Different Strokes

Yesterday I was in downtown Washington, D.C. to run an errand. I decided while I was there seize the moment and visit the National Gallery of Art. I happened upon two exhibits that were exciting and eye opening.

The first exhibit was Fragonard: The Fantasy Figures. It includes fourteen works by French painter Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806). Fragonard worked rapidly to create the portraits of elaborately and brightly attired figures. From a distance the portraits are very realistic. On closer inspection, though, Fragonard worked in a very fluid manner to create amazing dimension, particularly in the clothing of his subjects. Look at the broad strokes he used to depict the puff on the girl’s sleeve below.

The Reader by Jean Honoré Fragonard
The Reader by Jean Honoré Fragonard

I think his free style is even more apparent in the next portrait. The flowing red lines to the left and below of the black bow are quite bold and effective.

Inspiration by Jean Honoré Fragonard
Inspiration by Jean Honoré Fragonard

The second exhibit, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, was in sharp contrast to the first. (I was very lucky to be able to attend a preview of the event that was held for the press. It does not open until October 22.) Mind blown! If you’ve never seen a Vermeer up close it’s something to put on your bucket list. I suppose that I didn’t realize how small, and how much detail there was, in each painting. There are nearly 70 paintings by Vermeer and his peers, and his fellow painters were at least his equal and sometimes surpassed his abilities. The fabric of the clothes, particularly full skirts of silk and satin, was rendered in nearly impossible to fathom depth and detail. The skirt in the painting below, Lady at her Toilette by Gerard ter Borch, practically jumped off the surface. I can’t wrap my head around how these masters were able to so realistically depict the folds and shimmer in the fabrics.

Lady at her Toilette by Gerard ter Borch
Lady at her Toilette by Gerard ter Borch

So, summary so far: two amazing exhibits, all portraiture, one artist working to paint in a loose manner, others working for extreme realism. Then I googled Fragonard and found this.

The Stolen Kiss by Jean Honoré Fragonard
The Stolen Kiss by Jean Honoré Fragonard

Fragonard was clearly capable of working in just as realistic a manner as Vermeer and his colleagues. It truly was a stylistic choice to use different techniques to create his Fantasy Figures.

It was tremendously educational (and entertaining!) to spend time with these wonderful works of art and try to imagine how they were accomplished. And, as always, it made me think about the choices we make as quilters.

When we start creating a quilt, we arguably at least consider what we want to make, and what technique or techniques we want to use to make it. Will it be abstract, stylized or realistic? Pieced, painted, appliquéd, or a combination? Editor Kit Robinson’s ongoing series in MQU on landscape quilts is a wonderful means of exploring this idea. The articles feature beautiful works by a variety of artists, each working in his or her preferred manner and style. It’s remarkable how many ways folks have thought of to represent the natural world! Compare Donna Radner’s Twisting Canyons I with Denise Labadie’s Cathedral Arch at Glendalough. Both recognizably depict rocks, but in oh so different ways.

Twisting Canyons I ©Donna Radner
Twisting Canyons I ©Donna Radner
Cathedral Arch at Glendalough ©Denise Labadie
Cathedral Arch at Glendalough ©Denise Labadie

I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see such thought provoking art this week, and I look forward to seeing Kit’s next article of inspirational landscape quilts. I know I’ll be examining the styles and techniques used even more closely in the future!

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