Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Another Pioneering American Woman Artist


 Emma Stebbins (1815–1882, US), Machinist, c. 1859. Marble, 74.9 x 29.2 x 29.2 cm (29 ½” x 11 ½” x 11 ½”). © Art Institute of Chicago. (AIC-414)

 Considering how hard it was for women to be accepted as artists (in the US) in the 1800s, and considering that it was frowned upon for them to attend art schools, it still amazes me how many women became sculptors in the early to mid-19th century. Yet, here we have another example of a woman who turned from studies in painting to become a sculptor. Sculpture was considered, at the time, a man’s “domain” because it involved physical activity, and might, (gasp) cause the need to climb a ladder or scaffold to work on a monumental piece.  That could mean women might have to wear pants (gasp) like male artists. We always think of Europe as more liberal when it came to women artists, but never forget that the painter Rosa Bonheur had to obtain a police permit to wear pants in public in order to study barnyard animals! Stebbins, like Bonheur, is a truly unique individual in the history of art, and in the study of women artists. While I continue to say that women have always been important participants in the history of art, that doesn’t mean that they’ve been adequately represented in textbooks that students see. I am, humbly, here trying to correct that.

Sculpture in the 1800s in both Europe and America was dominated by Neoclassicism. It was also a field in art that was considered too “unladylike” a discipline for women artists because of the physical nature of the work, especially in monumental pieces. There were several pioneer woman sculptors, Stebbins being one of them.

Stebbins was encouraged to pursue art by her family while growing up in New York City. She studied at various art schools in New York, and was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1843, a rare occurrence in 1800s America. In 1857 she wet to Rome in order to study the abundant examples of ancient Greek and Roman art. Although she had initially trained to be a painter, once in Rome she decided to pursue sculpture as her medium. She joined a circle of expatriate American women artists of sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908). Hosmer had established a lively community of American woman sculptors that include Anne Whitney (1821–1915) and Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907). There, Stebbins found the support of teachers, fellow women students, and the inspiration of being surrounded by classical art (which informed her mature style). She also met her partner, Charlotte Cushman (1816–1876), there, an internationally known actress, who was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite for interpreting Shakespeare.

Stebbins’ work reflected the prevailing taste for Neoclassicism in sculpture that had endured since the Renaissance in one form or another, and prevailed—especially in the US—until the mid-1900s. While she produced many lofty allegorical works in the classical style, she also applied that style to more humble subjects such as the Machinist and his Apprentice. Works such as the Machinist reveal Stebbins’ no-nonsense American point of view combined with the Neoclassical style. This figure reflects the growing influence of the Industrial Revolution on American art. While depicting a humble working person, Stebbins has imbued the figure with the timeless grace and dignity of classical art, visible particularly in the contraposto (hip-shot) pose and attached support that are seen in Roman and Greek marble sculpture.

Correlation to Davis programs: A Community Connection: 4.4, Beginning Sculpture: 5, Exploring Visual Design: 7

Monday, April 14, 2014

Maidu Basket


Mary Kea’a’ala Azbill (1864–1932, Maidu, California), Presentation Basket, as early as 1874 to as late as 1932, probably between 1900 and 1932. Sedge root, briar root, willow shoots, 20.3 x 37.5 cm (8” x 14 ¾”). © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-4735)
I will share my continued fascination with First Nations art by showing you a new addition to our digital collection of images. Basketry is a prominent art form in all indigenous American cultures since the earliest times, but it was particularly elevated in sophistication in the First Nations of California. Although Pomo culture baskets decorated with feathers are most often the objects discussed when talking about California basket artists, there are numerous cultures that populated California in great numbers before the Spanish / Anglo “colonization.” The Maidu are one of them. The Maidu are a people whose homelands extend roughly from the southernmost reaches of the Cascade Mountain Range to the north, the crest of the Sierra Nevada to the east, the North Fork of the Consumes River to the south, and to the Sacramento River to the west. “Maidu” is a word that means “people” in their own language.

