Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Artists at Work

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Artists at Work

Article excerpt

A conservator at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum was recently astonished to find a tiny grasshopper stuck in the paint of Van Gogh's 'Olive Trees' (1889). The discovery would not have surprised Van Gogh, who complained to his brother Theo in 1885: 'I must have picked up a good hundred flies or more off the four canvases that you'll be getting.'

On the evidence of a new exhibition of drawings on the theme of Artists at Work at the Courtauld Gallery, insects are the least of the plein-air painter's problems: the 19th-century protagonist of Eduard Gehbe's 'The startled painter' has been sent flying by a passing roebuck. Animals aside, there's the physical discomfort to contend with. Jan de Bisschop's 'Two Artists drawing a bust' (c.1660), hunched over their sketchbooks on a hard stone floor, have sensibly brought cushions, but Hubert Robert's 'Artist drawing beside a statue of Jupiter' (1762) is perched on the sharp edge of a wheelbarrow with only a foreshortened view up Jupiter's toga. It's a braveartist who dares to upskirt the king of the gods, but perhaps he's only copying the statue's inscription.

Of all the trials besetting the plein-air painter, uninvited comments from interested members of the public are probably the worst. They were an occupational hazard for a Grand Tour vedutista like Carlo Labruzzi, whose 18th-century panorama of 'The Colosseum seen from the Palatine Hill', a pair of tourists with their cicerone, and an artist sketching, shows where his sympathies lie. From the determined set of the artist's shoulders, hunkered down over his drawing board with his hat pulled down over his ears, he is doing his damnedest to block out the patronising remarks of the cicerone bending over him, without alienating the tourists who might buy the work. Unsolicited criticism from passers-by has irritated artists since the great Apelles, according to Pliny, overhearda shoemaker's fatuous comments on his work and coined the famous phrase: 'Let the cobbler stick to his last.'

Away from distractions, the empty studio holds its own terrors when it brings the artist up against his limitations. In 'The Inspiration of the Artist' (1760-63), Jean-Honoré Fragonard pictures himself in despair at his drawing table with his head thrown back anda hand over his eyes as monstrous visions worthy of Goya's 'Sleep of Reason' swirl around him. Fortunately help is at hand in the shape of a winged allegory of painting and attendant putti. There's no such solace for George Grosz in a wartime self-portrait showing him at his pen-littered desk, pipe clenched between his teeth, manfully ignoring the hellish phantoms surrounding him. …

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