Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Haag

I've always enjoyed museums of all kinds, but art museums are my favorite lazy day indulgence.  It must be all those art history and photo history classes I took in college.  Many years ago I was wandering through the Utah Museum of Fine Art in Salt Lake City and I found myself entranced by a work of art by an artist that I had never heard of before.

The artist's name was Herman Hugo Haag and he was one of a group of artists called to go on an art mission for the LDS church (Mormons) to Paris, France to study painting in the 1890s.  Upon their return to Utah they used their newly honed skills to paint murals in the Salt Lake City temple and paintings for other religious buildings around the state, country, and up into Canada.  You can learn more about this unusual mission and the artists themselves, in this article.

His painting that caught my attention is entitled "Hospital Scene".  Normally I like to take my time in art museums, pausing in front of each painting for a minute or two.  With this painting I completely lost track of time and stood rooted to the spot, pouring over the details.  The light, the brush strokes, and the composition engaged me in a way that none of the other pieces in the museum had.

Hospital Scene by Herman H. Haag from the UMFA
This photographic reproduction doesn't do the original work of art justice.  The piece is a very large stretched canvas and Haag's technique exudes light and visual texture, hallmarks of the Impressionistic style he studied in Paris.  So much is going on in this composition that it's hard to know where to begin.

The deathly ill child in the hospital bed and the thin, worn looking man in the chair watching over him, stand in stark contrast to the tender embrace of the woman and child at the next bed.  The colors in this piece are mostly neutrals ranging from the somber dark clothing of the man to the polished wooden floor, to the clean, bright white bed linens that serve to underscore the pallor of the sick child's skin, making him look impossibly frail.  But on the table next to the boy lies a peeled but uneaten orange.  This small oasis of color is, to me, another heartbreaking element.  Is it the boy's orange and he was too sick to eat it?  Is it the man's orange but he's too distracted, tired, or concerned to have any kind of appetite.  The orange presents another contrast.  Just as the joyful mother and child in the next bed emphasis the sadness and distance between the foreground subjects, the orange emphasized the ill health of the boy with its exuberant pop of color, it's enticing promise of sweetness and health is forgotten in its neglected status on the bedside table.

Are the foreground subjects family?  Father and child seems the most likely explanation, but the could be brothers or some other relation, the connection isn't clear.  The other subjects are children and women, with two of the women shown in close contact with the children, but the man is seated with his hands gripping his knees but leaning forward with his head tilted, as if wanting to hold the child but afraid of disturbing him.  All the man's attention is focused on the boy, like a compass needle pointing North.

There is a touching, eloquent, and utterly beautiful melancholy in this painting.  When I study it I'm transported to that late 19th century Parisian hospital room, I can hear the rustling of linens and the creaking of floorboards, feel the breeze coming through the tall windows at the end of the room, smell the battling scents of cleaning solutions, medicine, illness, and the neglected orange.

Ever since the first time I saw it, I knew that I had to have this image in my home. Obviously buying the painting was not an option.  Even if they were to offer it for sale, I would never be able to afford the original.  But I could afford a print or canvas reproduction.  Over the years I have periodically contacted the UMFA to request a print of this painting.   Each time I was told that copies were not available.  Then, a few months ago while perusing the museum's website, I found that they had added a comprehensive database with electronic images of every piece in their permanent collection.  Then I noticed that they had a section for Reproduction Requests.  I submitted my request and waited.  The museum staff contacted me and had me fill out some forms and submit a $30 fee, and then I was sent a large format digital file of the image.

The next step was ordering a canvas print of the image from an online printmaking gallery.  I used my mad math skills to figure out which size canvas was closest to the painting's original dimensions, found a website that offered that specific size and ordered my print.  I have never before so anxiously tracked a shipped package.  I was worried that the reproduction would live up to my memories of the painting, that the image might have had trouble transferring, or that the canvas might get damaged in shipping.  When it arrived I carefully opened the box and held my breath as I removed the packaging around the canvas.  All my worry was for naught, the image was perfect, and I finally had a copy of this painting in my home.

I've propped it up in almost every room of the house, trying to decide where it should go.  I'm currently trying it out in my computer room/library and I love the way the light from the North facing window illuminates the picture.


For me it's impossible to pick one favorite painting.  There are more than a few pieces, like this painting, that hold a special place in my heart.  What's your favorite work of art?  Or if you can't pick just one (like me), who's your favorite artist, or even what is your favorite style of art?

1 comment:

Heather said...

beautifully written... love it! Way to help us non-art majors, but still art lovers learn and experience more with it!