Monday, September 15, 2014


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

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

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

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

Here is the rest of the Denny Family:

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

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

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

Spiritual Color

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

An Epidemic Satirized in Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are examples of artists’ reaction to contemporary epidemics.

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

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

Monday, August 11, 2014

Design for Living with Flair

Christopher Dresser (1834–1904, England, born Scotland), Jug, designed 1881. Glass, silver-plated metal, teak, 8 1/2 x 5 3/4 x 5 7/8” (21.6 x 14.6 x 14.9 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3465)

William Morris (1834–1896, British) is not the only artist who can be associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 1800s. I uncovered this artist in our collection who, in many ways, was what could be considered the first “industrial designer.” Unlike Morris, Christopher Dresser saw no problem in designing utilitarian works of art that could be mass-produced industrially, as long as the design was sophisticated. And, boy, is his design sense sophisticated! In many ways he’s a forbearer of the Bauhaus, who took Morris’ emphasis on hand-crafted utilitarian art and applied it to mass production, without sacrificing a fine aesthetic.

I’m a painter, and yet, like most art historians I appreciate the ENTIRE gamut of artistic endeavor. I’m particularly drawn to the Arts and Crafts (geez I hate the term “craft”) movement of the late 1800s, because it was a rebellion against the industrialization fervor and sought to return to endowing every object in daily life with an aesthetic that was hand-made. Perhaps the idea was a naïve idea in a way, since mass produced furniture, ceramics, and metalwork, for example, were big profit items for companies that catered to the increasingly prosperous middle-class.

William Morris pioneered a movement that quickly spread to the US, where he emphasized fine aesthetics in everyday utilitarian objects. While Morris was based in Britain, a similar aesthetic arose in Glasgow, Scotland where Dresser was born, around the Scottish artist Charles Rennie MacKintosh (1868–1928).

Glasgow was one of the most remarkable centers of experiment in modernist design in architecture and decorative arts. Dresser, from his early schooling in London at the Government School of Art and Design was an advocate of merging botany (floral motifs, to put it crudely) with “Arts and Art-Manufacture.” He was also keenly interested in Japanese art. Japanese art was a formative influence on his industrial design, because Japanese reverence of natural forms in art did not manifest itself in a slavish copying of natural forms. Dresser preferred extracting shapes from nature in his designs, searching for the underlying geometric sources in nature.

This jug is so modern in appearance, and yet it harkens to the Zen Buddhist idea of frugality and simplicity in design. It is notably devoid of the florid decoration that sometimes characterizes Arts and Crafts artworks. From the outset, Dresser was interested in designing forms suitable for mass-production. He was a keen advocate of exploiting the industrial revolution of the 1800s for enhancing the aesthetic quality of everyday objects. His designs clearly anticipate the Art Deco style of the 1920s and 1930s.

Two objects from the 1900s that mirror Dresser’s design aesthetic:

Josef Albers (1888–1976, Germany-US), Tea glass, 1925. Glass, porcelain, steel and ebony, diameter: 3 ½”. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0060abars)

Peter Schlumbohm (1869–1962, Germany/US), Teamaker, 1954. Glass, wood, steel and plastic, 7” x 7 3/8” (17.8 x 18.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-D0092)

Studio activity: Design a glass jug of the future. Using colored pencils or markers, design a glass jug that anticipates what life would be ten years from now. Be sure to include any other materials, such as wood or silver to ornament the design. Think of what people might be doing differently ten years from now and design your jug accordingly. Do you want to incorporate ideas about the environment, climate change, or depletion of natural resources into your design? 

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 6: studio 23-24, A Community Connection: 5.2, A Personal Journey: 3.4; The Visual Experience: 10.9

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Roesen is still a Roesen by any other name

Severin Roesen (ca. 1815/1816–ca. 1872, US, born Germany), Flower Still Life, 1853. Oil on canvas, 40” x 32” (101.6 x 81.3 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-5287)

I’m a big fan of artists, especially American artists, may not be household names like Homer, Peale, or Eakins, but who nonetheless had an impact on art during their careers. There is such a broad range of styles in—particularly—1800s American art that sometimes gets glossed over. While Severin Roesen is given passing mention in many art history texts on American art, he was an important influence on a genre of still life that became very popular in the mid-1800s, that of trompe-l’oeil realism (fool the eye realism). In a broader perspective, Roesen’s still lifes really do hark back to the beginning of the tradition of still life as an important fine art subject matter, the 1600s in northern Europe.

Roesen immigrated to the US around 1848 with many other German artists who were fleeing the political turmoil during the unification of Germany. Although his instruction as an artist is not known, he most likely received professional training in oil painting. While in Germany he painted floral designs on porcelain, highly detailed work reflected in his paintings. Once in the US, he initially settled in New York, where he quickly established a firm reputation for his lush still life paintings. Around 1858 he moved to Pennsylvania, ultimately settling in Williamsport, a city in a region where there were many German immigrants, and a thriving lumber industry.

