Matthew Carone was born in 1930 to a family with a great deal of artistic awareness. His brother and fellow artist, Nicolas Carone, introduced him to the world of art at age fourteen. At this time Matthew began to develop his own musical and visual skills in painting and the violin. His work as an artist was secondary for many years as he married, had children, and taught school. After moving to Florida Carone opened an art gallery and began representing several modern artists including surrealist painter Roberto Matta. It was during this time of gallery work that his late wife began prompting him to paint his own works and he obliged.  A modern abstract expressionist painter, Carone produces many vivid large-scale works that reflect the spontaneity of color and texture, including a 1995 piece, The Smokers (Figure 1). By studying the iconography in The Smokers, we can understand its depiction of leisure.
Though The Smokers is a work of abstract expressionism, generally classified as non-representational art embodying no tangible objects, it does contain four figures identifiable as human forms partaking in the activity of smoking. The inclusion of these smokers permits viewing of the work from an iconographic perspective as smokers have been presented throughout history in conjunction with acts of leisure. This piece is considered abstract expressionism, the term being first applied to American art in 1946 by art critic Robert Coates and encompasses notable New York artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. Art of this form is often characterized by spontaneity or the impression of spontaneity. Proponents of abstract expressionism often referred to the canvas as “an arena in which to act”, even referring to the artists as Action Painters, a suggestion seen in the gestural movements of these works, particularly evidenced in Carone’s The Smokers as he illustrates with seeping movements rendering the figures as if they are moving so quickly that their features become a blur. This blurring effect is intentional and done with a single color. Though Carone is color blind, he attributes his use of color to an ability to see values, not colors; this permits him to focus on the contrast between lights and darks rather than the contrast between colors.  Despite this claim, his use of color is both simple and dramatic, focusing on the figures but presenting them in a surreal atmosphere.
The Smokers is an acrylic painting on a 58 x 68 inch canvas. The composition is arranged in thirds with the horizon line positioned vertically above the bottom third and the area below the horizon line visually weighted down with black. Horizontally there are six figures arranged in pairs, each pair spanning roughly a third of the painting. The first set of figures on the left are arranged facing away from each other with the first seated and the second standing. The second pair mirrors with the first standing and the second seated, while both figures facing away from each other. The final pairing contains two figures, one with human characteristics, and the other a four-legged creature. Two of the figures are seated on simple angular benches, two stand, and one sits upon a four-legged creature. The only implied relationship is between the two figures that stand. Their closeness to one another and direct face-to-face position suggest a relationship between the two. The other figures do not face one another.
The arrangement of the composition provides the piece with good overall balance while the surface treatment and texture are engaging and brilliant, made of clearly defined brushstrokes and several distinct textures. Although the brushwork is strong, the overall surface of the canvas is flat in both texture and luminosity. Each of the six white figures is drawn with sweeping, gestural strokes that both define and blur their exact features, rendering their gender indistinguishable (Figure 2). These figures have strong diagonal brushstrokes across their bodies and liquefy into black – a technique used on the horizon line and benches as well as the figures – as they drip and run into the background, almost as if they are being washed away. This washing away occurs in each instance where there is a stark contrast between light and dark values as a transition to the ground. It is seen in the shift from the white figures to the black ground, from the tan benches to the black ground, and from the tan sky to the dark ground. The shades of cyan and tans in the background appear as if they are a gouache technique as they fade and merge into one another, appearing almost as a tie-dye wash working downward toward the horizon line. The setting for this piece is unembellished but feels familiar as if it is a place the viewer might have been before. The situation is serene and relaxing.
The smokers in Carone’s painting represent a modern depiction, although throughout history smokers have been portrayed quite differently as portrayals focused on society’s view of smoking. In the 17th century smoking was a lowly activity often associated with peasants. In art, persons of nobility were never associated with smoking; it was reserved solely for scenes involving the proletariat. An example of this type of representation is Peasants Smoking and Drinking (Figure 3), a 1635 work by Dutch artist Adriane Brouwer. The painting depicts a scene of peasants lounging and drinking in an alehouse. The figures are arranged in close proximity but do not interact with each other. They appear to be lost in their own thoughts, two even gazing toward the ceiling while they find a moment of relaxation after a day of hard work. The connection between the act of smoking and the countenance of the figures suggests that it is an activity of leisure, partaken in to unwind from a grueling day’s work.
