Monday, May 20, 2019

New Season, New Website, and New Blog Look!

Utagawa Toyokuni III (Kunisada I), Girls in a Garden at Cherry Blossom Time. Triptych, color woodcut on paper, 14 5/8" x 30 3/8" (37.2 x 77.1 cm overall). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. Gift of Mrs. Kingsmill Marrs. (WAM-680)

It’s spring here in Worcester, MA, and more than just the trees are changing. I’m excited to let you all know that Curator’s Corner is getting a new look. If you visit me after May 21st, you’ll see a whole new site because Curator’s Corner will now live on You can still access the blog from While you’re there, you may want to check out the other great content that you can access! There will be tons of articles from SchoolArts magazine to browse, plus plenty of inspiration from Davis Publications.

Excited to see you in the new digs,
Karl Cole

Monday, May 13, 2019

Ancient Egypt Find

Ancient Egypt, Head of a Nobleman, possibly from Memphis, ca.1878–1841 BCE. Quartzite, 7 5/16" x 9 7/16" x 8 ¼" (18.5 x 24 x 21 cm). © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-711)

Because of the recent news about an exciting archeological find in Giza, I decided to show some stunning portraits from ancient Egypt. 

Realism in funerary portraits is not as unusual as one might think, given that kings and their families were depicted in very stylized, idealized fashion. Lower-ranking people were often depicted with a great deal of realism, such as this nobleman of the Middle Kingdom. After the collapse of the Old Kingdom in the 2150s BCE, Egypt underwent a period of political turmoil (called the First Intermediate Period) for about 150 years before strong kings reasserted control in Dynasty XI (1986–1937 BCE). Some art historians ascribe the sensitive realism of Middle Kingdom portraits to the stress of political turmoil that plagued Egypt at the time. I just think this is a beautiful portrait. Okay, the ears are a little exaggerated.

Ancient Egypt, Head of a Priest, ca. 380–332 BCE. Graywacke, 4 1/8" x 3 3/8" x 4 ½" (10.5 x 8.5 x 11.3 cm). © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-23)

After the decline of the Late Kingdom (712–343 BCE), Egypt was ruled by numerous outsiders, including Nubians (from the south in present day Sudan), Persians, and ultimately Greeks and Romans. Each succeeding group of rulers adopted Egyptian religious and artistic practices, and took advantage of the riches of Egypt. After the death of Cleopatra (30 BCE), Rome took over from the Greeks and basically used Egypt as a main source for grains for bread to feed their growing empire.

This priest’s head shows a degree of realism that almost resembles Roman funerary portraits, but it is, of course, too early for that to have been an influence. The sensitivity of the carving of the features is amazing, and here the ears are not exaggerated. It is a very dignified portrait of an older man, complete with a mole on his left cheek and laugh lines.  

Ancient Egypt, Funerary Portrait of a Woman, possibly from Fayyum, ca. 150 CE. Encaustic on wood, 17 5/16" x 11 5/16" (44 x 28.7 cm). © 2019 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5041)

Roman Egyptians adapted the traditional burial practices of mummification and dedicatory funerary portraiture. However, they opted for realistic encaustic portraits on pieces of wood that were placed over the head of the mummy. This emphasis on realistic portraiture is totally Roman in style and is comparable to the funerary sculpted busts of the Republican period (509–27 BCE).

Correlations to Davis programs: A Global Pursuit 2E: 1.4; Beginning Sculpture: 5; The Visual Experience 3E: 15.3; Discovering Art History 4E: 5; Experience Painting: 7

Monday, May 6, 2019

May Day Late

Unknown American Artist, Landscape, fireboard, from Perry County, PA, ca. 1825–1835. Pigments on pine board, 31 ¾" x 37 ½" (80.6 x 95.3 cm). © 2019 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8201)

Being a painter of landscapes and cityscapes myself, I’m always eager to share with you little landscape gems that come to my attention. Since I missed May Day with this post, this bouncy little treasure from the Philadelphia Museum of Art will have to be my “hooray, hooray for the first of May.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, landscape was down the list on European academic categories of “noble subjects.” When the American colonies finally became prosperous, the first art people wanted to commission was portraits depicting them in the same gleaming spotlight as their prosperous counterparts in Europe. Portraiture dominated American painting until after the Revolution (1775–1783). Landscape evolved gradually during the early 1800s, basically from the 1820s on, until we had a full-blown American school of landscape painting called the Hudson River School.

