I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with the pastor and author Russ Ramsey. His new book is Rembrandt Is In The Wind: Learning To Love Art Through The Eyes of Faith.
RUSS RAMSEY, GUEST: One of the things that you see and studying the lives of these artists is the discipline to their craft, had a direct relationship on on not only the, the lasting power of it for us, but it had a direct relationship to the enjoyment that they got out of creating it. And the principle there is that mastery begets joy.
When Russ Ramsey was in high school, he got some great advice from his art teachers. If the study of art, especially art history, is daunting, break it down. Find an artist you like, and learn all you can about him or her. Let the artist you love introduce you to other artists, and keep doing that for a lifetime.
That advice has served Russ Ramsey well. Though he ended up not as an artist, but rather the pastor of a church in Nashville, he learned along the way that the two vocations are not so different. In the beginning, God created. And we are made in His image, so we create too. We may not craft a painting or a sculpture. What we are making may be a business, a church, a community. We are all building a life. And for Christians we are building a life that we hope will bring glory to God, and point others to Him.
Russ Ramsey reminds us that a study of the great artists can inform our own process of making and creating.
Russ is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, where he lives with his wife and children. He has degrees from Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary. Russ himself has a growing tribe of followers on social media—and now in this book—who look to him for guidance in navigating the world of art—and for guidance in crafting a life of goodness, truth, and beauty for themselves.
Russ Ramsey spoke to me from Nashville.
Support for Listening In comes from Samaritan Ministries, a community of Christians who care for one another spiritually and financially when a medical need arises.
Samaritan Ministries is a Biblical solution to health care, where members are committed to honoring Christ through prayer and sharing the burden of one another’s medical expenses. Just ask Cameron and Roanna, whose son fractured his wrist. Hospital bills started to arrive, but they weren’t concerned about the financial impact because fellow members came alongside them through prayer and financial support for their medical bills. More at samaritanministries.org/worldpodcast.
WS: Russ, welcome to the program. I've got to tell you I found your book just to be a real blessing to me. It didn't hurt that a couple of the artists I had some familiarity with, including Vermeer and Lilias Trotter because I had seen my friend Laura Waters Henson's documentary about Lilias Trotters life. But I learned a ton about a lot of artists that, you know, maybe kind of vaguely knew about. So thank you.
RUSS RAMSEY, GUEST: Man, I appreciate that. So you know about Lilias Trotter?
WS: Yeah, And we're gonna get to her, I hope, but let me start back at the beginning, because I think there's some, there's some foundational stuff that we need to talk about before we talk about some of the individual artists. Number one: you know, why? Why did you want to do a book about artists? You're a pastor. You know, you've written other books, but they're kind of not in this in this vein, I guess you could say,
RR: Yeah, you know, it's funny, I had a love for art before, I had a sense of calling to be a pastor. And so it's kind of been part of the way I've been wired since I was in high school and middle school. I had great art teachers in middle school and high school, who wanted to instill in us a lifelong love of art. And that certainly took root for me. And so I think kind of, as I went through college and getting married and thinking about my calling to be a pastor, that love of art was kind of already there. And so it informed a lot of the way that I thought about everything else in my life. You know, this, this idea that, of transcendence and beauty and things that last rather than, you know, everything just being like a vapor. And so, it made a lot of sense to me when I was exploring my pastoral call to think about that through the lens of, of beauty and artistry, even in the things that pastors do like, like preaching and, and casting vision and all those things. There just seemed to always to be an element of artistry to that that just made sense.
WS: Well, I want to drill down on a couple of ideas that you just mentioned. One of those ideas is your, your background with your teachers. Your teachers had a very formative role in this book, in a lot of ways, didn't they?
RR: Yeah, I dedicated the book to them. They're still living. They are, Kathy Ferguson was my high school art teacher and Steve and Nancy Buyer who are married to each other were my middle school art teachers. All three of them were Christians I was a public school kid in a small farming town in Indiana. And they just they just really made an impression on me. They they put beautiful things in front of us. And they, I remember they spoke a lot about their own love for certain artists and certain kinds of art, and it and it it translated to me. And so yeah, when I was thinking about dedicating the book, it just was easy. I was like, I'm gonna, I'm gonna dedicate this to my art teachers. And through the wonder of social media and you know, things like that I was able to re-establish contact with them. And and they recently sent me a photo. The three of them got together - they're all retired now, and the three of them got together and took a photo of themselves together - all three of them holding Rembrandt paintings - and sent it to me. It's, and it's just something I treasure. It's in my office.