The dawning of a new century noticed a lessened use of smokers in painting. Opium smoking became popular in the 18th century and many of the works depicting its use are influenced by Orientalism. One example of its presence is a French work by Marcellus Larron the Younger is entitled Interior with Figures (Figure 4). In this work, we see a group of five figures seated around a table, drinking and smoking while a sixth figure presumably waits on them in the background. The seated figures are dressed well and their surroundings suggest they are in a domestic setting, not a pub. Both of these factors reveal the growing acceptance of smoking in the upper classes. No longer was it an activity reserved for the proletariat, but begins to appear in the middle and upper class as a sign of leisure. So relaxed is this particular setting that the figures do not even have to work to serve themselves.
Social acceptance of smoking continued to increase into the 19th century when it became recognized as a symbol of pleasure for the middle class. One example of this presentation is Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on the Grande Jatte – 1884 (Figure 5). The scene shows a group of individuals relaxing on the isle of La Grande Jatte, a destination just beyond the city limits of Paris where people of different social standings would retreat to lounge on the riverside. In this work, almost all of the figures face the river. Some of them are reclining, like the gentleman in the foreground who has a pipe in his mouth, while others are seated and standing. Though the smoker in the foreground is dressed more casually than others in the scene, his inclusion amongst the well-dressed individuals on the island reveals the social acceptance of smoking in this time period.
By observing these examples of artwork through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries we can see that smoking has always been a social activity associated with leisure and has increasingly been seen as a pursuit that encompasses different levels of social class. These three works delve into topics of humanity at rest. They are not portraits with messages of power, prestige, or class, but rather show the different classes in an informal posture. Similarly, George S. Bolge describes Carone’s work as “[taking] on human frailty and beauty…the innermost subject of his art is the ‘human condition’.”  This element of representing humanity ties these four pieces that span several centuries together with a common thread. These works represent the human condition and the utilization of moments of respite as the smoker is an icon of pleasure and relaxation.
Leisure is defined as “freedom from the demands of work or duty” or “unhurried ease“. This characterization applies well to Peasants Smoking and Drinking, which illustrates the lower-class at a presumably rare occasion in which they were not working. Class distinction can be supposed in this work due to the unclean conditions of the establishment and the sociological reality that alehouses were not visited by persons of high society during this time period. The ability for these persons of lower-class, most likely laborers who worked six or seven days a week, to go to the alehouse is in itself is an act of leisure, as is the opportunity to gather with friends. This same attitude is seen in Interior with Figures as a group of individuals converse merrily around a table while being waited on. Again, the mere act of gathering together amongst friends suggests a relaxed tone, as does the presence of someone serving the group.
This idea of gathering together for the sole purpose of recreation can be seen in the two other paintings presented here as well. A Sunday on the Grande Jatte – 1884 illustrates a group of people that have retreated to an island to abandon work and focus on rest. Their retreat is a physical one as they traveled away from familiar settings with a unified purpose of recreation. Though their standings in society differ their aim in coming to the island is uniform. The Smokers portrays a group of five individuals that have gathered together to smoke. They are visually removed from the imagery of work or duty, placed in a space outside of pressure where their only aim is to enjoy a cigarette, and perhaps the company of their companions. What is common in all of these paintings, and certainly in The Smokers, is that these individuals have grouped themselves together physically with a solitary purpose of recreation and retreat from work, duty, and common life.
This representation of purposeful leisure can be observed also in the atmosphere and settings of each work. The Smokers presents a backdrop of vivid color, not locality. The piece centers on the figures and their relationship as a group, with the only descriptive of the setting being the simple angular benches they rest upon. By removing the setting the focus is placed solely upon the figures and the activity in which they are partaking. The same can be said of the other works. Interior with Figures and Peasants Smoking and Drinking feature groups gathered around a table and the paintings crop in tightly on the group, not revealing a particular home or alehouse that they might be situated in. Their location is hinted at by small details, like the door frame and mirror shown in Interior with Figures, suggesting a location more upscale than a pub. Similarly, the open door, benches, and dirty environment presented in Peasants Smoking and Drinking, suggest a public alehouse. In A Sunday on the Grande Jatte – 1884 the location shifts to outdoors, not an interior, but the people remain the focus, not their location. The shore is visible in the painting, but indistinct, possibly being from any water source. The location is known in the present time only through the title. Each of these scenes might have been recognized at the time they were painted, but are unknown to modern viewers.
