Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Coffin Talk





Again on the topic of "art" versus technique, critic William Coffin had this to say:  "Put soul in the eyes – I don't think it's a question of drawing," says the critic who talks glibly of "art."  And how pray?  we may well ask him, except by trying to make the eyes more and more like the eyes in nature.  If that isn't a purely technical task, what is it?"¹


Christian Seybold
Portrait of an Old Woman with a Green Scarf 1768
41.5 X 32.5 cm
oil on copper


¹Coffin, William, "A Word About Painting," Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 4, April, 1894, pp. 501-502.


18 comments:

Rubysboy said...

Coffin writes: "And how pray? we may well ask him, except by trying to make the eyes more and more like the eyes in nature." The single-mindedness of this question is precisely what led so many to abandon realism. Let me count the ways to be artful about eyes: stylization, exaggeration, mystification, distortion, symbolization,... and so on endlessly. Once you abandon the fixed idea that the work of art must look 'just like' (as if any flat painted surface could ever look 'just like' a living three dimensional scene), then worlds open up of artful representation.

Jason Skyle Conn said...

Many paintings do look "just like" living three dimensional things to me.

rsbart said...

I almost completely disagree with Rubysboy. "stylization, exaggeration, mystification, distortion, symbolization,... and so on endlessly" is the almost constant naive excuse of the untrained and those whose craft is lacking. I don't expect anyone who thinks like this to agree with me. You don't know what you don't know, after all. But good painting is always a result of good understanding, and I don't know of any artist that had the depth of understanding that is exhibited in the above painting that deliberately chose to abandon that knowledge for the sake of the above reasons, namely "stylization, exaggeration, mystification, distortion, symbolization,"

Travis Seymour said...

I've never seen this image before. thanks for sharing - its amazing.

Sergio DS said...

Un maestro absoluto.

Rubysboy said...

Compare with Rembrandt, Velasquez, Holbein,... whose eyes were less "like the eyes of nature" than Coffin's but moving and artful in other ways. Achieving a good and 'faithful' image with a few well-chosen strokes which, upon closest examination, don't look anything like 'nature' can be art of the highest order. My point is that there are many ways to be artful in representation whereas Coffin seems to imply that there is only one -- 'just like nature.' So in the end a waxworks image becomes the ideal - a perfect likeness of nature without imagination. The danger of a simplistic realism it seems to me.

Stanka Kordic said...

It's an elusive thing. I rarely get emotional just looking at people in 'real life' but when I see them painted, oftentimes something wells up. What IS that? For me, it has nothing to do with strict realism, it happens with many different interpretations and types of paint fling. Is it the hand of the artist perhaps? Responses are as different as artists are different. Thank goodness. Art Life would be boring if only one formula worked.

Doug Stotts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kat said...

Those that complain about technique rarely, one notices, ever have it.

That painting by Seybold was made way before the invention of photography. That was pure observation, eye-hand control of the highest order. That is ecstatic vision, caressing each molecule of existence, each photon of light. That is genius.

innisart said...

Let's take a different approach to this -

I think Coffin felt that observation from Nature was key. . . my guess is he didn't feel paintings had to be exact duplicates of Nature, as the artists he did like had differing output and interpretations of Nature; all were based on reality, however.

Coffin liked Rembrandt, Velasquez, Holbein, Sargent, Tarbell, Dewing, Cox, Melchers, early Monet, Corot, Chase, Abbey, Blashfield, Brush, and many more. Their styles were not all the same, but they all had a foundation in draftsmanship.

Let's look at the critique - "Put soul in the eyes" Imagine yourself as a student being told that by your teacher. What would you do ? What would be your response to that ? If that same teacher told you to add more blue, or that the iris needed to be larger, or this value needed to be lighter, or the distance between these two points was too short . . . What would you do ? One is a subjective criticism, the other objective.

