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The Bible serves as the source of the creative inspiration for many generations of artists worldwide. Throughout centuries, the biblical scenes took visible shapes embodied in cloths and performed in various techniques. Each of these pictures in one way or another refracts the well-known biblical themes, and several factors made the impact, such as experience of the artist and his or her professional skills. At the same time, the era and the country, in which the painter works, inevitably influence the mentioned art. One of the works worth turning one’s attention to is Peter Hurd’s Eve of Saint John that incarnates the sacrament of St. John’s Day and its importance for people in the context of certain place, time, and the artist’s perception.
The picture of Eve of Saint John by Peter Hurd that was created in 1960 represents a young girl, standing in the countryside with the candle in her hands. My first impression of this work was quite simple as there is only one girl and landscape around her. It seems that the focal attention is to be paid directly to this girl. She is dressed in white sleeveless shirt that is likely to be made of linen and the blue skirt. The girl has long brown hairs that are slightly blown by wind. As a viewer, I can see only her right side outlook. The candle in her hands enlightens the face of this girl, and thus I can suggest that this is evening or night. However, the name of the painting proves that this is the eve. I would like to emphasize that the face of the girl is calm yet concentrated as if she understands the significance of the moment. I guess that the subject of this artwork is this girl and her emotions.
Speaking in the broader context, the background of the painting should also be described and interpreted. In particular, there are mountains and two houses with the small outbuildings nearby on the right side and on the left side of the picture. It is evident that this is the middle of summer when everything is buried in greenery, and only lightly yellowed grass reminds of transience of time and revolution of the seasons. The sky comes in three colors, including yellow, green-blue, and dark-blue that show the recent sunset and nightfall. The composition of the painting consists of stable components such as the girl, the houses, and nature. The only dynamic element is the rider on the background, symbolizing action and life itself.
The pose of this picture is realistic and believable as all the components are depicted in their real proportions. In this connection, I can note that this is the modern interpretation of the biblical motives that, nevertheless, preserves its initial goal of serving as a way to God and person himself or herself. The central figure of the girl conveys the overall mood of the painting that is calm, humble, and, at the same time, celebrating the eve of Saint John. The outlines here are primarily horizontal and divide the painting naturally, identifying sky, the land, and mountains. This creates magnificent scenery for the whole performance of the picture and as if introduces the viewer with the inner world of the presented plot. In my opinion, space is illusionistic here as the girl stands so close to the viewer, and the fact that she takes only the left side, thus leaving the right one empty, proves that the artist calls everyone to join the painting and share common emotions.
The texture of the painting by Hurd seems to be smooth and matte with a slight grain effect, attaching realistic perception of the artwork. The brushstrokes are not too evident, and thus they may be evaluated as tight and controlled. The light and shadows of the painting are rather elaborate and realistic as well. For example, the electric lightning illuminates one of the houses.
The rest of the scenery is lightened by the natural light of the sunset. The candle casts a shadow on the girl’s face, making it a bit mysterious and letting the viewer understand her emotions. More to the point, the size of the painting in general as well as those of its elements contribute to the realistic perception of the theme and idea revealed by the artist. Everything here corresponds to the real life proportions and sizes, be it the cowboy on the background or the young girl on the forefront. Considering that this is night, Hurd uses dark colors of green and blue along with bright tones of yellow. I suggest that the fact that the girl’s shirt is white symbolizes her innocence, purity, and good intentions.
In the course of this formal analysis, I noted some changes in the impression made by the mentioned painting on me. If I identified some general aspects first, then I penetrated into the painting’s idea. With the detailed analysis of forms, elements, and symbols they convey, I understood that the artist wanted to reveal the viewer his own attitudes regarding the religious traditions in the context of the countryside.
In other words, I believe that Hurd’s background along with his cultural, religious, and social views are represented in Eve of Saint John. I feel that this painting reflects love to ranch, nature, and God – the integral parts of one’s life, leading an individual on his or her path of being a person. Thus, the mood of the painting is quite philosophic yet simple. It proposes key human values such as love to the place of living and origin, respect to other people, and unconditional love to God. These are my perceptions on the idea and the message of this painting based on the observations of forms and other peculiarities of the formal analysis that were specified above.
