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Charles Courtney Curran, Kentucky Gem

Lady with a Bouquet (Snowballs) - Charles Courtney Curran - Google Cultural Institute
Lady with a Bouquet, 1890

Born February 13, 1861 in Hartford, Kentucky, Charles Courtney Curran was an American painter and illustrator. He is known for his graceful and elegant paintings of women in natural surroundings with vibrant use of light and colour. His work has a highly feminine sensibility and is sometimes criticized for its sentimentality, but Curran's appreciation of both interiors and nature, light and sky, and beauty in its most unpretentious and natural form makes him worthy of study.

In Lady with a Bouquet, Curran turns a quiet moment of a woman's love of flowers into a thing of beauty herself. I don't think I've ever seen a painting with a green palette used in this way before. The folds of the woman's jacket are just right, not overstated or too simple, painted with a light stroke to emphasize texture yet with some of the underpainting visible in the shadows. The way her arm raises up to smell the bouquet, and the shape of her hat and her jacket form an interesting composition that leads our eye to the sunlit bouquet.

detail, Lady with a Bouquet

Curran paints her face with a strong tint of that same green in the shadows with a delicacy that is soft and beautiful—the flowers may be the "focal point" but she is the main subject, and the painting is really about her.

detail, Lady with a Bouquet

Look at how these brushstrokes dance across the forms while conveying light, shadow, hue and tonality. Curran chooses a warm background to make the greens pop out even more. This is not the work of a thoughtless sentimentalist.

detail, Lady with a Bouquet

These grey and white brushstrokes of her hat bathed in that soft sunlight have tiny bits of green in them if you look carefully. To have this kind of ease with the brush while making a sensual statement of a fully dressed Victorian woman to me, is genius. Curran says all that we need to know about beauty here.

Charles Courtney Curran - Paris la nuit (1889)
Paris at Night, 1889

Although this is quite a blurry, low-res image Curran has captured a night scene with an incredible palette of reds, blues, and ochres. Curran is giving us a snapshot of Paris without the photograph and yet it has all the immediacy of one.Horse-drawn carriages and a fruit seller. pedestrians with umbrellas under a rainy evening and we can almost smell the air and hear the sounds. Curran even leaves the background buildings as an underpainting and it works as a warm glow under the streetlamps of Paris. Pity this is a low quality image, because those slick streets are painted in swathes of blue and ochre in such a way that you can hear the people's shoes crossing the street and the hooves of the horses...this would definitely be a painting to see in person.

Charles Courtney Curran, Fair Critics, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fair Critics, 1887

I love the narrative here. Curran depicts a model displaying a sketch of herself at the artist's studio to a couple of women. The artists sits with palette in hand, looking at the reaction of the woman as if inspired to paint her also. Note the 4-string banjo on the floor by his feet, a reference to the roots of his native Kentucky. On the floor are some oil sketches on paper and some sketchbooks. I love the vibrant brushwork in that sheepskin rug. Curran is revealing to us here the business side of the artist, showing his selling skills to potential collectors in his plush studio, a subject that is a rare occurrence as a theme in art.

Charles Courtney Curran - Dans le Jardin du Luxembourg (1889)
In the Luxembourg (Garden), 1889

Once again Curran's green motif is visible. This woman feeding birds would be quite enough for a painting, yet here Curran chose to depict the lively park with families enjoying a late summer afternoon. Curran subtly combines greens with warm tones to relax our eyes and make us feel like we are walking in that park with them. Note the number of umbrellas in the scene, a testament to Parisian weather, as I can attest to myself!

The Lanterns
The Lanterns, ca. 1910

This is pure magic. Reminiscent of the candle-lit tenebrism of the Dutch such as Georges de La Tour and Gerrit van Honthorst, but here without the brooding drama or religious overtones. Curran paints pure innocence and emotion without any narrative whatsoever, just a mother with her children holding lanterns at night outside in the warm summer air. Look at how her dress and shawl shimmer under that warm glow, and the way it caresses her lovely face. Despite the apparent sentimentality by some critics, the unwitting warmth of this painting is more than just the mood but in how families spent time together, unperturbed by our modern lack of wonder and fetish for cell phones instead of each other.

Charles Courtney Curran - 'Breakfast for Three', 1909
Breakfast for Three, 1909

Curran's love of women and family is strong in this piece. The mother watches her sedate daughter trying to feed grapes to her doll...the mother looks on as if remembering her own childhood while holding a grape in her own hand, grasping the pink ribbon on her own blouse that mimics her daughter's and the doll's. The mother's glass of water is partially in shadow to suggest a life of adult struggles and hardships that we all bear to some degree, while the young girls is clear and bright to convey her innocence. We need more storytelling like this in paintings.

After the Storm, date unknown

I love this painting. Mysterious, spiritual, yet relaxing...this is a work that captures a moment requiring no explanation and difficult to put into words. Looking at a cloud-scattered view from atop a cliff and Curran only wants to remind us of the awe of nature and how small our part is in it. Yet the graceful beauty of the woman is a subplot that lures us into the painting, and the sway of her dress tells us it is windy from up top and that is all we need to understand.

The Mountain Side Seat by Charles Courtney Curran
The Mountain Side Seat, 1917

Another low-res image, but I love how hypnotic this portrait is. Who is she? There is a distinct longing in this lovely woman's body language, surrounded by flowers, something that Curran appears to have a deep knowledge of. That atmospheric perspective of the blue mountains in the distance is very peaceful and relaxing. Curran's ability to conjure elegance and dignity in his women is something to take note of, in an age where the academic way of painting goddesses or religious saints was beginning to wane and Curran saw strength in the everyday woman. Emotion and real, graceful women were more noble to him than legends.

Curran was a man of his era and he was deeply grateful and appreciative of the women in his day and what they really symbolized to him. Curran was an American poet of the brush that held great respect for women despite the oppression of the day and saw that women were much more than just mothers or wives, but the very pillars of Victorian life.

Watch this Antiques Roadshow appraisal of Curran's late portrait of a woman


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