Tuesday, March 5, 2019


It’s been really cold here recently, relatively speaking for New England. How do you turn something New Englanders consider a negative into a positive? Focus on cool colors in works of art. Color is one of the elements of art, and what better way to kick the winter blues than to look at cool colors that have nothing to do with the weather?

Alma W. Thomas (1891–1978, US), Deep Blue, 1974. Watercolor on paper, 22 9/16" x 30 ½" (57.4 x 77.5 cm). Image © 2019 Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © The Estate of Alma Thomas. (SI-389)

I am a great admirer of Alma Woodsey Thomas, about whom I’ve blogged before. She was the first graduate of the Howard University fine arts program, and for thirty-five years she taught art in the public schools of Washington, DC. After painting in a realistic style while teaching, she began to explore color field painting in the late 1950s while studying painting at American University. Her interest in pure, unmodulated color was influenced by the then-prevalent Abstract Expressionism style.

Thomas developed her signature mosaic-style of nature painting in the mid-1960s, ultimately replacing her color field style. However, this work from 1974 is reminiscent of her color field works. It almost reminds me of a color interpretation of rain falling. At any rate, the cobalt blue is a beautiful, abstract statement. 

René Lalique (1860–1945, France), Iris bracelet, ca. 1897. Gold, opal, and enamel. Private Collection. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-28071llars)

Lalique was apprenticed to a jeweler in Paris at the age of sixteen. His mentor, Louis Aucoc (1850–1932) was one of the leading jewelers in Paris, and acquainted Lalique with the latest styles and techniques in jewelry. At the same time, the young man studied at the School of Decorative Arts in Paris, and subsequently at Sydenham College in London. Returning to France in 1880, Lalique was freelancing as a jewelry designer by 1881. In 1890, he established his own shop in Paris during a period when Japanese art and the Arts and Crafts movement helped develop the popular Art Nouveau style.

Lalique’s inspiration in his jewelry was the natural world of the French countryside, as well as Japanese art that included natural motifs. Unlike other jewelry designers, he incorporated materials not usually used in jewelry, particularly the use of glass. He only used precious gemstones when they brought something to his pieces artistically, rather than for their value. His jewelry designs are truly works of art, not just settings for expensive gems. 

Korea, Goryeo Kingdom, Vase, ca. 1100s. Porcelain-like stoneware, height: 16" (40.6 cm). © 2019 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-983)

Many of the art forms developed in both Korea and Japan were indebted to Chinese influence, but both cultures made changes to traditional forms that made them unique to their cultures. The maebyong vase is a Korean variation on the Chinese meiping (literally “plum vase”), a vessel originally intended to store wine or oil, and was later used to display plum blossom branches. Typical of the Korean form is the incised, rather than painted, decoration of cranes and lotus flowers.

This vessel has the typical celadon glaze, a blue-green to gray-green hue, that was perfected during the Goryeo Kingdom (918–1392 CE). Koreans perfected celadon glazes after learning technological and kiln modifications from the Chinese. They had initially learned of the glaze from Song (960–1279/1280) Chinese artists, particularly from the Yue kilns. Early Korean celadon wares were undecorated in order to emphasize the importance of the nuances in the glaze’s color. By the 1100s, Korean artists explored many ways to decorate the vessels, relying most heavily on incised patterns and inlay.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Let It Snow

We have had several snowfalls in the past couple of weeks. On Presidents’ Day I found myself staring at a snow-laden tree across the street and thinking, that looks like a Japanese woodcut of a snow-laden tree. The whole process of multiple woodblock prints of the ukiyo-e period (ca. 1660s–1860s) was so complicated, I imagine snow scenes were just another one of those complications. Below are three examples of the beautiful woodcut technique used by ukiyo-e block-cutters to create snow scenes from brush drawings by the artists.

Let’s first establish the hierarchy of tasks in the ukiyo-e woodcut print process:

1) The artist draws the composition for the print, and gives instructions to the printer for what colors go where.
2) The woodblock carver(s) cut different blocks each for one color as indicated by the artist.
3) Each block is printed, starting with the block bearing the contour lines of the composition.
4) The publisher inspects quality.
5) Tokugawa censors inspect the prints to approve that they did not contain any political or anti-social content and put their seal on the print

The tedious process of producing prints from the artists’ drawings began with an outline drawing (sen-gaki) of all of the contour lines that established the major forms of the composition. This was traced from the artist’s original drawing using minogami paper that was thin enough to trace with. The resulting traced image was transferred to the woodblock and became the foundation block for the finished print called hanshita-e.

As each block was carved for from nine to twelve colors, they were aligned during printing along an L-shaped mark in the lower right corner of each separate sheet. 

