I remember a time when I was first learning about art that I found myself amazed at how the play of light, shadow, and emotion could be created from a simple stroke of the brush. In particular, I was drawn to the Renaissance masters and the religious art meant to teach an illiterate populace the lessons of the bible without ever having to read a word. The lesson was in the compassionate pose of the hands, the elegant sweep of hair, the blush of divine light. Artists made a living from telling epic stories meant to move the soul.
Today, and many days previous, I find myself wondering how, as an artist, I can bring that same kind of emotion to my work. Like any mystery, it starts with the self and what affects you, personally. Have you ever found yourself staring at a piece of art? What causes you to stare at it longer than a simple glance? What grips your soul? What makes you think?
For me, there are a few particular pieces that make me stare in awe and trigger an unnameable emotion. The first would be the painting Saint Eulalia by John William Waterhouse.
Before I knew her story, I was fascinated by the delicacy of her skin and the gentle fall of snow. Not only was this piece visually stunning to me, but the contrast of such a violent act as the murder of a child with the soft fall of snow jarred me in some unidentifiable way. I went on to learn that Eulalia was a Christian child who taunted the Romans, and was later tortured with hooks and burnt at the stake, where she died of smoke inhalation. At the moment of death, a dove symbolizing the holy spirit flew from her mouth. A miraculous fall of white snow appeared to cover her naked form.
The next piece is one of my all-time favorite works of art and also my favorite sculpture. I hope to one day make a pilgrimage to the Louvre to see it in person. If you don’t know it already, it is the Pieta by Michelangelo.
Again, the subject of death, self sacrifice, and those who are left behind seems to be one that strikes me at the core. What greater pain could there be than for a mother to lose her child? And yet, there’s something endearing and brave in Mary’s gentle expression. Even in such a moment of pain, her serenity expresses nothing but pure love in the face of such sorrow.
I could go on about Millias’ Ophelia and Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott, but I want to hear from you. I seem to be firmly ensconced in works depicting the ecstasy and passion of martyrs. What this says about my work, I’m not quite sure yet, but it seems like I still have some exploration with subject matter to do beyond my current fair of ‘pretty things’.
What paintings or works of art move you and why? How has this inspired your own work?