All you gotta do is act naturally . . .

Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by Sargent

I’ve started another candy jar painting, part of a series I’ve been doing for several years now, off and on. This one’s a quarter the size of my usual work with these jars, which are a little over four feet by four feet. A while back, a friend at Viridian Artists, Bob Mielenhausen, suggested I try some of these in this smaller format, only two feet square, and so that’s what I’m doing, as a test, more or less. I’m also working on wood panel rather than on canvas or linen, as well as using a higher-quality paint—and I’m loving the changes—they’re teaching me a number of things about technique, but that isn’t what’s on my mind. What strikes me again and again about this series of candy jars, regardless of the materials I use, is how the results keeping reminding me of Renaissance painting. Feel free to say, Really, is that all? You and Michelangelo on the same page now? Lonely bloggers are allowed to make comparisons like this. It’s one of the perks of isolation. But that isn’t what I’m saying. I’ve never wanted to paint the way anyone did during the Renaissance—OK, that’s not true, because I’d give almost anything to paint nearly anything Bruegel painted, but I mean I’ve never attempted to adopt any methods or conventions from the Renaissance. I’ve never had the urge to paint one of Piero Della Francesca’s scenes. So I’m not entirely sure why the way I render a little oblong bit of translucent sugar reminds me of a Biblical scene from centuries ago. (It’s a coincidence that I’ve recently been reading about Italian painting from the 12th through the 16th centuries—and not because of any conscious connection between my intentions and what motivated painting during the Renaissance, but simply because I want to get into Vasari’s head, as a critic and historian.) Last year, this same similarity occurred to me. I remember looking at a previous candy jar I’d done, one that I exhibited at the last Halpert Biennial, and I thought that the loose way I’d painted some of the candy reminded me of Michelangelo. I know it sounds ludicrous to say this, but it was purely formal: the quality of the color reminded me of what the figures were wearing on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and there were other connections: the clarity of line I can get with these paintings, and also for some reason the organic curves of these oval objects often remind me of parts of the human body—a length of someone’s arm, or a shoulder. Most of all I think it’s the way I want these paintings to glow if I do them properly, and for me, that’s what’s most wonderful about the Italian Renaissance, the quality that William Blake swore his allegiance to, the way an Italian fresco seems to be infused with light and a resulting clarity of line and form that comes more naturally if you’re painting something brightly illuminated.

Comes naturally: that’s an expression that gets close to why I’ve been reading Vasari. I’ve been wanting to explore his appreciation for the concept of sprezzatura. There’s a problem with this, though. He never uses the word once in The Lives of the Artists. It’s there, in a prominent way, in the introduction to the Bonadella translation and you’ll find many other commentators who assume that he considered this quality of primary importance in his appreciation of greatness. It threw me a little, the way he concealed his own apparent reliance on The Book of the Courtier—an act of sprezzatura in itself, in a sense–by seeming to appreciate this quality without actually using the term that Baldassare Castiglione apparently introduced into the critical vocabulary with that book on how to get ahead in the Renaissance version of high society. As Castiglione put it:

I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all others, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.

This quality of sprezzatura, more and more, has begun to seem like a central artistic principle to me, for a number of reasons. It’s a sophisticated aesthetic term, more about behavior than observable qualities in a finished work of art. The best way to describe the quality is “effortlessness achieved through long discipline and practice.” In other words, a courtier, according to Castiglione, needs to appear completely at ease in his behavior around royalty, hiding all the effort that goes into seeming entirely natural in his actions and words. Here’s how I imagine the qualities of someone who lived by this principle. He’s spontaneously and quietly witty, not a joke-teller. He’s non-competitive, doesn’t argue, doesn’t call attention to himself, always yielding to the annoying climbers around him, and yet all the while he gives the appearance of absolute confidence in his own worth to the court, without seeming proud or egotistical. He never strives to make an impression or create an effect. He grows on you, after you spend enough time around him. Hours later, after some function where you talked with him, you smile as you finally realize the irony in some throw-away remark he made. You’re totally at ease with him because he seems to be completely at ease with himself. He has sprezzatura. He’s cool. But it’s more than coolness, because hipsters tend to be studied and extremely self-conscious in what they do and wear and like, yet they can’t get away with any of that strenuous effort devoted to being different without sprezzatura. The hipster needs to appear completely indifferent to the impression or or she makes—even though every bit of style and behavior is calculated to appear exactly a certain way. Getting into those skinny jeans can be hard work.