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Snow on the Sumida River, from the series Snow, Moon and Flower, ca. 1832. Color woodcut print on paper, 9 13/16" x 14 15/16" (25 x 38 cm ). © 2019 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1406)

Hokusai is undoubtedly responsible for the popularity that evolved for series of landscape prints. This was based on his series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, produced between 1826 and 1830. Hokusai explored the possibility of atmospheric snow scenes more than any previous ukiyo-e artists. His drawings would indicate which colors went where. I’m wondering if the woodblock carvers were relieved to do snow scenes that used the paper as the negative space?

In Snow on the Sumida River, the introduction of Western chemical inks (aniline) gave the printers who inked the carved blocks extra steps to do. The artist would indicate where he wanted the colors in his original drawing, including areas that should be rubbed to give the effect of gradated color, seen in this print in the foreground water and background sky. 

Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858), Evening Snow on Asuka Mountain, block #1 from the series Eight Views in the Environs of Edo, ca. 1838. Color woodcut print on paper, 9" x 14 9/16" (23 x 37 cm). © 2019 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-840)

Of all the ukiyo-e artists who specialized in landscape prints, Hiroshige was undoubtedly responsible for refining the atmospheric snow scenes with which we are now so familiar. His directions to the block carvers established the practice of depicting falling snow by putting tiny gouges into the blocks printing the dark colors of the composition. This is clearly seen in Evening Snow on Asuka Mountain in the sky and also in the shading in the bottom of the print.

Hiroshige produced more than 1500 snow scenes during his career. When Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji was published, Hiroshige was still producing prints of bijin-ga (beautiful women) and Kabuki actors. Inspired by the range of possibilities in landscape composition, he produced his first series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital in the early 1830s.

Ohara Koson (1877–1945), Willow Bridge in Winter, 1918. Color woodcut print on paper, 14 5/16" x 9 ½" (36.3 x 24.2 cm). © 2019 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-333)
The ukiyo-e style of prints of everyday life, beautiful women, actors, and landscapes waned in popularity as Japan rapidly westernized at the end of the 1800s. In the early 1900s, artists who reacted against the rapid industrialization of the country attempted a revival of the style in the shin hanga (new print) and sosaku hanga (artistic print) movements. Shin hanga copied the old hierarchy of artist-block carver-publisher, while sosaku hanga artists drew the composition, carved the blocks, and made the prints themselves.

Ohara Koson is considered by many scholars to have been one of the foremost of the shin hanga artists. He certainly emulated beautifully the snow scenes of Hiroshige. As you can see in Willow Bridge, he made sure that the artists indicated the falling snow by putting little gouges in the woodblocks carved for the colors of the sky, the water, the railings, and even the garments on the two pedestrians.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Experience Printmaking: 4; The Visual Experience: 3.5;  The Visual Experience: 13.5

Monday, February 11, 2019

African American (Art) History Month I

Grafton Tylor Brown (1841–1918, US), View of Yosemite Valley, 1886. Oil on canvas, 29 ¾" x 17 ½" (75.6 x 44.5 cm). © 2019 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4841)

When we usually read about the Rocky Mountain School of painting, we are presented with artists like Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Thomas Hill (1892-1908), and Thomas Moran (1837–1926). This school (a loose term to indicate similar subject matter) is credited with portraying the newly opened western territories of the US to easterners. One of the hopes was to encourage migration, which, unfortunately for the environment and the indigenous peoples, happened en masse.

African Americans somehow escape that discussion. For African American History Month, you will observe that black artists, too, were part of this artistic phenomenon in the West. When California joined the Union as a free state in 1850, many free African Americans migrated there. Although the Fugitive Slave Act meant that slaves taken to California remained so, blacks continued to move west, numbering 2000 in California by 1852.

Grafton Tyler Brown is the first-known African American artist on the west coast of the US. Born in Harrisburg, PA, it is unknown whether his family moved to California when he was a child, or whether he migrated as a young man. He was settled in Sacramento in 1858, where he taught himself art. By 1862, he was an established lithographer with a land management firm in San Francisco. He painted and drew new settlements around the city, afterward committing them to lithography.

By 1865, Brown was well-known enough to set up his own lithography business, Grafton T. Brown and Co. His lithographs of growing early California were in great demand in the East. While managing this business, he traveled throughout California, Oregon, and Washington, producing paintings and sketches of the grandeur of the new territories.

In 1871, Brown sold his lithography business to concentrate full time on painting landscapes. He is not known to have produced portraits or still life, simply landscapes. He documented, like Bierstadt and Hill, views of the mountains and valleys between California and Colorado. However, unlike the romantic element injected into grandiose views of the West by other Rocky Mountain painters, Brown’s tended to be more topographic, in the matter-of-fact views on postcards. He typically painted from a birds-eye view with little reference to human beings.

