Monday, July 24, 2017

Sumidagawa in July

The actual festival of Sumidagawa (“Sumida River”) occurs in Tokyo in the last week of August, but there are fireworks in Tokyo from May through August, starting with the Opening of the Sumida River in May. Now, I’ve tried doing multiple block color woodcuts, and let me tell you, they are a challenge. What has ALWAYS impressed me about the color woodcuts in Japanese art is that, no matter how many colors, the registration is right on the mark! So, you might imagine how impressed I am at depictions of fireworks! The very ephemeral nature of fireworks makes them a subject I wouldn’t even try duplicating in oils, much less as a woodcut. So here are some great examples of different approaches to fireworks in woodcut prints.

Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858, Japan), Fireworks at Ryogoku (bridge), #98 from the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series,1858. Color woodcut print on paper, 14 3/16" x 9 7/16" (36 x 24 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-822)

I’ll take any excuse to include my favorite ukiyo-e artist (because he does landscapes!). Utagawa Hiroshige I was the first artist that I’m aware of to explore the fireworks theme in a woodblock print. I always comment on the awe I feel for the woodblock carvers of Hiroshige’s drawings. Imagine carving the intersecting lines of the Ryogoku Bridge’s posts or that single line of firework flare in the night sky!

Fireworks in Japan were developed in the mid-1500s. Sophisticated, large displays were perfected by 1700. Fireworks as entertainment are said to have been introduced to the Japanese by British traders accompanied by Chinese fireworks merchants in 1613, although there may be earlier examples. Up until the 1700s, fireworks were generally used in festivals to frighten negative spirits.

The Shogun Yoshimune (1716–1751) commissioned fireworks for the first Ryogoku Kawabiraki Fireworks Festival ("opening of the river [Sumida] at Ryogoku [bridge]") for one summer to take people's minds off of a famine and resulting pandemic in western Japan. "Taking in the cool of the river" was a popular pastime from May through September, and eventually these fireworks took place on any clear night in summer. The Sumidagawa Festival is just one of those occasions, but the most popular of the summer. Compared to numerous other depictions of Ryogoku Bridge, the view from this series has removed the human presence to almost nil, in contrast with the dominating—almost melancholy—night sky and dark bridge. 

Ogata Gekko (1859-1920, Japan), Woman Looking at Fireworks from a Veranda, from the Women’s Customs and Manners series, 1897. Color woodcut print on paper, 14 ½" x 10" (36.8 x 25.4 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2358)

Comparing this Ogata Gekko print with that of Hiroshige is interesting because they each chose different moments and types of fireworks to illustrate. I can almost contrast in my mind the “pop” happening in Ogata’s print and the multiple “booms” of the Hiroshige; that’s how well these artists convey the sensation of seeing fireworks. I would image the printers of both these works rubbed some of the dark ink around the bright area to create nuances in the night sky. Brilliant! I’m pretty sure this woman is on a veranda overlooking the Sumida River.

Ogata, aboutwhom I’ve written before, was an anomaly when he produced prints because it was after the heyday of the ukiyo-e style. He relentlessly pursued the revival of the genre in his subject matter, preferring close-up views of nature to “bijin-ga”—beautiful women prints. However, the subject of “Customs of Women” was a traditional one in ukiyo-e, made popular by the late 1700s artist Utamaro (1753–1806). Ogata, who was apparently self-taught in the woodcut medium, displays subtle influences of Western art, such as perspective and more realism in his figure treatment. 

Kishio Koizumi (1893–1945, Japan), River Opening Ceremony at Ryogoku, from the series One Hundred Views of Tokyo in the Showa Era, 1935/1945. Color woodcut print on paper, 15 5/8" x 12" (39.8 x 30.5 cm). Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-629)

This Kishio Koizumi print is a most awesome contrast of Hiroshige’s Kawabiraki scene. Kishio’s scene is much flatter, with the major elements reduced to shapes and the space somewhat skewed. The fireworks are abstracted with no nuances in the night sky from the glow of the explosions. Like Hiroshige’s print, however, Kishio manages to capture the essence of the perceived experience by the artist.

