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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Thinkers and Doers

Most college art students divide into two camps when it comes to art history. They either love it or hate it. No one seems to think of it as merely "okay." It should come as no surprise to anyone that I love art history, but then I was always a student of history even before I became involved in the arts. It was my favorite subject in school, the only class in which I was ever able to consistently get straight A's. I think the reason college art students divide over art history is because they also divide into two groups regarding art itself. There are the "thinkers" and the "doers." The "thinkers" know where they're coming from and where they want to go to. The "doers" are the emotional, sensitive, inquisitive, hyperactive, intuitive ones who work in spurts, often with deep valleys between their creative "highs." When they are up they turn out astounding work, often startling even themselves with their creative insights. When they are down they work not at all, or struggle, at best, often even becoming self-destructive, if not physically, then psychologically, harboring deep uncertainties as to their own self-worth as artists.  Studying art history, feasting upon great works of art of the past only tends to underline their own feelings of inadequacy.

One artist from the past used art history as a sort of battery recharger to allow him to fall back, regroup, and then once more blast off in a totally new direction. That would be Pablo Picasso's Classical period. Tht was not the only time Picasso went "back to basics" so to speak. Later, from time to time during the 1950s and especially the early 1960s, Picasso delved into the past and came up with some pretty incredible pieces of work reflecting the influence of artists as diverse as Jacques-Louis David, Edouard Manet, Velasquez, and Gustave Courbet. In each case there was a re-articulation of the original in a distinctly Picasso style, borrowing here and there from Cubism, the Blue Period, and Guernica with any number other motifs that were undeniably his own.

Rape of the Sabines,
1962, Pablo Picasso

The Intervention of the Sabine,
1799, Jacques-Louis David

Though more colorful and fluid, there is a reflection of Guernica in Picasso's 1962 version of David's The Intervention of the Sabines. He chose to study Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe in his bluish, 1963 version of the two well-dressed French gentlemen dining on the lawn with their au naturale female guest. Even before these, he played Cubism against Velasquez's Las Meninas, painted in 1957. But probably his earliest foray into painting his own version of art history was his 1950 painting of Courbet's Young Girls on the Banks of the Seine. The oil on plywood painting is an intricately tangled web of fluid, geometric design as he plays blues, whites, blacks, and grays of one lady's dress against the reds, yellows, and blacks of the other's. The faces are pure Picasso, profiles juxtaposed against full faces, his love of masks never far from the surface. But in this case, as in all the others, despite the distortions and his own artistic ingredients, the student of art history would take only a few seconds to identify his inspirations. It would seem that Picasso was both a thinker and a doer.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Art Dealers

One of the key elements in any artist success, especially success on a large scale, is that of the art dealer.  The right dealer can bring an artist fame and fortune to a degree that artist could never achieve their own.  Yet for the most part, expect for perhaps their name over the doors of their galleries, these crucial individuals usually go unrecognized.  In the past, some dealers, like Alfred Stieglitz, were really artists in their own right.  Others, such as Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler or Ambroise Vollard were simply very shrewd businessmen able to move as easily amongst temperamental artists as wealthy, fastidious collectors.  Kahnweiler and Vollard were rivals.  Each had their own stable of artists and in a few cases, if their names were big enough, artist sometimes were able to deal with both these powerful promoters.

Ambroise Vollard, 1910,
Pablo Picasso
Vollard was born in 1865 and cut his teeth on the risky trade in Impressionist paintings in the 1880s, elevating artists such as Degas, Renoir, and Pissaro to prominence and financial success.  Also, he also had an uncanny ability to spot new trends.  His gallery on the Rue Lafitte was the first to give Paul Cezanne major exhibition space, and Vollard was responsible for bringing Paul Gauguin's Tahitian natives back to Paris to hang on his walls.  He was known to buy out large collections from contemporary collectors then parcel them out to his favorite clients.  He was something of a cantankerous sort to deal with, often gruffly talking his clients out of what they really wanted in favor of work by another artist whom he wanted to promote.  His "gallery" looked more like a secondhand shop or warehouse rather than the elite, showcases we are accustomed to today.

Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, 1910,
Pablo Picasso

Kahnweiler, on the other hand, was younger than Vollard and first took up artists such as Braque, Picasso, Chagall, and others, only to find himself having to share these rising young stars with the ruthless and powerful Vollard.  Kahnweiler was Picasso's favorite dealer however, and the one to whom he first offered many of his finest works.  And, while Vollard dealt mostly with paintings, Kahnweiler often handled Picasso's ceramics, prints, and sculpture.  Vollard is often said to have made Picasso, but it was Kahnweiler who first began handling his work and it was he who became Picasso's close friend and confident over the years.  When hard times came for artists during the 1930s, even though he had to close his gallery, Kahnweiler set up a fund from which, in return for their work, he was able to pay his struggling artist friends a meager allowance. In effect, he managed their finances, as well as their careers, while allowing them to survive and continue painting.  By this time, Picasso, of course, was well beyond needing such help, but for many others, such as Chagall, Miro, and Gris, Kahnweiler's financial aid was a godsend.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Art Collectors

The private art collector is a phenomenon that developed during the Renaissance and continues to this day.  The di Medici family may well have been one of the first, and in their case, even went so far as to collect artists not just their work, by providing a collegiate-type atmosphere--a safe haven for them in which to work, learn, share ideas, and develop.  During succeeding generations, kings and princes, like the Medici, continued to amass palaces and villas full of art to the point that the palaces and villas themselves became works of art.  With the advent of modern Europe, wealth and wealthy collectors began to include more than rulers and noblemen.  As more and more money flowed from business and industrial ventures, the art collection status symbol dispersed with it and the truly "private" art collector was born.  And nowhere was this the case than on American shores and the fortunes of the so-called "robber barons" of business and industry of the late 1800s.  John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and Winslow Homer were the darlings of this nuveau-riche crowd.  And after the turn of the century, the Impressionists, Cubists, Surrealists, and even Dada artists became collectible in the U.S.

Donald Nichols thus comes from a long tradition of wealthy American art collectors.  In many ways he is typical yet in some ways not.  A native of North Carolina, his money came from real estate and the development of shopping centers in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.  He is 70 years old, and like art collectors before him he made mistakes.  Initially he started out collecting that which was popular, in his case American Impressionists.  But in so doing, he was just one of the pack of dozens of others, his collection no better nor worse than theirs, his impact and that of his collection, minimal insofar as the rest of the art world was concerned.  Then in 1985, he did something radical.  He started dumping his American Impressionist back onto the market in favor of something he found he really loved--American Abstractionists.

