the impressionists' secret weapon
November 12, 2006 7:20 AM   Subscribe

Did you know that some of the most famous paintings by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas, and Toulouse Lautrec were based on photographs? While some impressionists and post-impressionists publicly disparaged photography as mechanical, many others were using it as their secret weapon. The relationship between the two arts was complex and intertwined. (And turning the tables, check out this contemporary Russian woman who is recreating several famous paintings in staged photographs.)
posted by madamjujujive (27 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
There is pretty good evidence that Vermeer used a camera obscura or pinhole camera to achieve essentially photographic paintings.
posted by beagle at 7:52 AM on November 12, 2006

Photographers: 1
Painters: 0

Photoshop is karmic retribution.
posted by VulcanMike at 8:13 AM on November 12, 2006

I've seen it presented that pre-photography, painters used lenses to visualize out of focus background and light effects, as well as to perfect perspective.

These are the most and best examples of this kind I've seen so far.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:16 AM on November 12, 2006

Degas didn't even try to hide the obvious fact.
posted by bardic at 8:25 AM on November 12, 2006

Wow. I love the 'Russian Woman's" work. How would we transcribe her name? I get the Ekaterina bit. What would be the most common transcription of her last name?

Photoshop tools would never add the spark of insight the painters added and those photos don't possess (whether that insight is inherent to the subject or a projection is a separate point). This is working from snapshots. I'd like to see what a masterly painter made of an Ansel Adams, and indeed, if they could *add* anything to it.

Thx mmj.
posted by Rumple at 8:29 AM on November 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thanks, madamjujujive, for an interesting Sunday morning read.
posted by taosbat at 8:34 AM on November 12, 2006

Fascinating, thanks madamjujujive!
posted by carter at 8:48 AM on November 12, 2006

Thanks, mj3, really nice ffp.
posted by doctor_negative at 8:50 AM on November 12, 2006

I find this post to be a curious coincidence as our local art museum just opened an exhibit of Degas landscapes that details the fact that Degas loved photography. In fact, they have numerous samples of his photographs on their walls and discuss the fact that he was dictatorial with his friends and would insist they pose for him at every social gathering.
posted by PigAlien at 8:52 AM on November 12, 2006

Edouard Vuillard's passion photography almost matched his passion for painting, and it's reflected throughout his work. Like oil paint in tubes photography made the painters work so much easier that they would have been stupid not to utilise it. It shouldn't be a shock that they did, let alone some sort of crime that devalues their work.
posted by fire&wings at 9:00 AM on November 12, 2006

nearly all artists working for a realistic look, who have lived in a time with cameras have used them as an aid. Just as a brush can help you to apply paint a camera can help you see. It is just a tool.
posted by subtle_squid at 9:08 AM on November 12, 2006

This is great -- Modern Art as a result of photography, i like to think. . . Degas (especially?) had a discipline in place which allowed him to make the mechanical lens work for him -- "owning" as you might say. We might also say that it is a line of work that you can only get into if your imagination is keen and sharp and sensitive to ALL inputs, ALL the time, aka, "That shit ain't happen but once a decade," if that (link refers to a safe bid for the 1990s).
posted by gorgor_balabala at 9:15 AM on November 12, 2006

What makes this noteworthy though, subtle_squid, is that the Impressionists were all about immediacy and the transient effects of light. At least that's one of the things Art Historians laud them for. To find them painting from photos is an interesting nuance on that widespread understanding. So sure, photography is a tool, but one that might arguably work counter to an impressionistic ethos, if there is such a thing.
posted by Rumple at 9:27 AM on November 12, 2006

Whether or not the artists actually painted from the photographs, their notion of the frame and composition changed after photography. They realized that the subject didn't need to be entirely included. And, paradoxically, if only portions of the subject were shown, the frame became less intrusive. The world went on in the viewer's imagination.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:42 AM on November 12, 2006

Quality as usual, mj3. Thank you :)
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:04 AM on November 12, 2006

Further evidence to suggest a staged "photograph" of sorts is that many of Vermeer's paintings actually take place in the same home (likely, his own).

For example (note the floor):
The Music Lesson
The Letter (note the missing white tile)
Woman With Balance
The Allegory of Painting (note the same missing white tile)
The Allegory of Faith
etc., etc., etc.

Note also that the Camera Obscura was not the only means by which an artist could "photograph" a scene. There's a somewhat-famous woodcut of Albrecht Dürer entitled Demonstration of Perspective that illustrates Piero della Frencesca's technique for producing an image through mechanical means. Basically, the artist would use pieces of string as source points with a pencil attached to the end, and a series of dots would be constructed outlining the object of the scene, all in correct perspective. If it could be done in the 16th century, it would be a cakewalk in the 17th.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:12 AM on November 12, 2006

Don't forget about Thomas Eakins as well. And for a contemporary example of how photography and painting have evolved, take a look at the work of a true modern master - Chuck Close.
posted by blaneyphoto at 10:21 AM on November 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ah yes, the Hockney Hypothesis.
P.S. Rumple, her full name rendered in English is Ekaterina Rozhdestvenskaya.
posted by rob511 at 12:39 PM on November 12, 2006

Excellent, excellent read, rob511. I hadn't heard about anyone making such claims, though I always felt that for many paintings of the time it was obvious some mechanical method was being employed. One of the most interesting arguments in that article was the preponderance of seemingly left-handed subjects—particularly popes. Good stuff.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:35 PM on November 12, 2006

Great post, thanks madamjujujive.
posted by Cuke at 2:52 PM on November 12, 2006

Thanks rob511, and for the links too. She's onto something cool here....
posted by Rumple at 3:12 PM on November 12, 2006

Thanks MJJJ. This was very enlightening.
posted by snsranch at 4:19 PM on November 12, 2006

Thanks madamjujujive. I guess another advantage of using this method is that the painter doesn't of course have to fork out so much for sitting fees!

Rumple I agree with what you are saying to a point. If an artist actually does see the original scene and the light and forms their impression as it were, a photograph may just be a reminder later on of the major scene elements - their basic relationship to one another - rather than totally negating that notion of immediacy. I guess we would need to ask the individual artists just how they used these 'tools'.
posted by peacay at 4:49 PM on November 12, 2006

I am all for them using photos, its just I find it interesting that they did, given their stated interests in immediacy and transience. It is more the art historical received wisdom that appears to need nuance. I would, in fact, expect the impressionists/post-impressionists/fauves to be quite enraptured with the little light capture boxes. Retouching/colouring photos was very popular back then, it would be interesting to know what they made of that.
posted by Rumple at 10:03 PM on November 12, 2006

Here is an interesting discussion of the threat that photography posed to many painters in its early days, with some nicknaming it "the foe-to-graphic art."
Man Ray later came to think of painting as obsolete, but in his earlier years said "All these attitudes result from a fear that the one will replace the other. Nothing of the kind happened. We have simply increased our range, our vocabulary. I see no one trying to abolish the automobile because we have the airplane."

How cool to come back to this post and find such an interesting discussion and such great links. Many thanks to all who took the time to post the links, which add so much more texture and information to the topic ... rob 511, particular thanks for the Hockney article and for the additional link for Rozhdestvenskaya. Her work intrigues me!
posted by madamjujujive at 11:05 PM on November 12, 2006

A vivid expression of the fear of photography:

...this industry, by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mortal enemy, and... the confusion of their several functions prevents any of them from being properly fulfilled.... If photography is allowed to supplement art... it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally.

– Baudelaire, Salon of 1859

posted by Rumple at 11:28 PM on November 12, 2006

Ha well he was right about the allies
posted by gorgor_balabala at 4:03 AM on November 13, 2006

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