Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Martin Johnson Heade

Martin Johnson Heade
Many amateur artists, and maybe even a few professionals, enjoy the pleasure of poking through the contents of garage sales--or yard sales, porch sales, whatever the venue--in search of picture frames, antique or other wise, to refurbish and bring back to life with one of their painted masterpieces. For anywhere from a quarter to a few dollars, it's a cheap way to frame the sometimes prodigious output of many compulsive dippers and daubers. One thing you might want to look out for as you poke through the precious peculiarities of the past is what those old frames might contain in the way of art. Joan Comey-Smith of Fort Myers, Florida, paid $1.99 for an old frame she liked. When she looked at the back, she saw the name, "Rodin." Though no art expert, she recognized the name just the same. When she got it home and looked it over, she thought the 6 by 9 inch ink and watercolor painting of a dancing girl had to be a print. A few months later, in front of the Oprah Winfrey talk show audience, she learned from appraisers her tiny painting was worth $14,000. And you thought all the time Rodin was only a sculptor.

Singing Beach, Manchester, 1862, Martin Johnson Heade
Another artist you might want to keep an eye out for in your garage sale rummaging is the work of Martin Johnson Heade. Two art dealers did just that, finding one of his landscapes in a Larchmont, New York antique shop. Heade painted landscapes, a few portraits, and such to pay the bills, but his real love was the salt marshes and thunderstorms of his childhood in Pennsylvania and elsewhere along the east coast as seen in his Singing Beach, Manchester (above) from 1862. Beyond that though, his greatest love was hummingbirds. Heade was born in 1819 and not only became the foremost painter of the delightful little avian creatures, but the foremost expert on them. During the Civil War, he was invited to South America by Brazilian Emperor, Pedro II, who shared his love for hummingbirds. The emperor told him which hill to climb to get the best view of the Rio de Janeiro; and there he also found the greatest profusion of hummingbirds on earth. He first painted the view, then the birds, feeding, feuding, fighting, courting, and guarding their nests. Adding to that, Heade painted the flowers the birds so loved, orchids (as seen below), giant magnolias, passion flowers, and Cherokee roses in profusion.

Cattieya Orchids and Three Hummingbirds, 1871, Martin Johnson Heade
After the Civil War, Martin Johnson Heade studied art in Rome and had some success painting in England for a time, but he was unsuccessful in raising the necessary money for a proposed book on hummingbirds illustrating the multiplicity of colors he so loved. Heade moved back to the United States. He still could find no backers for his pet project but not for lack of trying. He moved regularly from city to city painting and trying to sell. He was able to move some of his work through art dealers in New York and while in Washington, DC, he painted a portrait of Texas hero, General Sam Houston which still hangs in the Governor's Mansion in Austin. Sometime along the way, Heade came to the notice of Henry Flagler, a Standard Oil founder and the multimillionaire who, with his coastal railway, was largely responsible for opening up the state of Florida to wealthy easterners in search of a warm place to hide each year from the winter cold. Heade went to work for the St. Augustine hotel owner who paid him the then enormous sum of $2,000 each for two of his biggest painting.  Married at the age of 64, Martin Head and his wife were to spend the rest of his life living in a small bungalow Flagler built for them on the grounds of his hotel. Heade died in 1904 at the age of 85. 
River Scene: Early Evening after Sunset, 1887-1900, Martin Johnson Heade,
from his Florida period.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Luttrell Psalter

The Limbourg Brothers, Book of Hours,
circa 1410
Although it's quite difficult, it does happen. Artists become rich and famous. Part of it is talent, part is hard work, part of it experience, part is naked self-promotion, and part of it is just great good fortune. Now, imagine if you will, a time when no artists were famous. In fact, they didn't even sign their work. Moreover, only in the fifteenth century did history and the artists themselves begin to record any names at all. In Italy, for instance, Cimabue is one of the earliest. In France, we know a little about the Limbourg brothers, the illustrators of Duc du Barry's famous Book of Hours (above).  Before that, artists themselves considered their skills as no more important than those of a carpenter, tanner, or jeweler.  Insofar as artists' names were concerned at least, Medieval times justly deserved the otherwise often misused term, "Dark Ages."

St. Nicholas Altarpiece (central panel),
1486-93, Master of the St. Lucie Legend
Most art from the Middle Ages (a more appropriate term), was religious in nature, commissioned by the church itself, or by wealthy landowners for the church, or their own, personal, sanctified purposes  Artists considered their gifts as being  from God. Their paintings and carved sculptures were thus gifts to God, and as such, appropriately deemed anonymous. As work was almost never signed, if a name is associated with a given piece, it's usually by accident...or some moniker made up by a creative art historian hundreds of years later. Belgium, for instance, has a painted altarpiece (left) from slightly later attributed merely to the "Master of the St. Lucie Legend."

