Some More about Henry Wingate, his work and the traditional style he paints in

Continuing in the tradition of the Boston School of portraitists, and the baroque. Following on from the last post, I thought that readers might be interested to see some more work of artist  Henry Wingate, and to know more about the academic method that he uses to such great effect. I like his portraits especially and he is one of relatively few artists around today who is making a real contribution to a re-establishment of traditional principles by teaching as well as painting (motivated by a desire to serve the Church).

Based in rural Virginia, Wingate studied with Paul Ingbretson in New England and with Charles Cecil, in Florence, Italy. Both Ingbretson and Cecil studied under R H Ives Gammell, the teacher, writer, and painter who perhaps more than anyone else kept the traditional atelier method of painting instruction alive.

The academic method was first developed in Renaissance Italy and was the basis of transmission of the baroque style (described by Pope Benedict XVI as one of three authentically Catholic liturgical artistic traditions, along with the gothic and the iconographic). The method is named after the art academies of the seventeenth century. The most famous early Academy was opened by the Carracci brothers, Annibali, Agostino, and Ludivico, in Bologna in 1600.  Their method became the standard for art education and nearly every great Western artist for the next 300 years received, in essence, an academic training.

Under the influence of the Impressionists the method almost died out. They consciously broke with tradition and refused to pass it on to their pupils. This is strange given that all the well known Impressionists were themselves academically trained, used the skills they learned in their art and in fact could not have produced the paintings they did without it. By 1900 the grand academies of Europe had closed. The fact that it survives at all is largely the legacy of the Boston group of figurative artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most prominent among them John Singer Sargent (who was trained in Paris, but knew them and mixed with them). Other names are Joseph de Camp, Edmund Tarbell and Emil Grundmann. The US was slower to adopt the destructive ideas of Europe and the traditional schools survived there a little longer. Ives Gammell received his training at Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the years just before the First World War. The most well know ateliers that exist today in the US and Italy, were opened by artists who trained under Gammell in the 1970s (when he was in his 80s). Most of people painting and teaching in this style today, that I know of, come out of this line.

The ateliers of the 19th century had become detached from their Christian ethos and the sacred art of the period was inferior to that of the period 200 years before. However, portraiture, and especially that of the Sargent and the Boston School retained the principles of the balance of sharpness and focus, the variation in colour intensity and the contrast in light and dark that characterized the baroque. Today, even portraiture has declined (Wingate and his ilk being exceptions to this) because very often it is based upon photographic images rather than observation from nature. Photographs reflect the distortion of the lens of the camera, which is different from that of the eye; they have too many sharp edges and everywhere is both highly detailed and highly coloured. Consider, for example, how Wingate has handled the drapery in the portrait at the top, left. He has not supplied a fully detailed rendering, yet there is not a sense of a lack of detail because when we look at the figure, which is what Wingate wants us to look at, the detail supplied is sufficient for our peripheral vision.

If you go somewhere where you can see a series of portraits painted over long period (perhaps those of the principals hanging in the dining hall of a long-established school or college - I recently went to a dinner at the Roxbury Latin School in Boston -  founded in the 17th century), you can see this difference between the traditional and the modern portraits very easily.

I am not against photographic portraits by the way, far from it. The point is that it is a different medium to painting, to which we respond differently. These Christian considerations can be communicated through photography, in my opinion, but they have to be done differently. (And if there are any photographers out there, I think that relating the art of photography to the Christian tradition of visual imagery is an area that has not yet been properly developed.) The point here is that paintings made from photographs rarely work unless the artist is conscious of these stylistic considerations and has the skill and experience to adapt what the photographic information.

