Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Deceiving the Eye—an American Obsession from the Beginning


Samuel Lewis (1757–1822, US), A Deception, ca. 1802. Black and brown inks, matte opaque paint, gold metallic paint, watercolor, graphite and scratching out on wove paper, 16 3/16” x 10 13/16" (41.1 x 27.5 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8129)

I’ve written before about the long-standing interest in extreme realism in American painting. Colonial American self-taught artists (“limners”) may not have been schooled in anatomy, but they sure as heck could depict the shimmer of the silk or velvet clothing covering that body. The Hudson River School artists of the first half of the 1800s believed in the accurate visual description of places in the American wilderness. And the New Realism movement of the 1960s and 1970s was just a spike in the popularity of a genre that continues to captivate.

Shame on me as an art historian for thinking of the Trompe-l’Oeil (Fool the Eye) Realism movement as an 1880s and 1890s phenomenon. The style, influenced greatly by the exquisitely painted realism of Dutch Baroque still life, was dominated by compositions of mundane everyday items presented with a stunning deception, often with images painted to “break the picture plane.” Well, looky what I found—trompe l’oeil realism from our early Republic!

On May 22, 1795, the first exhibition of the Columbianum—the American Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture—took place in Philadelphia. Although this attempt at an American academy subsequently failed, this show importantly showcased mostly American artists. It included several still-life paintings, which were, at the time, rare in American painting. The exhibit featured the Staircase Group by Charles Willson Peale, as well as a trompe l’oeil still life by a “writing and drawing master” named Samuel Lewis.

Lewis subsequently donated A Deception to Peale’s Philadelphia museum in 1808. I think this painting is a masterpiece in every sense of the criteria of the trompe l’oeil style, which was perfected by artists in the second half of the 1800s. Lewis’s work includes impeccable imitations of printed script on the various pieces of paper, indicating that he was well-versed in contemporary fonts as a writing master.

I found nothing of background information about Samuel Lewis, except for what I found in the book Citizen Spectator by Wendy Bellion (2011, Omohundro Institute of American History and Culture, Williamsburg, VA). This book explores the late-1700s Enlightenment interest in vision and optics as they related to the development of extremely realistic/illusionistic painting. Of course, this interest in optics also ultimately led to the invention of photography.

Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827, US), Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsey Peale), 1795. Oil on canvas, 89 1/2” x 39 3/8" (227.3 x 100 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-532)

By the time Peale painted this, he had abandoned his lucrative portrait painting business in order to explore his passion for natural sciences and his run personal museum in Philadelphia. Illusionistic realism was already a fad in the US. Peale used this to show that American artists were just as talented and witty as their European counterparts. Indeed, the whole idea behind the Columbianum (located in the Pennsylvania State House) was to afford Americans a homeland alternative to studying in Europe.

American artists drew from a long tradition of illusionistic realism in Western art, including Dutch and Flemish Baroque portraiture and still life. Peale’s Staircase Group itself references a painting by Antonie van Dyck (1599–1641) of Lord John Stuart and His Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart (National Portrait Gallery, London). Peale, however, emphasized the complete negation of the picture plane by including an actual doorframe and wooden step when the work was exhibited at the one and only exhibition at the Columbianum. Apparently, Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825) is said to have witnessed the George Washington (died 1799) tip his hat at this painting when he visited the Peale Museum in 1797.

Here are some Trompe l’Oeil realists you may recognize:
 
John Haberle (1856–1933, US), The Slate, ca. 1895. Oil on canvas, 12" x 9 3/8" (30.5 x 23.8 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-449)

William Harnett (1848–1892 US, born Ireland), The Old Violin, 1886. Oil on canvas, 38" x 23 5/8" (96.5 x 60 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington. (NGA-P0920)

John Frederick Peto (1854–1907, US), Old Time Card Rack, 1900. Oil on canvas, 30” x 25 ¼" (76.2 x 64.1 cm). © 2017 The Phillips Collection, Washington. (PC-320)


Correlations to Davis Programs: Discovering Drawing 3; The Visual Experience 9.9

Monday, June 12, 2017

And This Is a Portrait of Whom?


