The Singular and the Particular


William Blake writes in the marginalia to his copy of Reynold’s Discourses that, “singular and particular detail is the foundation to the sublime.” (Blake, Marginalia to Reynold’s Discourses, Discourse III, 1808) When I reflect on ancient Greek sculpture, I find two things- the Ideal form combined with a particularness of detail- the detail being not of a specific individual but the anatomical detail carefully observed and understood, a combination of what one sees in the living model combined with an aesthetics of beauty. When I reflect on the wonderful portraits of Frans Hals, I see in them the love of humanity and the individual. His paintings are very specific and their beauty depends on his truthfulness to what is before him. Are these two poles, the ideal and the individual, struggling against one another or are they two sides to the same coin? In the nineteenth century this was hotly debated. Today, we seem to favor the specific over generalization as a philosophy of beauty.

Truth is specific. I believe Henri and Hals would agree. Their deep love of humanity connecting them to the individual. Their work honors man in all his particular qualities yet somehow it still taps into a broader and greater “self”. Henri referred to those he painted as “my people”, “The people I like to paint are “my people”, whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom dignity of life is manifest…whose love, poetry, simplicity and humor have enriched my existence, just as completely as though each of these people were of my own country…” (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p.143). Does not the specific lead us to a broader connection – the individual particulars guiding us to a greater underlying truth?

Blake states again in the Discourses, “Knowledge of Ideal Beauty is not to be Acquired. It is Born with us. Innate Ideas are in Every Man Born with him. they are truly Himself.” ( Blake, Ibid.)(the capitals are Blake’s) The Ideal seems to be innate whereas the specific must be sought for. I have a Japanese woodblock print of three crows in a tree. I purchased it when I lived in the city of New Haven because I had a pair of crows nest in the highest part of a maple behind a third floor apartment I rented. I could see them directly from my window and they provided a connection to the natural world that was lacking in the city. Later, I moved to the Catskill mountains. Behind my property was a dead tree and peculiarly there are four pairs of crows who rest there every night. My print hangs next to my back window and from this vantage I am amazed how many times my crows directly reflect the print itself. Or possibly I should say the print directly reflects the crows. The artist, by capturing the specific characteristics of the crows, somehow tapped into the very essence of what a crow inherently is and its larger connection to the natural world. The exterior manifestation leading to an interior understanding. The specific guiding us to something we know innately to be true.

I believe Ralph Waldo Emerson hits it on the mark. The first page of my journal contains this quote from Emerson’s essay on Nature, 1856– “The eros of the eye that is visual art: striking the viewer so deeply, with such authority, the merely personal is obliterated and something like an archetypal self is evoked.” The artist by rendering the particulars of what is before him, and rendering them with force and skill, he allows the psyche to enter into a deeper understanding of self and one’s relationship to the world. In a sense, the modern tendency to admire the specific  has its roots here. Henri, being an advocate of this philosophy, did not allow himself to ignore his over arching belief in the oneness of all things. In the end, both Henri and the Greeks sought the “real” from two different perspectives but with the same goal- a self knowledge that renders a greater understanding and appreciation of the world. Henri compares the old masters with the moderns, “All his science and all his powers of invention must be brought into practice to capture the vision of an illusive moment. It is as though he were in pursuit of something more real which he knows but has not as yet fully realized…” (Henri, Ibid.,p.63)

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

5 thoughts on “The Singular and the Particular”

  1. Dear Judith,

    Thank you for your beautiful site and thoughts. I posted on my FB page your Emerson quote, and tweeted the Blake. 🙂 ~ Thank you for those. I would love to stay connected, if you wish.

    All best wishes and my gratitude,

  2. Brenda Ueland wrote, “The more you wish to describe a Universal the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a particular.” That concept of truthfulness is critical to allowing your rendering of the particular to rise above the mundane. You capture that in your observation about the crows, which seem to meld with your current experience of crows, creating an entirely new concept of time that transcends the moment that the painting is made and the moment that you experience the painting. It’s quite remarkable.

  3. Hello Judith

    I have been reading over your exceptionally thoughtful and perceptive thoughts.
    I hope you can assist me. I am an artist and researcher currently engaged in a project on behalf of a client who believes that he has a genuine Hals painting.
    After two years of research I am beginning to think that he may well be right.

    I have been searching for ways to authenticate this little painting when I found your blog, specifically your entry August 7, 2009
    I was hoping that you may be able to assist me to locate an image of the pinkie print on the Hals painting “Man in a Kimono” that you mention. The work I am authenticating also features a very clear pinkie print left by the artist in the same way that you describe, that is in order to support a trembling hand whilst in the act of placing a very careful white glint highlight into the subjects left eye. Please see my blog

    I do hope you will agree to respond and perhaps provide me with some guidance as to how I can obtain the image that I seek.

    Thank you in anticipation.

    Harmen R Hielkema

    1. Harmen, I have looked at the image on your site and have to say it appears to be a copy of a famous Frans Hals titled, “Man in a Slouch Hat”,1660-66. It is located at Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kassel. It was well Known in the 19th century especially by the Munich School. American painters, Frank Dueveneck and William Merritt Chase were familiar with it. Dueveneck’s “Smoking Boy” is often compared to “Man in a Slouch Hat”, and Dueveneck may have copied it himself. Another reason it appears to be a copy is that Hals never signed his name as such. He used a special monogram, FH, on most of his paintings regardless of size. The piece you have is exceptionally well painted. And contains the characteristic brushstrokes of Hals. It is possible that Hal’s studio assistant, Judith Leyster, painted it under Hal’s supervision. But, I have to say that Hal’s paintings have been copied since the mid 1660’s and there are may copies floating around seeking verification of authenticity. A good book to refer to is Frans Hals by Seymour Slive published by Prestel,1989. It is pretty comprehensive and contains good reproductions. What I have written is based solely on my intuition and familiarity with Hals’ work. It is best to get an expert in Dutch Painting, 17th century. Possible places to send the image to would be Christie’s or Southeby’s. They are all over the world but the main offices are in NY, NY. Regardless if it is an authentic Frans Hals, it most likely is valuable. Many of the copies are especially if Judith Leyster, his assistant, had a hand in it. It was great to see it and make the connection with you. If you want to explore the fingerprint of “the Man in the Kimono” referred to also as, “Portrait of a Man”, it is in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. Their entire collection is on line and is easy to access by title or artist. I was there this month and was not able to see it because it was not presently on exhibit because of renovations. But always feel free to contact the museum to get assistance. I have found over the years that they are always helpful. I have gotten many an access to paintings in storage because of my keen interest and study. Your pursuit may lead to an unknown path. Be open to it. Best of Luck and let me know what you find. Judith

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