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Expressive Realism Title Image

Expressive Realism

A Description of Expressive Realism
by John Passaro

copyright 2009 John Passaro
and Cabin Creek Studios revised 2011


(1) If you are a gallery, member of the media, or other person interested in a one-page text and graphical presentation of Expressive Realism, please call or email for a .pdf version.

(2) All painting images included in this description of Expressive Realism include a citation in the text as to the museum where the painting is displayed. In this revised edition of my description of Expressive Realism, I have removed the direct links in the painting images to the museum which displays the painting in its permanent collection, including the text links in the case of Vermeer which were linked to the Essential Vermeer website. External links became a web interception problem, but if you can't find the link with a search engine, please email me and I will send it to you. I have not included any images which to my knowledge are restricted by third-party rights, such as the heirs of an artist.

The small pictures included in the text no longer directly link to outside sources of information and/or images from the original source. I've included the reference and I'm sure my references are permitted under Fair Use Guidelines, and I'm reasonably sure including the images themselves in this description is okay, but please if you are aware of any copyright problems with including the images let me know and I'll correct the problem immediately. My intention is to err on the side of protecting the rights of copyright holders.

(3) I've included quite a few references to various well-known paintings in this description, but I'm not talking about paintings I haven't seen in person with my own two eyes (and, in some cases, touched with my own two hands . . . museum guards don't like me). I think restricting the conversation to paintings which I've personally seen helps me keep this discussion on the ground and out of the realm of intellectual theory. In other words, I don't know how to write meaningfully about a painting or an artist's work that I haven't experienced in person. Unfortunately for me, the only places I've been of any art consequence are my home town of Denver including the visiting exhibits at the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Art, Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Gardner Museums in Boston, the National Gallery in Washington, the Guggenheim and Met in New York City, the Chicago Art Institute, the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, and the County Museum on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Since my first version of this description, I have since had the privilege of visiting the Houston Art Museum, and, to my great satisfaction, the Rothko Chapel (also in Houston). I'm painfully aware that this leaves a wide world of art out there that I haven't seen in person.

(4) One final note: if you would like to be transported directly to any part of this discussion, please select one of the following:


The Need for Subject Matter

How Expressive Can the Pure Elements of Art Be?

How Far Can Expressive Realism Take Artists and Viewers?

Notes to Artists

Summary on Expressive Realism

(5) Otherwise, read on. I hope you find this discussion (at least) interesting. Thanks.


The foundation of Expressive Realism is the belief that the strongest painting embraces the best of both representational and non-representational art.

The purpose of Expressive Realism is to fully explore the emotional and aesthetic potential of the abstract elements of art without entirely excluding recognizable subject matter. The true subject matter of an Expressive Realist painting is the communication carried by the abstract visual elements; the literal subject matter provides an accessible context.

I don't think an artist can rely on a rule to cover when literal subject matter begins hurting (in this context I mean distracting from) the expressive power of a painting, or when the abstract elements calls so much attention to themselves or otherwise overwhelm the painting that they distract from the literal handle. In general, Expressive Realism is based on the idea that the less the literal elements are stressed the more expressive the painting has a chance to be, but in any given painting there is a chance the literal element might contribute powerfully to the overall emotional and intellectual expression in a positive way.

Before we get into this discussion, let's take a minute to be clear about what we mean by various terms such as realistic art, abstract art, realism, representational work, pure abstract, expressionism, abstract expressionism, and a couple of others. If we don't get a few of the basic straight, there's a good chance the idea of Expressive Realism can get lost in the sea of art terms.

Expressionism, and specifically Abstract Expressionism, is different from Expressive Realism, but there are similarities of purpose. Although Wassily Kandinsky in Europe was at one time called an Abstract Expressionist, the term eventually came to mean art created by American artists working in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of these American artists like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still worked in unified color shapes and were called Color Field artists, and some of them like Jackson Pollock brought attention to the physical act of painting and were called among other things Action artists or Gestural artists. Neither the color field nor action artists were like Piet Mondrian, the great artist in a long line of great artists from Holland, whose highest achievements were in cold geometric shapes, and who, I believe, took the abstract process Kandinsky started to its logical conclusion; the Abstract Expressionists worked in non-geometric shapes, which means, in effect, that there was room for emotional expressiveness as compared to Mondrian's geometrical intellectual abstractions. Here's a seven foot by seventeen foot so-called drip painting by Pollock named Number 30,Pollock (detail) which is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, a color field painting by Newman called The Name II,Newman (detail) a nine foot by eight foot painting in the National Gallery in Washington, and an eight foot by six foot color field painting (detail) by Clyfford Still called 1951N,Still also in the National Gallery.

(I rounded off the measurements; the point is that these are very large paintings meant, just as with Bierdstadt's and Moran's gigantic studio productions, to emotionally engulf the viewer, to engulf the visual senses.)

I've seen these works in person, have spent time with them, and have spent time with similar works by these artists. The Denver Art Museum has several paintings by Stills and the Clyfford Stills Museum is under construction here in Denver. The paintings by these artists I'm using as examples here are, I believe, good examples of Abstract Expressionists working in their artistic prime and are powerfully expressive works, at least in my opinion. While I don't think the emotional content can be questioned, I do think the critical questions are: How expressive can a painting be without a recognizable subject? and, How many people will an expressive painting without a subject reach? I hope to give some possible answers to those questions in this description of Expressive Realism.

