Wednesday, October 14, 2020


I really like this whisper of a drawing by illustrator Henry McCarter (1866-1942).  

To convey the enormity of the sky and the prairie, McCarter uses one of the most powerful drawing tools: restraint.  

White space is a scarce commodity these days, due to the limited budgets of publishers and the excessive vanity of artists.   Many might try a muscular approach to express the grandeur of the sky and the immensity of the land.  They might start with a heroic profile of a pioneer scanning the remote horizon, or begin drawing the hairs on his coonskin cap. 

But the vast majority of this drawing is made up of fluid lines and dots, abstract in form and untethered to any concrete shape.  

The earth, too, is made up of waves of lines.  In isolation they look possibly liquid, possibly abstract. 

But 96% of the picture is all brought together by the remaining 4%: the little guy, cattle and wagon pulled all those random hatch marks behind him into focus and create the appearance of a tightly rendered drawing. 

McCarter started his art education studying with tough realists such as Thomas Eakins, but finished it studying in Paris with post-impressionists and other modern artists. When he returned home he made a living doing representational work for Collier's, Scribner's and Harper's but it's clear he retained the lessons of modernism and they served him well.


Richard said...

The oxen appear to have begun to stagger, but why? Mere exhaustion?

The closeness of the cloud forms behind him, their swirling gyres, leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the oxen are cowering because they know what the man does not. That these are not distant clouds, but a more dangerous phenomenon -- a dust storm.

The sentimentality of his penmanship then makes an interesting juxtaposition against the subject. The looseness of his treatment allows us to mistake the image for a simple saccharine prairie picture, and I think that's what makes this one interesting.

kev ferrara said...

This is a nicely executed vignette. The upper cloud forms are particularly well observed and the ease with which they lose form and unite with the 'white' of the paper shows a nice command of cloud anatomy and a painterly approach. This looks exactly like the kind of thing one would find in Harper's Monthly circa 1890-1903 period, with most of the white space outside the rectangular image area bricked with text. For the black and white printing of that period, the technique used here would be on point.

The grandeur and dynamism of the clouds plays nicely against the small static and isolated figural group; that contrast seems to be the main idea of the image. The calm overall tone seems to indicate against impending violence or danger. The brutal long, lonely, and dry journey was danger enough to be dramatic for readers of the era.

Mature oxen don't 'cower' when afraid, they become uncontrollable and buck and bolt. And it doesn't look like the fellow tending the oxen is putting all that much more effort than is normal into controlling them. So, yes, the bowing inward of their legs and the dripping drool/cud from the mouth seems to indicate they are "merely" exhausted.

Also Humans who live off the land and spend much of the lives outdoors are just as sensitive as animals as to weather and such. My great grandfather's life was dedicated to the operation of a family farm and stories abound of what he was able to know just by the smell of the wind and the color of the sky.

Richard said...

Clouds do not sit low and close on the prairie like that, especially not at mid-day.

- Dust storm
- Cumulus Clouds

kev ferrara said...

Yes, I understood the visual cues you put together to make your assessment. The lack of other essential cues seems just as important to notice: There's no violence, no roil, no darkness in the low cloud, no ripples of wind buffeting the canvas wagon and clothed figure, no fear in the oxen or men, and so.

It is a little hard to discern whether what looks like the horizon line is actually that or just a much nearer ridge line. And that would give a much better understanding of the perspective of that low speckled cloudy zone. However if if you look at the dotted flow lines in the fourth detail picture of the post, they seem to lift off the ground moving leftward at the back of the ground plane. This, coupled with all the other cues, leads me to believe we are looking at a bit of blustering wind picking up some dust in the distance.

Vanderwolff said...

I love the way the darker areas of the clouds seem to suggest human forms--one, the shape you highlighted David, we catch from the back, an outstretched silhouette of a man or something closely akin reaching out to some other denizen of his realm; the other shape, on the viewer's left, a fading wraith of someone facing us, open-mouthed, as if pained at the brevity of their appearance. At least to me, but then again I have terrible vision.

Thank you, I will definitely research more on Mr. McCarter's work.

Tom said...

Nice Drawing David!

Nothing like a clear and strong ground plane that one can plant his feet on. This sense of solidity in the foreground plane is the perfect foil and contrast to the immeasurable and dissipating space that lays beyond it. A space that makes the ideas and thoughts of man seem insignificant and only important to himself. The emptiness of the page reinforces the feeling that so much is beyond our comprehension, even beyond our ability to draw it, as in the end, space itself has no form. The only dark accents of the picture, the man and the oxen, expresses the weight of their own thoughts of self concern in contrast with the indifference of a space that remains carefree, ever changing by degrees. The four mid tones, two in the sky one in the foreground from a nice triangle around the figures, functioning as pointers while the fourth travels across the horizon giving the viewer a clear sense of orientation expressing the sense of energy radiating from a central point, like a rock dropped into a vast ocean.

Wes said...

Its interesting the different "metaphysics" one beautiful little drawing can conjour -- "cowering oxen" smarter about the weather than the ignorant man, or depiction of a "brutal long, lonely, and dry journey" that is "calm", not immediately dangerous; clouds that represent teleological forces ("wraiths") in the man's world that he is oblivious to; " . . . space that makes the ideas and thoughts of man seem insignificant ..." a space that is "indifferent" to "thoughts of self-concern" of man or oxen, and is indeed "carefree" . . .

Such teleology in dumb nature, such dull and small thoughts of conscious beasts! What outweighs what -- or do they need to weigh differently?

I see affirmative and practical consciousness in a vast plain of potential but distant dangers. But the men and oxen, who seem to know what they are doing, are safer than we are in an the midst of pandemic overseen by a circus clown. I wish I was in the wagon.

chris bennett said...

This seems to be about our smallness in the scale of things. The sense of the man, oxen and wagon 'drawing back' is, to me, something like the momentary experience we have of ourselves when we have a mind to look up at the sky.