Classical Painting Today: What is Missing?

An essay by our Assistant Director, Sean Forester

We are in the midst of a revival of figurative art. The Grand Central Academy, the Florence Academy of Art, and other ateliers have trained a generation of painters. Despite the talent and potential of these young artists, however, classical painting is rarely recognized at biennales. Instead, it is criticized for lacking ideas. Much of this may be misplaced, but something is missing if sympathetic critics like American Arts Quarterly declare: “What is missing is dynamic contemporary content, combined with first-rate craftsmanship.”

Many traditional artists are intelligent and imaginative. The problem remains a lack of training. Ateliers today teach cast drawing, still life, portraiture, and the study of the human figure. Important as this program is, an artist needs more. This is why we founded the composition and humanities programs at the Golden Gate Atelier. We challenge students to make meaningful images for today and give them the tools to do so.

Studying compositional principles enables students to imitate the masters, not on the superficial level of following their subject matter or style, but on the deeper level of incorporating the truths they express. A grounding in the humanities helps students cultivate ideas for their work. Seeing how Goya, Manet, or Hopper addressed the issues of their time, students can find a way to do the same today. Let’s consider some examples:

On July 5, 1816, the French ship Méduse ran aground off the coast of North Africa. The captain seized the lifeboats for his officers and left the people on a waterlogged raft. For two appalling weeks, they drifted at sea. When the raft was finally spotted, only 15 of the 147 passengers remained alive. A young artist named Théodore Géricault had just returned from studying the old masters in Italy when he heard of the disaster. He decided to paint it, and his masterpiece the Raft of Medusa was a sensation at the Salon. The work contributed to a national debate. The Méduse scandal shook the restoration government of Louis XVIII, and reforms were widely discussed in the press.

Rather than a literal depiction, The Raft of the Medusa is a vision from artist’s imagination. He interprets a contemporary event as if it were a Greek tragedy. The painting shows the moment of potential rescue: the people have formed a human pyramid to raise a red flag, and there is a tiny ship on the distant horizon. But a huge wave threatens to crash over them, and their fate is far from certain. The elderly figure in the left foreground with a dead body on his lap may be a father mourning the death of his son. His gesture was inspired by Titian’s tragic painting The Flaying of Marsyas and later made iconic by Rodin’s Thinker. The work harkens back to the dynamic rhythms and heroic depictions of the human body found in Rubens and Michelangelo. Perhaps Géricault wanted to challenge society’s assumptions about race as well as class. While there was actually only one African on the raft, Géricault depicted three, including one in a key position at waving the flag. He painted the events of his time in a way that is both timely and timeless.

A generation later, the young Russian realist Ilya Repin visited Paris and was inspired by Gericault’s painting. Returning to Russia, Repin painted Barge Haulers on the River Volga. The artist spent a month on the river Volga drawing and painting the barge haulers from life. He felt the oppressive heat, talked to the men, made studies of them working. Then he went into the studio to compose his painting.

Repin chose the attitudes of the men carefully, from the youth who seems to be trying to throw off his yoke to the man at the far right who hangs his head from exhaustion or despair. There’s a variety of gestures and characters, a cross-section of Russia.

If a young painter produced a work of similar power now, people would take notice. Artists could paint contemporary America, from the blending of cultures in our cities to the threatened beauty of our national parks. They could explore events where man’s humanity has been tested, or show how it manifests in everyday domestic life. Perhaps, like Wyeth and Freud, what is needed is an honest examination of ourselves and those closest to us. Realists today can find new ways to paint Greek Myth, the Bible, or other classical subjects. Or they could find modern myths. Significant moments in American or world history have yet to be painted. And surely modern literature can provide inspiration.

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