A blog about the 19th century and now

A blog about the 19th century and now

About the blog

From my perspective as a visual art practitioner I will research two areas of interest.The first being 19th century French history painting and the second the attitude of the artists towards the free and censored press. I will connect this research with contemporary developments and my personal artistic engagement. Through blog posts I will reflect on the works I have created and the sources I have used, but essentially the focus will be directed towards the future.

How simple can your first Daumier be?

The studio...Posted by Stijn Peeters Tue, November 06, 2018 09:59:41

This little reproduction from a booklet about Daumier caught my eye, because of the theme of it and because of the relative ‘clumsiness’ that appealed to me. It has the look of a first version of an idea, a rough sketch that was never realized, I really liked the idea that I could ‘finish’ a sketch by Daumier . I thought about the question ‘can you be so drunk that the table gets stuck to you?’. The book is in German and the work is titled Trunkenbolde, which means something like ‘boozers’ and I guess that is exactly what the image communicates. The size is 24,5 x 26,2 cm, the technique oil paint on paper, glued to wood and the work is mentioned as coming from the collection Roger Leybold. ( 1896-1970) This owner of an industrial brewery had a large collection of paintings, drawings, prints and letters by Delacroix, Daumier, Jongkind, Corot and Boudin. A certain ’Madame X’ is mentioned by auction house Drouot as the heir of the Leybold collection. It is possible that this work was auctioned on the 17th of November 1982 .

To start I copied the work by making a small etching, the printing plate on the left and the print on the right.

After this the man leaning on the table top shows up on three paintings of 1998. As a description of the individual works I used the abbreviation M.A. for Molino Alto, ( M.A. 11, M.A. 3 and M.A.1 are shown) a reference to the old watermill in Niguelas, Spain that we rented in the spring of 1998 for a period of three months from the Scottish poet Martin Bates. These works are made during this time.

This painting , M.A.1, was raffled during a national tv broadcast. In a programme called AVRO’s Kunstblik, a nice studio visit was filmed with the former director of the Arnhem Modern Art Museum Liesbeth Brandt Corstius as reporter.

After our return back to the Netherlands I made this painting, its title Nr 794, also not very creative and referring to the number of paintings I started on since moving to Eindhoven in 1987. Because you never can be sure if a work you start on will reach the endstage, there are missing numbers of destroyed paintings, mostly victims of complex transition periods). The work measures 130 x 200 cm and contains all the elements of the Works made in Spain, the ‘Daumier’-figure, the table with influences from Dutch genre tavern scenes, my then 3 year old first son drawing , the inn and the ‘fincas’ along the river with the olivetrees and the highway bridge in the direction of Granada spanning the valley. The painting was shown in an exhibition at Oele Gallery in Amsterdam September 1998

I will go into the Spanish period in later posts

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Advice to younger colleagues

The studio...Posted by Stijn Peeters Fri, November 02, 2018 11:21:17

From the very moment you made the brave, overconfident, reckless, socially inconvenient decision to apply at an art academy, I have seen you as a young colleague. I, too, decided I was going to be an artist when I was 17. A little hesitant at first, I spent my time around art, but more so on the applied side of things, which seemed to offer a little more financial stability. But after graduating, I took the plunge. I turned 60 last year and haven’t regretted my choice for even a single day. I couldn’t have wished for a more fulfilling life.

Now this is the part where I’d talk about the downsides – they do exist, but I’ll put it off for a while as you’re already getting hit over the head with downsides in this day and age.

I was probably quite headstrong and curious about studying everything I didn’t know yet, very much at ease with contemplating, reading and observing. Realise that we didn’t have smartphones or computers, and unless you wrote letters or used a landline to make phonecalls, you could be out of touch with everyone but the people in your direct surroundings for months. I recall the oceans of spare time, the boredom, but also the freedom to pick up whatever captured my fascination. I had no learning goals or a master plan whatsoever, but I was aware that I knew very little indeed. Newspapers, literature, poetry, history, philosophy, the bible, biographies, even encyclopaedias – I read everything I could get my hands on, often several books at once. Sometimes I wouldn’t be sure why I even picked up a book after having finished it, at my wits’ end that I didn’t have the intellectual capacity to comprehend the writing, let alone to contextualise it.

