Monday, October 20, 2014

A Luxury Item

R.J. Horner and Company (1886–1915, New York), Desk (Secretary), 1890–1895. Wood, metals, Mother-of-pearl inlay, and brass mounts; 42 ¾” x 32” x 19 3/4" (108.6 x 81.3 x 50.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4456)

I don’t know about you, but when I write (a letter, or anything else), I like to spread my arms out on a table or drawing board. I guess I’m just not one for luxurious living. But this little drop-down desk totally fits the bill for a person of refinement to write a quick note or shopping list. My brother has one from the 1700s and I don’t see how he can even fit a sheet of paper on the writing surface! It’s fine for writing post cards though. The secretary was popularized starting in the mid-1700s and the form endured in popularity through the end of the 1800s. In the 1700s, the form was perfected by French cabinetmakers. When every past style under the sun was revived during the mid- to late 1800s, new life was breathed into it.

Robert Horner opened his first store on West 23rd Street in New York. Realizing that the burgeoning middle-class could not afford his “European novelties,” Horner advertised “first-class and medium quality furniture.” At the time he opened, his furniture was produced on site, using mahogany, oak, and other hardwoods. His artists decorated the furniture in all of the popular revival style carving motifs of the day, sometimes verging on being overly decorated. In 1891 Horner began to import European-produced revival styles while continuing to produce pieces in New York in the latest fashions. Major revival styles he featured in his showrooms were Louis XV, Louis XVI, Baroque, and Mannerism Revival.

Horner’s company survived the Financial Panic of 1893 (the worst financial downturn in the US up to that time), and thrived once again when the economy recovered. It was during the Panic that Horner admitted that new furniture, particularly his elaborately decorated works, was a “luxury” for Americans struggling to survive the financial downturn. However, he persevered serving both the upper and middle classes. Some of the “medium quality” forms he pioneered were partner (two-sided) desks, hall trees (hat/coat racks), and parlor sets (sofa and chairs). Horner’s was the first furniture store to establish a sales floor at the top of his building featuring complete interiors meant to give buyers design tips. This established a trend in furniture stores that survives to the present day.

This secretary is remarkable in its restrained decoration and carving. That said, I still couldn’t see this in a regular middle class home, although its restrained amount of decoration may have qualified it for Horner’s “medium quality” category. Although it could be lumped under the umbrella stylistic term of “Rococo” or “Colonial Revival” that encompassed everything from Baroque to Louis XVI, often in lurid combinations in one piece, the secretary is actually quite a nice imitation of the Queen Anne style (early 1700s, England and America). It is a copy of a design by Duncan Phyfe (1768–1854), who worked extensively in the Queen Anne style.

The ball-and-claw foot, cabriole leg with acanthus carving on the knee (yes, furniture parts are named after body parts), and the shell between the drawers are all part of Queen Anne decorative vocabulary. The original Queen Anne style was very restrained. The gallery rail along the top of this piece and mother-of-pearl inlay on the drop front are concessions to the 1800s abhorrence of a vacuum, i.e., decoration.
Horner’s company moved to 36th Street and Fifth Avenue to take advantage of the trend of people moving north in Manhattan. In 1915 Horner merged his company with George Flint’s to form Horner and Flint. This piece still bears the porcelain plaque on the back with Horner and Company’s name.

Studio activity: Design a luxury furniture item. Luxury means fancy; not necessary, but conducive to pleasure. Using a pencil, design a luxury chair. The elements of the chair, such as the legs, back, and seat need not be what makes it luxurious. Using color pencils or markers, decorate the chair in a fancy way that would make it difficult to relax while sitting on it. After drawing the decorations, make a contour line around all the shapes of decoration, and the basic chair itself, making sure not to draw any of the chair lines over the elements of decoration.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.34; studio 35—36; Explorations in Art Grade 4: studio 15—16; Discovering Art History: 2.2; The Visual Experience: 12.4

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hierarchical Size

Hierarchy is the level of importance allotted to an object, or, for the sake of this posting, a person. Hierarchical size deals with the principle of design known as proportion. Proportion has to do with the relationship of the size of one element of a work of art to another other. When one figure unnaturally dwarfs other figures in a work of art, it usually means that that person is more important than the others and is the center of attention, i.e. the subject matter.