Kishio was a major figure in the sosaku hanga (creative print) movement, which sought to infuse the traditional ukiyo-e genre with Western modernist elements, while maintaining traditional subjects. The creative print artists were different from the traditional ukiyo-e artists also, if you remember, because they drew, carved the woodblock, and executed the prints all themselves. This was a great departure from the master-apprentice system of the glory days of ukiyo-e, in which drawing, transferring to woodblock, carving woodblock, and printing of the image were done by different people.

Kishio was born in Shizuoka. His father, a calligrapher, commissioned woodblock-printed manuals, and Kishio learned the woodblock technique from his father’s block-carver. He studied Western-style watercolor at the Japan Watercolor Institute (Nihon Suisaiga-kai) in Tokyo. The three founders of that academy were woodblock printmakers, so they influenced his decision to go in that direction. He was a member of the Creative Artists Association early on and was an activist for their ideas. This print comes from his most famous series, which is a wonderful historical record of Tokyo before the destruction of World War II (1939–1945). 

Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915, Japan), Fireworks at Ikenohata, Shinobazu Pond, 1881. Color woodcut print on paper, 8 5/8" x 13 3/8" (22 x 33.9 cm). © 2017 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-526)

Kobayashi Kiyochika is often considered the last great ukiyo-e master, even though many of his prints fall under the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912) and the government’s manic quest to modernize Japan as quickly as possible. These fireworks take place near the Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park in the Taito Ward of Tokyo. I’m not sure what the festival is, but it’s such a great print, combining the influence of Western Impressionism and perspective with traditional Japanese subject matter and technique.

The printer has reduced distant forms to mere blocks of color, much as is seen in the backgrounds of Hiroshige’s prints. In the crowd figures, Kobayashi avoids the traditional attention to fine detail of figure in favor of a screen of shapes in silhouette. This sort of simplification resembles what might be seen in the work of European Symbolist painters. He had avidly studied Western art, particularly lithography, and based much of his work on Western etchings and photographs.

Kobayashi was the son of a minor government official under the last shogunate. After the elimination of the shogunate (1868), he trained himself to be an artist. His first project, which includes this print, was to diligently record scenes of Tokyo as it rapidly became a modernized city. In order to avoid comparison to previous cityscape artists such as Hiroshige, Kobayashi focused on light effects, preferring scenes of dawn, dusk, and night.

Correlations to Davis Programs:  Experience Printmaking 4; The Visual Experience 3.5, 13.5; Discovering Art History 2.3, 4.1

Monday, July 17, 2017

An Artist of the “Cool School”

Ed Moses (born 1926, US), Blue Velvet, 2008. Acrylic on canvas, diptych, overall 66" x 108" (167.6 x 274.3 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Ed Moses. (AK-2739)

Far too often art history texts sum up the pioneering American avant-garde of the mid-20th century with Abstract Expressionism and the New York scene. Believe it or not, there were avant-garde artists all over the US by the 1930s, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. I get as weary of the New York-focus in so many discussions of American modernism as I do of the Western bias in most art history books.

Like other “schools” of artists (see “Hudson River,” etc.), the “Cool School” denotes a group of artists in the same art scene. The artists of the Cool School in Los Angeles were instrumental in building recognition of avant-garde art on the West Coast starting after World War II (1939–1945), not of establishing a singular style. In one of the great ironies of art history, the Los Angeles cutting-edge, modernist collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg of the 1940s—a major impetus for the development of an avant-garde scene in LA—is now part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The art of Ed Moses belongs to this seminal period (and to the present day!) in the development of an institutional art scene in Los Angeles dedicated to the avant-garde. A student of Buddhism, Moses’s paintings have always displayed a certain cool detachment from the strictures enforced by the Abstract Expressionists—their emphasis on star personality and agonizing over personal process.

While Moses’s art is process driven, he avoids the need to control the process in favor of letting abstraction be a transformative experience; in other words, letting the painting go where it wants. A practitioner of daily meditation, Moses has a relaxed way of painting in which—in a Jungian sense—he leaves his body and then lets the paint direct his hand. 

There is a lyrical note in paintings like this, where the beauty of pure abstraction is emphasized over the artist’s ego or “signature style.” In addition to free-form abstraction like this, Moses is also noted for his abstract grid works. His early work is quite exciting, and frankly makes the works of Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman pale in comparison. I think this recent work is very nice.

