Visual Response: Wall Builders and a Pretty Lady

Initially, I entered The Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, CT with the idea of doing a photo walk,  but then, I found myself drawn to these two paintings I’m including on this post. “The Builders, Bird Nesting, Human Efforts” by Sir. Stanely Spencer and “Mrs Abington as Miss Prue in ‘Love for Love’ by William Congreve” painted by Sir. Joshua Reynolds.


“The Builders, Bird Nesting, Human Efforts” by Sir. Stanely Spencer

My immediate response to this painting was how elaborate the composition is. According to the side note at the bottom of this painting, Spencer included parts of a mural that he designed for Cambridge University Library representing the Tower of Babel, and which was never complete. I enjoy how Spencer guided my eyes from the high contrast shapes made by the human figures in the lower three-thirds of the composition, to the birds and branches on top; which he painted with darker, muted tones. Perhaps as if he’s trying to imply that human ingenuity comes from nature; and nature is above us all. The use of scaling and sharp shadows also tell me about the hardships related to hard labor. In my view, the artist represents the idea of action through the use of diagonal forms in the composition, making this a very dynamic work of art.

Spencer was considered a prominent figurative painter before the first world war. Much of his work includes detailed renderings of nature as influenced by the pre-raphaelite movement. His landscapes and portraits could be highly realistic, but his religious paintings were almost visionary in their representation of figures such as in this oil painting from 1935.


“Mrs Abington as Miss Prue in ‘Love for Love’ by William Congreve”
Painted by Sir. Joshua Reynolds.

It’s very tempting to think of realism as the absence of expression, but the fact is that unless there’s a form of expressionism, realism becomes shallow and simply academically correct.  I love this portrait because it is both realistic and expressive. It projects an emotional response. She has a beautiful candid look on her eyes and mouth that very well could be of any Instagrammer today; thus said, this painting has many key elements that one finds in lifestyle and editorial photography; represented by the way she’s seating, leaning her chest on the back of the chair with her forearms making an X shape. Although this portrait is from 1771, I’m amazed by how up-to-date this classical portrait is! Somehow, It also tells me how little human nature has changed. Lastly, I also enjoy how her dog blends with the cloudy sky, making it look like an element of surprise that we find after resting our eyes on her lively eyes, sensual lips and intricate clothing.

Mrs. Abingon was a popular actress by the time Reynolds completed this portrait.  It's a portrait based on a character she played on stage and meant for private viewing. The alluring pose and suggested touch of the lips were considered improper for public exhibition; it was either commissioned by an admirer or painted for the actress herself. 

As I’m struggling to get back to painting, I find stimulating to walk into museums and reenergize that feeling I once had, when I was not cohibited in any way or even cared if what I was doing was right or wrong. Probably neither of these two are masterpieces by most art critic standards, but they both have moved me, and that’s what counts.