Tuesday, February 21, 2017

L.S. Lowry (1887 - 1976) - Vivian Zhang

L.S. Lowry (Laurence Stephen Lowry) was born on November 1, 1887 in Manchester, England. He was the only child of a lower-middle class family. His father was a failed business man and his mother, an unsuccessful pianist who worked as a piano teacher to earn money. Sources say they stayed in a loveless marriage and their only hopes for their son was to get a safe, bottom-rung job that earned enough money to put bread on the table. With regards to art, there was little to no encouragement. While his family was never truly poor, their financial issues required them to move from a Manchester suburb to Station Road, Pendlebury, where factories and industrial smoke overpowered any sights of trees and nature - something that would later influence his work.

Nevertheless, Lowry was never poor or unemployed. In fact, he had a stable upbringing and young adulthood that included attending private school and later working as an accountant. While this may come as a surprise to many, as his art often displayed the poorer population of England, his background never affected how the poor individuals were depicted in his art. Though he never experienced lower-class life himself, he knew how they lived through simple observation and represented them in a manner absent of judgment.

Lowry was a unique artist due to his unconventional background. None of the school he attended as a child would have paid attention to art. He was even working as an accountant before he was accepted to any art school. In 1905, a friend of his father's, Reginald Barber (VP of Manchester Academy of Fine Arts) helped Lowry get accepted part time to the academy. He began evening classes in antique and freehand drawing at both the Manchester Academy of Fine Art and at Salford Royal Technical College in Peel Park. There, his artistic career finally began.
After the Wedding 1939, oil on canvas

In the academies, Lowry took classes from seminal artists that heavily influenced his later work, namely Adolphe Valette, a French impressionist artist. Valette's work included many of the industrial scenes and dark cities that are so characteristic of Lowry's work. However, aside from developing his own style, Lowry also worked to get a solid foundation in art through the academy.

In the 1920's, his work truly took off. Lowry pinpoints his moment of realization to a train from Pendlebury. As he was looking out the window, he saw "the huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp charged afternoon sky" and knew he had to paint it.

Lowry is now known for his "matchstick men" and dreary, industrial paintings and drawings. Many of his paintings have the subject of the title tucked away in a corner while the rest of the canvas is dominated by extra figures in a large crowd so that the main subject has to be actively sought out by the viewer. He was highly skilled at drawing large crowds of people amongst a drab industrial background. His "matchstick men" are characterized by their plain, unadorned faces and slacked posture, representing the lower class of England. His work also includes dark, grey skies and lots of buildings, all of which lack conventional beauty, primarily due to their equally drab coloring.

He was known for his highly restricted palette of 5 colors: ivory black, vermilion, Prussian blue, yellow ochre, and flake white. Lowry had an obsession with the color white and what aging could do to it. He experimented with the color by covering a wooden board with white paint and putting the board into an airtight container for 7 years. His unique color schemes and self-restricted range thereof contributed to the dark features and gloomy tone that is present in all of his works.

While the dreary representations of industrial England and the poor individuals who work there would likely indicate some political message against industrialization and poverty, Lowry's work was actually devoid of any political agenda. Rather, he was noted for his lack of disparagement of the poor and his more pure representation of reality. He simply painted what he saw. He was renowned for these more realistic, albeit not entirely real, paintings. Yet, he was also known for the humor and absurdity in his works. In his work The Cripples, for instance, his depiction of a massive group of cripples is so absurd that viewers can find the absurdity of the painting funny without feeling guilty about laughing at a painting of cripples. Such nuanced humor gives a nice respite from the otherwise melancholy tone of the pieces.

The Cripples, 1949 oil on canvas

                                                                                     Drawings and sketches

Though Lowry did many oil canvas paintings, he also did many drawings. He felt that drawings were just as hard to do as paintings and many of his drawings depicted the same "matchstick men" and industrial backgrounds as his paintings. Lowry worked on his drawings by smudging, erasing and rubbing the pencil lines on his paper to create the atmosphere of the piece. Besides his more finished drawings, Lowry was also constantly sketching on paper, as shown by his topographical sketches from his travels around Britain.
                                                       Topographical Sketches in Britain while traveling

I initially picked this artist because there was something unique about the gloomy tones of his pieces that I couldn't quite put my finger on. I realize now that it was his lack of a political message that many other scholars have noted that differentiated him for me. What stood out about his pieces for me was that regardless of the dark tones and industrial haze, his pieces did not evoke sad feelings. It did not make me feel sorry for the "matchstick men" or make me hate industrialization. Instead, it was as if I was just observing a day in the life of an industrial town - its mundane nature was what captivated me. The pure representation without agenda was a breath of fresh air compared to the many works of art that contain political messages behind its dark representations.

I also like how Lowry's drawings can convey an equal amount of gloominess as his paintings, even without the drab colors. His use of heavy, yet undefined pencil outlines of buildings mixed with the darker shading give the same industrial feel as his oil canvases. I truly enjoyed learning about his life and examining his work. I don't think I've come across any other artist like him, which again was quite refreshing.

      I liked his matchstick men pencil outlines in these drawings

He is still able to capture the industrial feeling of his oil canvases with his drawings. 


LS Lowry. (n.d.). Retrieved February 21, 2017, from http://www.thelowry.com/ls-lowry/his-

Rosenthal, T. G. (2016). L. S. Lowry: the art and the artist. London: Unicorn press.

T. (n.d.). Sketches of heads and figures. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from 

The Editors of Encyclop√¶dia Britannica. (2009, August 26). L.S. Lowry. Retrieved February 
       21, 2017, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/L-S-Lowry

No comments:

Post a Comment