Lutte as Ciel, 1937, John Ferren
(From the J. Donald Nicols Collection)

A quotation from the American Abstractionist, Hilla Rebay encouraged him:  "...genius does not wait for consensus."  He did his homework.  He knew the work of early 20th century artists such as O'Keefe, and Motherwell and Rothko from the 40's and 50's, but came to realize that no one was then collecting that which came in between.  Like the Medici household, he discovered that Black Mountain College had been a mecca for artists from this period and began his search there.  He discovered Josef Albers, Ilya Bolotowsky, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder and dozens of lesser known creators of American Abstraction. Today his work has resulted in a 200-piece collection of paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the 1930s and 40s that contains not just a sampling of work from these artists, but the best they were doing during this time. American Abstractionists from this period chose not to think of themselves as citizens merely of this country but of the world. With the openness that this mindset offered, they developed a modernity that sowed the seeds of all that post-war art was to become, here and abroad.  Today, Donald Nicols' collection is considered the best and largest of its kind in the world.  A large portion of it has been on display at his alma-mater, Wake Forest University.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Art Capitals

When someone in this day and age uses the phrase "art capital," they usually preface it was the little word "an." Or, they follow it up with some limiting geographic reference such "art capital of the south," or perhaps they refer to Chicago as the "art capital of the midwest." Today, even places like New York, Paris, or London cannot legitimately claim the title "art capital of the western world." For one thing, the so-called "western world" is simply too big and diverse to allow such a designation. At best, that title would have to be shared with not just the "big three" I mentioned above, but you'd have to add Rome, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and perhaps as many as a dozen other major cities, depending on your criteria.

No one country or geographical area has ever maintained a monopoly on the development of art.  Down through the ages, the "art capital" of the western world has moved about the Mediterranean basin with considerable frequency.  We are all aware that some of the earliest painted surfaces were in the numerous limestone caves in the south of France some 20,000 years ago.  When we next find a highly developed artistic culture it has jumped to the opposite end of the Mediterranean to the Nile Valley and attached itself to manmade limestone walls where it glowed for a more than a thousand years.  From there it used the Islands of Cyprus and Crete briefly as stepping stones to Greece and the Ionian Sea shores. There it bloomed for another thousand years or more. From Greece it moved westward to the Italian peninsula, Rome, and the far-flung provinces governed from that great city. The art capital of the western world remained in Rome for nearly five hundred more years before moving back to the Western Mediterranean and the Byzantine regions during what we've come to somewhat inaccurately refer to as the "dark ages."

A map of the western art world for some 20,000 years
After a respite of another thousand years, the Renaissance found the capital of the art world back at home again on Italian soil for a couple centuries or so before it gradually began shifting northward and westward toward Germany and France. Then it kind of seesawed back and forth for another couple hundred years until those two countries got on one anothers nerves to the point they began killing each other and scaring the raw sienna out of the movers and shakers of the art world so badly they started thinking seriously about putting an entire ocean between them and the reckless political nonsense behind it all. So, after one war failed to settle things down on the continent, and with a second, even larger brawl waiting in the wings, a sizable group of dispirited young artists, being particularly astute at seeing the "big picture,"  began quietly voting with their feet for artistic freedom and a continental "change of venue."

They came to America.  It wasn't an easy decision.  The "Yanks" were a rowdy bunch, unsophisticated, and just plain backward when it came to viewing the avant-garde artistic experiments these poor lost souls brought with them in their steamer trunks and, more importantly, stowed safely in the backs of their minds.  Living and working in America, especially in an era when even the natives themselves were having a rough time of it, took a great deal of perseverance, ingenuity, and good luck as they watched from a safe distance their former civilization self-destruct. Yet, by the time the bloodbath in Europe was over, they found themselves in a position to proclaim a NEW art capital of the western world, that was literally in the Western World--New York City, New York, USA.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Painting Science

Conversion of St. Paul,
1601, Caravaggio
Several years ago, in a different blog, I included the word, "tenebrism," in a list of admittedly obscure terms as a means of improving the art vocabulary of myself and others.  The term refers to the use of large areas of very dark shadows in a painting, juxtaposed with other areas of very bright lighting.  Caravaggio was probably one of the most glorious in his use of this melodramatic painting effect.  It can be seen in his Calling of Matthew, his Conversion of St. Paul, and his Judith and Holofernes.  In today's world of fluorescent, indirect lighting, it is easy to forget the effect of a single candle in a dark room and the impact it has on reflecting flesh tones or other objects.  In the mid-1700s, over a hundred and fifty years after Caravaggio capitalized upon it, the effect was rediscovered by an English artist named Joseph Wright.

You've probably never heard of him, and that's understandable.  He was an excellent academic painter, a member of the Royal Academy, but no Gainsborough or Reynolds by any means.  He was a skilled practitioner who happened to be as much interested in science as art, and found exciting ways to blend the two together.  About 1765, for instance, he experimented with nocturnal light effects, using moonlight, painting several scenes he observed of Mount Vesuvius erupting.  Later, he moved inside and depicted a number of scientific experiments.  His work is a meeting of the arts and sciences that in fact, was not all that exceptional at the time, especially in the days before modern photography.  Today unfortunately, it seems to us quite unusual.

A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery,
1776, Joseph Wright
 Probably the best example of Wright's use of tenebrism and the melding together of art and science can be seen in his 1766 painting, A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrey.  Okay, what's an Orrey?  Even in seeing the painting you'll not be altogether sure just what kind of contraption you're looking at.  Basically, it seems to be a miniature solar system utilizing a candle at its center to represent the sun and various brass or wooden rings to demonstrate the placement and movement of the known planets of the time.  Besides the lecturer, seven other figures study intently the surprisingly complex educational device.  Some seem to be scientists, others are students, women, and children, leaning into the scene from the deep, tenebric shadows of the corners and edges of the painting.  Like the work of Caravaggio and French artist, Georges de La Tour, who also employed tenebrism, the life-size painting is first of all eye-catching for it's dramatic light, then intensely interesting for its curious, scientific content.  It makes one wonder why science is not more often the subject of art today.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


In critiquing a painting critics are sometimes heard to remark that an area is "somewhat ambiguous," usually meaning that the artist perhaps might need to do a little more work in clarifying his or her artistic intentions in some manner.  If such is a negative element in painting then one would be HORRIFIED in seeing the modest Dutch painting, Parental Admonition, by Gerard ter Borch.  The whole painting is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so.  Ter Borch was born in 1617, and apparently was something of a child prodigy with a surviving, dated drawing from when he was a mere eight years old.  The son of a Dutch public official who also happened to be a painter, the boy entered the Haarlem painters guild when he was 18.  Well-traveled and popular with the Dutch middle-class, he is best known for his modest-sized genre paintings, everything from Lady Peeling an Apple to Boy Removing Fleas from his Dog.

