Playfully wedding masterful realism with painterly abandon, Vignette 19 captivates the viewer’s imagination with its unmatched visual delight. Symbols of springtime revelry frame the central narrative sequence of the present work: red robins whirl about, singing their cheery song; crisp white dogwood branches blossom into the fore; and cartoonishly large purple daisies with wildly verdant leaves embrace the figures within a fantastical space of romantic bliss. Further drawing the viewer inward, Marshall delicately encrusts the heart-shaped frame around the figures with golden glitter and borders the composition with bold slashes of bubblegum pink pigment. Nature overflows with passionate excess, enveloping the lovers in a hyperbolic terrain of resplendent beauty.
Completely consumed by their love, the three couples who form the centerpiece of Vignette 19 exist separately of each other, each unique in their expression of care. The left-most couple hold hands in embrace, looking toward each other, faces nearly touching, as the man’s hand rests gently on the woman’s lower back. The woman of the central couple lies against a tree trunk, as her male lover looks out toward the viewer, acknowledging their presence, as he comes from behind her to greet his patiently waiting partner. The rightmost man beckons his companion, leaning forward against the bench upon which she sits. His intent pose and her elegant gesture recall Fragonard’s The Meeting, one of the four panels of The Progress of Love, which depicts a garden tryst with dramatic fancifulness. Marshall places a dog, a longtime symbol of faithfulness and devotion, between his two figures, which calls to mind the ultimate art historical wedding portrait, Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding. Though celebratory in nature, the present work’s emphasis on intimacy between black subjects carries a sociopolitical heft. As curator Abigail Winograd explains: “The Vignettes are part of Marshall’s ongoing effort to create narrative paintings that eschew images of the black figure contending with violence or trauma in favor of an almost Rockwellian normalcy, defying expectations to create a new sense of black domesticity.” (Ibid, p. 192) Within the panoply of chromatic and textural excess, the deliberate and dramatic darkness of Marshall’s figures casts the abysmal exclusion of black bodies from canonical art history into radical relief.
Marshall showcases his complete mastery over his chosen medium through the present work’s deft combination of painterly abstraction and careful figurative rendering. With the triumphant gusto of an Abstract Expressionist, Marshall builds up his forest floor with a rich and complex layering of line and color: swaths of olive green lie atop strokes of lime green; tawny brown intermixes with shades of auburn and chocolate. Fast, cross-hatched strokes of burnt orange and crimson create a fiery band of dense surface in the foreground, while tones of cool blues blend together in the background to create an atmosphere of idyllic calm. In terms particularly evocative of the present work, art historian Kobena Mercer describes the impact of such variegation on Marshall’s compositions: “Marshall’s enigmatic compositions, with their figures often in pairs or groups, suggest potential scenes of dramatic action, but any straightforward access to narrative content is intercepted by a rich ensemble of painterly effects in which various drips, dots, strokes and scumbles are scattered throughout the textured surfaces that are so distinctive to Marshall’s paintings.” (Kobena Mercer, “Kerry James Marshall: The Painter of Afro-Modern Life,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 24, 2010, p. 81)
At once a critique of the history of painting and an embrace of the medium’s utmost possibilities, Vignette 19 embodies the radically transformative power of Marshall’s artistic project. Arresting in its graphic splendor and lavish ornamentation, the present work pulses with sensual tenor, basking its couples in a magical aura that befits their love. Speaking about the significance of depicting black beauty, the artist states: “if I don’t do it, or if other people like me don’t do it, we will be condemned to celebrate European beauty and Europe’s artistic achievement in perpetuity.” (The artist quoted in Exh. Cat., Antwerp, Museum Van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, Kerry James Marshall, Painting and Other Stuff, 2013, p. 28)
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