Drawn to views of snow-capped mountains, Brown moved to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1882 and then Portland, Oregon, in 1885. Unfortunately, Brown’s paintings did not achieve the popularity of his lithographs, which were usually credited to his company rather than his name. Additionally, eastern galleries and museums would not exhibit works by African Americans. In 1893 he gave up painting entirely and moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, to be a draftsperson for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Gem of the Month: Nan Madol

Because 2019 is well into my eleventh year posting this blog, I’ve decided to initiate a new monthly feature for this year: Gem of the Month. As a fellow art historian, I know all too well their inclination to pretend they know everything about every art movement and artist that ever happened (usually as a way of steering attention to themselves at an Art Department cocktail party). But that is humanly impossible. On a weekly, almost daily, basis I discover some hidden treasure of art history fact that seldom appears in “mainstream” art history. Thus, the purpose of this new series. 

Micronesia, Walls of Nan Madol, Pohnpei state, Madolenihmw district, Federated States of Micronesia, ca. 1100s–1500s. Image © 2019 Tara Sturm. CC BY-SA 2.0

Although you are probably familiar with dynasties in a variety of regions of the world, the idea of dynasty is not conjured up when studying Oceanic cultures. And yet, the islands of the South Pacific are so far-flung and numerous, it makes sense that there had to have been some. Case in point, the Saudeleur Dynasty of Micronesia, which flourished between the 1100s and 1600s CE.

Migrants thought to have come from the area of Taiwan called Austronesians are believed by scholars to have settled Micronesia by about 1800 BCE. Micronesia—consisting of 2000 islands, coral atolls, and volcanic mountains—is 2,900,000 square miles (7,400,000 square kilometers) in size (wow!). The Federated States of Micronesia consists of 600 islands acroos one million square miles (2,590,000 square kilometers). Formerly the Eastern and Western Caroline Islands, it consists of four states: Pohnpei, Yap, Chuuk, and Kosrae.

Pohnpei is the largest island. The Lapita, one of the many diverse cultures that made up the Austronesian migration, are thought to have populated Pohnpei from the Solomon Islands to the south. Pohnpeian tradition suggests that the Saudeleur dynasty began with the arrival of foreigners from a mythical island called Western Katau or Kanamwayso. Their intention was to build a religious center and established autocratic control over the entire island. They built Nan Madol as a religious/political center.

Micronesia, Walls of Nan Madol, Pohnpei state, Madolenihmw district, Federated States of Micronesia, ca. 1100s–1500s. Image © 2019 Tara Sturm. CC BY-SA 2.0

Nan Madol means “water between,” referring to the water channels between the basalt foundations of the ruins.
The basalt was quarried on the western side of the island. It is the only ancient city in the world built entirely on coral reefs, consisting of stone and coral-fill platforms on top of ninety-two artificially built up islands. The city encompassed palaces, temples, residences, and tombs.

Although the culture did not have pulleys, horses, or metal, they built walls forty-nine feet (fifteen meters) high in some spots and as thick as sixteen feet (five meters). The columnar basalt pieces were laid in a header-and-pitcher pattern filled in with rubble (smashed coral). They are thought to have been raised with the help of palm tree trunks as levers. The walls were raised on platforms only three feet (ninety centimeters) above the water.

Nan Madol, as a ceremonial center, is comparable in size and layout to the Mayan ceremonial/urban centers of Central America. The kings of Pohnpei ruled the island until the 1800s when the city was abandoned. Because there are no written records, much information about the culture has been handed down orally. Specifics about the religion or society are basically sketchy. It was likely abandoned before the 1830s, when German explores documented Nan Madol as “ruins.”

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

An Abstract Expressionist You Should Know

Paul Jenkins (1923–2012, US), Phenomena Voyager, 1972. Watercolor on paper, 3' 6" x 2' 6" (106.5 x 76.2 cm). Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. © 2019 Paul Jenkins/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (SI-489jkars)

Some art historians, when discussing an artist’s work, will say “oh, but he’s (or she’s) a brilliant colorist!” I’ve never really known when to use that phrase with the proper cachet, but I would be wallowing in understatement if I used it in any description of the work of Paul Jenkins. This artist’s work is simply stunning. Now, I’m a big fan of Helen Frankenthaler’s (1928–2011) stain paintings because they are brilliant and quite often evoke landscape to me. But, Jenkins’ works starting in the late 1950s absolutely knock my socks off with their high-intensity color. I’m a big sucker for color, as you know, and Jenkins’ paintings are a celebration of pure color. I think the only other Abstract Expressionists whose work excites me on this front are Mark Rothko (1903–1970)—before he started experimenting with black and brown—and Grace Hartigan (1922–2008).