Ancient Egypt, Block statue of Senwosret-senebefny and Itneferuseneb, ca. 1836–1759 bce. Quartzite, 26 7/8” x 16 3/8” x 18 1/8” (68.3 x 41.5 x 46 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4913)
Egyptian women, even those in the nobility, held little power in ancient Egypt. The power the did have was centered in the home: overseeing the household and managing the household budget. Although not always the case in Egyptian funerary sculpture, wives and members of the family of the deceased are minimized in importance. Block sculptures such as this one for Senwosret-senebefny, an official in the Twelfth Dynasty (1937–1759 bce), depict the deceased squatting on the ground covered in a cloak. The small figure is Itneferuseneb, most likely Senwosret-senebefny’s wife. Such funerary art was popular because there was a lot of surface to cover in hieroglyphics with praise for the deeds of the deceased.

Ancient Egypt, Family Group, mortuary statue, ca 2371–2298 bce. Limestone (probably painted originally), height: 29 1/8” (74 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-548)
This funerary commemorative portrait of a minor official, a little over two feet tall, has the minimized wife included, as well as the apple of the deceased’s eye, a male child. The pose of arms glued to the sides and one foot advancing is a convention in Egyptian sculpture that lasted through the period of Roman domination that ended in the first 500 years ce. Another convention seen through Egyptian history is the wife’s affectionate hand resting on her husband.

Pietro Lorenzetti (1280–1348, Italy), Madonna and Child with Friar Donor, 1320s. Tempera and gold leaf on wood panel, 49 9/16” (126 x 76 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-448)
Lorenzetti and his brother Ambrogio, who were from Siena, were instrumental in bringing Italian art into the beginnings of the Renaissance with their insistence on realism, monumentality, and plasticity. However, some older elements of Gothic art remain: the shallow, shrine like space, the use of gold leaf, and the miniature monk donor kneeling at the feet of the object of veneration, the Madonna and Child. During the Renaissance, donors such as this monk would have been depicted the same size as the religious figures. This was all part of the Renaissance emphasis on the individual and their accomplishments.

India, Zumurrud Shah Reaches the Foot of a Huge Mountain and is Joined by Ra’im and Yaqut, page from a dispersed “Hamzanama” (Book of Hamza), 1557–1572. Opaque watercolor and gold leaf on cotton cloth, 26 ¾” x 20” (68 x 51 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-646)
The Hamzanama was a recounting of the adventures of Amir Hamza. It is an Indo-Iranian tale much akin to the adventures of Odysseus in Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. This scene certainly rivals the Egyptian examples of minimization in the size of the followers of Zumurrud Shah, the central character in red tunic. Male figures are only slightly larger than female and child figures. Another interesting aspect of this illustration is space. Recession into the background is achieved with vertical perspective. In other words, various elements of the setting are piled one atop the other to achieve the illusion of depth. 

This work, done in a style derivative of the Spanish Baroque, was most likely executed by native artists. Spanish artists who migrated to the Spanish colonies in Central and South America taught native artists oil painting. Like-sized saints, as well as mini-donors accompany the Madonna and Child, the focus of veneration. The painting is interesting in that a wealthy native family who had converted to Christianity commissioned it. Compared to Spanish painting of the time in Europe, it has more of a folk-art aesthetic.