Roesen’s lush, object-packed compositions were painted in brilliant color and meticulously detailed. The abundance of fruit and flowers in his still life paintings reflect the optimism and pride Americans had in their growing country in the period before the Civil War (1860–1865). This optimism at the abundance of the American continent, and the emphasis on extreme realism, were also reflected in the magnificent, sweeping landscape paintings of the Hudson River School during the same period. His style is very reminiscent of Dutch Baroque still life works, particularly the usual setting of the objects on a ledge or tabletop, and the fact that many of the objects had symbolic meaning. For instance, a bird’s nest with eggs in it was a symbol of fertility (the fertility of the American wilderness), while a rose was a symbol for passion, and fallen buds intimate the impermanence of life. While his tightly packed compositions may seem to be casually arranged, the objects are arranged with great care for maximum visual impact and color balance.

Roesen became very successful in Williamsport, painting still life works for the parlors and dining rooms of the local lumber barons. His studio was well known as a meeting place for the elite of the region. Many people would visit his studio to watch him paint. His still life style is a marked contrast to the reserved, sparse still life paintings of the Peale family. He influenced a number of artists, especially John Francis (1808–1886).

Mention of Roesen in public records ends in 1872, most likely the year of his death. His still life paintings remain in many private collections in Williamsport, where there is strong community interest in his legacy.

Here are two Dutch Baroque floral still life painters. Roesen’s painting bears a striking resemblance to them in the wide variety of objects; the shallow, shelf-like space; and the meticulous detail.

Attributed to Jacob van Walscapelle (1644–1727, Netherlands), Flowers in a Vase. Oil on wood panel, 15 ¾” x 11 9/16” (40 x 29.5 cm). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-599)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.36, Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.8, Explorations in Art Grade 6 1.6, Exploring Painting: 9, Exploring Visual Design: 3 studio, Discovering Art History: 13 activity 1

Monday, July 21, 2014

Head Vessels

John Spiegel Pottery (founded 1880, Philadelphia), Pitcher, late 1800s. Earthenware, height: 6 7/8” (17.5 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4256)

Effigy (portrait, human head, or whole figure) ceramic art (usually male) has been featured in all sorts of wares since ancient times from throughout the world. In many instances it is associated primarily with funeral rites, but often it is pure decoration on functional wares like this interesting piece.

Mugs and pitchers of this sort became fashionable in England in the 1700s, and the interest transferred to the US during the mid- to late 1800s. The Royal Doulton company in England has been the most recognizable source of these “character” or “Toby” vessels. The English examples are usually pseudo-comical characters, sometimes from the English music halls. They inevitably are dressed in 1700s garb. The tri-corn hat affords an easy spout on this pitcher. Interestingly, the fad caught in Japan, which exports these unusual objects to this day.

Chinese and Japanese ceramics were very popular export items to Europeans and Americans starting in the late 1700s. This pitcher imitates the three-color glazes used by Chinese ceramic artists during the Tang period (618–907 ce). The glaze was applied at the top of the vessel and allowed to run down naturally while in the kiln.  An example of the Chinese glaze is below.

China, Tomb figure of a Bactrian Camel. Earthenware, height: 31 7/8” (81 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2742)

“Character” vessels originated in ancient times. The Ancient Egyptians included many effigies of the deceased in their tombs. Particularly important were the canopic jars, in which they stored the internal organs of the deceased, as they believed that the deceased would need their physical body in the afterlife (hence the complicated mummification process of bodies). This jar bears the head of Imsety, Guardian of the Liver.

One also finds head vessels in ancient Greece. Since this is a drinking cup for wine (which the Greeks always mixed with water), I think the satyr’s face is meant to be humorous. For some reason, I find it creepy. Satyrs were half-man, half-goat beings who were thought to be promiscuous, usually because of the effects of alcohol and their affiliation with Bacchus, the god of the grape vine’s results.

Ancient Peru, Portrait Head Vessel, 400–600 ce. Earthenware, 13 x 8 ¼ x 7 1/16” (33 x 21 x 18 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (MFH-628)

Ancient Meso- and Central American cultures are renowned for their ceramics, particularly effigy-type vessels, which included incense burners. Stirrup-spouted vessels like this were usually tomb objects containing various food needs for the deceased. The realistic rendering of the face leads art historians to believe they may have been specific portraits of the deceased, and were undoubtedly not used for everyday household tasks. Meso- and Central American cultures are also renowned for vessels decorated with animal heads.

