In this column, “The Masters’ Thread,” artists share their thoughts about how one master’s piece inspires their current work.
One of my favorite portrait painters is Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), who was the premier portraitist of the Regency in England and considered by many to be “the Rubens of his age.” His 1827 masterpiece “Julia, Lady Peel” is on view in the library at The Frick Collection. I recently made a sketch to study it closely.
To draw or sketch from a masterwork is absolutely the best way to truly see and remember it. Often, we only glance at a painting for a minute, or grab a picture with our phone. When you take some time to make a study (even one you never plan on showing to anyone), the details of the artwork sink into your mind and memory, and you feel connected through time with the artist and the subject.
When you sketch, you notice how different components in the design flow and work together to make a harmonious composition. I noticed how the bold red of the flamboyant ostrich feathers are complemented by the muted red of her lips, and again by the accent of the camellia on her bosom. The airy blue-and-grey sky in the background is one of my favorite devices—the cool blues and greys are the complementary colors to the warm reds and oranges in the accessories and skin tones. The sky is light enough to make her black hair pop but dark enough that the white of her dress and fur stand out brightly. Completely invented in the studio, the swirls of the cloud design can be artfully used as a counterpoint to the vertical placement of the figure.
You can look at this painting in detail in person or online via The Frick’s website (ept.ms/JuliaAtTheFrick), where you can zoom in to see every brush stroke.
If you zoom in to the area around her neck, just to the left, you can see a perfect example of the riot of paint and color that make my heart beat faster. From any distance, the details of the picture look crisp and realistic. We interpret the white fur, satin cloth, delicate lace, and the little twist of color around her neck as a gauzy silk scarf. But step in close and it all dissolves into blurred smudges of pink, blue, red, and white, smearing into a sunset of colors that suggests the luxury of gorgeous fabrics, but also serves the painterly need to soften the edges of the neck and shoulder as they swirl away from you in space.
Here, we see a perfect example of the painter’s much sought after “lost edges”—in exactly the right place when seen from a distance, but harder to locate the closer you get. Lawrence saves the high contrast and clarity for her face. His sure brushwork creates sharp delineation around the corneas and eyelids. With a clean touch of brightness for the highlight on the pupil, he creates a bright staccato center that pulls you into the psychology of the sitter’s gaze.
I love the personality of this woman with her direct look, which is forthright and intelligent, combined with her bold and gorgeous fashion. (Really, can you imagine wearing that hat on Fifth Avenue? What verve!) She is idealized, perhaps, but is also very human and alive.
Laurence’s portraits rank him as one of the great masters in this genre precisely because he never lets the trappings of style and the expressions of his era overtake the genuine human feeling and aliveness of his subjects. This perfect balance of ideal and real is a rather magical trick and rare among even great artists.
People are my primary subjects, and I am always trying to mine my subject’s personality to bring the soul up to the surface. I do not know Lady Peel, or Mr. Lawrence, but I feel a personal connection to them through the window of this painting. When I study a masterwork like this, I’m reminded of how a great portrait can be—almost like a relic containing a magical essence. The spirit transcends time and space and communicates beauty and energy through the painterly material. This is an aspect of the portrait that continually inspires me in my work.
Now, if you live around or visit New York, make some time to go see the real thing at the Frick. Stop for five minutes in the courtyard inside, and listen to the gentle burble of water falling in the fountain, and breathe the quiet air scented with earth and ferns. Every time I sit in the courtyard, I marvel at how I can be so magically transported out of the stressful buzz of the city. I sit for a few minutes and channel my inner Lady Mary and fancy a cup of tea. It is the perfect way to set the stage of one’s mind for the imaginative journey you can take when looking at the art.
Patricia Watwood is a classical figurative oil painter. Born in 1971 and raised in St. Louis, she now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and daughters. For a video tutorial on creating portraits go to: PatriciaWatwood.com/streamline-art-video For more of her work, visit PatriciaWatwood.com