Monday, November 24, 2014

Art History Survey, A New Slant, No. 3: What Does “Middle Ages” Mean?


India, Nataraja, Siva, Lord of the Dance, from Tamil Nadu, 1000s ce. Bronze, 43 7/8" x 40" (111.5 x 101.7 cm). © Cleveland Museum of Art. (CM-383)
I’m not quite sure when the historical / art historical / cultural / religious term “Medieval” (the confluence of the Latin “medius,” middle, and “aevum,” age) came about to describe the period in the West between the fall of the western Roman empire in the 500s until the Renaissance blossoming in the 1400s in Italy. I suspect it was a Renaissance snob who thought that that long stretch of time (which, by the way, was rich in art, architecture, and culture) was “dark” compared to the brilliance of the Italian Renaissance because the Renaissance was consciously modeled on Greece and Rome. I also am curious when the term Medieval began describing a somewhat shorter, albeit lengthy, period of time in India. “Middle Ages” seems to designate a time period between two periods of great artistic and cultural achievement. In both the western and Indian cases, however, these “middle” periods were far from lackluster backwaters of art and culture. On the contrary! In India, some scholars define Medieval art as the period between the end of the Gupta period (c. 320–600 ce) and the decline of the Pallava Kingdom (c. 500–750 ce), and the advent of Islam (either with the Sultanate of Delhi in 1200, or the Mughal conquest in the 1500s). The Medieval period in Indian art is incredibly rich.

When the Guptas declined in power, six thriving yet separate kingdoms ensued and flourished for hundreds of years. There was a consolidation of the Hindu kingdoms in mid- and southern India by the eighth century ce. The culture in southern India flourished through the Pallava (c. 500–750 ce) and Chola (c. 850–1310 ce) dynasties. After a half-century of battles between contending kingdoms in Southern India, the Chola dynasty (c. 900–1310) came to dominate all of southern India and the island of Sri Lanka. By the end of the Gupta period, the evolution of Buddhism in India included the inclusion of many Hindu ideas and deities. Under the Mauryan, Pallava, and Chola dynasties, Hinduism reasserted itself as a dominating faith, and was transmitted to Southeast Asia through trade.

The resurgence of Hinduism is especially evident in the myriad versions of Siva Nataraja, an image that devotees of Siva carry in processions and display in household shrines. Siva is one of the major deities in Hinduism, the destroyer who oversees the destruction of the old (self and world) and controls its rebirth, or becoming (symbolized in the dwarf Apasmara on whom Siva dances). In Siva’s cosmic dance of destruction and rebirth, the fire not only does away with the physical universe but also the problems of illusion and ego-centered perceptions. In his beautifully depicted, scantily clad perfect body, elegantly posed in dance, Siva’s “ceremony” is a joyful occasion in which the worshipper experiences liberation from detrimental earthly cares.

Metal casting of sculpture was known in India already in the 2000s bce. Bronze casting was developed to its highest sophistication during the Chola period. Indian artists used the lost wax method of bronze casting. A wax figure of Siva would be covered in multiple layers of clay that was then fired in a kiln, allowing the wax to melt, forming the mold for molten metal. These numerous versions of Siva Nataraja are primarily solid casts. The naturalism and elegant movement of Chola sculpture is a stark contrast to the heavy, static sculpted figures from the Gupta period, then still under the sway of Greco-Roman art.

India, Lingaraja Temple, Bhubaneshwar, c. 1000s ce. © Davis Art Images. (8S-10048)
Medieval Indian architecture also flourished throughout India. Distinguishing features are a front porch, multiple mandapas (waiting rooms for devotes topped with small towers, sometimes separate from main temple) and a prominent shikara or vimana (dome/tower over the womb chamber that contains an image of the god to whom temple is dedicated). The shikara represents a type of mountain ascent toward heaven. The shape of the shikara varies from region to region, organic to geometric. Many temples like this were covered in row upon row of figural sculpture much in the same vital, elegant style as the Siva Nataraja.