Realistic art is often called realism or representational art, and for the purposes of this discussion all three terms are interchangeable. Although there was a movement in literature called Expressive Realism,Ref.1 realism in that context meant common, non-elitist subject matter, and in our context of the visual arts, the terms realism, realistic, and representational mean works that have an identifiable, literal subject matter, not necessarily a socially common or commonplace subject. You will recognize, for instance, people, animals, trees, mountains, pocket watches, lanterns, and other literal subject matter, any of which may be placed anywhere on the continuum from the sublime to the ordinary.

On the other side of the coin, the term Abstract Art is often used interchangeably with non-representational art. I personally would rather talk about non-representational art because Abstract Art is associated with so many different kinds of art that it's difficult to find common ground. Also, the term non-representational avoids unnecessary and ridiculous arguments with artists who maintain that their abstract work is not really abstract; usually they claim that while the work is non-representational the subject matter is concrete . . . just the kind of distinction that leads to semantical arguments that belong in college dorm rooms. So, in this discussion, we'll agree that the term abstract refers to the pure elements of art separated from subject matter, and we'll call paintings that have no literal, recognizable subject matter non-representational artwork. The pure elements of art are the building blocks of the visual language: design, shape, value, line, edges, color, texture, and so on. Most people are familiar with some of the elements; in fact, almost everyone understands that color is part of the visual language and most non-artists are aware that composition is part of creating art. Awareness may not go much further, however an element like texture might be so pronounced on a painting surface that it pushes itself into the average viewer's awareness. (Artists are better off understanding that viewers respond to the language of art without the viewers necessarily being able to put a finger on what it is about the tools of the trade that is causing their response.) Although some abstract artists may believe with good reason that the pure elements are art, not just the building blocks of art, and may also believe with good reason that any attempt to use the visual elements to serve a literal purpose is fatal to their intention, in this discussion we will consider the artistic elements the tools of the trade for artists.

I've gone into this issue of the typical viewer's understanding of the abstract elements of the visual arts more than you might think necessary, or more than you might think is to the point, for a reason. I'm assuming throughout this description of Expressive Realism that, at the end of the day, an artist's public work is attempting to communicate something to an audience, and, presumably, the artist cares about how much of what he or she is saying gets through to the audience. We may think this is obvious, but others might think it presumptuous to take this position that the purpose of art is communication. From time to time artists have attempted what you could call non-art, the theoretical basis of which is deliberate confusion or outright non-communication. In other words, for whatever reason, the artist creates something for public consumption that seeks not to communicate to the rest of us. It's a free country, and there's nothing wrong with exploring all possibilities, and I would never question the intentions of a non-communicating artist, but I'm not playing in that ballpark, and, frankly, I'm not very interested in looking too far into the personality of a person who feels compelled over a prolonged period of time to talk without wanting to be understood.


I've used the words visual language partly because I've always been interested in comparisons among visual language, written language, and the language of music. I think the comparisons help me understand better what Expressive Realism and the visual arts are about. As an artist, I think the comparisons between the visual language on the one hand and written and musical languages on the other hand are particularly meaningful because I believe the visual arts, and painting in particular, are very different from writing and music in terms of expressive potential. In some ways, painting combines the best of both writing and music.

In writing, a non-representational jumble of the most essential building blocks, namely letters and words, means nothing unless you are in the business of encryption and decoding. If I were to scramble this description into a visual arrangement of letters without regard to the literal meaning, nnayoed ouy ldwuo ryev eb (you would be very annoyed). Poetry comes the closest to abstraction by linking the sounds and connotations of the language to the meaning of the words, but, again, an abstract arrangement of sounds without words is more likely to be heard by the listener as, for instance, screaming, or an infant's cooing and giggling, rather than an artistic communication. The non-literal elements of powerful writing, such as rhythm, sound characteristics, allusion, connotations, metaphor, symbolism, and so on, give writing its expressive content, but writing comes down to the fact that unless you have literal meaning, you have no chance of meaning something more. This isn't to say that everything abut writing is literal because it isn't: the imagination can't be pinned down by the literal words on the page, but it is important to powerful writing. One goal in creative writing is to describe things without saying them (the workshop chant: show, don't tell); you conjure up the thing in the reader's imagination, which imagination can be so much more expressive and powerful than a detailed description by an author. In his brilliant book, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers,Ref.2 John Gardner challenges writing students to create four different paragraphs describing landscapes, but really in the descriptins you are meant to actually describe events and the emotions attached to them without mentioning the event; for instance, the death of an old lady's husband described without mentioning the husband or death. Ref.3 In other words, he asks writers to rely more on the abstract qualities of the language and the reader's imagination as conjured by the language and less on the literal, asking writers to be more creative and explore the expressive potential of writing. John Gardner On pages 148 to 154 he describes in detail the process where, "By keeping a careful ear for rhythm, the writer can control the emotion of his sentences with considerable subtlety." To the point, which is one of the goals of creative writing, where "Sound now echoes sense." If there were an Expressive Realism in the writing world, I think it would come closest to Garnder's challenging assignment of communicating a subject matter without specifically mentioning the subject matter. It is possible for a good creative writing to accomplish these goals, but I think Gardner admits that the success of writing, no matter how sophisticated, relies on at least some verifiable context and on the intelligible building blocks, even when one symbolic literal image is standing in for another.