The retention of these principles in 19th-century portrait painting was not due to a Christian motivation, to my knowledge. If a portrait painter is to make a living then he cannot indulge in the free expression that one might see in other forms. The portrait painter, Christian or not, must seek to balance two things. First, he must produce a painting that is attractive to those who are going to see it, usually the individual and those who know him or her. The usual approach to this is to bring out the best human characteristics of the person. He is ennobling  - idealizing - the individual. However, he cannot take this too far and go beyond the bounds of truth. He must also capture the likeness of the individual otherwise it will not be recognized as a portrait. My teacher in Florence, Charles Cecil, taught us not to be bound by an absolute standard of visual accuracy, but to modify what we saw, slightly. We were told to stray ‘towards virtue rather vice’: strengthen the chin slightly, for example. This approach is consistent with the Christian artist’s portrayal of a person, which is as much about revealing what a person can be, as what he is. The idea that the crucial aspect by which the artist reveals the person is by capturing the likeness goes back to St Theodore the Studite, the Church Father whose theology settled the iconoclastic controversy in the 9th century.

For the work of Henry Wingate, see www.henrywingate.com.

Is some sacred art too naturalistic?

There are many artists today working towards the reestablishment of the great naturalistic tradition of sacred art which was at its height in the 17th century, and this is to be encouraged. The artists coming out of the ateliers and studios that teach the traditional academic method who are adding greatly to this cause, and while there are some great painters of portrait and still life, I think that very often there is something wrong with the sacred art that they paint. Someone recently asked me about this. He felt that they looked too individualised - like portraits of the person next door, which makes it difficult to identify the figure portrayed with the saint and the ideals that the saint represents.  Is it possible that these modern examples of sacred art are too naturalistic he asked?

I think that the answer is yes. All Christian figurative art is a balance between naturalism – likeness to physical appearances – and abstraction. The latter is the stylization that enables the artist to reveal invisible truths by visible means. We are used to a high degree of stylization in icons, but are less aware that is there too, though more subtly employed, in naturalistic sacred art too. The problem with the modern sacred art is that most people who are trained academically today are trained to paint the human person as portrait painters. The balance between naturalism and idealism is differs - what is right for portraits,  is not right for sacred art.

I think perhaps the seeds of this lie in the difference between 19th century academic art, which is a degraded from of the baroque of the 17th century, which is an authentic Christian tradition (although at first glace they look similar).

Most of the best artists today who are painting in the Western naturalistic tradition were trained in ateliers that teach the academic method as it was in the 19th century. Although the techniques learnt were the same in each case, the there were subtle differences in style between 19th century naturalism (sometimes called ‘Realism’) and 17th century baroque and this reflects a difference in the ethos that underlies each. The impetus for the formation of the baroque was the Counter-Reformation, which built on the work of the great artists of the High Renaissance, which preceded it. Although not all baroque art had an explicitly sacred purpose, stylistically it had its roots firmly in the liturgical art form.

By the 19th century, the art of the teaching academies – ‘academic’ art - had become detached from its Christian ethos. So although there would be individual artists who were Catholic, it was no longer broadly accepted as a Catholic form. In this period, in regard to the painting of people, the main focus was portraiture, as this was where the money was to be made, rather than liturgical art. That is not to say that there was no sacred art all, but that portraiture became the driving force and so this is what formed the style. Characterising the difference in a nutshell: in the 17th century, you had artists whose training was directed to the painting of sacred art turning their hand to portraiture (and other mundane subjects); in the 19th century (and even more so today) you have the reverse – artists whose training is directed to portraiture (as well as still life and to a lesser degree landscape) turning their hand to sacred art.

