Academy Summer Residencies 2016: Giverny

Our second essay from Giverny comes from Matthew Durante MFA 2017. 

Giverny is an inspiration. I paint both the landscape and the figure, but here the landscape is such that to paint anything else would seem to miss the point. It is enchanting.

I want to thank the New York Academy of Art and the Terra Foundation for an unparalleled experience. Rolling hills of thick greens of every shade, gardens and lilies of famous lineage, trees and hedges and flowers and all of them luminous in the sunshine, friendly bees and bugs and daddy-long-legs in their nooks, sucre crepes right down the road, Paris just a bit further, gracious and accommodating hosts who give us free passes to museums and gardens and bikes and food and a wonderful old house to live in, a dressing room to properly attire myself for facing the landscape, a Sorolla exhibition to walk to for quick inspiration, hearty meals sometimes with a cheese course, pastries and more pastries, a car for groceries and picnics and twirling round about the roundabouts, pleasant and supportive companions who are not unhinged, strange ear kissing rituals, classical chamber musicians who are also residents playing all around us, and lots of wine. This is Giverny.

“Ah Giverny…”

I may be burbling but this has been my first time in France, and indeed in Europe. I visited Paris before Giverny, and marched through the major museums in a jet-lagged stupor determined to see it all while staying upright.  Combine that with a few days in London and it would seem I have seen almost every major work of pre-20th century art from my art history classes! Amazing. London seemed to have a dynamic energy similar to New York City, while Paris was leisurely and lovely, perfect for wandering the boulevards.

It was inspiring to see so much great painting in Paris and London, but overwhelming to see it all in so quick a time. So to calm my brain, I sketched the sculpture that is everywhere in Paris. The quality of European figurative sculpture in the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay is amazing.  Combine marble, particularly when it glistens, and the human form, particularly when it is carved with skill and subtlety, and I must draw it.
Sketching sculpture at the Louvre!

After Paris, Naudline, Kristina, Jorge and I met up in Giverny. We were given a great studio with great light, but on sunny days it’s hard to remain indoors with the beautiful French countryside all around. So I went out to paint and have been doing so since. And in fact we’ve all been painting the landscape in some way: Jorge has been going to the Monet Gardens, Kristina is painting nature abstractions and chasing cows, and Naudline, whose work is imagination-based, has painted Giverny vistas and the colors have inspired her. On hot days it gets toasty in the studio, and this too prods us onward, outside into the sun, we the bold painters. It’s cool in the shade.

Le studio

The Giverny landscape has reacquainted me with challenges of outdoor painting, which I didn’t pursue in NYC, and has given me a chance to experiment. Coming here I knew I wanted to try painting with dust. And I knew I wanted to paint in color. Most of my landscape work in the past was monochromatic, a combination of charcoal powder and chalk and all of it sandwiched between clear acrylic. Practically I couldn’t work that way here in Giverny, so I went back to traditional brushes and started doing studies.  Slowly, I started to stretch my landscape-painting color-muscles again, building confidence, thinking back to the landscape painting class I had with the mighty Mr. Nathan Fowkes. From him I learned to use a watercolor palette augmented with white gouache, which allows for the quick contrast of transparency and opacity, a technique often employed in oil painting (transparent shadows, opaque lights); with this palette, the watercolors are essentially transparent, but with a little white gouache they become opaque colors.
Lily painting.  Intense!

During my first week in Giverny the studies I was doing were alright, and I knew with much more practice I would start to get my colors under control.  But I still wanted to paint with dust. Indeed, after seeing the Pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat at the Musee d'Orsay, I really wanted to paint with dust. These, and all the impressionist paintings of Monet and others, implied approaching color less directly and more of as an effect of optical recombination in the eye. I wanted to try this for myself. I felt it would take me closer to what I was doing monochromatically, and give me new directions to explore.

Seurat’s Poseuse de dos [Model, Back View], 1887

With a bag of pumice as my powder and watercolors as my pigment, I manufactured my own dust. But without a fixative that is safe to use, like the casein fixatives available In the U.S., I couldn’t find a good way to make the dust stick to my paper. All I had available were the nasty ones that smell like a biohazard and I could hardly spread this miasma throughout beautiful Giverny.  Additionally, working with pigments in a powder form can be toxic. So, the dust was a dud.

Studies Studies Studies

Then one day, frustrated by failures, stuck in studies, vexed by the search for something vital and more me — I realized I was just making things complicated and I should paint dots.  The thought of endlessly dabbing my life away with a tiny pointed brush had been debilitating, but — last Saturday, as the resident chamber musicians serenaded me on the Terra grounds, their notes mixing with the wind and the birdsong — I reached down, and there were my stipple brushes, and that’s exactly what they’re for!  Each dab creates a field of tiny dots, and suddenly I started to get more interesting color that, in places at any rate, had that vibrating quality that is found in some Impressionist painting.  And even better, this fits into the whole noise of perception thing I’m after, dancing, twirling photons, like a field of darkness at night, like film-grain and memory.  So, I’m going to keep playing with this.

My painting of Monet’s lilies

I want to thank Véronique Bossard, Miranda Fontaine and Cèliane Ainaron of the Terra Foundation for American Art, and Jan Huntley of the Foundation Claude Monet, all for their amazing hospitality.  In particular I must single out Miranda for her generosity and thoughtfulness.  Miranda, elle est supercool!

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