Walton Ford is a contemporary American artist, known for his majestic watercolour-on-paper works, whose size challenges the normal preconceptions about a medium that is often confined to smaller formats. Ford’s creations resemble nineteenth-century naturalistic illustrations, picturing animals in luxurious natural contexts. However, his art goes much deeper than the mere description of nature and its minute detail. In fact, the artist loves to mix his visual products with literary references and anecdotes which are sometimes included as written texts in the actual artworks. His technical skills, the aesthetic refinement of each depiction, and the multiple layers of meaning provide an immersive experience for the viewer. This post will present some of the aspects of Ford’s oeuvre and highlight the masterful intensity of his paintings.
Jack on His Deathbed
In Jack on His Deathbed, the painter has depicted the personal monkey of William Hamilton, who was the British ambassador in Naples during the 18th century. Hamilton mentioned the animal in his own letters and Ford decided to represent the primate following the same humanising fashion used to describe it. The effect is uncanny and yet oddly charming. The gaze of the beast is particularly expressive and the loose movement of the hands, which fall onto the cloth without energy, beautifully represent the prostration of the last instants of life. In the background, the artist offers a placid view of the countryside with mount Vesuvius dominating the landscape on the right. Ford’s monkey is peculiarly human and the viewer is led to develop a controversial sense of empathy toward the dying creature, one would say, as if it was human.
Irony is sometimes used to convey a social message beyond the playful and apparently innocent depiction of animals. In Grand Tour, the artist mocks the young British aristocrats who, during the 18th and 19th century, would travel throughout southern Europe to consolidate their culture. The image has a ludicrous atmosphere, embodied by the lustful gaze of the mandrill, which is jumping onto an ancient statue. This probably represents a naked goddess but the aroused animal seems to be more interested in her procacious forms than in the polished beauty of classical statuary. In fact, there is little room for misinterpretation and Ford’s harsh criticism is convincingly expressed by the juxtaposition of title and narration.
Walton Ford’s works express both monumentality and pettiness. From his ludicrous monkey to the imposing muscular figures of his tigers, the artist encompasses a variety of characters and attitudes which could almost be ascribed to humans. In fact, Ford’s animals are far from being only pretty illustrations of an exotic paradise. Rather, their humanity tries to engage with the audience and provoke thoughts through an uncanny perception of empathy. In The Sensorium, a group of monkeys is placed on a table. Apparently, they are pretending to be humans. However, they only act as the beasts that they are because it is our gaze that creates associations between them and the domestic context, thus drawing a narrative from it. In the painting we see a distorted mirror of human life. The illusion and the consequent sense of alienation are indeed the artist’s greatest accomplishments.