WS: Yeah, well in fact, did you put that photo up on social media, Russ?
RR: I did yeah.
WS: I thought I saw that. And that's another thing that I wanted to sort of drill into a little bit that you hadn't mentioned is that I got to know you through your Instagram account. You, you post is it every Wednesday that you put something up?
RR: Every, every Wednesday. Yeah, I've done it for I'm in my third year, of every single Wednesday. We call it, I call it art Wednesday. That's the hashtag: #ArtWednesday. And what it is, is over the course of the day, on Wednesday, starting at about 7:30 in the morning, till about 7 at night, I'll post a series of images of paintings or sculptures or something that are all kind of thematically tied together. So it may be, you know, all paintings by a particular artist, or all photos of, you know, paintings that have been stolen and never recovered. Or, I did a one Art Wednesday, just on the invention of the tin paint tube, which changed the way art was made. There was a point in time in the mid 1800s, where the the paint tube was invented, and art started being made outside. And you can go into a museum and you can see it. You know, you can see just the way that art went from being painted inside art studios to being something that was painted out in fields.
WS: Well, that was by the way, that was one of the stories that I found really fascinating about your book. I mean, there was there was a lot of great just sort of almost side stories in the book that I that I found that that was one of them. The invention of the tin paint tube, just revolutionized. The artist did not have to make his own paints anymore. He could purchase them. He could get a much broader palette of colors, because he was not limited by the pigments that he could find locally. And, as you say, it sort of changed the way painting was done. In fact, I think it'd be fair to say, and we're going to maybe get to this a little more in a minute, that Impressionism and Expressionism, the Post-Impressionist movements, probably owe their development to that technological invention.
RR: There is no question about it. I mean, it's, it's funny, there's an article you can find online about a Van Gogh painting, where there's actually a grasshopper leg in the paint, because he was painting it outside in a field. And the grasshopper leg is kind of in in the painting because, you know, it jumped and stuck to the canvas. And so,
WS: That's amazing.
RR: Yeah, yeah, but it's stuff like that. So so every Wednesday, yeah I still do it. And it's one of the ways really, for me that I teach myself about art. I'm not, I didn't have an art degree. I don't, you know, my, my experience with art, my knowledge of art is something that's just kind of a personal quest. And so, Art Wednesday is one of my own personal disciplines to learn more about art. Because one of the things my art teacher said to me in high school was she said, if you want to have a lifelong appreciation of art, find an artist that you connect with, and just pay attention to them for the rest of your life. And what they will do is they will introduce you to their friends and to their mentors, and you'll come to know other artists who were inspired by them. And sure enough, that'sr what's happened. And so, you know, there's there's just kind of this these breadcrumbs. You know, where when I study one artist, I learned something about art or something about another artist that piques my curiosity. And, you know, I'll I'll never come close to exhausting a fraction of what there is to learn out there. So, but Art Wednesday is an exercise in continuing to learn.
WS: Well, it's a it's a great exercise. And it certainly taught me a lot as well, as has as have your book. And I want to maybe pivot a bit in our conversation because we've been talking about art primarily, and we've been talking about, you know, how you developed an appreciation of art. But I've mentioned already that you are a pastor. And in some ways, the connection between art, creativity, making things, and theology should be front and center for Christians. I mean, after all, the Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning, God created.” You observe in your book, something that I say a lot to myself as a writer, which is that when God put Adam in the Garden of Eden, he said, “Name the animals.” And sort of looking at creation and with a discerning eye learning to really see that creation and then giving it a name that is, you know, that has a relationship to that being, that has a relationship to that deep seeing of the thing. We find that in Genesis chapter one and Genesis chapter two, and you think it would be more a part of who we are as Christians. But it's really not, is it?
