The illusion of high style

Flashy, superficial painting is not the invention of the late 20th century. It has been around for a very long time and can be found in more well-known works than we would probably care to admit.

It does, however, find particular favor at those times when society puts a special emphasis on elegance and sophistication - when a favored leisure class can afford to have itself painted looking sumptuously and expensively gowned or suited, appearing languidly at ease in exquisite interiors, or holding forth in high-society salons.

At such times, a Van Dyck, Boucher, Gainsborough, Sargent, or Van Dongen may come along with enough flair to accommodate such wealthy or aristocratic patrons , and with enough talent or genius to produce excellent if not always major art.

The only problem is that, with them, a cluster of lesser painters will emerge with sufficient cleverness and skill to fashion the illusion of high style, but without the talent or character needed to produce genuine art.

These artists' paintings will be very effective at first glance. The individuals depicted in their canvases will be exceptionally handsome and sophisticated. The brushwork will be bold, the colors carefully attuned to contemporary fashion, and the compositions shrewdly designed to flatter the sitters. The overall effect will be one of calculated elegance, with just enough upper-class or aristocratic aloofness thrown in to remind the viewer that the people depicted belong to a higher order of humanity.

Careful attention, however, will generally reveal fundamental flaws in such work. This type of artist often has only one real talent, one special skill that can be emphasized in order to hide weaknesses. This talent may be a knack for producing likenesses, for painting effective ezes or facial expressions, or it may be c genuine aptitude for reproducing sumptuous fabrics, glitter in jewelry, or magnificent gowns on canvas. Whatever, such artists will do all in their power to draw the viewer's attention away from problem areas to those things that they can do best.

It's fascinating to watch the process, to note how such artists fashion a style that emphasizes their strengths and deemphasizes their weaknesses.

A perfect example of an artist who succeded brilliantly in doing just that is Giovanni Boldini (1845-1931). He achieved an international reputation for his portraits of important men and beautiful women. And, of all his works, none more perfectly illustrates my point than his portrait of ''Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill.''

Boldini was fortunate. As a portrait painter he had two very crucial talents: He was good at capturing ''speaking likenesses,'' and he had a flair for creating an impression of ''naturalness.'' Beyond that, however, he had little going for him. His draftsmanship was weak, his handling of paint was largely limited to flat, monotonous tones interspersed by a few bravura effects, and his compositions tended to be strained and overly studied.

Everything depended on a compositional device that would call immediate attention to the sitter's face, and to the fact that the artist had achieved a dramatically successful likeness within a somewhat ostentatious setting.

He succeeded brilliantly in his portrait of the Duchess of Marlborough. The sweeping compositional lines force our attention to her face, and then downward to include the boy's face and hands. If we stop there, we undoubtedly will be impressed, because what we see is quite brilliantly executed and obviously represents the way the sitters actually looked. But if we go on, if we examine the drawing of the lady's neck, shoulder, arm, and hand, the painting of her gown, and the execution of everything else in the picture, we will just as quickly be disappointed. Everything but the two heads is superficially painted, with no sense of style whatever. Cover the two heads and the duchess's bust, and nothing is left but painterly garbage.

And yet Boldini was extremely successful and was continually sought after as a portraitist by the ''best'' people of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The reasons are obvious: He painted them as they envisioned themselves. He made important men look even more important, beautiful women appear even more beautiful, and the newly rich seem always to have belonged to the upper class.

With that ability, what did it matter if the true worth of his paintings was negligible, and if all true artists scoffed at his work as superficial?

Very little, obviously. It is even safe to assume that it never occurred to his sitters that his portraits were actually tricks through which, thanks to flashy brushwork and a genius for flattery, Boldini created the illusion that he had great talent and perhaps even genius.

The desire to be a devil-may-care, dashing portraitist capable of knocking off a masterpiece in an hour or so has tempted large numbers of painters. Very few, however, have managed it. Rubens, Hals, Velazquez, Goya, Manet, Degas, and a few others pulled it off. Van Dyke usually came very close, and occasionally succeeded brilliantly. And the major English portraitists of the 18th century - as well as America's John Singer Sargent - often did quite well when the subject particularly interested them.

Giovanni Boldini, however, could not manage it - although he might have come much closer had he paid more attention to art, and less to the establishment of a fashionable career.

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