Edward Savage (1761–1817, US), The Savage Family, ca. 1779. Oil on canvas, 26” x 34 5/8” (66 x 88 cm). © Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-104)
The painter, Edward Savage, appears on the far left of this painting, and is practically the only figure represented in what approaches accurate body proportions. The rest of the family has huge heads on spindly little bodies. Although Savage studied painting under expatriate American painters in England, his early style reveals a self-taught quality, especially in the lack of understanding of anatomy and perspective (look at the floor tiles!). However, I still find this piece charming, especially the way the family members are arranged by height, drawing attention to the velvet-covered table in the center of the room (why?).

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2, Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, The Visual Experience: 8.9

Monday, October 6, 2014

Another American Original

Orson Fowler (1809–1887 US), Octagonal house, 1857. San Francisco, CA. Photo © Davis Art Images. (8S-25846)
I’m always eager to show you examples of true American artistic originality! One such form in architecture is the octagonal house. During a period in architecture that was completely dominated by revival of any style you want to think of from the past, including ancient Egyptian, the octagonal house was a true innovation. In my mind, it could be considered a forerunner of Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea about integrating the interior of a house with the exterior surroundings.

Octagon houses existed in the US before Orson Fowler came along, but they were few and far between. An outstanding example is Thomas Jefferson’s summer residence Poplar Forest near Lynchburg, VA. Also, there were many octagonal schoolhouses in Pennsylvania built between 1790 and 1840, many of which were converted to residences. Fowler, however, promoted the octagonal house into a national fad, started by his 1848 book “The Octagon House: A Home for All.”

Fowler’s background was in phrenology, the study of the shape of a human skull and its affect on the health of an individual. Although he never studied architecture, in keeping with his interest in the health of Americans, he promoted the style for its health benefits. Two design elements of the house made his point: the omnipresent cupola allowed more light into the house over the central stairs; and windows in eight directions encouraged the moving of air through the house. He also advocated for “modern” amenities such as dumbwaiters, speaking tubes, and indoor toilets.

Fowler truly believed that the octagonal house was an economic way to serve the needs of the middle class. In his book he gave tips on how to keep costs low. However, most octagonal houses were built of the finest hard woods, which, in today’s building market, would have been astronomically expensive. Fowler’s book, though, ignited a fad for octagonal houses across the country. Although the initial fad peaked between 1848 and 1885, octagonal houses continued to be popular for people who owned a bit of property, and to the present day because of the light from eight directions, and the greater interior space (when compared with rectangular or square designs).

Because octagonal houses peaked in popularity during the period of American architecture when every past style under the sun was applied to both domestic and public architecture, there is a wide variety of ornament on them. Some are truly plain but most of them share the common features of the cupola, which was an integral part of the Italianate Style (flourished 1840–1880). The San Francisco example comes complete with Italianate cupola, but has restrained Classical Revival elements scene in the pedimented porch, and decorative quoins. Quoins are the faux-brick decoration of the corners of the octagon (quoin means corner in French). Otherwise, it’s a simply elegant building.

Here are some further examples of octagonal houses.

Unknown architect, Octagonal house, ca. 1850–1860. Mechanicsville, NY. Photo © Davis Art Images (8S-25759)
This house has predominantly Italianate features, including the cupola, tall first floor windows with wrap around porch, rounded arch windows, and a prominently projecting eave. Unusual in this example is that each face of the octagon has it’s own peaked gable.

Unknown architect, Octagonal house, ca. 1850–1860. Saco, ME. Photo © Davis Art Images. (8S-25743)
This example is most likely what Fowler had in mind when he held up the octagonal house as an inexpensive home for everyone. This house has the unfortunate later addition of a porch in back.

Unknown architect, Octagonal house, ca. 1850–1860. Winchester, VA. Photo © Davis Art Images (8S-25765)
Visible in this example are the cupola and bracketed, overhanging eave of the Italianate style. The gingerbread jigsaw ornament of the porch may be a later addition, influenced by the Eastlake Style that flourished 1870–1890.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.31, 6.33; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.19; The Visual Experience 11.5

Monday, September 29, 2014

Cross-Cultural Connections

India / Pakistan  Head of a Bodhisattva, from Gandhara, late 100s to early 200s ce. Black slate, 12 7/16” x 10” x 9” (31.11 x 25.4 x 22.86 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-71)

It’s amazing to me how connected the cultures of the world are. One can no longer separate east and west when we see the art of northern India / Pakistan during the early years of Buddhist art. Buddha’s life is considered by scholars to date between the late 500s to early 400s bce.

