Understanding the Art that We “See”

On January 11, the Sippican Woman’s Club hosted its member luncheon at their headquarters in the historic Handy Tavern Building on Front Street in Marion. The tables were laden with sumptuous morsels that were described on tiny little easels, a clever nod to the guest speaker.

Jill Sanford, who holds a cum laude Bachelor of Arts degree in art from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was the guest speaker. But what the participants might not have realized while enjoying the cozy warmth of food and friends was that they were about to take a journey through America’s art history.

Sanford brings a wealth of knowledge to all her lectures on art, focusing on specific time frames, or artists, or styles of painting in a truly deep dive that can leave the listener breathless.

Beginning with a painting of one Mr. Tiffen of New Hampshire, one of a stiff amateurishly rendered gentleman in a black coat, Sanford asked the viewer to imagine the painter, his background (for assuredly it must have been a male), the material the portrait was painted on, and the paints themselves, for all of these are clues to understanding the painting itself.

Carefully pulling the clues out of the image displayed, Sanford explained the details – this was an iterant painter with no formal training and few tools at his immediate disposal. Contrasted against portraits being produced in Europe with its centuries of artistic achievement, one could easily see that this portrait, while not hastily executed, was not expertly crafted. Sanford said this style of painting carried the not-too-pleasant title of “primitive” or “folk art.” The portrait lacked depth, appeared cartoonish, and maintained none of the tricks artists came to understand as necessary in drawing a viewer into the image.

As Sanford focused for several minutes on Tiffen’s painting, she was preparing her audience for all that was to follow. This was profoundly demonstrated when she contrasted the Tiffen portrait against the one done of Paul Revere some years later. The famous Copley rendering of Revere is everything the Tiffen portrait is not – painted by a trained artist whose command of the art form immediately is without doubt, for here was a near-lifelike face.

By spending sufficient time establishing the difference between the untrained and the trained artist, Sanford granted the viewer professional insights in the craft itself. She then enhanced that appreciation by adding in perspective.

Introducing the artist Albert Bierstadt, Sanford explained the artist’s trick of using light and lines and the position of the horizon itself to give the eye and the mind a perspective intentioned by the artist. The finely crafted sweeping vistas created by Bierstadt of the American West as seen by Lewis and Clarke gave an early American’s sense of the majesty of the country most would never see for themselves. Sanford told the group how perspective gave the image its nearly three-dimensional treatment.

Sanford was like a piped piper whose tune drew the viewer along a journey towards discovery from the earliest paintings done on American soil to the twentieth century modern and contemporary art of today. From Remington to Mary Cassatt, from Winslow Homer to Jackson Pollock, Sanford left no painter or their unique talents unexplored.

Sanford also credits American artists for bringing contemporary art as well as abstract expressionism to the level of high art, away from the heretofore presence of Europe as the art capital of the world.

A full hour of learning and entertainment was enjoyed as Sanford shared her knowledge of the art world in her clear and expertly presented style. To learn more about Sanford, visit www.artforyourmind.com where you can also find a listing of Sanford’s presentations in local venues. To reach the Sippican Woman’s Club, visit www.sippicanwomansclub.org.

By Marilou Newell


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