The hand of the artist (or artist’s had) refers to the evidence authorship in a work of art, identified by any evidence of the artist’s mark in the piece. For example, the brush strokes left in paint, the delicate modeling of a sculpture, and even the general emotive qualities of a piece and all be described as the artist’s hand and used to uncover the artistic process of creating the art. This the proof left behind that reveals or provides insight into the artist’s role in creating the art. An expert can spot an unsigned Picasso as genuine merely by identifying Picasso’s one-of-a-kind handling of every medium he ever tackled. There’s something deeply personal when an artist gives his hand, his unaccredited collaborator if you will, a cameo.
One artist that demonstrates perfectly the artist’s hand concept is Dutch genre painter Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer lived in the 17th-century and painted mostly domestic scenes; in fact most of his paintings are set in one of two rooms in his own home in Delft and the same pieces of furniture, decorations and even the sitter (generally women) can be identified from painting to paintings. He worked slowly and with great care, using bright colors and is particularly famous for his masterly treatment of light in his paintings. The recurrence of traits from painting to painting— style, light effects, furniture, location, subjects, pigments, materials, etc.— are all considered evidence of Vermeer’s authorship, or “hand,” in his paintings. But in particular, it is Vermeer’s use of color to recreate the effect of light hitting a surface that most distinguishes his hand at work. There is no other seventeenth-century artist who employed as lavishly, or as wastefully, the exorbitantly expensive pigment lapis lazuli, or natural ultramarine. Vermeer used these elements not just in naturally colored subjects, but earth colors like umber and ochre. Vermeer understood that warm light behaved within a painting’s strongly-lit interior by reflecting in multiple colours onto the wall. So he recreated this effect by building the warms tones with cooler tones and in this way he created a world more perfect than any one could witness, as exampled in “View on Delft.” Vermeer developed this method from his understanding of Leonardo’s observations that the surface of every object partakes of the colour of the adjacent object, meaning that no object is ever seen entirely in its natural color. Anyway, I say all this to make the point that artists can leave a signature trait behind in their work that distinguishes it as there’s, and these traits are referred to as the “artist’s hand.”
Below are two good examples of Vermeer’s “hand” putting authorship to his work. You can see that single out a woman, the floor is of the same tile, the composition is notably similar, some historians think the man is the same model (others believe “The Allegory of Painting” is self-portrait though), and colors and lighting are also similar as well as his expert treatment of the lush fabrics.
I think its worth pointing out that the Modern art movement developed largely around questioning the what’s, why’s, and how’s of art with the intention of challenging the academy’s authority to distinguish between “good” and “bad” art. By ignoring basic artistic conventions, the premise of removing authorship arose and thus artists began to omit their signatures from their work. No finer example of this can be mentioned than Marcel DuChamp’s readymades. The readymades are Duchamp’s answer to the question, How can one make works of art that are not “of art”? They are incredibly impudent and Duchamp’s method was audacious: he withdrew the hand of the artist from the process of making art, substituted manufactured articles (some custom-made, some readymade) for articles made by the artist, and substituted random or nonrational procedures for conscious design. The results are works of art without any pretense of artifice, and unconcerned with imitating reality in any way. The readymades included found objects, objects he chose and deemed art presented unaltered largely the way he found them. Again, these objects lack completely any distinguishing traits that could single out DuChamp as the maker.
DuChamp reasoned that if you want to break all the rules of the artistic tradition then you may as well begin by discarding art’s most fundamental values: beauty and authorship/artisanship. By removing completely any signifier from the work, he created art that was art only because he CHOSE it and presented it as such. His most famous readymade is probably “The Fountain.” (though he definitely had co-conspirators, most notable of which is Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and she is a complicated post for another day) “The Fountain” was conceived for a show promoting avant-garde art, which inevitably excluded forward-looking artists. Under the pseudonym “R. Mutt,” DuChamp took advantage of the show’s lack of juried panels and submitted “Fountain” as a prank taunting his not-quite-so-avant-garde peers. And like all of his readymades, this was a calculated attack on art tradition. By signing the piece as “R. Mutt” Duchamp surrendered all claim to authorship of the piece, completely eliminating the “artist’s hand” tradition in the “The Fountain.” He defended the piece from accusations and even charges of plagiarism in an unsigned article in The Blind Man, a one-shot magazine published by his friend Beatrice Wood, replying that “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view — created a new thought for that object.”
And so, Modern Art was born and authorship— among other conventional definitions of art— became irrelevant.
In 1995, Damien Hirst defended his work with that very same rationale stating that, “It’s very easy to say, ‘I could have done that,’ after someone’s done it. But I did it. You didn’t. It didn’t exist until I did it.”
Well this post took a tangent toward Modern Art! But I suppose Modern Art is my favorite and I have been thinking about the period a lot here lately. I hope you guys enjoyed the extra art information. It seems that I need to to do a post on Damien Hirst and the Baroness soon.
So recap: Artist’s hand refers to signifiers of authorship, that distinguish the art piece as being by this artist.