An essay written for the Artists talk Who Do You Love?” at the CMCA Biennial 2018-19

Samuel PalmerRomantic Visionary

born in 1805 died 1881, (before the 20th century)

The first time I saw the works of Samuel Palmer, I was an exchange student at Goldsmiths College in London. His depictions of usually solitary figures, often in a moonlight landscape, frequently with a crescent moon with the dark side showing as a ghostly presence, has an essential human quality and felt like a memory.

I spent my childhood summers on an island off of Acadia, without electricity, cars or running water. We used kerosene lamps and so moonlit nights were brighter then and felt like an event. I still feel a deep affinity to an earlier time, having had a glimpse into another century.

Some of Palmer’s best known works are his so-called Oxford sepias, a series of 8 small sepia ink drawings of scenes in the countryside of Shoreham that have an almost transcendent level of detail put down in his own handwriting. His hand is as distinct as Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Burchfield or Albert Pinkham Ryder, who was a major influence on the early Jackson Pollack . Pollack said of Ryder that he was “the only American artist I ever cared about.”

Palmer is considered a Romantic and belonged to a group of artists who called themselves the Ancients. The Ancients looked to a Hellenistic Golden Age and were first introduced to the 15th and 16th c. Northern European artists by one of his fellow Ancients.  Palmer took walks in the countryside especially at dusk and dawn, to get the mood and lighting for his work.  He also often took moonlit walks along with other artists.

At age 14 Palmer was introduced to William Blake when Palmer visited him at his studio.  Blake’s work influenced Palmer for the next decade, and this was considered Palmer’s greatest period. Blake believed, as did Palmer, that their work should be seen through a lens of observation, but filtered through and transformed by their imagination, creating a heightened reality. Palmer saw Blake’s drawings for the Book of Job in his studio and this image has been echoed in some of Palmer’s work. He was also influenced by the Dutch painter Brueghel, with scenes of peasants and daily life in the landscape around seasonal themes, and by Durer’s etchings.

Palmer later went through a more conventional approach to landscapes intentionally hoping to attract collectors.  He traveled to Italy and his style became more refined and classical. He became a drawing instructor. His later works return to earlier themes, and he produced many etchings and watercolors. He made a set of plates illustrating the works of Virgil. One etching titled “The Lonely Tower” predates Giorgio De Chirico’s metaphysical paintings including DeChirico’s many views of the tower in Turin.

Samuel Palmer died in 1881 so he never saw the 20th century. His son destroyed, over a period of days, many of his father’s sketchbooks, notebooks, and original works, saying that “No one would be able to make heads or tails of what I burnt.”  Included were personal papers that might have been embarrassing to the son.

Palmer was largely forgotten until a 1926 show at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Palmer and 11 other artists, the so-called “Disciples of Blake.” Students at Goldsmiths College at that time were inspired by Palmer’s printmaking, and an artists’ group formed around that. In the 1950’s a major book of Palmer’s work came out. In 2005-06 the British Museum mounted a major show that traveled to the Metropolitan Museum, uniting the entire group of the Oxford sepias. I was lucky enough to see that show.

Palmer makes a  landscape into a still life  depicting a pre- Eden-like tranquility. (A still life: objects on a table, unmoving, that contain fruit, cheese, bread, sometimes dead game animals, as opposed to live animal paintings which are a separate genre.) Palmer depicts a moment in time, unique and transitory, but suspended through his work for centuries.

Imagination creates works of art which possess what he called “a curiousness in their beauty”.  Palmer greatly admired a remark made by Francis Bacon that “there is no excellent beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.” That visionary observation, which transcends the common notions of beauty, is the benchmark of  a Romantic.” 

Top image: Samuel Palmer.The Harvest Moon/ Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’ c.1831–32



Weinberg 4 Odilon Redon still life

Odilon Redon, Large Green Vase with Flowers, 1910-12, Pastel on paper, seen at the MFA Boston in 2019.



Odilon Redon- Prince of Dreams, a Symbolist with roots in Naturalism

Born in 1840 – 1916

Every morning for several months while working at the MFA in Boston, I walked through the exhibit  “French Pastels”. In June they were pleasant images but in July though August, during the heat of summer, a time when friends back home were sharing their garden pictures, I took an intense interest in this still life.  Coming into the cool and darkened museum in the early morning when the galleries were empty, this image of Redon’s still life was suspended on its own wall at the gallery center. It seemed to be suspended in air and be quietly exploding. The dark green of the vase gives the black center of the poppies its color.

This is a garden of the imagination, a bouquet that transcends time.

Redon’s own accounts of his childhood involve daydreaming and gazing at clouds. He recounted travel by ox-cart and the slow pace of that earlier world, before railroad travel. As a young boy he began drawing lessons and was taken to see the works of Millet, Corot, Delacroix and the then young Gustav Moreau.

In 1865 he was 25, met a fellow artist who taught him etching and lithography, then had a brief part in battle, when Prussia invaded France. After that and until he was 50 years old, Redon made exclusively black (and white) images, which he called “Le Noir”.  Redon’s “Noirs” are from the interior of the mind, a cultural attic full of monsters and fantasies which have morphed and fused together into recombined hybrids of myth, legend and dream.

