I think it’s important as an artist to look at a lot of art, and in fact I love nothing more than to flip through the many art books I have on the shelf. Seeing different styles, different techniques, and just appreciating what others have done is a great way to learn more about art, and to think about doing it better.
Books are great, but to really see a painting I also think it’s important to get to museums. Seeing the real art in person gives you a different look, something that books just can’t do. There’s a feeling when you see them, especially those pieces that often appear in books.
You really don’t get a sense of scale from a book, normally. Church’s The Icebergs, for example, is a huge painting that takes up the entire wall. But Stuck’s Lucifer is just a small image, more or less letter size.
The web, in certain circumstances, can come close. There are projects that let you virtually view a museum online, and zoom in to a ridiculous level on the art. Those are great, and especially with places that are hard to get to (I can’t afford to go to Europe, for example) it’s a nice substitute.
But, when you are standing in front of some painting that you’ve seen in a book a bunch of times, so close that you could reach out and touch it, that’s something. For me, I can’t help but smile a bit. I can stare at the strokes and see how the artist created it. I can get the feeling, somewhat anyway, of how they felt standing in front of it while they worked on it.
That’s definitely something you lose a bit in a book, the feeling that the artist had when they worked on it. Of course, only the artist ever really knows that feeling, but standing in front of the work gives you a sense of how they were looking at it. How far away that tree is from the palette, or how to get the dark sky to come across, or how large or small to make the characters in the scene.
Naturally, I could just be overthinking it.
But, as an artist myself, I can learn a lot from being there in person, even if it really is only the feeling that another artist had.
Here are a few of the pieces I’ve seen in museums that I see a lot in books (or on the web). I’m sure other artists and folks have seen these before, and I’m also sure some of them are famous only in certain circles. But for me, I’ve seen all of these quite a bit in various places, and being in front of them was fascinating, and somehow humbling.
First off, Franz Von Stuck’s Lucifer, which I’ve seen plenty of times in plenty of references. Not just in art books either, this particular visage of evil has popped up on the History Channel, in film, and lots of other places. I saw it at the Dallas Museum of Art, and it really popped off the wall when I saw it. One of those, “Hey, wait, I’ve seen that before!”, kinds of things.
I’ve written about it before (check it out here), but while I was at the Dallas Museum of Art I also saw one of my favorite paintings, and one that I’ve seen referenced many times. Frederic Edwin Church’s beautiful painting, The Icebergs.
While on a visit to Phoenix, I made sure to go to the Phoenix Museum of Art, which held one of the paintings that I’ve seen many times over the years, and was great to see in person. Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) by Jean Leon Gerome.
With my last day job, I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Aside from having an entire Hudson River artists room, they had among their works a painting by Thomas Cole called Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans”, Cora Kneeling at the feet of Tamenund. Not only is Cole one of my personal favorites, but I’ve seen that particular painting mentioned plenty of times.
The Wadsworth also had a work by Frederic Lord Leighton called Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis. I’ve been considering for a long time doing an art blog on that particular piece, and then, I turned a corner in the museum and there it was.
But that wasn’t the last surprise from the Wadsworth that day. As I’m walking through a group of other paintings, of, honestly, styles I don’t really like, there in the middle was a Norman Rockwell. Not an obscure one either, but one of his most famous, The Young Girl with the Shiner (I wrote about it here).
Even in the local museum (well, sort of local) there are some gems. The Denver Art Museum has this wonderful N.C. Wyeth piece, Gunfight (I wrote about it here). I had just seen it mentioned on the Discovery Channel too, and in a different western book.
You never know what you’ll find at the local museum. But I think it’s important to check it out, and you never know what great piece hangs there waiting for you to be inspired by.