Unknown British artist, His Excellency George Washington, late 1700s, reprinted early 1900s. Hand-colored mezzotint on paper, 13 11/16" x 9 15/16" (34.8 x 25.2 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8074)

I don’t often laugh about art history (seriously!), but now and then one just can’t help it. With this group of “portraits,” I had to keep in mind that: A) the people who bought these prints did not have TVs or computers to check the accuracy of the likeness against news reports; and B) many of the artists of these prints were self-trained and making copies of copies of copies of painted or print portraits of the sitter. Either way, the following are not what we are accustomed to accepting as a likeness of our first president. Likenesses of the first president were in great demand during the early republic, as can well be imagined. Unfortunately, there were no photographs to guide many of the artists.

Aside from the fact that the Father of our Country has no neck in the print above, I’m at a loss to find a source for this pose from any painted portraits of Washington. The closest thing (and that’s stretching it) is the portrait Peale did (several times) of Washington at the Battle of Princeton (below). Maybe this is retribution for us beating them? I know before the Revolution he aspired to be an officer in the British army. Is that why he’s wearing a British uniform in this print?

Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827, US), George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, ca. 1779. Oil on canvas, 51 9/16" x 47 7/8" (131 x 121.6 cm). © 2017 Cleveland Museum of Art. (CL-922)

Unknown German artist, probably from Augsburg, George Washington, Esquier (sic), late 1700s. Mezzotint on paper, sheet: 11 5/16" x 8 ¼" (28.7 x 21 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8078)

At least the previous example got the baldric correct from the right shoulder. I honestly can’t find any source for this depiction. I’m guessing it is based on a print of some German or French monarch on the battlefield. By the way, “Esquier” is not French for esquire (that would be écuyer).

Amos Doolittle (1754–1832, US), George Washington President of the United States of America the Protector of His Country and Supporter of the Rights of Mankind (A Display of the United States of America), 1789–1794. Hand-colored stipple engraving on paper, sheet: 20 ¾" x 16 11/16" (52.7 x 42.4 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8072)

Doolittle, born in Cheshire, Connecticut, was a self-taught copper engraver. He is perhaps most famous for his prints of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, for which he interviewed witnesses. They are considered the most accurate depictions of what happened on that day. I’m afraid that Washington’s oblong head betrays Doolittle’s lack of anatomical study in his ode to the new country. I’m thinking this may be based on a print by the Swiss artist Pierre Eugène du Simitère (1737–1784). View that work in the Princeton University collection to see if you agree! 

Johann Lorenz Rugendas, I (1730–1799, Germany), George Washington, Esqr., 1775–1778. Mezzotint on paper, sheet: 16 5/16" x 11 1/16" (41.4 x 28.1 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8090)

This artist was a member of a family of engravers who provided print copies of oil paintings of the rich and famous. The only other works I can find similar to this are of German royalty. Aside from the fact that Washington’s nose looks like a ski slope, the setting almost looks like he was a naval hero. It is so interesting that in many of these works they call him “esquire,” which was an honorific for people just shy of noble title. 

John Galland (active 1796–1817, US), based on a print by David Edwin (1776–1841, US, born Britain), based partially on a painted portrait by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828, US), Washington—Sacred to Memory His Excellency George Washington Lieut. Genl. of the Armies of the United States of America, after 1798. Stipple engraving on paper, sheet: 17" x 11 ½" (43.2 x 29.2 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8085)

If this print is “sacred to the memory of” Washington, then it would be after his death in 1799, correct? I am surmising that this is a combination of president-warrior executed after his death. It contains the head of the older president period—rather like the copy of Gilbert Stuart on dollar bills—and his army trappings from the Revolution. The “F. Bartoli” who is credited with a painting of this subject is fictitious, according to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828, US), George Washington (Vaughan portrait), 1795. Oil on canvas, 28 ¾" x 23 13/16" (73 x 60.5 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0675)

Edward Savage (1761–1817, US), The Washington Family (George Washington, Martha Washington, Martha’s grandchildren George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, and Slave William Lee), 1789–1796. Oil on canvas, 84 1/8" x 111 7/8" (213.6 x 284.2 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0752)

I stuck this in because I wanted to show you how the first family really looked by an artist who studied them personally. Savage not only did individual portraits of them, but also this regal family get together. They’re looking over the plans for the new Federal City. I think Martha is supposed to be pointing to the spot for the executive mansion. Savage made sketches from the First Family while they were in New York (our first capital). He subsequently waited until 1796 to paint this imagined group setting from the individual studies of each person. He then had produced hand-colored and uncolored engravings of the print, garnering an immediate 331 subscriptions for the print in 1798.