The Lutrell Psalter, 1320-40
One of England's greatest art treasures is the Luttrell Psalter. As you might have guessed by now, it was not done by an artist named Luttrell. Sir Geoffrey Luttrell was merely the wealthy Lincolnshire landowner who commissioned it, around 1320. It's an illuminated manuscript considered to have taken approximately ten years to complete. For those not familiar with such things a psalter (the "p" is silent) takes its name from the psalms (songs) and meditations contained within it's pages. In the wide margins around the edge of the tidy calligraphy are delicate decorations, not too unlike what we would call "doodles" today, though infinitely more complex and beautiful. The artist/calligrapher of the Luttrell Psalter is, of course, totally unknown. No other example of his work exists (life spans were distressingly short during this period). Thus we could probably consider the tome his life's work.

Sir Geoffrey Lutrell (detail), The Lutrell Psalter
Of course it's not the Latin psalms that interest us today, but the decorating extrania. The Luttrell Psalter is considered by art and literary experts to be the best surviving pictorial documentation of everyday life in England during the Middle Ages. The most famous illustration (left) depicts Sir Geoffrey Luttrell astride an impossible large horse decked out in Medieval attire. In fact the horse is actually more interesting than Sir Geoffrey. He's unanatomically too long, his legs are skeletal, and, perhaps most amusing, the horse is smiling. Here and elsewhere it's obvious the artist had a delightful sense of humor. Astride this noble steed, Sir Geoffrey accepts his lance from his wife, and a shield from her sister (as determined by heraldry experts). Other pages depict agrarian activities such as plowing, sowing, reaping, young men practicing with their longbows, and most disturbing, the grisley decapitation murder of Sir Thomas Becket some two hundred years earlier. From these fascinating, illustrated tidbits, we can decipher that everyday life was grim (but not without traces of levity) in the 1300s...also hard...and short...and usually anonymous.
Luttrell Family Dining (detail), Luttrell Psalter

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Louis Remy Robert

Today, as the art and science of making photographic images has shifted from one of chemistry to digital electronics, we marvel at the speed and versatility all those little zeros and ones display in creating the luminous pictorial art seen on our computer screens. In that chemical photography is now about 170 years old, we've long since stopped marveling at how all those little silver halide ions were able to do the same thing so long ago. We've even stopped marveling at how light-sensitive dyes brought color photography from the miraculous to the mundane in as little as seventy-five years. Who knows what the next fundamental change in the area of image documentation might be? Advanced 3-D photography seems to be on the horizon. What next, brain implants maybe, enabling us to mentally "see" moving virtual images without need of photographic paper or computer monitors either one?

Caroline Robert, 1850s, salted
paper print from paper negative,
Louis Robert's wife. He apparently
neglected to take a photo of himself.
The "snapshots" we have come to take for granted, didn't come easy. We forget just how crude the first photographic images from the 1840s really were. We forget how "medieval" the first descendants of the truly medieval camera obscuras really were. We can hardly imagine the ancient, convoluted chemistry that made even these crude images possible. Moreover, most of us have never heard the names Victor Regnault, Louis-Desire Blanquart-Evard, Alphones Poitevin, Hippolyte Bayard, Olympe Aguado, or Phelix Tournachon, all early photographic pioneers. We may know the name Louis Daguerre or even his English counterpart and rival, William Henry Fox Talbot, but both these men barely started the ball rolling. It was left to the "forgotten ones" to perfect this crude science so that it might become an art medium. One of those who did, was Louis Remy Robert.

The Large Tree at La Verrerie, Romesnil, 1852,
Louis Remy Robert, salted paper print from
paper negative.
Louis Robert (pronounced ro-BARE) was born in 1810 into a Paris family of artist and artisans involved in painting on glass and china at the famed Manufacture de Sevres. It was a tight community of workers, artists, scientists, and businessmen. Louis was an accomplished portrait painter even before photography made its debut. It was only natural that as such, he should take an interest in the new science that seemed a potential threat to his livelihood. He was also in the unique position of having access to the laboratory facilities to experiment not just with taking photographs, but in developing them too. Moreover, whenever art and science meet in the person of a single individual, expect greatness.

Romasnil,  1850-55, Louis Remy Robert,
salted paper print from paper negative.
Robert's surviving portfolio is not great in number--less than a hundred images--forty of them newly discovered. No, the greatness we see in them comes from the discreet blending of an artist's eye and a scientist's curiosity. We see his trials, his errors, and his triumphs. In viewing his work, we can almost watch him discover what worked and what didn't both artistically and chemically. We watch him experiment with paper calotype negatives, salted paper, coatings of wax, whey, and albumen, exposing them wet, dry, and somewhere in between, forever trying to overcome the eternal 30 second to four minute exposure times needed, while all the time, working to translate the traditional arts of portraiture, landscape, and still-life to a new, expressive, yet demanding medium.