The earliest images of the Buddha appeared during the time of the Kushan dynasty in India (ca. 50–320 ce). The Kushan Dynasty replaced the Mauryan Dynasty (322–185 bce), the dynasty that unified various states into a distinctive Indian kingdom after the invasion of northern India by Alexander the Great (died 323 bce). It was during the Mauryan Dynasty that Buddhism was adopted as the official religion, but it was under the Kushan Dynasty that Buddhist art had its first flowering. The Kushan moved to India in the first century bce from the western border of China (the Chinese called them the Yuezhi).

Although the Kushan did not seem to have intended to conquer northern India, these Caucasian, nomadic peoples filled a power vacuum left by the disintegration of the Mauryan dynasty. They became affluent trading with the Roman colonies in what was left of Alexander’s western colonies. This is evidenced in the large issues of gold coins that bore likenesses of Greek, Roman, Hindu, Iranian, and Buddhist deities. This indicates the cosmopolitan, tolerant attitude of the Kushan rulers. After the rise of the Sasanian Dynasty (222–650 ce) in Iran, and the rise of other states in northern India, Kushan rule declined.

Enduring, however, are the first images of the Buddha. They are variously labeled “Mathuran” (after one of the Kushan capitals) or “Gandharan” in style. In the city of Gandhara, the meeting of Buddhist thought and the Greco-Roman sculptural style resulted in one that transferred the features of Apollo to the Buddha and bodhisattvas (saints). The Gandhara Buddha/Bodhisattva style is a perfect example of the merging of Roman realism with Indian conceptualism. The rounded face is indicative of the Indian tendency to geometricize the classical western style. The Gandharan style is typified by an oval face, long straight nose, arched eyebrows, and cupid’s bow lips. It is modeled on the face of Apollo with a moustache added. The wavy hair tied in a bow, a Greek hairstyle, emulates the Buddhist conception of the ushnisha or top-knot on the Buddha’s head. The jewelry is both western and Indian. 
There is much turmoil in the world these days. But I always have hope for humankind coming together as a “global village” when I learn about cultures like the Kushan, who were at the crossroads of Asian and Western cultures, and amalgamated them into their own peacefully.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 5: studio1/2; A Global Pursuit: 3.5; Beginning Sculpture: 5; Discovering Art History: 4.2; Exploring Visual Design 1, 2; The Visual Experience 13.2

Monday, September 15, 2014


Ruth Henshaw Bascom (1772–1848), Portrait of Mary Davis Denny, 1839. Pastel and charcoal over graphite with paper collage on blue paper, 20 x 15 1/8” (50.8 x 38.4 cm). © Worcester Art Museum (WAM-383)
I’m showing you Ruth Henshaw Bascom’s work as a celebration of the new show in the Davis Art Gallery, “Drawing: The Art of Making Marks.” Drawing was not really considered a “fine art” medium until the late 1800s. However, there were many artists, particularly women, who explored the many ways of creating finished works of art in the genre. Actually, up until the late 1800s, drawing was considered a “genteel” pastime for women, along with decorating ceramics, needlework, quilting, etc. Long before Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent established drawing and watercolor as fine art media, Bascom showed just how an accomplished drawing could be a great work of art.

Bascom was an apparently self-taught artist born in Leicester, Massachusetts. Her second husband was a minister, and they traveled to many towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire because of his profession. They eventually settled in Gill, Massachusetts in 1836. The majority of her profile portraits were produced there, depicting family members and neighbors.

