Friday, October 23, 2015

Chapter 17: Vincent Van Gogh #2

Tying Up Loose Ends, Stepping Out With Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh may have painted more pairs of shoes than he did starry nights or windy days in fields around Arles.

He started with crude footwear belonging to Dutch peasants, the potato eaters for whom he felt such camaraderie while making his transition from man of God to man of art. In Arles, in the period of his most memorable works, he painted the shoes of everyday people he knew in a way that showed his strong empathy with the struggles of their lives.

Van Gogh's Shoes / © Deborah Julian
His still life of shoes from Arles, painted against the background the red tile floor of his home, is striking because, even more than his exciting pictures of star-filled skies and of robust sunflowers, it reveals a gentle sensitivity that contrasts like fire and rain with the way he lived and the impression he made on others.

Van Gogh failed at trying to follow the footsteps of his father in serving as a minister and, thereafter, tumbled from Holland to France in hopeless pursuit of becoming a renowned painter. You wouldn’t know it if you were aware only of his reputation today, but he failed almost completely as an artist. 

If it wasn’t for his devoted brother Theo, Vincent might have given it up to survive as a tradesmen, leaving us without the spectacular artwork that draws millions to museums and galleries every year. 

Unfortunately, to Theo we can also credit the idea for hooking Vincent up with Paul Gauguin, also a bit crazy but in a different way, in the house in Arles. Their stormy friendship seems to have yielded — or extracted — some of Vincent’s ear after a dispute. 

Just because he handed over the detached body part to a brothel for safekeeping doesn’t mean it was a love offering.

With Vincent Van Gogh, who knows?

Vincent Van Gogh spent a lifetime passionately troubled by one thing after another. The passion shows up in his paintings, not so much the trouble. There is turbulence in his plein air work, but its rhythms harness the chaos. Like other creative people, his efforts might have been therapeutic.

Van Gogh put his heart into his work — and his spleen, stomach and lungs. Van Gogh got it all out.


Back to the shoes. In painting the still lifes, he found and recorded impressions about the people who wore them. The footwear has more character lines and emotional depth than the faces in his portraits.

What Sam likes about Vincent’s shoes is the pleasure of their being set aside on the tile floor of the home where he battled Gauguin. After working hard all day, they relax. The toil is over. 

For Sammy too, as he helps close out this book of famous artists’ cats by curling around them, the loose ends still untied, like great art, never resting completely.

Check out Deborah Julian's Full Catalog of Cat Artwork

Monday, October 19, 2015

Chapter 16, Roy Lichtenstein #2

Something Completely Different: Roy Lichtenstein #2

Free Chapter excerpted from our illustrated book Famous Artists' Cats: The Book

The biggest mistake you can make with Roy Lichtenstein is to underestimate him. One of the most reviled and admired visual artists of his day, Lichtenstein’s original ideas about what should go on a canvas continued to flow for many years after his fame was firmly established.

His fame evolved from his exploiting the esthetics of comic book art and advertising, reimagining it on high art canvases. His pioneering use of Ben-Day dots to recreate the sense of print material made his paintings instantly recognizable, as did his exaggerated parodies of comic book scenes.

Roy Lichtenstein's Black Cat #2 / © Deborah Julian
What irritated people was his unwillingness to credit and compensate the artists whose work he parodied, repurposing their creations as canvas art by blowing them up, with little or no other alteration, on a much larger scale. 

Defenders pointed out that his technique was a completely original extension that made something new.

And if it was so easy to pull off, how come none of the comic book artists did it themselves? No matter what the inspiration, nobody before or since pulled off a Lichtenstein.

Lost in the fame of his pop art paintings, which nowadays sell at auction for over $50 million, is the irony and humor Lichtenstein invested in much of his work. His pop art parodies, for example, played with the most exaggerated of emotional content from his sources. 

In Drowning Girl, one of his most famous, Lichtenstein paints a remarkably well made up woman in swirling waves of waters and includes the melodramatic caption, “I don’t care! I’d rather sink… than call Brad for help.”

