Monday, May 18, 2015

Recognize This Artist?

Louise Nevelson (1899–1988, American, born Ukraine), First Personage, 1956. Painted wood, frontal slab 94" x 37" x 11 1/4" (238.8 x 94.1 x 28.6 cm); spiky column 73 11/16" x 24 1/8" x 7 1/4" (187.2 x 61.4 x 18.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, New York. © 2015 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (BMA-4956nears)
When I was teaching art history, I guess I was a student’s worst nightmare, because on tests I would not show them images of the works that they had seen in the book and in class. Instead, I would give them other examples of the artist’s work. They had to figure out whose work was on the screen by what they had seen of the artist’s works in class. Of course, I would make it extremely easy by showing them works that were similar to what they had seen, since I knew none of them were committing themselves to life as an art historian (it’s not a bad thing, really). The examples in this post would definitely not have been fair attributions to spring on students if I wanted them to associate these works to what they had seen of Louise Nevelson. Even in my advanced years, I am not immune to being surprised by work that diverges from the iconic works we’ve become accustomed to seeing (and yes, First Personage and Hanging Column are from the same period as the “iconic” Sky Cathedral).

One revolution in sculpture took place in Europe in the second decade of the 1900s when artists began to construct, not carve or model, in three dimensions. These sculptures were composed of everyday materials, and Surrealist artists included discarded and found objects. Although assembled sculptures continued to be produced, in America Louise Nevelson was probably single-handedly responsible for bringing a new significance to the genre.

Although in the 1930s Nevelson’s sculpture was initially influenced by Cubism after she had studied under Chaim Gross (1904 \–1991), during the 1940s she came under the sway of Surrealism. In 1943, she created the first complete room environment in the history of American art with figures she constructed from natural and found objects, including tree trunks. It was at this time that she began collecting debris from the streets of New York. A trip to Mexico in 1950 helped solidify her sculptural vision after seeing ancient Mayan stele sculpture.

First Personage comes from the period between 1955 and 1958 when her one-person shows met with critical success. This was the period of her Sky Cathedral series, which is probably her most recognized type of work. Her found object works transcend Surrealism’s precious vision, adding monumentality and a classical air thanks to their scale.

Hanging Column (From Dawn’s Wedding Feast), 1959. Painted wood, left: 72" x 6 9/16" x 6 9/16" (182.8 x 16.7 x 16.7 cm), right: 72" x 10 1/8" (182.8 x 25.7 x 25.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Estate of Louise Nevelson/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-S0528nears)
The richly textured surfaces, such as Hanging Column (which resembles the Sky Cathedral mode) reflect the highly decorated surfaces of Mayan sculpture. The huge scale of her work (these are both 6 feet high) was compared by critics to Abstract Expressionism painting in that it challenged traditional notions of what sculpture was the way action painting did painting. However, such works also have affinity to Cubism’s multiple, overlapping planes. The scale, when shown with the Sky Cathedral scale works in her environments, shows an unavoidable similarity to the skyscrapers of New York, which Nevelson admitted were an inspiration.

Kneeling Horse, modeled 1932, cast before 1985. Bronze, 9" x 14" x 8" (22.9 x 35.6 x 20.3 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2015 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-1205nears)
This piece shows her Cubist beginnings while studying at the Art Students League under Chaim Gross. It could easily be mistaken for one of his works, I think.

Chaim Gross (1904–1991, US, born Austria), Handlebar Riders, 1935. Lignum vitae, height: 41 1/4" (104.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Chaim Gross / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-S0539gsars)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.vocab and content review; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.32, 6.35, 6.31-32 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.4, 5.25; A Community Connection: 3.2, 8.4; A Global Pursuit: 9.2; Beginning Sculpture: 6; Exploring Visual Design: 2, 3; The Visual Experience: 10.2; 16.7; Discovering Art History: 17.5

Monday, May 11, 2015

Some Thoughts About Stools

Ancient Egypt, Stool, from Saqqara, 1539–1295 BCE. Wood, 9 5/8" x 10 1/8" x 9 1/8" (24.4 x 26.7 x 23.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum of Art. (BMA-4904)

Does furniture have a soul? I sort of think it does. We sit on, lean on, and lie down on furniture for most of our lives. It’s hard to believe that something of our souls does not get infused into the furniture. Some cultures do honor furniture more than just putting it in a rummage sale or giving it to the Salvation Army (which is not a bad thing, of course, because then one is spreading one’s soul around). Putting old furniture in museums should be a rule, because then it’s as if we’re honoring all of the souls connected with a particular piece. And refurbishing vintage furniture is like putting new clothes on an old soul.

