The Art of John Court: Shadows, Light, Gravitas


1) Sen. Barry Goldwater, 1983, (14″x18″)


Begin with a powerful portrait: that of Barry Goldwater (fig 1), who occupies a special place in American political history—an outsider from his own party; a prophet rejected only to have his teachings embodied in the work of later legislators and executives; and through it all, burning brightly with a fierce personal integrity that compelled admiration even from opponents.

Anyone familiar with the career of Barry Goldwater will see much of that in John Court’s art—and in his portrait of the man. But even one who has heard of Goldwater only vaguely, will recognize the quality underlying the calm, purposeful features. It is what the Romans called “gravitas.” English has yet to come up with a satisfactory single word meaning quite the same thing. It means a core of absolute seriousness about the public business of society. By extension that public business includes the concerns of the family and larger social units. That quality inheres in the Goldwater portrait not only because this particular public man is imbued with gravitas, but also because the painter, John Court, knows it when he sees it and knows how to translate it into the painted image of the living person.

His lifelong cultivation of natural talent aside, Court knows those things because gravitas is extremely important to him and to his work.

prt_Gray-Black_287x5752)Arrangement in Black & Gray”(1984) 18″x36″

It is present to a high degree in another portrait under consideration here, that of the artist’s mother, which he titled “Arrangement in Black and Gray” (fig 2). That title is more than the color scheme. It is a variation on the title of one of the most popular paintings of modern times, widely known as “Whistler’s Mother.” James Abbott McNeill Whistler was a distant relative of Court, so the title is in part a salute to a predecessor in the family, but it is more than that, too. Whistler called the picture of his mother “Arrangement in Gray and Black” not out of sheer perversity, though he was well capable of that, but to emphasize that he had created a work of art based on principles analogous to those of music and even geometry. So with Court. Like his distinguished relative, the younger man is immersed in gravitas toward his work, indeed toward life in general.

In the portrait of his mother, it is clear where Court’s gravitas comes from. The erect, aristocratic figure is as serious and alert in posture as in facial expression. The full-length figure is also an homage to Whistler, who used that format often, as in “The White Girl.” Mrs. Court is, in fact, a member of several of the First Families of Virginia. The addition to Whistler’s two colors is used chiefly in her understated but unmistakable badge of social rank, the white gloves, which have long served that purpose on or in the hands.

The two portraits are alike in relying on the subjects themselves to convey character. The old tradition, predating Renaissance art and very popular in early American portraiture, of surrounding the subject with the marks of his trade or locale is completely absent. There is no cactus-measured desert behind Sen. Goldwater, no pillared house front behind Mrs. Court. There are just the people themselves—and the extremely sensitive painting of them, the look of years of sun and rain upon the skin, the structure of the bones beneath the skin, and the strong sense of the human person animating bones and skin alike.

Taken together, the two portraits link two important places in John Court’s life and work, Virginia and Arizona. From the 1984 until 1994 he maintained studios in both states and divided his year between them—except for the time that he spent at “Perseverando,” his home-studio he designed and built on Sao Miguel, the largest and most important of Portugal’s Azorian Islands, where he now lives year round.

In John Court’s work, the mesh of Virginia and Arizona, and now Portugal, is most clearly seen in his equestrian portraits. Generally, for practical reasons, the subjects are seated firmly on their mounts. The recollection is of George Stubbs, the 18th century Englishman who painted horses for their landed gentry owners. Indeed there are points of similarity between the horse culture of Virginia and that of 18th century England. But the horse in America has also had a completely different way of life, that of the West, derived from the Spanish rancheros and from hard riding over rough ground. The experience of the Western horse made Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, as painters of the horse, worlds apart from Stubbs, whose equestrian portraits seem pedestrian in comparison. Court clearly has been influenced more by those Americans than by the Englishman.

3)”Faye Kilpatrick on Ben” (1988) 24″x20″

This influence permeates, albeit very subtly, the solid equestrian portrait “Faye Kilpatrick on Ben” (fig 3). The portraiture is superb. The magnificent musculature of the animal is painted with the sensitive skill of an equine anatomist. The immediate comparison, of course, would be with Stubbs and the staid poses of his horses, but although the horses of Court`s sitters stand still, their musculature is always seen as poised for action at any moment. Issues of influence aside—the awful truth, which takes a few minutes of close observation to sink in, is that Court is a better painter of the horse . . . not to mention the rider . . . than Stubbs ever was.