Portrait painting, by its very nature, stresses the individual characteristic of the person. The Romantic period of the early 19th century added a new dimension. The artist was encouraged now to communicate in addition, their personal feelings about the person. This idea was not accepted by everybody immediately, but from this point we see a steady development of a sense of intimate involvement with the sitter. I do not object this to this in all cases -- I think it can work very well in portraiture. I love the portraits of the great 19th century artists (especially, for example, those of the American Boston school, which is the original source of the training I received in an atelier in Florence 100 years later). Although the unique aspects of the person are important in sacred art too, it must not be at the cost of communicating those aspects which are common to all of us. Those are the aspects of a saint that are of greatest interest to the rest of us sinners - for only the only aspects that we can emulate are those that are common to all of us.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are in the likeness of God in those aspects that are subject to the Fall and so can be improved with God's grace. These are the very aspects that saints reveal to us as an ideal and which are presented to us as an inspiration to do the same. In this they point to the Christ-like qualities that we should all aim to imitate. It is this idealized aspect that, in my opinion, is missing from the academic art both of the 19th century and it is even more pronounced in its current manifestation. The result in the context of sacred art is very often a painting that communicates an over-familiarity with the individual. It looks like a set from a Victorian melodrama – with a friend or relative dressed up as Our Lady, rather than Our Lady herself.

Contrast also William Bougeureau’s Virgin and Lamb [above], painted at the turn of the 20th century with Raphael’s tondo the Alba Madonna of 1511 [below].

Raphael deliberately idealized his work, to evoke the heavenly ideal, by basing it on the idealized features of ancient Greek art. Bougeureau’s Madonna, on the other hand, is tinged with a sentimentality that is, in my opinion, inappropriate for the subject which result, I believe, from this over intimate rendering of the person. However, looking another piece of work by the same artist, but this time a portrait, we see a work of both great vigour and beauty.



His style is appropriate here, I feel.

As another piece that has this staged-pose look, I would cite also Jules Bastien-Lapage's St Joan [below].

Bastien-Lepage was famous for painting rural scenes of peasants. Although rendered with dazzling skill (perhaps beyond the level of any artist I know of today) it still has the look of a model, dressed up in peasant garb rather than something that points to the saint. I would struggle to pray in front of this in a church. It is just too present and immediate. And, like Bougeureau, for all the weaknesses of this as a piece of devotional art, Bastien-Lepage's portraits are, in my opinion, splendid.

In naturalistic art it is appropriate to communicate strongly the emotions of the subject painted (in contrast with icons for example, where it is less true). We read emotions of people by looking at their faces and by gesture. It occurs to me that perhaps one of the reasons that the baroque stresses gesture so strongly is that it provides a way of communicating emotion without requiring the observer to focus there attention so strongly on the face and so hightening too much the uniqueness of the person.

So assuming we accept the analysis, how can we avoid it this problem today? I think that the answer lies in the training.

The style within a tradition has always been transmitted by the Masters we study. So, artists seeking to produce should study and copy, in the spirit of understanding, the works of the Masters of liturgical art they admire. Although I love the work of Raphael, and there are many aspects of his work I love to be able to emulate, I would not want to do so in this particular regard – if anything he swings in the opposite direction and the idealization is overemphasized for my tastes. I would go first for the great artists of baroque naturalism, for example, Georges de la Tour [below], Velazquez, Ribera and Zurbaran [below the de la Tours].

All of these artists, (the examples shown are de la Tour's St Joseph and Zurbaran's St Francis) presented saints with a balance of the individuality and idealisation that strikes the right balance. If there was a more recent artist whose sacred art succeeds, I would suggest the 20th century Italian, Pietro Annigoni. I saw his St Joseph [below] hanging in a church in Florence alongside baroque masters and despite its modern appearance in many other respects, it did not look out of place at all.

There is another aspect that could be introduced into the training of all artists that wasn’t present in the 17th century, but which nevertheless might help. Artists cannot help but be influenced by the art we have seen and we live in time in which we are bombarded by photographic imagery in all its manifestations. As a result the subtleties of the balance of the particular and the ideal that we are discussing are not easily reproduced even if we want to. I think that some exposure to a form of painting in which the idealized form is much more obvious and is clearly linked to theology would be beneficial. I would always recommend, therefore, that even an artist who eventually wants to specialize in the Western naturalistic tradition include some iconography in their foundational training. The actual experience of creating icons is more likely to impress these values upon the souls of artists so that intuitively they will include them in their own work.