Parental Admonition is not unlike these, though the subject matter is significantly more interesting.  The 28 by 24 inch painting depicts the back of a richly attired young maiden along with a matronly woman and a young soldier.  The scene is a bed chamber, wherein lies the ambiguity.  Is the woman her mother or her procuress?  Is the soldier holding between his fingers a ring or a coin?  Is he proposing marriage or prostitution?  If marriage, then why is the scene set in a bedroom?  If he is about to purchase her sexual services why does the matron seem so demure and discrete?  The seventeenth century Dutch were strong on family values but also pragmatic enough to accept the need for brothels as well.  The mystery lies in the fact that in the original 1655 painting the gentleman did, indeed, hold a coin, which was deftly altered to appear as a ring a hundred years later when the painting was given its current title, new theme, and sold at auction to a public appreciative of the positive moral message of parental guidance.

Parental Admonition, 1654,
Gerard ter Borch
The coin/ring occupies no more than about one square centimeter among the 4,402 square centimeters of the entire painting, yet the tiny alteration of but a few brush strokes changes the entire meaning of the painting.  Even today, one has to strain to see exactly what the soldier so delicately holds between his thumb and index finger.  To say that the area is somewhat ambiguous would be putting it mildly; but then, this intriguing little quandary is quite the most delightful element of the painting, underlining with amusing unambiguity the changing manners and morals of Dutch middle-class society over the past 350 years.

Monday, October 25, 2010

War Is Hell on Art

We are accustomed to thinking of Paris as "Gay Paree" with strolling musicians, the sounds of violins and accordions at night, bright, sunny days, spring blossoms freshening the air with their flowery scent, and Gigi peeking around the corner of some street kiosk.  Well, it wasn't quite like that during the period of 1870-71. The French, under Napoleon III, decided to hold a little war. Their "guests" were the Prussians, and if "war is hell", then all hell broke loose in Paris during the fall and winter of that year. As in most cases, when two countries play war, the populace fled (at least those who could afford to).  Likewise, those of the artistic community faced a number of choices, none of them very "palette-able".   
If the war had been decided upon fashion, the French would have won handily.  But the bloated pretensions of the Second Empire were no match for the hardened Prussian war machine.  After the French defeat at Sedan in September, 1870, life in Paris deteriorated rather precipitously.  Artists were faced with the choice of fleeing, as Boudin, Diaz, Monet, Daubigny, Pissarro, and Bonvin did, to London or Brussels.  Or enlisting, as did Bazille, Manet, Degas, Rouart, and Renoir.  Or, they could hide out in the south of France, as did Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Zola (who was exempt from military service, being the only son of a widow).  Degas and Manet remained in Paris, trying all along to convince their female counterpart, Berthe Morisot and her family to leave (which she refused to do).  Likewise, Courbet remained behind and was made chairman of a committee to safeguard the country's art treasures.  Principally, he managed to safeguard his own works by shipping them to London.  Needless to say, there was very little painting being done.   
A Christmas menu from the 99th day of the siege of Paris
offered such delicacies as elephant consomme, roast camel,
Kangaroo stew, antelope terrine, bear ribs, cat with rats,
and wolf haunch in deer sauce. The population of the Paris
zoo must have shrunk considerably during the holidays.
Things got infinitely worse when Paris fell under siege in early January of 1871.  Prussian canons pounded the city mercilessly, day and night, for over three weeks.  The food supply became tenuous, at best. Signs went up on the street advertising the meat from cats, dogs, and even rats. The lucky ones could obtain horse meat. Manet complained in a letter that donkey meat was too expensive. And, by the time the city surrendered near the end of the month, even those delicacies, which must have woefully challenged the local artists of French cuisine, were completely gone.  Paris became a city where the "starving artist" was the rule, rather than the exception.   

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Painting and Politics

Except for the occasional presidential portrait left behind by each administration to grace the walls of the White House, painters and politicians in our time, rarely cross paths.  About the closest artists ever come to anything governmental might be a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and recently even they've taken to supporting more cutting-edge arts over traditional painting.  That's probably just as well because in those instances when art and politics have crossed paths the results have usually been beneficial to neither craft.  Perhaps the most noteworthy figure with which to illustrate this fact would be the French Classical painter, Jacques-Louis David (pronounced DAH-veed.

David's 1791 design of a
"Republican costume."
He was born in 1748.  When he was nine, his father was killed in a duel.  His guardian took him from school and installed him in the atelier of the Rococo painter, Francois Boucher.  However, just across the street, was the studio of Joseph Marie Vien, one of the founders of the Classical school.  It was here he found his home.  Aside from the fact Vien later became director of the French Academy and took David with him, he is today, at best, a footnote in textbooks in which he is recalled as being David's art teacher.  David, on the other hand, became the bedrock foundation upon with nineteenth century French art soared to incredible heights.  He became the director of art during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire that followed.  Quite apart from his excellent draftsmanship as seen in his classic painting, Oath of the Horatii, David's impact upon the period extended even to designing classical (read Greco-Roman) garments for the politically correct French citizens of the time.  The women loved his gauzy, empire style outfits (as did the men, no doubt) but these same men balked at wearing his silly togas.

The Oath of the Horatii,
1784-85, Jacques-Louis David

For David, the only worthy subject matter in painting was that which illustrated and glorified heroic, patriotic, classical allusions and allegories.  He hated Dutch and Flemish painting of the time because he felt their realism ridiculed the human race.  He proposed that they not only be removed from sight but destroyed.  He wanted a law passed forbidding all artists to paint anything except patriotic subjects.  In 1792, his longing to be a sort of "art dictator" of the time led him to be elected a member of The Convention.  For a time he was even chairman of this kangarooish court.  He was one of 361 members who voted in favor of the decapitation of Louis XVI.  The matter was decided by a single vote, so in effect, he (not quite single-handedly, of course) brought the French monarchy crashing down in the flames of the French Revolution.  However, with the fall of Napoleon (for whom he was the court painter) the Royalists never forgave him for his part in the "legal murder" of their king. Around 1820, David was forced to flee Paris for his life.  He died in exile in Brussels in 1825, having been struck by a carriage as he was leaving the theater.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Jean Dubuffet

With the coming of World War II, when the center of gravity of world art fled Paris in particular, and Europe in general, for the safety, security, and political freedom of the United States, there was left behind a vacuum.  War and art are not, by their very nature, compatible, and the aftermathof the war in Europe was hardly conducive to the kind of exciting art exploration going on in the U.S. Thus, post-war European art movements were often very much peripheral to what was happening in the United States. largely because they appeared much less exciting and profound.  They just couldn't compete with the New York School and Abstract Expressionism.  However in France, one artist did create something of a stir.  His name was Jean Dubuffet (pronounced Zhan Du-bu-FAY).