Happening elsewhere in the world in art history:

c. 476 ce End of the western half of the Roman Empire. Western parts seized by numerous nomadic peoples who ultimately assimilated Roman aesthetics in their art.
c. 1000–1150; and 1150–1400 Romanesque and Gothic periods in Western Europe, a time of great church building in stone using elements learned from Roman architecture, flourishing of manuscript illumination, metalwork, and stone sculpture.
c. 960–1279 The Song Dynasty, a long period of flourishing in all the arts. Particularly revered by later painters as the period when landscape painters established aesthetics that have lasted into the 21st century.
c. 1000–1300 Second wave of migration of Polynesians to Society Islands and Hawaii. Hawaiian rulers undertook large-scale environmental programs such as fish ponds, terraces, irrigation systems, and temples.
c. 900–1250 Late Classic period in Mexico, a time when the Toltec culture took over, inhabiting and refurbishing some Mayan cities such as Chichén Itzá.
c. 600–1000 Tiwanaku culture flourished in Bolivia, most noted for architecture, textile, and ceramic arts.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.33; Explorations in Art Grade 3: studio 3-4; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2, 3.16, 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 5: studio 3-4; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.19, 4.20; Beginning Sculpture: 4; A Global Pursuit: 7.5; The Visual Experience: 13.2; Discovering Art History: 4.2; AP Art History: 8

Monday, November 17, 2014

Art History Survey, A New Slant, No. 2: NOT “The Dark Ages



The first migration of Asiatic peoples across the land bridge to the Americas began as early, and possibly earlier than 25,000–9000 BCE. By 10,000 BCE, they had migrated as far south as Tierra del Fuego (now Argentina), the southern tip of South America. They formed small fishing and hunting bands, becoming part of the first group of indigenous “Americans.” As early as 2500 BCE, the Maya were already established in village areas and involved in trade with other cultures. They had also established complex religious and civil ceremonies. Between 1000 and 900 BCE the Maya established larger, more complex and ornate buildings and cities. The Maya were influenced by the Olmec and Izapa cultures between 800 and 200 BCE, Teotihuacán and El Tajín between 200 BCE and 900 CE, and the Toltec and Aztec between 1000 and 1519 CE. The Maya in turn influenced other Classic period (ca. 200–900 CE) cultures with their complex ceremonies, elaborate court etiquette and social hierarchy, cosmology, calendrics, and mathematics.

Palenque is one of the most beautifully laid out of Mayan cities. The architecture is inventive, elaborately decorated with relief sculpture, and well adapted to the humid climate. The elevated site commands a view of the plains stretching to the distant horizon, alerting the rulers of Palenque to approaching threats or important visitors. Because the Mayans had no draft animals or wheels, they used the many rivers as their main transportation arteries from city to city. Not far from Palenque is the Umusacinto River, which was the city’s main trade route. This was an important artery because it allowed communication between cities along the Bay of Campeche, then inland to the Petén. Maya rulers could participate in neighboring ceremonies and festivals, and architects could exchange views on techniques and current styles in each the various city centers.

A centrally located palace complex surrounded by pyramidal temples on raised platforms dominates Palenque. The major construction of the palace and city took place under three great kings: Pacal the Great (603–683 CE), Chan Bahlum II (635–702 CE), and Kan Xul II (644–711 CE). During the reigns of these rulers, Palenque went from a minor ceremonial center to a major city of the Mayan world. Indeed, many Mayan cities at the time had populations that were larger than most European cities of the same period.

The Palace in Palenque, topped by a Mansard-style roof, was built in stages over earlier subterranean chambers. The most striking feature of this building are the numerous stucco reliefs, primarily of ruling families, ceremonies, and deities. The reliefs run the gamut from realistic to stylized. There are also beautiful friezes of glyph panels. Most of the reliefs are carved limestone or stucco, lime powder mixed with water. Many of the temples in Palenque are also covered in rich relief carving. At the time, buildings in Palenque would have been painted red, and the reliefs painted in bright yellows, greens, and blues.

