Who Needs TV When You Can Watch a Painting? -2

Continuation of part 1 of the article by :

Sometimes a painting really draws you in. Growing up, being fascinated by the Civil War and looking at illustrated histories of it, there was always a specialness to the naval battle scenes. I could spend hours looking at the pictures and playing the scene in my head, famous scenes such as the Monitor and the Merrimack. I could see the smoke, hear the distant resounding shots of the guns, the splashes of the missed shells, the crackle of the grapeshot, and the orders of the officers on both sides, sometimes within earshot as a maniacal maneuver such as a pointblank broadside goes under way. Such excitement!

The painting I speak of is by Edouard Manet, the Impressionist who did a lot of marine scenes, leading to such exhibits as “Manet and the Sea” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The painting depicts a sea battle off the coast of Cherbourg, France, in 1864 in which a Confederate Sloop of War, the CSS Alabama was sunk by the USS Kearsarge, a Federal Sloop of War dispatched to rendezvous with the enemy ship to stop the havoc she had been causing to commercial trade to and from Europe. Manet did the work quickly, responding to the current event after hearing or reading about it just as it happened.

As you look at the painting, which depicts the scene from a bit of a distance, it keeps the viewer at neutrality to the sides (with a slight slant sympathizing towards the sinking Confederates). It shows the Deerhound, a private yacht, in the foreground rescuing survivors from the water. In the distance the Alabama sinks steadily by her stern with plumes of smoke emitting as a result of the direct hit to her engines scored by the Kearsarge. The story has it that five of the 100 Union shots fired were after the Southern vessel struck its colors. The painting further shows the Union ship, almost covered from view firing a volley at the doomed floor-bound Alabama. The primary color in the masterpiece is of course that of the ocean, which is vivid Viridian green and blue, and you can make out the civilians on the yacht, in their hats and sailor clothes attempting to rescue what looks to be two sailors clinging to a piece of wreckage.

There’s nothing like a good painting that you can just watch for an hour. I can do this with Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece, “The Gross Clinic.” Professor Samuel Gross stands in the middle of the beam of sun coming from the skylight teaching his famous bone marrow operation to a group of Jefferson students. Scalpel in hand, he instructs while he and assistants perform the leg operation, with the boy’s mother cringing behind. The detail is superb, from the looks on their faces to the little drops of blood on the one assistant’s cuff.

Carnival Evening painting by H. Rousseau in Philadelphia Museum of Art

Another favorite artist of mine has you watching the canvas for long periods of time almost expecting surprises. Henri Rousseau is one to leave you in awe, not just from the greatness of his work, but from the mystery he brings to the table. He’s what you may call a surrealist, maybe a symbolist, but one thing is for sure, you can’t call him ordinary. As a self-taught artist, he has a style all to his own.

Probably my favorite painting in the whole Philadelphia Art Museum would have to be Rousseau’s “Carnival Evening.” Another chilly winter scene but this time its very mystifying. While his paintings may not be perplexing as a Dali landscape, Rousseau would give you just enough elements to leave you a little bewildered. “Carnival Evening” shows a forest, middle of winter, completely bare trees at night with a bright full moon above. Only thing is, the forest is strangely in darkness. A couple stand in the center on their way to the carnival, dressed in costumes, the man smoking a cigarette, both seeming to be illuminated from within, not from the moon. Off to the left is a cottage with a mask or face on it, and an unexplained street lamp looms nearby.

I recommend looking up any of these paintings on your browser and look at the images. You’ll quickly see that the detail and the stories can be much more interactive than a TV show or movie. So check them out, and visit your local art museum. Adventure awaits!

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