Given that we have all been confined to the same places and spaces for the better part of a year – we thought that we would start our first window display of lockdown with two striking and colourful landscapes for some escapism and colour in January!
Henri Le Sidaner and Kenneth Webb are two artists who express very distinct styles and biographies, and they give us the opportunity to look at two very different approaches to two very similar aims – a colourful landscape! We are really lucky to have such a range of works here at Gladwells Rutland, in this case French Post-Impressionism and British Contemporary, and it is fun for us to get to put these two works together in dialogue (when they normally would not be). We have put some biographical information and some of our observations on the artworks up, alongside some direct comparisons between the works; however, if you are particularly struck with an image then please don’t read it and just enjoy.
Part of the reason behind comparing these two works from different periods, styles, and countries is that they can be used to engender a discussion about the difference between impressionist and expressionist approaches to painting. Landscapes form such a large proportion of the art that we buy and look at that it seems valuable to explore this distinction in technique. Impressionism and Expressionism are two terms that have become almost ubiquitous in discussing art of the last 150 years. But how do we apply them to a painting, and is the line between the two as clear as these large terms suggest?
We hope you enjoy this display, we have put up some questions, to which there are certainly no right answers, and we would love to hear any thoughts you have on the works. Even when you spend most of your time around art they don’t get any easier to answer!
1. Le Sidaner
‘Le Sidaner invests the scenes he depicts with a romantic, a mysterious poetic essence, which appeals poignantly to our emotions’, The Collector and Art Critic, November 1906.
Henri Le Sidaner (1862-1939) is an artist that defies easy categorisation. Generally seen as an Intimist painter of quiet interiors, he worked in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist circles in a career spanning some of the most significant stylistic changes in the History of Art.
A 1906 summary of his career to date in The Collector and Art Critic described his style as ‘elusive and delightful, stamping him as one of the most original, one of the most exquisite of France’s younger painters’, and his work was highly regarded and collected in his lifetime (not a given for all artists). Well known for his nocturnal images of northern France and Flanders, it is evident that the main preoccupation of his landscapes and townscapes is light. The 1906 article is full of praise for this focus, contending that ‘what Sidaner does not know about light and the method of reflecting it on canvas seems scarcely worth knowing’.
This fascination with light is evident in Le Matin, Villefrance-sur-Mer a seaside town on the French Riviera that Le Sidaner often visited towards the end of his life. Studies of the intense light and colours of French coastal scenery was common amongst the post-Impressionists, with each artist bringing a unique stylistic approach to its depiction and Le Sidaner is no different. With an almost complete absence of human figures, the focus of this painting is clearly on the timeless quality of the interacting water, boats and town, all unified by the bright light of the early morning.
Le Matin, Villefranche-sur-Mer
We are immediately told that this is the morning in the title, and moving up the painting one can find increasing light and colour, with the boats still shrouded in almost night and sun starting to hit the houses and water above. While a profusion of yellows, greens and greys would often imply a more lurid or sickly image, le Sidaner imbues this piece with great warmth. With colours more vivid than those seen in life, one feels that this work is almost dreamlike or fantastical in quality – a saturated memory of the profuse light and tones of the French Riviera.
In addition to this colouristic focus, one of the defining features of this work is its heavy use of impasto (thickly applied paint raised above the surface of the canvas) especially in the upper register of the work. This adds an almost three-dimensional quality to the work, and texturally draws the viewers eye. Given that the most pronounced example of this technique can be found in the yellows and oranges where sunlight hits the houses, water and sails it is evident that the artist’s main preoccupation in this image is capturing the effects of early morning light. It could be said the rich morning light is itself captured in these built up layers of paint.
Although le Sidaner is difficult to categorise, Le Matin, Villefranche-sur-Mer is related to both pointillism and divisionism in its style, two techniques which use smaller and larger points of colour respectively that optically interact to create the sense of profuse light. The juxtaposition of colours creates a brightness that is actually far greater than is experienced in life, consequently even the transient light of the morning assumes an idealised brilliance, contributing to the mystical beauty of the work.
‘Kenneth Webb’s work is an homage to the secret life of colour. Though his paintings are intense icons, you never have the feeling that form or content are forced or contrived. He has managed to penetrate to some deeper level from which the painting is able to assert the dream of its own shaping … If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then Kenneth Webb is a graced and gracious beholder’ – John O’Donohue, Poet.
Born the year that Le Sidaner painted his image of Villefranche-sur-Mer, 1927, Kenneth Webb’s career and artistic identity began in earnest when he moved to Ireland in 1953 to teach art. Throughout his career he investigated myriad styles and subject matters, but all of them are united in their exploration of the natural world, and no subject appears more often than the bogs, hills and open skies of West Ireland. It’s wild and rugged landscapes, particularly those of the Connemara national park, inspire a dramatic colouristic approach from the artist.
Webb’s work is often seen as a celebration of colour, and this is evident in Elemental. Heathers, grasses and poppies (a favourite subject of the artist) appear in deeply saturated reds and oranges, outcrops of rock often assume a deep blue hue, and his water comes across with a crystalline brightness. As Webb stated, ‘I would wish to paint a picture which has the ability to move me as does music; to turn the ear, not merely an impeccable example of craftsmanship’, and this is evident in the heightened brightness of his works. His images often move beyond ‘naturalism’ into a more mythical exploration of colour.
