Interior

An abridged biography

GNR_011_jack_o'_lantern

The Jack-O-Lantern, 1965-1966
Oil on canvas, 32×36 (32×36)

INTERIOR PAINTING (indoor scenes of people doing everyday tasks) is the genre for which the Boston impressionists are justly famous. The Boston artists admired the best 17th-century Dutch masters, particularly Vermeer, and the later paintings of Velásquez. These artists were, above all, painters of light. Many French artists of the 19th century, with whom the Boston artists studied or were familiar, such as Gérôme and Jean Georges Vibert, were masters of interior genre. To the qualities displayed in paintings by these artists, the Boston painters added their unique gift: the beauty of sensitively seen and rendered impressionist color and atmosphere.

Interiors may tell a story or be simply an avenue through which an artist can create a thing of beauty. For the most part, interiors by the Boston artists fall into the latter category. Their subjects were a vehicle through which they could exercise the formal aspects of painting: balanced design, fine drawing, sensitively rendered color values, and sumptuous paint handling. Their primary goal was “to make it like”—to have their painting be a truthful transcription of the way the subject appeared to them in nature.

Gammell was primarily a decorative artist, but he had painted interiors within the tradition of Boston impressionism, and he passed this tradition on to his students. Lack was influenced by the painters whose work he saw in Boston and he painted several interiors in his Fenway studio. In the Studio, a painting of a young man looking through a portfolio of drawings, is reminiscent in color and method of interiors painted by Gammell during the 1930s, and shows Lack’s assimilation of Gammell’s instruction.

One of the first paintings he did in his new studio was The Folksinger. It is a life-sized interior similar in scale to Gammell’s 1933 painting, Sail Loft. An early work, it nevertheless exhibits all of the qualities that will characterize his finest work in the upcoming decades. The chiaroscuro, created by using a “shadow box,” dramatically highlights the head, hand and guitar. The design is carefully balanced, the drawing of the animated gesture is accurate and the color is truthful. The method is suave and painterly. The head is observed and painted with a breadth of modeling and characterization that would become a hallmark of Lack’s portraiture. A red cabbage in the lower right corner, barely noticed by the average viewer, is a marvelous piece of seeing and painting. The Folksinger also introduces a theme that will recur in Lack’s interiors, the beautiful shape of the guitar. Guitar players comprise a significant portion of his musical subjects, from intimate interiors like Divertimento, painted in 1969, to life-sized figure pieces such as his 1984 painting, Young America.

Shortly after Lack finished The Folksinger, he painted Reading, a delightful and hauntingly beautiful portrait of his wife reading a book about Velásquez, an allusion to Lack’s admiration for the great Spaniard. Like the former work, it is an interior/portrait. All of his interiors are portraits of the people in them. His interiors are populated by his family and friends. The model for The Guitar Player was Don Koestner’s wife, Fern. As soon as they were able to pose, he put his children to work. Two early works depict Katherine holding each of their young sons. The solid form and fluid handling of the 1962 Mother and Child is reminiscent of paintings by the 17th-century Florentine painter, Carlo Dolci. When his children were older, Lack paid them for posing and they were generally willing to earn a little money. They appear in many of their father’s interiors, portraits and landscapes.
The attitude of the Boston painters is reflected in Lack’s interiors. “I didn’t choose subjects for their psychological or sociological significance. I painted them as arrangements, a way to create beauty. I was interested in light and always tried to get the silvery effect of cool, indoor light.” The sale of still lifes and landscapes, which took less time to do, allowed him to paint interiors that often took several months to complete. The best known of his small musical interiors is The Concert. This small work is a visual tour-de-force that masterfully integrates the drawing of the 17th-century Dutch interior painters with the visual impressionism of the Boston School.

Lack described in detail the process involved in creating this marvelous painting. It provides insight into the procedures that he was developing for doing works of this kind. “The Concert is an example of impressionist art. It took four months to finish. Before beginning the painting, I had to move a piano into my studio; I had to find an Oriental carpet of suitable design and color; I had to choose various props such as chairs, coats, records, and music stand; and finally, I had to select models who would look right and would be reliable to the end. Nothing is more disconcerting to the painter than a model who abruptly disappears before the picture is finished. The preliminary work of finding and composing the suitable items took several weeks. The initial sketches, drawing and cartoon (full-size drawing of the composition in black and white) took another three to four weeks. Far from being cut and dry routine, this preparatory work is perhaps the most challenging and creative of the picture-making process. It is characterized by a continuing exercise of judgment (is this the right color, is this shape interesting, is this relationship of objects pleasing and harmonious in proportion?) upon which the future success or failure of the painting depends.
“Because The Concert is a complex painting, I underpainted it from nature in black and white oil. When dry, I lightly sanded the underpainting and sealed it with a thin coat of varnish. I was then ready to begin the final painting in color. Since it was my aim to capture the scintillating effect of light and color on the forms, the ‘note,’ everything was painted directly from the objects and models before me. This stage of the process requires dogged patience and act of will to be successful. The tension of eye, hand and brush that is needed to render a head, or cello, or the complex patterning of an Oriental carpet with authority transcends mere patience. These skills are the very heart of the painter’s art.”

