrokes. But ironically, unlike Velazquez’s early struggle to simplify his work, Sargent suffered no such impediment. Possibly, just possibly, Sargent may have been too talented for his own good. He painted what he saw and did it so well that he didn’t wonder why it looked that way. He had all the accolades, all the commercial success an artist could want. Why question something that is so well received and so dazzling to the eye? Not many would. But if he had felt a compulsion to delve deeper, perhaps he, like his mentor, might have discovered the underlying principles operating, which would have added a depth of understanding to his work. Instead, as much as I still delight in looking at Sargent’s work and admire his skill, I understand the criticism that has tarnished his impressive oeuvre and dismissed it as superficial. Velázquez probed deeper than most into the mysteries of how painting works, but the champion of intelligent investigation came from Rembrandt.
So many of Rembrandt’s paintings won my affections, but one of my favorites has always been Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan. It was done when he was twenty-seven years of age, so it represents the more finished work of his youth when he was studiously learning his craft. Light emanates from her face making the hair mysterious, seemingly lit by the glow of her skin. Our eyes move from the color of the skin into the brilliantly lit collar, pausing at the subtle indication of lace that gets enveloped at its edges with the color of the air. And then, without realizing it, the light seems to melt into the abyss of her gown. Meandering in the mysterious shadow that cloaks her hand holding the fan, suddenly it appears. Climbing out of this murk, eventually we see the intricate design in the sheen on the dress, and then drift up through the light of the other hand until the head beckons us once again, and up we go for the mysterious visual journey that reveals more beauty every time we follow the path that Rembrandt has so skillfully laid for us. This time we see the color in the cheeks and lips, the subtle use of edges and value as the discovery continues to unfold. What Duvenek attempted in creating movement, Rembrandt brings to an entirely different level. Rembrandt was a master at the stimulating alla prima brushstrokes—fresh, energetic, and exciting—but he also mastered the slow brushstrokes, the ones that cause the eye to slow down and travel the painting at a gentler pace, rising and falling in crescendos of light, allowing all who really look to see the fullness of the beauty he discovered.
My years at the Met allowed me to study a wide gambit of work and appreciate the humanness of painting itself. As it is so easy to make the work of past masters seem beyond human possibility, I found that living with these artists in such a quiet and intimate way made painting a real activity with real problems to solve, and that let me know that I too could unlock its mysteries with time and dedication.
Sherrie McGraw is a painter, teacher, and author living in New Mexico. She is also one of three artists who established the Artists Guild, which spreads the tradition of the old masters through online videos and special tutorials designed to educate painters of all levels. You can see more of Sherrie’s paintings and drawings on her website.