This stool, found in a noble tomb in Saqqara, is similar in style to stools found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (ruled 1336–1327 BCE). Although furniture is one of the few genres of art that were not specifically involved in the funerary process, the favorite furniture of a deceased person was included in tomb burials to accommodate the needs of the deceased in the afterlife. I have a feeling the Egyptians did not coin the phrase “you can’t take it with you” when viewing all of the worldly stuff they packed into their tombs.

Stools were the most common furniture item in Egyptian homes, having either a curved wooden seat or woven cane seat. They were also the most common item left in tombs. They were common furniture items already in the Old Kingdom (ca. 2650–2152 BCE). By the time of the New Kingdom (1539–1295 BCE), stools had morphed into elaborately carved and decorated items of status. Egyptians invented the folding stool, handy for commanders on the battlefield. Those were decorated lavishly to represent the military leader’s status. This simple stool may have belonged to someone of not-so-high rank, although fancy cushions would have augmented it. Such an elegant design, however, would not have been made for a commoner. Various types of convenient furniture were definitely the province of the upper classes. 

Asante Culture, Ghana, Chief’s Stool, 1900s. Wood, 19" x 8 1/2" x 11 1/2" (48.25 x 21.6 x 29.21 cm). Private Collection, © Davis Art Images. (8S-10518)
The equating of a piece of furniture with the status of a person is not unique to the ancient Egyptians. Although, equating the stool itself as a vehicle for the soul of the deceased is a little different from the Egyptian custom. Traditionally in the Asante culture in Ghana, stools acquired a very special status all their own based on who owned them. The stools of rulers were considered particularly blessed with the owner’s soul, and would be given libations and stored in a special place of honor to commemorate the deceased owner’s wisdom, and be consulted by the living. In some ceremonies, stools were traditionally blackened and presented with libations as signs of honoring the deceased owner of the stool. During the annual Yam Festival, they were traditionally fed samples from the new yam crop.

Common person and community leader alike had their own stools that were then assumed to carry their soul after death. Only the stool’s owner may sit on it because it holds that person’s personal power. Stools would be commonly tipped on their side when not in use by their owner to prevent anyone else from sitting on them or to avoid malevolent forces. The form of Asante stools is typically a curved seat with central columnar support, often augmented with four legs, and decorated. The form of the stool is thought to imitate that of the Golden Stool in the Asante capital of Kumasi, the state stool that represents the line of the Asante kingship and is not technically owned by its current occupant.

Liberty and Company (firm established 1875, London and Paris), “Thebes” Stool, ca. 1880–1883. Ebony, ivory, mahogany, rosewood and leather, 14 1/2" x 16 1/2" x 16 1/2" (36.8 x 41.9 x 41.9 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4154)
And now we progress from status of a deceased person in the afterlife, through the stool bearing its owner’s personal life essence, to just plain crass status in the physical world. The mid to late 1800s in European and American art and architecture was dominated by revival styles that borrowed everything from ancient Egypt to the Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo. Egyptian Revival rose to importance in the 1830s after the second publication of studies and folios of prints of Egyptian architecture and antiquities from Napoleon’s 1798–1799 campaign in Egypt. “Egyptian” decorative arts remained popular from that period through the Art Deco of the 1920s and 1930s in both Europe and America.

Needless to say, only wealthy people could indulge in buying revival style furniture made with such expensive materials as ebony, ivory and mahogany. Among people with money, “keeping up with the Joneses” meant buying furniture for one’s home in The Latest and most fashionable revival style. Unfortunately, having lots of money does not always mean lots of good taste, for many homes displayed numerous types of revival styles together, some of which were a hodge podge of period styles all in one piece. This stool is an example of a refined revival piece, tastefully done to be as archeologically accurate as possible. Compare its construction to the real Egyptian example. It’s so different from the overstuffed armchairs with sphinx heads on the arms, covered in decorative “hieroglyphics!”

