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Joseph DeCamp, Impressionist Poet

DeCamp Joseph The Cellist
The Cellist, 1908

Joseph DeCamp
was an American painter born in Cincinnati, Ohio on November 5, 1858. Having studied in Europe he returned to America where he worked under the Boston School with artists such as William McGregor Paxton, Edmund C. Tarbell and John Joseph Enneking among others. Later on he would form a group of American Impressionists known as the Ten American Painters, including artists such as Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, John Henry Twachtman, and once again Edmund C. Tarbell. DeCamp's work is characterized by the Tonalism of predominantly women in deep shadows, vibrant color, elegant body language and pensive mood.

In The Cellist above, DeCamp's palette is monochromatic yet he makes effective use of highlight and texture to convey his mood. Dry brush and warms illuminate the wall behind her, where the shadow side has traces of violet scumbled on top of grey and yellow tones while the bright side is smoky white. This technique continues along the shoulder and arm up to her sleeve, while the dress maintains the violet hues of the shadow wall. The thin highlight on the shoulder of the cello is flawless. It captures the grain of the wood and creates the illusion of what deep sounds might be evoked from that instrument. Her face in shadow suggests the intensity of her attention to her practice, a dramatic sound in an otherwise quiet moment. This type of tonalism beautiful in its stark simplicity.

Portrait of a Lady , ca. 1908

Decamp's minimalist portrait of a woman bathed in daylight is a study of character and quiet strength. The high collar of the dress covering the neck of this woman strongly suggests a morality that is unflinching, perhaps a feminist or school teacher, yet by the relaxed face also indicates a person of intellect and sensitivity. Note how the extremely limited palette here further supports this.

Joseph DeCamp The Guitar Player 1908
The Guitar Player, 1908

Decamp's fascination with women and music repeats here again, revealing an emotional connection between musician and music rather than technical mastery or performance. Look at the intricate pattern and colors he conveys in her dress, repeating the violet hues with greenish yellow. I love the expression on her face and the glow of her skin. Contrast this with Portrait of a Lady above and you see here its polar opposite. Sensual, lost in thought, and deeply connected to the music. The wall behind her is a complex blending of warm and cool, greens and greys with yellows, oranges, and subtle violet tones. Note the near-complementary colors of the fabrics on either side of her. Decamp's insight into the human psyche teaches us that all portraiture or painting of people involves what the sitter thinks, feels and believes, not merely appearances and superficiality. Suggestion can be stronger than affirmation. Mood can be more powerful than fact.

Joseph DeCamp La Penserosa
La Penserosa, ca.1900's

Here Decamp reduces this portrait into pure mood. While lacking the structure and context of the musicians, Decamp's use of light is captivating and her facial expression is intriguing. Judging by her wardrobe and the heavy layers of clothing that cover her torso one gets the feeling of anxiety in this woman's overall presence. Decamp's background wall is channeling Vincent Van Gogh somehow, and the painting's title, La Penserosa or the thinking woman, reiterates the deep reflection of this woman who is inside her own head and can't get out. Even the long brushstrokes of her dress and sweater seem to remind us of Van Gogh...perhaps a touch of madness in her anxiety. Decamp once again suggests, never stating.

The Music Lesson, ca. 1895

Love this painting. Decamp uses body language and light to tell a story that is succinct and brilliant. A young girl eagerly plays her piano lesson while the teacher appears lost in thought, as if bored and wishing she were somewhere else. Maybe she hates teaching music to children, listening to endless scales performed incorrectly— even the notes on the girl's page are invisible against the warm sunlight falling on them. Perhaps she is reflecting on the empty promise of a woman pursuing a career in music in her era. Decamp's distinctive textures punctuate the highlights once again. Note how the girl's back is very bright as she sits straight while the teacher is slumped into her chair covered mostly in shadow. The dark authenticity in this painting is such a contrast to conservative, happy illustrations that would appear in magazine advertising decades later.

Decamp is a poet that looks beneath appearances and suggests meaning without factual indication. This is the heart of all art— telling a story or revealing a moment that is often overlooked or not considered. Our words often betray our true thoughts and feelings, and Decamp reminds us to look deeper.

Compare this post with an earlier one I wrote about DeCamp in 2014:


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