The four story tower on the southwest corner—possibly meant as a lunar observatory, or a means of lookout for approaching visitors—is unique in Classic Period Mayan architecture. It also had important significance with the nearby Temple of Inscriptions (680s–700 CE), built as a mortuary temple to Pacal. At the winter solstice (December 21), the shadow cast by the rising sun falls directly in the center of the temple. The leaders of Palenque ruled and maintained administration from the palace, a typical feature of all Mayan cities. They also controlled surrounding towns and villages.

While the palace at Palenque is renowned for its sculpture program, it also has architectural features not seen in other Maya cities. A steam bath, urinals fed by water ducts from running streams, air vents, and high vaulted ceilings to keep rooms cool, were part of the utilitarian innovations of the palace.

Glyph panel from the East Court of the Palace, Palenque. Photo © Davis Art Images. (8S-11365)
The glyphs in this court record events of historical significance and the dates of the reign of certain rulers.

Subservient Figure, limestone relief from House C of the Palace complex at Palenque. Photo © Davis Art Images. (8S-21065)
This submissive figure may be a symbolic representation of fealty to the ruler of Palenque by the surrounding towns or villages.

Ceremonial Scene, ca. 615–620 CE. Photo © Davis Art Images (8S-11368)
This relief is believed to show Pacal (standing center), symbolically receiving rule of Palenque from his mother (on the left), Lady Zak Kuk. Astronimacal glyphs surround the scene.

Happening elsewhere in the world in art history:
ca. 27 BCE–ca. 330 CE: Rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
ca. 500–1000 CE: Advent of the “Dark Ages” in Europe with the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire, and invasion by nomadic cultures from central Asia. Major art forms were miscellaneous (decorative) arts, manuscript illumination, mosaics, frescoes
ca. 618–907: Tang Dynasty in China reunified the country and experienced a flourishing in all of the arts.
554–774 CE: Byzantine Empire occupation of northern Italy and parts of North Africa in short-lived attempt to re-establish western parts of Roman Empire.
ca. 500s–800 CE: The Early Khmer period in Cambodia during which sculpture, influenced by Indian art, flourished.
ca. 668–918/935 CE: Unified Silla Kingdom, Korea, the first unified nation, experienced a flourishing of temple building, metal cast sculpture, stone sculpture, and literature.
ca. 632–711 CE: Islam spread throughout North Africa into Spain, Palestine, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula, initiating the first flourishing in mosque building.


Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.31, 6.33; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.20, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.19, 4.20; A Community Connection: 1.5, 8.4, 8.5, 8.6; The Visual Experience: 11.2; Discovering Art History: 4.9

Monday, November 10, 2014

Art History Survey, A New Slant, No. 1: Ancient


China, Ritual Vessel (“Yi”), 1200s–1100s BCE. Bronze, 8” x 4 ½” x 3 7/8” (20.32 x 11.43 x 9.84 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-268)

When I was in grad school, I was a teaching assistant in an art history survey course that had the neatest syllabus at which I ever squinted at eight in the morning. It did not go chronologically through Western art, covering the history of art starting with the cave paintings in France and Spain, then on to the Ancient Near East, then Egypt, then the Aegean, then (ta da) Greece and Rome…(are you sleeping yet?). Instead it focused on other cultures in the world that were thriving, if not surpassing those western cultures at the same time. Since we are Westerners, I realize it’s important that we learn the background of Western art that led to present styles, but I’m of the mind that we need to broaden surveys so that we don’t get blinded to the possibility that other hemispheres actually have art that is considered the “epitomy of aesthetics” the way ancient Greek and Roman art are in the West.

Asian art is traditionally clustered into two broad groups: Far East Asian and Indian. In the Far East, China was the springboard of all cultures. Sophisticated art was already being produced in China in the Stone Age (2000s BCE) and was centered in cultures mostly in the upper Yellow River area. Pottery shards and skeletal remains found in Beijing indicate that there was human life in China as far back as 500,000 years ago. Persistent culture seems to have developed in the same area some 20,000 years ago. China evolved from a nomadic to settled culture around 1600 CE. It followed a pattern that would last throughout China’s long history: the development of high culture, then invasion by foreign forces, followed by decay and decline, and then another period of high culture.