On the more comforting and literal side of writing, the good news about written communication is that writers, even people like myself with average writing skills, have a fair degree of certainty that what they write will be understood clearly, at least in the literal sense of the writing . . . if a disconnection happens in the communication between what the writer is saying and what the reader is understanding, writers can believe their skill level can be improved to reconnect. For those of us with average writing skills there is always the very disconcerting feeling that you are writing something that someone is taking in another way that it was intended. That not a good thing in literal writing. (In art, only the most arrogant artists believe they know how a viewer is taking their work; more sensible artists, more humble artists, are willing to allow the viewer participate in the creative process.)

Not so with music. I think music is nearly the opposite of writing. The highest skill levels don't translate literally. Music might make an attempt to have a literal, recognizable subject matter; for example, Beethoven's sixth symphony is called the Pastoral Symphony and is organized (according to Beethoven) around a trip to the countryside. He went so far as to write names for the five different movements such as "By the Brook," "Peasants Merrymaking," and "Thunderstorm." The website Mad About Beethoven is an excellent source of information and research.Mad About Beethoven Most people agree that Beethoven's skill levels were very high. However, if you were to hear his sixth symphony without knowing the nickname of the symphony is pastoral, without being told what the subject is by the artist's labels, or without being told by critics or the musicians what the subject is supposed to be, would even the most sophisticated listener come away with these specific meanings? Who can tell? I don't know how you would test this unless you could find a variety of people who have never heard the symphony and then asked them what it conjured for them. Beethoven apparently didn't think he could control the specific meaning taken away by the listener because he also wrote in the introduction that the work was "Rather expressive of sensations"Ref.4 than of actual events. In other words, Beethoven seems to be saying that he, as the creator artist, was expressing a sensation, but couldn't predict how a listener might read the source of the sensation (even with labels).

Expressive Realism explores more of the abstract communication potential of music than it explores the recognizable subject matter of writing, however Expressive Realism, along with most painting, in my experience, combines many of the advantages of both writing and music. The caution again is that no overall guiding rule directs an artist to knowing when his work is relying too much on abstract or too much on literal elements, as if painting could be reduced to a recipe.

We can say, I think, that no matter what else we might believe, painting relies first on the abstract, non-literal, pure elements of the visual language. Without getting too technical, this usually comes down to the painting's immediately apparent shapes and value relationships: the visual elements we as human beings need to survive in a dangerous world. We may use all our senses to survive, but the visual senses, and especially the ability to distinguish shapes and values, are essential to all except the blind. In that sense, all painting has many of the powerful potentials of a symphony. Also in that sense, compared to writing, painting isn't limited to the required literal thinking and mechanics; in fact, literal thinking in painting dooms artwork to very limited effectiveness. Monet said, "When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever."Ref.5 Paul Valery (Ambroise-Paul-Toussaint-Jules Valery, 1871-1945, a French government official and poet) said that, "To see is to forget the name of what one is seeing," which is another way of saying that to paint is forget the name of what you are painting. William Merritt Chase is supposed to have mentioned a friend of his who had been painting with him for years and continued to fail miserably because he couldn't stop seeing branches and leafs. (I would appreciate hearing from anyone who can tell me the exact words and give me a source for Chase's quote; regardless, I think the sentiment is accurate.)

Some artists and collectors believe subject matter interferes with expression and communication. I understand this point of view on subject matter and am very sympathetic. In support of this view, I would like to mention an experience I've had frequently when listening to music. I give you the peculiar case of opera. Unlike a symphony, opera combines both music and words. In other words, it combines both the musical and written languages. (I suppose you could say opera combines visual experiences, but I won't comment on this because I personally find going to the opera and sitting through an entire performance intolerable.) While I can't listen to whole operas on the radio or stereo, nevertheless there are many individual opera songs that I find very moving. And there are opera singers whose voices I find very expressive. But returning to the point, I would say that here, for me, is the critical expressive factor about opera: opera is in Italian. I don't understand enough Italian to know what the song is literally, exactly saying word for word, or, in many cases, what it is about at all. This might seem like a serious problem when it comes to understanding and enjoying the music, but, to the contrary, for me it is a real advantage. When I am listening to music because the abstract qualities are what is so moving (unlike folk music in the English language, for instance, where the words and the music are moving together), I don't want an answer to "What is it?" When I don't know the literal meaning of the words, I can experience unhindered the character of the music and the expressive character of the Italian language, partly because I am familiar enough with the language from my childhood experiences to appreciate the sounds. My imagination takes over. I'm able to respond on a personal level. The actual subject matter interferes with my experience, which is why I say I'm sympathetic to abstract artists. My friends who are abstract artists don't want to put trees in their paintings any more than I want to find out my tenor is singing so beautifully about such issues as how to trick his opera girlfriend into missing her date with his rival. (I once watched part of a television show of an opera with English subtitles and the subject matter ruined one of my favorite songs. I'm sure the intention was to make opera more accessible and therefore likeable to the unsophisticated masses like me, but it had the opposite effect on me.) This effect isn't limited to Italian or to any mundane communication; it can apply to lofty, poetic language: I looked into the meaning of the words to Beethoven's chorus in the ninth symphony only far enough to realize I don't want to know what they're saying. So, I can understand that an artist or collector might be very disappointed to see that a abstractly expressive painting is ruined by the presence of a tree in much the same way a beautiful Italian aria might be ruined by a translation.

