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Classical Realism: A Living Artistic Tradition

By Stephen Gjertson

The Origin of the Phrase

Stephen Gjertson, The Folly of Samson, 2005. Oil on canvas, 46 x 66.

The expression “Classical Realism,” when applied to a specific group of artists, originated with Minneapolis artist Richard Lack (1928-2009). Lack studied with Boston artist R. H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981) during the early 1950s. In 1967 he established Atelier Lack, a studio-school of fine art patterned after the ateliers of 19th-century Paris and the teaching of the Boston impressionists. By 1980 he had trained a significant group of young painters. In 1982, they organized a traveling exhibition of their work and that of other artists within the artistic tradition represented by Gammell, Lack, and their students. Lack was asked by Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Museum, Springville, Utah, (the exhibition’s originating venue), to coin a term that would differentiate the realism of the heirs of the Boston tradition from that of other representational artists. Although he was reluctant to label this work, Lack chose the expression “Classical Realism.” It was first used to characterize the work of a specific group of painters in the title of that exhibition: Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century.

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Richard Lack (1928-2009): A Reminiscence

by Stephen Gjertson. Written on the occasion of Richard Lack’s 80th birthday.

Richard Lack in his studio, c. 1971.

It’s difficult to say anything about Richard Lack that I have not already stated in his biography or the essays on my student years and the ateliers of Gammell and Lack. I was one of the students in his first cohesive group—that is, the first group of students who studied with him for an extended period. In my case, from 1971-1975. Like so many of the students who came after us, we came to Mr. Lack from bitter and adverse experiences in colleges, universities and art schools; in some cases, from bad experiences with Ives Gammell himself. Ours was an experimental group, on which Mr. Lack was testing the method of study he learned from Gammell. In a sense, we also tested him: his patience and endurance with a group of frustrated students who already had definite views about art and the direction we wanted to take in our future careers. Nevertheless, we were all grateful to have found him, and without his instruction our work would now be amateurish and crude. He was always the consummate professional and treated us with respect, unless we acted in outlandish and rebellious ways. Then he would give us his advice and let us make our own decisions—unfortunately, more often than not, to our detriment. Continue reading Richard Lack (1928-2009): A Reminiscence

The Mistress of All Masters

By Stephen Gjertson

This article was originally published in The American Society of Classical Realism – Salon 1992, exhibition catalog, Heritage Art Gallery, Alexandria, VA. 
Footnotes are inserted into the text within brackets.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Police Verso, 1872. Oil on canvas, 38 x 58 3/4. Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, Arizona.

Foundations are important. Everything that is made or thought is as sound or as valid as its foundation. If the foundation is weak or wrong, whatever is built upon it will ultimately collapse. Throughout history nature has been the undeniable foundation of the visual arts. The visible world has provided the basic raw material for the artists of every epoch, be their work primitive, symbolic, decorative, or expressive. The controversies that raged in art history seem to be more philosophic than artistic and deal with the definition of nature, how it should be interpreted by the artist and to what moral use the arts ought to be put, if any. The greatness of a work of art depended upon how well nature was perceived, put into concrete form and used to express profound and enduring thoughts.

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The Ateliers of R. H. Ives Gammell and Richard F. Lack

Tradition and the Training of Painters in the Second Half of the 20th Century

By Stephen Gjertson

Art students are terrified at the prospect before them, of the toil required to attain exactness. . . . They wish to find some shorter path to excellence, and hope to obtain the reward of eminence by other means than those which the indispensable rules of art have prescribed. They must therefore be told again and again that labour is the only price of solid fame, and that whatever their force of genius may be, there is no easy method of becoming a good painter. Sir Joshua Reynolds

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Grey Eminence, 1873. Oil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 38 3/4. Bequest of Susan Cornelia Warren. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It is austere and profound studies that make great painters and sculptors. One lives all one’s life on this foundation, and if it is lacking, one will only be mediocre. Jean-Léon Gérôme

Foundations are important. Everything that is made or thought is only as sound or as valid as its foundation. If a foundation is weak or wrong, whatever is built upon it will ultimately collapse. This is as true of the visual arts as it is of architecture. The foundation of the visual artist is his training and, throughout Western history, the foundation of the artist’s training has been the representation of the visible world. Generally speaking, an artist is as good or as poor as his training. It is a rare artist who rises above poor training to create work of true distinction. Continue reading The Ateliers of R. H. Ives Gammell and Richard F. Lack

On Motion in Art

Considering the Relationships Among Patronage, Training and the Arts

By Stephen Gjertson
Footnotes are inserted into the text within brackets.

Howard Pyle, The Battle of Nashville, 1906. Governor’s Reception Room, the Minnesota State Capitol, Saint Paul. Photography by Gary Mortensen. The Minnesota Historical Society. The sense of movement in Pyle’s painting is achieved through the masterful integration of design and gesture. The eye is first attracted to the picturesque silhouette of flags and soldiers against the billowing smoke. From the right flag the eye swoops down to the tattered flag on the left. The white head bandage then pulls the eye to the group of soldiers on the far right. Their forward movement toward the left is picked up by the line of light under the mass of soldiers and thrust into the center of the fray between the broken Union line. The gestures of the soldiers on the left keep the eye from leaving the painting and lead you into the center of the action. The rhythmic repetition of lines and gestures in the soldiers rushing toward the left contrasts with the carefully placed diagonals of the muskets. These lead the eye around the corners of the canvas and back toward the main group of figures under the right flag. From here, the line of soldiers on the right again sweeps the eye around the bottom of the canvas to the breach, where it continues up the hill in an elaborate circular movement back to the center of interest.