Dubuffet's brand of art was called Art Brut or "raw art".  It was inspired by the art of children and the insane, which he considered uncontaminated by culture.  His idols were Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Maurice de Vlaminck with a healthy dose of Surrealism as well.  His 1954 painting, Cow with a Subtile Nose is typical of his work in this vein.  He was especially attracted to the cow, given the turmoil in Europe after the war, by it's calm, serene demeanor.  "The sight of this animal," he said, "gives me an inexhaustible sense of well-being..."  At a time when the New York School was creating chaos with Abstract Expressionism, Dubuffet, like the rest of Europe after the war, was seeking emotional stability and calm.

Cow with a Subtile Nose,
1954, Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet was born in 1901
and thus was heir to all Paris and the French Art scene had been before the war, as well as the intellectual wasteland in its wake.  Working with rather radical art materials such as paint mixed with tar, sand, and mud (sometimes out of necessity), he incorporated those with whatever was available in the way of paint, from industrial enamels to house paints (an art conservators nightmare).  These he often used in conjunction with traditional artists' oil colors, applying them to canvas with everything from kitchen utensils to garden tools.  The results were textures full of fissures, crackles, and curls suggesting organic surfaces.  It wasn't Abstract Expressionism, but it certainly broke new ground in terms of mixed media!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Arshile Gorky

Probably the most misunderstood style of painting ever to confound the non-art world is that which came out of what art historians refer to as the New York School.  It was, of course, not a school, except in the most informal sense that everyone was learning from everyone else.  It was a hard lesson.  It was new.  It was daring. It was controversial.  It was Abstract Expressionism, though not all of it was abstract nor was it all expressionistic.  It grew out of a number of influences, from German Expressionism, from Cubism, and from Surrealism.  And lastly, it grew out of the fact that a number of practicing European artists, at the height of their careers and creative output, were politically astute enough to foresee the turmoil of World War II as it was about to engulf Europe.  They quietly packed up their paints, easels, brushes and, most of all, their individual styles for the trip to New York City.

The time was the 1930s. Life, even in this country, was not easy.  At first, somewhat like fish out of water, they were a bit muddled.  However, gradually they integrated themselves into the New York world of art. They were men like Andre Breton, Salvadore Dali, Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian, and Max Ernst.  Here they found a number of earlier emigres such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Hans Hoffman, and Arshile Gorky.  They also joined their American counterparts in a sort of loose, intellectual alliance and survived as best they could, more or less waiting out the war.  However, even during the war, quietly, anonymously, some of the first Abstract Expressionist paintings were being committed to canvas.  Quite possibly bearing the honor of being the first Abstract Expressionist was Arshile Gorky.

The Liver is the Cock's Comb,
1944, Arshile Gorky
 Gorky was born in Turkish Armenia in 1904.  His mother died of starvation as Turkey brutally evicted its Armenian population during WW I.  He fled the country and eventually ended up in New York about 1925.  Here he migrated once more through a number of styles from Cezanne to Miro before coming under the influence of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung. As early as 1940, he began preparatory drawings for a painting not finished until some three years later titled Garden in Sochi.  The work is rendered on a white ground with thin, black outlines, splashes of red, yellow, black, and green.  It is filled with fluid, organic shapes somewhat reminiscent of a painted, Calder mobile. (The painting above is stimilar in style and substance.) Also noticeable are influences dating back as far as Duchamp's Bride Stripped Bare mixed-media abstraction of 1923, and that of Miro's peculiar brand of Surrealism.  Though Rothko, Lee Krasner, and others were working simultaneously on their own Abstract Expressionist paintings during the war, it was from Arshile Gorky that many of them drew their inspiration.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Don't Quit Your Day Job

 There is an old, sage piece of advice often heard by those in the arts, whether painter, sculptor, singer, actor, comedian, or whatever, "Don't quit your day job."  And, while the line may be good advice from a financial point of view, its purpose is often that of a "put-down".  It is often spoken in a humorous context, but its real intent is to put the would-be creative genius in his or her place.  However, a number of very famous artists down through history have quite literally taken this advice.  Camille Pissarro painted window blinds.  So did Renoir at various times.  This was considered "commercial" work.  Paul Cezanne, though not technically "working", was a law student by day while in his free time he applied paint to canvas with an almost vicious intenisity, perhaps working out his frustration at having to satisfy his father's insistance that he train for some "worthwhile" vocation.   
In the case of  Armand Guillaumin (pronounced Ge-amin) it was not a matter of quiting a "day" job but his "night" job.  For several struggling years, he worked three nights a week to feed his wife and family in order to leave himself free to paint during the day.  Born at Moulins in 1841, he was about the same age as Renoir, Bazille, and Berthe Morisot.  He'd come to Paris at the age of 16 to work in his uncle's shop.  His family was vehemently opposed to his wanting to be an artist so he had to take a job with the Paris municipality, which, in most cases, meant building roads.  He was quite literally a ditch digger.  During the day, he often painted the urban and suburban scenes of a growing, bustling Paris, sometimes even some of the same roads and thoroughfares he himself had helped build the night before.   

La Place Valhubert, 1875,
Armand Guillaumin
Like Renoir and Pissarro, Guillaumin also painted blinds from time to time, welcoming this work, no doubt, as a step up from digging ditches.  In contrast, Berthe Morisot could be considered quite wealthy, as was Eduoard Manet, who inherited a sizable fortune.  Edgar Degas and Alfred Sisley would, perhaps, best be characterized as "comfortably well-off".  Frederick Bazille, while coming from a wealthy family, appears to have been on a rather limited allowance.  They had not the need to sell their work in order to eat and have a roof over their heads.  Unlike the "chronically inpecunious" Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, and Guillaumin, they had no need for day jobs.  Curiously, of these four, Monet appears never to have even had a day job.  He seems always to have been broke.  Apparently finding it easier to "sponge" off his friends, he differed from Guillaumin in that it seems never even to have occurred to him to work at anything other than painting.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Arensberg Circle

It is hard to overstate the profound effect the 1912 Armory Show in NewYork had upon modern art in the U.S.  For example, on the last day of the show, a man named Walter Arensberg and his wife, Louise, happened to drop by.  Walter was a Harvard educated journalist who had studied in Italy and wrote poetry.  They were impressed.  With an almost spiritual zeal they began to collect work by many of the artists exhibiting at the show.  In no time the walls of their West Sixty-seventh Street apartment were covered with works primarily by Duchamp and Picasso, with representative pieces also by Braque, Gris, and Miro.  They apparently were also quite taken with the sculptures of Constantin Brancusi.  They owned 19 of them.  Their collection eventually grew to include some 400 works of contemporary art, with its centerpiece, Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase which coincidentally was the Arensbergs' first purchase that final day of the Armory Show.   
However, more than merely collecting, the Arensbergs, like their expatriat counterparts, the Stein's in Paris, let their apartment became a mecca for the Avant-Garde in New York.  Marcel Duchamp actually moved in with them for a time when he first arrived in the city, fleeing the conflict of WW I.  This may account for why they ended up with so many of his paintings.  In any case, out of this enclave of progressive artists and poets eventually grew The Society of Independent Artists founded in 1917.  Among the members of this group were Man Ray, Duchamp, Walter Pach, Katherine Dreier, George Bellows and William Glackens.  
By the 1920's, the Arensberg's had taken their art collection and moved to California, but the group they fostered, nicknamed the Arensberg Circle, continued to grow, at various times including such younger, American artists as Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, even dancer Isadora Duncan.  Gradually, under the leadership of Duchamp and Man Ray, this group evolved into the American branch of the Dada movement and that in turn led to the founding of yet another group, the Societe Anonyme, which held annual exhibitions promoting some of the most progressive artistic experimentation to be done in America at the time.  The Societe even purchased works by many of their members, and though the organization remained active for only a few years, their art collection eventually became the basis for the founding of New York's famous Museum of Modern Art in 1929.  Makes one wonder what might have happened if Walter and his wife had decided to take in a movie that afternoon in 1912, rather than an art show.

