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A Day With Charles Courtney Curran, American Dabbler of Modern Art Genres

Updated on August 26, 2018
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The Man Himself

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Intro

Due to a combination of writer's block, life happening, and having no interest in this person's art, it took me a long time to actually want to edit and publish my notes.

A few years ago, I saw an exhibition of an American artist named Charles Courtney Curran put together by the Columbia Museum of Art. Overall, according to the museum (I think), he created art capturing the everyday activities of the girls and women in his life.

How very Vermeer.

Other people saw his Impressionist style too.

Seeing common motifs

As I explored the show, I started noticing common motifs in Curran's work. In the paintings September Afternoon (1913), Peonies (1915), Shadow Decoration (1887), and Picking Blueberries (1909), I noticed that he did not add light to the faces of the girls and women he painted. While creating repetition in his profiles of people in 1909's On the Heights (see video for painting) and On the Cliff (1910), he also has their faces cloaked in shadow and pink from the sun at the same time. This motif continues with Hanging out the Clothes (1887) and The Red Balloon (1889-1890). In contrast to light, bright nature, his subjects stay in dark shadows. It called to mind of Mary Cassatt and the women she depicted enjoying the theater. She too played with the concept of shadows. I am not the only who saw similarities when looking at his work. Curran maintained the motif of dark subjects/light background in his panoramic view of France with Evening Illuminations at the Paris Exposition (1889) with smoke and fireworks obscuring the crowd of revelers. Such a different execution compared to Renaissance era paintings where artists kept everything evenly lit and the Baroque era with their dark backgrounds plus dramatically lit subjects and objects.

If he were a photographer, he would have received criticism for his badly lit subjects. Especially for having his subjects positioned in such a way that the sun would end up obscuring their faces.

However, Courtney never stuck to one way of handling light in his paintings. Woodland Solitude (1913), Winter Morning in a Barnyard (1891) and 1928's Lacy Clouds (see first video) has light evenly distributed to everyone and everything. He even goes Baroque by creating dramatic light in Lavender and Old Lace (1914). Same with At the Piano (1903-1904), where everything is dim except for light from a window.

An early painting, A Quiet Smoke (1883) left me intrigued. While gazing directly back at the viewer, the man's face is half in shadow while expressing a rather shady looking smile. The amusement in his eyes looks as though he's about to laugh at you or about to blow out a puff of smoke. His expression is probably on par with the enigmatic expressions found on the Mona Lisa and The Girl with a Pearl Earring. Subjects wearing facial expressions that make the viewer go, "What are you thinking?" and forever left galled at no answer.

Whether in shadow, dramatically lit, or light evenly distributed, Curran did it all. He reveled in the beauty of shadow, light, and reflection. Such as Paris at Night (1889). In that painting, he depicted a rainy Paris with wet streets that reflected the light off lit lamps and a multicolored sky.

Other observations on Curran's style

I noticed the fusion of both styles when I saw Curran's work the first time. The painting Milking Time from 1889 has Impressionist nature coexisting with Naturalist subjects. It gives the subjects this 3D effect when contrasting against the blurry trees and sedentary nature. The plants, tall and thin, stick out prominently.

When I was doing more research into Curran, I noticed how he never truly fit into one style. In fact, a lot of the observations I have made is similar to this 2011 article that profiled the way Curran shifted between Impressionism and Naturalism.

According to the caption to the work Sealing the Letter (1890-1891), he used oil paint, but Curran makes the material resemble pastel. Furthermore, as I have analyzed earlier, when it comes to capturing light and shadow, he has a talented range. He is also skilled at making flat pictures look real and pliable, such as his Woman with a Feathered Hat (1890). His rendering of fur looks so soft in comparison to say, the hard depiction of ermine furs in Tudor era paintings. In his work, you could imagine the clothing in motion. The feeling is similar to September Afternoon, now that I have looked at it again. Also comparable to Northern Renaissance paintings, the clothes found in 1889's In the Luxembourg (Garden) looked so soft. Even the lion statue had this plush toy quality.

However, he does have a weak point that I think turned me off when I first saw his work, and that shows in his painting, Cumulus Clouds from 1937. Some of his paintings came off as very saccharine with all the pink and white color schemes. Furthermore, while he was all about the everyday in his art, it still felt mundane.

Visual gags in his art

The Columbia Museum of Art did showcase other paintings in his body of work that revealed a playful side to Curran. I found myself intrigued by the way he places subjects and objects in unique compositions. Whether he did it intentionally or unintentionally, I do not know. While two real live humans do not talk to each other, the statues do in Place Malesherbes Paris (1890). Going back to In the Luxembourg (Garden), Curran puts a repeating sequence of two women bending over to either hold a toddler's hand or to feed birds. Curran has a tendency to create a rhythm in his subjects' poses in paintings such as On the Cliff or On the Heights.

Multiple visual gags occur in Afternoon in the Cluny Garden, Paris (1889). Curran has a tree matching an umbrella that shades the women in the painting. A showcase of artificial and natural canopies. He also has the Cluny statues composed in a stand-off against each other.

Curran creates patterns and repetitions that has subjects and objects complement each other.

One of his paintings.

"Afternoon in the Cluny Garden, Paris" 1889
"Afternoon in the Cluny Garden, Paris" 1889 | Source

Beyond the portraits and genre paintings

Curran did do works that commented on contemporary life and worlds beyond ours. In other paintings, he depicts scenes of artifice and luxury with colored fountains in Administration Building of the 1893 Columbian Exposition at Night from 1893. We have the possibly obligatory mythology paintings from The Peris (1898) and 1883's The Sirens (see third video). Compared to the other paintings, you could tell classical mythology did not suit him. Being a Modern Art era version of Vermeer was his true calling.

To sum up his work.

In conclusion, when I put together this article, I realized that I admired Curran's work more than I initially thought. I found myself enjoying the way he played with light and composition.

© 2017 Catherine

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