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.35-36 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.23, 4.23-24 studio; A Community Connection: 5.2; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Global Pursuit: 1.4, 1.5; The Visual Experience: 12.4, 14.3, 15.3; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 4.8, 5.3

Monday, May 4, 2015

Abstraction is Nothing New

Ancient Egypt, Figurine of a Woman, ca. 1696–1539 BCE. Terra cotta, 4 11/16" x 1 7/16 x 1/2" (12 x 3.7 x 1.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5018)

I’m making a declaration: artists were inspired to create abstract art thousands of years ago. When one (and by “one” I mean a person reading an art history text) reads about any art that pre-dates the early 1900s that shows extreme simplification, the author inevitably says that it “has an almost abstract” quality. Then there are the other words usually paired with abstract ancient art: extreme simplification, stylization, idealization, conceptualization, etc. Two of the most basic definitions of abstraction are “the reduction of forms to their simplest state”(simplification) and “an artwork that does not represent objects of the observed physical world” (stylization). I propose that the study of ancient cultures now include such subjects as “The Abstract Wing of The Second Intermediate Period in Ancient Egypt.”

Going all the way back to the earliest dynasties of the Old Kingdom in Egypt (ca. 2650–2184 BCE), the realistic depiction of human beings and animals is readily evident. Naturally, the realism was softened when depicting rulers or members of the nobility so that they looked like fresh, young, perfect human beings. For more humble officials and their families, the realism was often more spot on. Even in the hyper realism, though, there is a stiffness and simplification of forms that could “hint at abstraction.” This may be partially because of the block-like, rigid formality of the pose of the figures, a convention that lasted almost 3000 years in Egyptian art.

This figurine dates from the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt, ca 1696–1539 BCE. This was a chaotic period when the Hyksos, a Semitic people from the east, invaded and occupied northern Egypt. They ruled as the Fifteenth Dynasty, while Egyptian princes of the Thirteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth ruled southern Egypt from Thebes. Kamose (reigned ca. early 1540s BCE), the pharaoh in Thebes began a rebellion that eventually led to the destruction of the Hyksos dynasty. His brother Ahmose (reigned ca. 1539–1514 BCE) restored a united Egypt under Dynasty Eighteen.

The purpose of this figurine is not known, although it bears similarities to pre-dynastic female and male figures that are extremely simplified excepting, the details of their anatomically specific parts.  Compared to the realism of funerary sculpture of this period, this is refreshingly original. Various theories explain this figurine as Nubian (Kushite), the Upper Nile culture, or simply the product of an “unofficial” artist who was not following the accepted artistic conventions.

It reminds me of the abstract Akua ‘Ba figures from the Asante culture (traditionally matriarchal) in Ghana that were traditionally carried by girls to help teach them about motherhood, and by pregnant women to ensure a healthy birth. The Akua’Ba are marvelous abstract summations of some of the traditionally held ideals of feminine beauty.

Asante People, Ghana, Akua’Ba, 1900s. Wood, height: 13 3/8" (34 cm). Private Collection. Image © Davis Art Images. (8S-10517)

Here are a couple more examples of ancient Egyptian abstraction. I really like the block expressions of individuals, so similar to the seated scribe genre. And do we see a little Giacometti in the standing male figure?

Block Statue of Ay, ca. 1327–1323 BCE. Limestone, 18 1/2" x 10 x 12 3/16" (47 x 25 x 31 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-570) 
Figurine of a Man, ca. 1986–1759 BCE. Copper, 5" x 1 1/2" x 1" (12.7 x 3.81 x 2.54 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-1003)

And here is a 20th century artist who was there when they “invented” abstraction in the early 1900s. I wonder which inspired him more: ancient art or “primitive” art?

