Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Rocket

The Rocket is a work made by Edward Middleton Manigault, who completed the piece using oil on canvas board in 1909. Though Manigault is considered an early American Modernist painter, The Rocket, measuring 20 x 24, is done in a post-Impressionist style. It depicts an autumn fireworks display over the Hudson River using a distinct palette with bold primary colors. It is an important painting with a unique style and story to tell, that is deserving of far more praise and recognition than it has received to date.
            For context, it is necessary to note a thing or two about the life of the artist. Manigault was born in London in 1887 and began painting very early in his life. At the age of 18 he moved to America to attend the New York School of Art, and the next few years of his life were full of accomplishment. Leaving Realism behind and moving on to post-Impressionist style paintings, he soon had his art on display in an exhibition, and later staged three solo shows, one of which was critically acclaimed. At the age of 28 however, two days after getting married, he returned to Britain to serve as an ambulance driver in WWI for six months. Exposure to mustard gas caused him to have a nervous breakdown, and his life spiraled downward after that. He would practice fasting in an attempt "to approach the spiritual plane and see colors not perceptible to the physical eye,” and this ultimately caused him to die of starvation at the age of 35.
            Walking through the galleries in the Columbus Museum of Art, it is nigh impossible to walk past The Rocket and not take notice of it. The vibrant colors grab ones attention and draw one in to a scene that is immediately recognizable as a fireworks display over a river. It is an incredibly unique subject matter for a painting, and a perfect choice to illustrate some of the central ideas of Impressionism, which are to capture a specific moment in time and focus on the perception of light. Yet he puts his own creative twist on it, using colors that are slightly unrealistic, but not unbelievable, and do well to represent the optical experience of watching fireworks. Short, quick brush strokes of distinctly different colors mimic the dazzling experience of seeing a display in real life. The flat image of the painting on paper or a screen fails to demonstrate how brilliant this effect is in person, as the texture of the thick paint creates even more shimmer and shadow. Bold red and blue hues illuminate the trails and clouds of smoke, and the main rocket explosion front and center is a striking combination of blue, yellow and orange, with a shower of sparks cascading below it in a variety of warm colors. Some depth is created using a horizon line over a river bank, and a background that is primarily darkness. The viewer can perhaps take a second to imagine they are sitting in the small boat shown down on the river, which reflects the excitement happening in the sky above.
            Manigault supposedly destroyed over 200 of his own paintings in fits of hysteria or depression, and there are few of them left to see. But if one were to look through the paintings that remain, it would be evident that none are so colorful and intense as The Rocket. As the years passed, the palette for his paintings became more somber and muted, the subject matter more dark and symbolic. By the end of his life, after his time serving in WWI, he appeared to paint mostly drab and dull still lifes. Do the paintings of Manigault perhaps provide a window into his mind? One might speculate that he had been mentally unwell long before the war, and that his service only exacerbated his troubles, as evidenced by the change in his art style throughout his life. Whether or not this is true, it is at least known that his mental health did decline after the war. The Rocket, then, is not only exemplary of the spirit of Impressionism, but a relic from the best years of its creator’s life, when maybe he was not yet troubled, and capable of seeing life in vivid color without having to starve himself for it.
            This painting is not only important for its style and composition in relation to post-Impressionism, but because it is an icon for those who suffer from mental unhealth. It is symbolic of a time when someone who suffered from his own mind was without strife. Perhaps that is why, of the twenty or so paintings he didn’t destroy, The Rocket was one of them, and why it is so different from the rest. It was a reminder that his life was once different, and he was able to know the world in all of its radiant beauty, something he died longing to see again.

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