RR: No, no, I think I think that's one of the things that, you know, by definition of being people made in the image of God, He's creator. That makes us, by definition, creators, too - ‘sub creators’ I think was the term Tolkien used. But, we reflect Him by making, by naming, by searching for connections between what we see and what we say. And, you know, I think it's, it's an important part. I'm part of a, you know, a theological circle that can be known for headiness, and, you know, wanting to be right. And I guess what theological circle doesn't, doesn't have that as a characteristic. But we can be kind of ethereal and, and academic and, and in the process, we can be all about the pursuit of, of truth, which is important, and all about the pursuit of goodness and justice, which are important. But maybe devalue the pursuit of beauty, and engaging with beauty. And I think, to know God as he is, you know, one of the chief descriptors of God, given to help us understand who he is, is, is that he's glorious. And so putting ourselves in the path of things that move us to awe, and wonder, and reverence. And giving us a sense of, that we're beholding glory is a good discipline, I think, for Christians who really want to understand the character and the nature of God Himself.
WS: Well, and that's another thing that you unpack a bit in the beginning of the book, you talk about the three transcendentals: the good, the true and the beautiful. I don't know that you said this, Russ in your book, but I've heard other theologians say that, that they're inseparable. That you that you really can't, I mean, you'll like you say, a lot of evangelical Christians, especially some of certain persuasions shall we say, are really focused on the truth of something. But that if we try to separate the goodness of something from the truth of something, or the beauty of something from the goodness and the truth of something, we really diminish all three. That God didn't say, I'm gonna be beautiful today, but tomorrow, I'm going to be true. And then the next thing you know, I mean, they go together there, they are all intimately who God is together.
RR: Yeah, it's I mean, it's, it's why Paul could write in First Corinthians that if we have all of these great gifts, and they were great gifts that he lists, but we don't have love, then we don't really have those gifts. You know, that without, without love being a component of our prophetic voice, or our ability to teach or understand or explain things to people, then we really don't have a good ability to teach and explain and understand things. You know, because if that component that that is the part that stirs the heart, and moves our affections is not engaged, than the rest of it is, is not just deficient. It's just, it's incomplete to a degree that it's not what we think it is.
WS: Yeah. There were a couple of other concepts that you introduced in the beginning of the book, and then you unpack them as we talk about the individual artists, and I promise you, we are going to get to the individual artists here in a minute. But the but those two ideas that that I want you to say a little bit about one is work, and the other is community. And you you make a point when as as appropriate, whenever you talk about the nine artists, to observe that that almost none of them operated in a vacuum. Almost none of them truly operated alone. That but that there was anywhere from one or two people to a robust community around them that were supporting their work. Can you say more about both of those ideas?
RR: Yeah, I mean, it's, it's there in Eden, right? I, you know, this idea that when God made Adam, and he looked around at creation before Eve, He said, there's something missing. And the Lord said, it's not good for man to be alone. He didn't just give Adam Eve, but in the act of giving Adam Eve what he was giving Adam was he was giving him others. Others than just himself. And so and then Adam and Eve together, made more you know. And and it's not just that, that the husband was given a wife but it's that a person was given other people. And which is kind of a beautiful thought to think of. And then as they're there, they're they're given they're given work. Work predates the fall. The arduous nature of work and the and the pain of it is post fall but but but work itself predates the fall. And these are the, I call them the relics of Eden that we've got, that community and work are two things that were that were part of how we were made before sin entered the world. And they continue to be a part of the way that we live, where we have opportunity to engage with how things were intended to be, how things were meant to be. And so, you know, in the world of, of creators and artists who are making these things, you you kind of see it happen that these, these works don't come about in a vacuum. So they're created in the context of community. And when there's a discipline and a willingness to yield to the demands of the craft in order to become better at it, you can rise to a place where something you make as just a human being has this power to stick around for 500 years, and, and compel people to give up vacation days and 1000s of dollars to go to the other side of the globe, to just stand in front of the statue that Michelangelo carved. It just it's kind of an amazing thought to think of how what all of that is saying about how human beings are made.
WS: Yeah. Well, since you mentioned Michelangelo, in this in the statue that he carved - you started your book with Michelangelo and David. Why did you want to start there?
RR: Well, there's a very practical reason for it. And that is that I wanted to, I didn't intend to write an art history book. But any opportunity that I had to maybe reinforce a little bit of art history I took, if it made sense. And so the artists are arranged chronologically. So Michelangelo is first because he was the earliest artist that I dealt with, in that, in that particular work. But I love that Michelangelo is really the first artist that I take up in earnest, because that statue of David, and the story behind how it came to be, and what it is now is, is I felt like it was a really good table setter for everything else that was about to follow. You know, each of the chapters in the book is a standalone essay about a particular work. So if you pick up the book and start in chapter four, you're not going to be lost, because chapter four is about something that's completely different than what chapter three is about, and so on, and so forth. But that Michelangelo chapter is one of my favorites to do as a talk. These these chapters actually started as as lectures. So at the Rabbit Room hosts a conference every year called Hutch Moot Night, and I'll do a breakout session where I'll give it, just tell a story about a piece of art. And so the first few of these chapters came about as as opportunities to do that. And, you know, lots of PowerPoint slides happening in the background kind of illustrating what it is that I'm talking about. But the Michelangelo chapter is one of my favorites to deliver live. Just because it's a, yeah, it's a fascinating tale.
