Monday, April 27, 2009

Miniature Portraits

Lynn Babineau is a marvelous artist who works at Davis Publications. As a painter, one of her specialties that I admire most is as a miniaturist. Before photography, miniature portraits, usually painted on ivory (I know, I haven’t figured out how they do it either), were very fashionable. Many of the major painters in early American art — Charles Willson Peale, John Singleton Copley, and others — painted miniatures as a way to make money. Having a miniature painted was much cheaper than a full-length portrait. These miniatures were often worn as a locket or brooch to commemorate lost loved ones, or were often mounted in fancy frames. My fascination with miniature painting unearthed a very important early American artist from up New England way.

Before the late nineteenth century, women were excluded from official art schools in America. Most women who became professional artists — and there were a surprisingly large number of them — were trained by a father, husband, or other male relative who was an established artist. Some, though, were self-taught. During the first half of the nineteenth century, there were a significant number of women miniaturists and portrait painters. Portrait miniatures were one artistic field in which women could easily succeed professionally since many of them could do the work at home. It also meant that they did not have to study anatomy, considered inappropriate at the time.

Sarah Goodridge began to study art by reading a book on drawing and painting. In 1805, she moved to Boston and took drawing lessons. She only attempted the miniature medium after she had worked with a now unknown portrait miniaturist from Hartford. In 1820, she opened a studio in Boston and honed her craft, studying portrait painting with Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), one of the great American portraitists at the time. She painted a portrait miniature of Stuart in 1827 which he gave to his mother on a woven bracelet made of his and his wife’s hair! She also painted at least 12 miniatures of the fiery orator and US Senator Daniel Webster.

This self-portrait displays Goodridge’s characteristic realism in every detail down to the wrinkles around her eyes. The portrait exudes self-confidence. Compared to some other miniaturists, the figure is solidly modeled and the form assuredly delineated, betraying Goodridge’s solid mastery of the human figure. At the time this was painted, she was producing as many as two paintings a week and was able to support her family on her art, an amazing achievement in a period when women were given few opportunities to succeed professionally.

Davis Art Images has many lovely miniatures from early America, including a couple by Sarah’s sister, the equally talented Eliza Goodridge.

The MFA in Boston has a handsome collection of portrait miniatures, many dating to the 20th century when the medium revived in popularity as a nostalgic look at the “good old days.”

Here you will find a resource for research into womens art.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

American Poster Design

DID YOU KNOW that the second half of the nineteenth century saw more printed matter produced than ever before? The last two decades of the nineteenth century was the last era during which printed matter was almost the exclusive form of mass communication. Technical advances in printing and image reproduction happened rapidly throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, thus enabling a boom in the publication of magazines and journals. The boom spawned an incredible flowering in graphic design and the illustrator’s art. I’m celebrating the arrival of April (and hopefully warmer weather soon) with one of my favorite art genres: American illustration.

Will Carqueville was born in Chicago. He was determined to become an artist. Studying briefly in Paris, he became acquainted with The French Art Nouveau style, and later the Aesthetics movement in England, which emphasized art-for-art’s sake, the introduction of art into every aspect of daily life. Seeing the immense range of poster illustration in turn-of-the-century Paris, he realized that as an artist he could make a fair living as an illustrator, while also pursuing painting. When he returned to Chicago, Carqueville established his own lithographic press.

Of the many artists active in illustration in America during the 1890s, only a few show the influence of Art Nouveau in their work. Carqueville’s posters, like those of his English contemporaries, are less florid and decorative than French illustration. His work is characterized by simple, graceful compositions with elegant outlines and simple, flat areas of color. While maintaining a decorative surface, his work is typical of the fresh realism of American art. The asymmetrically-balanced compositions and large areas of color are the influence of Japanese art (“Japonisme”) that was current at the time.

Carqueville established a good reputation within a short time. He produced magazine covers for International, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Lippincot’s and Scribner’s magazines. He produced posters that advertised those publications, and also pursued painting, primarily realistic figurative work. Along with William Bradley and Edward Penfield, he is considered one of the finest of American illustrators during its flowering between the 1890s and 1920s. You can see more of Carqueville’s work among hundreds of other American illustrators at the website of the International Poster Gallery in Boston. There, you will really get an idea about the American style of poster and illustration art.

Students can learn to create their own prints and graphic designs with two new books from Davis Publications: Experience Printmaking and Communicating through Graphic Design.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Power of Nature

Still yearning for warmer weather, my thoughts in spring always turn to paintings of nature. When asked to think of work by American realist Winslow Homer, of which of his genres do you think? Illustrations in Harper’s Weekly? His Civil War illustrations? His watercolors of the Adirondacks? Or his paintings of children and young women in everyday activities? My favorite Homer works are his oil paintings of the Atlantic Ocean. In particular, I like his works of the stormy ocean. Homer must have stared at the waves for hours to be able to capture them so accurately. Try and think of other artists who convincingly captured the motions of the waves. I can think of two European artists right off the bat: Gustave Courbet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Challenge your students to try to depict the motion of water, or reflections of light on moving water.

Winslow Homer was born in Boston and apprenticed to a lithographer in his teens. In 1859, he moved to New York to become a freelance illustrator. One of the memorable phases of his prolific career was his illustrations for Harper’s Weekly magazine which lasted until 1875. He was assigned to illustrate events of the Civil War (1861–1865), where he chose to primarily depict life in camp rather than the horrors of battle. In 1866, he went to Paris where he was impressed with the work of realist Édouard Manet (1832–1883). His formal education previously in painting amounted to little more than a few classes at the National Academy of Design in New York. His mature style coalesced primarily from observation of nature, and his experience as an illustrator.

Although known for his genre subjects in the 1870s, Homer used figures merely as vehicles for his settings in nature. In this way, his work was similar to the Impressionists, however, Homer was not interested in the scientific examination of light on local color; merely how he perceived it. Throughout his career, he was interested in the power and grandeur of nature, even when it was the setting for a figure group.

In 1884, Homer moved from New York to the Maine coast. Although he traveled extensively to Florida and the Caribbean after that time — and produced what are unarguably the premier watercolors of the time — he returned continually to the subject of the sea off the Maine coast. This painting is typical of this period of his work: the raw power and grandeur of the untamed ocean. This late period of his work usually excludes human figures. If they do figure in a composition, they are usually dwarfed in scale by the power of the sea. Rather than being a romantic statement about man against nature, these paintings are beautiful tributes to the basic elements of nature with which Homer was fascinated.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago have fine collections of Homer’s work. Davis Art Images also has a great group of Homer paintings.