In addition to the atmosphere, The Smokers conveys recreation through a group of people interacting and focused simply on smoking. They lack do not carry any belongings with them, which might be an indicator that they are taking a short break from a day’s work, but instead they bring only their selves and their cigarettes – they have indeed gathered for this particular activity. The figure mounting an animal might at first glance reference work and labor since riding a horse or ass is often associated with farm work, but the figure sits with his arms in the air as the creature grazes, a position of leisure for both. In addition, Carone’s smokers are gathered together in at least one grouping of friends. The two standing figures mirror one another in close proximity, referencing an established relationship between the two. The stance of the figures flanking this pair faces away, suggesting that they are either not acquaintances or are not currently engaged in their conversation. This same posture denotes a similar relationship in Interior with Figures as the man on the left faces towards the viewer while the others face inward towards one another. His dissimilar stance suggests that he is indeed serving the group and is not part of their liaison. These paintings document the relationships of individuals and denote visually the human condition as it relates to interaction.
As well as demonstrating purposeful recreation, these paintings serve as a visualization of a shift in social attitudes. The size of the paintings is one indicator of their function in society. Peasants Smoking and Drinking is a small painting at 13.8 x 10.2 inches and Interior with Figures is only 22.8 x 20.3 inches. Being such undersized pieces, it is likely that they were produced as private works intended to be viewed in close proximity. Only under the close examination of a private work could the details have been distinguishable. Had the paintings been exhibited in a public setting viewers would not have been allowed to come close enough to appreciate the paintings. The two later works, A Sunday on the Grande Jatte – 1884 and The Smokers are much larger in scale at 81.75 x 121.25 inches and 58 x 68 inches respectively. The large dimensions of these two canvases presume that they were intended to be displayed publically and viewed by a large number of individuals. This movement from paintings created for a private viewing to public works again references the growing acceptance of smokers in society.
Not only is the size of The Smokers representative of a change in the relation of smokers to power and class structure, but the subject matter is as well. Peasants Smoking and Drinking cites smoking as an activity of the proletariat. They are dressed in plain, dirty clothing and positioned in a dark, dirty space. The food lying on the floor suggests that these are not refined individuals. A change in the association is seen as acceptance of smokers increases into the 18th century. This can be seen as Interior with Figures details the emergence of smoking as a middle-class interest. The individuals here have been situated in a much better environment, a clean home. Their attire is not as plain in either color or construction, as it appears well made and representative of their higher societal position. Growing reception reveals an increase in class approval with upper-class individuals partaking in the same activity in A Sunday on the Grande Jatte – 1884. Many of these people are dressed very well and carry themselves formally with much poise, identifying them in high society. They are mixing here on the island with people of different social standings. Some of the individuals recline in an informal posture; some have removed their jackets, increasing the informality.
While the progression of time reveals a growing approval of smokers, as well as a move towards gender inclusion, these paintings still illustrate the distinction of class. The Smokers defies these distinctions as it removes references of class to detail the overarching acknowledgment of society as a whole. The blurring of the figures’ features in Carone’s painting breaks down gender issues as well as those of power and class. These smokers become inclusive, neither high nor low society, a direct contrast to the way they are represented in other paintings. Smoking, here, becomes a bond that ties both gender and society together in one accord. The differences of the people represented together are left out and the painting focuses instead on inclusion.
Though the brushwork and spontaneous gestures in The Smokers classify it as a work of abstract expressionism, it is related with preceding works – a representation of leisure and relaxation as an activity inclusive of class and power. The singular view presented in each of these works points to their view of the human condition in times of pleasure and leisure. The characters in each occurrence are removed from work and duty and positioned instead in strategic settings that focus on the common bond of the group through a cohesive aim. Smoking becomes a symbol of this type of ease and enjoyment.
By examining the iconography in this piece as compared with those of the preceding three centuries we can understand its depiction of both leisure and class. The subject matter of people conversing and smoking is seen in these similar works as it has represented an activity of rest and has shown an increase in societal acceptance, but a new perspective on the human condition is seen in Carone’s smokers as they defy both gender and class, speaking to the universal nature of recreation and respite.
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