This essay appears in the catalog Henry Isaacs: New Works for an exhibition at Maine Art Shows, August 9-September 1, 2014.
The New Landscape: A History
For much of art history, when the artist painted the land, he did so only as a backdrop, as context, rarely as subject. In fact, what little interest there was in the landscape nearly disappeared entirely during the medieval period, but in the 17th century, Dutch Golden Age painters began to flirt with the landscape as a valid genre of painterly expression. The views of Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten, a 17th century Dutch art theoretician, perfectly illustrate the complex relationship art history has with the landscape. On the one hand, van Hoogstraten thought of landscape painting as “the common footmen in the army of art”—a technical skill that was no different than the skill of painting hair or flesh tone—devoid of any deeper, intellectual or spiritual value. But van Hoogstraten also saw landscape painting as a “locus for poetic license.” As Thijs Weststeijn explains van Hoogstraten’s views, the landscape “provides scope for artistic freedom, for coloristic virtuosity and for chance: for a dialogue between Mother Nature and the artist’s own innate ability.” Or, as van Hoogstraten himself put it, “Whose artistic spirit would not burst forth with something extraordinary when he hears the poets sing of the landscape in such painterly words?” The landscape obtained a foothold on the rocky mountain of art.
Brittany contains all four great elements of landscape: sky, earth, water, and vegetation. Henry Isaacs renders the atmosphere in patches of blues and creams and yellows; the land made of oranges and greens sits on the watery cove which mirrors the sky. Vegetation creeps into the foreground like a kaleidoscope. That we recognize Brittany as a landscape painting—as opposed to a work of entirely Abstract Expressionism—says as much about our own Modern visual language as it does about Isaacs’ ability to render the three-dimensional world as a two-dimensional experience. What is remarkable about Isaacs’ work is its ability to hold our attention, its ability to pack so much visual pleasure into each patch of color. Every time we look at this painting we find something new.
It would be easy to see Isaacs’ paintings as simply the result of the artist’s imagination. Cove Mt. Desert is a colorful expression of land and sea and sky. The boats sailing out to sea in East Boothbay, Maine are the recollection of a lazy summer day. One could draw the conclusion that because Isaacs starts his paintings en plein air and finishes them in the studio that they are rooted in the truth of Mother Nature, but finished in the imagination of the artist. But doing so ignores two hundred years of art history where artists debated a series of simple questions: Is the subject what the artist sees or how the artist sees it? Is the artist under the influence of divine inspiration or a practitioner of scientific observation? Is the landscape painting a document of the land or the artist’s painterly expressive poem about it?
Two hundred years after van Hoogstraten, a twenty-year-old Victorian art critic named John Ruskin began collecting watercolors by JMW Turner. In spite of his popularity, Turner’s dynamic compositions were an affront to conservative Victorian tastes; his shocking colors were often criticized; and Ruskin was having none of it. A particularly condescending writer remarked of Turner, “He has robbed the sun of his birthright to cast shadows.” Ruskin’s defense of Turner, his response to the accusation that his painting was “contrary to nature, and to the rules of Art”, was to write a defense of the artist that liberated landscape painting from the pictorial restrictions of academic art. Ruskin ends with a plea to trust the genius of the artist. By contrast, Turner’s greatest rival was John Constable, who declared in a lecture at the Royal Institution in 1836, “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature.” Constable rejected the notion of landscape painting as the product of divine inspiration, that as if by looking at the landscape, the hand of God took hold of the artist’s brush and did the work for him. Constable argued good painting was the result of “long and patient study, under the direction of much good sense.” The rest of the history of landscape painting is a sort of tit-for-tat series of art movements. The expressive French Impressionists were responding to the dominant realism of the Barbizon school. The Ashcan school rebelled against American Impressionism to which American Realism revolted …and so on…until Modernism, when the history of painting was so exhausted it seemed to stop. Modernism completely liberated landscape painting from the land and placed the idea of a painting in the mind of the artist. The only subject is concept.
This history begs the question, What is Isaacs doing? What is his place in this morass? Isaacs trained at the Slade School of Art, where he learned to be a draftsman with formal skills and gained an ability to look at his subject with science-like observation and render it exactly as it appears. Yet, the realism of Isaacs’ paintings cannot be found in their illustrative qualities. Being a child of Modernism, Isaacs uses the act of seeing as the conceptual foundation of his paintings, and uses color work as the method of painting. The results of all this are landscapes that bridge 20th-century Modernism and reconnect us to the history of landscape painting in a contemporary manner. The old arguments and questions of landscape painting have been resolved. In Isaacs’ paintings, experience, sight, color, and the artist’s imagination converge to give the viewer an experience that hold our attention and dazzle our mind.
The Visible World: Samuel Van Hoogstraten’s Art Theory and the Legitimation of Painting in the Dutch Golden Age by Thijs Weststeijn (Amsterdam University Press, 2008)
Introduction to the Academy of Painting; or the Visible World by Samuel Van Hoogstraten (1678)
“British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, Etc.”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (Vol. XL, No. CLII, October 1836, p. 551)
Modern Painters, Volume 1 by John Ruskin (1843)
John Constable, Lecture IV at the Royal Institution (June 16, 1836)