At age 34 he published his first series of lithographs which was written about by critic and novelist, Joris-Carl Huysmans. In his book Against Nature Huysmans’ character collects works of art and objects, among them the work of Redon. He described Redon’s prints as “feverish dreams of childhood or imaginings of prehistoric man, or visionaries.”

Redon’s works gave voice to his imagination but were grounded in direct observation of the natural world. Corot offered him the advice to “place a certainty next to each uncertainty.” Modernism at the time was described as that final skepticism which can find no floor to the Universe.”

Redon responded to those uncertainties of life with the possible answer to the unknowable: dreams.

Redon was a member of the artists’ group the Nabis that translates to “Prophet” in ancient Hebrew and Arabic. Redon was interested in Buddhism and Hinduism and painted several images of the Buddha.

After the age of 50, Redon’s work moved into brilliant and layered color. Illuminated like stained glass and radiant. Redon’s art/arc went from dark to light. It can be seen as an Eastern metaphor for enlightenment, like the symbolic lotus flower which grows deep in the mud beneath the surface of water and then emerges into the air and the light and floats on the water.  Redon’s visions are a modernist inner vision, an interiority that is firmly rooted in the realm of the observed, but quickly becomes a realm of philosophy, spirituality and the mind.

He described his work as translating the world into “what never was.”



Weinberg 5 Nicole Eisenman

Nicole Eisenman, Another Green World, oil on canvas, 2017 photo by K.Weinberg


Nicole Eisenman Restoring the Human Form

Nicole Eisenman was born in 1963.  She is my contemporary although I am not sure I could say my peer. Eisenman has a long record of shows and reviews and in 2015 was awarded the MacArthur Genius award for “restoring to the representation of the human form a cultural significance that had waned during the ascendency of abstraction in the 20th century.”

I translate that to mean that Eisenman paints the figure as if modernism happened. She is not strictly a naturalist like Julie Heffernan, another peer, or like John Currin, who has a more 19th century ( via Norman Rockwell) vision. She is not alone in that. I could  also talk about Kyle Staver who paints light and space and myth but with a similar absorption of the modernist.

Eisenman paints allegories, social satire, family scenes and groups of friends, and portraits of individuals with the familiarity of a selfie. She paints with humor and her observations include (almost) self-portraits, caricatures and riffs on historic paintings. She places visual quotes of Ingres, Brueghel and German expressionism.

I saw Eisenman’s show titled “All-ugh-ories” at the New Museum a few years back, but this is an image of Nicole Eisenman’s show at Anton Kern Gallery.  It is a large painting, and it was a crowded show, so it was hard to get a good angle and the only one I took includes this figure partly for scale. Actually there were two figures, but I cropped it to get closer to the painting. It is a thing for photographers to take pictures of people looking at artwork, but this is more of a documentation of a painting sharing its inner life because the artist is depicting her present time, and we are surrounded by, live in, the world she has created.

In this painting the entire scene unfolds at once like a tapestry. In Chinese landscape painting you are meant to travel through the space, as an observer. You enter at an open gate, or an open door, a boat at the shore will take you across a lake or river, a path up the hillside is meant to be climbed by you, the viewer.

In this painting you wander through the room, as one does at a party. Patterns are recognizable, a flannel shirt, a multi-racial group includes blue people. Some of the faces appear as masks, some as pure paint. Couples embrace and people sit quietly alone, together.

There was a song “You Said Something”, and this could be the place where it happened.

You Said Something

PJ Harvey

On a rooftop in Brooklyn
At one in the morning
Watching the lights flash
In Manhattan

I see five bridges
The Empire State Building
And you said something
That I’ve never forgotten

We lean against railings
Describing the colors
And the smells of our homelands
Acting like lovers

How did we get here?
To this point of living?
I held my breath
And you said something

And I’m doing nothing wrong
Riding in your car
The radio playing
We sing up to the eighth floor
A rooftop, Manhattan
At one in the morning
And you said something
That I’ve never forgotten

You said something
You said something
You said something
That was really important

Songwriters: Polly Jean Harvey

You Said Something lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

In the painting, a quiet group reads album covers, like they are books. These album covers are a nod to the age of vinyl, which has resurfaced in the digital age, they serve as talismans of rock history. The art on the album covers is familiar and iconic, recognizable to all of us who grew up in her era. So we have art within the art.

In the center of the painting is a still life with salami and cheese on a board. So we stop for a moment and find there is another painting within a painting. With Eisenman, everything is on the table, or the floor.

The entire surface is writhing with bodies and life, almost claustrophobic, We enter into her world, made of paint and line and color and we realize that the world is our own. We join the group out on the balcony, where the paint flattens us out into blue forms with red lines, as a highlight or outline, for a smoke, a quiet moment, for a better view of the moon over the water.

What struck me also about Eisenman’s work, besides her energy and fearlessness, is that she gives us all permission to be and to paint whatever it is we are,  on a scale, both grand and detailed, to match our world.