The Mitchell Gallery

The Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Gallery

John Singer Sargent’s ‘Man Reading’

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John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925). Man Reading (Nicola D’Inverno). Oil on canvas. Reading Public Museum.

This painting by John Singer Sargent is one of my favorites in the exhibit. It stands out to me as the most intimate of the Impressionist scenes. Among the many paintings of landscapes, only a few depict people, but do so at a distance; a woman in a white dress standing inaccessible on a distant hill, or a seated woman turning her head entirely away from the viewer. People in those paintings come across less as the subjects in their own right, and more as parts of the greater scene around them.

But this painting above is concerned primarily with a human subject, and I would say it goes so far as to do something none of the other Impressionist paintings in this exhibit do: it suggests the inner life of this person. That this man might be depicted as a world unto himself, and not just a peripheral element of the artist’s impression of a more general scene seems like a striking departure from the pure Impressionist tradition.

Yet the painting is still Impressionist in its style. The form of the man reading is not carefully and sharply delineated, but instead built up of lively, spontaneous brushstrokes. Around his head, these strokes are formed into a kind of halo, radiating out along the curve of his head. He is totally absorbed in reading. From the outside, the act of reading is a quiet, absorbing, contemplative one. But Sargent has captured the motion in this activity with his brushstrokes. The way the pages are painted dynamically, even roughly, as if taught with the tension with which his hand hold them.

As the reader retreats inward in thought, Sargent paints the man as half-withdrawn into a shadowy nook. But two parts of the painting stand out, illuminated in sunlight: The man’s forearm, and also the pages of the book he’s absorbed in. The most dynamic, even careless, brushstrokes form the pages of his book, which the man grips with a kind of energy absent in the rest of his languid pose.

But this painting, unlike its neighbors in the exhibition, is not totally awash in hundreds of small, vibrant brushstrokes that give the impression of a swirling, pulsating world of motion.  The motion is concentrated here in the pages of the book, the focal point of this man’s world. But what the content of this world is, we can only guess at; it is his alone. The element of inaccessibility means that his inner life is not knowable, but only suggested. In this way, the painting really is Impressionist. We can’t know the subject as himself, but we are made aware of his own perceptive capacity, separate from ours, in the depiction of him reading a book.

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Sophy Schulman — St. John’s College Student

What is Impressionism?

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George Agnew Reid (Canadian, 1860-1947). Portrait of Mrs. Reid, 1902. Oil on canvas.

The artistic movement called Impressionism seeks to record the instant that a particular perception comes to the senses—to sight—but to record the perception as just that: an impression. But all of this is barely the beginning of an understanding of the movement. First of all, what does it mean to capture the impression of something?  Let’s address this question through a look at the painting above by George Reid, a portrait of his wife.

A woman sits in the partial shade of a tree which must stand just outside of the frame. Sunlight, filtered by the leaves above, falls on her hair and shoulders directly. The clearing over her shoulder in the background provides the other source of direct light, illuminating her from behind. The turn of her shoulders and neck instigates a sort of spiral in the composition, which begins in the lower folds of the dress, moves upward to merge with the blur of grass and wildflowers on the left-hand side of the painting, follows the curve of her neck, and culminates in the upward twist of her hair. Yet the motion doesn’t end there—the turn of her neck is imitated and enhanced by the flow of the brushstrokes of trees and foliage that frame her body.

Now, leaving form behind and focusing on color, something important is revealed. This painting, in terms of its composition, deals with color and the expression of the strokes by which it is applied more than anything else—more than sharp, pure lines, for instance. It looks like the initial appearance, unfiltered by the mind is the impression. When first opening your eyes in the morning, you have only an impression of light, and then gradually color, and then shape. It takes some adjustment (and perhaps even some mental work) for the colors to arrange themselves in the shapes of objects we’re used to. What is so vibrant about this painting are the strokes of unmixed color, and the movement they seem to engender among themselves. Much of what would be delineated in a careful, realistic reproduction of the face is conspicuously absent.