Interestingly, although landscape was not being commissioned by early Americans from professional painters, it was the lot of “decorators,” who painted window shades, carriages, doors, and walls to earn a living. Many of the early American portraitists had side hustles doing decorative painting.

Obviously, no one who could afford a portrait wanted it on a fire screen or overmantel (and I still don’t understand why “mantel” is spelled that way). Like Japanese screens of the Edo Period (1615–1868) that separated rooms, Americans enjoyed landscapes on these two distinctive supports—fireboards (fire screens) and overmantels (boards that lined the wall above a fireplace mantel).

The artists who painted these works were similar to the itinerant limner painters who were self-taught. But there is a freshness of conception and a wonderful sense of composition that makes many of these works really delightful and beautiful. They are not typically based on European models, and often reflect local environs. In the fireboard above, I’m wondering what the artist used to paint the sponge-like indication of leaves?

The overmantel below is simply awesome in the energetic American rhythm of the trees across the composition, dotted with early American homes. Even though it was painted in Massachusetts, the trees look like palms!  

Unknown American Artist, Townscape, overmantel from Wheeler House, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1787–1793. Oil on eastern white pine panel, 24 7/8" x 60 1/16" (63.2 x 152.6 cm). © 2019 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-441)

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Earth Appreciation Month II

India, Krsna Interrupted by Kama (Desire), page from the poetry epic Gita Govinda (“Song of Krsna”) by Jayadeva, from Rajasthan, 1650–1660. Opaque watercolor and gold leaf on paper, 7" x 8 7/8" (17.1 x 22.5 cm). © 2019 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1176)

There is nothing I like more than the colors of nature awakening to spring. I especially love the arrays of greens that are seen in the grass, foliage, and trees. To celebrate Earth Appreciation Month, again, I’m presenting to you one of my favorite book illustrations from India. The colors in this illustration are so luscious, and really do put me in mind of the nascent season.

This illustration really does not display much, if any, of the influence of Mughal painting with its interest on realism. Rajasthan was part of the Mughal Empire, the art of which was greatly influenced by Iranian and, ultimately, Western European Renaissance manuscripts. The landscape displays the traditional layering of horizontal bands of different colors to depict depth, with fanciful trees that are out of proportion to the figures. The page also displays more than one event in the life of Krsna in the same page.

In traditional Rajput painting, the colors would vary slightly in each section to indicate elapse of time, whereas this page does not. The foliage is depicted in the manner of mid-1600s Mewar school painting, with a hierarchy of leaf shapes and flat floral forms sprinkled throughout the page. In this scene, Krsna’s attempt at solitary meditation is interrupted by lust (i.e. Kama, the god of desire). Krsna is depicted calmly at ease on the right in meditation, and in amorous agitation as he retrieves love note left by worshippers. His agitation is reflected in the dramatically different tree form above him on the left.

The illustration of books was the primary vehicle for painting in India starting in the 1000s CE. Numerous local schools of painting developed. By the advent of the Mughal domination of India (1526–1700s), books of both Muslim and Hindu subjects were lavishly illustrated. Despite the influence of the Mughal court style, however, many regional schools in Rajasthan maintained a distinctively indigenous naivete. This was a contrast to the Mughal interest in an idealized naturalism in painting. In the Punjab, a region dominated by local princes, the various courts developed styles that were a synthesis of the Mughal and Rajput (indigenous painting of Rajasthan) painting styles, a blending of the real and the conceptual.

