Copley Plunge to Boston Museum of Fine Arts

The acquisitions subcommittee of the board of trustees of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has accepted the gift of the painting Copley Plunge this October, 2017. The painting was given to the museum by a collector in Maine.


Copley Plunge, 1990, oil on linen, 82 x 65 inches, Museum of Fine Arts Boston


The Space of Copley Plunge

Copley Plunge dates from a period in which I was experimenting with various perspectives.  There is the perspective invented by Brunelleschi and Alberti—with many refinements elaborated in the Baroque used in painting illusionistic ceilings in churches and palaces.  Andrea Pozzo’s treatise on perspective described the methods he used in painting his tour de force in S. Ignazio in Rome.  My time in Rome gave me an interest in these methods of integrating architecture and illusionistic painting.

There are different perspective systems used in Chinese and Japanese cityscapes—being axonometric, or peculiarly isometric they are yet capable of describing spaces which one may move in all dimensions, but imbuing the space with a strange feel to eyes accustomed to Western perspective.  We know we don’t get smaller moving down a street—yet in Western perspective things become tiny as they move far away, whereas in Eastern space they remain the same size.  Both systems have their logic in dealing with space.

In the 1980’s I took many photos from a small helicopter with the door removed, flying over Boston, to do paintings which render familiar places in an unfamiliar perspective.   Kirk Varnedoe explored the transformative perspective of aerial views in his book, A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern. He discusses E. A. Abbott’s Flatland, a two dimensional world in which a three dimensional world cannot be imagined, until the two dimensional narrator is taken for a flight above his world and has a perspective on the perspectives of Flatland. Our experience of the city is usually navigating on a flat plane—but the aerial view offers another perspective on those earth bound perspectives.


Varnedoe also mentions a painting by Caillebotte of a street seen from a window above with foreshortened figure and tree, and he quotes a writer who quips “M. Caillebotte has created a painting which is meant to be exhibited on the floor.”


Copley Plunge is just such a painting.  It is a one point perspective from a high building, such that the verticals of buildings meet at a vanishing point below the viewer’s feet.  This is the same one point perspective which Durer invariably used in his prints, but rotated downward so that the vanishing point is straight down instead of at a point on the horizon.


A peculiarity of this is that the streets run up and down the sides of the picture, instead of converging toward a vanishing point on the horizon, and houses and cars don’t get smaller as they get farther away near the top of the painting, but they stay the same size.  So even though the perspective is correct and consistent it isn’t what eye or the camera sees.  However, if the painting is laid on the floor, and the viewer looks with one eye while standing one foot below the bottom edge of the painting, the scene is reconstituted: The sides of the painting itself converge to a vanishing point on the horizon, and the perspective of the streets on the sides converge to a vanishing point on the horizon. The buildings seem to pop up perpendicular to the ground instead of being elongated outward as they do when the painting is hung on the wall.


In painting the picture I attached a board to the bottom edge of the picture and placed a long nail at the vanishing point for the verticals one foot below the bottom edge. A long stick with a notch at the bottom which fit over the nail served to determine the angles of the verticals when drawing and painting the buildings. This was all worked out in preliminary drawings.


The title  Copley Plunge comes from the unusual feel of the space when the picture is seen hanging on the wall, thus viewed from an incorrect point of view, not perpendicular to the vanishing point, suggesting a space which draws one not into the distance, but toward the center of the earth.

Copley Plunge  as it appears exhibited on the floor, viewed from above the vanishing point.