Late autumn is not a popular subject for landscapes.
Artists prefer golden septembers and octobers. How much better! November palette does not sell, it’s dark, muddy and depressive as Van Gogh’s last painting. It is about dying, for heaven’s sake, not a revival in the Bottichellian sense of the primavera! Who would want to have a gloomy November on their wall (except maybe Swiss people, who generally do not buy garish paintings because afterwards they can’t explain to their neighbours why they did it, and show-off there is a sin deadlier than adultery)?
This is unjust! Late autumn has its own unique beauty.
In pre-winter all the “temporary” aspects of a landscape are removed. November let’s you get to the bottom of things. Only the enduring stuff remains visible. The Nature offers you to contemplate the beauty of its skeleton, its backbone and gist.
The Nature is going NUDE for you.
But not for long. It likes its modesty protected, and the white cloak will soon drape it. An artist may have no more than a couple of weeks to enjoy, contemplate and communicate this wonder.
November is not about colours. November is about the NAKEDESS OF NATURE, persistence, ability to endure and survive. Painting late autumn takes more technical skills (especially drawing ability, because lines and shapes will often take precedence over color).
I took this picture the other day in a nearby park. It illustrates an interesting aspect of late autumn that many artists neglect.
Look at how graphically clear silhouettes and shapes of the trees are reflected in the water. As if the artist switched from oils to watercolours halfway through the picture. Yes, it is the water: it has slowed down, because there’s more ice in it. It has not yet become a skating rink, it may not be even covered by ice, but there’s a micro-thin icy layer which is not mirror-reflective, but light distorting.
Let’s have a look at a collection of great and good late autumn art, accompanied by a view on why it’s great or good!
There are a few artists whose late autumn paintings I like (and hundreds more whose autumn landscapes are a waste of paint).
French: Alfred Sisley (of British descent, of course, but still French)
Look at his use of green colours in the tree trunks: the green of life that is lurking beneath the surface of an otherwise lifeless tree. The couple walking through the woods reminds you that this season can be enjoyed and the other couple in the boat subtly implies that life goes on even though the nature seems to be more dead than alive.
I’ve recently seen a photograph in the Tate Papers which – however good it can be – highlights the advantages of a painter over photographer, though that, I am sure, was not the author’s intention. Here it is.
Author: Jem Southam Source
You see, a painter can paint the tree trunks green inside, creating the centrepoint, the conflict. A painter can introduce two couples to further his or her point, and a photographer can’t. A painter can highlight the important parts (like tree trunks and people) sending everything else into the mist of air perspective and a photographer can’t. A painter can use the direction, the power and the length of brushstrokes to direct viewers’ attention where he or she wants, and a photographer can not. Well, there are certain advantages to a photographer that are inaccessible to a painter, but that’s a different story.
My next artist is British: Edward Wilkins Waite
The water is still, just like I would want it to be: as if “munching” on reflections. There are no ripples, no wind. But there is a lot of movement in this picture! Here, the conflict is not about life hiding inside. It is about the desire, the drive to live. The birds are taking off and flying away. And the tree, bare and naked, at the foreground wants to join them. It longs for those warm places where the birds are probably going. It tries to uproot itself, with some of its lower branches pushing at the ground. The tree wrings its hands, or upper branches, towards the departing flight.
American: Andrew Wyeth
Very straightforward. No nonsense work. Slow water, powerful trunk. No one could have a slightest doubt that it would survive the winter. Were this tree a dog, its puppies would sell at a premium. It is placed prominently in the centre of the composition, it is firmly rooted, and enjoys life overlooking the river. I love Wyeth. But sometimes I find him just a bit too obvious, too straightforward. And I can’t trust him as I trust Sisley. I feel he made it up, beautified. It is so straightforwardly beautiful, it stops being authentic, and becomes a poster.
Russian: Isaak Levitan
Levitan is synonymous with the Russian school of landscape. He’s got a painting to illustrate any weather during any season. But he did not like late autumn.
In this watercolour, he “transfers” to the viewer the crispness of cold air, its temperature, the coldness of the river, the fragility of trees at the foreground. But he does not go beyond “taking a photograph”. There is no movement, and the only conflict I can spot is the pink stripe indicated it is early morning. A new dawn? No, it is too early for this promise. So, no real conflict. And, believe me, this watercolour will soon slip away from your memory.
Do you have to paint any landscape at all to talk about the nakedness of nature?
I could volunteer for a spiritualistic séance with Jackson Pollock to find out what images were flooding his head when he painted his Autumn rhythm No.30:
There is a lot of inner life in this sombre-coloured abstract piece!
So, next time you see a late autumn landscape, think of the enormous possibilities the theme offers a painter. It can be a landscape about courage, will to live, consent to wait and persevere, etc. It can be about all the things life is about except the celebration of the joy of it. And so few artists have explored it so far…
If you happen to come across a late autumn painting, watercolour or drawing that you think was more than just a nice photograph – please send me a link! Please!
PS The post I promised about bad and good paintings was rescheduled for tomorrow!