Records from the Zhou Dynasty (1027–256 BCE) mention a “Xia Dynasty” that may have been a transitional culture from the Neolithic period (ca. 2000–1700 BCE) until the first recorded dynasty, which was the Shang (c.1700–1028 BCE). The Shang left evidence of royal houses, carvings in stone, urban centers, script, and bronze vessels. The Chinese probably developed bronze casting around 2000 BCE. The Bronze Age in China (c. 2000–200 BCE) produced a large variety of vessels all with intricate incised and raised decoration.

 
During the mid- to late Shang period, bronze vessels were symbols of status, power, and prestige. Some emperors used nine or ten vessels in a single ceremony while honoring ancestors. Chinese artists used a piece-mold method of casting, as opposed to the lost-wax method used by all other bronze casting cultures (in which the mold is in one piece). A mold of clay was made from a carved, probably wooden model, made in the four sections of this vessel. Such piece-molds were convenient for reassembling to produce multiple copies of the vessel. This square Yi was used for wine storage in a royal tomb.

Typical decoration of Shang bronzes, the taotie, is visible on the side of this vessel. It is an animal or dragon face that is split so that it is presented as two frontal views. Elaborate scrollwork usually accompanies the design. Chinese bronzes imitated the forms and uses of ceramic vessels from the pre-bronze period. They would have had either shiny (burnished, i.e. polished with heat) silver or gold finishes depending on what metals were added to the copper and tin that form bronze. Bronze was also used for weapons, ceremonial implements, and even jewelry and decoration of textiles. When the Zhou dynasty took over from the Shang (ca. 1000s BCE) they adapted the Shang bronze-casting methods and many of their forms. Here are some more Shang vessels:

The ritual of warming then serving wine to ancestors was practiced every year. Bronze vessels would have been used primarily by the wealthy.


You (ritual wine container). © Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-146)
The you was also used to store water in tombs for deceased ancestors.      

Jia (ritual wine-warming vessel), 1200s–1100s BCE. © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-812)

The vertical, knob handles helped carry the warm wine after it had been set over a fire to heat.

Fang jia (ritual wine-warming vessel), 1200s–1100s BCE. © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.  (AK-870)

Gōng (ritual wine-serving vessel), 1200s–1100s BCE. © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-89)

In the late Shang pieces the incised animal designs on the sides of vessels evolved into animal-form vessels.

Ding (food storage and warming vessel), 1200s–1100s BCE. © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-996) 
Food was also prepared for deceased ancestors. This form evolved from ceramic examples used in every day food preparation.


Happening elsewhere in art history:
2150–roughly 750 BCE: The Neo-Sumerian, Babylonian, Phoenician, and Assyrian cultures flourished and fell.
c. 2000–1100 BCE: The rise and eventual decline of the Minoan culture on Crete in the Mediterranean.
1570–1085 BCE: The 18th Dynasty of Egypt flourished, establishing some of the most magnificent monuments and art of the New Kingdom.
1300–1100 BCE: The Helladic (Mycenaean) culture flourished on the Greek mainland, a predecessor of the ancient Greek culture.
2500–1500 BCE: Establishment of some of the oldest cities in the world in the Indus Valley, India
c. 1500–500 BCE: Olmec culture flourished in Mexico
1500–200 BCE: Chavin culture flourished in Peru


Studio activity:  Design a Shang vessel panel. Using pencils and colored pencils, design an individual panel of a square Shang bronze vessel. Be sure to include the taotie mask, as many times as you want, but make sure that the panel has symmetrical balance, where each half has the same number and placement of decorative motifs. Try to imagine the vessel when it was first made and what colors you would use to make it look like shiny gold or silver.