WS: Well, it is a fascinating story. And I learned, I mean, I don't know that any school kid probably doesn't know at least about the statute, that it exists. They've probably seen pictures of it. But so much of the backstory was just unknown to me. And I, you know, kind of thought I've been paying at least a little bit of attention to these matters over the years. But but one of the key points and let's first of all, let's just stipulate for the record, we can't unpack the whole book. Go get the book, go buy the book, go read the book. It's, I promise you you will be you will be worth your time, energy and money to do so. But But Russ, one of the things that I thought was fascinating about that story, among many aspects was that Michelangelo wasn't the first sculptor to take us to take a swing at the bat, so to speak, or the swing of the swing of the chisel and hammer, so to speak. That, that that massive stone had been cut and hauled many, many miles before, you know, it got to the place where it was supposed to be. And then, and then another artist had tried and failed to turn it into a sculpture. And one of the points that you make there, which I think is such a beautiful point, is that, you know, we don't always have a choice about what we're given in terms of raw materials in our life itself. I mean, would would I, you know, if I'm a writer, would I have loved to have gone to an Ivy League school and had world class mentors and world class opportunities from the very beginning of life? Well, sure. But I am what I am and I am where I am. And that was the situation Michelangelo found himself as well. And he turned that into real greatness.
RR: Yeah, yeah, we work with what we're given. And we always do, you know. And even though, even though the decisions that the two prior sculptors made didn't go very far at all, they, they shaped how the statue would have to stand. They bore a hole through the middle of the rock in order to pull it, you know, as one of the ways that they transported it. And so the way his, and that's the space between his legs now. And, you know, so yeah, that just that thought that we work with what we're given, and that we're also in the process of, through the influence that we have on other people's lives, we're people who are giving other people things that they will have to work with. You know, so my kids are receiving from me a lot of what they're going to have to work with in life, for better or for worse, you know. And yet, there's God's kindness in that. That we have to that we have to proceed with a measure of dependence and a measure of humility, to say even as much as I want to pour myself in to doing the best that I can, and creating the best work that I can create, I still rely on the, the advances of other people, the things that other people have done, even in order to do that. Even this conversation you and I are having right now, we're relying on computer manufacturers and people who understand microphones and electricity, you know, and things like that in order for us to even be able to have a conversation about art.
WS: Yeah. The next artist in your book is Caravaggio. And the, the thing that fascinated me about him, and and I learned it from you, is that he he did some of the most remarkable paintings ever painted about biblical things. And yet, it is hard to imagine someone who lived a more pagan, heathen, dissolute life than he. And yet you just absolutely see, you know sense the glory of God in his paintings. How do you explain that?
RR: Well, it's funny, I got into the Michelangelo, uh, the Caravaggio story, because there's a particular painting of his that I was drawn to and wanted to learn about and, and thought, I'm gonna write about this. And in the process, I learned that Caravaggio was this, he was, he was kind of a monster of a person. He murdered people. He, you know, one of his biographers said that Caravaggio only knew two seasons: Carnival and Lent and nothing in between. And what struck me about Caravaggio is he's a picture of, of all of us, I think. That we have this incredible capacity for engaging with transcendence and glory. And we also have this profound sense of corruption that resides in our hearts at the same time. You know, this idea of simil justus et peccator, you know, at the same time, justified and sinner. And Caravaggio just illustrates that in such a such a profound way where his story gets darker and sadder. And his, the end of his life is a is a lonely tragedy. And yet, he also is responsible for these works of art that just move people to tears to stand in front of, and reveal the beauty of the risen Christ, you know, in ways that that would have been impossible to do without some understanding of of a need for mercy and grace, you know? And so, we are paradoxes. And I think that's the one of the things that I'm drawn to about Caravaggio's story is that he is this paradox of corruption and grace.
WS: And he influenced so many people that came after him as well, right?
