Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Leaving Well Enough Alone

I remember well when my blessed Mother said to me, "Hey, idiot-- if you can't say something nice about someone, then don't say anything at all!  Unless years from now someone figures out how to make a computer that'll fit into a house, and then after that people come up with a way for all the computers to interact with each other, and then you start writing a blog-- Then it would be okay.  But that'll never happen, so shut up and finish your peas." 

So, since I have Mom's permission...

I have lots of interests, but really only two passions:  Art and History.  I've been studying American History for as long as I've been drawing-- which is entering it's fiftieth year.  So, I really love seeing a good painting that accurately depicts history.  That's why I admire someone like Tom Lovell so much. He really was "An historian with a brush" in his command of authenticity.  Another painter in the same vein is a fellow by the name of Mort Kunstler.  I own a few books that showcase Mort's art.  He works devilishly hard to get the details right.  No one is going to look at one of  Mort's paintings and say, "Ah Hah!  He's got the wrong Corps Badge on Joshua Chamberlain's hat!  What a dope!"  Nope-- if Mort painted it as a Maltese Cross, then you know damn well it was.  Recently, Mort set out to right a grievous wrong.

Here's a painting you probably will recognize:

It was done in 1851 by a German artist named Emanuel Leutze.  It depicts Washington's army crossing the Delaware River on Christmas morn of 1776 to surprise and defeat the British army stationed across the river in Trenton, New Jersey.  It was as big a humiliation to the Brit's as Merrill Streep playing Margaret Thatcher.  But I digress..

I have always enjoyed this painting.  For starters, it's a damn big painting-- it's life size at 12 feet tall and 21 feet long.  It also has a marvelous design. The oars mimic Washington's heroic upright figure and American flag.  There is life and movement in this painting, along with drama and beauty.  Look at the rays of light streaming down from the stormy sky, leaving George back-lit dramatically against the sky, or the pull and struggle of the oarsmen fighting with the ice flows.  It really is a masterpiece.  This painting was a hit from the moment it was unveiled in the U.S.  It now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

But as any history buff will tell you, its all wrong.

First off, Washington's army crossed the Delaware at night during a snow storm.  They didn't use row boats so much as flat bottom scows and rafts.  The American flag depicted hadn't even been conceived at that point in time.  (And Betsy Ross never sewed it).  There's also a question as to how ice choked the river really was that December.  But Leutze didn't care about that-- he wanted to convey a heroic George Washington braving the obstacles that tried to impede the ray of hope that is Democracy!  It's a painting, not a high school text book illustration.  And that's where Mr. Kunstler comes in.

This is Mort's historically accurate depiction of Washington's crossing:

With all due respect to a well known and talented artist-- what an un-Godly boring painting!  I know it sounds harsh, but this is a good example how not all illustration is art.  Yeah, it's accurate.  Now what?  It seems Mr. Kunstler used up a couple tubes of Prussian Blue painting this one.  It's so stagnant in its depiction of movement, I think George is stuck in the ice.  I can also detect a fair amount of camera perspective in this design, in how the rear of the flat bottomed boat recedes in the distance.  The fellow passengers are also out of scale.  If the guy poling on the left stood up, he'd dwarf the six-foot Father of our Country.  One thing Mort had to fake are the lamps and torches.  I doubt they would have been used if they wanted to sneak up on their enemy, but he needed some device to light George and the scene. 

Look, Mort tried his darndest to show a scene that took place during a pitch black night over two hundred-thirty five years ago.  A well-nigh impossible task.  More power to him, but to me it's a failure of a painting.  In my opinion, it would have been nice if he put a little art into his history.  I don't know if Tom Lovell ever tried to depict this scene-- I haven't been able to find an example if he did-- but I can understand why if he chose not to: Might as well leave well enough alone.

I'll finish my peas now...


Kay said...

this one made me laugh! I too love the first painting, and Mort's is not so hot. Enjoy your peas

Susan Roux said...

The real difference is Leutze used red.

I've tried to tell you over and over again how important it is for added emotion in a painting... Those aren't black-eyed peas your eating is it?