Friday, February 27, 2009

Filling In

“Filling in” is a 19th century art term that refers to the process of association that a picture induces in a spectator. A picture was said to be capable of filling in when it suggested layers of meaning or awakened long dormant feelings.

A good example of this process comes from the writing of Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) in his "Letters on Landscape Painting," 1855. In a passage where he described the joys of picture-gazing, he wrote that the viewer
“becomes absorbed in the picture—a gentle breeze fans his forehead, and he hears a distant rumbling [from] far away in the haunts of his boyhood—and that soft wind is chasing the trout stream down the woody glen, beyond which gleams the ‘deep and silent lake,’ where the wild deer seeks a fatal refuge.”

This sense of art’s power to charm the soul risks sounding sentimental to our modern ears, accustomed as we are to a very different aesthetic culture. And perhaps it did so even to Durand himself in 1855, when he said, “I need scarcely apologize for the seeming sentimentalism of this letter. In this day the sentiment of Art is so overrun by the the technique, that it can scarcely be insisted upon too strongly.”
Image is by Arthur Parton (1842-1914), "Summer Afternoon on the Delaware," 1879.

American Artist has an excerpt of "Letters on Landscape Painting" here.
Linda Ferber's recent book "Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape" has the full text printed in an appendix.


Andrew said...

I think it depends on how you take it. I like Durand's take on the matter, since I know I've felt that way about seeing certain pieces of artwork. If something is genuine about what it wants to convey and can be believable enough to me to make me think I'm there, then I think it succeeds in "filling in." But I can see how something like this can get a lot of derision if the painter is trying too hard to manufacture an emotion or mood for the piece.

Randomly Royce said...

I enjoy reading your blog. My name is Royce Atchley and I am currently studying at a small graduate school for my Masters in Divinity. I am not educated in Art but through your blog I learn new things with every post. I didn't want to be a "lurker." Thank you,

James Gurney said...

Royce, thank you for introducing yourself and reminding me that not all of the readers are artists. I think some of the most interesting comments on this blog have been from non-artists.

Drew, you make an essential point. For those feelings to be awakened in the viewer, they have to be truly felt by the artist. The reason sentimentalism should be avoided is because it is manufactured emotion. But warm feelings in themselves, if truly felt, are worthy concerns for art, and I think that's what our current age has largely lost sight of.

Daroo said...

To echo that point, I think the use and meaning of the word "sentimental" has changed in modern times. I think originally it meant only "concerned of governed by feelings" and didn't necessarily have all the pejorative baggage. Now I think it has become conflated with "sentimentalism" which I think means false or manufactured sentiment and thus only has a derisive meaning. Maybe there is a linguist out there who knows...

But I think it shows, that as a society, we're uncomfortable with expressing certain emotions.

On the technical side, Its hard to translate those brush strokes into emotion -- to both render what you see and at the same time, eloquently express what you want to say about the subject.

Katherine Kean said...

Thanks for this post. I had never heard this term before. It describes something that to me has always been one of the most powerful things about art.

Chris Oatley said...

Great post and fantastic comments all.

Its so funny how so many people are afraid of sentimentality. I am a huge believer in drawing out emotions in both the artist and the viewer through painting.

And both Drew and JG are definitely right about the difference between truth (like a passion or set of memories that are successfully activated in both the painter and viewer) and an emotional contrivance (Like some paintings you buy at the mall).

Daroo - a question - do you think that there is a struggle for us (myself included) as artists to express our own emotions as are many of the non-artists in the world? I wonder...

We have all been socialized in one way or another. I find art as a doorway out of some of that but its definitely hard. We are working against our own self-protective natures? The recurring question - how honest am I prepared to be?

I'm very interested in your thoughts.

Erik Bongers said...

To make the viewer have a 'sentiment' for a work of art is indeed the purpose of art itself.
But enough on that subject.

Dear Mr. Gurney,

Those aren't wild deer. Those are cows.

Thank you,


Anonymous said...


Mr. Durand appears to have painted cows and on another separate occasion written about deer.

Michael said...

I think this works when the artist sees and feels what has been left out, though they may not be conscious of the process. Not including certain things can be just as important as what you include.

When the artist imposes a misconception of what conveys an idea or feeling people react to the failed attempt. Of course someone can unintentionally assemble what appears to be an effort to induce a reaction. A failed attempt or what appears to be an attempt comes off as pretentious.