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America Through Rockwell’s Eyes January 17, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — ncardinale @ 1:44 am


Instead of analyzing and dissecting the symbolic aspects of opulent paintings, I have chosen to comment on Norman Rockwell’s comical and down-to-earth cover illustrations for  The Saturday Evening Post.

Despite the political, societal, and cultural turbulence of the 20th Century, Rockwell embodied the wholesome, idyllic vision of American life that people wanted for themselves.

To get the technicalities out-of-the-way, Rockwell’s artwork became more elaborate and detailed over time. For example, in Sneezing Spy from October 1st, 1921, a “kid brother” is caught eavesdropping on the young couple from underneath the sofa. The edges are fuzzy so as to hide the outline that Rockwell drew in the preliminary sketch, and to capture the feeling of a true easel painting. Also, while still moderately detailed, Sneezing Spy depicts a rather conventional and familiar scenario.

On the other hand, Santa On a Train from December 28th, 1940, illustrates a clever, innovative event, in which a boy discovers the Santa Clause from Drysdale Department store out-of-costume on a modest train. By this time, Rockwell’s artwork was more detailed and took on a documentary style. The latter meaning that the abundant settings provided information on the subject’s lifestyles, and that readers could almost imagine themselves interacting with the realistic characteristics and backgrounds (Rockwell often referred to photographs to capture naturalistic poses). Additionally, he no longer designed his Post covers to look like paintings. Rather, he wanted them to look like drawings, which is clearly seen in Santa on a Train, as the initial outline is visible and the colors are more vibrant. The aforesaid was also done to ensure that the painting would copy well onto other mediums. Furthermore, in the nineteen forties, Rockwell merely transferred sketches onto canvases and heightened them with color.

Finally, Triple Self Portrait from February 13th, 1960, represents the last phase in Rockwell’s artwork. By honing a rather artificial texture and applying it to tinted drawings using the impasto (physical buildup of pigment) format, he gave the illusion of an easel painting. In Triple Self Portrait, this is especially seen in the mirror. From a less literal perspective, Rockwell’s artwork became more creative, meaningful, and involved in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties. Aside from the multi-portrait layout of the painting itself, there are smaller intricacies too, such as the miniature portraits of Rockwell, Durer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso attached to the canvas.

With Rockwell’s techniques covered, just what made him so popular and iconic with the American people?

For starters, most of Rockwell’s best covers are anecdotes. He would isolate an episode, and pack it with an abundance of significant detail so as to tacitly convey to the reader what events lead up to, and came after, the image. In essence, Rockwell could conjure up an entire life within the span of a few paintings. Due to the latter, he was not only an illustrator, but the author of many stories. In his artwork, the anecdote and the image are unanimous; they spring naturally from each other.

Rockwell’s affinity for people never seemed to waver. The utopias he painted and the viewers who admired them were considered to be the same. He portrayed Americans as they wanted to see themselves, and this is readily apparent in his works up until the late nineteen thirties (before his paintings became more complex). They do not try to be anything but conformed representations of real life happenings, delightful or affecting, that play witty adaptations on cliche`d themes (young love, growing  old, etc). Rockwell brought to these stereotypes freshness and characterization while staying within society’s boundaries.

Generally speaking, in the first two decades of Rockwell’s career, the people of his miniature dramas were shown with the minimum of props necessary to convey the story, and were recognizable icons isolated from the context of the everyday world. Later on, however, he became increasingly adroit at reflecting a broader context through the versatile use of more props, and less commonplace scenarios. Moreover, he learned to use any method that would enhance the reproduction and impact of his covers. Rockwell grew less concerned with what was academically acceptable. He wanted to be known as more than a mundane easel painter.

Basically, Rockwell was a master of craft and of utilizing any means to convey his point. He was never worried of making the most obvious choices, or in organizing elements in an obvious way. While most artists affect audiences by surprising them, Rockwell impacted people by giving them exactly what they expected. While the latter sounds easy, one must keep in mind that people don’t always know what they expect until they are presented with it. To bring the obvious to life is one of the most difficult things an artist can attempt, and Rockwell was a virtuoso of this.