Monday, June 5, 2017

June is Busting Out All Over


Tina Leser (1910–1986, US), Summer Dress, 1960. Linen plain weave, flocked synthetic applied text, height: 40 ½" (102.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6999)

I guess Memorial Day is the official “beginning” of outdoor grilling season in the US. I don’t really know the “official” date because I’ve lived in apartments all my life. But, what better way to mark the presumptive occasion than by featuring an interesting artist and a special frock just for grilling? We used to eat at a picnic bench in the back yard of our duplex during the summer. My mother wore dresses serving from the apartment (of course), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any active grill-person wearing a frock and pumps to turn the chicken wings and veggie burgers!

One of the great things I’ve learned about Tina Leser is that she had an energetic, optimistic world view. As a result, she incorporated influences from around the world in her clothing designs. At the same time, she reveled in the simplicity of everyday American aesthetics, creating clothing that would have been considered “casual” during the 1940s and 1950s, but today look quite sophisticated.

She was born in Philadelphia, and—before she even went to art school at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Sorbonne in Paris—visited Asia, Europe, and Africa as a child. She even lived in India for a time, which had an enduring impact on her designs.

She began designing clothes—sportswear, day wear, and evening gowns—in a shop in Honolulu (1935). While she referenced Filipino and Hawaiian fabrics, she also relied on US conventions, making, for example, attractive versions of the coveralls worn by women factory workers in flannel and plaid. She closed her Honolulu shop in 1942 after Pearl Harbor and moved to New York.

In New York, she designed sportswear for Foreman from 1943 until 1953. She also designed beachwear and sundresses for the firm Gabar Swimsuits in the late 1940s. She was the innovator of a bathing suit with a single strap. Other innovations, or perfections, by Leser included the slim toreador pants of the 1950s (shorter and usually embroidered, in comparison to “capri pants”). She also designed the first dress-length cashmere sweater—the inception of the sweater dress—in 1957.

Leser enjoyed confounding people’s perceptions casual and formal fabrics. For example, she would use a gingham cotton tablecloth and make a cocktail dress out of it, such as this look. While the dirndl-type dress pattern is conventional, she made it “fun” with the use of applied words appropriate to the outdoor grill. The idea of “fun” with a dress designed to wear while at the backyard grill is just quirky enough to make Tina Leser a true American original. 

Tina Leser, Study from designer’s sketchbook Summer 1960. Ink, watercolor, fabric swatches on paper, 11 ¾" x 11 1/8" (29.8x 28.3 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-7044)

Correlations to Davis Programs: A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.3; Experience Painting: 4; The Visual Experience: 12.4

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Renaissance Perspective is Not a Butterfly or Vice Versa?


Mark Grotjahn (born 1968, US), Untitled (Painting Blue Light to Dark VII), 2006. Oil on canvas, 60" x 50" (152.4 x 127 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 Mark Grotjahn. (MOMA-P5043)

I don’t like to admit to something like this, but when I first saw this work in the MoMA collection, I didn’t pay that much attention to it. When I saw it a second time the other day, I was like, “Wow!” Sometimes I wish everyone would try listening to a symphony by Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782) when they look at paintings the way I do at home when looking at my own work. The son of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), his music is so soothing. It allows you to slow down and take in every aspect of a painting. I did that with this painting while listening to Pandora at work. It’s a visual pleasure overload!

There is something very visually seductive about this phase of Mark Grotjahn’s painting. It is so tempting to analyze his work in formal terms—Renaissance one-point perspective, Minimalism, Hard Edge painting (see the work below), blah blah. However, I think it’s a mistake to pin down one aspect of his work and blanket-categorize it. I prefer to look at it with the “untitled” hanging in my mind.