Moses was born in Long Beach, the son of a Portguese father and English/Scottish mother. He studied art at Long Beach City College, University of Oregon, and UCLA before he became aware of Abstract Expressionism, particularly Rothko, de Kooning, and Gorky. While he was in school, he became a technical illustrator in an aircraft factory. That perhaps explains his fascination with grid abstraction from an early point. Having remained in LA most of his life, he has explored a variety of types of abstraction, including hard edge, biomorphic, crackle-like forms, and semi-representational. Rarely using a brush, Moses works in staining, scraping, splashing, and mopping, sometimes achieving lines with tape or snap lines.

Painting professionally since 1949, his first one-person show was at the Ferus Gallery, the very epicenter of the “Cool School.” Moses became one of its stable of Cool School artists, which included Billy Al Bengston (born 1934), Ed Ruscha (born 1937), Ken Price (1935–2012), and Larry Bell (born 1939).

Monday, July 10, 2017

It Isn’t All in the Title

I’m always a sucker for color. When I see works that I’ve never seen before by an artist I’ve always admired, and they involve color, then I have a sudden Beauty Attack. When Lynda Benlgis was asked for an artist’s statement for the publication Art: A Woman’s Sensibility (© 1975 Miriam Schapiro), she responded: “My statement is my work.” This is just so appropriate to her oeuvre that is so varied and so wonderful. I had never seen these watercolors before. Beauty Attack! 

Lynda Benglis (born 1941, US), Untitled, 1998. Watercolor on paper, Sheet: 16" x 12" (40.6 x 30.5 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Lynda Benglis / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (AK-2521bnvg)
Lynda Benglis, Untitled, 1998. Watercolor on paper, sheet: 16" x 12" (40.6 x 30.5 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Lynda Benglis / Licensed by VAGA, New York. 

By the early 1960s, there were artists who rebelled against what they perceived as Abstract Expressionism’s domination of the American contemporary art scene. This "rebellion" not only spawned Pop Art, but also various types of abstraction, including Minimalism. In contrast to the personality-stamped action painting or color field works of AE, Minimalism strove for pure, abstract form devoid of the artist's personal footprint in the work of art's creation.

Minimalism, however, like many of the reactions against Abstract Expressionism, became an entrenched, canonic style that was also subject to rebellion. Benglis’s work since the 1960s has flown in the face of art ideologies and “movements.” In her exploration of form in all media, she rejects the notion of leaving no personal signature in her works. In a way, many of her works are about process, and that’s why she says “My statement is my work.”

Benglis pioneered forms of metamorphic oozing and melting. Her art is sometimes lumped under Process Art because the act of creation, rather than the finished work, emphasizes a timelessness and structural stability. The Process artist's action is finished then the substance is selected and a site chosen, often in a random way. The rest is left to natural forces, time in conjunction with weather, gravity, temperature, etc.

Benglis’s watercolors, like her dramatic multicolored pigmented work, are documents of her process of creation. I dare say these glorious watercolors would have been lauded in the days of Abstract Expressionism. In the late 1990s period of appropriation, hybridism, and narcissism, however, they are refreshing reminders that some artists remain true to their vision of pure self-expression without boundaries or agendas.

Benglis, born in Louisiana, became interested in the interrelationships between painting and sculpture in the late 1960s. She is arguably best known for her early experiments in pouring brightly colored liquid polyurethane as installations in galleries, creating floor paintings that could easily be associated with sculptors pouring molten bronze.

From these floor pieces Benglis began creating three-dimensional pourings, almost exclusively site specific. Pieces that were meant to fill corners of galleries or hug parts of buildings evolved into hung poured pieces, sometimes covered in Day-Glo paint. She later began casting the poured polyurethane sculptures in bronze to make a less fragile and temporary sculpture, yet still express the process of unsupervised creation through pouring.
I absolutely LOVE this piece at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Is it a sculpture? Is it a painting? Do you LOVE the color?