Correlation to Davis programs: A Community Connection: 2.5; Experience Painting: 2;The Visual Experience 3E: 14.2

Monday, April 29, 2019

An April Birthday Boy

Antoine Vollon (1833–1900, France), The Mound of Butter, 1875/1885. Oil on canvas, 19 ¾" x 24" (50.2 x 61 cm). © 2019 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0874)

Antoine Vollon, known primarily for his excellent still-life paintings, had a birthday on April 23rd. In the glory days of the annual academic Salon in Paris (1760s–1890s)—when the self-appointed arbiters of artistic tastes judged all art submissions—the Salon had a hierarchy of “eminent” fine art forms starting with “the best”: painting and sculpture. There was also a hierarchy of “worthy” subjects in this order: history (or religious), portraits, landscapes, genre, and, lastly, still life.

Although Vollon had won prizes in the salon in the bottom of the barrel category, he always aspired to be a figure painter. His one figural work submitted to the Salon, Femme du Pollet à Dieppe, in 1876 was extremely well received. However, it was shot down with one snide remark from an artist I used to like, proto-Impressionist Édouard Manet (1832–1883): “Bah! What is Vollon's Femme? A basket that walks.” I would think Manet would have been a little humbler, seeing as he was roundly criticized ten years earlier for his Luncheon on the Grass!

Manet’s criticism effectively relegated Vollon to the “still life” category for good. I’m not sure if he ever ventured one of his landscapes, which was only a rung or two from the bottom. Well, as far as I’m concerned, if still life was an important subject for Dutch Baroque artists, including Rembrandt (1606–1669), it’s good enough for me. I put it at the top of the list.

Vollon, who painted during the heyday of the Impressionist movement, was basically trained in the Realist tradition, with the typical earth-tone based palette of the Barbizon artists. Born in Lyon, he studied under the academic realists Georges Vibert (1840–1902) and, after moving to Paris in 1859, Théodore Ribot (1823–1891). Like Ribot, who painted mainly still life, Vollon was greatly influenced by the Dutch still-life painters of the 1600s.

Vollon once said that he was madly in love with painting, but he was also in love with the idea of having his work go down in history. He worked very hard at exhibiting in the official Salon in Paris, and even exhibited once in the Salon of Refused Artists (1863). Eventually, his still-life painting secured third (1865), second (1868), and first-class medals (1869) in the official Paris Salon. Despite that fact, he always longed to be accepted as a figure painter, hence the debacle with Manet’s stinging critique.

Kitchen scenes, food preparing, and kitchen objects were a major part of Vollon’s body of work. It is reminiscent of the still-life works of the Bourgeois Baroque painter Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), whose still-life work, too, was lauded at the Academy Salon. Vollon’s Mound of Butter depicts the manner in which butter was purchased from farms where it was produced, wrapped in cheese cloth.

Unlike Baroque artists’ flawless surface treatment of still life, Vollon has built up an impasto of brush strokes in the butter to imitate the motion of the knife. This may have been an influence of Impressionism. The dark palette, neutral dark background, and presentation on a shallow table are all traditional aspects of Baroque still life painting.

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey 2E: 2.6; Discovering Drawing 3E: 3; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 1: 1.5; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 2: 5.4; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 4: 6.8; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 5: 2.3; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 6: 1.8.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Earth Appreciation Month

John Joseph Enneking (1841–1916, US), Spring Hillside, 1899–1902. Oil on canvas, 24 5/8" x 34 ½" (62.6 x 87.6 cm). © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-46)

What better way to celebrate Earth Month than to show you paintings by an American Impressionist who celebrated the beauty of nature through COLOR. To be totally honest, I had never heard of Enneking before I saw his work at the MFA in Boston. And, to be totally honest again, I almost fainted when I saw this painting. He has so masterfully captured the yellow-greens of New England spring. And, on an Earth Month note, trees are a valuable part of the biosphere of our planet that we threaten with our toxic habits.

