Contextual Studies 3: A New Purpose for Art

Comparing two art works:

                        Henri Matisse                     Vs                       William Holman Hunt 


Less detail                                                                      Detailed

Bold/harsh brush strokes                                           Captured movement

No blending                                                                   Photo realistic

Canvas still visible                                                        Wealth- clothing, ornaments, wallpaper

Uneven                                                                            Has depth

No narrative                                                                   Reads a story with narrative to it

Does not give a lot away                                              Feel as though we can enter the room

No expression                                                                Drawn in

Cropped with not much background                       Her expression is awakened by something

Showing only the head gives less information       She appears interested in freedom

Masculine                                                                       Appears trapped and controlled

Flat, no features or depth                                            Mistress, kept woman

Heavy lines                                                                     Cat and bird representing being captured

Cartoon like                                                                    Glove representing lost morals

Japponiese hair style                                                    Trappings of wealth and privilege

No perspective                                                               Moral messages

Face colour has a green line/stripe                            Not a nice way to live

Colour used to show how light hits the face             Title tells story-‘Moral Purpose’

Expressive use of colour                                               Typical of Victorian art

Own version that expresses his emotion                   Polished

Contrasting background with different colours

Abstract colour

Drawing attention to colour contrast

Shows how its done rather than what subject it is

No illusion





Comparing two Modernist works:

                          Henri Matisse                   Vs                       Piet Mondrain    

All of the above                                                                           Straight Lines

No subject matter


Grid like


No reference to the real world

Universal language

Modernist work


Paintings by Mondrian;


Characteristics of Modern Art:

  • Non narrative
  • Modernist work is the subjective view of the artist
  • Idea of general/universal essence  to move away from specific detail
  • Art works are autonomous and not dependent on a story
  • Appreciate as they are; independent, separate, and complete


Response of the establishment:

John Ruskin (artist & critic) (1819-1900). Ruskin made offensive comments about Whistlers ‘By river and sea’ painting resulting in a court battle. Whistler sued Ruskin and won, below are the extracts from the hearing.

Trees Near Ambleside, 1847

Trees Near Ambleside, 1847

Withered Oak Leaves, 1879

Withered Oak Leaves, 1879


James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

“The imitator is a poor kind of creature. If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer. It is for the artist to do something beyond this: in portrait painting to put on canvas something more than the face the model wears for that one day; to paint the man, in short, as well as his features; in arrangement of colours to treat a flower as his key, not as his model” – James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1892, pp 126-8


Extracts from the Whistler-Ruskin trial: November 25th and 26th 1878

Whistler questioned by the Attorney General:

A: Now, Mr Whistler. Can you tell me how long it took you to knock off that Nocturne?

W: Let us say then how long did I take to ..’knock off’ that Nocturne; well, as well as I remember, about a day.

A: Only a day?

W: Well… I may have still put a few more touches to it the next day.

A: Oh, two days! The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask 200 guineas!

W: No; I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.

Extracts from Ashton D. (ed.) Twentieth Century Artists on Art (Pantheon, 1985)

A: What was the subject of the Nocturne in Blue and Silver?

W: A moonlight effect on the river near Old Battersea Bridge.

A: Which part of the picture is the bridge?…Do you say this is a correct representation of Battersea Bridge?

W: I did not intend it to be a ‘correct’ portrait of the bridge. It is only a moonlight scene…as to what the picture represents, that depends upon who looks at it.

A: Are those figures on the top of the bridge intended for people?

W: They are just what you like…My whole scheme was to bring about a certain harmony of colour.




References: London,, Turner Contemporary, and Henri

Reading text:

  1. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1892.  p126-p128.

2.   Henri Matisse, ‘Notes of a Painter, from Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Eds. Harrison & Wood, (Blackwell, 2003) p73,I.25 to p74,I.19.

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