While I understand this relationship between abstract art and literal subject matter, painting isn't music. Wassily Kandinsky, the first full-time professional artist to create a serious career painting separated from subject matter, that is, separated from recognizable literal objects, compared his work, his artistic process, and his goals to music (music without words) as he described that he and other artists, "...are finding in Music the best teacher. With few exceptions music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist's soul, in musical sound."Ref.6 This is only one of many statements he makes on the comparisons between music and non-representational art. One of his themes is that music is able to reach the highest levels of expression because it isn't hindered by subject matter. In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he gives us many of his observations, thoughts, and beliefs on this subject. (You may look up the title for the complete text of his book presented by the Gutenberg Project.) It's all interesting, thoughtful, and good, except that, in my opinion, the comparisons between music and painting stop at the point where artists decide painting doesn't need a subject matter because music can't have a literal subject matter. When all is said and done, painting needs a subject matter and music doesn't because the abstract elements of the visual arts don't stand alone as effectively as a symphony stands alone.

I'm not downplaying abstract expression. I very much appreciate the beauty and power of the tools of the visual trade. One of the most beautiful paintings I've ever seen was a red line travelling from one end to the other on a white canvas. In this discussion of Expressive Realism, however, I took some time in the introduction above to say that artists are in the business of communicating. That wonderful red line was artist-to-artist communication about the expressive potential of the tools of our trade. It was, really, shop talk. It wasn't artist-to-viewer communication. For the time while I was there looking at that painting, I noticed that the general public seemed unmoved (beyond the eye-catching phase, or curiosity) by that wonderful red line on that field of subtly-varied white. Most people aren't interested in the inner workings of a trade, including the inner workings of the art trade.


How expressive can non-representational work be? How emotionally moving can abstract work be? Many people who have visited Rothko's chapel in Houston or experienced Pollock's large drip paintings have told me that these works are indeed emotionally meaningful beyond the abstract elements. Maybe. Rothko's works are dependent on the overall chapel and setting for their impact, but are they as effective in the same way hanging on the wall of an art museum? Many people feel they are. And at this point it is nearly impossible to see Pollock's best work without being affected by all the cultural publicity around him, his personal life, and the publicity surrounding Abstract Art. I have spent a lot of time with Pollack's work in Boston and New York and know that his work can be viewed independently of all the hype, but it isn't easy.

The other problem is that there is so much abstract work around which is just as poorly executed as so much representational work that it can get difficult to separate out what's really worth talking about. I'm thinking here of artists who would follow the example of Mark Rothko, the American, New York, painter who maintained his color field paintings like No. 5 which is in the National Gallery in Washington were not abstract, without understanding what Rothko meant. Rothko was a serious artist with terrific skills and for good reason has been taken very seriously by historians, collectors, and other artists. He didn't believe his work was artist-to-artist discussion about the pure elements of art: "As he grew in popularity more people became interested in his multiform artwork which they described as abstract. Despite this, Rothko denounced that he was an abstract artist and wrote that his interest lied 'only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point." I quote this from Abstract Expressionism Wordpress, but it is well-known that Rothko objected to collectors, critics, and other artists calling his work abstract. The National Gallery puts it this way and quotes him: "Rothko's work is characterized by rigorous attention to formal elements such as color, shape, balance, depth, composition, and scale; yet, he refused to consider his paintings solely in these terms. He explained: 'It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.'" (I'm quoting from the Introduction to the catalogue about the Rothko Exhibit in 1998.)

That's quite an answer to the question How expressive can non-representational work be? And, for me as an artist, it's quite a challenge. As a viewer, I need to spend several hours looking at Rothko's work in person and seeing if my reactions and emotions match his intentions. As an artist, I need to watch and listen carefully to my viewers and collectors and see if their reactions and emotions match my intentions: I know my subject matter plays a smaller part in expressing my intentions than the abstract elements of the visual language.

Early on in this discussion I mentioned that I had no patience or intention of getting into a semantical discussion with abstract artists who claim their work is actually representational, or non-representational artists who claim their work is really and truly not abstract. However, I have seen a few of Rothko's works in museums, and I have visited his chapel in Houston, and I can say from personal experience that his claim that his work is indeed about "basic human emotions" and any suggestion of subject matter would likely destroy the expression. I don't know how effective the paintings in the chapel would be if they were not in their own setting; they are meant to be taken as a whole piece, and, as a whole piece, each piece in relationship to the other pieces, it is extraordinarily effective.

The answer, then, to the question: "How expressive can the pure elements of art be?" might very well be: "The pure elements of art are so expressive that you have no business as an artist including subject matter in your painting." Well, then.


