Laura Miner is an art historian at New York University. We were lamenting the death of painter Nelson Shanks this week. Shanks taught at the Art Students League and the National Academy. Although I never studied with him, I was certainly familiar with his work.
Nobody can question his ability, his discipline, his drafting or his paint-handling, and he deserved the accolades he received in his lifetime. However, to me he stands outside the major trend of his time in history, which is self-expression.
“Salome,” above, is the last painting of his I ever saw at exhibition. I walked away from it blown away by his technique, as any sane person would be. The gold bangles at the model’s hips, the fabric textures, and her skin were all executed flawlessly.
Nevertheless, I never studied with Shanks. I didn’t want to paint like him. I am very much a product of the 20th century, and personal viewpoint is paramount. I said as much to Laura.
Puckishly, she responded that she would like to write “about how to earn a living by repressing personal expression. I like the French attitude of appreciating artists who do nice work in a tradition, without having to be original.”
Therein lies the great divide in art since the Age of Reason: are artists intellectuals whose personal viewpoint is the paramount issue in their work, or are they fine craftsmen who create a product for the marketplace, albeit a rarefied one?
Portrait painters like Shanks are almost by default focused on craftsmanship, since portraiture demands accuracy and their clients are not generally interested in the artist’s worldview. But artists in all disciplines run the gamut from craftsmanship to ideas. The best of them incorporate both.
Truthfully, I don’t think an artist has much choice in how his or her personal expression works. It’s a natural outgrowth of education, experiences, personality, and values, and it morphs over time. Last week, my work was featured in an online gallery. A visitor commented that he was happy to “finally” see a painting of mine with modeling. Ironically, the painting in question was the oldest one featured. I’m moving away from modeling, not toward it.
Maturity for an artist is finding his own voice, what might be considered the balance between craftsmanship and self-expression. At that point subject matter gets narrowed down and one’s work becomes more consistent.