Posts Tagged 'UWA-P5-annotation'

UA1-WA:P5-p2-Exercise: Analyse an Impressionist landscape

This exercise calls for an annotation of either one of Whistler’s Nocturne series of paintings or an Impressionist landscape painting, together with the instruction “try and work from an original if at all possible”.

I have chosen to analyse Antoine Vollon’s Dieppe (1873). The original is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), so available for me to see. The extent to which the work meets the main criteria will be discussed as part of the analysis.

Antoine Vollon Dieppe 1873   oil on canvas   32.8 x 40.3 cm

Antoine Vollon
1873 oil on canvas 32.8 x 40.3 cm

vollon_02This quite small work shows a view across a harbour to the town beyond. Strong horizontal lines are formed by the receding lines of silhouetted buildings and the brushstrokes of calm water. A dark area of docks is dimly indicated to the left. A few small but firm verticals are created by architecture and dimly seen masts. Other masts suggest diagonals and create movement. Virtually half the canvas is sky.

The colours are subdued, almost monochromatic – white, blue-greys in a wide range of values – enlivened and enriched by some sparks of yellow mainly towards the left. In my photograph above and the one on the AGNSW website there appears to be a distinct violet in a band across the centre of the picture. This is not visible in person, where these sections generally appear a soft white blended over layers of paint.

vollon_03Paint has been applied in a varied, and I suggest inventive, way using brush and palette knife. Broad horizontal strokes have been used to form docks, the rows of buildings and water. Detail has been scratched into the paint using the handle of the brush. My camera had trouble catching it, but the effect in the water is very energetic, evocative without being highly detailed.

vollon_04This central detail of the work shows some of the variety of technique in use. The pinnacles of the church are lightly and precisely brushed in, while the shape of the dome is indicated by rough scraping through the paint layers. More broad brushwork indicates the mass of the architecture, while the dock area is a smear of smooth darkness. The sky is an almost undifferentiated luminous glow of chalky white and desaturated blue. Reflected off the water the light becomes a harder glare. A steam boat puffs clouds of white smoke into the air, while the lower town is obscured behind a soft haze of smoke.

Seeing this work in the gallery it seemed to me appropriate for this exercise. It is the right period and the right location for an Impressionist work. It has a sense of immediacy, sketchy, vigorous. There isn’t the spectacular optical colour experimentation of impressionist works, but there appears to be a correspondence with some of the almost monochromatic works among Whistler’s Nocturne series, especially given those lifts of almost complementary yellow.

Honour and Fleming (2009) include some characteristics of Impressionist paintings:

  • “Rough handling and broken colour patches … as if … casual sketches” (p. 702). The AGNSW picture includes rough handling, not the polished finish of an Academy painting. Colour, or tones, are in blocks or patches rather than detailed blending.
  • “Strictly objective, dispassionate spirit of on-the-spot observation” and “contemporaneity of subject and optical truth” (p. 702). Vollon’s work appears to present a particular moment – perhaps late afternoon with light cloud cover. A bustling port with sail and steam boats is contemporary. There is a sense of a momentary glimpse, the truth of what would be seen at a glance rather than a careful inventory of items. However Carol Forman Tabler, a leading authority on Vollon, has suggested “site-specific objectivity has been made obsolescent by the dynamic, painterly means of expression” (1995, p. 58).
  • “Capture their immediate, momentary impressions with the greatest possible fidelity” (p. 703). There seems to be an additional level of accustomed knowledge in Vollon’s work. Those incised curls of water at the bow of the boat are more a symbol than an observation of the waves. On the other hand Tabler writes “Vollon perhaps most closely approximates Impressionism in the way he captures … the fleeting optical sensation as opposed to the permanent absolute reality” (Tabler, 1995, p. 86).
  • “Positivist, scientific attitude” (p. 703). I can’t detect these qualities in the subject work.
  • High toned palette, clear bright colours, varied, broken brushstrokes (all p. 703). The palette is quite different – as mentioned above more aligned to the Nocturnes. Paint has been applied in a range of techniques, but while the experimentation is pushing beyond Realism it is not following the Impressionist focus on optical effects.
  • “Eliminate the foreground”, “nothing is clear and solid”, “light and atmosphere the subject”, no sense of deep space (p. 704). Vollon’s work does not have a foreground, but there is a sense of space even if it ends in the middle distance. Although not modeled to create volume and no clear outlines, objects have been drawn – albeit with a scratching handle.
  • Whistler’s work is described as having an empty expanse of water, high skyline, undefined space, a translation of Japanese art (p. 713). None of these are reflected in Vollon’s work.

Honour and Fleming describe Impressionism as “the final stage of Realism” (2009, p. 703), and I suggest that Vollon’s work also builds from and beyond Realism – but by a different path.

