Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Frieseke's Third Secret: Patiently, Insistently Wait for the Light

Lady in a Garden

Continuing with his interview, Frederick Carl Frieseke said: “I feel that the old idea of Impressionism is lost. It used to mean a distinct fleeting effect or phase of nature. The present so-called Impressionist sees every moment of the day or night, of the month, or year in exactly the same way, and renders it the same.

But there is no receipt for painting nature in all her varying moods. I think an artist should work but an hour if the day is sunny. If it is gray, but two hours, and the study should never be resumed, but in exactly the same kind of weather and at the same hour at which it was started, and when the effects are the same. In making an impression of nature, one should never consider time there or method, but only the result...” I gazed thoughtfully at the old apple tree and knew that it often must have heard its former friend, Theodore Robinson, say these same words.

“Nor do I believe in constructing a picture from manifold studies which have been made in 'plein air.' One is in a nervous tension then, and falls into no studied methods or mannerisms. One’s work is more naïve and spontaneous, and one is not in danger of becoming too theoretical. One should never forget that seeing and producing an effect of nature is not a matter of intellect, but of feeling. Anyone paints a patch of flowers in the sunlight as he feels it at that moment, and not as he felt it three weeks or three months ago, coldly, in the studio, and with the immediate impression of that particular moment forgotten."

I remember the story of another painting, John Singer Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose that illustrates this principle of patiently and insistently waiting for the light.

Sargent wrote: “I am trying to paint a charming thing I saw the other evening. Two little girls in a garden at twilight lighting paper lanterns among the flowers from rose-tree to rose-tree. I shall be a long time about it - if I don’t give up in despair”.

He had joined an informal colony for the arts. Here the scene which had so delighted him on his boat trip came to occupy him for two whole summers. Just after sunset, Sargent would race to his large canvas.

He would work just after sunset for about 20 minutes to record the effect of the light as his two little models held their Chinese lanterns. With the warm glow of the lanterns against the dusky purple of the summer twilight, he told Robert Louis Stevenson that he was seeking to capture “a most paradisiac sight [that] makes one rave with pleasure”. The painting came to be called “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” after the refrain of a popular song of 1885.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

He was also insistent on having the subject matter remain as much the same as possible. In a letter to his sister Emily, Sargent wrote, “ I am launched into my garden picture and have two good little models and a garden that answers the purpose although there are hardly any flowers and I have to scour the cottage gardens and transplant and make shift...Fearful difficult subject.”

Sargent walked through the village offering to buy flowers from the residents’ gardens. By November the air was chill and the little girls wore wool cardigans underneath their summer frocks. Because the rose bushes were bare, his hostess tied on artificial flowers for Sargent to paint. His painting was far from finished, though, so the canvas was stored until the following year.

Sargent was prepared for the second season of painting. In April, he had sent fifty Aurelian lily bulbs to his hosts in Broadway - twenty to be put in pots for him to use for his painting, and the rest for the garden. When he returned to Broadway in the summer of 1886, he once again worked to capture the few minutes of light with his little models. Sargent finally finished by the end of October 1886. He entered Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in the 1887 Royal Academy exhibition in London, where it was both a critical and popular success. Soon after it went on view, it was purchased for the Tate Gallery."

Both Sargent and Frieseke were very serious about maintaining the same situations as they worked on a piece. They patiently waited for those perfect moments wanting to actually see what they wished to create. There was not much interest in trying to rely on memory or the ability to make up what was not actually there.




  1. Lovely post. Thank you. As a part-time artist, I use photography as a tool to capture that fleeting moment of light and texture. It may not be 100% accurate, but it's the best tool available other than having a photographic memory.

  2. I love photography, too. It was one of my majors in art school. But it just can't capture the colors and light effects the same way as one's own eyes can.