Lynda Benglis, Fallen Painting, 1968. Pigmented latex rubber, length: ca. 29.5 feet (901.7 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Lynda Benglis / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (AK-127bnvg)

I’m not fond of the colors of these melt pieces, but imagine this in contrast to the works of Sol LeWitt or Frank Stella! However, as you can see from the above works, this artist clearly likes working with color.

Lynda Benglis, Modern Art, 1974. Bronze and aluminum, each: 13" x 43" x 29 1/8" (33 x 109 x 74 cm). Private Collection, New York. Photo courtesy of the artist. © 2017 Lynda Benglis / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (T18596bnvg)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

What’s New Is Old

I am a really big fan of art made from stainless steel, particularly in the field of the miscellaneous arts. Stainless steel tableware started being made early in the 1900s. At this time, Bauhaus (1919–1933, Weimar, Dessau, Berlin) artists applied industrial materials to utilitarian objects in artistic ways. The following stainless steel objects are so beautiful, and I can totally see them as props in the new Star Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery! I thought it would be fun to contrast these beauties with more traditional examples.


Pierangelo Caramia (born 1957, Italy) for Alessi S.p.A. (1921 to present, Crusinallo, Italy), Penguin Tea teapot, 1993. Stainless steel and Polycarbonate, 9" x 3 15/16" x 3 15/16" (23 x 10 x 10 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Pierangelo Caramia. (PMA-7119)

The biggest boom in Postmodern design came in the 1980s. Pierangelo Caramia is an architect and designer. He graduated from the University of Florence in 1984 and the Domus Academy in Milan in 1986, so I’ll call his style NeoNeoclassicism. The lines are so incredibly clean and elegant, it’s hard not to associate it with classical simplicity. While the form brilliantly imitates a bird, the piece totally emphasizes the beauty of the material. Caramia is an architect who lives and works in Paris. His historicism is not confined to utilitarian objects, for he has restored buildings dating from the 1100s to the 1600s. He also teaches at the Academy of Modern Art in Paris. In the past decade, he has designed objects of terra cotta that resemble finds from archeological digs

Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891, Japan), Teapot and Tea Plant. Album leaf, lacquer on paper, 4 3/8"” x 3 1/8" (11.1 x 7.9 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1343)

The teapot in this painting is most likely unglazed stoneware. It has a certain streamlined quality that complements Caramia’s, I think (except for the wicker handle). Shibata Zeshin is famous as a master of the ancient art of lacquer, which he perfected for painting. Still life was not a prevalent subject in Japanese art, as it was in Western art starting with the Renaissance. Still life depictions such as this appeared in the late 1700s in the work of such artists as Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). They may have been influenced by Western art, but it is more likely that such depictions descended from the kachō-ga, or "bird-and-flower painting." This genre, influenced by Chinese examples as early as the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), became very broadly defined in Japan, encompassing flowers, birds, insects, frogs, fish, pets, etc. That genre featured a single branch or flower with one or two birds on the blank background. This still life by Shibata contains the same aesthetic.

Fruit Bowl

Gijs Bakker (born 1942, Netherlands) for Royal VKB (1789 to present, Zoetermeer, Netherlands), Fruit bowl, 2000. Stainless steel, 51 9/16" x 12 9/16" (20.3 x 32 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Gijs Bakker. (PMA-7139)

This piece is just so gorgeous and it reminds me of Harold Edgerton’s (1903–1990) Milk Drop photograph. Gijs Bakker was trained as a jeweler and industrial designer at the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam and the Konstfackskolan in Stockholm. His groundbreaking jewelry designs in the late 1960s caused a sensation, and became symbols of the “mod” revolution in fashion design. Since that time, he has continued to produce daring designs in jewelry, appliances, furniture, and interiors. He was a co-founder of the Droog Design group in 1993, and in 1996 he co-founded the secessionist jewelry designer group Chi ha paura…? (Italian for Who’s afraid of…?). chp…?, as it is now known, invites avant-garde jewelry designers to create special pieces for their collection, exploring the idea that jewelry is a stand-alone art more than a fashion accessory. View more of his designs on

Sanju Mori II (1902–1970, Japan), Fruit tray, 1947. Lacquered textile core, 6 ¼" x 14 1/8" (15.9 x 35.9 cm). Image © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-3628)