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920, Italy), Head of a Woman, 1910 / 1911. Limestone, 25 5/8" x 7 1/2" x 9 3/4" (65.2 x 19 x 24.8 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-S0080)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.4; A Community Connection: 3.2; A Global Pursuit: 1.4; Beginning Sculpture: 2; Experience Clay: 3; Exploring Visual Design: 10; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 15.3; Discovering Art History: 5.3

Monday, April 27, 2015

Revisiting Gandhara

Pakistan, from Gandhara, Head of a Bodhisattva, late 100s to early 200s CE. Black slate, 12 ¼" x 10 x 9" (31.1 x 25.4 x 22.9 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-71)
 Believe it or not, this is a Buddhist bodhisattva (saint). My very first posting for this blog was about the Greek invasion of northern India and how it affected some of the earliest images of the Buddha. I just thought I’d revisit the topic because it’s a fascinating example of how this world truly is a global village. Did you ever join hands with three or four friends around a really old, big tree? That’s sort of how I look at these artistic connections!

The early Indus Valley civilizations produced mostly small-scale sculpture of steatite and limestone. The most notable sculpture of the Mauryan period (320–185 BCE) was edict pillars erected during the reign of its greatest leader Ashoka (304–232 BCE). Many monastic communities were hewn out of rock and adorned with sculpture. The earliest stupas from the first 200 years BCE had important carved gateways and surrounding fences, and included some larger-scale figures of the Buddha. In southern India, religious complexes were decorated with complicated bas-relief programs.
After the collapse of the Mauryan dynasty (ca. 185 BCE), India broke into several local power centers, each vying for supremacy and troubled by harassment by northern peoples. One of these, the Kushan, had left the western borders of China (called Yuezhi by the Chinese). The Kushan entered India through Afghanistan in the first one hundred years BCE. They had already displaced the Persians in the lands once conquered (332 BCE) by Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE). After establishing a dynasty in India, the Kushans established trade with Roman colonies.
Two significant styles developed between the 100s and 400s CE, the art of Gandhara (now Pakistan), and the art of Mathura (far to the south and east). It was during the Kushan period when the first sculpted images of the Buddha were produced. Because there were no Buddhist figural images before contact with Western cultures, Roman and Hellenistic forms gave shape to sculptures of bodhisattvas and the Buddha.
The Gandhara-type Buddha typically has an oval face, arching high brow, and broad nose. The wavy hair, tied in a ribbon, was a Greek style seen, for example, in the Vatican's "Apollo Belvedere." This fashion detail gradually became the symbolic top knot (ushnisha) on the Buddha's head, which was a symbol of his wisdom. The moustache is an Indian characteristic, as is the caste mark on the forehead. Gandhara Buddhist figures had a profound influence on subsequent images of the Buddha. Ironically, in the 500s CE, in the region where the sculpted image of the Buddha was born, an invasion by Huns stamped out Buddhism forever.

Pakistan, Bust of a Bodhisattva, from the Gandhara region, 100s–200s CE. Gray schist. © Dallas Museum of Art. (DAM-20)

Pakistan, Head of the Buddha, from the Gandhara region, ca. 200s CE. Schist, 7" x 4" x 2 15/16" (17.8 x 10.2 x 7.6 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2971)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.2, 1.3-4 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1; A Community Connection: 3.2; A Global Pursuit: 3.5; Beginning Sculpture: 5; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 13.2; Discovering Art History: 2.1, 2.2, 4.2

Friday, April 24, 2015

Patriots Day Week

Joseph Badger (1707/1708–1765, US), Mrs. John Haskins, 1759. Oil on canvas, 35 13/16" x 28 3/8" (91 x 72 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-694)

Since Monday was Patriots Day, as well as the running of the Boston Marathon, I’m celebrating this week—in an art historical way, of course—with one of my favorite colonial portrait painters: Joseph Badger. He is sort of in the shade (art historically speaking) of more prominent early painters such as John Smibert (1688–1751) and John Singleton Copley (1738–1815). All three artists were active in Boston at some point. Once the American colonies were prosperous, well-to-do Americans wanted to show that they had just as much class as their English counterparts, and one way was by commissioning portraits. Portraiture was, aside from overmantle landscapes, practically the only subject matter in early American painting.

In the first three decades of the 18th century, prosperous Americans preferred to have their portraits painted by artists born and trained in Europe, primarily in England. These painters, such as Peter Pelham (1691–1751), John Wollaston (c. 1710–1775), and John Smibert, were able to portray fashionable colonists in the same idealized, courtly style as English gentry. With Smibert in Boston gone by mid-century, the vacuum was filled by artists such as Badger.