RR: Yeah. Yeah. The the, you know, that one of the commentators or biographers of Caravaggio said there was art before Caravaggio and art after Caravaggio, and they're not the same thing. You know, that Rembrandt was shaped. And all these these these folks that came after him. Of the use of the light and the dark. And the the, the kind of dramatic scenes as opposed to the composed and posed scenes that might have come before that. Yeah, he had a huge influence. But it took a while for his for his popularity to come around because when he died, he kind of died in in, in scandal and under a kind of a canopy of shame.
WS: Yeah, yeah. Well, you mentioned Rembrandt and he's the next artist in your book. Rembrandt. And one of the fascinating stories about Rembrandt's painting is that, that where the book where the title of the book comes from, Rembrandt is In the Wind. And there's actually sort of a famous art heist where a bunch of Rembrandts were, were stolen. Is that accurate?
RR: Yeah, yeah. So it's the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It's in the Fenway neighborhood there. And on St. Patrick's Day in 1990, some thieves dressed as police officers, Boston police officers, got the security guards to buzz them in. And they tied them up and spent, you know, the next hour and a half loading 13 irreplaceable pieces of art into a vehicle and it trundled away in the night. And those things have never been seen since. And one of them was Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which was cut from the frame with a with a box cutter. And just due to the nature of a lot of that essay in that book is about the muse, it's more about the museum than it is about Rembrandt. And the woman who built that museum, Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of the clauses in the museum after her passing was that it had to remain intact as as a work of art itself. So the collection couldn't be altered. And so when that painting was cut out of its frame, the frame stayed on the wall, even though the painting isn't in it. So if you go today, actually to the to that museum, you can go stand in front of the frame that hangs on the wall where the painting used to be inside of it. And it's it's a, it's a powerful story and an image of, you know, I just think about at some point, in that painting, Rembrandt has painted himself into the boat. And he's in the middle of the boat, and he's looking out at the viewer. He's the only person in the boat who's looking out at us. And it just fascinates me to think there had to have been a moment in time where the thief with his box cutter was eye to eye with Rembrandt, who was asking the viewer the same thing that all the disciples in the boat were asking Jesus. And that question is, don't you care that this world is broken and perishing? And, you know, history will will not reveal to us, you know, what that experience was like for those thieves, I don't I don't think. I don't think we're ever going to see that stuff again. I think it's gone. But just that idea of man, this, this world is already broken enough. To cut a Rembrandt from the frame to steal it, just that's that's that's low. One of the one of the Boston residents described the heist, said her her biggest problem with the heist was not the value of the art, but that it was rude. And I love that.
WS: Right? Well, and I must say, Russ, though, I would like to offer a friendly disagreement with you about whether we will see that those those that art again, because my guess is that it's in the New York apartment of some Russian oligarch. That they're, that they've got it there, you know, trying as a way to get their wealth out of Russia. There's a, and I say that, partly in jest. But also, one of the things that you said in the book, and it was a fascinating story within your book is that the laws about stolen art are really inadequate. That if, you know, that in the, I think was in the Netherlands, you said that if you if it's been more than 20 years after a piece of art has been stolen, if you're in possession of it, it belongs to you now, right?
RR: Yes. Yeah, it's crazy. And you know, and the you know, so if you steal $100,000 worth of weapons, the sentence for that is drastically higher than if you steal $100,000 worth of art. And so a lot of folks would steal art because they could do the time. It was kind of a risk assessment. And it was sort of, well, you know, we can, we can do the time and we can return the art as as a way to get a lighter sentence. You know, if we get nabbed for it, we can just put some things where, you know, if you want this particular piece back, give me probation and I'll make sure that you know, you get it back. But I don't know it's been it's been over 30 years since those paintings were stolen. And there's been a $5 million reward for their return from the FBI. And the FBI hasn't gotten one single helpful lead.
WS: That's amazing. That's remarkable. Well, again, I hold out hope that some some oligarch who's trying to launder drug money or you know, other ill gotten money has that, has some of that artwork in their in their basement somewhere and
RR: I'll tell you, it'll be a big day if that Rembrandt turns up again. Big day.
