Here is a lesson for any artist who wants to make a living as a painter. I was contacted recently by an American artist who is Catholic, Steve Talley, who told me that paints landscapes and his intention is to glorify God through the beauty of his work. When he told me that he sells much of what he paints - his Nocturnes are particularly good sellers - and shows in two galleries, one in Texas and one in New Mexico, I was particularly interested to know how he had managed this.
Although, as I mentioned, he is already a working artist who sells his work, he contacted me because he wanted to improve as an artist by allowing his faith to inform more deeply what he does. He wished to reflect as well on the nature of his personal vocation as an artist in relation to the broad mission of the Church.
Naturally, I recommended that he enroll in the Master of Sacred Arts program and suggested that while he considers this he read two books, The Vision for You, which would help him to discern his personal vocation; and the Way of Beauty.
I asked Steve about his work. Steve’s approach as he described it to me,. He looked at artists whom he admired and whose style he thought might have an appeal to people today. He thought that the paintings of the American landscape would have an appeal, he divides his time between Texas and New Mexico and so these would be the subjects of his work. The artists he mentioned to me were the nocturnes of Will Sparks and the tonalist works of John Francis Murphy and Chauncey Foster Ryder. All three are American artists who worked in the last part of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. He used these as a starting point for the development of his own voice.
This, to my mind, is exactly what Catholics ought to do because it reflects a mindset of tradition. You start by working in the style of another and let your own interpretation of it come through naturally. Being commercially minded is important because it is no small thing to create a work of art that people are prepared to part money to own. This is not the only criterion of good art, but it is one of them, I suggest. Not everything that sells is good, but as a generalization, all that is good will sell.
We can think of the Nocturne as an American invention in many ways. The phrase ‘Nocturne’ was coined by the American artist James McNeill Whistler, in the 19th century. Although Whistler himself did much of his work in London (sometimes from a boat anchored in the middle of the River Thames) it is a form that seems to have taken up by American painters in their portrayal of their own country. Perhaps its the wide open night skies of the prairie that inspire them, I don’t know. Certainly, it does seem to be a theme in the American landscaping tradition. Associated with these are a school of painters called Tonalists. As well as the harmony and beauty of the natural world, both the Tonalists style and the Nocturne draw inspiration on ideas of musical harmony - parallels with the musical Tone Poems and Nocturnes of the 19th century were deliberate. While the inspiration for these is the beauty of the created world and the natural order, it does seem to me that this is a form that an artist who understands that these, in turn, give glory to God will excel in.
The paintings by Talley that I like most seem to sit in the place where the Nocturne and the Tonalist touch. They are set at times when the light is still present but dimmed, waxing, or waning - late in the day, or early in the morning, or perhaps in heavy mist.
Below are paintings, in order, by Talley (the first two) then works by Whistler, John Francis Murphy, and Chauncey Foster Ryder.