How does this affect the way we see the “subject” of the painting? This painting is a portrait, but the nominal subject of it, the artist’s wife, eludes our attempt to call her the subject. Having turned her face away from the viewer, she seems almost indifferent. The subject is more the impression of this woman, and, more than that, the way in which she’s merely a part of the scene around her. The light tints in her hair are reflected in the bright strokes in the grass, and these follow the spiral form of her dress. Even the blue in her sash is reflected in the small branch that pokes upward from the lower right corner.

At the root of Impressionism  is an effort to depict the world as it appears to the viewer. The spirit of this new view is described by Cézanne, who remarked, “To paint after nature is not a matter of copying the objective world, it’s giving shape to your sensations.” No longer is the subject depicted identifiable as such in Impressionism. There has been a movement away from a deliberate focus on a single, coherent subject, and toward a view of the world as it presents itself to the artist in all its perceived color, light, and motion.

Cézanne Quotation credit: Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Sophy Schulman – St. John’s College

American Impressionism: The Lure of the Artists’ Colony

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Edward Willis Redfield (American, 1869-1965), Winter in the Valley, c.1920s, oil on canvas

March 9-April 24, 2016

  Opening Reception March 20 | 3:30 – 5:00pm |

This comprehensive exhibition features, for the first time, one of the Reading Public Museum’s greatest strengths—its collection of works by American Impressionists. The exhibition includes 50 oil paintings and nearly 20 works on paper dating from the 1880s through the 1940s. Outstanding landscapes—ranging from snow covered hills to sun filled harbors—seascapes, penetrating portraits, and remarkable still lifes, imbued with rich textures, reveal the artists’ interest in capturing effects of light and atmosphere in their work.

The exhibition is arranged according to the artists’ colonies that played a critical role in the development of American Impressionism, including those at Cos Cob and Old Lyme in Connecticut; Cape Cod, Cape Ann, and Rockport, in Massachusetts; New Hope and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania; Taos, New Mexico; and California. In addition, American expatriate artists such as Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent are examined.

“American Impressionism: The Lure of the Artists’ Colony”
was organized by the Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania.
This exhibition is generously supported by the Helena Foundation.

Preserving the Old Paris: The Photography of Eugène Atget

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Eugene Atget (French, 1857-1927). Le Chiffonier (The Ragpicker)

The evolution of photography into a fine art form begins here, on the streets of early 20th-Century Paris. Eugène Atget is most known for his photographs of the city, through which he supplied artists with documents, or references for their paintings. But while he made his livelihood in this way, Atget was also undertaking the larger project of preserving a Paris which was in danger of fading from memory as the city became more modern. Atget strove to capture the Old Paris by photographing the city’s ordinary (and sometimes overlooked) sights: ghostly shop window mannequins, empty cobbled streets, the peeling facades of old buildings. As for people Atget photographed, they too were fixtures of an old Paris. These were the organ grinders, prostitutes, bricklayers, and in particular, the chiffonier (ragpicker) seen in the image above.

The outcome of a documentary photograph depends on the cooperation (or lack thereof) in the subject, and in his photographs of Parisians, Atget captured his subjects as they were. Sure, the subject in the photograph above is posed— if you can call it that; the ragpicker was perhaps stopped in his tracks and asked to look at the camera. However, he seems to have done so only reluctantly. Even though Atget has imposed himself on his subject so that the latter is aware he is being photographed, the effect is not at all contrived. This is because Atget has allowed this man to remain at a distance. Glowering at us from a face half in shadow, the ragpicker gives as little of himself as possible to the photographer. Atget has not tried to disguise the ragpicker’s discomfort in front of the camera, but allows him to remain himself.

But for all its candid qualities, this photograph is clearly the result of more than the simple point-and-shoot method that one might associate with the purely documentary approach. Atget deliberately brings the ragpicker into sharp focus in the foreground. He composes the shot to show us how, despite the bags of scraps (the chiffonier‘s livelihood) piled above him, the ragpicker is in complete control of the towering heap.  Leaning forward to balance the whole structure, the ragpicker shows us his self-sufficiency. Atget has framed his subject in such a way as to show his dignity, and his impenetrability.