I am a BIG fan of American Impressionism, almost as much as the French original. These artists really applied what they learned in France to paintings of the American landscape with beautiful results. Enneking was the first artist to return to the US after painting with Claude Monet (1840–1926), the “leader” of French Impressionism. Born of German immigrants in Minster, Ohio, he drew landscapes and animals with charcoal and crayon as a young man. He first saw fine art when he moved to Cincinnati in 1856, and determined to become a painter. His first training was in Cincinnati, and after the Civil War (1860–1865) he studied printmaking in Boston.

Enneking went to Europe in 1870 and studied first in the expatriate American school there, which featured overall the Dark Impressionism style that was influenced by Baroque tenebrism. He then went to Paris where he was initially influenced by the Barbizon school landscape palette. By 1873, however, he came under the influence of the nascent Impressionist movement. By the end of that year he was one of the first American artists to paint in Monet’s garden at Argenteuil.

When he returned to Boston in 1876, he brought back his enthusiasm for Impressionism. He actually set up a studio in the same building as Childe Hassam (1859–1935). Ironically, Hassam is considered by many as the “leader” of American Impressionists, but he did not truly adapt the Impressionist palette until the mid-1880s. Enneking spent summers at a house in North Newry, Maine, where he perfected his Impressionist style with brightly lit landscapes, many of them depicting sunrise or sunset. As is evident in Spring Hillside, he was particularly adept at applying the Impressionist technique to flowering trees.

It is interesting that he declined to join The Ten rebel American Impressionists when they formed their break-away group from the National Academy in 1898. He did not want to be categorized as any particular type of painter!

Here’s another lovely work, this one of the White Mountains:

John Joseph Enneking, Speckled Mountain, 1901. Oil on canvas, 20" x 29" (50.9 x 73.6 cm). © 2019 Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH. (BIAA-199)

Friday, April 19, 2019

Respect for History

Kako Katsumi (born 1965, Japan), Vessel, 2012. Stoneware, overglaze enamel, 6" x 20 7/8" x 7 7/8" (15 x 53 x 20 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2019 Kako Katsumi. (PMA-8253)

Never underestimate the aesthetic power of an ancient culture’s art. That can certainly be said of the stranglehold ancient Greek and Roman culture has had on Western art since the Renaissance (ca. 1400–1600). Japan, too, certainly has many artistic traditions that have endured in significance through the centuries. The difference is that these ancient traditions often undergo period reinterpretations far from the original form of the art, which is hard to say about Western “classicism.”

The Jomon culture of Japan had a long history (active by 11,000 BCE, flourished 3000s–200s BCE) and produced tons of gorgeous ceramics. Kako Katsumi is inspired by the ceramics of that culture (and others, in my opinion), putting an elegant, clean, sophisticated, and modern spin on the ancient aesthetic.

Jomon Culture, Beaker, ca. 2500 BCE. Earthenware, height: 15 7/8" (40.3 cm). © 2019 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5329)

You can probably see the color aesthetic that Katsumi used in his vessels of the early 2010s in comparison to the Jomon vessel. It has the same earth-tone simplicity as the Jomon, with a contemporary form. Katsumi’s work calls forth reflection on even older prehistoric art work such as simple cave paintings and patterns in a red ochre color.

Katsumi is a third-generation ceramic artist born in Kyoto. He learned the traditional styles from the major kilns in Kyoto, mostly very decorative. If his work reflects the influences of any of those kilns, it would be that of the Tamba/Tachikui yaki ware of Sasayama in Hyogo Prefecture, west of Kyoto. He moved from Kyoto to that region so that he could experiment with more individual creativity.

The artist worked initially with an electric kiln, later turning to a wood burning kiln that helps give his pieces an earth-red hue that fades into a sandy coloration. He became renowned for his interpretation of tea bowls (“chawan”), which are of utmost importance in the tea ceremony. He currently is also producing larger scale ceramic works in sculpture.

Take a look at his gallery on his website: Now tell me if his work doesn’t resemble this example from the Momoyama Period?

Momoyama Period (1568–1615), Food container, Shino ware, 3 3/8" x 3 3/8" (8.6 x 8.6 cm). © 2019 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-7091)