The three forms of basket making are plaiting, twining, and coiling. Coiling involves spiraling filaments that are stitched together horizontally. “Presentation” baskets were made as gifts to friends or relatives, or for trade with non-Native people. This basket has a foundation of three willow rods. The buff strands are sedge root, and the dark brown are briar root. Mary’s son, Henry, called this pattern “wings and lightning.”


Mary Kea’a’ala Azbill, of Chico, California, was of Coyongcauy, Maidu, and Hawaiian descent. She travelled several times to Hawaii, settling permanently in California in 1894. Her mother, Alvin Sow-with-kee-neh was from the village of Taiyum Koyo, where Mary was born. Her father, Iona Kea’a’ala, was Hawaiian.
From the 1870s on, Azbill became renowned for her sophisticated basket art. She developed her mature style at the time in the late 1800s when there was a growing demand for Native arts, which included baskets, textiles, Katsina figures, beadwork, and ceramics.

Studio activity: Make a coiled basket. Use a clothesline along with yarn threaded into a plastic needle. Wrap the rope with yarn in spirals, and form into a circle. Thread yarn over and under to sew the coils together. To create interest, use yarn of different colors.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: Unit 3 Connections, Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.21, A Global Pursuit: 2.5, Exploring Visual Design: 6, The Visual Experience: 8.7, Discovering Art History: 4.10

Monday, April 7, 2014

National Art Education Association Excitement!


Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (born 1940, Salish/Cree/Shoshone), Sources of Strength, 1990. Ink and pastel on paper, 74 x 105 cm (29 1/8” x 41 ¼”). Minneapolis Institute of Arts, © 2014 Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. (MIA-180)

I had the privilege of meeting Jaune Quick-to-See Smith at the National Art Education Association conference in San Diego last week. She is an inspirational advocate for art education, and for educating people about the struggles of Native Americans and Native American artists. Her latest efforts focus on a series of biographies of Native artists’ childhoods, expressed through their art. It is truly wonderful to meet someone so committed to not only her own art but also art education. She stresses that, just like herself, most Native Americans are of multiple cultures. When we look at First Nations art, we should look at the individual artist and not label it as an individual culture. We talked about how Navajo rugs, Pueblo Katsina figures, and Santa Fe School paintings have come to represent “Indian” art. It’s time to refocus on 21st century Native art. She also prefers to call herself an art worker, rather than an artist.

Although Smith originally trained in the Abstract Expressionism style in the late 1950s, she eventually came to incorporate images from artists who “documented” Native culture in the 1800s, such as George Catlin (1796–1872), and the style and figures of nineteenth-century native Plains artists’ “ledger paintings.”

Sources of Strength is part of a series of paintings that Smith terms “narrative landscapes.” These paintings have stories that are revealed only to those who know how to see life in an arid land like Montana, where she was born (the Saint Ignatius Flathead reservation). In this work, Smith has created a patchwork of shapes meant to imitate cultivated farmland as seen from the air. She has placed symbols, both Native and easily recognized from everyday American life.

The upper left corner of this work represents the American suppression of Native peoples. The style of the figures and imagery is in imitation of the Plains indigenous cultures’ paintings that recorded battles with white settlers and the army. Also on the left, she has included Native symbols of strength and bravery: the bear and the thunderbird. The zigzag in the center (variously a symbol for water and lightning) refers to the environment. 



Smith is not only significant for her artwork, but also her activity with Native artists, who she feels are marginalized in the “art world.” She has founded two galleries that show exclusively Native art, and curated numerous exhibits of Native art. She is a tireless advocate encouraging young Native Americans to become active in the arts, and express their cultural experiences through art. Most of the money she makes from her own artwork goes to social causes among Native peoples and to reservations.

Studio activity: Childhood experience expressed through symbols. Using felt tip pen, crayons, charcoal, or pastels, direct students to depict a significant moment in their lives through symbols. Emphasize geometric shapes, abstracted natural forms, or simplified natural objects. Have each student explain their symbols and what they mean to them.