While Expressive Realism embraces the best of both representational and non-representational work, there is, however, a reason why Expressive Realism is called expressive realism and not realistic expressionism: it's almost inevitable that an artist's work will evolve from the technically realistic to a reliance on less obvious technical skill and less realistic literalism. I think two or three reasons account for this. In the first place, unless you are amazingly gifted like Picasso or John Singer Sargent (I don't personally know anyone that gifted), it usually takes time for an artist to get to the point where he or she is so at ease with the technical skills involved with good painting, the abstract elements of painting, that they no longer interfere very much with the artist's expression of what it is that called the artist to a life of art in the first place. For most of us, you can figure on painting at least five hundred paintings before you begin feeling like you know what you're doing. For me, it was closer to a thousand paintings. Secondly, as people grow up, as they mature, their understanding of themselves and our world changes, and that usually has an affect on their work. Also, as people get older their work may change because they sometimes stop caring as much about what other people think about them and begin caring more about what they think of themselves. In artists' lives this may mean they start caring more about how they personally look at their paintings (and their personal artistic process) and less about how collectors look at them. For artists living and working in the time after that day in 1910 when Kandinsky painted the first non-representational work, subject matter might be the victim of this process, but certainly not always.

You may see an image of Kandinsky's painting, a watercolor, on the Artnet website. For a succinct description of Kandinsky's first abstract compositions, including images, you may want to read Mark Harden's review of Magdalena Dabrowski's book on Kandinsky.

For examples of this technical and personal maturation process, you might typically compare many artists' early work with their later work. For instance, if you are an artist reading this, you have probably seen your own work mature over time. I've seen my work grow and change as I have grown and changed over time. I've seen my friends' work change over time. Unfortunately, you probably haven't seen my work or my friends' work over a lifetime, and none of us are, I hope, finished evolving, so let's use as references some famous artists we all know: if we want to have a discussion about artwork we need to be talking about the same work.

The other issue concerning this point is that I don't think it's fair, with the exception of Monet, to use as examples artists who were aware that non-representational artwork was possible in the real world; in other words, I think better examples are artists who lived and worked before 1910. Unfortunately, that rules out Americans, who up until that time were painting under the dark and long shadow of European tastes. For this discussion now, though, let's keep it safe for now by talking about European artists who've been dead for at least a hundred years and sometimes a few hundred. And, while we're at it, why not talk about the best of the best in Europe? Reverence and obedience in an artist is admirable and essential, as CenniniRef.7 pointed out a few centuries ago, but, while his humility is admirable, daring to be like the best is very admirable. Closer to home, one of my artist friends once said, "Anybody nowadays can turn the lights on, it took a genius to invent the light bulb."

So then, speaking of artists who invented artistic light bulbs, Oscar Claude Monet is a great example of change. He spent a lot of time in his late teens and early twenties painting work acceptable to the art establishment, such as this Still Life with a PheasantEarly Monet which you may find a higher resolution image of on the Monet Giverny website. Fortunately for all of us, this phase didn't last too long, and the more he painted, the more expressive his work became, and, not coincidentally for him, the less representational it became. (It's true that Monet lived until 1926 and certainly knew of abstract art, but he never crossed the bridge into abstraction and steadily maintained that Impressionism was still relevant in an abstract world.) Once you get acclimated to Monet's later work, some of Monet's early Impressionist work seems almost frivolous in comparison. Monet's late work wasn't appreciated by the general public of his time and sold for pennies on the dollar; the less representational he became the more ignored he was and the more the late work declined in value. It's ironic yet understandable that it wasn't until abstract art became an accomplished fact of our culture that Monet's late work experienced a redemption and the value skyrocketed. Among the signs that abstract art had reached into the public awareness, was a big article in Life magazine in 1957, complete with full-page spreads on various American Abstract Expressionists. Life tried to make the case that the abstract artists were inspired by Monet's late work and owed a debt to him as one of the fathers of the abstract century, to the point that the editors of Life sub-titled one section of the article to claim that the abstract artist were "Monet's Heirs," but the reality of how abstract art evolved doesn't confirm anything like that. It's understandable that Monet's late work would not be fully appreciated in the United States or in his home country of France until the art world was taken over by many of our American artists in the New York Abstract Expressionism movement of the 1950s. These artists didn't build on Monet's work; it is the legacy of Monet that owes a debt to them; they ". . . educated the vision of contemporary viewers to recognize the achievement of Monet's late work." I take this reference from page 100 of an extremely well-researched and presented work on this subject, and Monet's late work in general, namely, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Catalogue book to the 1998 exhibit, "Monet in the 20th Century,"Ref.8 an exhibit which showed in England also. Any way you choose to look at it, everyone can agree that it's a long way from Still Life with a Pheasant to the enormous 14 ft. long Grand Decoration paintings such as Le Bassin aux Nymph avec IrisLe Bassin aux nymph avec iris (also on the Giverny website) which most people at the time thought were a big career mistake on the part of an eighty-year-old monument hanging on the past.