He goes on to state that “the studio can be for the painter what the stage is for the theater director: a place where he can recreate the outer world. It is an important part of the painter’s art to learn how to manipulate costumes, props, mannequins, still life, and drapery, in order to portray his chosen motif convincingly.”1

Lack’s interest in the art of the 17th century led him to experiment with light effects similar to those of the Dutch and Italian painters. The Snow Queen is a charming painting of his daughter. It was a study in the use of artificial light. The sophisticated distribution of light and dark values and chiaroscuro lighting shows the influence of Dutch painters such as Gerrit van Honthorst and the Frenchman, Georges de la Tour, whose paintings were illuminated by a light source from within the painting. This influence is seen dramatically in The Jack-O’-Lantern. There is, however, a world of difference between the seeing and rendering in the work by Lack and that in the work of Honthorst and his contemporaries. The Dutch rendered their figures individually. As a consequence, the edges are often unduly sharp. Lack endeavors to see the ensemble with the eye of an impressionist, painting each part the way it appears when seen in relation to the whole. This is a different and, in some ways, more sophisticated way of seeing. Lack set up the scene in his studio, putting a small light bulb in the pumpkin. His mother and two of his children posed together in a “shadow box” constructed in the studio. The scene was lit with artificial light while his canvas was lit by the natural light from his studio skylights, thereby enabling him to render the painting with fidelity of color and value. The edges of the figures are lost, engulfed by the mysterious darkness. This painting is one of the highlights of his work during the 1960s.

Lack’s interest in music manifested itself in numerous other interiors. Scherzo is a simple and striking portrait of his daughter playing the flute. It is a delightful piece of impressionist painting. The color and effect are superb. The dark figure and music stand make simple silhouettes against the cool, neutral background. The green of the bow in the young girl’s hair is an “odd note” worthy of Paxton. It provides a beautiful resonance with the deep cherry of the music stand. The modeling of the head is seen and rendered with great charm, exhibiting the most subtle gradations of warm and cool. The handling of the paint is refined throughout, with just the right amount of impasto in the highlights of the silver flute. Shortly after he finished this painting Lack showed it to his students. They were very impressed. When asked by them which of his figure paintings came the closest to achieving his artistic aims, he said Scherzo.

Trio is a complex musical interior in which Lack used all three of his children. It reflects his love for both the violin, which he would practice each day after the light failed, and the Dutch tradition of interior painting. For sheer intensity of workmanship, it stands alone among his works of this kind. “I remember painting that cello,” he reminisced years later. “I don’t know how I did it, painting the strings on it like that. It could have come out of a different period, when painters worked for perfection. All painters have a temperament. Mine is not to seek the jewel-like perfection found in the work of some of the Dutch masters. I had to force myself to patiently go after that quality in some of my paintings. I had to grit my teeth day after day and make myself paint the Oriental carpet on the floor. To carefully finish some of my work, especially the smaller paintings, required great effort. It’s a matter of appropriateness for certain types of pictures. Smaller works are generally more highly finished than larger ones.” A painting with similar finesse in workmanship is The Stamp Collector, a portrait of his son, Michael. This painting is also notable for its unusual green and orange color harmony.

In general, Lack’s paintings become larger and more painterly during the 1980s. This change is reflected in his interiors. His growing effort to see and notate out-of-door color affects all of his work. The color is more varied and intense and the handling is broader and more bold. This may be seen in paintings like Serendipity, another musical interior of his daughter and two of her friends. Morning News, one of the last interiors that he painted, is an even more striking example. The multicolored robe gave Lack an opportunity to exercise his ability to see and paint brilliant, impressionist color. Spots of subtle, variegated color dance throughout the painting, integrating the parts into a scintillating and harmonious whole. Its depiction of a contemporary theme, a girl watching television, is the artist’s nod to his time. To see and paint impressionist color was Lack’s ongoing quest. It is apparent that the same hand that painted Divertimento in 1969 painted Morning News in 1986.

Footnotes:

1 Richard Lack, “Painting: Understanding the Craft,” Realism in Revolution: The Art of the Boston School, Taylor Publishing Company, Dallas, Texas, 1985, p. 83.