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Picturing a World

Nature, Design

Yesterday, I spotted a plant about to bloom in a neighbor's herbaceous border, knew I knew what it was, and couldn't come up with the name. Well, it was a Crown Imperial. This morning, a post at Gurney Journey sent me to Eugène Grasset's La Plante et ses Applications ornementales (1896). Grasset offers floral studies of plants followed by abstract designs derived from them; and there was my flower.
 
As it happened, yesterday I also attended a reading of a new play, an historical drama. It fell short of its topic. Looking at Grasset's illustrations today, I'm not sure whether the play failed because it lacked sufficient historical depth or because it did not transmute fact into something different from reportage. (I know it lacked complex characters!)
 
What's worth remembering in our own work is that the same material can be handled many ways. We need to explore them, impose our own structures and approaches, and then scrutinize the results ruthlessly.

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Buying wallpaper

This detail of an advertising poster published in Cleveland, Ohio, appears in The Papered Wall, ed. by Lesley Hoskins, and illustrates the choices offered a buyer at the turn of the last century. I love seeing the woman customer out shopping for her "house beautiful," the expression on the salesman's face, and, of course, the patterns being offered at the time. Another example of not-great art that can be immensely helpful to the historical novelist.

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Holsøe’s Candlelight

Mostly, I like to highlight lesser known women artists, but sometimes it's worth calling attention to a man. A post at GurneyJourney reminded me of Danish painter, Carl Vilhelm Holsøe. Holsøe's depictions of rooms are atmospheric interiors, a genre at which his generation of Scandinavian artists seems to have excelled. (Think Harriet Backer or Anna Ancher.) I didn't know about him when I was imagining Jeanette's "portraits without people," but his work illustrates the way a room can embody psychological insight.
 
Pictures of rooms are also a boon to historical-fiction and fantasy writers for the details they provide—in this case, a candle in the darkness. 21st C people have little idea how dark rooms really were before electric lights. Older stories in which characters are hidden in shadow become much more believable when you experience a black-out, or light a room with only a candle or two as an experiment, or, as here, see the effect in art.

 

To see this still life as part of a larger interior, click here.

 

For more of Holsøe's work, click here.

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New look

My website is hosted by the Author's Guild, which this month revamped its design templates, the better to fit cellphones and other screens. To celebrate the new, I'm posting a glimpse of the past. For a writer of historical fiction, a magazine cover from the year about which she is writing, which itself illustrates an earlier period, seems about right. Besides, I love textiles.

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Wintry inspiration

In her introduction to the 2016 edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin says, “The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words.”

Imagery, like music, can induce feelings as well as ideas; it conveys complex attitudes, multiple meanings. Through her painting, Nom kinnear king expresses what she explores in the only way she fully can. Trying to put it into words would be pointless.

And yet, for those of us who are inspired by art while we are writing fiction, a picture may suggest a plot line. It may offer a concrete detail for a scene. Or it may just as well go into the unconscious and work magic. Gretta, I think, is going to haunt me into winter. Read More 

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Thanksgiving 2018

Things you love sometimes lead you to personal connections that no one else might ever make but which nourish your soul. This year I have been exploring the art of Samuel Palmer. Every November I read Greer Gilman’s Moonwise. In September, up popped this engraving by Andrew Davidson, which reminded me of both. It also suggested its own mysteries independent even of the Riggs story it illustrates.

Great stimulants to the imagination are gifts to be thankful for, especially in dark times. Read More 

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Critiques

Harold Harvey, who studied at the Académie Julian, was a second-generation painter at England’s Newlyn art colony in Cornwall. Although this painting is from a later period than the heyday of the  Read More 

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Scaffolding

Barriers to training and opportunity, and sheer prejudice are correctly cited as having held back women in the arts in the past (and now!). For painters, male and female, moreover, there was the cost of materials. Even easel-sized canvasses had to be paid for, as did pigments, brushes, props, and solvents. When I saw this image recently in a Gurney Journey blog post, it struck me that the sheer size of the support and apparatus required to produce a very large work meant that independent wealth, prior success, or an institutional commission was necessary before an artist could undertake the sort of grand works that won prestige in the 19th C. Poets and fiction writers were at an advantage when they could scribble away with no more investment than the cost of paper and pen. My main point, however, is that in visualizing a world for fiction, it’s the unexpected detail—like Detaille’s scaffolding—that can provide verisimilitude and possibly a plot twist. Read More 

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Teacher and pupil

It has to be said of Félix Bracquemond, that although he was a domestic tyrant who stymied his wife’s career in the end, he also taught her well. Best known now for his etchings, he taught her printmaking techniques which she put to exquisite use as in this portrait of her sister, Louise Quivoron. There is no reason to deny that men have cramped women’s careers, but it might be an interesting challenge to write a novel about a marriage that simultaneously expands a woman’s capacities while constraining her ability to pursue an independent career. And what would her sister be like? What would be her role? Read More 

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Palmer and touch

Blog post tip: A post on Samuel Palmer's trees at Charley Parker's Lines and Colors is a good follow-up to thoughts about touch in graphic art and fiction. A few days ago, I heard about a child who climbed into the crotch of a tree  Read More 

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