Modern Art Begins

Creativity takes courage. Henri Matisse

What makes Modern Art modern?  It’s a big question, but these older paintings might help us to begin to answer it:

Hendrick Avercamp, On the Ice, 1610
John Constable, Weymouth Bay, 1816
Albert Bierstadt, Looking Down Yosemite Valley, 1865
Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, 1770
Anthony Van Dyke, Charles I, King of England, Hunting, 1635
John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892-93

Why were these works painted?

Or how about these?

Jacopo Bassano, The Good Samaritan, 1550-70
Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in the Wilderness, 1480
Bartolome Bermejo, St. Michael Triumphant Over the Devil, 1468
Pompeo Batoni, Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty, 1746
Adolph-William Bouguereau, Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros, 1880

Or what about these?

Jan Vermeer, View of Delft, 1662
Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654
Ambrosius Bosschaert, Vase with Flowers, 1614
Francois Boucher, Diana Bathing, 1739
Jacques-Louis David, Cupid and Psyche, 1817

These paintings:

  1. Record the world.
  2. Instruct us.
  3. Decorate our space.
  4. Entertain us.

They’re wonderful, but around a hundred and fifty years ago we started wanting more from art.

Did it start with this artist?

Johann Fuselli, The Nightmare, 1781

Or this artist?

William Blake, The Ghost of a Flea, 1819-20

Or with this artist?

J.M.W. Turner, Steamboat off a Harbor's Mouth, 1842

Maybe this painting really kicked off Modern Art:

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872

Or some people think it was this one:

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold, 1874

Or this one:

Paul Serusier, The Talisman, 1888

Or this one:

Vassily Kandinsky, Composition IV, 1911
  • What do these paintings have in common?
  • What did we now want from art?
  • Why the change?

These are difficult questions and lots of books have been written about the gradual change in art and consciousness.  I find it fascinating, but, again, our time is short so we’ll keep it simple:

These discoveries and changes encouraged new direction in the arts:

  • The invention of the camera.
  • The invention of tube paints.
  • The discovery of  Japanese art.
  • The “Masters of the Universe” mentality.  If we can make a combustion engine, string electric lights and build the Eiffel Tower we can do anything – and think anything (see below).

These three Masters of the Universe  (Original Thinkers category)  had something to do with the change in art (and culture) (Edward Lucie-Smith, Visual Arts in the Twentieth Century).   You may have run into them in your history, psychology, philosophy or literature classes.  They are worth running into:

Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 67):
A poet and essayist, he scrapped our debt to the past with thoughts like:

“Almost all our originality comes from the imprint which the times give to our sensations.”
“Genius is simply childhood rediscovered at will.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900):
He believed in the “artistic conquest of the horrible,” and thought that artists should be allowed to do whatever they believed necessary to achieve greatness.   Artists and other “Supermen,” were augmenting human consciousness, and so were exempt from cultural norms.   (Men only need apply).

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939):
He told us that our subconscious has great power to drive our lives – and most of the time we don’t even know it.

  • Why would artists love these guys?
  • Why would intellectuals love these guys?
  • Why would established religion and government be suspicious?

All this would have been pretty heady stuff for a young man with a little energy and talent.  Why paint portraits or pretty pictures for the rich or religious when you can transform consciousness with a stroke of your brush?  And sleeping around and drinking was expected!

Sign me up!

It sounds like fun until you had to pay your rent, or buy bread, or listen to people mock your work.   Putting your soul on canvas is scary – and even scarier if your vision is unsettling or unique.   Sincerity and talent were no guarantee of success in this new personal art, so often only the egotistical or lucky could manage to make a living.

Artist as prophet sounds glorious, but in reality it is a tough job.  Especially if you don’t quite believe it yourself.

This brings us to my choice to kick off Modern Art:  Vincent Van Gogh.