Vollon was an established painter of realist still-life when a more adventurous landscape was among the works rejected by the Salon jurors in 1863. His work was shown in the Salon des Refusés, but he did not turn his back on academic painting. Vollon continued to be successful with his Realist still-lifes, and in 1870 he took a seat on the Jury. He also continued his explorations with landscapes – but did not exhibit them. In fact Tabler has suggested “the privacy with which he safeguarded his landscapes can also be viewed as a conscious aesthetic determination on his part in order to protect his freedom to experiment” (Tabler, 1995, p. 4).

vollon_05Vollon had multiple links to the Impressionists. The subject work was dedicated to his friend Antoine Guillemet, who was himself closely associated with members of the Impressionist circle (he is included in Manet’s The Balcony). Inscribing the picture in this way suggests that Vollon both regarded it as a finished work, and knew the audience who would appreciate it. Vollon’s seat on the jury came about partly due to the resignation of Daubigny, protesting Monet’s rejection. Daubigny acted as a mentor to both Monet and Vollon.

Tabler argues “the case of Vollon … unsettles the mythology of an ‘old’ art history, which pits the heroic avant-garde against an intransigent old guard” (Tabler, 1995, p. 82). Part of this current exercise was to consider the criteria that can be used in evaluating a less representational landscape. Through my research on Vollon’s painting I have considered those criteria – and although in the event the work is not Impressionist, I have found the process very instructive. It’s also a good reminder that any neat sense of progress and inevitability in art history is illusory, and many of the labels we use are approximations and hindsight.


Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Tabler, C. (1995) The landscape paintings of Antoine Vollon (1833-1900) [manuscript] : a catalogue and an analysis

UA1-WA:P5-p2-Exercise: Analyse an Impressionist landscape
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project two: Landscape
Exercise: Analyse an Impressionist landscape

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 2

The Lacquer Room (1936) by Grace Cossington Smith (1892 – 1984) is the focus of my second annotation of an interior view. It’s a slight stretch to see this as “early twentieth-century”, but corresponds to the time-frames of the two suggested artists Matisse (1869 – 1954) and Dufy (1877 – 1953). The painting is on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and is an example of exciting, vibrant, original, Australian art. Light, space and the relationship of figures to the setting are important elements in the painting of interiors, and I think this work provides an exceptional example of all.

Grace Cossington Smith The Lacquer Room 1936 oil on paperboard on plywood

Grace Cossington Smith
The Lacquer Room
1936 oil on paperboard on plywood
74.0 x 90.8 cm

The image above from my phone’s camera has dulled all the colour, lost all the vibrancy and crispness of the original. The AGNSW website (link above) has a better but still not really good version.

CossingtonSmith_sketchThe picture shows the basement café of a major city department store. On the right is shown a sketch Cossington Smith made at the café, including notes of colours and materials (the sketch is held at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) – see

Light shimmers in this painting. There are a few dark notes – shadow under tables, winter clothing – but most of the painting is in mid to high tones. The light has no obvious source. The wall-mounted Art Deco lights cast only a slightly increased light on the walls above them. The top of the free-standing lamp and the ceiling lights can’t even be seen. Instead an opalescent light suffuses the entire image, reflecting off surfaces to up-light faces. The light bounces around from the walls, floor, counter-sides, and mirror on the right. There’s so much light it is hard to believe this is a basement room (see a roughly contemporary photograph on the NGA site –

There is a darker bulk at the left of the image, women in dark hats and coats. This is cleverly balanced on the right by a truncated figure. Our eyes insert the additional weight.

CossingtonSmith_01The lower part of the image is filled with curves repeating and echoing – chair backs, heads, bodies… The closer you look the more you see – hair, eyes, caps and saucers. There is a uniformity imposed that unites areas across the work.

However that is only the beginning of the lines.

CossingtonSmith_08Contrasting to the lower section, the top third of the picture is boxy, with vertical lines predominating (highlighted in green). Other lines (in pink) vary in direction, but remain straight, distinct, uncompromised.

The two sections are divided by one long gentle curve of countertop from one side of the picture to the other. They are linked vertically by curves which run from one shape to another – a man’s hair parting to a woman’s jaw, for example. A few verticals also venture into the lower section – where lines run amok. The strongest are the red of the chair frames, with a strong band of dischordant near-verticals traversing the image. The edges of tables veer in slightly “off” directions. The floor heaves up to the right. The overall effect is busy, but strangely harmonious. This is a working room, a bustling café, and there is a sturdy sense of order in the momentary disarray.

The picture is full of colour, particularly complementary colours. The immediately apparent colour contrast is red – green. At the bottom of the picture red chairs reflect in the green tabletop in a wide range of “reds” and “greens”, but blues with orange, yellows with purple are also well represented.