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Sophy Schulman – St. John’s College Student

Pure Photography: Pictorial and Modern Photographs from the Syracuse University Art Collection

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Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946). The Steerage, 1907. Photogravure on laid paper.

 January 13 — February 28, 2016

Opening Reception: Sunday, January 17, 3:30-5:00pm

 Photography’s early roots as a documentary technique, its evolution into the painterly style of Pictorial photography, and the subsequent rebellion against Pictorialism can be seen in the exhibition, “Pure Photography: Pictorial and Modern Photographs from the Syracuse University Art Collection” in the Mitchell Gallery. Iconic images by Éugene Atget, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, as well as members of Group f/64, and modernist photographers Barbara Morgan, Aaron Siskind and others, reflect the evolution of photography from a documentary process to a fine art form.

“Pure Photography: Pictorial and Modern Photographs from the Syracuse University Art Collection”
was organized by the Syracuse University Art Galleries.

“Mine Alone is the Country in my Soul”: A Poem by Marc Chagall

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Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Russian-French. I and the Village. 1911.

Seul est Mien
by Marc Chagall

Mine alone
Is the country in my soul
I enter there without a passport
As if it is my home.
It sees my sadness
And my solitude
It lulls me to sleep
And covers me with a heavy perfume.
In me gardens bloom.
The flowers are my creations
The streets belong to me
But there are no houses,
They were destroyed in their infancy.
The inhabitants roam the air
In search of a home;
They dwell in my soul.
For this reason I smile
When my sun barely shines
Or cry
Like a light rain
In the night.
There was a time when I had two heads.
There was a time when these two faces
Covered themselves in an amorous dew
And dissolved into the perfume of a rose.

At present it seems to me

That even when I retreat
I press on
Toward a lofty portal
Behind which stretch out walls
Where sleep faint thunder
And shattered bolts of lighting.

Mine alone

Is the country found in my soul.

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Translated from the French by Sophy Schulman, A17

Image copyright: © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Chagall’s Illustrations of Dead Souls: Nozdryov

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Marc Chagall, Russian-French, 1887-1985. Nozdryov. Etching and drypoint.

In this illustration of a scene from Chapter 4 of Gogol’s Dead Souls, Chagall introduces us to one of the more fantastic characters in the story. This is Nozdryov, a notorious reveler, dandy, and swindler. Above is depicted his entrance into a provincial tavern where he recognizes his acquaintance (our protagonist, Chichikov). Nozydrov has just come back from the fair where he has gambled away all his money, but his high spirits are undampened.

We are told Nozdryov has two children whom he ignores, looked after by a pretty governess. He spends his time at fairs, balls, and at the card table. He has an ability to strike up an acquaintanceship extraordinarily quickly, but then picks fights or double-crosses these new friends, who, inexplicably, soon forgive him. He is notorious for one of his side-whiskers being shorter than the other—the consequence of his habit of cheating at cards and then being found out. This practically unthinkable man seems to propel himself through life by the sheer force of his own exuberance.

In his etching, Chagall makes Nozdryov the dominating figure. His stoic, fair-haired companion behind him, the greedy tavern-keeper in the doorway, and the puppy whom Nozdryov has stolen from its owner are all subordinate figures in the composition. It seems that the page can barely contain all of Nozdryov, whose legs are splayed, arms flung upward. Even Nozdryov’s side whiskers, writes Gogol, teem with “generative force.”

Chagall makes the viewer struggle to find coherence in Nozdryov’s figure; his dandyish curls seem to float above his head. One eye is well-defined, although its focus is indeterminable, but Chagall has just barely given the suggestion of Nozdyrov’s left eye, which doesn’t seem to point in the same direction. It’s almost as if Nozdryov won’t keep still long enough to be drawn. To pin him down in speech takes pages and pages of description in Dead Souls—-to do so in a single etching seems even more difficult. But it’s in the very disorder within himself in which Nozdryov revels, and it is through depicting this that Chagall can capture this extraordinary character.

Sophy Schulman – St. John’s College Student