The title of this work gives little indication of the location of this landscape, and instead invites the viewer to first consider the almost abstract nature of the scene. One could first consider the heavy use of primary colours as ‘elemental’, particularly the reds and blues that so often predominate in Webb’s works. Through these large swathes of paint, one could also consider the title a reference to the visibility and boldness of these basic elements.
Yet beyond this initial impression of abstraction, the upper register of the work is key to informing the main body, with the blue silhouettes of the hills both locating the image in Connemara National Park and grounding the viewer with a clearer perspective. With this visual information, the abstraction thus resolves itself into an image of water pools amidst the rocky heather of the bog. It would be difficult to describe this work as ‘realistic’, but the boldness of colour might be said to capture the sense, and sensory overload, of the national park, as could the sticky textures created by the thickly applied paint.
3. Perspectives and Settings
It seems that a unifying thread between these two works is the biographical relationship between both artists and their chosen subjects. Villefranche-sur-Mer and Connemara exerted a pull in Le Sidaner and Webb’s respective biographies, with both artists approaching these locations with some degree of outside perspective. In each case this imagery is thus approached from the position of an artist who has made the active choice to settle and explore an area.
In Le Sidaner’s case, this work represents a departure from the subject matter and style he is best known for, quite muted studies of interiors and nocturnes. Furthermore, for most of his career Le Sidaner’s outdoor scenes are set in the wintery colds of Northern France and Flanders, defined by their paler light. One could therefore infer that the sunny Mediterranean light must have offered some element of novelty to the artist, and might explain why this work seems like such a celebration of the arrival of morning brightness.
On the other hand, many of Webb’s works like as Elemental could be interpreted as part of a process by which the artist explored the West Irish landscape to as great a depth as possible. If Le Sidaner’s work can be seen as almost a flirtation with a different subject matter, then Webb’s would instead be seen as part of journey of continuous study. Perhaps it is the fact that Webb was so familiar with Connemara that explains why he brought such a bold expressiveness to his landscapes.
Comparing artworks in this way is therefore often useful as it can give insights into the respective preoccupations of the painters themselves, gauging different identities in a way that cannot always be achieved through looking at a single work. If great artists seek to capture not just optical effects, but moments of emotion or transience, then direct comparisons between them would seem to be the best way to infer their unique contributions to the form
The simplest definition of the difference between these terms, can be seen as the difference between capturing something about the world, especially the transient effects of light, and on the other hand adding something personal to the world. Even more briefly – to take an impression or to express something. In fact, impressionism was initially used as a criticism, with a writer describing the new style as ‘a mere impression’, but obviously this negative tone is no longer the case! While both of these terms have been used to describe specific art movements (French Impressionism, German Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism) they have wider applicability to artistic approach and style.
One could think about these two ideas in terms of opposing pairs. For example, there is a contrast between the momentary glance of the impressionist, capturing effects in brief detail, and the evocative and intense work of the expressionist. Or perhaps they can be divided between the difference enhancing optical effects and looking beyond them to suggest a deeper emotion. Maybe the best definition is between objectivity and subjectivity.
Both artists actually take quite similar approaches, using bold blocks of colour and thick layers of impasto, yet the impressions given by each work are quite different. Larger blocks of paint in a less rigid framework and slightly more use of primary colours in Elemental produce a dramatically bolder image, where light and tone are used to create emphasis rather than convey subtle gradations as in Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Comparing the two works further, it is evident that the choice of palate alone does not necessarily define one image as more expressive than the other. Although Webb’s image can be said to ‘pop’ more on initial impression, with its fields of bold colour catching the eye, a close look at Le Sidaner’s work reveals that the Frenchman used just as many, if not more, artificial colours that Webb does. The difference lies here in technique, pointillist effects as opposed to planes of pure colour. As an example, the figure in the boat in Villefranche-sur-Mer is delineated almost in pure purple, yet this does not register as surprising to the eye, the colour is used to explore the optics of light instead of conveying a bold feeling. As you can see, the difference between the two are not hard and fast rules, but rather useful lenses through which to think about and talk about these images, and as with most things the best artworks involve elements of both approaches; but at the same time, we can often ascribe artists and artworks to one ‘camp’ or another!
5. Seven Questions to Consider!
1. These paintings both have very different styles of framing – do you think that the framing styles are useful in showing the different ages of the works, do they change the way you interact the paintings?
2. Impressionist and expressionist approaches, do you prefer a more objective approach to capturing the effects of light (Le Sidaner) or is it more interesting see the subjective approach of an artist to the colours that they see (Webb)?
3. Where would you hang these works if you had them in your house, would you want them to interact or do you think that they suit different spaces?
4. Do we primarily want our art to be escapist? Both of these images offer viewpoints on
5. These two works have two very different styles of title, descriptive for the le Sidaner and evocative for Webb’s work. Would you interpret the work differently if given a different title?
6. Does juxtaposing the works change the way that you appreciate them? If you saw one of these images in isolation would it change the way you responded to it?
7. Do you think that knowing the biographies of these two artists to give the works context makes the works more beautiful, or does it detract from their aesthetic qualities?