I try to paint what feels most urgent to me now. But the moment always resonates with everything that went before it, so painting in the present is inflected by the past; not just mine, but the past of painting itself. Painting the figure is indispensable if you are concerned with humanity. Even if a work has its origin in personal experience, the process of giving it pictorial life can discover the universality of that experience.
Fletcher's Arcadia Paintings
Carlton Fletcher has titled his current exhibition of landscapes, figures, and still-life paintings Arcadia, a choice which reveals much about both his philosophy of art and his own new work. Arcadia speaks both of his knowledge of art history and to his awareness of his own position within that history. It also, quite readily, provides us with a means into the starting conception of these 26 new paintings.
The "Arcadian metaphor", was born in ancient Greek literature and drama. Classical writers, and then the Renaissance humanists who followed them, used this metaphor to invoke a pastoral world populated by gods who lived in a moment both blessed and eternal. The Hellenist culture which favored this metaphor was urbane, learned and noble, and it influenced both Virgil and the princely courts of the Renaissance. Fifteenth century humanists striving to reinvigorate ancient modes of feeling and thought looked back to Ovid, whose Latin verses, especially the Metamorphoses, became an integral part of the standard literary education. By the sixteenth century, the elite of Northern Italy were almost obsessively well versed in the Arcadian idiom. It provided a means of escape from and a counter to contemporary reality. It allowed them to explore both themselves and their culture in idealized classical terms.
But it wasn't until the seventeenth century that Poussin and Claude produced the paintings that would become the basis of the neoclassical landscape. While both were interested in the interplay of subject and pastoral landscape, Poussin utilized the landscape to contemplate primarily his subjects, their expressions, gestures and forms, while Claude was always more interested in the landscape itself. Taking subjects from the Bible, Virgil and Ovid, he studied the ways in which his figures are incorporated into the pastoral, especially by its golden light. Later, Poussin was reinvigorated in Cézanne, and Claude in Turner.
In Arcadia Carlton Fletcher takes something from all of these artists to let us see our own world anew. Weather permitting, Carlton Fletcher is a 'plein air' artist. His paintings begin in a particular place – Mill Pond; Lebanon VT; Lake Placid; Jaffrey NY; Glover Park, to name a few – and search for that moment when physical reality is transformed, usually by light, into an ideal representation. There are few strong shadows in Fletcher's paintings. The light is preeminent even when filtered so that it might initiate the metaphor.
But not all of Fletcher's paintings are landscapes: some are figurative, and there is a still-life, Arcadia in the most recent figure painting. Fletcher points out that in 'Arcadia men and women take their ease in a landscape bathed in golden light. Paintings of the pastoral idyll have been staffed with shepherds and shepherdesses, feasting gods, nymphs and fauns, satyrs and bacchantes, debonair lords and ladies and even artists and models having lunch on the grass. Why not, then, bicycle couriers and their friends gathered in a Washington park at the end of the day, peaceably drinking from Styrofoam cups? There is no harshness in this painting of young people gathered together, Instead, all are freshly – and quite powerfully – contemplated in the fading light of evening.
The Arcadian image is of happy people, Fletcher reminds us. but the vocabulary of figures in a landscape is capable of conveying something other than joy, and even objects on a table can sometimes seem like actors in a tragedy. At one end of the painting spectrum are worlds invented on the canvas, and on the other are observations of the actual world; but even painting just what is in front of you can lead to something classical, and even the most ordinary scene, realistically observed, can reveal itself anew in the ideal light of the perfect moment. In the end that's not so surprising; all genres of painting seem to be about being there at the right time, and making hay while the sun shines. In this striking collection of oil paintings, Carlton Fletcher makes much more than hay.
- Jane Haslem
I can still remember the feeling––as though a more lucid reality had suddenly been revealed––when I saw my first Vermeer, and every subsequent discovery of yet another artist who played in that league––Giotto, Piero, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Chardin, Corot, Degas, Cezanne, Morandi, and all the others, too numerous to name––was like the discovery of a new world. One of the conclusions I drew from these encounters was that the history of drawing and painting, classical and contemporary, is a continuum, and that, in art at least, there is no meaningful separation from the past.
In the course of trying to find out how painting works I have sometimes applied myself to close observation; at other times I have tried my hand at a little invention. Although at any given moment it might have seemed as though I had specialized in one kind of painting, it becomes apparent to me as I look back that I have actually pursued quite a few.
What remains constant and reliable is that––whatever I thought I intended at the outset––what the painting wants to be, and how it wants to get there, only comes to light by doing the work. I am sometimes as surprised at the outcome as if I had only been an assistant, someone required for the small chore of moving the paint from the palette to the canvas, while the painting painted itself.
1985 Fletcher was one of the founding members of the Washington Studio School.
1982 American University, MFA
1972 Rhode Island School of Design, BFA
Artery Collection, Washington DC
Cantor Center for the Visual Arts, Stanford University, Palo Alto CA
DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Washington DC
Elder Collection, Georgetown University, Washington DC
Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Washington DC
Katzen Art Center, American University, Washington DC
National Institute of Health, Washington DC
Washington & Lee University, Lexington KY
West Collection, St. Paul MN
White House Historical Association DC
The Washington Post
D.C. gallery shows: 'Then and Now: 40 Years,'
Published December 13, 2013
by Mark Jenkins
Carlton Fletcher. W Street Alley, 2013. oil on panel, 8 x 16"
Drawing on several centuries of oil painting, Carlton Fletcher makes pictures that meld classical and impressionist techniques. If the results seem detached from any particular age, they're often place specific. The Washington painter, whose "Then and Now: 40 Years" is at Jane Haslem Gallery, frequently depicts his home town, from views of Battery Kemble Park to an epic tableau of demonstrators at Dupont Circle.
Although the show is a career retrospective that includes two prints, the work is primarily painting and mostly recent. Among the larger pieces are a self-portrait that emphasizes the artist's tools over his face, and "In the Waves," a realistic 1992 depiction of an anguished family that looks like something an American realist such as Thomas Eakins could have painted a century earlier.
The works from the past five years are mostly smaller horizontal landscapes. They often portray modest city neighborhoods, but sometimes they are bucolic scenes. Whatever the subject, Fletcher's work has gotten looser without sacrificing any precision. "W Street Alley" and "Angler's Dusk" confirm the artist's mastery of light and gesture. The former is framed by mottled red that must be autumn leaves; the latter highlights twilight-blue hills and meadows with a perfect splash of green foliage. Reducing a bush to a few brushstrokes might be simple, but it's not easy.
Then and Now: 40 years — Paintings and Prints by Carlton Fletcher
On view through Dec. 23 at Jane Haslem Gallery, 2025 Hillyer Pl. NW, 202-232-4644, www.janehaslemgallery.com.