Lacquer has played an important part in Japanese culture as a protective, decorative finish for items made from leather, wood, paper, bamboo, and metal for more than two thousand years. Japanese lacquer is harvested from the sap of the lacquer tree (Rhus verniciflua). It is applied to an object with a brush or spatula. Lacquer hardens to a waterproof finish in a controlled environment of high humidity and temperature. This gorgeous bubble-motif fruit stand was created in the ages-old lacquer tradition by Mori Miki. He was trained in the traditional fashion by apprenticing to lacquer master Shigehiro Sanju I (died 1922). He adopted his master’s name as Sanju II. After studying further with Asobe Sekisai, he became an independent lacquer artist in Tokyo. This dish is called a moriki, or tray for seasonal fruit. It was made in the kanshitsu technique in which pieces of hemp soaked in lacquer are place around a wooden or clay mold, which is removed after the lacquer hardens.


Mario Botta (born 1943, Switzerland) for Alessi S.p.A. (1921 to present, Crusinallo, Italy), Tua pitcher, 2000. Stainless steel and Polyamide, 11 3/8" x 5 7/8" x 3 ½" (29.1 x 14.9 x 9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Mario Botta. (PMA-7122)

This pitcher (which translates as “your pitcher”) is a remarkably sleek, timeless design that so reflects Mario Botta’s experience with the great masters of the International Style, Le Corbusier (1887–1965) and Louis Kahn (1901–1974). The form definitely follows the function without ornament! Botta attended the University Iuav in Venice, the first architectural school in Italy that also focuses on design. This piece could easily be mistaken for a Bauhaus design of 75 years earlier. His architectural designs emphasize the simplicity (and severity) of the underlying forms, often with a sheath of bricks. He opened his own practice in Mendrisio, Ticino in 1969. In 1996, he founded the architecture program at the University of Italian Switzerland in Lugano, of which he became dean.

Korea, Goryeo Kingdom (918–1392 CE), Pitcher, 1100s–1200s. Bronze, 9 13/16" x 8 13/16" (25 x 22.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4996).
This sophisticated bronze pitcher may put one in mind of the gorgeous bronzes from Shang (ca. 1523–1028 BCE) and Xhou (1027–256 BCE) China. That’s a good connection to make, because during the Goryeo period, Korea was heavily influenced by China. Bronze casting was probably introduced to the Korean peninsula from China during the first 1000 years BCE. The Goryeo dynasty established a unified kingdom on the Korean peninsula after defeating the Later Koguryo kingdom (918 CE), the kingdom of Silla (935 CE), and the Later Paekche kingdom (936 CE). The Goryeo period is characterized by its highly refined ceramics and bronze work. Like Chinese bronzes, Korean examples were based on earlier ceramic forms, but Korean bronzes lack the complex surface ornamentation of the Chinese.

Ron Arad (born 1951, Israel) for Alessi S.p.A. (1921 to present, Crusinallo, Italy), Babyboop flower vase, 2002. Stainless steel, 11 13/16" x 8 13/16" x 4 ½" (30 x 22.5 x 11.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Ron Arad. (PMA-7123)

Ron Arad’s design work has been characterized by an adventurous use of unusual materials since the early 1980s. His designs are also renowned for the unusual forms he creates in commonplace objects. This vase is certainly a non-conformist design for a millennia-old form. Arad, born in Tel Aviv, studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and the Architectural Association in London. He established his own design and production company, One-Off, in 1981. That same year he produced his famous Rover chairs and settees, which united car seats from junkyard Rover 200s with construction scaffolding pipes. In 1994, he established Ron Arad Studio in Como, Italy. During the 1990s he experimented with a wide range of unusual materials for utilitarian objects, such as steel, aluminum, or polyamide. It was during the 1990s that Arad perfected various methods of working with steel, including welding, beating, and forging. Despite the organic form of this vase, the use of stainless steel gives it a singularly simple classical, yet contemporary, aesthetic. Having two apertures, it is made by welding together two sheets of stainless steel.