Court’s knowledge of horsemanship is most readily seen in the drawing of the artist’s father’s horsemanship atop the faithful family equine retainer, Geronimo (fig 4). The drawing is in the Virginia Musem of Fine Arts. The retired sailor’s posture, though relaxed, nonetheless reveals the long, comfortable relationship between man and horse. Ingres was right, after all: “Drawing is the probity of art.” That truth shines through every brushstroke, in every equine image by John Court.

4)”JMC on Geronimo” (1984) 30″x24″

Ancestrally speaking, Court as equestrian painter is something of a sailor on horseback. He was born and brought up in Annapolis, where both his grandfathers had been in the same class at the Naval Academy, where his father and his uncle were roommates. His boyhood home there was full of exotica from Brazil, Turkey and the Orient brought back from voyages and overseas service. He did not apply for the Academy. He had known from childhood, when he began seriously drawing, that he would be an artist and he knew from his home life that art, like the U. S. Navy, was a full-time job and then some.

Yet, when the chips were down, he did not enroll at an “art” school either, despite winning a scholarship to the highly respected Rhode Island School of Design. Instead, paying full tuition, he enrolled at New York’s Cornell University, where the principal maritime connection is being high above Cayuga’s waters and where the art department allowed full access to the university curriculum. His reasoning, quite remarkable for a high school senior with talent, was that talent, in a sense, would take care of itself:

It would keep him drawing and seeking constantly to improve his drawing. Meanwhile, he could better spend those final years of formal education in humane studies, especially art history, which was very strong at Cornell and which would educate his talent as well as his mind by way of the Old Masters.

It worked exactly as planned. Court did make himself one of that unnumbered minority of contemporary artists intimately familiar with art before Picasso, even before Manet, no less familiar with literature, general history, at least rudimentary mathematics and science, and the other arts. He is one of the unfortunately dwindling minority of American artists as much at home with the best that has been thought and written as with the best that has been drawn and modelled. At the same time, his own ways of painting and sculpture are deeply indebted to those of the Old Masters.

It is only against that background of a classical education that Court’s definition of himself as a romantic painter can be properly understood. Romance in his sense has only the most tenuous, distant connection, if that, with the magazines and paperback novels calling themselves Romance. He uses the term as it is used in literary, musical and art history. Its fundamental meaning has to do with a deep appreciation of nature, as in Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats. The Romantic attitude in that sense can come very close to pantheism and it is the emotional power behind much, if not all, of the environmental movement.

5)”Sao Jorge” (1990) 60″x30″

That sense of a real life, almost conscious or endowed with something like consciousness, in nature is very present in Court’s landscapes. The romantic time of day is dawn or dusk and it is in the muted light of such times that Court often views and presents nature not punctuated by people. The whole state of Arizona is a romantic landscape and Court has painted it many times. He also found romantic landscapes in Virginia and as far afield as his island, Sao Miguel, and the islands of so many others, Hawaii. He tends to see islands whole, as in “Sao Jorge” (fig 5), or at least from some distance away, so that a sense of the island as a thing in itself is very strong. In the Arizona pictures, as in “Sedona” (fig 6), he forgoes the familiar favorites of canyon interiors for, again, the isolated forms of mesa or butte, which, when you think of it, are not unlike islands looming above the level sea of sand around them.

6)”Sedona” (1992) 48″x30″

The long horizontal painting ” Rabo de Peixe” (fig 7) is a beautiful working out of the romantic equation of light and dark, earth and sea, sky and cloud, and man and nature. All those things are present in a dynamic equilibrium that fits perfectly into the surface of a comfortable, even opulent sky-sea-landscape. The clouds above really do billow but they take the light—handsomely—while casting darkness below on the human habitation of the island.