Although the precise one-point perspective draws in the eye, we’re immediately confronted with two rather than one vanishing points, slightly (ever-so-slightly in this work) askew. So, does that make Grotjahn’s “butterfly” works a stab at the rigidity of one-point perspective as taught to Renaissance painters? I prefer to think of Grotjahn searching for visual perfection. I much prefer these limited palette works (there’s a stunning one in black), where there is a surface tension aside from the lines of recession that borders on an Abstract Expressionist emphasis on process. And these works are most assuredly the result of a painstaking process.

Grotjahn, born in Pasadena, CA, received an MFA from UC Berkeley in 1995. Coming into his own in the theory-laden art scene of the 1990s, this artist chose to ignore the “art world’s” obsession with modernist analysis of the post-NeoExpressionist and post-Postmodern art scene. Early works included his “Sign Exchanges,” in which he painted replicas of homemade signs in mom-and-pop stores and exchange the painted for the original, which he hung in a gallery. This community-oriented project combined the similar aesthetics of Pop Art, Appropriation, and Dada readymades.

He began his “Perspective Series” (I don’t know if I like this designation any better than “butterfly”) in the early 2000s. The elements of these works were perspective, geometry, and color, which, I might add, he does brilliantly in some of these works, especially the ones done in color pencil. Right?! While the brilliantly executed lines of color inexorably create a compelling sense of depth, I’m not sure I would say that Grotjahn’s work reminds me of Op Art. Works like this one remind me of time-lapse color photographs of cars on an expressway.  

Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Butterfly), 2003. Colored pencil on paper, 38 ½" 30" (97.8 x 76.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 Mark Grotjahn. (MOMA-P1850)

In 2007, he began in a new direction (I think of it as an Abstract Expressionist period, don’t hate me for using an art historical designation!) in which the perspective bands are sublimated to more gestural painting. Well, let me tell you, this had led to his exciting “Mask” works of the past five years, which are pretty darn interesting. Where’s the “butterfly”? you ask.

Interestingly, I read an interview with him recently in which he stated that he wants to return to total abstraction. This was in response to a question of whether the he considered the “mask” paintings “portraits.”

Monday, May 22, 2017

Lathe and Nature Magic


David Sengel (born 1951, US), Night Bird, 2000. Ebonized maple burl, sassafras, rose and locust thorns, 4 ¼" x 10" x 9 ½" (10.8 x 25.4 x 24.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 David Sengel. (PMA-8029)

When I see a work of art that blows me away, I’ve just got to share it with as many people as I possibly can. This work was my “epiphany of the week” that I recently sent to my co-workers. I’m sure we all realize that there is strong and proud traditional emphasis on process, design, and crafting within the contemporary woodworking community. I’m pretty sure I don’t care if wood is worked to produce a functional piece or a sculpture, I still just call it ART. FINE ART at that. All one has to do is look at David Sengel’s work to realize why I say this!

David Sengel is a really unique individual, aside from being a great artist. He grew up learning about woodworking in his father’s workshop. For some time he honed his ability with the lathe, making functional works of art. At some point, he decided it would be more interesting if what he created had some sort of narrative. That is clearly evident in this piece. One of his chief inspirations is a daily walk through his land in North Carolina, where he observes details in nature that eventually end up in his art.

A dear friend of mine was a lathe enthusiast, who turned amazing pieces out of burl wood. His preferred burls came from Australian trees, but I imagine trees all over the world have burls. Burls are growths on trees, which may be caused by insects, fungi, or environmental stresses. They usually look like a big bump on the side of a tree. My friend Matt used to make amazing bowls from burls on his lathe, often including the deformities in the finished piece. I’m kind of imagining that this work by Sengel is displaying some of the deformities of the burl.

In this piece, Sengel has ebonized the wood. Ebonizing is not simply staining the wood with a dark color. It involves a process that causes a chemical reaction to make the wood turn black, imitating the precious ebony wood that is practically extinct on our planet. The tannins in the wood are what react with the treatment. A combination of tea, steel wool, and vinegar is often used to ebonize wood. Tea is loaded with tannins. It must be done after the wood is turned, because ebonizing only affects the surface.