In summary, what makes Rockwell unique, even more so than his placement and usage of “props,” was his uncanny ability to present faces and hands. One can find in any Rockwell cover that the carefully painted faces and hands are the focal points. Occasionally, he indulged in caricature. But usually, when dealing with faces, he gave viewers a heightened naturalism that almost bordered on being cartoon-like. Rockwell was particularly talented at depicting family relationships through shared physical features–especially the small ones that often go unnoticed. Knowing all of the aforementioned, it is apparent that the little human touches make Rockwell’s paintings everlasting. Without them, his genius as a storyteller would cease to carry truth.


Hogarth a` la Blog Post January 8, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — ncardinale @ 7:16 pm

When I was introduced to this William Hogarth painting from 1745, the first in a series called Marriage a` la Mode, I didn’t even know where to begin. The medley of Enlightenment colors, objects strewn about, and bourgeoisie people confused me as to what the main point was and where I should start looking to find that point.

Later on, I learned that the painting’s untidiness exemplifies a profound social satire–the clutter not only of material items, but of peoples’ lives. The process of hunting for and studying each item to piece together their “baggage”/underlying flaws, much like a puzzle, is what makes Hogarth’s frilly and seemingly unassuming paintings unique to me.

To put the scene into context, the painting depicts a transaction binding an inconspicuous, middle-class girl and a vain, aristocratic boy in marriage.

Seated on the far right is the boy’s father–the pompous Lord Squanderfield (his name says it all), pointing proudly to his family tree. Since he has literally “squandered” all of his money, all he has to bring to the marriage is his family name. His genealogy indicates that he is a descendent of “William Duke of Normandy,” and that all of his family members are successful aristocrats with the exception of one, who married out of class. The canopy hanging behind him symbolizes his “royalty,” and a pair of canes beside him show he is in need of financial stability.

Another sign of Lord Squanderfield’s lack of money is his half-finished Palladian mansion visible from the window. The Lord’s idle servants, those who are curious, and some who are scornful roam in front of the incomplete structure. With the dowry he is receiving from the transaction, he anticipates resumption of work on the mansion. Evidence of the latter is the architect who stands before the window, studying “A Plan on the New Building of the Right Honble [Honorable].”

Across from the Lord sits the girl’s father. Though he is dressed plainly, he is a careful and parsimonious merchant. The chain on his vest suggests he is also an alderman (a member of an assembly or council). While stiffly sitting at the table, he scrutinizes the “Marriage Settelmt of The Rt. Honble. Lord Viscount Squanderfield.”

Between the two fathers stands an usurer who accepts the Lord’s newly acquired money, while holding several bags and some notes marked 1000 Euros for a “Mortgage.”

In the background, the bride and groom-to-be sit together on a couch. The self-centered beau has turned his back on the girl to admire himself in the mirror. He gazes at himself so narcissistically that he fails to notice anything going on around him. On his neck is a large black dot representing a venereal disease (a pretty bold move made by Hogarth for this time period), or his unfaithfulness to the bride.

Meanwhile, slumped next to the boy is the unsophisticated, simply dressed bride who casually twists and turns her wedding ring. Her face reflects resentment and discontent at the way she is being thought of as an object. So dejected is she, that she pays no attention to the ironically named Councilor Silvertongue, who wears a foolish look of self-approval, affectedly takes snuff while balancing on his tiptoes, and sharpens his pen as he tries to charm her.

The bored and uninterested dogs are symbolic of the couple’s state of mind.

Hanging above everybody’s heads are paintings that foretell a disastrous marriage, and comment on the Lord’s expensive taste for foreign art of questionable worth. A head of Medusa, coincidentally placed above the couple, watches the scene in utter horror; an overbearing portrait of Lord Squanderfield as Jupiter with a thunderbolt in his hand, a comet flashing above him, a cherub blowing his wig in a different direction from his flamboyant clothing, and a cannon exploding in front him, hangs above the usurer; on top of the frame of the Lord’s portrait, a lion seems to grin at the work; on the ceiling is a depiction of Pharoah’s armies in the Red Sea; covering the rest of the walls are pictures of David and Goliath, Judith and Holophernes, the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, Prometheus being tortured by a vulture, the massacre of the innocents, Cain killing Abel, and the martyrdom of St. Lawrence.