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The oscillation of the vibrating contrasts adds to the luminosity of the image. Little dabs of repeated colour – blues in a coat seen again in tiny shadows on chair backs for instance – help to contain and unify what could have become chaotic.

Cossington Smith wrote of the genesis of this work “… I didn’t know it was there, but I just went down to get a cup of tea I think. And found this lovely restaurant. It was a great surprise to me. I was struck by its colour and general design … Scarlet, green and white held me spellbound. I quickly began drawing, writing the colours in words as I worked” (Cossington Smith, 1979). Colour was her inspiration. Writing colour names on her sketches was a standard part of her practice. Bruce James has suggested such notes “represented far more than a collective aide-mémoire. They constituted a chemical table via which the painter could conduct her polychromatic investigations into the dazzling Australian environments around her…” (2013, p. 34). James goes on to suggest that these notations were “so legible, so viable, so realisable” that the charting alone could be the full conception of the work, an early Sol leWitt.

Cossington Smith used distinct short, aligned brushstrokes to create the painting. Generally colour-mixing was done on the palette, or optically in the eye of the viewer. This increases the shimmering effect of the contrasting colours. The modern, highly reflective nitrocellulose paints used in the café itself are captured in matte oil paint – “Light reflecting from the shiny surfaces is cleverly captured through broken swatches of colour” (Dredge, 2013, p. 118).

The distinct brushstokes allowed the use of many colours without muddying, maintaining the bright, clean feel of the picture. The direction of the strokes provides some modelling of forms otherwise flattened in the patterning, and at the same time provide a unity and stability to the pulsation of light and colour.

There is a definite sense of depth in the painting. In the centre the eye is funneled in, through an empty space between patrons and tables to a waitress, then on behind the counter to be stopped by the back of another worker. However on closer inspection the space makes no sense – it is flattened and distorted. Tables dip and bend, their sides twisted from perspective lines. Just left of centre is the dominant figure of a man sitting behind a table – but where is woman who appears just to left of him? Is she sitting at the same table, but somehow just behind it as well? That seems to be her hand, but too large – or is the man possibly waving to us? In which case is the woman at another table further back? Behind this couple is one waitress apparently taking an order, and another possibly serving someone – but who, and how can there be space for them?

Space is sacrificed to pattern, to pleasing rhythms and repetitions. This is an interior, but not one we can really enter.

The various figures are firmly occupying their positions, especially those seated, but there is little relationship between them. Even those sitting at the same table do not interact. Most of those seated look out of the painting at us – or really at Cossington Smith in the act of sketching them. The café workers seem busy, solicitous to the needs of their customers – but which customers? None of those we can see. Faces are sketchy or not described at all, and one patron is cut off right through her face.

Modern, urban
This is a bright, modern, dynamic, urban scene. Although an introspective and solitary figure, Cossington Smith found urban scenes a source of energy and exuberance. The ‘Soda Fountain’ in the lower ground floor of David Jones was everything fresh, modern and exciting – art deco fixtures, American influences, an interior possibly designed by fellow artist Thea Proctor (McNeil, 2013, p. 98).

While celebrating the material aspects of modern life, The Lacquer Room also suggests disquiet at the human impact – “… in this colour- and light-filled vision, the darkly dressed patrons who sit silent, mostly solitary and hardly welcoming in their cartoon glances, continue to express the artist’s ongoing reserve at the strangers the modern city makes of its inhabitants” (Edwards, 2013, p. 148).

The Lacquer Room is a complete contrast to The first born by Gaston La Touche (see 19-Jul-2013). La Touche created his work to please the jurors of the Paris Salon. Cossington Smith had financial security allowing her to follow her own vision. La Touche created an idealised view of the life of the poor worker, Cossington Smith observed and celebrated her own environment. Colour and techniques are obviously entirely different, as are space (depth, flattening / patterning) and the relationships of the people within. La Touche explored morning light through the window while Cossington Smith suffused her work with modern electric lighting. I think the pair make a good introduction to the interior view in painting.


Cossington Smith, G (1979) quoted in ‘Grace Cossington Smith: The Lacquer Room’, Australian Eye: series 2, video recording, Film Australia, Lindfield, NSW & Art Gallery of New South Wales. Producer Malcolm Otton. Director David Muir.

Dredge, P. (2013) “Colour and modern paint in the interwar decades” In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 118-119. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

Edwards, D. (2013) “Ultra-moderne: Implement blue and The Lacquer Room“: In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 148-153. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

James, B. (2013) “Writing colour: from Mrs van Gogh to Grace Cossington Smith” In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 34-37. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

McNeil, P. (2013) “Thea Proctor: towards a stylish Australia” In In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 98-103. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 2
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project one: The interior
Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 2

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 1

This final part of the course begins with the interior – first as represented in paintings, then as an architectural space.