New York's Museum of Modern Art
(MoMA) today

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rags to Riches

I suppose most artists don't consider how fortunate they are to be artists in a time when there are so few limitations imposed upon them from the outside world in terms of what they paint and how they paint it.  In fact, it is this lack of limitations that causes some to kind of float around in a sea of chronic indecision as to who, what, and where they are in art.  Artists need limitations so much sometimes that they impose them upon themselves, or seek those who will impose them (as in accepting a commission).  Thus, it is hard to imagine a time when if you chose to become an artist (or were chosen to become an artist), you had but one patron (the church), and thus one area of subject matter (religion), and one style (Medieval) in which render the images that were mostly imposed upon you from above by whatever religious despot happened to be in charge at the moment. 

Legend has it that a young boy was born to a peasant shepherd family in 1266 near Vespignano, Tuscany, not far from Florence, Italy.  As a lad of ten or twelve, he amused himself while watching the family sheep by drawing them on flat rocks with charred sticks (basically a crude form of charcoal).  A passing stranger one day watched the boy drawing and recognized genius when he saw it.  He persuaded the boy's father to let him become an artist and in so doing, lifted the entire family from poverty to fame and fortune.  In reality the story more likely involved a scout for the painting master, Cimabue, having heard about the boy's skill, checking out his meager efforts, then arranging an apprenticeship.  The fame and fortune part is quite true for the work of this talented young boy, over the course of the next seventy years, paved the way for painting to emerge from the mosaic-like quality of the Medieval period to the Naturalism of the Renaissance.

When a young boy became an apprentice (and only young boys became apprentices at this point in time), the transaction more closely resembled his being purchased than educated, for the life he would know for the next dozen years or so would more closely resemble slavery than training, especially in early years.  Apprentices, and sometimes there were dozens of them working in their master's household, started out by doing the dirtiest, most menial jobs imaginable, having nothing whatsoever to do with art, before working up to grinding pigments and preparing plastered walls (Cimabue did frescoes) only as still younger boys came on board.  If the young apprentice was talented enough and fawning enough, he might get to work along side the master or even in place of  the master on important church commissions.  If the young apprentice's name was Giotto di Bondone, he would, in a few years, come to SURPASS his master.
Ognissanti Madonna, 1310, Giotto

Monday, October 18, 2010

The End of Time

One of the most powerful subjects in art has always been "the end of time".  Dating back to well before Michelangelo's Last Judgment, the apocalypse
 has been painted, written about, drawn about, filmed, sung, and translated into about every area of the fine arts with the possible exception of architecture.  Apocalyptic buildings might be a stretch, though certainly memorials exist to the holocaust, which perhaps comes close.  Of course, the catalyst for the most recent "end is coming" thinking was the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st.   Just as the news media doesn't care much for optimism, the same applies to artists.  Even though this millennium arrived without incident, it is unlikely artists will stop thinking about the end of time.  They'll simply find new ways of interpreting it.

Raphael, Vonnegut, Updike, and Orson Wells have all have all tread in the path of Biblical prophecy, imagining the end as an act of God, an act of man, as a heavenly reward, or as hellish earthly terror.  In London, shortly before the new millenium, there was a whole wall of paintings at the Illustration House, a Soho gallery, where science fiction artist Vincent Di Fate guided a private tour of the end of time. Di Fate's paintings borrowed  from Michelangelo's Last Judgement, from Raphael's St. Michael, and from William Blake's gloomy, 1805 drawing, The Number of the Beast is 666, among others.  From literature, he borrowed from H.G.Wells' War of the World and Edgar Allen Poe's The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion.  From the movies Di Fate referred to Independence Day, Dr. Strangelove, and On the Beach.  From music he drew from songs such as Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall and Prince's 1999.   W.B. Yeats wrote of bloody anarchy in his poem The Second Coming  and in the area of drama, avant-garde playwright Richard Foreman, whose many works include the apocalyptic Symphony of Rats, was also a source.  The man did his homework.   
Today, apocalyptic types have December 21, 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar, to worry about.  Unlike prophets, artists don't have to accurately predict the future. They just have to reflect our feelings about it.  So get out your brushes and shades of black, but hurry, this will all passe' in two or three years...unless...

The copyrighted work of Vincent Di Fate can be seen at:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Antonio Correggio

As artists, we are, most of us, well aware of what it's like to go largely unappreciated by those of our own time.  But we all fantasize that this error of omission will be corrected sometime during the next hundred years. Thus we can very easily sympathize with the plight of Antonio Allegri Correggio.  It was only the coming of the Baroque era to Italian painting, several years after his death, that brought his work to the attention of young artists seeking an artistic idol whose style they might study and emulate.  They found in Correggio's paintings a dramatic, sensuous quality from which to draw upon in creating their own richly theatrical works of both religious and classical art.

Correggio's birth date is a matter of conjecture, variously dated as between 1489 and 1494.  Like many painters today, Correggio was a small town artist.  He never strayed far from the tiny, provincial town of Parma, Italy.  One of his earliest paintings, "The Holy Night", painted around 1530, is a nativity, typically labeled as being Mannerist, mostly based upon the period of time during which it was painted.  Certainly, there is a Mannerist quality to its figures, but the overall "look" of the work with, it's dramatic lighting emanating from the Christ-child, and it's moving, dynamic composition, seems much more akin to that of Caravaggio and the Early Renaissance artist, Mantegna than the contrivances of Correggio's Mannerist contemporaries like Tintorretto or Veronese.