Initially, the first painting of Marriage a` la Mode seems busy but straightforward in meaning. On taking a second look, one finds out that this is untrue. Hogarth usually riddles his works with hidden meanings and symbols that could go unnoticed if not keenly sought out. It is this mysterious element of Hogarth’s rococo paintings that make him one of my favorite artists.


The answer’s in the eye of the beholder January 4, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — ncardinale @ 12:58 am

Velazquez, Las Meninas, 1656-7

Diego Velazquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) is one of my favorite works of art for technical, aesthetical, and metaphorical reasons. The scene is of Spain’s Royal Household congregating in one of the rooms of a palace in Madrid.

On a literal basis, I was first struck by Velazquez’s use of chiaroscuro–Italian for “light from dark.” This Renaissance technique illuminates the foreground and the bottom half of the background, meshing the two sections together, adding depth, and increasing the volume of the subjects. The looming darkness above broadens the painting’s height and feeling of vast space.

What also interested me, was the discreet way in which Velazquez conveyed the time period by covering the walls with shadowed Baroque paintings.

Additionally, Las Meninas is noted for its realism. The figures are meant to be those of the Royal Family of Spain, and Velazquez depicted himself on the left as a courtier, commissioned to create exalting works of art for the Royal Household.

Interestingly enough, there are four vanishing points present: one is the prominently seated infant, Maria Margarita, the second is the top right edge of the canvas, the third is the mirror/picture frame (no one knows for sure what it’s supposed to be), and the fourth is the space above the elbow of José de Nieto, the man spotlighted in the upper doorway. Depending on the focal point the viewer chooses to look at, the presence of Philip IV and Mariana of Austria (the couple in the black frame) shifts.

For picturesque reasons, I believe the lavish clothes and resplendent, icy hues emerging from blackness make Velazquez’s painting beautiful.

Finally, I love Las Meninas for its ambiguousness.

The black frame in the background is either a mirror capturing the image of Philip and Mariana standing in a doorway, a mirror that is reflecting the painting Velazquez is working on, or a completed portrait of the Monarchs. If it’s the former, the figures are obviously addressing the couple who are standing in a doorway. If it’s one of the latter two, the people are staring at the viewer, giving the vibe that we are intruding on their space.

Even more symbolic if the black frame were to be a portrait or a mirror image of a portrait, would be the suggestion that the Monarchs have a spiritual or “God-like” presence. Whether this is good or bad, is up to the individual.

However, what if the Royal Couple is physically standing in the doorway? Does this mean that their presence and political influence is imposing? Or is it dwindling since they’re only seen in a mirror image? Again, whichever rings true varies from person to person.

One of the paintings hanging on the wall is supposed to have been done by the famous artist, Rubens. The aforestated could represent Velazquez paying homage to an artistic predecessor, and/or, he could be criticizing the Spanish’s views of ideal art. If the latter is correct, then is Velazquez’s figure “waiting in the wings,” hoping to prove to Spain that he is the best court painter? The answer is up for interpretation.

On a smaller scale, the dog in the foreground could symbolize the loyalty of the Royal Family to Spain, Nieto could be a lingering threat to the government, and Maria Margarita may or may not be curtseying to a presence at the door, indicating if the black frame is a mirror showing Philip and Mariana entering.

And speaking of Margarita, what does she embody? The wholesome image of the Royal Household that needs constant maintenance and upkeep (as she is being attended to by two girls: María Agustina Sarmiento and Isabel de Velasco)? A new type of government that is emerging or being dwarfed? Or is she simply eyeing the viewer–tacitly asking us what we think is going on?

Personally, I do not have any answers to these questions, nor do I have much of an opinion. But it is not having answers or opinions for Las Meninas that makes it a special painting to me. For all answers lie in the eye of the beholder.


3-post blog assignment

Filed under: Uncategorized — ncardinale @ 12:57 am

My next three blog posts will be commentaries on my favorite works of art. I will write in the Expository format.