Still-life, ca. 1856, Louis Remy Robert,
salted paper print from glass negative.
The irony of all this is that, while the names of these pioneers in the art and science of photography are shrouded in the foggy mists of "ancient" history, today, we have little or no knowledge of the pioneering artists and scientists who have brought us the amazing feats of digital photography even though most of them are still alive. Who are they? These incredible geniuses of digital art and science, far from being forgotten, are seemingly not even known in the first place.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Louis Kahn

Sometimes in art, the story of the artist may be more interesting than the art itself. Leonardo comes to mind. Rembrandt and Rubens were both very fascinating individuals. Jacques-Louis David, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Georgia O'Keefe, Frank Lloyde Wright--their work lives on after them, but appeals now much more to artists than anyone else. But it's who they were as human beings, with their artistic genius marred by often very deep flaws in their personalities, that gives them universal appeal. We can't all identify with their art, but we can identify with their humanity. Sometimes these stories are not easy to tell.

Louis Isadore Kahn

He was born in 1901 in Estonia. When he was three years old, warming himself by the open hearth in the family home, the boy became fascinated by the unusual green flames of a lump of coal. He picked it up and put it in his pocket. His clothes caught fire. He covered his eyes with his hands, thus preserving his eyesight, but his face and much of his body became horribly burned, later disfigured by the healing scars. He became an ugly child, later an ugly man, and as a result, as an architect, cared little for the traditional smooth, shiny "skin" which was the hallmark of the International Style popular about the time he entered his chosen profession. His name was Louis Kahn.

Yale University Art Gallery, 1951-53, Louis Kahn
Shortly after the terrible tragedy that began his life, the Kahns moved to Philadelphia where young Louis was quite shy, quite self-conscious, but also quite the best artist in his class. It was this love of drawing, and the skillful ease with which he did it that saved him...also fed him and his family through the 1920s, the Depression, and the war years. He was fifty years old before he built his first major building, the Yale University Art Gallery (left). The building features a cylindrical core of unfinished concrete containing a massive spiral staircase built around a tall cube housing the elevator shaft and service elements of the building. The galleries splay out from that, roofed by a tetrahedral frame inspired by Buckminster Fuller. Critics called it ugly. At least no one complained about the building competing with the art as in the case of Wright's Guggenheim.

Richardson Medical Research Lab, 1957-65
University of Pennsylvania, Louis Kahn
Kahn had a wife and daughter. They lived with her mother. In 1945, he fell in love with a young female architect at the firm for which he worked. They also had a daughter but never married. Kahn couldn't bear to leave his wife and other daughter. He lived with both "families," and later fell in love with a third woman with whom he had a son. Add to this yet another extramarital affair with yet another young woman at his office. He did his best work late at night. He considered his office his home address. And despite his physical appearance, apparently found there no shortage of women to love.

The Salk Institute, LaJolla, California,
1959-65, Louis Kahn
When painters fail, they can destroy the canvas, or hide it away in a closet. When architects fail, their work remains on public view for decades, perhaps centuries. It was another seven years after his Yale Art Gallery before Kahn got his next commission, the Richardson Medical Research Building on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania (above, right). Ever the artist himself, he conceived the labs as "studios," stacked together like children's blocks--brick, concrete, and glass. The problem is that much research in the biological sciences required windowless environments. Also, while the spaces inside were flexible, they were not flexible enough. Some labs were too big, others too small. Research flowed out into the halls and public areas of the building giving the appearance of a crowded submarine.

Exeter Academy Library,
Exeter, New Hampshire,
1965-72, Louis Kahn
In 1958, Kahn began drawings for the Salk Institute, overlooking the Pacific near LaJolla, California (above, left). He continued doing drawings until the buildings were finished in 1965. This time instead of designing research "studios," he built research "galleries." An artist learns from his mistakes. Commissions came profusely thereafter. The trademark unfinished "ugly" concrete remained, along with exposed pipes and ductwork which often came to be the only decorative design elements in his buildings. Later commissions included the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (bottom), The library at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (right), the British Art Center in London, and government buildings in Dacca, Bangladesh. In every case the basic geometric shapes dominate--the cube, the cylinder, the sphere. In 1974, Louis Kahn suffered a heart attack and died in the middle of New York's Penn Station while return from one of his projects. His body remained unidentified in the city morgue over a three-day weekend because in his pocket, he carried only a small sketch book, and in his wallet only a slip of paper with his office address.

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1966-72, Louis Kahn

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Losing Art

I'm not sure there ever was a time when the illusion totally matched the reality of the situation, but traditionally, we've always thought of museums as being secure safe havens for historic artifacts and great works of art. Once an object or famous work of art reaches the hallowed halls of some great metropolitan or national museum we like to consider it safe for all time. There it can be guarded, glorified, dignified, studied, viewed, stored, archived, and enjoyed for the endless ages to come. I guess, for the most part, this image is accurate; but like all human endeavors, there are often some pretty embarrassing holes in it as well.