WS: No question about it. Well, now, you know, we've we've almost exhausted our time, Ross, but I'm going to push us a little bit farther because we're now getting to one of my favorites. And I would guess at this point many people's favorites. Because when I, I've got to tell you I first discovered Vermeer, when I was in college. I had a, my best friend at the time, man named Jeff Sigler, who is today an artist himself. So Jeff, if you're listening, shout out to you. Jeff was an art student at that time. I was living in Washington, D.C. And Jeff said to me, Warren, there are at least five Vermeers in New York City right now at this time. And he was a big fan of Vermeer. And so he flew to Washington, D.C, and we drove to New York in the fall of 1979. And we saw all five of those Vermeers that were scattered out over a couple of different galleries in New York City at that time. I fell in love with Vermeer then as a result of Jeff, but have since I guess you could say become a minor student. You've become a major student of Vermeer. And that I found that chapter to be particularly fascinating. And you know, we already talked about the, the tube, the paint tube. And and that, you know, brought to mind the relationship between art and technology. Whenever there's a technological innovation that does tend to change, tyou know, the way we relate to each other culturally. It changes the arts. It changes entertainment, and so on. Technology influenced Vermeer dramatically. Can you say more about that?
RR: Yeah. Yeah. So the first time I saw Vermeer, I was at a bookstore, used bookstore. And I knew that one of his paintings was stolen in that, in that Gardner heist where the Rembrandt went missing. That's how I learned about Vermeer. And so I found a book called The Complete Works of Vermeer. And it's very thin, because there's only about 35 of them that exist, right? So I'm flipping through just you know, looking and something strikes me where I just something feels off that in the experience I'm having looking at it. And I can't put my finger on what's wrong, but there's something wrong. Or if wrong isn't the right word for it, there's just something amiss that my brain isn't calculating. And I kind of realized later, oh, all of almost all of these paintings are from the same vantage point of the same room. What's going on with that? And turns out, he used an optical device. He had a he had a setup where his he had to paint from the same place because he used a particular kind of lens that made it so that he could paint in incredibly intricate detail, which is one of the things that he's known for. It's just the detail in his work, it's just otherworldly. Well, the reason it's otherworldly is because he's using a series of lenses and mirrors that he had to construct with the help of what we think is a guy named Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, who lived in Delft at the time that Vermeer was there. And Leeuwenhoek, actually, Leeuwenhoek, I think is how his name is pronounced, he he's known as the father of microbiology. And he made microscopes which involved lenses and mirrors. And he he seems to be in one of Vermeer's paintings as, in two Vermeer's paintings as a geographer and an architect. So Vermeer used mirrors and lights and, and lenses in order to paint these works that just are so incredible. And it got me thinking about how you know how we do that now, where we use, we stand on the shoulders of the technological advances that have gotten us to where we are. Like the tin paint tube or like, Pro Tools for people who make music, you know. It used to be you had to go buy magnetic tape, and you had to go to recording studios, if you wanted to make a record. Now you can do it on your laptop, and you can send tracks back and forth to people digitally. And it's changed the music, but it's also made it so that there was an accessibility to it. And so it got me to thinking about just how how much of what we do in everyday life is supported by the ingenuity of so many other people that the Lord gave wisdom and insight and curiosity and discernment to go chase certain things down to figure out how to make something that would make life a little bit easier. It's a he's a fascinating artist.
WS: Well, he certainly is. And yeah, I've been fascinated with him for you know, most of my adult life. And I was really delighted to find a chapter. And a lot of people have now. I mean, there was The Girl with the Golden Earring was was a movie. And Tim's Vermeer, the Pin and Teller's movie was also a documentary that kind of brought Vermeer into the public imagination back a few years ago. So I guess um, you know, I'm not the only one at the party anymore. You and I aren't the only two at the party at the Vermeer party anymore. But anyway, well, Russ, we're going to run out of time before we can even come close to exploring the book. But but since we talked about community earlier, I want to I want to very, very quickly get you to talk about Jean Frédéric Bazille. I think I pronounced his name properly. He is, he is not a very, well, he was an artist, but not really well known. However, he was the center of a community of artists that are that have since become household names. Would you tell us who he was and his influence on the circle around him?
