Behind the Canvas #art #portraits

Lautrec. Fragonard, Cassat, Modigliani, Picasso


As an art student, I always steered clear of The Portrait. One of my teachers told me early on “it’s not the mechanics of the drawing that makes it difficult, it’s catching the life of the person. To do that the artist needs to infuse feeling onto the canvas.”

On one of my jaunts to the National Gallery I sat and looked at two artists  that were opposite each other: Modigliani and Toulouse-Lautrec. I was not familiar with Modigliani and at first glance thought “I could paint portraiture like that.” Then I swiveled around looking a Lautrec in the eyes and wondered why I had never understood this particular Impressionist.

First the Italian artist Modigliani: Look at the  boy’s face. What do you see? I see a rather bored (probably spoiled youth). In this day and age, he was might have been thinking “I have someplace better I can be.” As I was sitting taking notes, I watched a boy (probably 8-10 years of age). Something about the Modigliani caught his attention. While his family moved about the gallery, he looked intently at this boy (from every angle.) Modigliani got it. It captured the essence of feeling in the “boyish”posturing and facial expression of “Chaim Soutine.”

“Madam Amedee” also a Modigliani must have been a joy to paint. Modigliani manages to portray the prudish arrogance of the this woman. Her lips seem to hold back the words “Can we be done?”Again, I believe he captured this woman’s essence par excellence!

An interesting contrast is just across the room tucked away in a quiet corner. The drawing of “Olga Picasso” is fresh and filled with an unobtrusive beauty. Not what one expects from Picasso who as a general rule used his portraits to make a statement about the inner workings of man.

Okay, I’ll swivel once more to Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec:

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was known for his looking behind the curtain of life. He knew the girls at the Moulin; they weren’t just subjects. I wonder if the masks he paints on these ladies is a means of protecting them. One one of his paintings,  (in the gallery) he actually has a masks on the dancers. Yet, the audience he gives a fairly accurate likeness and even uses the names of the “patron” as the title of several paintings.

I was captivated by the first painting I have shown here. The woman looks like a painted clown. The man is stoic and refined. I’m going to chance a guess that the real “clown” was the man who made airs of himself.  One clue is that a man in that era always took his hat off in the presence of a lady. “Yes, Toulouse men through the ages have used women but respected them very little.” Does Toulouse-Lautrec capture the spirit of the people? I would say “yes,he does.” The girls are lively whereas the voyeurs are stiff and have everything in practical order. I can’t say I understand Lautrec completely but I have a greater appreciate  for the statement he makes about spirit in each human being.

Jean Honore Fragonard. I had to throw in this beautiful portrait (that was painted about 100 years before the others) to show a contrast. Fragonard, I am assuming like all artists, had to make money on occasion. Commissioned portraits were the way artists have paid their bills for centuries. What feeling you gain from this painting is what the painter has to contain. The family just wants a picture of their daughter who is told to sit very still. What the artist would love is to see her dress and hair flutter in the wind to capture (and set free) the spirit that is the captive of a chair.

Cassatt continues to be one of my favorites. This portrait of a mother with her young child is a staged sitting and yet the artist takes license and allows the child to squirm. The impish glance in the mirror lets the viewer know that the artist has seen this child run about the manor. The mother is composed but Cassatt knows the will she is exerting to have her child be seated for more than a moment. The mirror was probably the artist’s idea as a way to keep the child distracted. (Today photographers use their hands or a stuffed animals to keep small children from running off or crying.)

I threw in the collage of Picasso’s portraits as a contrast to his earlier drawing. I fought the urge to credit the drawing of the young woman to Picasso; it was so much more like a Degas. I looked through every portrait Degas painted. “Then it must be Cezanne, because it can’t be a Picasso!” I guess I have a new love for Picasso (at least his earlier work.)


I hope this gives you a look behind the canvas at the artist dabbing on pigment, forming shapes, and adding life in the Portrait.


Photography: Moondustwriter 2014

Picasso Collage: Suturno Diario 

Published by moondustwriter

Thank you for visiting Moondustwriter. In 2019, we have an exciting project. We are developing elementary curriculum for Ugandan children. As a writer, it is a thrill to help children who want to learn. Along with the curriculum, we hope to develop simple fictions about Uganda for the children to read at school. Trust me books are in short supply. We will use our trusted story tellers: a butterfly and a lion to make the stories come alive. Stay tuned as Bethany and Me put pen to paper. I've been part of the blogging community for more than 10 years. Some old timers may remember the award winning (2012 Twitter Shorty ) blog community - One Stop Poetry. I was the (quiet) originator of the idea and co-producer of One Stop Poetry. I am a published writer, poet, artist and photographer. I have written, as well as edited, for periodicals, radio, blogs and fellow writers. There are many facets to this moon - thanks for stopping by.

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  1. really enjoyed this and I am coming back later to read it again – that is how much I like it. However, just disagree slightly on Modgliani – well yeah, maybe a bit spoiled youth, but not the stoner part – just not the word I would use – and I am actually reading another book about him right now so I guess I just have a different feel in mind.

    anyhow, again – great post and loved this

    “it’s not the mechanics of the drawing that makes it difficult, it’s catching the life of the person. To do that the artist needs to infuse feeling onto the canvas.”


    1. Well I do appreciate the feedback. I racked my brains of all my years of study and could not remember Modigliani. I agree with you about the youth – maybe a better summation would be “I hate that mama is making me sit here.”


      1. wow – how cool. and the reason a stoner did not come to mind was because this guy was always so well-dressed. In fact – it was his trademark and I will have to share more later, but a guy that he mentored, well one time was trying to learn manners and I guess sneezed at the table – and then stayed still until Modigliani took off his scarf and the guy was able to use it as a napkin to clean up.

        so anyhow, I am still exploring, but my impression so far is that yes, party man and drunk – but he was also just cool – and he was ill since youth – had so many things wrong with him. he also would strip down at parties – and sometimes he was tied to stop this from happening. So well dressed party dude – he also gave away so many of his works – much to the dislike of his dealer – but it was who he was to the core.

        also, for some reason – as I read about him – I do not feel the spoiled-ness I thought I would encounter – he just really loved his family and his mom spoke good things on him from the time he was young. There are also art critics that can tell you what certain things implied in his portraits – and they can tell who he liked and who he did not! hm. I am going to do a post on him in a few weeks and I will come back by and leave you a note when I do – oh – and by the way – thanks for dropping by my blog 🙂 ❤ – nice to be blog friends.

        and one closing thing I have gotten from Modigliani's life – well the last few years he only painted cos he could not afford to do the sculpture he really wanted to work with (the war and other things limited this) and this is a reminder to me that many times our circumstances dictate our life output and sometimes that is more Divinely appointed than we realize – and because of this – we get his unique portraits (and many nudes) and we would not have these gems if he could have picked his path more.

        okay – now it is time for me to reread this treasure of a post – it made my morning earlier – coffee and art – now that is win-win! so thanks.


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