Correlations to Davis programs:  A Community Connection: 5.2, A Global Pursuit: 4.5; Exploring Visual Design: 6, 7; The Visual Experience: 10.7, 13.4; Discovering Art History 2.2, 4.3

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Saturated Autumn Color


Terasaki Kōgyō (1866–1919, Japan), Rice at Sunset, ca. 1890 –1895. Color woodcut on paper, 9 x 8 5/8” (23 x 21.9 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5114)

I know I showed a Japanese artist’s work last week, but I got so excited when I came across this woodcut print that I just had to share it with you. It’s a perfect example of saturation of color (also known as intensity). Saturation has to do with the lightness or darkness of a color. A color thinned with white or water is low saturation, while an almost pure pigment is high saturation. Highly saturated color has to do also with my subplot for this posting: the Western influences on Japanese woodblock prints. This is the later period of the ukiyo-e style (images of the floating [transient] world), the Meiji period (1868–1912).

Terasaki was a painter and printmaker who specialized in prints of everyday life and beautiful women (bijin). As a “war correspondent” he produced multiple color woodcut prints in the ukiyo-e manner of battle scenes during the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), a struggle over control of Korea. Such battle scenes were usually composed of three vertical sheets presenting a horizontal triptych scene. After the battle prints, Terasaki began to produce stunning, realistic landscapes such as this. The minimalist feeling of his work, along with the asymmetrical arrangement of forms, was a major influence, ironically, on Western artists that led them to abstraction.

After isolationist policies in Japan were eased a bit in the mid-1700s, artwork from Western Europe, primarily in print and book form, flooded into Japan. The prosperous middle-class, which patronized the woodcut prints of pleasures of everyday life, were eager to see images of mysterious other countries they were forbidden to visit. While landscape was a major subject matter in Japanese painting, it only became popular in the woodcut prints from the 1830s on. Japanese artists adopted a horizontal format (as opposed to the vertical format that dominated beauty and theater prints) in order to produce sweeping vistas of landscapes that they saw in Western landscapes, a contrast to the vertical format that dominated landscape painting. 

During the 1800s, Japanese artists also began to experiment with the more saturated manufactured colors from the West, often combining them with the native colors produced from natural minerals and vegetable matter. Because of their chemical makeup, Western colors were much more saturated, a property of these colors with which Japanese artists eagerly experimented. Compare the intensity of the orange-red sky in the Terasaki print to the Totoya print of 70 years earlier. The color in the Totoya print looks almost washed out, although the background colors are meant to discreetly frame the subject. In the Terasaki print, the gradation in intensity was achieved by printing the background color first, rubbing from the bottom to create a lower saturation. That background was then carved away around the rice forms that were printed with a separate block right over the orange.

Totoya Hokkei (1780–1850, Japan), Crane with Setting Sun, ca. 1820. Color woodcut print on paper, 8 3/16 x 7 1/8” (20.8 x 18.2 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2616)

Another aspect of Western art that some Japanese artists adapted was a greater interest in realism. Compare the setting sun behind the crane with that behind the ripening rice (the rice harvest in Japan is in September). The pale (low intensity), vaguely placed clouds (that seem to be right behind the crane) and ground, and pale sun that frame the crane are in strong contrast to the brilliant reds and orange of the Terasaki sunset. Also, the space is more in keeping with Western ideas of recession. While the Totoya print includes a poem that floats in the air around the crane, Terasaki has eliminated such a lyrical device in favor of simple emphasis on the physical reality or foreground, middleground, and background.

Apropos of “foreground, middleground, and background,” another aspect of Western realism adopted by Japanese artists was the illusion of three-dimensional space with one-point perspective. In one-point perspective, all of the orthogonal lines (lines perpendicular to the horizon line) converge in one point on a horizon line, whether it is visible in the composition or not. Typically, in Japanese and Chinese art, the orthogonal lines actually converged toward the foreground, evident in the Harunobu print. Also evident in the Harunobu print is the low-intensity color of traditional Japanese pigments used in the woodblock prints.