Should an artist copy from photographs?

Does the means invalidate the end? Shortly after moving the US I was contacted by someone I knew when I was studying if Florence. When I was in Florence Martinho Correia had been teaching the academic method at one of the ateliers in Florence. He contacted me because he had just converted to Catholicism and was keen to tell me about it. It was good to hear from him, especially with such good news! More recently Martinho told me about a two-week course he was offering, now back in his home town Calgary in Canada called Painting People from Photos. You can see the details here.

This raises the question as to whether or not an artist should paint from photographs? Many of those who were trained to paint from nature in ateliers would say categorically, no! to a highly trained artist working from photographs feels like cheating; and there is the sense too that the proper way to represent something is to percieve it directly (even though practically no icon is painted through direct apprehension of the saint).

I always used to think this until I reluctantly had to admit that if I had to make a living as a portrait painter I would probably have to paint from photographs some of the time. The advantage of photographs is that you don't require the sitter to be available as much and so you can produce a cheaper portrait. Also it is one solution to the problem of trying to painting subjects that won't sit still, such as children or animals - although perhaps if I had the skill of Sargent this wouldn't be a problem. I wonder also if part of the reason for my objecting to this comes from an instinctive reaction against modernity and the idea of a machine do what used to done by hand? On reflection, however, the only way to judge this is by the quality of the end result. If the final painting created by copying a photograph is indistinguishable from (or even superior to) that painted directly from a sitter, then all well and good.

There are some who think that the means is important, even if you can't tell the difference in the end. I do not hold to this (provided that the means doesn't lead the artist into sin). There is a similar discussion in regard to icon painting: many tell me that the artist must work from a dark to light (starting with a dark base colour and building the highlights on top) because it mirrors the theological point that the light overcomes the darkness. Aidan Hart firmly lays this to rest in his recently published book. He describes how modern X-ray analysis has shown that many ancient icons weren't painted in this way. Hart himself has put aside the light-from-dark method (along with its accompanying theology) for another on the grounds that he can paint icons of equal quality faster so sell more. This is an important consideration for a working artist.So back to photographs. The question that remains is this: can an artist produce equal results to those produced by observing directly from nature? The lens of a camera processes the image differently from that in the eye (its a bit like the difference between a wide angle lens and magnifying glass) and so a photograph looks different to a painting from nature. The stylistic elements of the baroque are developed so that when the eye sees the two-dimensional painting, the information as presented to and utilised by the mind, is the same as if it were looking at the three-dimensional object. Therefore, it is conceivable that an artist who understands these differences could adapt a photograph so that it contains those painterly qualities.

If we look at Martinho's examples below, he is most definitely not just copying the photograph. The background for example is totally different and has been skillfully applied so that light and dark contrasts vary according to the local tonal value of the subject. He would not know how to do this if were not highly knowledgable about traditional portraiture.

It is concievable that a new form could develop out of this, in which some photographic elements are retained, and some are changed. Even this is not a bad thing necessarily. Photography is a legitimate art form, so why not this hybrid?

All the examples shown are by Martinho.

Faces by Matthew James Collins

Demonstrating the contrast been portraiture and the baroque style of sacred art. I have written in the past about the different approaches to portraiture and sacred art in the Western naturalistic form of the baroque (in the article: Is Some Modern Sacred Art too Naturalistic?) . I this I discussed the fact that many examples of sacred art are painted as though they are portraits and end up looking like a staged tableau in which the boy or girl nextdoor is dressed up in old fashioned clothing. Consider the work of someone I met when I was studying the academic method in Florence, Matthew James Collins. I know of know one else who knows more about the art of the baroque and High Renaissance periods. Matt is an American who still lives and works in Italy. His portfolio ishere (look at his sculpture and landscapes of the Italian countryside too) I was looking at this portfolio a few days ago and several paintings of faces caught my eye. First this portrait left. It has all the right elements: it is painted in some areas loosely, and in some with more detail and tighter control, but always with precision. The variation in focus and colour content reflect the Christian understanding of the human person: those areas that we look at most, especially the eyes and the mouth, and which reveal emotion and thought and aspects of the soul, are those we look at the most when we look at someone. These are the parts that contain the most detail and the most natural colouring.