Egon Schiel Self-portrait, 1910
It took Austria's National Gallery of Art seventeen years to finally admit they seem to have misplaced some fifty-two watercolors and drawings worth millions of dollars, including fourteen pieces by the German Expressionist, Egon Schiele. The work was part of a collection bequeathed to the museum by Paul Poiret in 1912. He'd been a famous Paris fashion designer. They managed to hold onto them until 1983 at which time they replaced the missing work with a long series of lame excuses starting with "we loaned them to another museum but we just can't remember which one," and leading up to "maybe on second thought we never had them in the first place." Eventually, they gave up making excuses and called in the police.  After seventeen years, it was a really "fun" investigation.

View of Auvers-sur-Oise, 1879, Paul Cezanne
Sometimes it's simply not the museum's fault. They take all the perscribed security precautions--cameras, alarms, locks, guards, and still they lose work. That's what happened New Year's Eve, 1999, at the Ashmolean Museum on the campus of Oxford University in England. Using the nearby, noisy millennial celebrations as a cover distraction, a lone thief climbed to the roof, broke through a skylight, then lowered himself into a gallery containing Paul Cezanne's Auvers-sur-Oise, making off with the $5-million painting. Either his tastes ran exclusively toward Post-impressionism or he was hired by a collector with such tastes, whatever the case, he left behind works by Leonardo and Picasso worth much, much more. It certainly was a professional job. Police report he used smoke bombs to hide himself from cameras; and was in and out in less than ten minutes, probably melting into the celebrating crowd before the alarm system could summoned guards. It sounds like something out of the movie, The Thomas Crown Affair.

Odalisque, 1923, Henri Matisse
And then, sometimes, museums lose work due to history. That's the case with Henri Matisse's Odalisque, painted in 1921. The Seattle Art Museum was recently obliged to hand it over to the heirs of French art dealer, Paul Rosenberg, a Jewish victim of the Holocaust. Earlier, Rosenberg had also been the victim of several state-authorized thefts of his wares by the German army during WW II. The Seattle museum had acquired the Matisse as a bequest from a local family, who had purchased it from a New York Gallery, which had apparently acquired and sold it not knowing of its tainted past.

Woman in Red and Green, 1914,
Fernand Leger
The Seattle museum did not take it lying down, however. They sued the Knoedler Gallery, from whom the painting was purchased, only to have their case thrown out on the grounds the museum was not the one defrauded, but the Bloedel Family, which had donated it to the museum. The museum settled the case in return for cash or a painting of similar value from the gallery's holdings. Moreover, they aren't the only ones to lose work once belonging to the Rosenbergs. The Pompidou Centre in Paris had to fork over Fernand Leger's 1914 Woman in Red and Green under similar circumstances. Hmm...I think I'll forgo the museum route and hold onto all my work myself for safe keeping.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Lorenzo Costa

Lorenzo Costa
Several years ago I wrote on what I called the "Hockney Theory." Briefly, it deals with the painted evidence regarding the likelihood that many, if not most, painters from about 1500 to the latter part of the 1800s, working within the confines of their studios, employed some sort of monocular drawing device in helping them accurately transfer to paper or canvas the image of their three-dimensional subjects. Perhaps the most telling evidence to support such a theory can be found in the paintings of an artist working about the time ground lenses became available to those wealthy enough to afford them (kings, princes, popes, and artists). Doing a little research on my own, I've found such an artist. Actually Hockney found him first, but anyway. His name was Lorenzo Costa. He was born in Ferrara, Italy, in 1460 which would make him about forty and well into his working career as an artist by 1500, the approximate date Hockney postulates when such lenses became available in Europe.

The Concert, circa 1500, Lorenzo Costa
One of Costa's best paintings was created around 1490 (give or take five years). It's titled A Concert (above) and depicts a central figure of a male lute player, accompanied by a female figure on the left and a male figure on the right, all three with their mouths open, singing.  In the foreground, on a ledge, is some sort of stringed instrument with a bow, and an open (song?) book. It's a very charming painting but with a number of disturbing elements. The female figure on the left is starkly lit from the left, even over-lit, while both the male figures are very evenly lit. In all three there is a tendency for the eyes to be placed somewhat unnaturally high in the head while the hands of the two side figures seem small and a bit awkward, especially given the fact that they extend forward onto the marble ledge. The anatomy of the lute player's right hand, strumming the strings seems very natural. Conversely, that of his left hand, pressing the strings is most awkward.

