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DeCamp, a Musical Painter

DeCamp Joseph The Blue Cup
The Blue Cup, 1909

Born on November 5, 1858, Joseph Rodefer DeCamp was an American Impressionist painter from Cincinnati, Ohio. As one of the founders of the Ten American Painters, which included Childe Hassam, DeCamp painted portraiture, figures and landscapes throughout its twenty year span in Boston. And although DeCamp painted various subjects during his career I find his recurring theme of women as musicians and figures bathed in window-light quite intriguing for their mysterious, poetic quality.

Look at The Blue Cup above, at how simple it is, yet mesmerizing. DeCamp utilizes a blend of warm and cool colors for the wall behind her, and note the intensity and temperature change in her apron from how the light falls upon it from the top to the bottom. I like how the larger, more elaborate chinaware on the table beside her, complete with subtle reflections, are not the focal point despite their considerable attention to detail. Her facial expression denotes a simple delight in this small blue cup, and we're not sure why, but its innocence is charming. The very soft shadow of her figure against the wall is what makes the painting come alive.

Joseph DeCamp The Violinist
The Violinist

DeCamp is a storyteller of moments. Here this young woman plays a violin in a room, dressed in an elegant yellow-green gown, a red jacket tossed on the chair to the left and violin case on floor, as if rehearsing for a social event that she is attending shortly while waiting to be picked up by someone. The room has an interesting series of intersecting horizontals and verticals and yet it is the bright sunshine glowing through the window that creates this gentle mood. Again, pure simplicity and yet we are drawn into the painting. DeCamp uses a earthy cool neutral palette but contrasts this with the warm tone of the furniture and her violin.

The Music Lesson, 1895

This warm-toned piece has a somber quality that normally would veer into sentimentality with this kind of subject matter, but here DeCamp seems to comment on the necessary discipline of learning an instrument, no matter what the age. Despite this, he maintains the innocence and optimism in the way this young girl plays her piano enthusiastically, with flowers in her hair, even if off-key at times. DeCamp's use of sunlight is beautiful in how it indicates the room, the walls, and the costumes of these two figures while keeping their faces hidden in shadows. What these characters are doing is more important than who they are exactly.

Joseph DeCamp La Penserosa
La Penserosa

A magnificent painting. DeCamp distills this portrait to its psychological essence by removing all extraneous background information to concentrate solely on her state of mind. The coloring on the wall behind her uses a palette and brushwork echoed in her blouse that, like Hassam, was influenced by Van Gogh, yet the soft warm light falling on her is reminiscent of the Dutch Old Masters such as Honthorst. What she may be thinking about or feeling is a secret but we are invited to participate, without words or explanation...

Joseph DeCamp The Guitar Player 1908
The Guitar Player, 1908

I like this painting very much also. More reminiscent of Sargent, (who was a contemporary of DeCamp) here he shows us an ability to paint more tight and cleanly while still creating his characteristic mystery. It has a spareness of background detail and large space that is unlike his previous work, but still utilizes his complementary color palette with a love of costume details. This woman is more mature and very Classical, and the overall composition with her feels more harmonious than mysterious, except for her face, which seems a million miles away. DeCamp challenges the notion that Realism is merely factual and uninteresting. He is telling us how life itself has moments of uncertainty and quiet that require no explanation, only participation, and comtemplation. Music is an expression of our innermost thoughts and feelings, and is medicine for the soul, in all its forms...and DeCamp knew this needed to be expressed visually, that all painting is visual music.


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