RR: Bazille would have been kind of the mid to late 1800s in Paris, where the Impressionists were coming together. And so a lot of the household names that we know - Renoir, Monet, Manet, Alfred Sicily, a lot of these, Pizarro - all of these painters, they all knew each other. And they and they were all friends. And one of the reasons they were friends was because the art world at that time was kind of was governed by an organization called the Paris Salon. And that and the Salon was kind of the arbiter of, of good art, or at least popular art. And if you didn't make it into the Salon exhibitions, you really didn't have a good chance of being known or recognized. But the Salon also had particular tastes and things that they knew would sell. And so when the Impressionists were starting to kind of challenge the conventions of the day, they were just mostly met with resistance from the Salon. And so they found each other. And Bazille was a very good painter, who also had some wealth. And so he rented a studio and he would have his friends come over and paint. And he would share his art supplies with them and he would buy works from them. And the people we're talking about are none other than Renoir and Monet and Manet and Sicily and Pizarro, and you know, this community of artists. And Bazille was, was kind of a benefactor to the beginning of that community. And there's a painting, the painting that I focused on in that chapter is one that I saw in an exhibit that came to Nashville, where it's a painting of that he made of his studio, and the studio, in the studio with him is Monet, Manet, Renoir, Emile Zola, who was a poet, a musician. And on the walls are some of Bazille's work and also some of Monet's work and some Renoir. And it's just this beautiful picture of, oh, this was a community of people that banded together and eventually had exhibitions of their own and broke through. And now we know the rest of the story, that entire wings of the greatest museums in the world are devoted to the Impressionists. Bazille died young in war. He died in his 20s in battle. And that's kind of the reason why we don't know his name alongside of Monet, and the others, because they all referred to him was one of the best among them. But, but he his life was just cut short. But his story is fascinating, because I think without him, we wouldn't know impressionism in the way that we do, because of the way that he facilitated community and helped his friends when they were out of money by buying their work, and by giving them paint and that sort of thing. And so it's a beautiful picture of how, when a community bands together, each person is able to do more than they would ever be able to do just on their own.
WS: Yeah. Well, Russ, it's a fascinating story I'd never heard of Bazille and and to, it was such a poignant story about, you know, the fact that he did die in war. He died young, he had such great artistic talent himself, but he was also just so generous. I mean, he formed this community around him. You know, we're gonna have to leave out so much, including my wife's favorite artist, who is Vincent van Gogh. And or do you pronounce it van Gogh or van gock?
RR: I'm an American. So I call him van Gogh.
WS: Good. Excellent. Good, I'm glad.
RR: Yeah, the most pretentious I get with his name is I don't capitalize the v in van Gogh.
WS: Well, let's just stipulate for the record that I know how it's supposed to be pronounced, but I still pronounce it Van Gogh. We're gonna have to leave out Van Gogh, you know, and we're gonna have to leave out Henry Tanner, though I'm not gonna leave him out completely because you, you make a confession about Henry Tanner in your book. And I would you say a little bit about him and your confession?
RR: Yeah. So Henry Tanner is an African American painter from the 1800s. So his his mother was was a runaway slave who escaped the South via the Underground Railroad. And his father was a freedman who lived in Pittsburgh. And so he grew up in Pennsylvania. But he was born before the Civil War and was painting after the Civil War. So that was his America. And he's, as a black person, wanting to be a world class artist. And, but as he worked in America, he, he realized that he, all he was ever really going to be primarily known as in America was a black painter. And so he became an expatriate, he moved to Paris and spent the rest of his days there. And I think, you know, the confession that I make in the book is that the reason I know about Henry Tanner is through the Art Wednesday thing that I do. I wanted to do during Black History Month, a series on black painters and realized, I don't know many black painters. And so I found, you know, you can google and find, you know, I really wanted to know who some of these painters were. And found Henry Tanner. And when you search him, one of the things that comes up most frequently is he did two African American genre paintings, one called The Thankful Poor, and one called The Banjo Lesson. And they're beautiful, and they're full of dignity. And they're, they're just amazing paintings. And the confession I make in the book is that when I saw those paintings, one of my first responses was, “Okay, here we go, I found an African American painter, who paints black genre paintings.” Well, those were the only two black genre paintings he painted, because he didn't want to be the black painter who painted black genre. And most of what he painted was biblical scenes. And they are profound, and they're beautiful. And as I started to learn more about his biblical paintings, they started to, they started to really just rise to, these are some of the best I've ever seen. In fact, our church, we've decorated our church like an art museum, and I have more Henry Tanner paintings in here than I have anybody else because of the, the brilliance of his biblical, his treatment of biblical text is just amazing. But yeah, that was that's the confession that I make in the book is, is I, I wasn't looking for a token black painter. But I was looking to learn about black painters, because I didn't know them. And in finding him, you know, I, I had to wrestle with okay, what am I looking for here? Am I looking for a black painter who will paint scenes of, of black culture at the time? And if that's what I'm looking for, why? You know? And instead, what I found is this painter who happens to be African American who is, I think, one of the greatest painters of the 18th century, who, and early 19th century, and has become one of my, one of my favorite painters ever.