The Yoshitoshi print shows the full impact of Western influence on the prints. Although the women’s faces are still somewhat stylized, their clothing, interior, and color all show Western influence. The saturated color is particularly stunning, especially the “Berlin Blue” color on the woman in the foreground. That was one of the colors with which Japanese artists liked to experiment. The room is constructed in one-point perspective right down to the lines in the mat on the floor. Japanese elements do persist: the vibrant patterns, artists’ seals and inscription describing the scene, and the accoutrements in the foreground (a still life) that were traditional in serving customers.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), Courtesans Readying for Evening Activities, 1889. Color woodcut on paper, 14 x 9 7/8” (35.6 x 25.1 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1992)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.22; A Community Connection: 8.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.5; The Visual Experience: 3.5, 9.4, 13.5; Discovering Art History 2.2, 4.4; Experience Printmaking 4

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Layered Magnificence


Miyashita Zenji (1939–2013, Japan), Flower Vase, 1998. Colored stonewares, 15 ¼” x 10” x 5” (39 x 25.5 x 12 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. © 2014 Miyashita Zenji. (BMA-5093)

I am eternally grateful for the ability to be “wowed” on a continual basis when I see works of art/artists I’ve never seen before! This may just be the art historian nerd in me, but I think anyone would have to admit that Miyashita Zenji’s ceramic works have a major “wow factor.” Once again, I present you with a Japanese ceramic artist who continues the incredibly rich and millenia-old history of Japanese ceramic art.

There were two schools of thought among ceramic artists in Japan after World War II (1939–1945). One group emphasized the continuation of the venerable, centuries old traditions in stoneware, earthenware, and porcelain that began with some of the earliest decorated ceramics in the history of Earth. Another group came out of Nitten (Japan Art Exhibit) in 1946, which advocated exploration of western styles and new techniques.

The Nitten group eventually led to the establishment of the Association of Modern Artist Craftsmen (their word, not mine, because Miyashita’s works are not “craft”).  This group in turn spawned numerous groups that explored avant garde styles in ceramics, and by the 1950s had moved modern Japanese ceramics from the impetus of purely “works for use” to “works for contemplation.” Miyashita’s mature art evolved out of this fertile atmosphere in Japan of the 1950s.

While growing up, Miyashita decorated porcelain with his ceramicist father Miyashita Zenju. He later studied academic ceramic art, but in the early 1950s he was eventually drawn to the offshoots of the Nitten group that looked outside of Japan for modern trends in ceramics. He won 18 exhibitions with the group throughout the world. His mature style had evolved by the early 1970s when he began producing stoneware works of art in multi-colored layers. The artist used a colored clay (saidei) technique in which light-toned clay is colored with a variety of natural stains. Miyashita applies these extremely thin layers of clay in irregular bands to cover the surface of each vessel. Ranging in gradient tones from deep purple to faint pink or from dark blue to the palest green, these layers transform into distant hills, drifting clouds, or rolling waves.

A look at the interior of Miyashita’s vessels reveals the very thin layer strips that form the outer design. On the exterior of the vessel, each layer has a very slight, thin ridge, which adds a three-dimensional quality to the pattern. Miyashita’s designs are truly meant for contemplation, because I would hate to ruin a beautiful vase like this by sticking flowers and water in it! It’s sculpture!

Studio Activity:  A layered clay experience. Form equal-sized, thin square sheets (about 6” x 6”) of three different colored clays. Using a plastic knife (like one used on a picnic) or wooden clay carving tool, carefully cut into each layer, making sure not to disturb the layer below it, and create a design, either a landscape, seascape, or abstract design, in which all three colored clays are revealed. Either smooth the finished edges into each other, or leave a slight ridge to mark where one color begins and the other ends.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 3.studio 17-18; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35, studio 35-36; Explorations in Art Grade 5: studio 29-30; A Community Connection: 2.6, 5.2; A Personal Journey: 3.4; The Visual Experience: 10.6

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