Tag Archives: history

Tom Roberts as History Painter

Tom Roberts painting “Bailed Up” is a history painting in the same tradition as Velasquez “Surrender at Breda” or Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa”.

He worked on the thing over 30 years.  Part dramatic reenactment, part reportage, part documentary, but in the long run a homage to a time in history that had passed before he even began the work, Roberts clearly intended this painting to be his legacy.

What is less clear is what Roberts own criteria for success were. He was well read, widely travelled in Europe, so would have been aware that History painting was considered the most difficult and important genre. If  we   apply those criteria applied to other history painting, we will begin to see both the artist and his work in a new light.

Definitely more than an “impressionist” plein air piece, it is a studio picture in most ways Preliminary sketches, portraits of characters, accurate details of accessories such as guns, costumes and coach all point to the long gestation of the painting. Even the landscape painted largely on the spot was reworked later. It would take the eye of a horseman to recognize the breeds portayed,  the harness details and coach fittings. Roberts was, and aware of the critical rural eye that would notice such things

If histories can be rewritten, and new perspectives revealed by focus on different incidents and artefacts, then surely the “history painting” itself can be repainted.? Most history painting was in the “great men doing great deeds” view of history. Courbet and Manet challenged that. There are other histories to be had.”Bailed Up” may be an “icon”, but is it the last word?

It seems to me that the “assemblage” approach, the gathering of site specific soil samples and referencing almost random photos, plants and geological maps, fabric samples etc is not the only way of deep referencing.  A pictorial approach to the narrative (and these days ya gotta have a “story” underpinning the “project”) may still be possible without the result being “only” or “just….. History painting.”

On Rubens

Its amazing how long it can take for the penny to drop!

Rubens’ use of the neutral gray is forced on him by his substitution of warm shadows at first instead of the cool verdaccio of the Italians. They arrived at a dynamic mix caused by the warm and translucent midtones scumbled over the verdaccio, which they then warmed in the deepest darks with a transparent glaze. Rubens glazed late in the process too, but he BEGAN with them. That is why he used a neutral gray on the turn between the deep shadows and the midtones. He couldnt get them any other way.

Technically, this meant his painting could proceed rapidly, especially when his midtone ochre was already dry , having been applied as the imprimatura,and was frequently left as is. The lights could be applied without mixing them with the greys.

All this did not prevent him from subsequent glazes and scumbles when the underlayers were dry, and his medium ( turpentine and resin?) would have dried very quickly. Even the umbers and ochres and mars black used in the initial drawing and shadows were actually drying agents (siccatives) and were applied extraordinarily thin. And today we shy away from lead white ( Flake and Cremnitz). These too are very fast drying.

After a good nights sleep, all your work the previous day would be pretty well dry enough to apply a layer of medium( turps, resin, and stand or sun thickened oil), into which work would proceed, producing that “enamel” look. Oh yeah, and the old masters used soft brushes and VERY thin paint, even in the impasto lights. Rembrandt excepted!

Its a historical (not to be confused with “natural” or any other kind of “progression” ) sequence from Florentine chiaroscuro to Caravaggios spotlit dramas and on to Rubens’ assimilation of venetian oil technique. It bears repeating that “truth to nature” in the French academic sense was not an aim of earlier art. So the arguments about “relative” versus “absolute” tones is truly…..well, Academic!

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