No telephone appears to be available, nor is there an explanation for why her tears are visible underwater.

Say what you want about credits for parody, Lichtenstein chose wisely with his subjects.

Even more lost are some of the innovative works he created in the decades that followed. Forget comics, he parodied the masters. He took major pictures by Van Gogh (Bedroom in Arles) and Matisse (Goldfish) and transported them a hundred years forward.

Van Gogh’s new modernist bedroom is neat and clean and orderly and Matisse’s goldfish lose all their impressionist flourish, living now in a flat world of commercial imagery.

Probably Roy Lichtenstein’s funniest innovation is the one he used to draw the wonder of his black cat, Billy. In a sterile, modern living room where event the fruit looks plastic and spare, the painter hung the precise opposite of a traditional painting.


Billy stares at something visitors to art galleries rarely see: the back side of a canvas painting, raw canvas stretched across a frame, seen from behind. Lichtenstein, it seems, chose, later in life, to moon the public in his own, still utterly original way.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Chapter 15: Henri Matisse #3

Pleasure of an Henri Matisse Still Life

following is a free excerpt from Famous Artists' Cats: The Book

Still life paintings are a problem for cats. A big one. It starts with the word “still.”

George Visits Matisse / © Deborah Julian
In our other two Henri Matisse inspired entries in Famous Artists’ Cats, George got to luxuriate like a Persian noble while nude dancers whirled around him in ecstasy, and with Billy and Sam, he got to explore the wonders of goldfish in Matisse’s Paris studio, the River Seine flowing sweetly below.

When George was asked to pose inside a Matisse still life, the expression on his face tells you his feelings about it.

“What the heck?” it says, eyes popped open in anticipation.

Where are the dancers? Where are the fish, any fish?

When he got to visit Paul Cézanne’s still life, Billy and Sam tagged along for company. Paul Gauguin’s still life got shunted off to the side to let George join the painters three puppies in a delicious tub of milk.

In the Matisse, the pears and berries, just sit there, fulfilling their mission: nature morte, nature dead, still and offering him nothing more than a good sniff. 

What makes the painting wonderful, for everyone except George, is its powerful blue atmosphere. The blues are so vibrantly intense, only the drawn in lines create a table top for our favorite cat model who otherwise might fly off into infinity.

Look at George’s paws. He’s clinging to the table for dear life, half-expecting to slide off. And his radar dish ears… His ears seem to be waiting for an alarm to go off. Maybe in his internal warning system, it already has.

And there’s something he hasn’t yet noticed that soon to make him excited.

Henri Matisse wasn’t capable of finishing any work of art without its having a lively ingredient or two. This still life, into which George was talked into perching, is no exception.

Behind the blue table on which George has been persuaded to pose, Matisse has added a window, a window so highly abstract that some of his berries seem to be leading a charge through it to the great outdoors. There, flying straight out of an engagement with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, a fleet of crows arrives with, finally, a little excitement for the cat.

George will soon be stimulated by the arrival of the crows, and the birds themselves will be pleased that there is window separating them from the cat, no matter what the berries think.


David Stone
Find all my books on my Amazon Author Page.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Chapter 14: Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper Gets Company at the Window


Edward Hopper is a curious character. You get an uncertain range of ideas about him. 

 "Sometimes talking to Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except that it doesn't thump when it hits bottom,” his wife, Jo, once said. 

In her diary, she kept meticulous notes about his works in progress as well as their lifetime of battles, some of them physical.

Edward Hopper Cats at the Window / © Deborah Julian
After setting aside her own career as an artist, not entirely but effectively, she promoted and managed Edward’s. She posed for him. She came up with names for many of his paintings. And although it went against her personality, she adopted this reclusive lifestyle in Greenwich Village for the forty years they lived together until his death in 1967.

Biographers focus on their troubled marriage, but when the Whitney Museum set up a large exhibit of preparatory artwork Hopper created on his way to mature canvases,  many were signed with a dedication to “My wife, Jo.” 