An artist who may truly have been the father of the abstract century was Cezanne, who, having died in 1906, never lived to see a serious, public abstract painting. I have personally seen a wide range of Cezanne's paintings, and it seems to me at some point in his career his artistic life turned into one uninterrupted line of progress toward an intellectual organization of the world around him and of unity in the surface of his paintings. Despite being tortured by self-doubt and despair at times, his work and progress never stopped and his paintings became more intellectually purposeful . . . and less reliant on the visual appearance of subject matter. He never gave up subject matter, but he wasn't bound by it. (Erle Loran's book on Cezanne's composition,Ref.9 intelligently speculating on Cezanne's artistic process by comparing the paintings to pictures of the actual scene, is a valuable resource on this subject, not just for understanding Cezanne but for the artistic process in general.) What made his paintings earlier paintings expressive, and his late paintings less expressive, in my opinion, is that he continually worked to develop a surface unity on two-dimensional painting independent of subject to the exclusion of what makes paintings compelling to non-artists. In other words, he focused almost exclusively on the abstract elements of his work, to such an extent that people call him the father of abstract art, yet lost the emotional content of his work beyond the intellectual aesthetics. Expressive Realism does not in any way exclude intellect and aesthetics; however, intellect and aesthetics are exercises and artist-to-artist talk without an emotional context.

Rembrandt Van Rijn started out his career, and continued throughout most of his career, painting dozens of religious and allegorical works such as (the following two images come from a Rembrandt website, RembrandtPainting.net) The Presentation of Jesus in the TempleThe Presentation of Jesus in the Temple which I saw at the Maruitshuis in The Hague, a breath-taking painting of a religious subject presented (no pun intended) with a "spiritual" ray of light bathing the main scene in a theatrical setting; the light is more along the lines of Cecil B. DeMille than "spiritual," and commissions such as Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenhurch, otherwise known as The Night Watch,The Night Watch a wall-sized painting (actually bigger than a wall; at twelve feet by fifteen it has its own room) which I saw in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam: a dramatically lit and impressively designed painting of epic qualities. And, please, I am not trashing out Cecil B. DeMille; he was a very successful moviemaker enjoyed by millions and the people who watched his movies were as deeply moved by them as other people are by other movies. I respect the people emotionally and spiritually moved by The Presentation. However, I hoped to be respected in my experience as well, and I think there is more spirituality and humanity in one of Rembrandt's later self-portraits, such as the Self-Portrait with BeretSelf-Portrait in our National Gallery than there is in all of his allegorical, religious, and commission paintings combined. This self-portrait and other later paintings are examples which show the intents and purposes of Expressive Realism because this self-portrait would not be effective solely as a play of values and contrasts and design without a human being as the recognizable subject, yet, on the other hand, subject matter alone is not enough: Rembrandt's earlier literal religious subject matter such as The Presentation do not carry the day when it comes to expressiveness, in terms of spirituality or humanity, in my opinion.

I offer one more example of expressive work: Vermeer. Another Dutch painter who worked about the same time as Rembrandt, Vermeer is a very interesting artist to look at when talking about Expressive Realism. I've spent many hours looking at his work in the National Gallery in Washington and on my one trip to the museums in Amsterdam and the Reijksmuseum in The Hague. I've read every critical work on Vermeer I've been able to find, including the works of Arthur Wheelock,Ref.10 the curator from the National Gallery in Washington, whose work is by far the most insightful, thoroughly researched, and well written. It seems to me Vermeer went through three stages in his short life, which I give examples of from the ultimate Vermeer website, essentialvermeer. He had a typical early phase when he explored and mastered the technicalities of his craft (see Diana and Her CompanionsDiana which is in the Mauritshuis); he then entered a phase when he left the technicalities and created several true masterpieces of Western art The MilkmaidMilkmaid in the Rijksmuseum for an example and one of the greatest paintings Vermeer created and one which is in the National Gallery, namely Woman Holding a Balance.Balance A good example of Vermeer's third stage of work is The Concert,Concert which I had a chance to study carefully in the Gardner Museum while I attended the museum school (many years before the painting got itself stolen). You may object to this way of looking at Vermeer's late works, but if you believe, as I do, that the true subject of Vermeer's middle work was a timeless silence within which he explored what it means to be human, then you can see he abandoned that subject matter in his last paintings. Of course, he painted in the 1500s so all his work is technically representational, complete with literal subject matter, but to me his first and last works are not expressive. Arthur Wheelock puts it this way in talking about Vermeer's late works: "While they contain echoes of much of his preceding work, they expand upon them, particularly in the abstraction of the brushwork. Whether or not these paintings are superior to his earlier work is another question. Vermeer's genius rests on the delicate interrelationship between human psychology and compositional pattern. In these late works his attention to individual human attributes was subordinated to design and color, and an important element of Vermeer's uniqueness as an artist was lost."Ref.11

The work of these artists and others show that as artists leave behind an interest in literal subject matter and as they increase focus on the expressive power of painting, which lies in the purely abstract tools of the trade, the more powerful their work becomes on an emotional and aesthetic level, as well as, I think, potentially on an intellectual level . . . up to a point, as the work of Vermeer shows; when he started focusing more on the abstract tools of the artistic trade, he sacrificed the expressive power of his middle works.


As I said above, I'm assuming that ultimately an artist's public work is attempting to communicate something to an audience, and the artist cares about how much of what he or she is saying gets through to the audience and how well the work is accomplished in technical terms. For artists, I think the distinction between public and private work is important. Many of the early American artists painted private field studies they never intended for public viewing, and often these are the works of theirs which nowadays we find the most attractive. (There's one of those wonderful exhibition catalogue books that are so thoroughly researched and which are of such value as resources, I believe, for artists, which deals at length and with insight on this very subject by Eleanor Jones Harvey called The Painted SketchThe Painted Sketch.) On the other hand, John Constable, the great English landscape artist, sometimes painted full-sized "practice" paintings of his public works before he started the important public painting, and they are said to be hideous unattractive greenish things. I mentioned above in a different way, we assume in this discussion that artists are making every effort to effectively express the artist's reason for being an artist in the first place, and the artist's reason for painting specifically any one particular painting. This doesn't preclude artist painting for their own heart, experimentation, in the privacy of their studios, with no intention of showing the work to anybody else.

