Skip to main content

Anton Mauve, The Power of Simplicity

De moestuin Rijksmuseum SK-A-2524
The Vegetable Garden, ca.1885-1888

Anthonij (Anton) Rudolf Mauve was a Dutch painter born on September 18, 1838 in Zaandam, northern Holland. He was a leading member of the Hague School of painters in the late 1800's, and outside Holland not well-known except for his connection to Vincent Van Gogh, whom he influenced greatly. Mauve's work focused on rural motifs that captured the everyday farm-life under the often characteristic overcast skies that define Dutch landscape art and the Hague School, hence earning them the curious nickname the Gray School. Mauve's early art instruction were from more formulaic Dutch painters that Mauve sought to break free from into a more naturalist approach using color and mood to heightened effect. Action and composition were not the primary forces that motivated Mauve, but rather the way people moved, how they worked, and the scenic atmosphere under which they lived. Mauve would eventually evolve into another school or rather art colony, called The Laren School which grew its inspiration from the very inhabitants of Laren in northern Holland.

In The Vegetable Garden above, Mauve clearly reveals his painting on location approach. Despite the prominent green tones it is the background farm houses—against that grey sky— that frame the composition and give it a warmth and presence that is inviting and real. Look closely at the foliage and see Mauve's brushwork uses an intricate assortment of yellows, greys, ochres, even blues in certain areas. We can easily appreciate how much care and effort Mauve took into suggesting the individual leaves of those birch trees to contrast with the darker-toned leaves of the trees leaning across the farm house. Pay attention to that silvery grey sky behind it all: the left hand side is a very cool grey yet towards the right hand side behind the trees, Mauve suggests a slight warmth of a sun buried deeply behind cloud. Anyone who has ever travelled to Holland or northern parts of France and Belgium can understand this unique natural light. Mauve paints the straw roof of the farm house with such tactile brushstrokes, suggesting green patches to break up the brown tones. The lone figure is merely to illustrate the scale of this garden. Mauve takes a very simplistic theme and by his keen eye draws us in so that we are inhaling that cool rainy air and standing in his shoes to witness a moment in time that invites us to linger for a while longer.

Anton Mauve - Landscape with Cattle - Google Art Project
Landscape with Cattle, ca.1888

This is the kind of painting I like not only because of its execution, but the way its subject matter defies convention. Painting cows in the field next to a river is not the first thing that springs to mind for a landscape artist, especially in today's brand-driven society. Mauve makes this work with color temperature and low-key values. The drama of this late-afternoon sky threatening rain with a small group of cattle in the foreground, bathed in a warm pool of sunlight, with rich greens and earthtones on the field is beautiful. He creates wonderful contrast with the soft clouds above to the textures of the grass and animals below. Note how Mauve arranges the cattle. The mother stands horizontally off-center, while the calf next to her faces us, while the other two lie beside them in alternate directions. The effect both withdraws and retracts our attention simultaneously. Mauves use of perspective here illustrates the vastness of the river valley while keeping our eye on the natural presence of the cattle in the foreground. Looking above we see Mauve's variety of tone and hue in the clouds with colors ranging from yellow all the way to violet, green, blue, white and of course, grey. The clouds ultimately frame the entire composition and underline the vastness of this view from this angle. The way Mauve articulates the atmospheric distance of these clouds and their drama despite the simple pastoral scene below clearly reveals how landscape art requires such astute observation and respect for nature. Here the subject is not merely cows lazing around; it is nature itself, in all its beauty and diversity.

Bosrand aan het water Rijksmuseum SK-A-3699
Forest Edge on the Water, ca.1888

Mauve's brilliance with media here is exemplified by a watercolor drawing in monochromatic tones. Mauve appears to combine the charcoal or graphite with the watercolor in the dark areas to heighten the drama, while resisting the temptation to flood the image with detail. Mood supersedes information here. Yet Mauve pays particular attention to the line quality in areas such as the boat, figure and overall shape of the trees. Using that pale yellow wash to indicate a fading sun behind the trees is genius. And he echoes that light with thin strokes of orange in the reflection below. Color accents are deliberate and indicate the figure, trees and reflection of the foliage. Note the way Mauve scumbles color so subtly into the trees. I am sure had Sargeant seen this watercolor he would have been impressed by its power and understatement. Poetry is not what you say, but all about how you say it, how it feels.

