Is Painting still dead?

Photography shook the world back in the Victorian Era. Upon viewing the work of early photographers, the French painter, Paul Delaroche famously declared, “From today, painting is dead.” Maybe it was. But is it still dead?

Despite a clear distinction for more than a century between the arts of painting and photography, we seem to be in something of a turmoil today. A growing number of photographers are describing their work as ‘fine art’, which probably means the images have been edited to look like paintings. I’m pretty sure the term doesn’t refer to practitioners who are working to take the photographic process in a new artistic direction. 

Likewise, a growing number of artists seem to be working exclusively from photographs, so their painted work looks like it is a photograph. Even blurred images, produced with a slow shutter speed, are now being mimicked by some painters. Also, the distorted photo reproductions afforded by shooting instant film through cheap lenses on cheap cameras is now the subject for exploration by some painters.

However, if a painter has the technique to exactly reproduce a photograph what has been achieved? Where has the journey taken you? When faced with an exact reproduction of a photograph, how is the painted image superior to the photograph? Is it superior?

And what if we are presented with a photograph which has been edited to appear as if it is a painting? Printed on canvas and framed as if it were an old Master, painted by Rembrandt himself, what are we to think. If it apes the art of the painted image is it now more valuable?

Paintings that look like photographs and photographs that look like paintings. How can we make sense of this?

Recently, I enjoyed visiting the Manchester Art Fair. Many of the works on view were impressive and captured my attention, gave me things to think about and made me glad I visited.

However, the main thought that was left with related to just how many painters exhibiting were clearly using photographs as a reference source, and this was reflected in the work produced. The practice of painting from a photographic source is now taught widely in many premier arteliers as via this route it is possible to give an entire class the exact same reference source which makes judging progress of students technique possible.

It was not always so. When I first studied life drawing as part of a two year Foundation Art and Design course, my instructors drummed it into me that I must always paint and draw from life. It was acceptable, even encouraged for me to attend art galleries and copy paintings that were on view. This was learning from the masters. But from a photograph? Never!

Recently, I shared this view with a professional portrait painter who paints exclusively from photographs and was struggling to cope with painting from life in a life class. In that same class others started the lesson by using a iPad to photograph the sitter. These painters then ignored the sitter and exclusively drew from the iPad image. Often zooming in and out to establish what the iPad had captured, so all the better to imitate it.

My point that artists such as Manet and Monet did not need to use photographs was rebuffed with the mistaken view that there were no suitable photographic sources in those days. This was a hopeful argument founded on finding justification rather than anything based on the reality of photographic history.

In the 1880s and 1890s two English photographers in particularly stand out as artist treading the same ground that the French Impressionist painters were making their own. The real life scenes painted “En plein air” (in the open air) that featured rural workers in the fields, the beauty of light and water were the stock in trade for the giants of the Impressionist movement. 

We only have to look at “The Angelus” or “The Gleaners” by Jean Francois Millet to be put in mind of the photographs created by PH Emerson in his beloved East Anglia. Emerson was attempting to elevate photography to an art form by capturing the essence of a reality in a beautiful, and often stylised image. His work is well worth exploring.

I have selected one example of his work taken in 1885, “Gathering Water Lilies.” This composition would not be out of place in the catalogue of any impressionist painter. But when we admire it, let us not forget that Emerson was shooting with a large format wooden field camera. (The type where the photographer goes under a dark cloth.) The image would be viewed on a very dim ground glass screen, presented both upside down and the wrong way around! (That reminds me of my many years shooting architecture on a 5×4 monorail camera!) 

Around the same time, Frank Meadow Sutcliffe was also working with a large format field camera, this time around Yorkshire harbours such as Whitby. As with Emerson, Sutcliffe documented working life of his chosen envronment. The sailors, fishermen, wives and children were captured among the bustling harbours and tall ships. Sutcliffe’s work is remarkable and illustrates that he had an eye for picture making of the highest order. The work produced puts one in mind of the paintings of Claude Monet from his London visit when he worked along the banks of the Thames.

I have selected one image from the collection of Sutcliffe produced in 1885 and entitled “Water Rats.” Works such as this can still be viewed and purchased at The Sutcliffe Gallery in Whitby.

Photography did rock the art world to it’s boots in the Victorian Era. Add to the aesthetic output of Sutcliffe and Emerson the work of the early War Photographers, Roger Fenton and Mathew Brady, and it is not hard to see why Paul Delaroche declared the death of painting. However, I am not sure photography ever had the power to kill painting.

PH Emerson’s work is available from the Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe’s work can be viewed and bought from The Sutcliffe Gallery, Whitby.