Monday, November 28, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving: Thankful for American Impressionism

Wrapping up my Thanksgiving period blogs is a big Thank You for the painting movement called American Impressionism. When I think of movements that have influenced my own painting, American Impressionism is right up there with French Impressionism itself, and German Expressionism. Up until the time of the American impressionists, there were no inroads into the entrenched realism that dominated American painting. I guess I really just like artists who buck the established system—at the time the National Academy in New York that held itself to be the arbiter of American artistic taste.

Just as happened in France in the 1870s, Impressionism was slow to catch on with critics and the public in the US, starting in the 1880s when French impressionist works were exhibited in America. When American artists painting in the style began exhibiting in the 1890s, they too initially found a cool reception. American patrons preferred didactic realism in the form of genre scenes, portraiture, and descriptive landscapes. While American impressionists presented depictions of real landscapes, their approach with broken color and active brush work did not initially fare well. Their style was considered unsophisticated by academic hacks.

Childe Hassam studied in Paris for three years starting in 1883. Exposed to Impressionism, his palette lightened and he adopted the short, quick brush strokes of Impressionist (and some Post-Impressionist) painters. He returned to New York in 1890. By the mid-1890s, there were many artists painting in impressionist styles. Ignored by the National Academy and largely by the public, Hassam, along with nine other impressionists, formed the Ten American Painters (first exhibit 1898 in New York). The group was devoted to Impressionism, exhibiting outside official venues.

Hassam has always been my favorite of the American impressionists. His landscapes are absolutely gorgeous, and, like most of the American Impressionists (including Mary Cassatt), his interest in depicting the effects of light on color and form did not lead him to the total disintegration of the subject. Later in life, while still working in the Impressionist palette and fluid brush work, Hassam’s works bordered on expressionistic, as we see in this lovely seascape from one of his hiatuses in Cos Cob.

Activity: Using tempera paint and various size brushes, create a fantasy landscape that emphasizes bright colors in either warm or cool families, related lines and shapes to create rhythm. Be sure to repeat the elements to create patterns and movement.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 3.16, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.5; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.14, 4.21, 4.22; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 6.32; A Personal Journey: 5.1; A Community Connection: 5.1; A Global Pursuit: 2.2; Exploring Visual Design: 4, 5, 6, 8.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving: Pioneer of American Genre

Let’s celebrate Thanksgiving with a bountiful kitchen scene from 19th century America!
This really isn’t going to be about a “woman’s domain” or “only women cook”; believe it or not, it’s about a pioneering woman artist. As I have repeated (probably ad nauseam to you all), I feel there’s never been a period in art history when women have not played a significant role. So, one of my thanks at Thanksgiving is for the wonderful history of American art that includes the broad spectrum of the people in this country: encompassing women, African Americans, Native Americans, and all of the immigrants that have made the cultural diversity of this country so rich.

Until the 1870s, women were not allowed into the major art schools in the US. Like their European counterparts, they relied on training from male family members or husbands who were artists. However, there were some vigorous women artists in the first half of the nineteenth century who defied convention in order to achieve their goal to be professional artists. Lilly Martin Spencer was one of those women.

The period before the Civil War (1861–1865) in the US witnessed the rise in popularity in the US of genre painting, particularly scenes of American life. American artists at the time consciously strove to establish an American “school” or art. This perhaps explains why Spencer turned down an offer by a wealthy Cincinnati patron in 1841 to study in Europe. She had taught herself painting at home with the ardent encouragement of her liberal parents. After lessons from local Cincinnati painters she started exhibiting wherever she could in Cincinnati. Her marriage in 1844 did not slow down her career, for her husband took over domestic duties in order to allow Spencer to continue to paint. Sales through the Western Art-Union of Cincinnati starting in 1847 was the beginning of a very successful career. Such art unions sold lottery tickets with engravings of American artists’ paintings, with a drawing to present the painting itself to the winner. These drawings exposed Spencer’s work to a wide section of the American public.

Although she did some portraits, Spencer preferred to concentrate on genre scenes, specifically family life (she herself had borne thirteen children). She studied at the National Academy after moving to New York in 1848. Until the time of the Civil War, her genre scenes vied in popularity with the most notable male genre painter of the period: George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879).