Now then, having said that . . . what if the artist's audience is other artists? What if the artist's audience is other artists and a handful of collectors, critics who publish writings about art, and gallery owners dedicated to this market? That's a choice for each artist. You would hope that abstract, modern, contemporary artists would have a healthy respect for the honorable choices of more traditionally-minded artists. You would hope that traditional artists would have a healthy respect for the dedication and intentions of artists working in more modern veins. You might go so far as to hope that both traditional and modern artists would make an attempt to understand and appreciate the other's work.

Expressive Realism is responsible for two corollary beliefs: first, merely expressing yourself without a verifiable context isn't enough to achieve the goal of effectively communicating or effectively expressing yourself to a viewer; and, second, that rendering a representational subject matter in super-realistic detail isn't enough either. This is not to say that technically superb realistic and super-realistic work can't be expressive. Let's recognize that very detailed work can run the continuum from the emotionally vapid to the ordinary to the powerful, just as expressive work can run the continuum from technically sloppy and unskilled work to the sentimental to the ordinary to powerfully emotional. Expressive Realism assumes that technically supreme representational work isn't any more effective than the best abstract work if the emotional content that is the foundation of expressive artistic communication is missing; however it assumes also that superbly executed non-representational work is very limited in its effectiveness because it is non-representational: Expressive Realism stops short of abandoning subject matter and stops short of passing over into the realm of non-representational art.

Expressive Realism is not necessarily a style or a particular look. I say that painting relies on abstract elements first, because shortly after the abstract elements have reached into the viewer's subconscious, the next question is "What is it?" This usually happens within a fraction of a moment . . . almost, but not quite, simultaneously with first sight. From the artist's point of view, this is a questions which needs to be answered one way or another. Consciously or unconsciously, intellectually or by instinct, with much thoughtful effort or with little thought, artists explore the possibilities. How long do I want my viewer to look for a subject matter? Do I make the subject matter instantly available, or do I delay recognition? How long do I want to delay the answer to the question "What is it?" Do I want the viewer to have instant access to the "What is it?" so that I get that out of the way and can communicate on a deeper level? Do I want to delay the answer to the " What is it?" question and attempt to keep the viewer in the subconscious abstract workings of the painting longer?

Moving further across the continuum of possibilities, do I want to put off the answer to "What is it?" to the point where the viewer needs to go ask the gallery director, or look for the written program, to find the answer? Do I move into the non-representational and intend for the answer to be, "There is no answer to 'What is it?'" Artists who create non-representational work, that is, artists who give no apparent or literal answer to the " What is it?" question, are not necessarily trying to be tricky or intellectual or cutting-edge or aggravating or any of the other motivations we sometimes assign to abstract artists. (And, no, your two-year-old couldn't "...do better than that!")

A couple of the reasons why there is no particular look which defines Expressive Realism is because every artist answers this and other questions differently. Expressive Realism can run the continuum from Vermeer's middle works to Monet's late works. Also, an artist might spend many fruitful years, or even a great career, exploring the possibilities involved in one or two of the abstract elements. An artist might explore big simple shape relationships, edges, a certain color combination and relationship, and so on. Expressive Realism is a big house with plenty of room for many artists.


I recently re-discovered in my library a book named "The Monk" by Matthew G. "Monk" Lewis, an eighteenth century gothic novel out of the history of English literature. It's been in my library for years, but I don't recommend the actual story unless you enjoy complicated sensationalist books written in the awkward language and style of a bygone English. I never did get through the entire story, but what's stuck with me about the book is the introduction by John Berryman, a very troubled confessional poet and literature historian from the American 1950s and 1960s, and especially his conclusion to the introduction. He's comparing Monk Lewis to Hawthorne and Emily Bronte and says, "The difference is one of weight, size, drive of conception. We really cannot say much about what deeply matters in stories, novels. They [Hawthorne and Bronte] had stronger minds than Lewis, tougher hearts, a superior intuition of necessity -- the 'dark necessity' invoked by Chillingworth when he refuses to pardon. Lewis had this intuition too, but in a form less terrifying and affecting; but then he had it."

Returning to the musical theme in this description, I'd like to quote one of my favorite singers, Andrea Bocelli, as he was quoted in the London Telegraph: "I think that some voices have the tears inside. Franco Corelli [the famous Italian tenor, now deceased] said these things about my voice in a newspaper article. He gave a master-class in Turin, and that's when he heard me for the first time. The voice is something very mysterious. It's difficult to say what is inside a voice that moves people."

