Fred and Sadie Frieseke started spending the warm months in Giverny beginning in 1906. Although his early international success had been based on interior studio subjects – the female figure whether nude or clothed -- by 1908 Frieseke began to exhibit the outdoor subjects with which he is now particularly identified. Because he seldom inscribed dates on his paintings, we are obliged to deduce the sequence of his paintings from their exhibition record. He worked in series, often reworking the same formula. Of the dozen or so variants of the subject woman, or women, in a boat, the first for which we find an exhibition record is the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Under the Willows, exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in October – November, 1908 (fig. 1).
In Under the Willows, Mrs. Frieseke is seated in the stern of the boat, which is seen from a vantage point high on the bank. She wears a long blue-and white striped gown that is familiar from many Frieseke paintings of this period. The unidentified model standing in the foreground allows the viewer to entertain the narrative possibility that a swim is being contemplated although she, like her companion, is seriously dressed.
In another example of the formula, Before the Bath, formerly in the collection of Dorothy Hirshon (see Sotheby’s New York sale of American Paintings, December 3, 1998, no. 21), the impediment of clothing was not a factor in the original version. As the painting was first exhibited and reproduced in 1913 – 14, the woman standing in the prow was nude, but for a diaphanous outer garment wreathing her as she removed it. The boat (with its reflection) divides the canvas horizontally. Sarah sat in her accustomed place in the stern, trailing her left hand in the water. At some later time model’s nudity was corrected with a slip, and out Mrs. Frieseke’s trailing hand was painted out. (It is still discernible today as pentimento).
In both of these paintings, Before the Bath and Under the Willows, Frieseke relies on strength of draftsmanship, particularly in the sure lines of the boat, to provide an armature that, in turn, reassures the viewer. Particularly when we are at sea, it is good to know
the good design of what is between us and the water. In this regard, there is a close affinity with the figures and studio interiors for which the painter had previously been known. In the execution of such paintings, the delineation of a figure, or a chair or table, is either right or wrong. A room’s perspective reads, or it doesn’t. Frieseke’s early works, before Giverny, are disciplined, not only towards accuracy, but toward a strict limitation in permitted color harmonies. The model, the costume (if any), and any associated objects (hatbox, doorway, necklace, dressing table, lamp), are selected with an intent determined by design. And the design in turn is determined by a stern control that is frequently belied by the tenderness of an image’s effect.
So for Frieseke, the move toward plein air painting necessitated his abandoning much that he had relied on when applying structure toward his vision. In Gray Day on the River perspective does not apply. Instead, the painter is confronted by an anarchy of nature whose organizing principles have little to do with what makes a picture. In both this painting and in its sister, Before the Bath, the foreground is simply the undetermined, plane of water on which the boat rests: a plane that takes light, shadow, and reflection without confessing either its depth or its extent.
By 1908, Claude Monet, the Friesekes’ friend and neighbor, was entering the second decade of his preoccupation with painting the lilies in his water garden (fig. 2). He had already embarked on the ambitious canvases whose edges contained water without other boundaries than the margins of the canvas, in which lilies floated. Without question Frieseke knew these canvases. Indeed, a photograph from the Frieseke family archives records Monet at work among the lilies. Can there be any doubt that Frieseke was intrigued by the challenge of taking on a subject with so little substance?
In Gray Day on the River what is presented to the viewer is so evanescent as to be almost illusory. The surface of the water (fully half the painting) is not visible, but only to be inferred from the presence of transitory shadow, light and reflection. Much of the remainder of the painting’s surface represents the shimmering greenery of what grows randomly along the river’s bank. Only the certain lines of the boat give us enough reassurance to trust the identities of the two small figures. We know their story is a peaceful one. Everything tells us that. Still, there is energy here; an energy barely contained.
Unusually for Frieseke, this painting is about its surface. Thus the painting’s subject is not what it seems to illustrate: the painter’s wife, wearing her black straw “beehive” hat, accompanied by the familiar prop of a pink parasol that echoes and reinforces the color of the model’s robe, as well as some hints of color in the river. Nor is it about the series of days on which it is meticulously executed, always at the same time. (It is not a fast painting, though it makes us believe in a single moment.) To me, at least, it is about the painter’s recognition of an order that is kin to chaos.
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