The Story in Paintings

November 5, 2010

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to take advantage of the availability of art in the region.  Up until last weekend, I had focused my art excursions to museums in San Francisco.   Last Saturday, I embarked on a day trip to Stockton to visit a little known treasure called the Haggin Museum.  The collection includes paintings by 19th- and early 20th-century American and European artists, including Jean Béraud, Rosa Bonheur, William Bouguereau, Jean-Léon Gérôme, George Inness and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.   This three-story brick building contains more than 34,000 square feet of exhibition space and houses the largest collection of major Albert Bierstadt works.   His depictions of Yosemite, particularly Sunset in the Yosemite Valley, are worth the trek to the Central Valley. 

As impressed as I was by Bierstadt and the Renoir (La Toilette) as well as The Juniata River by George Inness, it was  the historical paintings of Jehan-Georges Vibert,  mainly Check, Napoleon and the Cardinal, that inspired the writer in me.  It never ceases to amaze me how an artist can tell a whole story in the painting of a single scene through the use of facial expression, color and symbolism.  In this rendition, Napoleon has just been placed in “check” while playing a game of chess with the Cardinal.  Napoleon’s grimace, the fingertips placed upon his brow, as well as his slouched posture communicates the man’s displeasure.  Meanwhile, the Cardinal’s hint of a smile, his commanding red robe billowing at his feet, and relaxed pose, suggests the man feels comfortable and composed.  The polar bear rug at his feet is reported to symbolize “Russia”, a country Napoleon has failed to conquer.  It has been reported that Vibert reproduced Napoleon’s luxurious bedroom at the palace of Fontianebleau with great accuracy and that he replicated the attire of his subjects down to the Legion of Honor medals.  Compared to the two dimensional canvas a painter has to recreate his setting and cast of characters, writing seems easy. 

Here is some basic information if you are interested in visiting the Haggin Museum

Admission is a steal at $5.00 per person.

The Haggin Museum is located in Victory Park:
1201 N. Pershing Ave.
Stockton, CA 95203
(209) 940-6300

12:00-5:00 p.m.

1:30-5:00 p.m.

1:30-9:00 p.m.
1st & 3rd Thursdays

For more information visit:

Writing Like Michelangelo and Da Vinci

December 27, 2009

Italy’s culture exists in epic proportions. Art was everywhere in Italy – not just in museums, but on the floors beneath my feet, on the sides of buildings, even in rubbled ruins. Art was everywhere and I could not get enough.
I never knew I would be stunned, yes – stunned, by the statues and artwork I saw during my whirlwind trip to that boot-shaped country. I marveled at the ambitious excavations in Pompeii, at the ability of Da Vinci to capture the element of surprise on his disciple’s faces in Last Supper, and in the mosaic of golden opulence of St. Mark’s Cathedral. As I walked through Doge’s Palace in Venice, I gasped aloud at the ornate paintings.
Somewhere amidst these lavish displays of famous statues and paintings, I had an epiphany about my own form of self-expression. I’m not sure when exactly the idea started to form, perhaps the dawning realization first materialized as I gazed up at the Systine chapel ceiling. It had never occurred to me that subtle images could hold the capacity to elicit powerful emotions until I gazed upon the most innocent of gestures: two index fingers (God’s and Adam’s) almost touching. That simple visual drew forth a wide range of feelings in me: hope, humility, kindness, love. If viewing a painting could bring up this level of complex emotions, what might be possible if an art form had all four senses at its disposal?
Writers are spoiled and we don’t even know it. DaVinci and Michelangelo tell a whole story through inanimate objects. They, like all painters and sculptors, have only sight to convey meaning. Even modern-day movies, where the senses are limited to sight and sound, have more luxuries for context than these ancient masters of clay of paint had. True, film-makers get background music to create mood. But we writers, have a full gamut of tools. We can twist words to create setting and emotion in a way that readers can experience all the elements of sight, sound, taste and texture.
As I studied Michelangelo’s work, I noticed the visual elements he used to capture Mary’s seemingly calm acceptance of the loss of her son in La Pieta. I noted how Mary’s left hand faces palm up and how the slight angle of her head is inclined toward her son, even the fact that her eyes are closed helped communicate a specific emotion. I can’t recall a time when I’ve described hand position to elicit a given mood. What a wonderful technique to reveal compassion or tenderness.
The next time I get stuck attempting to convey one of the myriad of emotions a character is feeling, I plan to flip open a book of art. Until I had the awesome experience of touring Italy, it had never occurred to me that studying paintings and sculpture could be used as a tool to capture the depth and intimacy in writing.