In this column, “The Masters’ Thread” (ept.ms/mastersthread), artists share their thoughts about how one master’s piece inspires their current work.
In agreeing to write about a significant painting in art history that influenced me, I found myself in something of a real dilemma. Let me explain.
All of my training and all of my early painting life was circumscribed and challenged by the wonderful, incredible art that came before. As I had no serious studio instruction, I constantly scoured almost all of this art searching for “secrets” of how to paint.
It started with the 15th-century Flemish art of van der Weyden and Memling. The museum became my studio as I continued to look and learn from Rembrandt and Vermeer, from Velázquez and Ribera. The inspiration and learning was ongoing over a span of my first 15 years of painting as I discovered Ingres, Delacroix, and Géricault, and finally Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. They all became my instructors. So, you see my dilemma—there are far too many inspirations to choose from. Well, if I have to make a choice of just one artist and one piece of art, I would settle on this small portrait by Degas: “Portrait of a Young Woman.”
Out of all that history of great art, one could ask, “Why this nice little painting?” Here’s the conundrum: It is both a small piece and one that is possibly inconsequential in Degas’s vast oeuvre, yet it has the seeds of almost all that I look for in art, particularly my own work. It has a marvelous simplicity and painterly directness that represents close to a perfect fusion of form and content—shorthand for what I believe is essential for realist art. The portrait is emotionally complex, laden with a combination of both feelings withheld—as if this woman knows the disappointments of living as a woman in a “dollhouse” world—and inquiring, as if still searching for something. These are my responses, but clearly other feelings could be attached to her look and are available to surmise in this little portrait.
Adding to this visual seduction is the way in which the portrait is rendered simply and convincingly. The paint itself as a medium is almost nonexistent in how it renders the forms and almost abstract in what it summarily generalizes, like her hair and dress. She is both a “live” human being and clearly made of paint. For me, this duality of perception is a critical aspect in the art of painting, because it creates a kind of make believe that, like storytelling in literature, makes us aware of something true even as we know it’s “just a story.”
The way paint is applied to render the form subtly helps create the emotional content of the painting. While the specific relationship of style to content is often elusive, I feel that the artists’ “touch” is an essential element in creating that personal emotional/conceptual content. A caveat here: Without seeing the real painting, and using only this reproduction, I can still speculate about the qualities of the way the paint seems to be applied, as if in one sitting. Yet it doesn’t employ bravura alla prima brushwork (wet-on-wet painting technique) like a Boldini and is as thoroughly and slowly observed as a Memling or a Vermeer.
Another important quality in this picture has to do with the light and how it models the form. It is a distinct break from most standard portraits of the time, which routinely favored the chiaroscuro of a Caravaggesque overhead light source, with its deep shadows and dramatic and seductive figure-ground contrasts. Notice how the head is lit with the light lower down and almost at eye level with her head. Her eyes are quite visible, not shaded by a dark shadow that often, as in a Rembrandt, suggested an aura of deep contemplation. The face is open and almost transparently available, almost reminiscent of 15th-century Flemish portraits.
Suddenly one’s perceptions are now felt closer to ordinary, everyday appearances. This was a kind of instinctive realist sensibility in Degas that, among other things. derived from the fact that he deserted the studio for the streets of Paris. Additionally, in his break with the formulaic “history paintings” demanded by the canons of the French Academic tradition, he found everyday life a source of immediate escape and inspiration.
In a parallel way, when I was trying to “escape” the label of being called “old hat,” I began to use this eye-level light source in my work and to also desert the comfort zone of the studio for the larger world. I felt that it was one way to reconnect with some aspect of a “contemporary” sensibility and still keep to my search for authentic realistic images.
The pastel portrait of my wife, Claire, reveals my early affection for the Degas portrait. It also surprises me, after not seeing it for so many years, because I think it has the same immediacy and openness despite awkward drawing in parts of it. Over the years, I have looked repeatedly at the Degas portrait to find that it continues to remind me of what painting is all about. Each time I return, I fall in love with this woman–with both of them, really.
Burton Silverman has been painting and exhibiting his work for over 60 years. His work is in 30 public collections and has been exhibited all over the United States as well as abroad. He has taught and lectured about art in universities and museums since 1979. His studio and home is located on the Upper West Side in New York City. BurtonSilverman.com