This work was commissioned by the Cosmopolitan Art Association in New York. The association promoted art by women for women. However, the protagonist of this work threatens a spoonful of molasses in the face if the (presumed) male viewer tries an improper advance. The painting is an interesting combination of traditional subject matter with unconventional boldness. The irony is that Spencer was a woman supporting her family by portraying women in seemingly traditional roles. Her handling of the still life arrangements within the painting and the overall domestic scene indicate that Spencer was well aware of Dutch Baroque painting, which emphasized genre and still life.

Activity: Using pencil with colored pencil or markers, have students create an interior that features a common activity in their family, with emphasis on a figure in the work (whether themselves or a family member) interacting with the viewer.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 3.14; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 5.26, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.6; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.3, 1.5

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Still Life Pioneer

Well, we’re coming up on Thanksgiving and I want to express my thanks for many aspects of the arts. One thing I’m totally thankful for is the rich history of American art. I may not always love the obsession with realism, but I appreciate it in early American art because the artists were looking to European models that were popular at the time. AND, in a country where, at the time, only portraiture was truly appreciated in painting, Raphaelle Peale helped make still life a mainstream, accepted subject matter in painting. In doing so, he made a way for people of restricted means to show their good taste without spending a fortune on a portrait.

Raphaelle was the oldest son of Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827). He learned how to paint from his father while working in his father’s taxidermy studio. He was established as a professional miniature artist by the time he was twenty-five. During the first half of the first decade of the nineteenth century, Raphaelle and his brother Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860) traveled to major cities all over the east coast painting portraits: Rembrandt full sized paintings and Raphaelle miniatures.

When his health declined in 1815, Raphaelle no longer felt capable of extensive travel hunting down portraiture commissions. He decided to devote himself to still life painting, even though his father disapproved and still life paintings were not nearly as lucrative as portraits. Although he briefly returned to portraiture in 1820, he had left behind as many as 70 still life paintings when he died prematurely in 1825.

Raphaelle emphasized still life subjects almost entirely the last ten years of his life. He can actually be considered the first professional American still life painter. Raphaelle’s still life paintings are simple and austere. His compositions contained a smaller number of objects, often one type. This is perhaps the influence of Spanish Baroque still life paintings he saw while in Mexico, particularly the work of Juan Sanchez Cotan.

In Still Life with Peaches Raphaelle places the still life on a shallow shelf parallel to the picture plane in a shallow space. Although the lighting is diffused, as in all his still life paintings, it originates from the left side of the painting. The diffused nature of the lighting creates luminous, soft-edged forms. Although paying close attention to physical detail, Rapahelle’s works do not emphasize flaws in the fruit.

Activity: Using color construction paper, use a light color of chalk to create a still life emphasizing the lights and darks of the composition. Work from lightest to darkest values. Create values by rubbing away excess chalk, making sure that the forms go through of the nuaces from dark to light-struck.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 2: 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 5 2.7; A Personal Journey: 2.4; A Community Connection: 3.1; Exploring Visual Design: 3, 7, 9; Discovering Art History: 12.3

Monday, November 7, 2011

Organic Meets Technology

When one thinks of museums that have significant collections of modern design, one inevitably thinks of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Cooper Hewitt in New York; or the Wolfsonian in Florida. One of the things that constantly amazes me, and causes me to appreciate new design, is the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s dedication to acquiring objects of modern design. We acquired this image a couple of years ago, and every time I look it, I want to go out and buy one! It is absolutely such a gorgeous piece, and one appreciates that beauty even more when one realizes the fantastic technology (I don’t completely understand, come on, I’m an art historian!) that helped create it.

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Forms from nature have traditionally served as inspiration for the designers of ceramics, furniture, lighting, and other types of utilitarian objects. Never before, however, did the organic world meet 21st century technology as in the works by the design firm Materialise in France. They have a group of brilliant artists who create works that reflect a modern aesthetic crossed with organic forms, and are designed to be produced by computer. The system called RM (rapid manufacturing) uses a computer aided design as its starting point, and creates the object in three dimensions from a variety of materials (in this case nylon). 

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Dan Yeffet’s pieces are elegant works based on forms in nature. He was born in Israel and currently works in Paris. He studied in Jerusalem and Amsterdam, where he started a studio called JellyLab, which he relocated to Paris. While designing everything from lighting to interiors, his firm currently specializes in textiles and art installations. Although Yeffet’s bud vase is decidedly modern in conception, it totally recalls the aesthetic seen in some Art Nouveau objects of the early 20th century.

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey: 3.1; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 6, 12