Juliette begins her introduction to this fascinating and well thought-out book with an apparently massive digression about what seems like a random mail delivery system that involves complete trust in its own efficacy. She relates this to the creative process with the observation: “Painting cannot be called art while the uncomfortable element of faith is absent … artists need to believe in the value and outcome of their work”.
Let’s just stop and think for a moment about the enormity of that statement. My previous nostrum, printed on a card I bought at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, is Edgar Degas’ “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”. Well, yes, completely, obviously, I’ll buy that. But faith? That’s a big thing. What Juliette is saying is that it’s not enough to be faithful to your subject, to convey a meaning to the viewer (which is what Degas tells us). It’s not even enough to have faith in your own ability. You have to have an unshakeable belief (that’s what faith is) that your work is worthwhile and, I think by extension, that it will stand the test of time.
And that, rather conveniently, brings me to the question I thought was going to be the big one at the head of this discussion: what is classical painting? Yes, I know, it’s the Old Masters, the Atelier method, the apprenticeship, all that stuff. Except that it isn’t. There are people today painting in what we might call a Classical style and they didn’t go through all that. Heck, they may not even have suffered for their art (or not much, anyway). A lot of their work is included here and it sits seamlessly alongside luminaries such as Winslow Homer, Antonio Mancini or Laura Teresa Alma-Tadema (me neither, but Juliette is rather good on the wives of bigger male names).
So, let’s have a go at a definition of classical painting. No, it’s not about studios, or style, or materials. Well, it is, but it’s not primarily about that. It’s about that utter sense of self-belief that previous ages found so easy, or at least found an easy mantle to assume, which isn’t quite the same thing. Van Gogh was a Great Artist, but not in his lifetime. He suffered almost certainly from mental illness, but never lost faith in himself as An Artist. His eventual suicide seems to have been more to spare his brother the cost of his upkeep (you really should read Bernadette Murphy’s Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story), rather than any kind of admission of artistic failure.
I’ve known Watson Guptill through several incarnations and I’m massively impressed by the current one as a purveyor of finely-produced, illustrated and authoritative monographs on the philosophy of the practice of painting (this one even has sewn binding, which is a rarity these days). I’d go so far as to say that, when you handle this, you know that it has as much faith in its ability to carry its message as the message itself is telling you to have in yourself as an artist.
Click the picture to view on Amazon