(Adoration of the Shepherds),
1530, Correggio
 Correggio's work is nothing if not exciting.  He is equally at home whether painting mythological or religious subjects.  In either case, there is a sensuous quality to his work that blends sensual pleasure (sometimes even erotic elements) with spiritual joy.  Whether painting ecstatic angels or Io melting into the embrace of Jupiter, Correggio's dramatic visions draw the viewer into them, uplifting at the same time as they arouse the senses.  He was a master of tromp L'oeil in the tradition of Andrea Mantegna yet he goes beyond that.  His figures are so animated they appear to literally be struggling to free themselves from his frescoed walls.  Baroque artists such as El Grecco, Caravaggio, Rubens, and Rembrandt all owed him an important debt for demonstrating that they too could breathe vibrant life into the classical scenes and figures of their Renaissance idols.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Child Prodigies

Whenever people talk about the arts, the subject of child-prodigies very often comes up.  More often than not, such prodigies tend to be most abundant in music and dance.  Music, because it's apparently a gift that develops early in childhood, and dance because only young bodies can withstand the rigors of excruciating training involved.  In painting, prodigies are more often in their teens and inasmuch as painting isn't exactly a performing art, they are usually less renown.  Turner was a prodigy, so was Picasso, Michelangelo, and a few others.  Sometimes though, these prodigies start early and then don't quite fulfill the glorious expectations of their masters.  One such example of this was Antoine-Jean Gros.

Gros (pronounced Grows) was born in 1771.  At the prepubescent age of 12 he was a student in the studio of the classical painter, Jaques-Louis David (pronounced DA-veed).  Some say the young boy was one of the master's favorites.  Eventually, he grew to compete with his instructor for commissions from the Emperor Napoleon.  By the time he was 25, Gros was traveling with Napoleon and his armies as an art appraisers, choosing work to be confiscated from conquered lands and sent back home to Paris.  David hated this practice and denounced Gros and the emperor for it.  The master and his protege' seldom spoke to one another thereafter.  However, quite a number of paintings in the Louvre came as a result of this and the keen eye of Gros.

Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa,
1804, Antoine Gros

In 1804, Gros painted Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa. The painting is redundant in Romanticism. Napoleon is pictured standing Christ-like in the center, reaching out, touching his soldiers ill with a contagious diseases.  The gesture seems courageous and may be based on the medieval belief that rulers could cure diseases such as consumption and various bone maladies.  There is an overall golden glow to the painting set amidst Moorish arches and dying soldiers.  In spite of the heroic nature of Gros' work, the truth of the matter is something else.  When they became a burden to his campaign, Napoleon ordered the desperately ill soldiers of his own army poisoned.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Art Galleries

Artists discuss and complain endlessly about the various difficulties and uncertainties they encounter in trying to market their paintings, often as if such things were recent developments.  In fact, the way paintings are bought and sold today has not changed appreciably in the last three or four hundred years.  Of course the recent torrent of artists' Websites is a new twist, but otherwise, there's not much new under the sun.  Art dealers, agents, and galleries go back at least as far as the 1600s to a time when the Dutch mercantile society catered quite efficiently to all levels of their burgeoning art market.   
By the 1700s, the French also had a robust gallery system not unlike that found in large cities today.  We are indebted to the Rococo artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau, for an intimate peak inside just one such elite establishment of the period.  Strangely enough this window into the inner workings of the French art market is in the form of a sign board.  For those unfamiliar with such things, we are not talking about a wooden marquee emblazoned with the name of the art gallery.  The signboard is a canvas painting usually hung outside beneath the sign bearing the name of the gallery.  The Signboard of Gersaint was painted by Watteau in 1721, according to Gersaint (the gallery owner), in just over a week, working only in the mornings, as the artist struggled vainly with tuberculosis.  It is a lively composition depicting a bustling enterprise populated by no less than twelve figures and a poodle (presumably French).  
Signboard of Gersaint, 1721, Antoine Watteau
Edme-Francois Gersaint was one of the most successful art dealers in France.  He was known for having imported from England the idea of selling paintings through the use of a catalog listing each work by artist, subject matter, size, title, medium, and price. Although the signboard does not depict his actual gallery, it certainly captures quite elegantly the high-class clientele and thriving trade that made his art emporium an integral part of the French art market of the time.  The signboard itself was an instant success.  It was sold, in fact, just a couple weeks after it was posted, although apparently to two different buyers, who split it in two and had each half framed separately.  Today it is back together again though a few inches of canvas is missing down the middle where it was restretched.  Tragically, Watteau died only a few days after the signboard was finished.  He was 36 years old

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Disastrous Paintings

There is hardly an artist alive today who can't report from his or her past a work that turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.  I once tried painting kittens with a palette knife--not perhaps the best choice of method for such soft, fuzzy, cuddly little creatures.  I don't know what ever happened to it and I don't much care.  Even the greatest of artist have succumbed to similar misfortune.  Michelangelo--his Tomb of Julius II, Leonardo da Vinci--his unfortunate mixed media experiment with The Last Supper.  One of Frank Lloyde Wright's clients was plagued by a leaky roof right over his seat at the dining room table in his Wright-designed home.  The architect told him to move his chair.

Study for Milan equestrian
sculpture, 1482-90,
Actually, when it comes to Leonardo, genius that he was, his bravado often outpaced the technical limitations of his media.  He went to Milan in 1482 to design and cast a bronze equestrian statue 23 feet tall, more than twice as large as anything ever attempted before.  The problem was, he spent more time while there directing extravagant entertainment productions than building his horse. He was more than ten years, drawing it, engineering it, modeling it, even remodeling it.  They even got as far as acquiring the nearly ten tons of bronze for it, only to have the model destroyed when Milan fell to French invaders in 1499. Leonardo fled for his life.  However, once back in Florence, around 1505, there came an even greater disaster--The Battle of Anghiari.

Commissioned by the city fathers in direct competition with his upstart rival, Michelangelo, who was to paint the opposite wall in the council chamber, (a scene titled The Battle of Cascina, which was never executed). Leonardo was faced with a giant space and neither the experience nor the temperament to work in true fresco, the logical medium for such a commission.  With the difficulties of the Last Supper still fresh in his mind, he fortunately eschewed tempera on gesso and decided to try reviving the ancient Roman painting medium, encaustic.  Leonardo was nothing if not ambitious. 

Battle of Anghiari, 1603 drawing,
Peter Paul Rubens, based on studies
 by Leonardo

Basically the medium involves mixing and painting with pigments added to hot wax. Traditionally such work had been done on small, wooden panels.  To facilitate his movement in front of the wall Leonardo invented an ingenious wheeled scaffolding that could be raised and lowered by workmen turning a large wooden screw in its crisscrossed legs.  If only his genius had extended to a way to paint large-scale murals using hot wax without generating so much heat from his braziers as to cause the finished portions of the painting to melt, he might have created a considerable masterpiece.  As it was, ever the scientist, Leonardo discovered the law of physics which says that when heat rises, wax descends.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Themes and Images

When we talk about "themes" in art today, we're met either by stifled yawns or curious looks.  Themes?  What do you mean, themes?  Okay, themes today might include "art for art's sake," peace, music, sex, love, violence, politics, race, technology, drugs, travel; I could fill a whole page. Some themes are new, some are old, some are so tiresome we find ourselves wishing they'd just go away to that great theme park in the sky.