Correlations to Davis programs: Discovering Art History 4.10; The Visual Experience 14.5; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5; Discovering Drawing 10

Monday, March 31, 2014

My Amenhotep III Excitement


The typical art history dork in me skipped through an imaginary daisy field last week when I read this article about the display of artifacts from the tomb of Amenhotep III (died ca. 1354 bce) in Thebes. He was supposedly one of the greatest pharaohs, while Dynasty XVIII is considered the high point of Ancient Egyptian culture. It may just be because at that time the Egyptian “empire” had extended from conquests in Iraq to the Sudan. I just LOVE it that archeologists are still unearthing Egyptian sculpture!

Amenhotep III became pharaoh at the age of 12 when the Egyptian empire was at its greatest extent. He managed to maintain stability largely through diplomacy and strategic intermarriage with Syrian (Mitanni), Anatolian, and Babylonian royal houses. Although he emphasized diplomacy, he is often depicted, as in this small sculpture, in the blue (war) crown to emphasize his power.


In keeping with the tradition of Egyptian royal portraiture, Amenhotep is depicted striding forward confidently. Amenhotep III was the father of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun (brothers from different wives). The relaxed idealism of this piece is a harbinger of the revolutionary style under Akhenaten, which dispensed with the rigid formality and stiff idealization of royal subjects.

Amenhotep III was a great builder. He extended courts in the royal temples at both Karnak and Luxor, dedicated to Amun. He also built temples up and down the Nile in a nationwide building program to enhance his authority. He also encouraged the worship of the sun god Ra, the solar disc “Aten,” as a way of foiling the power of the Thebean priests of Amun, a local god of Thebes, who during the 18th dynasty obtained the status of creator-deity, except during the period of the reign of Akhenaten, who considered Ra supreme. 

Correlations to Davis programs: A Global Pursuit 1.4; Discovering Art History 5.3; The Visual Experience 10.2, 15.3; Beginning Sculpture 5

Monday, March 24, 2014

It's Spring!


Artcraft Lithograph Company (printer) (firm 1905–1970, Detroit, MI), Alloy Steel Spring Company (Jackson, MI), Yours For Comfort, advertising stamp. Color lithograph on adhesive paper. © Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, DE. (WIN-196)

 Really, my sinuses are driving me crazy, and I’m yearning for SPRING. What better image to feature this week than springs?

These poster stamps were an expedient way of advertising in the late 1800s and early 1900s (til about 1940). They were adhered to packages of ordered goods and they were also stuck on mass mailings. I find it fascinating that so much work went into the production of these small advertising pieces, as much as went into posters at the time. I realllllllllly like the repetition of circles in this stamp: Glasses on the driver, headlights, and wheels. It’s sort of dizzying.

Studio Activity:  Design a poster stamp. Invent a product and design a poster stamp (ideally make the design 5 ½" by 3”). Try and repeat shapes and colors. For instance, look at the repeated circles in the Spring Company stamp. Make sure to include vibrant colors to make the stamp draw the viewer’s attention.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations In Art Grade 4: 2.9, A Community Connection: 1.2, A Global Pursuit: 9.6, Communicating Through Graphic Design: 6, Experience Printmaking: 6, The Visual Experience 9.4

Monday, March 17, 2014

Not Black and White


Franz Kline (1910–1962, US), C & O, 1958. Oil on canvas, 196 x 279 cm (77 1/8” x 109 13/16”). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. © 2014 The Franz Kline Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (NGA-P0574kiars)

When we think of Abstract Expressionism, we usually think first of dynamic brushwork. That is certainly the case with Franz Kline. However, in the case of Kline’s work, one tends to think of work that is predominantly a palette of black and white. Well, I’m here to debunk that perception, after seeing a gorgeous Kline from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. I also offer you this gorgeous piece from the National Gallery. You know what a sucker I am for color! One reason Abstract Expressionism so excites me is because it bucked the trend of Social Realism and American Scene Painting that flourished during the Depression (1929–1940), and the movement was intuitive, stressing process over subject matter, in which the finished work of art was the map of the process.

