Monday, February 23, 2009

Index of American Design


I am always thinking about how art reflects what is going on in our world. Obviously, in the current recession, a lot of folks are not going to have extra money to spring for a painting or sculpture. And how will a depressed art market affect what artists create? During the Great Depression (1929–1941), an even worse economic downturn than the current one, American art reflected the hard times, interestingly enough, by turning its back on European modernism, and focusing renewed interest on indigenous American culture of the “good old days.” Have your students create a work of art that reflects their impression of the mood now that we are in economic hard times.

Starting in the 1920s, with the boom in American industry, many became fascinated with the folk arts and culture of the nineteenth century. This was because they believed that the nineteenth century reflected the seeds of “Yankee ingenuity” that led to the industrial boom. During the Great Depression, the interest in native folk art was grafted into the social realist style that dominated American art during the 1930s. President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration—a bureau that put thousands of Americans to work in public service jobs—also had a Federal Art Project component which employed thousands of artists to create uplifting works of public art (look at any post office or train station dating from that period).

Part of the FAP was a massive undertaking to document American material culture from the colonial period to 1900 was the Index of American Design. The project employed one thousand artists to create illustrations of art, decorative arts, tools, fashion, and folk arts from America’s past. Not only did the index trace the regional diversity of American material culture, it also allowed the artists involved to create a compendium tracing an indigenous American design tradition. The resulting collection, which is now housed at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, contained 18,000 watercolors.

Mae Clarke was one of the many artists who worked on the index. She specialized in depictions of objects traditionally produced at home by women. It would be an understatement to suggest that Clarke’s works help to document the significance of women’s mostly unsung contribution to the history of American art before the twentieth century.

Mae Clarke’s work from the Index.

About the index itself.

Here you will find a resource for research into women’s art.

Art Connections: Although many people struggle to make ends meet during a recession, it can also be a time of great creativity. Many artists are working at a grassroots level, thinking outside the box by using recycled or found materials and staging public performances. This video from the 2008 Whitney Biennial shows the great variety of works that artist are creating, despite or because of the state of the economy. The possibilities of art during such times can show us how to persevere and use available resources to make the best out of a difficult or overwhelming situation.

Friday, February 13, 2009

African American Pioneer Artist

I’m going to follow up my rant about American Primitive painting from last week’s blog with a tribute to another such painter. It is also my tribute to African American History month. Who better to salute African Americans’ contribution to American culture than the first professional African American painter, Joshua Johnson? Needless to say, Johnson had to overcome many obstacles in the late eighteenth century to rise to the stature he did in the American art scene. While some other African American artists flourished throughout the nineteenth century, it was not until the Harlem Renaissance (c1920–1940) that African American art and culture became widely recognized and exhibited in the United States. Other than the really prominent African American artists of today such as Martin Puryear, Kara Walker, and Trenton Doyle Hancock, how many others can your students think of?

Johnson was the first African American to become a professional painter and make a living from his art. Born as a slave around 1763 of a white father and black mother, Johnson was purchased by his father when about a year old. He was apprenticed to a blacksmith in Baltimore and freed in 1782. He was most likely self-taught, claiming that he had derived his style by his own keen perception of nature and art.

Johnson may have been influenced by the styles of Charles Willson Peale and his nephew, the Baltimore portraitist Charles Peale Polk, whose naïve style Johnson’s resembles, but there is no evidence that he ever was part of his studio. By the 1790s Johnson had a thriving portrait business. He advertised as a portrait painter in Baltimore from 1796 to 1824.

John Jacob Anderson and Sons is typical of the charming facial features, naïve handling of light, space, and anatomy, and simplistic arrangement of Johnson’s compositions. Typical of naïve painters, Johnson has devoted much time to realistic detail in small aspects of the painting such as the buttons, linen collars, and fine materials. Johnson enjoyed professional success among many such prominent white families. By the 1820s, Johnson’s career began to decline, although now some eighty portraits are attributed to his hand.

More works by Johnson and an excellent biography: http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/tsearch?request=S&artistid=1425

Art Connections: Joshua Johnson’s success as an artist against very difficult odds is just one story of African American life that can be told through art. From the 19th century Edgefield potter David Drake to contemporary abstract artist Sam Gilliam, these artists both reflect the art styles of their time, as well as contribute to the range of perspectives found in art. Learn more about a number of prominent African American artists with this image set from Davis Art Images.