The contemporary artist who wishes to follow in the footsteps of the great painters of the past must come to grips with two intimately intertwined facts: the reality of the twentieth century philosophic and artistic system and the reality of the twentieth century artistic pedagogical system. For me, this did not happen overnight. As a young boy it was my ambition to paint what I called action pictures: tempestuous battles with writhing figures, galloping horses and swirling smoke. I copied The Battle of Nashville by Howard Pyle in the Minnesota State Capitol and the illustrations of Tom Lovell and Stanley Meltzoff.

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In Response to the Man with the Camera

By Stephen Gjertson

This article is adapted from one with the same title that appeared in the Classical Realism Quarterly, September 1989.

Sunlight and Shadow—Minnehaha Creek, 1984. Oil on canvas, 24 x 48. Collection of Dave A. Anderson.

It was a sultry summer afternoon in central Minnesota. I was painting about three yards from Minnehaha Creek, made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem The Song of Hiawatha. I had been working in this spot on a painting of the creek for almost a month. The grass for about eight feet behind my easel was flattened from my continual pacing back and forth to compare the painting with its natural counterpart. Sweat trickled down my nose from beneath the baseball hat that I wore to keep the sun out of my eyes. The summer had been unusually wet, and the rain kept the creek filled with water. An occasional canoe glided silently by, gently swirling the water in its wake ― reminiscent, perhaps, of the time of Hiawatha. I had been painting for almost an hour, relatively oblivious to anything other than the task of translating my subject to canvas. It was a fine day, and I was surprised by the lack of visitors. Few people had passed by this afternoon, and even fewer had stopped to stare. Perhaps the humidity and temperature were too high. Continue reading In Response to the Man with the Camera

The American Society of Classical Realism

A Legacy of Preserving and Promoting the Fine Craft of Picture Making

By Stephen Gjertson

This is adapted from an article published in the Winter 2006 issue of the Classical Realism Newsletter.

For centuries, the broad objectives of Western European art have been clear: skillful workmanship, fine drawing, balanced composition, the sensitive representation of the visible world and the passion to depict physical beauty—both real and ideal. These traditions were firmly rooted in a world-view that gave them meaning and value. The art and craft of picture making was passed from master to pupil, with each successive generation perpetuating these traditions or adding to the existing store of knowledge and thereby enriching the common artistic vocabulary. Pupils (in other cultures as well) humbly recognized their ignorance and ineptitude and respected the expertise of the masters under whom they studied. The pupil’s portion was to imitate the master. Personal innovation or expression was not the goal. If these came, they were the natural result of thoroughly mastering one’s craft. The essential matters of style and method and training the eye and the hand could be imparted to the pupil only by the master, through practical exercise, constructive criticism, constant correction and demonstration. The goal was to master the skills necessary to achieve artistic excellence according to the established standards of the profession at any given time. Continue reading The American Society of Classical Realism

Don Koestner

Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, November 28, 1923.
Died in Pine River, Minnesota, December 23, 2009.

Don Koestner

Don Koestner was known by painters as the poet laureate of Minnesota impressionism. His life and work inspired and influenced two generations of mid-western landscape painters. He was the second child of working class parents. His sister was four years older than he. The family lived in suburban West Saint Paul until he was 10. They then moved to Minneapolis, where his father worked at the Minneapolis Moline implement company. Recalled Koestner, “My parents loved me and I had a tranquil childhood, but in my adolescent years I lost meaningful communication with them.” Those years also marked his acute awareness of the visible world, noting such things as the play of light and shadow on trees, the fact that cumulus clouds have flat bottoms and other aspects of nature about which many of us are unaware.

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Don Koestner: An Art Well Done

A tribute given by Stephen Gjertson at the memorial for Don Koestner, January 30, 2010.

It is my distinct privilege to say a few words today about Don’s art. As an artist who has known Don and been familiar with his work for almost forty years, I can say without hesitation that he was the finest and most varied American impressionist landscape painter in the second half of the twentieth century. Although his physical body was small, his artistic body of work is truly monumental. Few landscape painters in the history of western art have painted landscapes with as much truth and poetry as Don Koestner.
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Richard F. Lack

Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, March 26, 1928.
Died in Saint Louis Park, Minnesota, September 22, 2009.

Richard F. Lack

Richard F. Lack was one of the most versatile and influential pupils of Boston artist R. H. Ives Gammell. His artistic training began at the Minneapolis School of Art, but his interest in the classical traditions soon led him to the atelier of Ives Gammell, with whom he studied for five years in the Fenway Studios in Boston from 1950 to 1956. This training was interrupted for two years of service in the U.S. Army. In 1955 he traveled to Europe on a scholarship to study the Old Masters, particularly Peter Paul Rubens, whose work has greatly influenced him both in style and method. In 1957 he returned to Minneapolis with his wife, Katherine, bought a house and built a studio designed to simulate the lighting conditions recommended in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. There he began to paint a variety of work—still life, portrait, genre, landscape and imaginative paintings based on myth, history and the psychology of C. G. Jung. The superb quality of Lack’s work and the importance of his teaching methods earned him three scholarships from the Elizabeth T. Greenshields Memorial Foundation in Montreal, Canada as well as a grant from the John F. and Anna Lee Stacy Scholarship Fund.
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