Sunday, May 17, 2009

Easel on Rails

In this photo of Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, the artist is leaning on crutches in front of a very unusual easel arrangement. He seems to be in an indoor-outdoor space. There is at least a partial greenhouse window or frosted glass diffuser overhead and a drape behind him to cut down on reflections.

The easel is mounted on four small railroad wheels resting on a track. There’s also a circular ring under the easel which might allow the easel to turn sideways.

I asked Professor Gabriel Weisberg, one of the world authorities on Dagnan, to comment. He said no specific information has surfaced about this particular photo.

About the crutches, he said, “I don't think he was debilitated in any way when this was taken. It all is part of his steadying himself.” About the rails he speculated that “perhaps he wanted to get closer to actual models or move with changing light conditions as he worked partially outside.”

The only thing I can figure is that he got the idea for using rails from the practice of some sculptors, who rely on railed carriages to move very heavy stones or bronzes in and out of the studio.

Photo from Against the Modern by Gabriel Weisberg

13 comments:

Rob Rey said...

I've been curious about this photo for some time myself. Perhaps if he was debilitated in some way, the rails might be an easy way to step back from the easel if it was attached to a rope and pully or something along those lines. If he wasn't debilitated, then it does seem rather odd.

Oscar Baechler said...

It looks like there's not much room behind him, so perhaps it was just a spatial economy thing? He probably wanted the widest possible field of vision painting in his studio (thus he's up against the wall) and therefore relied on this to push his painting away when he needed to view it from far off.

I got nuthin'

jeff f said...

Those wacky 19 century painters.
What a contraption it boggles the mind why he did this.

The amount of effort to build this thing let alone the weight of the thing.

I think Pissaro's contraption with the large wheels on it made more sense.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The rig he is working on looks as if I it were built for a sculptor. Its being in a tent would also lend credence to the idea that it is a sculptors studio. It could be a temporary structure, I have seen sculptors create them for projects that had to be done on site or were simply too big for their studio. They used the rails of course, to move the piece out into the light for a better look at it.
Its hard to tell what is on that easel. I don't see any stretchers with tacks on the sides. It almost looks to be thicker than that. Maybe it is a bas relief. Perhaps the artist has bee brought in to polychrome a plaster relievo for an architectural decoration, and it is some third party sculptors studio.There was lots of plaster decoration in the buildings of the era and it was often colored.

Correlation does not prove causality. Maybe the crutches have nothing to do with the railway and he is recovering from some sort of minor injury to the foot that is furthest from us, as he does seem to be favoring that nearest leg.I have never heard of an artist using crutches to support or steady themselves. And if they did, working on crutches around those rails would be such a nuisance that I can't see why he would choose to do that unless he had to. I think a temporarily hobbled Dagnan-Bouveret was brought into a sculptors studio to apply color to a plaster bas relief intended for some interior architectural setting. The photograph was taken because bringing an artist of his reputation into the project would have been notable and worth recording. ..Stape

Larry said...

I wouldn't consider myself debilitated (at least not physically) but I have been on crutches a number of times in my life. I would tend to agree with the temporary injury theory. The rig might also be temporary - on loan from a sculptor friend to allow him to continue his work uninterrupted. Dagnan-Bouveret was part of the naturalist movement who were known to erect temporary glass studios in the field to capture nature.

Larry said...

...Also, if the crutches were an attempt to keep himself steady (an unorthodox maul stick of sorts) why use one under each arm?

i, me said...

why are people so dumbfounded about the rails? doesn't look like there is a lot room behind him, it might be an easy way to look at the painting from a greater distance - or adjust it for different models/poses/setups for site sizing.

Sargent wore out a path on the carpet in his studio - because he would paint, step back, paint, step back.
I studies w/ Nelson Shanks we were ALWAYS told to stand back, stand back.
Putting the easel on rails - especially if, for example he had temporarily injured himself- is an easy way to do that.

Michael said...

I could see rolling the easel closer to the model for working on details then moving it back much like we casually hold an object closer or even walk up to it. This brings the easel along so you could actually paint at different distances throughout the process. As for the hassle of constructing this if he did not acquire it from a sculptor he could have acquired the concept or had one built by the same people as a sculptor. He might have built it himself. I have hooked into ideas and spent time researching how to come up with the actual thing refining it along the way. It is not outlandish at all if it is a significant aid to your work. That tented greenhouse looking building is a great idea for a studio with loads of natural light. I say the crutches were needed when he twisted an ankle tripping on some junk around the studio. This guy looks like a potential genius.....one that might be so focused as to trip over that big hunkin' easel.

OMWO said...

>easy way to look at the painting from >a greater distance - or adjust it for >different models/poses/setups for site >sizing.

I was thinking exactly of sight-sizing. It's a pain to keep moving back to the exact observation spot. This way he doesn't have to move from the spot and the canvas comes back to him for corrections.

Now, how does he pull it back to him (or push it away for that matter). I don't see any rope to pull it with, and when he pushed it away, would he just give it a shove and risk tumbling the whole thing when it reached the end of the rail? Certainly not! Here is how he did it: the crutches! Carefully he would push it away or pull it to him, using both clutches, one on each side, to balance the forces and avoid torque.

Do I believe what I am saying? Not really, but it makes a fine theory, using both of the baffling gadgets :)

OMWO said...
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OMWO said...
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Michael said...

"...I asked Professor Gabriel Weisberg, one of the world authorities on Dagnan, to comment. He said no specific information has surfaced about this particular photo.

About the crutches, he said, “I don't think he was debilitated in any way when this was taken. It all is part of his steadying himself.” About the rails he speculated that “perhaps he wanted to get closer to actual models or move with changing light conditions as he worked partially outside.”...""

I wonder why Mr. Weisberg would dismiss the notion that Dagnan-Bouveret could have been debilitated when he is shown propping himself up, while holding a palette and brush no less, with a pair of crutches. Any gain in stability would be compromised holding a palette.

Casters would allow a lot of easel movement however rails limit the movement to a straight line (assuming the rails are straight). This lends weight to the proposed sight-size functionality.

Lastly, Dagnan-Bouveret is shown standing up against the wall. Does anyone know whether he actually painted from that position of the room or if this was only where he stood for the photo? I think he could paint wherever that easel rested on the rails. Maybe the photographer had nowhere better to stand so they parked the easel and the artist stood accordingly.

James Gurney said...

Good reasoning, everyone. Michael, I can't really speak for Dr. Weisberg, but as I understood him, he was saying that there's no historical documentation about an injury when the picture was taken. But Dagnan could very well have twisted an ankle and left no record of it. It's the only explanation that makes sense to me, and I think that's what most of you have suggested.

I guess what hits me the most about the picture the lengths he went to in taking his studio outdoors. In this respect he was one of Gerome's most progressive students, putting into practice the idea of painting in nature's light.