I’m not sure what part of this piece is from the sassafras tree, but I’m pretty sure the bird is composed of rose and locust thorns. I’ve seen other works by Sengel with those components. Sengel’s work is amazing, and he uses every part of a tree imaginable, including the roots! 

Sengel's art can be found in a number of museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Mint Museum. The following websites feature his work and the work of other wood artists:

Monday, May 15, 2017

Still Life and Our Culture of Abundance

John F. Francis (1808–1886, US), Still Life with Apples and Chestnuts, 1859. Oil on canvas, 25" x 30 1/8" (63.5 x 76.5 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-360)

I got so excited the other night while watching Antiques Roadshow. A person brought two little still-life paintings from 1865, and I said to myself, “Oh, those look like John Francis’s work.” And they were! If the Baroque period was the high point of Dutch still-life painting, then the 1800s were for the US. There are just so many artists who specialized in still life, and I’m purposely ignoring trompe-l’oeil still life because illusion is more important than anything else in those works. Because of the domination of the Peale family during most of the 1800s, artists like John F. Francis are not given the art historical accolades they deserve, so I’m on it!

Francis was born in Philadelphia and had to have been aware of the paintings of the Peales who specialized in still life: Raphaelle (1774–1825) and James (1749–1831). His training, however, is unknown, and it is generally assumed that he was self-taught. Interestingly, at the time Francis began painting, still life was still a (relatively) newly accepted painting subject—portraiture and history painting were still considered “the finest” compared to landscape, still life, and genre.

Francis became a portrait limner—an itinerant painter with little formal training—during the 1830s and 1840s. He never strayed too far from Philadelphia, however. About 1850, he began to add still life to his body of work. By 1854 he was painting still life almost exclusively. I’m not sure if he ever saw Dutch Baroque still-life paintings, but he preferred to paint sumptuous “banquet pieces” like these. Like the Dutch Baroque artists, he intensely scrutinized the textural appearance of the food in his still life, and did not eschew showing fruit that was past its prime.

I’ve seen these Francis works at the MFA. Although they appear as sharply painted as Peale still life, they are actually more painterly. Another difference from the Peales is compositional. Francis’s still-life works are typically staged on a white tablecloth that is slightly askew from the picture plane, as opposed to the parallel, undressed shelf of Peale still life. While many are on neutral backgrounds like these, some are set with landscape backgrounds.

All in all, still-life paintings like these of the mid-1800s speak to me of the (perceived) “bounty” of America. The middle class American art patrons—just like their 1600s Dutch counterparts—wanted these luscious paintings in their dining rooms to reflect to their guests not only their good artistic taste, but also their own prosperity. I get a kick out of seeing these paintings up close. Francis used pale blue for his highlights on the glasses and fruits in these baskets instead of the usual white. 

Still Life with Apples and Chestnuts, detail.

Here’s another beautiful example:

Still Life with Wine Bottles and Basket of Fruit, 1857. Oil on canvas, 25 1/8" x 39 7/8" (63.8 x 76.2 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-367)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.6; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.8, 2.7-8 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.6; Experience Painting: 6

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Raphael of Flowers


Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759–1840, France, born Belgium), Joséphine’s March Lily (Amarylis Josepinae), 1802–1805. Watercolor over graphite on vellum, sheet: 19 ¾" x 28 ¼" (50.3 x 71.8 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-7953)

I don’t usually experience beauty attacks when considering art from France of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Neoclassicism isn’t my thing! But this artist is a standout in a period otherwise dominated by history/political art. Any artist who pursues the love of painting flowers while France was going through the Reign of Terror is OK in my book! And, it reminds me that there are many other artists who have specialized in, or simply done a nice job with, works about flora and plants.

Some of the details of Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s life sound like a charmed folk tale. Take the story that he once visited Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI (both died 1793) in the Bastille because they wanted him to document a flowering cactus that was there?! Nevertheless, he was a highly respected botanical illustrator, and he escaped the French Revolution with his head.

