Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Second Lesson of Carolus-Duran

Understanding Your Subject
There are two methods of understanding a subject. It may be treated heroically or intimately. In the latter case the artist enters into the life of the personages that he desires to represent, observing them as human beings; as it were, following them; taking account of their impressions, their joys, and their sufferings. The heroic manner, on the contrary, expresses but an instant of their life, when raised to an exceptional pitch. The personages represented are, as you might say, deified, so much do they seem to be absolved from the daily necessities of humanity. But, for this very reason, they lose many sympathetic charms that we only find in beings living, thinking, and suffering like ourselves. The latter alone can move us, because we find our own experiences in their melancholy, their terrors, their passions. The heroic method, necessarily restricted, is obliged to impose upon its personages a sort of conventional grandeur that suppresses the better part of their originality.

Duran's Point Illustrated by Tiepolo's Series of Etchings, "The Flight into Egypt"
In the subject that now occupies us, let us take our personages at their starting point and accompany them thorough the different episodes that must have marked their precipitate flight. You all know the legend. Joseph is warned in a dream that the time has come to quit Judea with the Virgin Mary and the Divine Child. Picture to yourselves the incidents of this departure. See the group precipitately leaving in the night; follow them hour by hour; imagine the scenes that must have followed one another, at the morning fires, in the glimmering twilight, in the moonlight, or under the bright light of day.

Tiepolo has made, in thought, this journey as I have indicated it to you; he has pictured these episodes; very many of them are most touching and very delicately felt. He has portrayed the solitude of a hamlet during the night; the holy travelers are crossing it hastily, not daring to trust themselves to any hospitality. Then, farther on, they arrive on the banks of a river that must be crossed. Angels push the boat, and, father on, the Virgin Mary is supported by them as they climb a steep ascent. *

You are not to imitate Tiepolo, nor to bear in mind his compositions; but you must proceed like him. It is the only way to avoid the commonplace — the only way to find charmingly intimate scenes; the child Jesus crying, smiling, or being nursed by his mother. The travelers have rested in the shade, as you might have done; they have had in their flight a crowd of emotions, such as you may have felt in your journeys. Call us your remembrances and apply them, so that the personages may be before your eyes, moving, walking, resting, forming a whole with the nature that surrounds them and of which they reflect the influence.

This sympathy that has made you live in thought with your subjects has shown them to you in varied circumstances, under the numerous effects of light, shade, or twilight. Choose one of these effects — that one of which you have kept the clearest and the most vivid remembrance. Your group must harmonize with the hour, solemn or cheerful, that you have chosen. As you are very different from one another, your compositions will reflect the variety of your natures.

This habit of living with your personages will have the effect of presenting them to your mind under a fixed form. Having followed and analyzed all their actions, all their sentiments, you will in the end know them as if they were real things. It will appear to be the remembrance of an actual scene.
Do not hurry to place this vision on canvas. Turn it over in your mind, that it may be refined and completed at every point of view. It is only when you have thus mentally elaborated your composition, that you should decide to execute it; for then you will have lived it.

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