Bascom had begun painting the profile portraits in 1819 at the age of forty-seven. She used the same technique as silhouette artists, where the sitter cast a shadow on a piece of paper and she would trace the outline. She then filled in the details with pastel. She could be considered one of the first collage artists in American art, because she often added cut paper or shiny metallic paper to indicate beads or eyeglasses. In this work, the white ruffle blouse is cut out and pasted on the figure. Sometimes she cut out the face and pasted it over a different background, such as a landscape. In her diaries, now at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, Bascom writes more about her needlework than her drawings. She did, though, once record that she had painted the floor of her house to resemble a carpet.

Like many women of the period who were not allowed to attend art classes and usually considered drawing as a “respectable” pastime rather than a career, Bascom never charged for her portraits. Like many well-to-do women of her day, she would have considered it inappropriate to charge for her art. However, her profile portraits are an enduring snapshot of the lives of New Englanders in the early 1800s. They reveal solid compositional skills and a capable handling of realistic form.

Here is the rest of the Denny Family:

Ruth Henshaw Bascom, Portrait of Joseph Addison Denny, 1839. Pastel, charcoal, and colored paper collage on blue paper, 19 7/8” x 15” (50.5 x 38.2 cm). © Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-279)

Studio activity: Create a profile portrait. Project a light on a classmate in profile, and fill in the features and clothing with colored pencil, markers, or watercolor. Create a collage by adding cut out construction paper for details such as clothing, hair, jewelry, etc.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1; A Personal Journey: 6.4

Monday, September 8, 2014

Spiritual Color

Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–1980, United States), Church Fan, ca. 1970. Gouache and graphite on cardboard, punched, stitched and tied with thread, 13 5/8” x 13 5/8” (34.6 x 34.6 cm). Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-5100)

The persistence of types of artworks through the centuries always fascinates me. While materials may vary, the artwork still serves the same purpose. I’m sure before air conditioning fans were quite popular things to have when in church, whether it be in the American South, or in the heat of the Syrian desert. Although this fan cannot be labeled exactly “liturgical,” a deeply spiritual African American woman who developed many missionary efforts created it.

Sister Gertrude Morgan was a self-taught artist. As with many African American self-taught artists, she expressed in her work the large role her faith played in her life, and the life of the African American community. Born in Alabama, she moved to New Orleans in 1937. There she started a street mission, a day care center, established a chapel (her “Prayer Room”), and helped found an orphanage. She began painting seriously in 1956. Her work was religious in nature and often revealed her own visions of God. She worked in a variety of cheap, easily available media.

This painted "prayer" fan by Sister Gertrude Morgan uses the vivid, contrasting range of colors preferred by a number of self-taught artists. Narrative in its subject matter, the crowded compositions of her work often record religious visions or parables from the Bible. They also reveal Morgan’s innate aptitude for harmonizing bright color. She instinctively understood the power of certain strong colors to reflect moods or ideas such as simplicity, hope, or optimism. After 1970 her fans depict almost exclusively scenes from the Book of Revelations.

Sister Morgan’s painted fans were handed out to friends and to people who visited her Prayer Room. The idea of church fans was not new. However, in the early Christian church, some fans were reserved for the clergy participating in a service, such as this Syrian liturgical fan. I can just imagine some poor acolyte stuck with the job of fanning a bishop or priest during a church service. The image is of two seraphs, the six-winged angels that protect the throne of God.

Syria, Coptic church, Liturgical fan (flabella), late 700s to early 800s CE. Silver, 16 x 8 5/8” (40.8 x 22 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3462)

And while I’m on the subject of fans, I can’t resist showing you this 1800s beauty from France. It is painted with decoration in the then popular Rococo Revival style. The Rococo period was that of the early to mid-1700s, which stressed arabesque (rocaille in French) decoration and luxurious materials.