Ancient Egypt, Badarian (ca. 4500–3800 BCE), Vase, 3000s BCE. Burnished red clay, height: 8 3/8" (21.27 cm). © 2017 Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-831)

We round out our exploration of “What’s New Is Old” with a vase that could easily pass for modern. I’m pretty use such a vessel wasn’t used to display flowers, but it is so elegant and streamlined. The early agricultural, fishing, and herding cultures in Egypt seem to have laid the groundwork for later cultural customs as early as 5500 BCE. The Badarian culture is named after the area El-Badari, Asyut, which is in Upper Egypt. It is the earliest known non-nomadic culture in Egypt of the pre-dynastic period (dynasty one dates to 2920 BCE). At this point in Egyptian history, people were buried in shallow graves, often wrapped in papyrus mats, surrounded by objects that were perceived to be needed in the afterlife, such as vases like this filled with food. The bodies were usually buried in the fetal position, oriented north/south, but always with the face turned towards the West. In Egypt, the west—where the sun set—was considered the realm of the afterlife (eventually, where Osiris ruled). This clay vessel was most likely fired in an open pit kiln. The black border, a typical feature of Badarian ceramics, is thought to be the result of turning the heated vessel upside down in finely cut hay or wheat (chaff). It is not glazed, but was burnished (polished with a hot stone).

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Deceiving the Eye—an American Obsession from the Beginning

Samuel Lewis (1757–1822, US), A Deception, ca. 1802. Black and brown inks, matte opaque paint, gold metallic paint, watercolor, graphite and scratching out on wove paper, 16 3/16” x 10 13/16" (41.1 x 27.5 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8129)

I’ve written before about the long-standing interest in extreme realism in American painting. Colonial American self-taught artists (“limners”) may not have been schooled in anatomy, but they sure as heck could depict the shimmer of the silk or velvet clothing covering that body. The Hudson River School artists of the first half of the 1800s believed in the accurate visual description of places in the American wilderness. And the New Realism movement of the 1960s and 1970s was just a spike in the popularity of a genre that continues to captivate.

Shame on me as an art historian for thinking of the Trompe-l’Oeil (Fool the Eye) Realism movement as an 1880s and 1890s phenomenon. The style, influenced greatly by the exquisitely painted realism of Dutch Baroque still life, was dominated by compositions of mundane everyday items presented with a stunning deception, often with images painted to “break the picture plane.” Well, looky what I found—trompe l’oeil realism from our early Republic!

On May 22, 1795, the first exhibition of the Columbianum—the American Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture—took place in Philadelphia. Although this attempt at an American academy subsequently failed, this show importantly showcased mostly American artists. It included several still-life paintings, which were, at the time, rare in American painting. The exhibit featured the Staircase Group by Charles Willson Peale, as well as a trompe l’oeil still life by a “writing and drawing master” named Samuel Lewis.

Lewis subsequently donated A Deception to Peale’s Philadelphia museum in 1808. I think this painting is a masterpiece in every sense of the criteria of the trompe l’oeil style, which was perfected by artists in the second half of the 1800s. Lewis’s work includes impeccable imitations of printed script on the various pieces of paper, indicating that he was well-versed in contemporary fonts as a writing master.

I found nothing of background information about Samuel Lewis, except for what I found in the book Citizen Spectator by Wendy Bellion (2011, Omohundro Institute of American History and Culture, Williamsburg, VA). This book explores the late-1700s Enlightenment interest in vision and optics as they related to the development of extremely realistic/illusionistic painting. Of course, this interest in optics also ultimately led to the invention of photography.

Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827, US), Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsey Peale), 1795. Oil on canvas, 89 1/2” x 39 3/8" (227.3 x 100 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-532)

By the time Peale painted this, he had abandoned his lucrative portrait painting business in order to explore his passion for natural sciences and his run personal museum in Philadelphia. Illusionistic realism was already a fad in the US. Peale used this to show that American artists were just as talented and witty as their European counterparts. Indeed, the whole idea behind the Columbianum (located in the Pennsylvania State House) was to afford Americans a homeland alternative to studying in Europe.