His artwork too is full of contradictions. A lot of people love looking at Hopper’s work as if he’s a more painterly, and lonely, Norman Rockwell, a realist documenting the world he found around him. Not so, according to Hopper.

In 1953, he made a statement for the journal, Reality:

“Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the human intellect for a private imaginative conception.”

Art, then, is a subjective abstraction, but it needs recognizable objects. So much for illustrations.
Edward Hopper fans frequently like him because they mistake his paintings for something else. 

Nighthawks is a good example. In this painting, Hopper anchors his view from the darkened street to a lunch counter in the middle of the night on an otherwise abandoned corner in New York City. The image has been popularly repurposed as Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

In the revised version, an artist sees the diner as a hangout for lost icons from pop culture, replacing Hopper’s figures with Elvis Presley working the counter as a soda jerk while James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe hang out on the stools, American idols idealized as lost souls, romanticized after death.

Hopper painted it as a place populated by predators, not deceased Hollywood legends.

When Deborah decided to bring Edward Hopper, one of her favorite artists, into Famous Artists Cats, she picked a theme that’s probably more prevalent than any other in Hopper’s pictures: windows.
Hopper’s subjects lean out of windows, gaze dreamily through them and are exposed, often naked, in them. The shades are drawn up to dramatize the accents between inner and outer lives. Most of the time, he sets them up like furniture, there to suggest something, but  not active.

Cats, of course, are always naked, except for bizarre holiday rituals, and no window is incidental to a cat. For Edward Hopper’s Window with Cats, Deborah combines elements from several Hopper paintings, mixes them up and adds some of her own. Then, she introduces Billy and Sam, both of whom instantly do what cats do: they leap to the windowsills for a wistful, but secure, gaze out at the big, big world.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Chapter 13: Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin Went To The Dogs


Long before a spiritually tormented Paul Gauguin painted Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, which he considered his masterpiece, his path from birth in Paris to Tahiti featured a smorgasbord of hot and cold life experiences along the way.

Milk for Gauguin's Cat / © Deborah Julian
Few people who fall in love with the emotional intensity of his later paintings in museums around the world would guess that, before he became a full time artist, Gauguin was a successful stockbroker at the Bourse in Paris. He pulled down roughly $125K annually in equivalent American dollars today. 

While raking in handsome sums at his day job, he also fathered five children with his Danish wife, Mette. He painted pictures on the side, tutored by Camille Pissarro.

You’d probably be even more surprised to learn that, after the stock market crash of 1882, he moved his family to Copenhagen and worked as a tarpaulin salesman. That effort flopped worse than the stock market because, among other things, Gauguin could not speak enough Danish to persuade his wife’s countrymen to buy French tarpaulins.

Only then, after Mette’s family threw him out, did he return to Paris and become a full time painter. He was already thirty-six years old. 

Just a little over four years later, he moved in with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, encouraged by Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, which resulted in nine increasingly tumultuous weeks of strife between the painters and one less ear among them. 

Fortunately, before that, Gauguin painted the peaceful, domestic Still Life with Three Puppies, while still living in Brittany. 

“Art is an abstraction,” he declared, which came "from nature while dreaming before it.”
An abstraction this painting certainly is and a bit surreal, too.

Still Life with Three Puppies is stranger than it appears at first glance. You have the still life with pears and apples in a bowl and on a cloth that appears to drop off the edge of a table. But if it’s a table, where is the separation between it and the puppies dunking their little heads in a big cast iron kettle on, you would think, the floor?

What makes it even odder is a single fabric, a giant floral table cloth on which both the still life and puppies reside. The effect is not quite real, on the edge of dreamlike.


When Deborah brought George along to appreciate the scene, he wasn’t put off by the surrealism at all. Unafraid, he marched straight into Gauguin’s make-believe and slaked his thirst by joining the puppies in slurping some tasty, fresh milk, probably still warm from a nearby cow.