Throughout the centuries of art, a number of themes have displayed a stubborn persistence.  Perhaps numbrer one, arguably the most persistent, has been religion.  And within that category, there are quite a number of persistent images.  Discounting the ancient pagan images, the most common are Jesus himself, followed by Mary.  Because these two are so central to religious art (Muslim art having no such images) there has not been much in terms of variation in the way they've been depicted that cannot be accounted for by the simple evolution of painting styles. 

However the third most common subject matter in religious art seems to have offered artist down through the ages a great deal of latitude both visually and thematically.  In terms of their sheer numbers in religious art, they are by far the most common figures depicted.  And, while the popularity of religious art in general has waned somewhat during the last century or two, we find now that these images seem to be enjoying renewed interest among the general public, if not necessarily among artists.  If you haven't guessed by now, I'm talking about the multitude of angels that have populated the panels, walls, and canvases of artist for over a thousand years.

Archangels Michael and Gabriel,
12th Century icons
 The earliest, existent, painted depictions of angels date back to the early third century.  They are figures from in the Cubicolo dell'Annunziazione in the Catacomb of Priscilla. Ambrogio Giotto painted some surprisingly realistic angels in his 1305 fresco, Lamentation of the Dead Christ (below right).  Fra Angelico gave them human proportions a century later in his The Annunciation (below left).  At the same time though, other artists used them as hardly more than decorations.  They began to assume whimsical, childlike qualities.  However, about the time of the Renaissance there seems to have developed a split in the way angels were depicted.  There were the putti (cute, chubby little male toddlers with wings) and the "serious" angels, the archangels, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Metraton, Uriel, and Satanel.  Each of these, partially from the Bible, and partially from secular writings, developed their own persona, tradition, and visual amenities.  In addition to these, there was the ubiquitous "Angel of Death" known as Azrael.

Lamentations of the Dead Christ, 1305,

Today, we most commonly link the painting of angels with the work of Raphael, Botticelli, Leonardo, and a host of other Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque masters.  But lest you think the visual tradition kind of stagnated with Rubens, El Greco, and Grunewald, you might be surprised to find that Rembrandt painted angels, as did the Rococo artists, and also Goya, Blake, Rosetti, Gauguin, and Chagall, to name just a few, more recent, painters to employ such heavenly beings in their work. 

The Annunciation, 1438, Fra Angelico
Perhaps the most interesting thing regarding angels and art is not who painted them, but how they have been painted, and how they have changed over the years.  Unlike Christ and Mary, angels have offered exciting creative opportunities and a wide range of activities in which artist have legitimately exploited them.  And, with renewed popular interest in angels today, a few artists have once more begun using them, usually in a decorative mode. Also television and movies have taken up the calling. Whether they come sans wings ala Michael Landon, or with John Travolta's heavy overcoat, their images continue to evolve to fit their earthly missions.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Influencing the Stars

When performers today come to be known by their first names, you know they've arrived and are approaching the realm of the legendary.  Cher, for instance, or Oprah, or Elvis, or many years ago, Groucho.  The name, of course, has to be somewhat unusual, or else the last name becomes famous instead as in Sinatra, Stallone, or Hepburn.  Of course, even then, it helps if the name is a bit unusual.  Art has its own A-list of stars known mostly by their first names, as in Rembrandt and Michelangelo.  Some people would even find it difficult to attach a last name to these artists.

For the most part, students of  the Renaissance know about all there is to know about the first-name stars from Leonardo to Raphael. Yet, they know little about the previous generation, those who influenced these godlike painting masters.  This is strange because the period is well documented and, while they may not be the household names, neither are they totally unknown.  One of the most important of these influences was Andrea Mantegna (pronounce Mon-TANE-ya).  In fact he may well have been their greatest single painting influence.  Born about 1431, near Vicenza, Italy, his heroic figures and dramatic use of perspective, not to mention daring, trompe L'oeil ceiling frescoes mark him as one of the most underrated artists on the fifteenth century.

Court of Mantua, 1474, Andrea Mantegna,
Camera degli Sposi
Mantegna's skill came largely by an improbable mixture of fate, his own sharp intellect, and unlikely teachers.  Possibly an orphan, when he was ten, he was adopted by Francesco Squarcione, an art teacher in Padua.  He was nothing less than a child prodigy.  He learned quickly.  He entered the painters guild at age 15 and by the time he was 17, the headstrong young art student broke free from his adopted father and painting master to set up his own workshop, declaring he would no longer allow Squarcione to exploit his talents for profit.  Continuing his studies however, he learned much about the three-dimensional modeling of figures in paint from the sculptor, Donatello.  When he was 22, he shrewdly married Nicolosia Bellini, who just happened to be the sister of two of the most important artists in Italy, Giovanni and Gentile Bellini.  Yet surprisingly, even though they were older than he, it was his work that influenced them.

East Wall, Camera degli Sposi,
1474, Andrea Mantegna 
 In 1459, he moved to Mantua where he worked the rest of his life as the "family artist" of the wealthy Ludovico Gonzaga.  There he did some of his greatest works including the spectacular Camera degli Sposi (wedding chamber). The walls and ceiling of this small, windowless room he painted to look like an open-air pavilion.  The ceiling is a fool-the-eye masterpiece made to resemble a dome which opens to a painted sky.  The opening features a balustrade with pretty puti and peacocks, picturesque planters and pilasters, all perched precariously around the pretentious perimeter.  On the wall is a sort of family portrait depicting the father, mother, and other kin welcoming home their thirteen-year-old son, Francesco, who has just returned from Rome having been made a Cardinal. (There wasn't much money couldn't buy back then.)  In this one room it is not hard to see whom Michelangelo, Raphael, even the great Leonardo himself most admired as a painter.

Monday, October 11, 2010

An American in Paris

Fathers very frequently have visions of their sons following in their footsteps, either into a family business or taking up a similar profession.  This is no less true of artists. Very often the art that sometimes seems to run genetically in families manifests itself in the son becoming more famous and more successful that the father.  However, the manifestation of that success can often be quite disturbing if it differs radically from the father's perception of success and his conception of the art accompanying it.

In 1897, a proud father put his son on the boat to Europe to study art and become a great, internationally famous artist.  The father is not without a modest degree of success as an artist himself, employed by the famous lithographers, Currier and Ives.  Inasmuch as art seemed to "run in the family", he has seen to it that his son has the best art training money can buy, studying at the National Academy and there developing a good eye for drawing and detail, a strong, traditional painting style, and, at the age of 29, a thirst for more and better instruction in his chosen career.  The trip is not without some sacrifice for the old man.  A first class round-trip passage and year in Europe cost him roughly a year's pay, but it was worth it to see his son rise to the top of their profession.   