Badger was evidently wholly self-trained. He moved from his native Charlestown into Boston in 1733 to work as a house and sign painter. He took up portraiture in 1740, and may have visited Smibert’s studio in Boston as it was near his. Badger rose in prominence in 1746 after Smibert’s retirement. He thrived as a portrait painter until the 1760s, when he was eclipsed by the more sophisticated style of a younger contemporary (and eventual royalist), John Singleton Copley.

Badger’s lack of training is evident in his unsophisticated, stiff treatment of the human figure, and simple, forthright likeness of the sitter, as seen in Mrs. John Haskins. The presentational gesture of her right hand is an English 1600s and 1700s portrait device meant to point to the sitter’s accomplishments, material success, or, in this case, to a companion portrait of her husband. Like English portraiture, Haskins is surrounded by a filmy, non-specific landscape populated by wispy trees and a glowing sky, which forms an aura around the figure.

This portrait by William Hogarth (1697–1764) from roughly the same period shows interesting differences in how the English late-Baroque style translated in America. What I love about American portraiture from the pre-Revolutionary period is the absolute fidelity to the sitter’s likeness. This penchant for unvarnished realism in American painting is what I believe makes it a standout against European painting of the periodan honest, forthright and sympathetic depiction of people who were blazing trails in a totally new country, away from the many decadent indulgences of the prosperous classes in Europe at the time.

William Hogarth (1697–1764 Britain), Mrs William James, 1744. Oil on canvas, 30" x 25" (76.2 x 63.5 cm). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-416)

Other portraits by Badger:

Dr William Foster, 1755. Oil on canvas, 35 3/4" x 28 1/8" (90.8 x 71.4 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0811)

Rebecca Orme (later Mrs Joseph Cabot), 1757. Oil on canvas, 25 5/8" x 20 3/4" (65.2 x 52.7 cm). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-460)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3; A Community Connection: 2.4, 6.2; Experience Painting: 6; Exploring Painting: 10; Exploring Visual Design: 3; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.3; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 11.5

Monday, April 6, 2015

National Ocean Awareness Week

William Trost Richards (1833–1905, US), Thunderheads at Sea: the Pearl, 1871. Watercolor on paper, 7 ½" x 12 7/8" (19.1 x 32.7 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1057)
With the arctic ice flows melting and the oceans rising because of climate change, we should call April 4-10 Hey, Wake Up and Pay Attention to the Ocean Week. Needless to say, the oceans are vital to the planet’s survival. They have also been vital as subject matter in art since the artists of ancient Egypt and Crete painted walls with scenes of marine life. Of the many artists who specialized in painting the many moods of the ocean, I like the Dutch Baroque painters first and William Trost Richards a very close second. If I were locked in an empty room with nothing but a Richards seascape to look at, I’d definitely be happy as a clam (the pun stays).

Richards was born in Philadelphia, and most of his life, between numerous trips to Europe, he spent winters in Pennsylvania and summers in Newport, RI. He had little formal schooling, but studied briefly with a landscape painter. He initially worked as an illustrator and designer of decorative metalwork, but early on his interest was in landscape. He first exhibited with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia at the age of 19. At 21 he was introduced to the Hudson River School artists and his lifetime devotion to landscape was confirmed. Between 1854 and 1869 he honed his skill at landscape by doing incredibly detailed drawings of elements of nature.

Richards’ many trips to England starting in 1855 exposed him to the Pre-Raphaelite artists there. The Pre-Raphaelites eschewed the theatrical painting of Romanticism and emphasized the realism of late medieval and early Renaissance painting, before the bombastic painting programs of the High Renaissance in Raphael and Michelangelo. In America, Pre-Raphaelite painters abandoned legendary or religious subjects favored by their English counterparts for extremely detailed paintings of nature. Their work was influenced by the writings of the English critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), who advised artists to follow nature as closely as possible to produce art that was transcendental.

Richards avoided the large, often exotic landscapes of the Hudson River School artists in favor of intimate views of nature. He is often named as a member of the White Mountain School because of his many landscapes of New England. The integrity of his realism in nature got him elected to the National Academy in New York in 1862.