American artists drew from a long tradition of illusionistic realism in Western art, including Dutch and Flemish Baroque portraiture and still life. Peale’s Staircase Group itself references a painting by Antonie van Dyck (1599–1641) of Lord John Stuart and His Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart (National Portrait Gallery, London). Peale, however, emphasized the complete negation of the picture plane by including an actual doorframe and wooden step when the work was exhibited at the one and only exhibition at the Columbianum. Apparently, Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825) is said to have witnessed the George Washington (died 1799) tip his hat at this painting when he visited the Peale Museum in 1797.

Here are some Trompe l’Oeil realists you may recognize:
John Haberle (1856–1933, US), The Slate, ca. 1895. Oil on canvas, 12" x 9 3/8" (30.5 x 23.8 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-449)

William Harnett (1848–1892 US, born Ireland), The Old Violin, 1886. Oil on canvas, 38" x 23 5/8" (96.5 x 60 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington. (NGA-P0920)

John Frederick Peto (1854–1907, US), Old Time Card Rack, 1900. Oil on canvas, 30” x 25 ¼" (76.2 x 64.1 cm). © 2017 The Phillips Collection, Washington. (PC-320)

Correlations to Davis Programs: Discovering Drawing 3; The Visual Experience 9.9

Monday, June 12, 2017

And This Is a Portrait of Whom?

Unknown British artist, His Excellency George Washington, late 1700s, reprinted early 1900s. Hand-colored mezzotint on paper, 13 11/16" x 9 15/16" (34.8 x 25.2 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8074)

I don’t often laugh about art history (seriously!), but now and then one just can’t help it. With this group of “portraits,” I had to keep in mind that: A) the people who bought these prints did not have TVs or computers to check the accuracy of the likeness against news reports; and B) many of the artists of these prints were self-trained and making copies of copies of copies of painted or print portraits of the sitter. Either way, the following are not what we are accustomed to accepting as a likeness of our first president. Likenesses of the first president were in great demand during the early republic, as can well be imagined. Unfortunately, there were no photographs to guide many of the artists.

Aside from the fact that the Father of our Country has no neck in the print above, I’m at a loss to find a source for this pose from any painted portraits of Washington. The closest thing (and that’s stretching it) is the portrait Peale did (several times) of Washington at the Battle of Princeton (below). Maybe this is retribution for us beating them? I know before the Revolution he aspired to be an officer in the British army. Is that why he’s wearing a British uniform in this print?

Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827, US), George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, ca. 1779. Oil on canvas, 51 9/16" x 47 7/8" (131 x 121.6 cm). © 2017 Cleveland Museum of Art. (CL-922)

Unknown German artist, probably from Augsburg, George Washington, Esquier (sic), late 1700s. Mezzotint on paper, sheet: 11 5/16" x 8 ¼" (28.7 x 21 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8078)

At least the previous example got the baldric correct from the right shoulder. I honestly can’t find any source for this depiction. I’m guessing it is based on a print of some German or French monarch on the battlefield. By the way, “Esquier” is not French for esquire (that would be écuyer).

Amos Doolittle (1754–1832, US), George Washington President of the United States of America the Protector of His Country and Supporter of the Rights of Mankind (A Display of the United States of America), 1789–1794. Hand-colored stipple engraving on paper, sheet: 20 ¾" x 16 11/16" (52.7 x 42.4 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8072)

Doolittle, born in Cheshire, Connecticut, was a self-taught copper engraver. He is perhaps most famous for his prints of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, for which he interviewed witnesses. They are considered the most accurate depictions of what happened on that day. I’m afraid that Washington’s oblong head betrays Doolittle’s lack of anatomical study in his ode to the new country. I’m thinking this may be based on a print by the Swiss artist Pierre Eugène du Simitère (1737–1784). View that work in the Princeton University collection to see if you agree! 

Johann Lorenz Rugendas, I (1730–1799, Germany), George Washington, Esqr., 1775–1778. Mezzotint on paper, sheet: 16 5/16" x 11 1/16" (41.4 x 28.1 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8090)

This artist was a member of a family of engravers who provided print copies of oil paintings of the rich and famous. The only other works I can find similar to this are of German royalty. Aside from the fact that Washington’s nose looks like a ski slope, the setting almost looks like he was a naval hero. It is so interesting that in many of these works they call him “esquire,” which was an honorific for people just shy of noble title. 