If you look at the right side of the face, the part that in this portrait is more distant than the other. To make this read properly, the artist must make everything on this side of the face slightly smaller than the left; and the right edge must be blurred enough to give a sense of a turning edge, but still sharp enough to retain the right sense of contrast with the background. This is terrifically difficult to get right - even Titian and Rembrandt (for the most part absolute Masters) got it wrong occasionally. In this portrait Matt has captured it. Notice how even the glint on each eye varies to reflect the slight perspective - the right eye is more distant and the glint is smaller and less bright. These tiny specks of white can make or break a portrait.

Part of the essence of the baroque style is a strong emphasis on tonal description and the reduction of natural colour in all but the main focal points of the painting. Even if you master this, which is hard enough, then there is very often a problem in that the shadow areas look flat and dull. Matt has introduced some energy into the shadow by using a different of colours in any one area that are, broadly speaking, tonally equivalent (ie if you took a black and white photo there would be very little contrast) but of slightly different colours. This gives life and variety to the composition.

Notice also how he varies the background tone in order to enhance local contrast, so next to some dark edges of the head the background is slightly lighter and the opposite for light edges. However, he does so while avoiding a distracting, exaggerated patchiness and maintaining a unified impression.

It is an exceptional portrait, in my opinion. But the focus on the individual that we see here and is necessary in portraits would not be appropriate for sacred art. And this is the difficulty for many artists today who are trained primarily as portrait painters.

Contrast it with the first head study shown below. All the essentials elements are here too and handled just as well. However, this is not a portrait. It is one of a series of studies that Matt is doing to develop his skill in allegorical or explicitly sacred art. Matt has deliberately chosen to lessen the portrait elements of the face. This is the same device used by the baroque masters of the 17th century to paint the faces of saints. It causes to focus less on the individual, and more on those general characteristics that are common to all of us but are exemplified in an exceptional way in saints. Again this is difficult to do: it is a question of a shift of emphasis, rather than featuring one aspect to the exclusion of the other). Think of any of the paintings of St Francis of Assisi by the Spanish baroque painter Zurburan. The psychological aspects are communicated through posture and gesture as much as facial expressions but if this is overdone, the result is sentimentality, or even melodrama. This emphasis on the general can be seen, for example, one of the most famous pieces of sacred art produced in the 17th century, by Velazquez. The face of Christ is in shadow and is clearly very different from a portrait (I have put a detail of the face from this painting at the bottom.)

The reason that I bring this to your notice is that here we have an artist is unusual in that he understands this subtle distinction between the two styles.

Matt does not have a large portfolio of sacred art to point to at the moment. He is a working artist with a young family portraiture and landscape are his staples. He mentioned to me ruefully, that even when people do commission sacred art, they want the 19th century style and so most of his sacred art has more of this negative aspect than he would choose to paint if he was not painting for sale.

I would encourage people who are looking to commission works of sacred art in the naturalistic style to ask explicitly for this 17th-century style. I have talked to him at length about this distinction and I know that it is something that he has been developing on his own work even since he first tackled the work show below (Christ Carrying the Cross) which was shown at an exhibition put on by the Foundation for the Sacred Arts.
I have included below also his Triumph of Hermes. I am not drawn to the genre of the classical myth/allegorical paintings and would not choose this to hang on my wall. I it here because it is a narrative scene that does, I feel, avoid that boy-nextdoor-all-dressed-up-in-old-fashioned-clothing syndrome.Works shown below, first: head study; third: Christ Carrying the Cross; fourth: The Triumph of Hermes. All are by Matthew James Collins. The final images are of the crucifixion by Velazquez.