At first, sprezzatura sounds like an extremely superficial quality. A matter of ornament. It isn’t all that hard to appear effortless in life. Just don’t try too hard at anything. If you’re willing to settle for small stakes, you can appear effortless all day long: and that is part of the hipster pose. Reject conventional notions of accomplishment and do whatever it is you do when you feel like it. I do a really convincing version of sprezzatura in front of the TV at night. Yet you could make a list of creative types who have this quality: Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Guru (of Gang Starr), Porter, Matisse, Manet, Salinger, Fitzgerald, James Merrill, Robert Lowell, and certain comedians, like Louis C.K. and Marc Maron. The ultimate embodiment of it is Bill Murray. Those are just a few examples. They all give you the impression that you’re watching them do something that comes easily and naturally to them: as if what you’re getting from them at any given time is almost off-the-cuff, extemporaneous.

John Singer Sargent’s brushwork is a corrective to that impression and maybe the best example of what the word sprezzatura was meant to express. He created powerfully convincing portraits, full of life and immediacy, and his brushwork mostly appears heedless, incredibly confident, as if he could capture someone’s likeness with a couple dozen swipes of paint, in a single sitting, with his mind on whatever he planned to be doing after hours. Yet his portraits were the outcome of intense discipline and invariable methods. Work from  large areas of middle value and finish with the darks and lights as accents. Apply paint generously. Save the details for last. And so on. Apparently, he could labor for weeks on a portrait. Some quotes from an account of Sargent at work by a contemporary of his:

Provided every stage is correct, a painter of Mr. Sargent’s caliber could paint for a week on one head and never retrace his steps — but he never attempted to correct one. He held that it was as impossible for a painter to try to repaint a head where the understructure was wrong, as for a sculptor to remodel the features of a head that has not been understood in the mass. That is why Mr. Sargent often repainted the head a dozen times. He told me that he had done no less than sixteen of Mrs. Hammersley. (You can find a link to this unattributed account at the bottom of this web page:

What looks easy and fluent, as the Italians recognized, comes only as a result of arduous effort—though all evidence of the effort remains hidden.

What interests me about the term, though, is a meaning it suggests to me that wasn’t intended by the Italians who introduced it. It points to something missing from so much art since the advent of modernism: an inherent and essential naturalness, a sense that the work is the outcome of an innate urge, an inner necessity, that grows out of an artist’s own subconscious individual nature. Braque has it; Picasso doesn’t, for example. Work with my notion of sprezzatura usually feels as if it originates as irresistible impulse, that it was the most natural thing to do for a writer, or painter, or actor, or comedian. It’s the way a creative individual simply is himself or herself in his or her work. Whether or not the work is actually, in reality, full of effort and the outcome of assiduous practice is beside the point. It feels genuine, without affectation or posturing, and the result of some inescapable personal compulsion to get it just right–for no other reason than a craving to see the work done a certain way, as perfectly as possible. This is beginning to sound like the exact opposite of sprezzatura, but it’s a more philosophical, Taoist approach to painting, a way that involves surrendering to who you are, as a person, in paint. Cleverness and posturing go out the window. You paint simply the way you love to paint–and as difficult as that sometimes feels, there’s a quality of ease and letting go at the heart of it, and that’s what the Renaissance definition of sprezzatura only simulates. Maybe I need a new word now that I’ve gotten to this point, but it gets close to what I believe serves as the foundation of great art. At least, I know I detect it in all the great art I happen to love.

Now that I look at my candy jar, though, half-finished, I’m seeing way too much undisguised effort . . .

Comments are currently closed.