After the Civil War (1860–1865), taste for the Hudson River School’s romantic-realist views of nature waned. After 1870, Richards concentrated almost entirely on views of the ocean in every conceivable type of weather. He spent hours wading into the surf to do detailed studies of the waves and effects of light on the water, often producing watercolors, such as Thunderheads at Sea: the Pearl, which he translated into oils on canvas in the studio. This Thunderheads at Sea very much reminds me of Dutch Baroque seascapes with its low horizon line and dramatic, dominating cloud formations. It is very clear to see in Richards’ works the power of nature and the reverence the Pre-Raphaelites had for it, and how, in their minds, nature summed up the existence of the divine.

Some more seascapes by William Trost Richards:

Calm Before a Storm, Newport, 1874. Watercolor on paper, 8 ¼" x 13 5/8" (21 x 34.6 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1058)

Marine, 1898. Oil on canvas, 52 1/4" x 33 ¼" (132.7 x 84.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4592)

A Rough Surf, after 1890. Oil on composition board, 8 3/16" x 14 3/8" (20.8 x 36.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2689)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.21, 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.5; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.5, 3.14, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.7, 2.7-8 studio, 2.9, 2.11, 2.connections; A Community Connection: 5.4, 6.2; Experience Painting: 2; Exploring Painting: 11; Exploring Visual Design: 5, 11, 12

Monday, March 30, 2015

It’s Here — Really

Ernest Lawson (1873–1939, US), Spring Night, Harlem River, 1913. Oil on canvas mounted on wood, 25 1/8" x 30 1/8" (63.8 x 76.5 cm). © The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (PC-245)
Spring really is here, although it may not yet look like it outside (it’s actually snowing right now!). How about experiencing it on the inside with these two phenomenally beautiful little paintings by Ernest Lawson? He’s another of those artists who is not exactly a household name (even in art history households—yes, they do exist), which is unfortunate. Like many, many, many artists, his career as an artist was not rewarded with massive riches, but his vision as an artist never failed to see the beauty around him, particularly in spring.

Ernest Lawson was born in Nova Scotia. He studied painting at the Art Students League in New York, and then in the Cos Cob Art Colony in Connecticut. His mentors there were Julian Alden Weir (1852–1919) and John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902), both of whom had studied in France and developed a type of American Impressionism. Lawson, from early on, adapted the Impressionist palette, and the delicate tonalities and textures of his two mentors from Cos Cob.

From 1893 to 1896 Lawson was in France. He briefly attended the Académie Julien, where many of the impressionists had studied in the late 1860s. He met the impressionist Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), and thereafter confirmed a love of painting outdoors. When he returned to the United States, he concentrated painting scenes of Manhattan in all different weather and seasons, communicating a deep love for the city.  Many of Lawson’s scenes of New York are of Harlem, then on the edge of as yet unbuilt-upon land.

This painting of the Washington Bridge between Harlem and the Bronx on 181st Street on a glistening spring night is a worthy descendant of French Impressionism. Compare it to Monet’s Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil. The composition is strikingly similar, as is the beauty of Lawson’s color harmonies and palette. Lawson’s compositions tended to emphasize strong horizontals balanced by verticals of trees, grass, and, in this painting, the vertical supports of the bridge.

Claude Monet (1840–1926, France), Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874. Oil on canvas, 13 7/16" x 28 13/16" (54.3 x 73.3 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1062)

Lawson’s impressionist palette combined with a strong compositional sense must have seemed too progressive for the time because it did not follow the old formulas. After the rejection of a painting by the dictatorial National Academy of Design in New York in 1905, he joined the rebellion against it by joining with the group called The Eight, who are also called the Ash Can School for their unvarnished realistic scenes of New York. Lawson exhibited with them for one show in 1908. He also joined with the Independent Artists exhibition in 1910 and the Armory Show in 1913. This was really the high point of his career. He never really became a financial success as a painter. In the 1920s he briefly pursued a career in teaching.

Here’s another view of the Washington Bridge from the other side, looking in the same direction:

Ernest Lawson, Spring Morning, 1913. Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard, 16 1/8" x 20 1/8" (41 x 51.1 cm). © The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (PC-244)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.4; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.19-20 studio, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.3-4 studio, 1.4; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.7; A Community Connection: 6.2, 6.4; Experience Painting: 6; Exploring Painting: 7, 11; Exploring Visual Design: 5; The Visual Experience: 9.3; Discovering Art History: 15.1, 15.activity 1