We are asked to annotate two interior views, and for my first I have chosen The first born by Gaston La Touche (1883) – an example of a nineteenth-century genre painting. The painting hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), in my opinion was the best match to exercise requirements currently on display, and had personal appeal in the sense of light and the hint of a textile connection.

This large, square picture was awarded a second class medal in the Paris Salon of 1888 and was purchased from the Salon for AGNSW.

The painting shows a bedroom in a working-class home. A child, the first of the family, has been born and can almost be glimpsed in the straw-line cradle. The new mother sleeps, exhausted after what may have been a difficult birth. The young father sits on a rough wooden box at the foot of the bed, leaning wearily. An older woman, perhaps the grandmother, watches over the family as the light of a new day enters through the curtained windows.

LaTouche_02A series of strong verticals structure the image. A range of diagonal and nearly-horizontal lines, shown in green on the diagram, create the space of the interior. We are looking into a bedroom, perhaps standing in the doorway. The window is deeply set with a small platform, separated from the main room by a light curtain.

The main elements of the image are contained in a smaller area, outlined in pink in the diagram. There are the three adults, the crib, and another presence – a religious image.

Most of the light in the picture is entering through the large window, and it is beautifully dispersed by the sheer curtains. There may be some additional light assumed from the doorway, otherwise it is reflected light which brightens the back of the man’s shirt.

LaTouche_03The light is particularly varied and beautiful around the head of the older woman – reflected from the curtains onto her face, gleaming through what I assume is flax on her distaff, highlighting the shaping of her cap. In addition a small beam of light reaches over the pillow to find the head of the sleeping mother.

The colour palette is limited, mainly shades of yellow and brown, with touches of pink in the robe folder over the end of the bedstead and the shawl of the watching woman. There is a wide range of tones, with that bright white morning light touching each of the main figures, and contrasting dark shadows in other areas.

LaTouche_04Large areas of the image are left bare – texture on the walls and floor – which provides general interest while keeping focus on the main action of the image. However there are also areas given careful attention, such as the still-life of jug and bottles on the rush chair seat, and the wooden box supporting the man.

The general genre of narrative painting of interiors has its base in Dutch art of the seventeenth century, when the wealthy merchant class looked to spend their new wealth on works of art to adorn their homes. Such paintings would be small, suited to the domestic scale, detailed, and show a familiar rather than mythological or religious scene, often with a moral message. Most of those criteria apply to The first born except for the scale. This is a large work, designed as an entry to the Salon. The picture was well received in that environment, a report from that time including “Each actor of this familiar scene is exhibited in the simplest, truest and most impressive attitude, and the light, sifted through the large curtains, enters soft and clear into the humble dwelling, filling its naked walls with a pleasant, subdued radiance. Nothing is abandoned to purr sentimentality, but yet a chastened tenderness seems to be diffused throughout the chamber. M. la Touche has here produced a powerful and exquisite work” (Gazette des Beaux Arts, 1888).

Despite this measure of success, La Touche did not continue with such themes for many more years. He destroyed many of his early work, and in 1891 “consigned fifteen years work to the flames of a bonfire in a single day” (Brindley & Maclennan, [n.d.]). Presumably the AGNSW work was saved by its sale and voyage to Australia.

Gaston La Touche The Arbor ca 1906   oil on canvas

Gaston La Touche
The Arbor
ca 1906 oil on canvas
180 x 201 cm
The Walters Art Museum

The Walters Art Museum suggests “As a mature artist, [La Touche] broke with his realist beginnings to paint in a harmonious decorative style that reflects the influence of the Rococo painters of the 18th century” (The Walters Art Museum, [n.d.]). From the web image it’s certainly difficult to reconcile the two paintings from the same hand. Another work, Pardon in Brittany (1896) in the Art Institute Chicago (, while apparently using a broader palette and quite different technique, shows a handling of light much more in keeping with his earlier work. La Touche was part of the Paris art cafe scene and received advice from Manet and in particular Felix Bracquemond. It is interesting to see a basically classic, academic (although not academically trained) artist producing “vigorous, harsh and somber” works (Turner, 1996?) modify his work to such an extent.



Brindley & Maclennan, [n.d.] BIOGRAPHY: Gaston La Touche ~ 1854 – 1913 [online] Available from (Accessed 19-Jul-2014)

Editor unknown, (1988) Gazette des Beaux Arts, Paris, June 1988, quoted in National Art Gallery of New South Wales catalogue, 1906

The Walters Art Museum, [n.d.] Gaston La Touche: The Arbor [online] Available from (Accessed 19-Jul-2014)

Turner, J. (1996?) The Dictionary of Art Vol. 18, p. 835. Photocopy sighted in Research Library, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 1
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project one: The interior
Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 1


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