John Galland (active 1796–1817, US), based on a print by David Edwin (1776–1841, US, born Britain), based partially on a painted portrait by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828, US), Washington—Sacred to Memory His Excellency George Washington Lieut. Genl. of the Armies of the United States of America, after 1798. Stipple engraving on paper, sheet: 17" x 11 ½" (43.2 x 29.2 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8085)

If this print is “sacred to the memory of” Washington, then it would be after his death in 1799, correct? I am surmising that this is a combination of president-warrior executed after his death. It contains the head of the older president period—rather like the copy of Gilbert Stuart on dollar bills—and his army trappings from the Revolution. The “F. Bartoli” who is credited with a painting of this subject is fictitious, according to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828, US), George Washington (Vaughan portrait), 1795. Oil on canvas, 28 ¾" x 23 13/16" (73 x 60.5 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0675)

Edward Savage (1761–1817, US), The Washington Family (George Washington, Martha Washington, Martha’s grandchildren George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, and Slave William Lee), 1789–1796. Oil on canvas, 84 1/8" x 111 7/8" (213.6 x 284.2 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0752)

I stuck this in because I wanted to show you how the first family really looked by an artist who studied them personally. Savage not only did individual portraits of them, but also this regal family get together. They’re looking over the plans for the new Federal City. I think Martha is supposed to be pointing to the spot for the executive mansion. Savage made sketches from the First Family while they were in New York (our first capital). He subsequently waited until 1796 to paint this imagined group setting from the individual studies of each person. He then had produced hand-colored and uncolored engravings of the print, garnering an immediate 331 subscriptions for the print in 1798.

Monday, June 5, 2017

June is Busting Out All Over

Tina Leser (1910–1986, US), Summer Dress, 1960. Linen plain weave, flocked synthetic applied text, height: 40 ½" (102.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6999)

I guess Memorial Day is the official “beginning” of outdoor grilling season in the US. I don’t really know the “official” date because I’ve lived in apartments all my life. But, what better way to mark the presumptive occasion than by featuring an interesting artist and a special frock just for grilling? We used to eat at a picnic bench in the back yard of our duplex during the summer. My mother wore dresses serving from the apartment (of course), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any active grill-person wearing a frock and pumps to turn the chicken wings and veggie burgers!

One of the great things I’ve learned about Tina Leser is that she had an energetic, optimistic world view. As a result, she incorporated influences from around the world in her clothing designs. At the same time, she reveled in the simplicity of everyday American aesthetics, creating clothing that would have been considered “casual” during the 1940s and 1950s, but today look quite sophisticated.

She was born in Philadelphia, and—before she even went to art school at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Sorbonne in Paris—visited Asia, Europe, and Africa as a child. She even lived in India for a time, which had an enduring impact on her designs.

She began designing clothes—sportswear, day wear, and evening gowns—in a shop in Honolulu (1935). While she referenced Filipino and Hawaiian fabrics, she also relied on US conventions, making, for example, attractive versions of the coveralls worn by women factory workers in flannel and plaid. She closed her Honolulu shop in 1942 after Pearl Harbor and moved to New York.

In New York, she designed sportswear for Foreman from 1943 until 1953. She also designed beachwear and sundresses for the firm Gabar Swimsuits in the late 1940s. She was the innovator of a bathing suit with a single strap. Other innovations, or perfections, by Leser included the slim toreador pants of the 1950s (shorter and usually embroidered, in comparison to “capri pants”). She also designed the first dress-length cashmere sweater—the inception of the sweater dress—in 1957.

Leser enjoyed confounding people’s perceptions casual and formal fabrics. For example, she would use a gingham cotton tablecloth and make a cocktail dress out of it, such as this look. While the dirndl-type dress pattern is conventional, she made it “fun” with the use of applied words appropriate to the outdoor grill. The idea of “fun” with a dress designed to wear while at the backyard grill is just quirky enough to make Tina Leser a true American original. 

Tina Leser, Study from designer’s sketchbook Summer 1960. Ink, watercolor, fabric swatches on paper, 11 ¾" x 11 1/8" (29.8x 28.3 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-7044)

Correlations to Davis Programs: A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.3; Experience Painting: 4; The Visual Experience: 12.4