I think the same can be said of painting, including Expressive Realism. There's not much you can say about what makes a painting effective. As artists we need to get into the workings of what makes paintings professional and technically effective, but at some point something else takes over and we create a work that has it or doesn't have it, whatever that is. As collectors we know it when we see it; we know what we like. As gallery owners we learn that you can't talk a person into liking a painting enough to buy it . . . either the painting takes care of itself or doesn't (unless the sale has something to do with an investment). As artists we usually feel it as it's happening, and that's when it's time to get out of the way and let the brush take over. Other times we recognize what we've done after the fact, the next day for instance, and have the sense not to overpaint it.

For collectors and artists alike, in the end I think painting comes down to whether or not the work strikes you at first, and then moves you in some way after that initial impression, and then, hopefully, continues to engage you over and over again for years to come. That three-part process is the expressive part of Expressive Realism, and I think it come down to an intangible combination which relies purely on the elements of the visual language. The realism part of Expressive Realism is imposed by subject matter and allows me to communicate with more people than I might reach without a subject matter. But even this comes down to intangibles: my experience is that the more observant, engaged, involved, and caring I am about the subject matter at hand, the more other people are engaged. Once engaged, the magic of painting takes over and the work is out of the artist's hands. The best abstract painting is not really abstract, and the best representational work isn't really all about rivers and trees and watches and lanterns.

Ref. 1
For a brief description of literature's Expressive Realism movement, see (reference to follow)
More information may be found in an article by Michael Delahoyde of Washington State University in which he critiques the literary version of Expressive Realism: Critical Essay.

Ref. 2
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers; John C. Gardner, J. Laslocky (Editor); Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group; June 1991; ISBN-13:9780679734031. A great book for anyone to read and, I think, especially for artists.

Ref. 3
page 203: "4a. Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death. 4b. Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder." etc. These examples and comparisons I am making among writing and music and visual art don't account for the one huge advantage writing and music have over painting: both writing and music transport readers and listeners into trances and dreams that can last hours . . . it is rare to see someone look at a painting for more than a few seconds at a time, and almost unknown to look at a painting for more than a few minutes at a time, let alone a couple of hours.

Ref. 4
The exact quote in German and the English translation may be found at the Music with Ease website in the description of "Symphony No. 6 in F (Pastoral) Opus 68." To a non-expert like me, the site seems like a good source of information from many music lovers on all kinds of music.

Ref. 5
As quoted in "Claude Monet: Impressionism's Leading Light, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education), November 1995, by Charles F. Stuckey" and by many others: Claude Monet. Unfortunately, Monet also went on to say, "Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own naive impression of the scene before you." That piece of advice from him and repeated by many artists since when talking to students has been one of the most misused and harmful pieces of advice a student can hear. What Monet was saying about how he sees presupposes non-literal vision, and also presupposes a fully accomplished set of artistic skills. Monet talked about naive vision, but I think that's a lot easier to talk about when you're one of the most sophisticated artists in the history of Western civilization.

Ref. 6
Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Ref. 7
The exact quote (English translation) may be found in the Note Access website's text of Cennini's book in the table of contents and the complete translation of Il Libro dell'Arte is on their site. Although this has nothing to do with this description of Expressive Realism, the book is very interesting, including parts where he writes about the manufacturing materials required for, and the artistic characteristics of, such exotic colors as sinoper, opriment, and dragonsblood; see Section II.

Ref. 8
Monet in the 20th CenturyMonet(Paperback) by Paul Hayes Tucker (Author), George Shackleford (Author), MaryAnne Stevens (Contributor), George T. M. Shackelford (Contributor), Romy Golan (Contributor), John House (Contributor), Michael Leja (Contributor); Yale University Press; August 2000 edition); ISBN-10:0300079443 ISBN-13:978-0300079449. The research is astonishingly thorough and intelligent, but the reproductions alone are worth the price of admission. I think the authors do a particularly good job of describing Monet's life, his emotional state at very times in his career, and are very shrewd in discerning the differences between what Monet told the press and public and what he was really up to.

Ref. 9
Cezanne's CompositionCezanne Cezanne's Composition: Analysis of His Form with Diagrams and Photographs of His Motifs, Third edition (Paperback) 1963 by Erle Loran; University of California Press ISBN-520-05459-8. I find this book fascinating, not so much for the idea of comparing an artist's painting to pictures of the site, but for Loran's insightful and instructive writings about Cezanne's thinking and purposes. It doesn't really matter how accurate Loran is. . . with any artist, alive or dead, it is dangerous to try to guess at their intentions, or even take them at their word for their intentions, and this must be double-true of someone like Cezanne, a man who everyone agrees was periodically tortured with emotional problems and permanently difficult in personality. What Loran does extremely well is follow an artistic process of discovery and creation, whether or not it is actually Cezanne's path.

Ref. 10
see reference 13 below

Ref. 11
Johannes Vermeer.Vermeer. I am taking this reference from page 124 of Arthur J. Wheelock's book Vermeer from 1988, published by Harry N. Abrams (March 15, 1988)ISBN-10: 0810917378 ISBN-13: 978-0810917378. This book is the condensed version of the more comprehensive book (pictured at left) published by in 1981 called Johannes Vermeer. These books by Wheelock are some of the most insightful works of thorough scholarship I've ever read, and not just on Vermeer but on any artist. The big baby on Vermeer, however, is the book Johannes Vermeer on the left and published in conjunction with the 1995 Vermeer Exhibit at the National Gallery, edited and partly written by Arthur Wheelock.