I don't agree with everything Coffin espouses. Had he his way, we wouldn't have had the painters that came out of impressionism (not the Impressionists themselves, but later incarnations like the California impressionists or Richard Miller, whom I much prefer to the Big "I" group). But a portrait having "soul in its eyes" is a personal response, and a painting which elicits this feeling in one person, may not do the same for another.

I think the issue is the critique - "Put soul in the eyes." It's an individual response, and not objective. I believe in Coffin's writings, he was calling for a more informed understanding of art by all, and objective discourse on paintings specifically.

I chose the Seybold painting as an extreme of what Coffin was describing. As a painting done in the 18th Century, I think it is remarkable and an example of an artist's dedication to observation. The eyes in this work, do have "soul" to me (but I must admit, the full painting does not grab me - again, just a personal response, and not defendable on an objective level. But this is also why I think all competitions must be decided on a subjective level, once those works of lesser quality are eliminated from the running).

kat said...

I daresay that, if Seybold had done a young and beautiful woman, rather than, say, his mother, you might be much more enthusiastic about the work! The piece is a tour-de-force of observation, draftsmanship and painting, whether or not one wants it for their wall. It strikingly demonstrates what is possible without photography when people are masters of their art.

innisart said...

Actually, I think I would have liked it less if it were a painting of a young person.

Teresa Elliott said...

What I noticed about the eyes in the full version is that they have been deftly rendered and the color is interesting, however, both eyes are exactly the same. A more intriguing portrait is one that shows two different realities. I have noticed this in all my portrait work. Each eye has it's own story to tell. I think the artist may been on auto pilot, thus the sterile outcome.

ARMAND CABRERA said...

Its a great painting. Too bad most realists today while espousing working from direct observation fall prey to mechanical means of projection or copying photos. Very few paint from life with such veracity. A sign of the times I guess.

jeronimus said...

Great art is an incredibly subtle and indefinable thing. If there is zero stylisation/distortion (whatever you want to call it - imagination? Poetry?) what you have, is basically something indistinguishable by eye from a photograph. Nothing wrong with that; photorealist oil painting can be beautiful and moving. But it doesn't lessen the value of painters who had an immediately recognisable style which can only be attributable to some degree of subtle stylisation. To a certain extent, the eyes in Rembrandt's portraits are all the same - they are Rembrandt eyes as much as the eyes of the sitter. Perhaps that's why his work is so alive. Realism is only the beginning of mastery not the end.

Leo Orientis said...

This argument so quickly takes on laughably extreme positions: Absolute adherence to the image on the lens of the artist's eye versus absolute expression of the broad and murky meanderings of his imagination.

Perhaps the key to understanding art and technique is to realize that they originally had exactly the same meaning. And I would propose that careful observation by any patient viewer can distinguish artists who skilfully use stylization, exaggeration and distortion in their work, from those who use the same principles naively, or to disguise inability or unwillingness to visually develop their inner conception.

Personal bias enters the debate as a red herring, muddying the waters of any objective criteria for aesthetic judgement that we might try to nail down. I notice, for example, that Coffin's reaction to the public's undervaluation of classical technique is to attack some works that use stylization with skill and fine draftsmanship. And I notice, in the best-in-shows chosen by various ARC salons, a bias not always for the most skilfully executed work, but for quaint scenes of an idealized rural American life, usually involving children and painterly ornamentation.

(Coffin’s best point for the salon is that, when faced with a host of works of apparently equal technical depth, it takes someone of enormous skill and patience to articulate a sensible argument as to why a single work should be praised above all others, rather than just take the easy out and go with the gut.)

SMC said...

"Art lives in the tension between abstraction and description"
The quote is from Damien Franco in an article entitled "Is Photography Art?". To me, it made sense of this type of discussions.

OldMastersPalette said...

Paintings of things that are ordinary (His old mother) are made beautiful in FINE art. You can take the the most horrifying of subjects and make them beautiful. ex: Jesus' crucifixion, John the Baptist beheading. Now days it's what ever you can catch peoples attention with and call it art.