Born of a Flemish family of painters (mostly for churches), he started painting flowers, plants, and trees as a child. He studied the masters of Dutch Baroque painting as a young adult, and was particularly impacted by the floral still-life painting of Jan van Huysum (1682–1749). He went to Paris in 1782, where he began earning his living doing theater decoration.

In his spare time in Paris, Redouté would spend hours doing flower studies in the Garden of the King. He came to the attention of the Superintendent of Paris Waters and Forests, Charles Louis l’Héritier (1746–1800), who subsequently mentored him and encouraged him to produce scientific studies of flowers. He introduced Redouté to studies of the dissection process and, more importantly, his massive botanical library.

Under l’Héritier’s guidance, Redouté learned the watercolor technique of Gerard von Spaendonck (1746–1822), a fellow Flemish botanical artist. Spaendonck eventually recruited him as a staff artist. Spaendonck had connections to the royal family, and eventually Redouté secured a position as a court botanist to Marie-Antoinette. He documented hundreds of exotic flowers in royal estates, such as the Tuilleries and Versailles. He managed to avoid the guillotine by cozying up to the Bonaparte faction during the 1790s, meanwhile becoming one of the most popular botanical painters in France.

Before Napoléon (1769–1821) made himself emperor, Redouté began associating with Napoléon's wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais (1763–1814). He continued to produce watercolor studies that eventually were translated into colored engravings in books, personally learning the stipple engraving process. In 1805, a year after Napoléon’s and Joséphine’s coronation, he was appointed a court flower painter to the empress. Typically, he again switched allegiances back to the Bourbon royal family after Napoléon was deposed in 1815.

The beautiful study above was produced for the publication The Garden of Malmaison (1803) by the botanist Étienne-Pierre Ventenat (1757–1808). Redouté’s watercolors betray the influence of Spaendonck in the contrasting values of high-intensity color and transparent high values. This Josephine’s March Lily is a fitting subject for Redouté, because Malmaison was Joséphine’s private palace on the banks of the Seine 15 km (9 miles) west of Paris. The rest of his life he spent teaching flower painting. Between 1817 and 1824 he produced his greatest success, a portfolio of prints of his watercolor studies called Les Roses.

Here is a painting by Jan van Huysum, whose work greatly influenced Redouté to pursue botanical painting. 

Jan van Huysum (1682-1749 Netherlands), Flowers in an Urn, ca. 1720. Oil on wooden panel, 31 7/16" x 23 5/8" (79.9 x 60 cm). © 2017 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0864)

Here are some other artists I particularly like who specialized in flowers and plants:

Fidelia Bridges (1834–1923, US), Wisteria on a Wall, 1870s. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 14" x 10 1/16" (35.6 x 25.6 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1170)

Bridges, a native of Massachusetts, was encouraged in her studies of flora by the pioneering woman sculptor Anne Whitney (1821–1915). Bridges, like Redouté, worked exclusively in watercolor. 

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849, Japan), Morning Glories in Flowers and Buds, ca. 1830. Color woodcut print on paper, 9 ¾" x 14 11/16" (24.8 x 37.3 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2610)

I know Hokusai specialized in landscape, but he also produced numerous examples of the time-honored subject matter of bird-and-flower painting (kacho ga). Even in woodcut form, these compositions are stunning. 

Edwin Hale Lincoln (1848–1938, US), Thistle, 1898–1907. Platinum print on paper, 18 ¾" x 9 13/16" (33 x 25 cm). © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P2452)

Serious study of plants and flowers in photography began early in the development of the art form. Lincoln concentrated exclusively on documenting flowers. Beginning in the 1890s, he developed a group of platinum prints, first published in 1906 as The Wildflowers of New England. He published several editions of the study. The 1906 edition had 75 images, and by 1914 it was up to 400 images. 