Portrait of Battista Fiera, 1507-08,
Lorenzo Costa
Now,  about ten years later (1507-08), we see the same artists rendering a Portrait of Battista Fiera (right), a doctor in the Gonzaga court in Mantua. Costa suffered from Syphilis and may have painted the portrait as a gift to his care giver. At any rate, the three-quarter view face is markedly different from those in The Concert. There is a strong chin, the facial anatomy is quite natural, the eyes are this time well placed proportionately in the head, the face is strongly lit, the eyes, strong, penetrating as they peer out from the canvas. Even allowing for the fact that Costa's drawing skills might have improved somewhat over the intervening years, there is a substantial difference in this work over the earlier effort. The awkwardness Hockney so often refers to is gone. The painting has a photographic reality about it. The pose and head angle of the doctor is almost identical with that of the musician but their is an astounding difference in the "realness" and humanity exhibited. Could it be that Costa (or the Gonzaga family) owned a brand new optical viewing device by 1507?  Hockney thinks so. The painters eye of this artist does too.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Leroy Neiman

Leroy Neiman
One of the staple activities aboard nearly all cruise ships on those days when they are "at sea" as they put it (aren't we all), is the obligatory art auction. As art goes, one might say they're nice places to visit but you wouldn't want to actually buy anything there. However, the work helps spruce up the public areas of the ship, they are pretty to look at, and they help pass the time between lazing in the sun and slumping over the bar. One can also get a certain smattering of art appreciation in studying them, comparing the various print offerings, and watching in amusement as your monied fellow passengers pay way too much for way too little. One can also get a feel for who's in and who's out, and the slightly more cultivated tastes of those art lovers with a bit more daring than your average Joe or Joan at your average hometown art fair.

Neiman does Sinatra,
The Voice, one of several.
There are the old masters of course, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Rockwell--names that still bring good money because of their names. Then there are the names of up-and-coming artists few have ever heard of but, judging purely by their work, hold promise. I discovered a fondness for living, struggling names like Roberta Peck, Alain Ragaru, Helen Rundell, Nicola Simbari, and Victor Spahn, to cite just a few. Then there are those in between, living artists that don't quite qualify as old masters but yet have names that are instantly recognizable, such as Peter Max and Leroy Neiman. They're work seemed quite popular. I'm not sure if they're making a comeback or if they never really left the scene, but despite what I considered some rather outrageous reserve prices, their work moved, while items I like much more came up and went back down with no bid.

Leroy Neiman, from Wheaties to
Playboy, here with Johnny Unitas
Neiman and Max, of course, represent two different eras. Leroy Neiman was born in 1927, Max ten years later in '37. Neiman is painterly, Max in graphic. Neiman came out of Minnesota via the Art Institute of Chicago. Max has a mystical, Jewish, oriental, New York birthright. Neiman graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1950 and immediately joined the faculty there, where he taught for several years before being rescued from obscurity in 1954 by fellow Chicagoan, Hugh Hefner, to become the favorite artist of playboys all over the world. Given this pedigree, art people either love him or hate him. His trademark "abstract impressionist" style seems perfectly fitted to his penchant for sports-related and leisure time subject matter. His colors range from Matisse to Pollock to de Kooning. His style is a bit of all three. His work appears in museums as diverse as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, to Wadham College in Oxford, England. Is Neiman great art? Hard to say. He and Mr. Max are, of course still alive, so perhaps it's not a fair question. But if the cruise ship art auction market is any indication, it would seem safe to say they're both on their way to joining the Picasso-Matisse-Chagall-Rockwell club just as soon as the i's are dotted and the t's crossed in their obituaries.
Cowboys-Bills Super Bowl XXVIII, 1994, Leroy Neiman

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Judith Leyster

Judith Leyster Self-portrait, circa 1630
Gather around kiddies, it's story time again. Danny, keep your shoes on. Vic, wake up. Karen, wait, you can go to the bathroom when I'm done. This is a story about the Louvre. The Louvre is a very old art museum in Paris, France. Long ago, back in 1893, they bought a painting by the Dutch artist, Frans Hals. When it arrived and was uncrated, boy, were they in for a surprise.

Carousing Couple, 1630, Judith Leyster
The title of the painting was Carousing Couple (right). It was done in 1630. It looked like a Hals. It was a typical Hals subject. Even the Dutch themselves said it was a Hals. But upon closer inspection, down in the corner was a signature, and it didn't say "Frans Hals." It was a strange little thing, a J*L (the initials J L separated by a star). The seller got a nasty letter from the Louvre demanding an explanation. A few days later, it came in the form of another letter with an apology. It seems the work was by a student of Hals, and apparently an unofficial one at that. The J and L stood for Judith Leyster. The Louvre was aghast, "this was done by a woman?" How could the work of an unknown student, and a female one at that, have been mistaken all these years for a genuine Frans Hals?

The Proposition, Man Offering a  Woman Money,
circa 1633, Judith Leyster
It wasn't hard. Judith Leyster is a somewhat enigmatic artist at best. She was born in 1609 in Haarlem, Netherlands, the daughter of a weaver and brewery owner (strange combination) who died when she was fifteen. Forced at an early age to make her own way in the world, she followed her natural inclinations and became a painter. There's no doubt she and Frans Hals were good friends and if she was, indeed, his student, any instruction he gave would seem to have been "after hours." She may also have studied under Frans' brother, Dirck Hals. At any rate, by the time she was nineteen, she was a working artist in Haarlem and apparently a very successful one. In the 1633, she would have been 24 at the time, she became the only female artist in the Haarlem painters guild rubbing elbows with the likes of Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, and de Grebber. She even took on three male students as apprentices. Her work is very much like Hals' with the strong influence of the Utrecht School and their devotion to the dramatic, artificial lighting of Caravaggio. Her most famous work came from this period, The Proposition, Man Offering a Woman Money (above, right). One might even guess the work to be autobiographical.