In order to answer the question of what caused the painting to look the way it does, it seems necessary to conduct the analysis of historic, social, cultural, religious, etc. aspects that lead to the creation of this art of performance. First of all, it should be noted that Peter Hurd, the artist of the Eve of Saint John, is from San Patricio, New Mexico located in the Southwest of the United States. This region is characterized by the gorgeous hills and inspiring landscapes that lay in the core of Hund’s view of the scenic beauty: “the landscape of New Mexico inspired Peter and it was here that he developed his true artistic style” (“Peter Hurd”). The scenery of the selected painting attracts by its simplicity and natural lines that are so lovely for people, living on ranches and spending their lives in the arms of nature.
At the same time, the key figure is a child – a young girl, acting as an innocent and pure carrier of candle who is supposedly on her way to church that also symbolizes light, both in direct and figurative (divine) meanings. Torpy states that this girl is Hurd’s daughter Dorotea Herrera who “is on her way to church, for Mass on the eve of the feast day of St John the Baptist. St John’s Day (June 24) and its Eve celebrate the birth of St. John” (720).
Recognized as a cousin of Jesus Christ, St. John is a symbol of the great holiday in the Western world, especially in Spain, Mexico, and the related regions. The legends tell us that the magic was in the air the night before the day of St. John as well as on the eve of Christmas and Twelfth Night. The shortest night of the year, it was surrounded by mysticism and was the occasion for fun and spectacles with allusions to the supernatural. Thus, it is possible to suggest that the mentioned religious tradition was rather important for the artist to follow and share with the wider audience.
The spellbinding effect is also created due to the use of the special technique of tempera on board. According to De La Fuente, tempera is a mixture of pigments and binder. However, later, this term began to refer exclusively to the egg tempera, in particular, the paint based on the egg yolk. Currently, it is used mainly in icon painting.
Moreover, the use of gesso that is beneficial for priming the surface for drawing on it. This is base coat with a light texture is ideal for priming canvas, wood, metal, plastic, thick cardboard, paper, and fabric before drawing (De La Fuente). The implementation of the mentioned materials helps the artist to accomplish his goal and reveal the core initiative. It seems that the mentioned technique and material serve as the basis for the realistic nature of the painting that, in its turn, helps the viewer to get inside the artist’s world.
In the light of the mentioned tempera selection, it is possible to suggest that the artist wanted to create stable and long-term painting that would be preserved through time, serving as the embodiment of religious and cultural traditions of the countryside. It should also be noted that not only religion, but also temporal features, including clothes, artistic perspective, and so on compose the vital part of this painting. Overall, it is evident that the initiative of Hurd was to memorize his place of living, so that the future generations would be aware of the past era and understand the perspective tendencies.
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Speaking of the social causality of the painting, I would like to cite the statement by Hurd regarding his attitude towards the concept of art. In her article, Torpy provides the following words of Hurd: “art is communication and great art is communication on two levels, an appeal to the intelligence and an appeal to the emotions” (720). In this connection, it becomes evident that Hurd was completely aware of the key mission of art, thus putting it on the basis of his artworks. As for the Eve of Saint John, the painting undoubtedly addresses to the viewer’s inner world, calling to begin the dialogue and work in team.
In other words, Hurd appeals to observe the painting and also to ponder over it, thus communicating the thoughts. The emotions evoked by the painting are appeasement and pleasure caused by the very nature. Both of the levels are successfully completed as the painting refers to intellect and emotions simultaneously. Nowadays the house of the artist is reconstructed and acts as a museum (“The Wyeth House”). Following the social significance, the Eve of Saint John provides the opportunity to observe the presented scenery in real life.
In conclusion, it should be emphasized that the painting of Eve of Saint John reflects a young girl, going to the church depicted on the countryside of New Mexico. The painting reflects the artist’s personal philosophy in combination with cultural, social, geological, and other aspects of that time. The formal analysis revealed that the identified picture consists of the realistic elements and reflects the beauty of landscapes and the young innocent girl.
The mood here is quiet and philosophic, yet it is quite understandable and simple in proposing love to the natural environment, people around us, and also God. The research analysis showed that Hurd chooses egg tempera painting and gesso to imprint his perception. Such a choice helps to create emotional and intellectual appeals to the viewer and let him or her to communicate perspectives regarding the painting. Personally, I consider this painting as a masterpiece that is definitely worth turning one’s attention to in terms of understanding the modern painting associated with cultural and religious peculiarities.
De La Fuente, Peter. “Egg Tempera: Brief Introduction.” Wyeth Hurd.
“Peter Hurd.” Hurd Gallery.
“The Wyeth House.” Wyeth Artists.
Torpy, Janet M. “Eve of Saint John.” JAMA, vol. 304, no. 7, 2010, p. 720.