Artists have always looked to their predecessors for inspiration — Cecily Brown looked to Pollock, Pollock to Picasso, Picasso to Velázquez, Velázquez to Rubens. Whether adopting the techniques of an older period of painting or directly calling back to the compositions of another artist, the history of art continues to be the most bountiful resource for artists creating new works today. Notably, the techniques and compositions of Old Masters has been a particular focus of many emerging female painters — an intriguing dialogue that calls into question many of the stylistic and subject choices that the (mostly male) painters of the 18th and 19th centuries chose. In particular, there are three female painters, who’s nods to the Old Masters are particularly interesting.
British painter, Flora Yukhnovich, adopts the language of the the Rococo, reimagining the dynamism of works from 18th century artists such as Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. She translates the language of the Rococo through an intriguing filter of contemporary cultural references such as film, food and consumerism, bringing classically inspired painterly traditions into a more consciously feminine and contemporary realm. Featuring wisps of millennial pinks and purples, her mark making ranges from delicate flourishes to dramatic and gestural brushstrokes, heightening the rhythmic sensuality that plays throughout her ambitious compositions.
18th Century painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard is one of her key points of inspiration, as evidenced in her painting Butter Wouldn’t Melt (2020). Yukhnovich transforms the luscious garden scenes of Fragonard, popularized by famous works such as The Swing (1767), into her own scenes of transcience and movement. While Fragonard would focus in on one or two key subjects, bathing them in sunlight to direct the eye of the viewer, Yukhnovich instead blurs her bodies into mountains of flesh, layers of overlapping arms and legs, as if a reflection of the overindulgence of contemporary society and our more open attitudes towards sex. Most notably, Yukhnovich, through her process of deconstructing and transforming classical painterly traditions, creates bodies of flesh that are not clearly gendered, removing the objectification and sexualization of female subjects often seen in 18th century painting.
The paintings of American artist, Anna Weyant, are at once delightful and yet strangely grotesque due to the artist’s emphasis on voluptuous bodies and distorted facial expressions. Her paintings — mostly portraits of women and still life scenes — conjure figures and objects reminiscent of ourselves and our lives but with an uncanny quality. Drawing upon centuries of Western painting, Weyant references an eclectic range of art historical influences — her painterly style is a modern twist on the Baroque tradition, following Dutch masters like Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, and Judith Leyster.
In her painting Chest (2020), Weyant remodifies the iconic subject of Venus’, and her pose in Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1485). Utilizing her characteristic sepia-toned palette, Weyant washes out Botticelli’s glowing golden skin tones in favour of curious, unsettling shades of black and brown. She chooses to zoom in on just the chest of her subject, moving away from Botticelli’s grand, full body portrayal. The directness of Weyant’s composition calls into question not only Botticelli’s original depiction Venus, but also attitudes surrounding nudity and the female body in the 21st century.
Paintings by American artist, Kylie Manning, are rooted in the wild, sweeping landscapes of her childhood, which was split between Alaska and Mexico. The works are large-scale – a riot of colour, energy, and diaphanous figures. Manning employs a technique used by Old Master painters, including Johannes Vermeer, in which countless layers of oils are applied to the canvas’s surface in order to absorb and refract light. As with many of her contemporaries, Manning’s style balances between the lines of abstraction and figuration, using delicate washes of colour, precise lines, and heavy impasto in order to bring her figures into being.
The tangled bodies in Manning’s paintings move through dreamlike space in quasi-theatrical compositions that recall the grand history paintings of nineteenth century artists such as Théodore Géricault, Winslow Homer, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. As seen in her painting, Now and Then (2022), the mounds of human bodies and their dramatic movements are reminiscent of Géricault’s The Raft of Medusa (1819) – perhaps even a nod to Manning’s time spent at sea, working on commercial fishing boats. She merges the extravangence of history paintings with a sense of fluidity and rawness that is distinctly contemporary, an effect achieved through washes of pastel-toned colors together that bleed into one another.