Having been trained as an illustrator, I suffered from an abundance of effect-oriented mannerisms; my drawings were focused on visual niceties, and were disconnected from the function that drawing should serve. The means to understand a shape, tracing its outlines, observing the play of light on it. It wasn’t until a lot of time and practice later that I managed to learn to do boring, investigative drawing with the purpose of getting a feel for the shape before starting on a painting. These are drawings that you can’t sell, they’re found in a sketchbook or on a sheet of paper that you cut templates from.

I often say I’ve had to learn everything by myself, I tell people I’m a self-taught painter, forgetting the semiweekly model drawing classes, the practical training in the graphics room, with a teacher and unsupervised on Fridays (hurray!), typography, typeface drawing and calligraphy, graphic design and working in the in-house printshop serving the applied departments, photography, analogue, both black-and-white and colour. And all this for three years.

My understanding of art history was limited at the time, I thought I was a real hot shot doing my graduation thesis on “abstract book illustration”. Limitations notwithstanding, it introduced me to notions like visual poetry, Paul van Ostaijen and Guillaume Apollinaire, illustrations by Jean Arp, poetry by Francis Ponge (“listen carefully and you’ll find almost everything can’t talk”) and the concept of an artist’s book.

That may sound pretty clever, but in my studio in a squatted building, above a Turkish club, I was mostly studying Matisse, Dufy, while also doing material etchings I printed on a wooden mangle. My paintings generally featured my new girlfriend and me, naked on a bed (Luxe, Calme et Volupté). This new girlfriend and I have stayed together ever since, and she was the one who pushed me to apply at Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht.

My advice to you, young artist, whether you’re a lad or a girl, is that it’s best to enter a relationship while the both of you are still developing. That way, you can grow together, both in your own way, since you do have to give the other person space. And if you’re lucky, you’ll grow older together, and as long as you keep living your own life and have friends of your own, you’ll still be exciting to one another. It’s always handy to be with someone who needs as much freedom as you, as it’s nothing but trouble when people demand your attention when you’ve just sat down to read something beautiful, or when you’re delving deeper into your visual research. Taking on too many responsibilities is also something to be wary of, especially in the early days of a relationship; decorating your rented flat with trinkets from a thrift shop is a lot wiser for an artist than settling down. You may also want to avoid having children at an early age: spending a lot of time together, travelling, looking around, exhibiting, creating, and then, if the relationship lasts, having kids is great too.

Like so many things in (an artist’s) life, it takes luck. There are limits to the amount of control you have. When it comes to having kids, being with another artist is ideal. You can set your own times, allowing you to take studio and parenting days at will, plus time for yourself (even if that just involves sleeping or dreaming in your studio) and the intimacy of your newborn love.

Try to stay close to yourself in your studio and make sure you can empty yourself. That’s not always an easy task, especially after an exhibition where you didn’t get any sales, after unkind remarks by gallery people and family members, not having a gallery at all is no walk in the park either. Broken promises, radio silence when you’d expected contact, after a rejected grant request or exhibition proposal. Feeling jealous is counterproductive – it’s just the reality of working in a field where many (good) colleagues are active, and limited budgets mean choices have to be made between the good ones. Life is most pleasant for those who show good sportsmanship, exchange advice and offer help.

At the risk of sounding too soft, jealousy is best replaced by competition. I have interpreted artistic letdowns as a call to action to improve my work even further, phrase my thoughts even more clearly, communicate even more carefully and astound my audience with undeniably great work. “Something ‘they’ can’t ignore.”

It’s also wise to avoid sticking around in bad collaborative situations for too long; if there are any business partners you’re constantly having angry internal dialogues with, you should at least tell them what’s on your mind. And if you can’t have a proper conversation, there’s no saving that working relationship. Ending it is preferable to staying in a bad one. Sure, you need to be pragmatic, but your inner stability is what counts. Aside from the lovely people working in galleries, there are also some who don’t have those people skills. And your identity and productivity as an artist is of daily essence to you, you have your own best interests at heart, while a gallery can only divide its attention among the artists it represents. It’s not an equal relationship, that’s just the way it is.