WS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Well, we're gonna leave out Edward Hopper and Edward's wife, Josephine, who was not well known in her lifetime as being a painter, more as a model for Edward Hopper. But we've since come to find out that she was a fine painter in her own right. And even though I promised otherwise, at the beginning of our conversation, we're gonna have to leave out Lilias Trotter, as well. All of which says, you know, go get the book, go read the book. And you because there are just so many great stories, Russ. So I just again, want to thank you for your book, but also you’ve got a couple of pages at the very end of the book that are, I think, directed towards me, and directed towards your reader, and maybe our listener. And it's, it's basically to say, we don't study these masters merely to find out who they were in what they did, but rather to awaken something in ourselves. Can you say more about that idea?
RR: Yeah, it's um, people will often talk about Christianity as a faith that we practice. And we can hear that term, you know, “I'm a practicing Christian,” and just mean it as well I'm a Christian. And, but there's actually significance in using that word. That we that we practice our faith in the way that people practice anything. You know that we practice prayer. We practice the art of studying Scripture. We practice being in community intentionally. And one of the things that you see in studying the lives of these artists is the discipline to their craft had a direct relationship on not only the lasting power of it for us, but it had a direct relationship to the enjoyment that they got out of creating it. And the principle there is that mastery begets joy. And so the more we practice something, whether it's an instrument or a sport, or a faith, the more familiar we become with something that used to be mysterious, and the more intimately connected we are to something that we maybe used to just admire from an academic point of view, or from, uh, you know, some other point of view. And so, you know, as we look at our own lives, part of what I, what I want for myself and hopefully for readers is that we would see that that we are all practitioners of craft, whether it's in our relationships, or whatever the work is that we do. And the more we lean into and learn that craft, the better we become at it. And the better we become at it, the more we enjoy doing it, which is, I think, a reflection of what it means to be a creator in the image of God, who is the creator of all. That we, that we have this ability to, to draw near to not only experiencing glory, but maybe even having a hand in generating some of it.
That brings to a close my conversation with Russ Ramsey. His new book is Rembrandt Is In The Wind: Learning To Love Art Through The Eyes of Faith.
By the way, if you were challenged or nourished by today’s conversation, I’d like to recommend that you check out the Listening In archives. As I mentioned in my conversation with Russ, one of the artists featured in Russ’s book is Lillias Trotter, who was the subject of a documentary film by Laura Waters Hinson. That film was called Many Beautiful Things, and when it released in 2015, I had Laura on the program to talk about Lillias Trotter and Laura’s own artistic process. You can find that interview by going to WNG.org and typing Laura Waters Hinson into the search engine.
Listening In comes to you from WORLD News Group, and this program is just one of the many benefits that comes with a WORLD subscription. To find out more visit WNG.org/subscribe.
Also, Listening In is now in its ninth year, and we have an extensive archive of more than 400 conversations with writers, filmmakers, news makers, and interesting people of all kinds—including Laura Waters Hinson, who I just mentioned. So if you’re new to the program, head over to the World News Group website and use the search engine to explore what we have there. Again, that’s WNG.org.
Tune in next week to hear my conversation with pastor and author Andy Stanley. His new book is Not In It To Win It. It’s a look at how Christians should engage the political process, and it’s a conversation that is sure to cause a reaction from those on both sides of the political spectrum. I hope you’ll join us.
The producer for today’s program is Leigh Jones. Johnny Franklin is the technical producer. And Paul Butler is executive producer for WORLD Radio. I’m your host, Warren Smith. And you’ve been Listening In….
Support for Listening In comes from Samaritan Ministries.
A broken bone, cancer, pregnancy, medical emergency…we all know how quickly a health care need can arise. That’s where Samaritan Ministries comes in. There are no network restrictions; you choose the doctors and treatments that are best for you. After care is received, medical bills are sent to Samaritan Ministries, and they notify members to pray and send money directly to you to help you pay your medical bills. New members are welcome anytime of the year.
More at samaritanministries.org/worldpodcast.
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.