Guo Dawei (Kwo Da-Wei, aka David Kwo, David Kwok and David Kwo Da-Wei, 1919–2003, US, born China), Cannas, 1950s. Ink and color on paper, 44 5/16" x 13 11/16" (112.6 x 34.8 cm). Image © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-663)

Guo was trained in traditional Chinese landscape and bird-and-flower painting in Beijing before the Communist takeover. In 1953, he moved to the US, where he was exposed to Abstract Expressionism. His bird-and-flower works from after that period reflect the action painting strain of Abstract Expressionism.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art 2 1.2; A Personal Journey 5.5; A Global Pursuit 7.3

Friday, May 5, 2017

Beauty Attack


Henry Bacon (1839–1912 US), Street in Cairo, 1905. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 13 1/2" x 20" (34.4 x 50.8 cm). © 2017 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-561)

I must say, one of the things that keeps me young (in spirit, of course) is the constant beauty attacks I experience at work while looking at art from all over the world and every conceivable time period. These beauty attacks occur pretty much on a daily basis. I’m sure my co-workers get tired of hearing me exclaim “That’s gorgeous!” about one artwork another. Sometimes these attacks are great in the extreme and become epiphanies. That means I’ve learned something new and I’m thinking about an artist in a brand-new light. That would be the case with Henry Bacon (18391912).

Can you totally feel a sigh of relief standing in the shade rather than the bright sunlight? Bacon’s watercolors so remind me of the work of Sargent, particularly his scenes of Egypt and the Middle East. And he totally learned the Impressionist mantra to “not use black to make shades for shadows!” You can see that in his swipes of phthalo blue all over the place.

This former Civil War (1860–1864) soldier and illustrator for “Leslie’s Weekly,” born in the state in which I currently live, went to Paris in 1864 to study art after being wounded in the war. Unfortunately, he chose the École des Beaux-Arts—instead of the Barbizon and their budding Impressionist protégés—and studied under the realist Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889). He also came under the influence of the equally-vapid classicist realist Jean Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). The only difference in Bacon’s work of the 1870s and 1880s from those artists is that he painted many genre scenes of people in Brittany.

The Colossi of Thebes, 1904. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 15 7/16" x 21 9/16" (39.3 x 54.9 cm). © 2017 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-315)

Bacon developed an abiding love for the people and light of Egypt after his first trip there in 1897. By the mid-1890s, he had already swayed away from his genre scenes of middle-class French people in favor of Impressionism. The light of Egypt confirmed his interest in observed light and painting on the spot with a lighter palette. It also confirmed his love of watercolor, in which he worked almost exclusively for the rest of his life.

Like Americans Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Bacon used the white of the paper as his highlight. He abandoned the opaque underpainting watercolorists had traditionally used. Here, again, we see the use of phthalo blue in the deepest shadows. 

Bedouin Campfires, ca. 1911. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 16 13/16" x 26 1/16" (42.8 x 66.2 cm). © 2017 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-509)

Being an extremely poor watercolor artist myself, I’m always very envious of artists who can achieve such wonderful nuances with the medium. This lovely dusky scene is just full of the Impressionist palette, right down to the salmon and green he used for the foreground, which is beautifully complimented in the darkening sky. What most intrigues me is the smoke from the fire. The lazy me is tempted to attribute it to white gouache he may have added after the rest was dry, simply because there is a big white blob in the middle of the smoke under the camel’s head. And how else did he achieve the wisps of smoke to the left, but with thinned, white gouache? Just gorgeous!

And, just so you can compare his exciting watercolors to his…competent…earlier genre paintings, here is one of his oil paintings from the 1870s. This subject is what made him famous: people on transatlantic steamers, the latest thing in the 1800s. 

On the Open Sea—The Transatlantic Steamship, 1877. Oil on canvas, 19 3/4" x 29 1/8" (50.2 x 74 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (MFAB-47)

Bacon did countless works on the subject of transatlantic voyages to America, a new craze in the 1800s since steamships made travel to the US much faster. I find this type of realism at a time when Impressionism was blooming a big YAWN.

And speaking of big yawns, if Bacon’s realist period reminds you of anybody, here’s a hint: James Tissot (1836–1902). I can’t believe any art historian would ever even remotely associate Tissot with Impressionism, except that he liked to document middle class urban life. I’m not even going to guess what the dude on the trapeze with a monocle means! 

James J. Tissot (1836–1902 France), Women of Paris: The Circus Lover, 1885. Oil on canvas, 58" x 40" (147.3 x 101.6 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1233)