It’s important to keep an eye out for small successes, things in your direct surroundings. Being an artist means you’re in it for the long haul, and you can expect to discover new aspects of yourself throughout your whole life. You find yourself making things you could only have dreamt of years before. What has aided me the most is studying; improving and broadening my technical and artisanal skills. Being eager to learn about new materials, their properties and the way they can be used. Taking the time for this allows your brain to breathe, your thoughts about, say, a new motif can enter a more relaxed train of thought, and hey presto!, the thing you were trying to force through just happens of its own accord. For me, this also happens when I copy “the masters”. Spending more time looking at your predecessors’ works transports you into their thoughts and the decisions they took as creators, which is very educational.

Another recommendation: try to view as much contemporary art as you can. Schedule a day a month to visit all the galleries you can find in a city, write down your observations, the things you’ve read, and what stood out. This is the world you belong to. Don’t stick to the comfort zone of art you like the feel or medium of, but try to understand the concept behind work that’s less approachable to you. Choose a different city every once in a while, but be sure to make the rounds regularly, so you get to know the exhibition policy and artists at various galleries and other art spaces. When a gallery owner sees you drop by more often, he or she will understand that you’re interested in what they do. This can lead to them asking you what you think of a given exhibition. That’s the beginning of a conversation right there – networking in practice. Even if you’ll never show any work there yourself, it’s a joy to walk around a major art fair where you have plenty of contacts; a chat here, a compliment there, maybe even a retrospective on the days of yore and the exhibiting artist’s new work, and you’ll have carved out your own place in the art world.

Do not under any circumstances blithely walk into places showing off your portfolio, nobody’s got time for that sort of thing. The only outcome will be an awkward situation and hurt feelings.

Be sure to contribute to (group) exhibitions whenever you can, you’ll also meet artists on your monthly gallery tour, discuss each other’s work and arrange plans for new possibilities. If you have it in you, you can write a blog, analyse or observe the work of your colleagues that stands out to you, and publishing magazines or pamphlets can help foster recognition. My magazine Ezel, which is currently Dutch-only, will soon be offered at art fairs in Shanghai and New York with an English translation, and my expectations are high. After all, despite the fact that I’m past 60 and have seen plenty of successes, I’m still incredibly eager to find out what I can achieve in my work.

There’s much more I want to say, but I think you’ve probably heard enough out of me at this point, we can always carry on our conversation when we run into each other in this beautiful field of ours. We’ll travel together for a while, and then continue on our separate, great adventures.

(this letter was written for Witte rook, Breda and published on their website)


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a bull in the studio

The studio...Posted by Stijn Peeters Thu, November 01, 2018 21:54:19

A Bull in the Studio

In 2011 I was invited by Kunstpodium T to develop an exhibition together with four graduation students from Dutch art academies. The exhibition was part of the ‘Master-Apprentice project’. Already at the start I had problems with the term ‘master’ so I made a suggestion to the students that we would use ‘Apprentice-Apprentice’ as the title for our show. It took some effort to convince them, mostly because I didn’t want to tell them why I specifically wanted this title. The reason why became evident to them and the visitors at the opening of the exhibition. In my room I had installed works from my 1982 graduation show from the Illustration department of the Royal Academy of Arts and Design . In this way I created equality by comparing their actual situation to mine at the time and also a nice historical perspective on the time that vocational training made up a major part of the curriculum of art academies.

Reading Courbets’ ‘letter to the young artists of Paris’ reminded me of this episode. In the first blogpost you can read about Jules Castagnary being the actual writer of this letter. Castagnary, professionally active as a lawyer, journalist, artcritic and politician, (think about that today!), had become strongly engaged with the Realist movement by which he saw possibilities of societal change.

On September, 28, 1861 he organized a meeting for students who had left the École des Beaux-Arts because of the teaching methods. The location for the meeting was brasserie Andler. Courbet himself, living only 4 doors further down ,was a regular guest there. The brasserie, where good beer was served, was frequented by Germans and former inhabitants of the north-eastern regions of France. It had a special attraction as a meeting place for artists and writers.

Image source; ‘Histoire anecdotique des Cafés & Cabarets de Paris’ by Alfred Delvau, 1862.

As a result of the meeting it was decided to request Courbet to open a teaching studio. In which the students could develop their skills and get acquainted with the modern painting methods under his guidance.

