In a crowded market developing a signature look helps business — a swoosh mark or slanty bars or whatever. You can see this in Dutch painting, too: some Dutch Masters specialized in nautilus cups, others in candle-lit interior scenes; some, like Weenix, set out to conquer a particular texture (rabbit fur in his case), or carnation petals (Huysum). But Paulus Potter’s choice of cows seems more obsessive: first, because there’s nothing especially cachet about cows. It’s difficult to imagine Potter painted this for a hot market:
Second, because his rendition of the cows was too detailed and too labored to be just market-driven (he often repainted horns or position of legs — sometimes as often as seven times — before he finally settled on a particular look); I mean, just look at the mottled details of the hide:
the teary eye:
the soft underbelly, the tender nipple:
And third because — well, I think it’s easy to understand how one could become obsessed by cows: these huge unbelievably stupid breathing monstrosities, these towering mountains of food on legs. I mean, just look at this: the drama of this presentation surely beats almost every scene of crucifixion and resurrection ever painted in the western canon:
(A Hindu whom I walked through the galleries the other day froze in front of this painting, convinced it was religious and the bull some sort of prophetic savior figure. She refused to believe me when I told her it wasn’t).
You should be convinced by now that Potter painted cows out of a deep, personal need. You will therefore not be surprised to hear that in his very short life he did nothing but paint cows: he died of tuberculosis at the age of 28; yet, over one hundred cow paintings by his hand survive. Which makes several hundred individual cows.
“Happiness is an abstract idea, composed of various sensations of pleasure; and sight is the forerunner of all pleasure.”
Several closer brushes with the National Gallery’s reproductions — a recent attempt to print to order a copy of this has come out so dark as if the portrait had been sat to at dusk — have brought me home the limits of the concept. Despite great strides in technology, by and large, mechanical reproduction remains a failure.
Will it get better? One hopes so. Soon — perhaps in another hundred years or so — the great art objects will be available in perfect copy to all for a song. Let us rejoice in the expectation of that happy day.
But let’s also remember the fact that to most of us, vast majority of art with which we are familiar, has these four or five hundred years been only known in reproduction. That includes those who have thought extensively and written influentially on the topic. Can this thought and writing have escaped some corrosive effect as a result of reproduction’s imperfections?
Jo Hedley’s Francois Boucher, Seductive Visions is the first full length monograph on the painter in twenty years. It is also the first one ever to reproduce Boucher’s paintings in such excellent, vivid color. Heretofore, all reproductions have lied: his blues coming out ashen and his greens not at all — leaving his delightful, rich foliage brown as the East African savannah at the height of the hot season. Just by what technological miracle Ms Hedley managed to achieve these colors I have not yet managed to learn, but the result of the miracle is that reading her book affords one the intense pleasure of licking imperial crown jewels.
Excited by the finding — and eager to share the pleasure — I tried to photograph, then scan the reproductions for your delectiation. In vain. Both efforts yielded the old, familiar ashen sky and brown, dried up shrubbery. An online search for good reproductions turned up nothing but more of the same. The picture above is the only one I could find that is close to the intense saturation of Boucherian color, but even there the effect is only gained at the expense of light manipulation which makes the painting appear darker and less detailed than it is in the original. In short, it turns out that until Ms Hedley gave us her jewel, very few of us have had even an inkling of the intense pleasure Boucher’s work affords: perhaps only those who have had the opportunity to negotiate the state staircase of the Wallace collection where one ascends, like the souls of the blessed slowly wafting to heaven, surrounded by Boucher’s radiant visions, huge, close, beautifully restored, and brilliantly lit. Which is a small number indeed: of all the foreigners against whom one rubs his shoulders in the British Museum and the National Gallery none — not one — is to be seen here.
Ms Hedley offers an interesting observation of what happens when a color work of art must be appreciated without it:
Of course, [appreciation of Boucher’s paintings] was only available to the minority with the money to commission a Boucher painting. But Boucher was more than ready to adapt his vision to other markets. The compositional invention displayed in Boucher’s pictures made them perfect for engraving as source material for decorative arts. Both the Rape of Europa and Mercury confiding Bacchus to the Nymphs appear in reverse on the lids of two gold boxes in the Louvre. As, however, much of the pictorial meaning of Boucher’s original canvasses resided in their color and painterly handling, contemporaries felt that new meaning was needed to compensate for its absence in prints that were to be enjoyed as works of art themselves. Engravings after Boucher paintings are thus often accompanied by moralizing verses, sometimes at odds with the picture’s connotations and deliberately calculated to appeal to a more conservative, bourgeois buyer. So, rather than celebrating courtly love, the verses attached to Avelin’s 1748 engraving of Europa see the story as a warning of love’s deceit: Love is, beautiful Europa, an impostor, take care, believe me, of this flattering bull, etc.
Think about it: if the color is lacking, then a new meaning is needed to compensate for its absence. And this is precisely what critics and scholars have been giving us about Boucher, whom they found variously shallow or trivial or immoral — i.e. lacking meaning — perhaps precisely because they have not seen the originals?
The issue is more general: perhaps scholars and critics have been giving us such distorted views of all art, because all of it is more or less badly reproduced and which one of them has had the time and the budget to see it all face to face, up-close and well lit?
Aesthetics is thus perhaps best classified as a branch of epistemology: the science that concerns itself with what we can know, and how, and what the limits of our knowledge are. After all, everyone’s opinion on art is more or less limited; it is no more than a view; and the view can easily be shown to be always more or less obstructed.
We owe huge thanks to Ms Hedley for her book. Thanks to it we can have an inkling of the enormity of what we are missing.