Monday, February 9, 2009

American “Primitive”

DID YOU EVER WONDER about the stylistic term “American Primitive?” Well, I have. “Primitive” is usually a term used in western art to describe an aesthetic that is not sophisticated or “equal” to artistic styles generally considered the epitome of fine art, namely the art of ancient Greece and Rome, and the Italian Renaissance. Well, I have a beef with that designation, namely because much of the earliest art in the United States falls under such a designation. I find that the art of self-trained artists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—despite being naïve in conception—to have a beauty and charm all its own, and is far from “primitive.”

Because there were no art academies in early America, most painters were self-taught. There was no possibility of training in technique and anatomy in America. The early colonial style, based largely on prints of English portraits, tended to be flat, evenly lit, and rich in realistic detail. Naïve portraiture like Phillips’s is characterized by unsophisticated draughtsmanship; awkward rendering of anatomy; flat, even lighting; a hard-edged plasticity; and emphasis on the luxury items of the sitter. Despite the overwhelming influence of European, mostly English, styles in art during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the tradition of the itinerant, self-trained artist continued. These less-sophisticated artists provided a good source for patronage by less-affluent Americans who nonetheless wanted to demonstrate their refinement and good taste by commissioning art.

Ammi Phillips painted for more than fifty years, producing perhaps as many as two thousand portraits, although only about 500 are firmly attributed to him. Born in Connecticut, he traveled through that state, Massachusetts, and New York painting portraits. He offered his services as a professional painter as early as 1809 in Pittsfield, MA. In the 1830s he was located in Amenia, NY. Unlike many other itinerant painters who had to resort to other means to supplement their income, Phillips seems to have relied solely on portrait painting as his vocation. His late portraits inevitably show the influence of photography.

A century after Phillips died in 1865 he was given his first one-person show, followed by a major retrospective three years later. Today he is considered one of the most prolific and important naïve portraitists in nineteenth-century America.

Here you will find an in-depth biography of the artist.

Connections Across Curriculum - These early American portraits provide a glimpse into daily life of times past. From the latest fashions to personal values, such as learning history and letter writing as seen in this painting, art from this time can give students an idea of what life might have been like. Students can further explore objects from this time period on the Old Sturbridge Village “What is it?” web page. Based in the same period and location in which Phillips worked, these objects can give students an idea of what the artist would have seen as he traveled throughout the region.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Spanish Colonial Portraiture

When we think of portraiture in the “New World,” we usually tend to think of John Singleton Copley and Charles Willson Peale in the US. However, there was a thriving artistic milieu in the Spanish colonies in the western hemisphere long before these artists arrived on the scene. In many ways, Spanish colonial art was more closely linked to European art in spirit, primarily because most Spanish colonists in the New World tended to think of themselves as transplanted Europeans. This distinctly contrasts from Americans who, while respecting their British heritage, were eager to forge their own identity (think American Revolution).

By the end of the 17th century, the Viceroyalty of New Spain, centered in Mexico City and extending into Peru and most of South America, had established social customs and orders based on models of European monarchical societies. The social hierarchy of elite classes consisted of (in order of the most honored) families born of European Spanish blood (peninsulares), those of Spanish descent born in the New World (criolles), and those of Spanish descent who had intermarried with native royalty (mestizo). Like the upper classes in Spain, the Peruvian elite delighted in displaying their status through portraiture.

As was the social custom among wealthy families in Europe, Peruvian noble families arranged their children’s marriages, and also controlled which daughters would be sent to a convent. This is a portrait of a young woman whose guardian forced her into a marriage with an elderly count. The story was recounted in Ricardo Palma’s Tradiciones Peruanas.

This portrait, produced by an indigenous painter who most likely had native lineage, proves that citizens of Lima had taste in art as sophisticated as their European counterparts. It also shows that the upper classes in colonial Peru were just as eager to prove their status and good taste through art. The young woman, dressed in the height of European fashion, is set in a typical Rococo portrait setting: a pulled back curtain revealing a villa-like backdrop (almost like a stage set), and accoutrements to demonstrate her good taste. The watch she holds symbolizes the passage of time. The table with cabriole legs on which the objects are displayed is the most current fashion from Europe.

To see more examples of colonial Peruvian art, visit these websites:



Connections Across Curriculum - Fine art is just one way to introduce students to the history and culture of colonial America. While students may be familiar with the colonial history of the United States, the impact of the European colonization of South America is probably less known. A number of Spanish colonial writers can shed light on the complex relationship between the imported European lifestyle and the existing traditions and culture of native people, in both North and South America. Visit American Passages – A Literary Survey to find out more about these authors, including Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a conquistador and Incan princess.