Friday, August 5, 2011

Atkinson Grimshaw’s November Moonlight

One of the sadder side effects of the way art history is written is that great masters of light and color are under-appreciated when critical rhetoric moves in a different direction.  Case in point: John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893).
Grimshaw’s story is an interesting one.  Born in Leeds to a working class family (his father was a policeman), Grimshaw first found employment as a railway clerk.  However, he dreamed of becoming an artist, a choice that did not sit well with his father.  Grimshaw did have a London studio for a brief time, but, mostly, he recorded life in Northern England and parts of Scotland.  He bought Knostrop Hall on the outskirts of Leeds and was a prolific painter until his early death from cancer in 1893.  Four of his children would themselves become painters.  (A well-read man, Grimshaw named all of his children after characters in Tennyson poems.)
Though Grimshaw painted many types of pictures (portraits, ‘society’ pictures and even the odd fairy painting), it is his landscape work examining different types of light and weather that best exemplified his talents.  Grimshaw had a genius for weather, and his use of light allowed him to capture both mood and appearance in his landscapes.  He had a unique sense of twilight, of moonlight, of fog and rain – where lesser painters would create mud, his brush left limpid delineations of light and tone.
Grimshaw lived and worked during an interesting time in art history.  His contemporaries included, for example, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.  Grimshaw was not part of an avant-garde, had no particular or dramatic ‘story’ of his life, and he created little controversy.  Art history moved on without him – a great mistake even without the benefit of hindsight.  Now that representational painting and artistic expertise are having their own renaissance, Grimshaw once again is attracting notoriety.  A new retrospective exhibit called Atkinson Grimshaw – Painter of Moonlight is running from 16 April 2011 to 4 September 2011 at Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate.
Let’s close the week with a look at Grimshaw’s November Moonlight.  The cold, grayish-blue of the moonlight illuminates this streetscape.  The rutted, damp road reflects this cold light, and the dead trees stand out in dramatic relief.  The cart rider is alone, which underscores the unforgiving nature of the season.  Everything about this picture says late autumn, chilly air and the onset of winter.  However, Grimshaw brings a vital element of life by employing yellowish light to the parlor windows, creating a sense of warmth, of hearth and of refuge.  The stone wall, however, which is clearly illuminated by the cold moon, separates our rider from the home – he is alone, with only the cold moonlight for company.
This is a type of painting seldom done today, filled with quiet mastery, human connection to landscape and sublime emotion.  We could do much worse than reconsidering John Atkinson Grimshaw.

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