Het moeras Rijksmuseum SK-A-2523
The Swamp, ca.1888

Mauve's somber grey tones permeate this barren isolated swamp. Mauve contrasts again the sky with earth by cool to warm, soft to grassy textures. (Note how the painting remains in good shape, with minimal cracking only in the whites of the sky). The distant background that meets the horizon, with those indistinct fuzzy shapes, adds such depth and presence here. Rain looms behind it and threatens to come down, even with the faint burst of sunlight behind those clouds. It is the random arrangement of birds that completes this painting and makes us feel like we are outside watching this humid, cool scene with our muddy shoes. Joseph Zbukvic, the brilliant Australian watercolorist commented in a recent interview that in a landscape painting "the sky is the eyes of the painting" and here, these words are truer than ever. The point of landscape art is not merely to illustrate a view, but to realize that we will never understand the vast mystery of nature.

Anton Mauve - A Dutch Road - Google Art Project
A Dutch Road, ca.1880

Mauve has an eye like a photographer, I just noticed looking at this painting. It is spontaneous. Simple, yes but natural. Horses walking through a slick muddy road against an overcast sky. It's so simple yet meditative. Look at how those trees form a fuzzy line of perspective on the left side. Mauve's warm greens line the path up to the distant field. Yet once again, Mauve's sky is hypnotic, trance-like in its simplicity. That bright opening of white on the right hand side breathes life into what would normally be another overcast scene. Mauve searches only for the truth of his surroundings, the unpretentiousness of his people in their natural environment, and in the process breathes life into his brushwork. One can imagine how Van Gogh was inspired by looking at his work. He clearly took his own direction in exaggerating that simple truth for his own reasons and created a following that not even Mauve could have ever imagined, but here, looking at his work, Mauve did not fail. His vision of an honest, rural Dutch world may go unnoticed today, but how he portrayed that world is pure inspiration.


Popular posts from this blog

More Old Master Drawings

There is nothing in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body.
Robert Henri

Charles Louis Müller, A Standing Female Nude Leaning Against an Arch, ca.1864

Once again I decided to talk about some Old Master drawings and delve into the thinking behind how these drawings may have been created and the knowledge of the artist. In the above drawing by Müller, done in sanguine with white chalk highlights, the figure is drawn from a low view-point, with her body twisting toward her left side while resting on one knee. Note how Müller alternates the bent right leg with the bent left arm to create dynamic contrast. The right arm is also foreshortened and partially in shadow. Expressing power and femininity, this is a study that is Renaissance in spirit, even Mannerist, revealing the female nude as sculptural yet always graceful.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Seated male nude viewed from the back, 1755

One of several Academic nude studies by Mengs, this …


Nymphs and Satyr, 1873

If there is one artist today that hardly needs an introduction, it would be William-Adolphe Bouguereau, supreme giant of 19th century Academic art. Born on November 30, 1825 in La Rochelle on the southwest of France, his talent would define the era he lived in only to fall into obscurity for decades after his death in 1905 until as recent as the early 1980's, shockingly. Today he has the distinction of being lionized by the Art Renewal Center as one of the greatest artists of all time while at the other end of the spectrum vilified by modernists as artificially perfect and sentimental. In fact it is quite rare to see such polarization over an artist of a calibre like Bouguereau, whose bravura is difficult to equal yet at the same time thematically his work admittedly tends toward women and children, a subject matter that sold well and he had endless patience for. Over the vast array of his oeuvre, some 820 paintings, I have tried to find some of his very b…

René-Antoine Houasse, French Classical Master

Dispute between Minerva and Neptune over the Naming of the City of Athens, 1689

Born in 1645 in Paris, René-Antoine Houasse was a French painter who worked in the Château de Versailles under his teacher, Charles Le Brun. Despite the initial impression of Classical formality, Houasse actually was quite musical and rhythmic in his compositions and had a very French palette. His figures are quite sculptural while retaining an elegance and grace regardless of gender.

In the above Dispute between Minerva and Neptune over the Naming of the City of Athens, Houasse divides the painting with light to add a stark drama to an otherwise Classically formal composition. Taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the first king of Athens, King Cecrops was looking for a patron god or goddess for his beautiful city, and both Mineva and Neptune fought to win the favor of the gods. Neptune creates the sea by striking his mighty trident into the ground, and while impressive, the gods didn't much care for s…