France, Fan with gold rocaille decoration, 1850–1860. Silver foil over paper on painted and gilt wooden sticks. © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2435)
 Studio activity: Design a fan in bright colors using symbols that describe your life. Use heavy paper, and after you’ve painted your design cut out the shape of a fan. A fan looks like a triangle except that the top is rounded. Use opaque water-soluble paints such as tempera or gouache.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.34, A Community Connection: 6.2, Experience Painting: 2

Monday, August 25, 2014

An Epidemic Satirized in Art

Franz Dörbeck (1799–1845, Germany), published by Thomas McLean (1788–1875, London), Cholera Preventive Costume, 1832. Hand-colored lithograph, 15" x 11" (38.1 x 27.8 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4347)

With the current focus on the Ebola outbreak, let’s reflect on the many epidemics that caught the world’s attention in the 20th and 21st centuries: bird flu, SARS, swine flu, flesh-eating bacteria, and not to mention HIV are some that have garnered a lot of fear. Obviously, the 21st century is not the first time period in history to experience such outbreaks, in fact, things were much worse before the medical community understood the nature of viruses and bacteria, knowledge of which started in the mid-1800s. Also, in the 21st century, we do not tend to see art on a large scale that chronicles such epidemics, unless it is politically or socially oriented.

Cholera was one of the Ebola epidemics of the 1800s, as was Malaria and Yellow Fever. This was all before scientists such as Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and John Snow discovered the existence of viruses and bacteria. Certain bacilli (bacteria) in drinking water is what caused the massive cholera outbreaks in the 1800s. It is thought to have originated in India, and migrated to Northern Europe and the US in the early 1800s because of the British Empire’s frequent trade with India. It assumed particularly dire outbreaks as early as 1830 in London. These outbreaks lasted until the end of the 1800s when improved public water treatment evolved. Cholera was also a problem in the US until the late 1800s when water treatment plants in major cities were improved.

This print reflects the then current assumption of the miasmatic transmission of the disease (air-borne basically). This idea was ages old, dating back to the Black Death (bubonic plague) of the late Roman Empire (ravaged the empire in the 400s and 500s ce), and of the 1300s (killed nearly a quarter of the population of western Europe). The idea that cholera was air borne was disproved starting in the 1850s when John Snow demonstrated that it was caused by contaminated drinking water. The print basically mocks the idea of herbs and breathing apparatus to ward off the disease.

Satirical prints, both politically and socially oriented, evolved in Britain during the 1700s, and reached particularly sophisticated levels after the 1810s. Rather than explaining people’s efforts to avoid cholera, these prints, like the one below, served to mock people who were superstitious about the spread of the contagion. I think it’s a great thing that doctors nowadays understand germs and contagious disease, even when they spread as Ebola has in western Africa. Here are the examples of preventive measures mocked in the above print:

--copper breast plate
--bag of sand
--band of pepper and juniper berries around the neck
--ear cotton with camphor
--vial of vinegar under the nose
--pound of coriander root
--juniper tree
--ten friction bushes in a cart

The print ends by saying: “By exactly following these directions you may be certain that the Cholera will attack you first.”

Here’s the female equivalent of the above print. I think the dog is really cute with his sprout of juniper for a tail.

Franz Dörbeck (1799–1845, Germany), Cholera Preservative Woman, ca. 1832. Color engraving, 27 x 23 cm (10 5/8 x 9”). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1562)

Here are examples of artists’ reaction to contemporary epidemics.

Sue Coe (born 1951, US), Doctor Giving Massage to an AIDS Patient, from the “New Provincetown Print Project” portfolio, 1993. Linoleum cut and monotype with ink additions. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2014 Sue Coe. (MOMA-P2562)
Eric Avery (born 1948, US), Art for Medicine, a folded broadside, 2003. Offset lithograph, 11 x 7 ¼” (27.9 x 18.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, © 2014 Eric Avery. (PMA-3984B)

 Correlations to Davis programs: A Community Connection: 8.2, A Global Pursuit: 3.1, Experience Printmaking: 6, The Visual Experience 9.4