The Concert, 1631-33, Judith Leyster
In 1633, in joining the painter's guild, she met a fellow artist, Jan Miense Molenaer, also a follower of Hals. In digging back through the past and rediscovering Judith Leyster, art historians from the Louvre stumbled upon the kind of situation that keeps art historians awake at night. They found, not surprisingly one would think, that Leyster and her husband-to-be shared a studio, and not only that, shared the same props, some of the same models, and far worse (from their purist point of view at least) may even have worked on each other's paintings. In fact, in her 1633 painting, The Concert (above) she used Molenaer as the model for the violinist and may have painted herself as the singer. One of Leyster's most charming works, A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel (bottom) was done about this time too.  In 1636, Judith and Jan were married; and either in following the custom of the time, or perhaps forced to do so by her wifely and motherly duties, Judith Leyster gave up painting. Of her 28 paintings known to exist, only one dates from after her marriage. Obscurity set in. Appearances count more than signatures, especially one as ambiguous as J*L. Hals, or her husband, Molenaer, got credit for her work. Only in the last hundred years, thanks to the Louvre, has the name, Leyster (Lode Star in Dutch), come to represent the career of one of the most remarkable artists of either sex in the long, colorful history of Dutch painting.

A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel, circa 1633, Judith Leyster

Friday, March 23, 2012

Judith and Holofernes

There is hardly a day goes by that we don't read the words (or hear them) of some distraught columnist, politician, or other irate individual lamenting the perceived sad state of affairs now besetting our entertainment media. Television, being the most invasive of these, is usually singled out to bear the brunt of such an attack, and somewhere between the opening paragraph and the final period, the words "sex" and "violence" usually pop up. You would think television invented these nasty nostrums just to sell pantie liners and prescription drugs. A generation ago, one might have thought the movies were purveying such pestilence just to sell popcorn. And a generation before that, the spears were pointed at burlesque houses and dime novels. Of course the intensity has changed and the pervasiveness of the method of delivery has too, but basically, not much in the way of content between then and now. And while the 20th century may have invented new methods of delivery, it by no means invented sex or violence, either in fact or as entertainment.

Judith and Holofernes, 1455, Donatello
Around four hundred years ago, painting was one of the most viable entertainment mediums going.  It was crude of course, by today's standards, but it offered much the same impact for its time as today's movies or television. And about this time, one of the most brutal acts of violence (with some degree of sexual undercurrent) ever to appear on canvas was that of a lovely young widow by the name of Judith and her maid, graphically depicted in the act of decapitating the tyrant, Holofernes. The Early Italian Renaissance sculptor, Donatello, may have been the first to bring this legend to light and art. His gruesome, though bloodless, embodiment (right) stands today in the center of Florence next to a copy of Michelangelo's David. Building on this, perhaps even borrowing from it, the great, Italian, baroque artist, Caravaggio, was the first to paint it in 1598 (below, left). His version is dark, dramatic, and bloody enough; but he embodies in his female assailants a certain detached quality reducing the emotional impact of the act to a level not unlike carving roast beef.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-99,
Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612,
Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi was a follower of Caravaggio. Her father may have been one of his students. In any case, in 1612, this talented young lady poured every ounce of hatred and violence resting within her as a result of having been raped by her art instructor, into her own horrific version (above, right). And if there were some kind of competition to see who could depict the most squirting blood, this image would win, hands down. There is a struggle, there is pathos, there is sexually charged violence on a scale seldom seen in painting before or after. About the same time, another Italian artists, Cristofano Allori, also chose Judith (bottom). It was one of his last painting efforts. In contrast, his work is almost totally bloodless, Judith's sword extending well outside the picture plane, and his figures come across more as elegant than violent. There is still the severed head, held by the hair in the lovely young lady's gripping fist, but the coolness in her expression, after the fact, is devoid of emotion. The expression of the maid, peering over her shoulder, seems reduced to worrying that blood may besmirch milady's rich brocades. Strangely though, it may be this cool detachment that makes this image the most chilling of them all. Tune in next week when we see Judith, sword in hand, bargaining with a terrified taxidermist over the cost of mounting her gruesome trophy on the wall of her boudoir.
Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613, Cristofano Allori