In his response Courbet explains why he doesn’t believe in schools; ‘There cannot be schools, there are only painters (...) Therefore I cannot claim to be opening a school to be training pupils, to be teaching this, that, or the other partial tradition of art. I can only explain to artists, who will be my collaborators and not my pupils, the method by which, in my opinion, one becomes a painter, by which I have myself tried to become one since I started, leaving to each one the entire direction of his individuality, the full liberty of his own expression in the application of this method. To this end the formation of a common studio, recalling the fruitful collaborations of the studios of the Renaissance, may certainly be useful and help towards inaugurating the era of modern painting’ (Georges Boudaille ‘Courbet Painter in Protest’, page 85)

Boudaille writes with a touch of cynicism; ‘Forty-two students, some of them dissidents from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, agreed to pay 20 francs to hear Courbet expound his theory of Realism’.

After Courbet has thus shown his willingness to accompany this band of colleague-painters Castagnary sets to work: ‘On December 6, 1861, Jules Castagnary had signed a lease ( to become effective on December 9) for an atelier at 83 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs ( street level), where Courbet was to teach painting. Student applications began on December 9, and that same day thirty-one students registered.( Petra ten-Doeschate Chu)

Castagnary manipulates the students with his own convictions; ‘You are tired of the precepts and methods of your teachers. You vaguely realize that they are running counter to the social current; that by following them to the limit you would end by speaking a language that society would no longer understand…’’

Also; ‘In the time of the Renaissance the studio was a collaboration. The pupil served his apprenticeship as a painter by painting with and for the master...( take note of his use of the term ‘master’ !)

Even in 1864, two years after the end of the experiment, Castagnary writes in ‘Les Libres Propos’ how he had intended the studio to function; ‘for models we shall have all the visible representations that make up Creation: bulls, horses, stags, roebuck, birds and so on; all the examples that make up society, from the bourgeois to the worker, from the soldier to the peasant, from the ploughman to the sailor. In this way the whole of nature and society will pass before your eyes in their infinite variety.

So the studio starts. Teacher/colleague Courbet gave only one piece of advice; “Don’t follow advice!” He pasted up these four commandments in the studio: 1. Do not do what I do. 2.Do not do what the others do. 3. If you did what Raphael used to do, you would have no existence of your own. Suicide. 4. Do what you see and what you feel, do what you want.

After his enthusiastic start and his willingness to ‘give all’ he slowly grinds to a halt. In a letter to his father he writes; ‘Dear Father , I apologize for not answering you sooner but you must take into account that in Paris I am not really my own man. I have important things that I must do here, that I cannot manage to do. I have too much of a following, especially recently, with all of modern painting converging around me. At last I have triumphed across the board’.

In March, 1862 the experiment, the studio of equals ceased to exist.

There are a lot of stories, in connection with Courbets’ learning studio, about a white spotted red bull as a model for the students , In this illustration you see the bull with his handler, the students painting and Courbet on the right holding his palet ( and paintingknife) ready for immediate corrections in the works of his younger colleagues.

Striking in this illustration is the fact that you see only males, (including the bull). Male art students had the opportunity to study the nude, female and male. In her famous essay ‘Why have there been no great woman artists?’ from 1971 Linda Nochlin proves convincingly that the answer to that question had nothing to do with women being less talented, gifted or able to achieve that status, By using the methods of academic research she showed that it was simply impossible for women to perform in the highest regions of art. The knowledge of male and female anatomy was a condition for making high art. And this, drawing and painting from live models was forbidden for women.

This photograph dates from 1855, (six years before Courbets’ bull). It shows the modelling class for women at Pennsylvania Academy working under direction of Thomas Eakins. Their model, a cow.

A grand 19th century lady , Rosa Bonheur, turned this disadvantage around and reached world fame with her paintings of animals The majestic setup of her studio puts the solitary bull , roebuck and male deer in an altogether different perspective.

Source material; Petra ten -Doeschate Chu, ‘Letters of Courbet’, University of Chicago Press, 1992 , Georges Boudaille ‘Courbet Painter in Protest’, New York Graphic Society Ltd, 1969. Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ uit ‘Art and Sexual Politics’, Macmillan, 1971)

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