His son, Alfred H. Maurer, was born in 1868, and his trip to Europe was the highlight of his life.  He gravitate toward Paris, the epicenter of art in the whole world at the time, and the best place to make a reputation for ones self in the first decade of the brand new twentieth century.  Alfred loved it.  Paris was an exciting, exotic, thrilling, amusement park of a city, brimming over with art, music, literature, drama, the opera (which combined all the above), and most of all the avant-garde.  He like it so much he stayed past the one year his father had promised to support him.  He stayed over ten years, in fact.  He became a regular a the salons of Leo and Gertrude Stein and there met the brilliant Henri Matisse.

Les toits de Collioure, 1905,
Henri Matisse
Matisse had a profound effect upon him.  Almost overnight Mauer jettisoned everything he'd learned from his father and the conservative National Academy, departing totally from realism in favor of Matisse's brand of freedom in terms of color and design.  Maurer's Landscape in Provence, painting in 1912, after his return from Paris, is Matisse with an American accent, very reminiscent of Matisse's Les toits de Collioure, painted in 1905. 
Landscape of Provence, 1912,
Alfred Maurer
Having departed so completely from the image his father had of him as an artist, it's little wonder Maurer stayed in Paris ten years.  Perhaps he was afraid to go home.  When he did, return to New York in 1909, his work found a place in the 291 Gallery of Alfred Stieglitz along side the work of John Marin whose paintings were very similar to his.  Together, some four years before the Armory Show of 1913 officially brought modern art to the U.S., they were among the first to introduce it to the elite gallery patrons of the New York art scene.  One can only imagine the encounter between the Maurer and his father when the old man took a look at his son's work and saw what ten years of study in Paris had wrought.   


Sunday, October 10, 2010

The American Renaissance

When someone mentions "the" Renaissance, instantly we think of Italy, 1480-1520, and the likes of Leonardo, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael and a seemingly endless list (to art history students) of other lesser-knowns.  What most are not aware of is that the United States of America had a Renaissance as well, usually thought of as the period from about 1870 to 1910.  Though not as well-known as its Italian forebearer, our Renaissance was not without some pretty interesting characters and rather impressive (if somewhat dated) works of art in a classical style not unlike the "other" Renaissance.  
Self-portrait, William Merrit Chase
In Impressionist painting there were men like William Merritt Chase, John Alden Weir, along side muralists John LaFarge, Elihu Vedder,  Edwin Austin Abbey, and Edwin Howland Blashfield.  John Singer Sargent painted the rich and famous of the day while Kenyon Cox was both a famous canvas painter and art critics of the time.  In the area of landscape painters came Ralph Albert Blakelock and the Expressionist, Albert Pinkham Ryder.  In still life painting tromp l'oel ruled the day with artist like William Michael Harnett and John Frederick Pieto.  In photography names like Eadweard Muybridge, Edward J. Steichen, and even the painter Thomas Eakins appear.  In sculpture came Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, and John Quincy Adams Ward who chose bronze over the more traditional (at the time) marble.  In both bronze and oils, Frederic Remington opened up the west.  Winslow Homer was his eastern counterpart working however mostly in watercolors.  
William T. Sherman Monument,
New York Central Park, 1892-1903
Augustus Saint-Gaudens

In architecture the Beaux-Arts firm of McKim, Mead, and white ruled, except in Chicago where Louis Sullivan was king.  The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883 while Central park bloomed and the first skyscrapers rose in New York City.  The Columbian Exhibition was held in Chicago (and set American architecture back 20 years, according to Frank Lloyde Wright).  In Washington D.C., a dirty little backwater village metamorphosed into the magnificent city of broad avenues, parks and monuments Pierre Charles L'Enfant had envisioned a hundred years before.  It wasn't Rome perhaps, but it was a good imitation of it. 
World's Columbian Exposition,
Chicago, 1893

Saturday, October 9, 2010


It is not unheard of in show business that an early, outstanding performance is so well known and beloved that everything else the individual might attempt, often for the rest of their life, is judged against their early success and found wanting.  Producer, David O. Selznick, endured this after Gone With the Wind.  Orson Wells so became Citizen Kane it was hard for him to ever become any other character.  Leonard Nimoy had the same problem having played Mr. Spock.  It can also happen to painters.
What most people know about Grant Wood usually begins and ends with American Gothic.  A few might be able to tell you the painting depicts not a farmer and his wife but a farmer and his rapidly aging daughter, well on her way toward old-maidenhood, perhaps thanks to her father's ever-present pitch fork.  The president of the Grant Wood fan club could probably tell you the model for the female figure was none other than the artist's sister, Nan, while the farmer was in actuality, the artist's dentist, Dr. McKeeby.  And the mayor of Eldon, Iowa, could show you the tiny Gothic-Revival farm house still standing in his community.  He might also add that if you'd like to see the painting today, go to the Chicago Institute of Art.   
Beyond that, Grant Wood is kind of an enigma.  Born in 1892 in the state of Iowa, where he spent most of his life, Wood graduated from the Chicago Institute of Art then spent time studying in Europe where he was exposed to all the prevailing styles and, no doubt, studied those no longer prevailing as well.  Later, he would consider this time searching for a European art identity largely wasted.  It was back home in Cedar Rapids, teaching school, passing himself off as an interior decorator, and painting murals, that he discovered his true place as an artist.  By Iowa standards, he was an unabashed liberal, though his art critics considered him a right-wing conservative.  He was soft-spoken, yet a witty conversationalist.  However, only after the critical success of American Gothic in 1930, did this wit begin to appear in his work
Daughters of Revolution, 1932, Grant Wood
Wood's other paintings are not so well known.  Perhaps his other best known work depicts three prim, proper, geriatric ladies posed before a painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware.  It's titled, Daughters of Revolution.  Painted in 1932, Wood's dry wit is quite evident.  His penchant for idealized landscapes can be seen in Fall Plowing and his aerial view of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.  He indulged in other folk tales such as Washington's cherry tree in Parson Weem's Fable.  His wit becomes pure humor in his 1933 painting, Adolescence, in which he sandwiches a nearly nude young rooster between two fat and sassy old hens, in an amusing parable about the shyness and awkwardness of growing up.  Perhaps his best work is a large triptych in which he portrays the memory of a noon meal for threshers.  The simple, farmhouse architecture is divided into the barnyard/front porch where the workers freshen up, the dining room where they are shown eating, and the kitchen were the women prepare the huge, hearty, noontime meal.  Perhaps Wood would not be such an unknown figure in American art had he survived into the more recent "media age" to join some of his contemporaries such as Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O'Keefe, and Edward Hopper.  However, he died in 1942.  He was 49. 

Dinner for Threshers, 1934, Grant Wood