North American Indian, Mississippian, Seated Prisoner effigy vessel, ca. 900–1400 ce. Earthenware, 5 x 3 x 2 7/8” (12.7 x 7.62 x 7.3 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-476)

The people of the Mississippian culture that populated the regions adjacent to the Mississippi River were avid traders. They are thought to have traded with Mesoamerican cultures from Mexico. Such effigy vessels have not been found in other native cultures. They are thought to have served ritualistic purposes by being placed near deceased persons. A seated prisoner perhaps commemorated a great warrior’s accomplishments during life.

Thomas Davies Pottery Company (ca 1862–1870, Edgefield District, South Carolina), Face vessel. Stoneware, 7 ½” x 7 ¾” (19 x 19.7 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2730)

During the 1850s, several African American potters rose to prominence in this important ceramic producing region of South Carolina, renowned for it grainy type of stoneware. Face pottery such as this was influenced by African traditions, particularly the West African art in which the head of a work is exaggerated in size. The head was considered to house a person’s soul. Works featuring large heads, including pots along with other objects personally associated with the deceased, were often left at burials in Africa.

Zeljko Kujundzic (1920–2003, Canada, born Serbia), Cookie jar, 1974. Ceramic, height: 22” (56 cm). Photo courtesy of the late artist. (8S-18937)

Zeljko Kujundzic combines influences of the native North American Indian arts of the northwest coast, with the stylization and solemnity of Byzantine art from his native Yugoslavia. Unlike the other works in this post, his vessel is not a funerary object. However, it presents the same gravity as vessels left in tombs in previous periods. His works have titles typically such as “Ancestor Figure,” and “Earth Man,” as well as terms referring to Christianity.

Studio activity: Make a slab built effigy pot or mug as a self-portrait. Take a lump of clay and form it into a ball or cube. Using the thumb, create an opening (hole) in what will be the top of the pot, and work the hole bigger, thinning and smoothing the interior and outside of the walls of the pot until it is the desired size and shape. Apply what you think your features resemble, not paying attention to extreme realism. Exaggeration of your features allows the pot to have more impact. Experiment with dripping glazes rather than evenly covering the vessel.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35, Explorations in Art Grade 4: studio 23-24, Explorations in Art Grade 5: studio 29-30, Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4 studio exploration

Monday, July 14, 2014

Artists and Refugees

Lewis Hine (1874–1940, US), Italian Immigrants Seeking Lost Luggage, 1905. Gelatin silver print on paper, 5 1/2" x 4 3/8” (14 x 11 cm). Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1853)

 It often astounds me how little we learn from history (and by “we” I mean we human beings: any culture on this planet!). If you need reminding, I mention the massive immigrant / refugee crisis of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when hundreds of thousands of (mostly European) immigrants sought a better life in this country. Sound familiar? In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Italian and Irish immigrants were particularly “not wanted,” and many who came, with no money or job skills, were detained and deported. Artists have always documented these periods. Lewis Hine was a photographer at the turn of the century. He wanted to bring to Americans’ attention the hardships these immigrants faced, as well the deplorable conditions in the places they worked.

The flood of immigrants from Europe at the turn of the century gave rise to overcrowding and poverty in large American cities. Lack of jobs and housing created terribly overcrowded tenements and homelessness. Lewis Hine was perhaps the greatest of the photographers concerned with social reform.
After graduating from Columbia University in 1903, Hine began teaching at the Ethical Culture School in New York. The school trained people to help serve the less fortunate and improve their lot in life through public service. In 1905 Hine’s boss gave him a camera as a teaching aid and to record school activities. His interest in social reform led almost immediately to his first documentary series in the same year. He set out to document the uncaring treatment of immigrants on Ellis Island. This photograph comes from that series.
In 1908 Hine quit teaching to become a photographer and investigator for the National Child Labor Committee. Between 1908 and 1916 he traveled widely, documenting child labor abuses. Hine called his photographs  “photointerpretations,” because he felt that they were interpretive. Later scholars, however, consider them documentary.
Hine used photographs such as this one as lantern slides for his lectures, as well as to illustrate pamphlets and magazine articles. His photographs were instrumental in passing child labor laws. As a creator of social documentary, Hine refined the genre by producing photographs that capture the dignity of his subjects by the way he framed and lit them. He continued to photograph workers and laborers until his death. Interest in his work revived during the 1960s when the issue of social reform again came to the fore.

This photograph documents those who were relegated to the Baggage and Dormitory Building of Ellis Island. It was basically a detention, and most likely deportation, center. After the Immigration Act of 1924, regulations were much stricter on who was allowed into the US. Hopefully, this family was lucky enough to qualify to enter.

Correlations to Davis Programs:  A Community Connection: 7.2; Discovering Art History: 14.5; Focus on Photography: 3, 5