Kline was born in the eastern Pennsylvania coal-mining region, growing up with industrialization. He studied art in academies in Boston and London, settling in New York in the late 1930s. Unlike many of the other abstract expressionists, Kline was deeply affected by the tradition of Western painting, from Rembrandt to Goya. His work of the early 1940s primarily depicted figures and urban scenes tinged with social realism, the anathema of the other members of the New York School. By the late 1940s he was painting portraits in a style that was gradually tending towards abstraction.

Kline became very interested in drawing during the 1940s, producing numerous sketches and studies for his painted works, often on pages torn out of the phone book. He made his transition to non-objective abstraction, according to a New York art critic, when one day in 1949 he used an overhead projector and saw the implications of his sketches on a large scale. Focusing on details of these sketches in projection created monumental, free form abstract images. He made his first large-scale black and white abstraction in 1950.

In C & O, we see Kline's work take a turn toward color, after black and white dominated his work in the 1950s. Only in the late fifties did color play a part in his compositions. Although aware of the gestural experimentation of the other abstract expressionists, Kline did not share Pollock's interest in myth, Rothko's interest in the sublime, or de Kooning's emphasis on spontaneous gesture.

Kline worked out his compositions in advance. He painted on unstretched canvases tacked to his studio wall using house-painting brushes. His line is rugged but controlled, forming architectonic shapes that hark back to his interest in industrial and urban imagery.  Like Pollock late in his career, Kline began to digress from the formulaic “canon” of Abstract Expressionism that was emphasized by the gallery system in New York.

Studio Activity: Have students draw a portrait, still life, or landscape in pencil. Then have them focus on one particular area in close-up, and translate the detail into gouache or tempera paint so that the original composition is not recognizable, and an abstract aesthetic is achieved.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Community Connection: 8.4; Experience Painting: 6; Exploring Painting: 7, 12; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.7; Discovering Art History: 17.1

Monday, March 10, 2014

Sous-Verre Painting


Gora Mbengue (1931–1988, Wolof People, Senegal), Al-Buraq, 1975. Paint on glass, 34.3 x 48.9 cm (13 1/2" x 19 1/4"). Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. © 2014 Estate of Gora Mbengue. (BMA-3555)
I once watched an artist in Switzerland do a reverse painting on glass, and the technique amazed me. As an artist, one is thinking in reverse, literally painting details and foreground first, then middleground, then background. Mbengue was a leading artist in contemporary reverse glass painting (sous verre in French, souwère in Wolof) technique on glass in Africa. Senegalese “under glass painting”(or reverse glass painting) technique migrated from northern Africa in the late 1800s, and quickly became a popular means of expression. Looking at works of art in this genre it is fascinating to try to decide which layer of color went down after the initial black outlines.

The reverse glass painting technique has existed since ancient times. Although the works may seem to be works under a glass matte, they are actually painted on the reverse of a piece of glass. This entails doing details first, usually with a brush the size of those used to paint ceramics. Once the outline and details are established—such as the facial features and outline of the horse’s body—then colors are applied from lightest to darkest, the exact opposite of traditional painting where the artist establishes an underpainting of darks and lights.

In Senegal, reverse painting initially represented symbolic scenes from the Qur’an, traditional stories, and cultural symbols. It eventually added portraiture and genre scenes to the oeuvre. Mbengue, a Sufi Muslim, has followed the tradition in Islamic art of not directly depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Buraq was the angel that carried Muhammad to the throne of God upon his death. The well-known image of the angel would encourage people to contemplate the Prophet’s ascension without the necessity of depicting him.


Question for students: Souwère paintings are made on the back of a glass surface. This requires the artist to start with the finest details, add layers of color on top, and then finally add a background layer. Look closely at the painting. Can you find evidence of all three steps?

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 6: 3.16; A Community Connection: 1.1, 8.5; A Global Pursuit: 1.5; Discovering Art History: 4.8, 7.3; Experience Painting: 9; Exploring Painting: 1, 2; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 14.2, 14.3