7)”Rabo de Peixe” (1999) 60″x36″

The counter move to that is the edge of light that is the edge of the island, along the shore, the slit of sunlight falling on the strip of houses and on the surf below, marking the narrow line between dark land and dark sea. To the island’s Portuguese farmers and fishermen, the painting could be read as a metaphoric interpretation of their fundamental Christianity: humanity lives in semi-darkness here below, at best in a narrow, uncertain band of light between two equal and equally menacing darknesses, but above, in Heaven after death, we shall live forever in the warm light of Divinity on neither hard land nor dangerous sea but in the soft, comforting cloudscape now but dimly glimpsed.

“Between the idea and the reality,” said T. S. Elliott, “falls the shadow”; John Court paints that shadow.

From the point of view of Court as a romantic painter, it is interesting that when he built the house on Sao Miguel, he made it in the manner of Palladio, the great Venetian architect who put the elements of classical architecture in a somewhat different order. He thus created what later became the dominant building style of Virginia as exemplified in Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello and The University of Virginia.

Using the language of classical architecture in new ways, Palladio can be reasonably described as a classical romantic. So can John Court. His methods and techniques are those of the Old Masters as developed from Duccio and Giotto through Rubens and Rembrandt and modified by himself. He understands and respects his materials. He commands and employs plane and recession, linear and aerial perspective, foreshortening and elongation, the whole classical bag of tricks invented or reinvented by the Renaissance.

But he does so, especially in the landscapes, for his own, essentially romantic purposes, purposes having to do with different times of day from the Renaissance high noon, with puzzling, sometimes disturbing questions rarely raised in the Renaissance—although Rembrandt was quite familiar with them—questions about what was best named by a fairly low level romantic, Victor Herbert, as the “sweet mystery of life.”

It is not surprising that the nude would turn up in Court’s complex artistic heritage. It is both the centerpiece of classical art studies and the single most potent romantic image. It is also not surprising for a nude to be, in this writer’s view, the most important and impressive image Court has yet produced.

8)”Kirth I” (1990) 36″x48″

The work is “Kirth I” (fig 8) and it is one of several on the theme. It is partially based on Thomas Eakins’ 1883 “Arcadia” in the Metropolitan Museum. Court has combined the pose of the standing figure with the sex of the reclining one and created a solitary, preoccupied and mysterious young woman. It is anything but a studio nude painted for the anatomical values, though these are fully present. In fact, the muscles of the arms and legs could serve as anatomical models, they are so precisely rendered. The light is equally masterful. From the shadow we see that it is midday, yet the darkness of the trees heightens the natural contrast between the woman and the woods.

At the edge of the woods, light is caught by the outcropping of stone, again relieving the darkness. But it is the light on the figure itself that adds virtuoso performance to the more substantial virtues of the picture. There are sharp highlights on the hair so black it’s almost blue, on the left forearm and the top of the right hand. On the palm of the right hand, the underside of the left breast and the face itself, there is light on flesh reflected off other flesh—reflecting, too, the exquisite sensitivity of the artist’s eye to the varieties of light on the human form.

The nude so immersed in that verdant space requires overall composition and gets it. The main axis crosses the horizontal edge of the woods on a receding plane that centers on the hands but begins with the leaves and their shadow in the lower right corner of the picture (which is a subtle homage to Velasquez) and culminates in the dimly seen trunk of the one bare tree in the woods, its limbs faintly echoing those of the woman. This is subtle and strong composition, not used as an end in itself but to underline what the picture is really saying.

That meaning centers in the figure and more precisely in her hands and what they hold. What they hold is what holds her, the green of life in bloom. She holds a very young sprig ready for the planting, thus extending the life of the line from those leaves and their shadows in the lower right to the bare limbs of the dead tree in the woods. Nature is constantly dying and constantly being born.
This nude woman, nurturing nature in her hands, nurtured by it all around her, in her stately walk and her rapt attention on what she carries summons up memories of rituals as old as the human race. She is Demeter, goddess of earth and harvests, by her sheer presence as light, holding darkness at bay.


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In his superb traditional, yet modern work, John Kirthian Court signifigantly supports the revival of the great tradition of figurative painting. Just as signifigant, but even more ambitious, is his attempt too restore an even older relationship, to be traced back to prehistoric cave drawings, between the world we perceive around us and the world created by the artist.
— Frank Getlein