The Indeterminate – Part 2

Part 1 is here.

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Even though the market prices of American paintings have gone record high in the past decades, the American Barbizon school nowadays is less known in public and claims little spotlights in the major auction houses. Between the grand panoramic rendering of Hudson River School and exciting, bright-toned eye-candy of American Impressionism, the Barbizon school was short-lived and apparently less appealing to the general public. But these painters quietly testified the statement for the first time of American art history that landscape paintings are and should be subjective and personal. With the advent of early photography, it was not accidental that these painters gave up details in the canvases and opted for the more intangible — that can only be shown indicatively and suggestively.

The way Albert Bierstadt or Edwin Church orchestrated the elements with exceptional details and minutiae to extricate dramatic settings challenge the eyes more than the minds. We see apocalyptic clouds, we see also the leaves of the foreground vegetations. All are given in a scientific exactness, all given are the God’s garden in God’s perspective.; however, what is missing is the room for the minds to roam around. There is a peculiar contrast between the immense scales of the canvases and the aloofness of human feelings. Here are we, the onlookers at the mercy of the splendid techniques of the painters., whose intricate compositions are of great intellectual, but again we do not and need not have the role of participation.

Then came the late Inness, whose canvases have nothing solid and everything seems to be floating and out of focus. The lack of focus points forces the eyes to view the canvases in the whole, which were usually painted in a unified hue. Henry Ward Ranger started the painting with a special brownish varnish to which he attributed the magic glow inhis autumnal landscapes. Other painters like Dwight Tryon or John Francis Murphy used limited pallet with subdued colors. Quite often, the picture is medium dark, almost bordering murkiness. In viewing these pictures, the consciousness of audience has naturally changed from grasping what is offered in Hudson River school paintings to examine what can be explored in Barbizon paintings; in other words, our minds search instead of catch.

Such an ironic comparison can also be applied to infer the difference between Barbizon school and its succeeder – Impressionism. I have been fond of Impressionism and find that the best impressionistic paintings do not suppress the proactive thinking, the take-charge initiative from the audience by their pure visual pleasure. Too often, I have seen some modern Impressionism paintings with brilliant broken colors, or complimentary excitement; but there is nothing evocative beyond that point. And quite often the eyes get exhausted after experiencing a kaleidoscopic showcase of color range.

If the reduced color pallet and muted darkened tones in Barbizon paintings intrigue us into the depth of the canvas and the whole effect of the suggestive moods, then the typical subjects that are chosen by these group of painters bring us an infinite degrees of intimacy. Instead of the bird view of the grandeur that is supposed to be only enjoyed by the God, a closely acquainted or familiar scenes are frequently painted by Ranger, Tryon, and Murphy, etc. There are deep woods where we have trotted; or the brook that quenches both the cattles and travelers. The marshland of Murphy’s paintings reminds the New Yorkers the nature of Long Island; while the old Church under the brush of Henry Golden Dearth stands for our unpretentious daily life. But contrary to the Impressionists, who preferred strong lightand shadow, Barbizon school would find its ideal in dusks or evenings when even the mundane objects bear a touch of tenderness or nostalgia. It is true that the foreground is most likely to be all muddily indistinguishable; yet the remains of the light is at once mysterious and momentary but also recalls something eternal and recurrent in one’s subconsciousness. The profound sentimentality springs out when the unvarying surroundings take a softer form that combines the ordinary and the accustomed with the unanticipated. We’ve seen the trees growing taller as the sun sinks off the horizon, but only under the brush of the Barbizon painters do we really behold and enjoy the beauty of such sunset. In front of such paintings, we are encouraged to perceive out of the vagueness and to seek deeply into our profound memory because of the tendered moods, the suggestive brush strokes and the routine scenery which we think we know from the heart and which surprises us when filtered through painters’ eyes.

In someway, Inness and his followers painted with a continuum of pianissimo. It is said: When volumes of the sounds are toned down, we hear our own internal echos, in a definite resonant.

Keep reading part 3 here.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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