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Juan de Valdes Leal

Juan de Valdes Leal
Maybe I should save this for October but I couldn't resist. How many of you like the Macabre? If you have a teenager in your house, especially those of the male variety, you have no doubt got a taste of their taste for such Halloweenish paraphernalia. Music CD covers are full of it (like my choice of words?) When I taught, back a few years ago (late 1980s), I swore if I had to look at one more skull I'd start pulling out my hair, which may explain to some degree my little bald spot. The infatuation with such things now may have tapered off somewhat, but one of these days, it'll come back. It always does. Back in the 1600s, there was a similar fascination with this sort of thing. Art historians have given it the cutesy name, "Vanitas." The Dutch painted them quite a lot, modest still-lifes depicting the wealth and riches of life juxtaposed with the temporal things like food and flowers demonstrating the fleeting nature of the "vanities" of life. The Dutch weren't the only ones who had a preoccupation with the fleeting nature of life, and more pointedly, the instantaneous qualities of death. The Spanish did to. In fact, they wallowed in it, making Dutch vanitas paintings look like get well cards compared to the grisly horrors the Spanish conjured up.

Allegory of Death, 1670-72, Juan de Valdes leal
The chief conjure-upper of what might be called "black art" was a man by the name of Juan de Valdes Leal.  He was born in Seville, in 1622 where he received his art training and fell into place amid what has come to be known as the Seville School. The hallmark of the Seville School is extreme realism. Some 250 years later Pablo Picasso was to come out of this school, which may tell you a lot about the nature of some of Picasso's work. Valdes Leal's work first showed up in Cordoba in 1647 bearing the influence of Francisco de Herrera the Elder, who was probably his instructor. Today, if you go to the Hospital de la Santa Caridad in Seville, you will see Valdes Leal's two most famous paintings. Both seem to have been painted about the same time.  The "best," if you can call it that, is his Allegory of Death (above). The other, Finis Gloriae Mundi (below) is less powerful a piece of work, pushing the genre somewhat past the macabre into the downright degenerate.

Finis Gloriae Mundi, 1672, Juan de Valdes Leal
Allegory of Death (1670-72) depicts a skeletal grim reaper, coffin tucked under one arm, scythe in one hand, snuffing out the flame of a candle with the other set of mandibular bones.  Engraved over the candle are the words "In Ictu Oculi" (In the twinkling of an eye) referring to the suddenness of death.  Arrayed below is a gloriously colorful still-life in studied disarray, the grim reaper's feet resting upon a globe and a suit of armor while books, robes, priestly vestments, the papal triple tiara, ecclesiastical staff, jewelry, and swords--all the remnants of temporal power--cascade out of the painting in an ignoble clutter. Finis Gloriae Mundi features two corpses in the final stages of decay, one a priest lying in a coffin, the other a knight, his head resting on a treasure chest. From above, a hand descends holding scales, one side bearing a pig and goat (gluttony and lust) the other shows a sacred heart and scourge, the symbols of contrition. The one side has the word "Nimas" (nothing more needed for damnation) while the other side bears the engraved word "Nimenos" (nothing less will lead to salvation). This art goes beyond admonishment into what we would today call "scare tactics." But keep in mind, less than twenty years before the black plague had devastated Seville. The citizenry knew well the face of death. One has to wonder, though, about the placement of such horror in a hospital (okay it was a place of death), but beyond that, what effect such art had then and, more importantly, has now on patients of that facility.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Josef Albers

Joseph Albers and his work.

I suppose there's hardly an artist alive today who doesn't sometimes wonder if his or her life and work will ever make much difference in the overall, greater scheme of things; either in the real world or even in the vaunted, rarefied air of the art world. I have these moments. I sometimes wonder if my greatest achievements in art are not all behind me, perhaps resting in the pregnant brain of some former student, gestating, waiting to emerge in brilliance maybe years after my own death. As a former art instructor, I struggle to come to grips with the fact that my main art legacy may be to have been a minor, influential footnote to some artist far greater than I. Sometimes I wonder if even these musings might be nothing more than self-flattery. However, whenever I lapse into such moments of doubt, there comes to mind a quiet, modest, elementary art teacher born in Bottrop, Germany, in 1888. Twelve years he taught little children to paint and draw. His name was Josef Albers.

Tables,1927, Josef Albers, Bauhaus design at its best.
Even as he taught, Albers painted. He discovered Matisse, Cezanne, Munch, van Gogh, the German Expressionists, Delaunay and the Italian Futurists. He painted his first abstract painting in 1918. He studied. He attended the Royal Art School in Berlin, the Kunstgeweberschul in Essen, and the Art Academy in Munich. In 1920, he discovered the newly formed Bauhaus School in Weimar. In 1923, he graduated and joined the faculty, teaching the introductory design classes where he had his students undertaking constructions using wire netting, phonograph needles, razor blades, matchboxes, and other unusual materials. He was influenced by those around him at the Bauhaus, artists such as Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky. He began adding to his paintings glass assemblages, and using stains and sandblasting in his work, concerned with "accidental" ripple and bubbles while exploring balance, translucence, and opacity. Later, he moved up to teaching typography and furniture design (above).

A sampler of Albers' color harmonies--squared.
During the turbulent 1920s in Germany, the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin taking Albers with it before being forced by Hitler to close in 1933. Albers immigrated to the U.S. and was recommended by Philip Johnson to a group of Utopian visionaries forming a small college in the back hills of North Carolina. They called it Black Mountain College. Albers had never even heard of North Carolina. His wife thought it was in the Philippines. He spoke not a word of English. Yet, in the years to follow, he was a major influence to such Black Mountain students as Robert Rauschenberg and Neil Welliver. In 1950, he became the Director of Design at Yale. It was about this time that he began his most famous work, his color studies centering on the square (above). This aesthetic/scientific pursuit was to occupy him the rest of his life. His color theories were to influenced young artists of the Pop and Op movements in the 1960s, and later a nascent Minimalism (bottom). Beyond this, his subtle, graded, explorations of color in a purely abstract sense populate the art history books and technical painting manuals we have all studied for the past forty years. Such a man, such a life, such art never fails to inspire this old, pensioned-off art teacher whenever he begins to wonder about his place in the cosmos. Maybe there's hope for me yet.

Untitled Lithograph, 1942, Josef Albers, Minimalism in some of its earliest manifestations.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John A. Ruthven

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 2007, John Ruthven

Not long ago I wrote mentioning something called "niche art."  No, it's not marble statues designed to go into wall niches. Niche art refers to subject matter content of a highly specialized nature. I once painted and sold a lot of cats. I could easily have slipped into the "feline niche."  I chose not to. I found them not challenging enough in the first place and the whole idea of niche art too limiting in any case. I like cats as well as the next guy (we have four of them), but only as well as the next guy; and certainly not well enough to make a career of them. I've painted a few dogs in my time too; and that's also a niche. There are artists who only paint horses. Others paint only flowers. And from what I hear, there may even be artists who paint only goats.

Autumn Woods, 1998, John Ruthven
I suppose there's nothing wrong with an artist filling a niche...or several niches for that matter, if you really love the subject and don't mind the limitations. Moreover, there are also different size niches. One of my best artist friends paints only pet portraits. That, of course, is a much larger niche than just cats, dogs, or horses. And along the line of painting animals, perhaps one of the largest niches of all is that of the wildlife painter; which, like pet portraits, includes a number of smaller niches, namely fish, exotic animals, not-so-exotic animals, and birds. And though he first made a name for himself painting birds, one of the best artists in the wildlife niche is 85-year-old John A. Ruthven.

Dusty--Golden Retriever, 1985,
John Ruthven

Cincinatti artist, John Ruthven (pronounced ROOT-ven) has often been called the "20th Century Audubon." The problem with tags like this is they never say who calls him that...perhaps even the artist himself. Whatever the case, it's an apt comparison. Ruthven's work is accurate, inspiring, technically adept, and beautifully rendered. It is fine art. But unlike some in his niche, it's not photographically real. Backgrounds, if present at all, are kept to a minimum, just as in Audubon's work. There's never a suspicion that he might have used photos. Ruthven spends as much time sketching in the field as painting in his studio. As a result, there is a clarity in his watercolor images seldom found in most other wildlife art.  Some might call it the Ruthven style, but then again, we have to wonder who the "some" might be.

Ruthven's 1960 Duck Stamp winner,
Redhead Ducks
As a result of this "style" there is an illustrative quality to some of his work. When he began as a professional in 1946, this necessarily made him a wildlife illustrator, which may have been when the first connection with Audubon occurred. John James Audubon was very much a wildlife illustrator too. Today the distinction, if there is one, is largely superficial. Ruthven is a wildlife artist. Although he's rendered most of the wildlife of North American his niche within a niche remains birds. He first gained national recognition when he won the Federal Duck Stamp competition in 1960 with his Redhead Ducks (left). This Pulitzer Prize of the wildlife art world created a national demand for his work, and even as his prices rose into the thousands of dollars, he could not keep up. 

So, as many artists have been "forced" to do, Ruthven moved into print reproductions. Fortunately, as a watercolorist, there is little lost in the translation because it's literally exchanging one paper medium for another. In 1971, Ruthven founded Wildlife International' Inc. to publish and distribute his prints. Much of the company's work today is with various wildlife preservation and conservation groups who use his images in public relations and fund raising. In 2004, for his efforts both in art and wildlife preservation, Ruthven was awarded the National Medal of Arts. But lest you think this Georgetown, Ohio artist is just some stuffy old bird-watching brush jockey, Ruthven recently made his debut as a totally different sort of "wildlife" painter. In 2000, he painted a pig. Okay, not a real pig (not even a picture of a pig), though it was somewhat more real than he was used to. It was his entry in Cincinnati art/pig promotion Big Pig Gig. Titled Choo-choo (bottom), it features a face inspired by King Tut and a body inspired by B&O. There's no word on whether Wildlife International will feature a print of this one or not.  Probably not.
Choo-choo, 2000, John Ruthven. The painting has also
been dubbed "Sow Great Thou Art."