One of the main tenets of Abstract Expressionism was the artist expressing the inner self, with the finished painting a record of the process of that search. Most of the Abstract Expressionists were in sync with that philosophy and with the Jungian idea of the disconnect from the body while producing art. Jenkins is an interesting personality in the world of Abstract Expressionism. Like Mark Tobey (1890–1976), the fellow New York School artist he befriended, Jenkins’ work was inspired by more than Jungian philosophy and the Surrealist-inspired emphasis on subconscious creation. The reliance on spontaneity of Zen Buddhist meditation, the theories about constant internal change of I Ching philosophy, and the reflective abstract imagery in Symbolist painters such as Odilon Redon (1840–1916) had major impact on Jenkins work since early in his career.

From early on, as well, Jenkins experimented with different methods for spreading his paint into the jewel-like color and semi-transparent veils of paint that are his signature style. He rarely, if ever, used a brush to spread paint. Most often, he used knife-related tools, including his favorite ivory-handled knife. Fascinated with the stain paintings of Frankenthaler and Morris Louis (1912–1962), Jenkins devised his own method of pooling, rolling, and flowing paint on the canvas with a control that allowed the pure intensity of the colors to shine through. He often dripped thin lines of white paint to set off colors.

As early as 1958, he called himself an “abstract phenomenist,” indicating that his work reflected god inside of him. From that year on, he titled most of his works Phenomena, searching for ways to express ideas rather than forms that people would subsequently search for in his works. His use of more luminous colors began in the early 1960s. When looking back at his work, one marvels how he created luminous compositions in a variety of pigments (oil, acrylic, watercolor) as well as lithography.

Jenkins was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and spent some of his childhood in Youngstown, Ohio. Although he met both Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) and Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) as a young person, they did not impact his art. Wright even suggested that Jenkins take up farming. After service in World War II (1939–1945), he moved to New York in 1948 and studied at the Art Students League. In New York, during that germinal moment in American modernism history, Jenkins befriended Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), thrilled by the dynamism of his painting, and Mark Rothko (1903–1970), whose brilliant colors appealed to him. With all of the influences that Jenkins encountered, he developed a distinct abstract style that has stood the test of time in luminosity and brilliant appreciation of pure color.

I have to admit, I prefer his palette after 1958 to this early one, though the way he spread the oil paint is very exciting. 

Paul Jenkins, The Archer, 1955. Oil on canvas, 4' 3" x 2' 8" (129.9 x 81 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. © 2019 Paul Jenkins/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-439jkars)

The work below is a simply stunning piece, if not only for the brilliant color (especially my favorite, the violets), but for the scale. Can you imagine controlling the free-flowing on paint such a large canvas?!

Paul Jenkins, Phenomena Anvil Compass, 1981–1983. Acrylic on canvas, 6' 3" x 12' 6" (190.5 x 381 cm). Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. © 2019 Paul Jenkins/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (BIAA-559jkars)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 2E Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art 1E Grade 4: 6.7; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 6: 5.25; Explorations in Art 1E Grade 6: 5.1; Exploring Painting 3E: Chapter 5 studio experience; Discovering Art History: 4.3 17.1

Monday, January 14, 2019

Contemporary Jewelry Pioneer

Eleanor Moty (born 1945, US), Pietersite Brooch, 2000. Sterling silver, gold, pietersite, labradorite, blackpaper micarta, 1 ¾" x 3/8" x 4 7/8" (4.4 x 1 x 12.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2019 Eleanor Moty. (PMA-4757)

On a cold January day, I stop and look at this beautiful brooch by Eleanor Moty and wonder why I haven’t introduced you to her jewelry?! She is a fellow Illinoisan by birth, and actually grew up not far away from me. So, I have a special fondness for her art, which I have been following since the 1980s.

Moty prefers to call herself an “artist/metalsmith.” When she was teaching jewelry, she preferred “artist/educator.” In college at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, she intended to major in art education, but shifted her focus when she learned that jewelry making was a studio major.

Having grown up on a farm, Moty believes that the rural isolation affected her artistic development. Every day on the farm, she saw the horizon with its constant changes of light and color, which she now incorporates into her pieces. She considers landscape and architecture major influences on her work. Moty remembers her earliest jewelry-making as cutting out small pieces of metallic paper after tracing circles with a dime to make rosaries.

In some of her early jewelry, Moty concentrated on the technical manipulations that fascinated her such as electroplating, electroforming, and photo-etching in metal. She felt that her work had become too complex in the 1970s, resolving to leave the complex processes behind to focus on the simple act of making jewelry, concentrating on formal design. Works such as this brooch display the angled planes of a landscape or architectural interior, highlighted by the silver lines encompassing the stones. I totally see a winter landscape in this brooch.

Moty likes working in white, yellow, and black. One interesting material she works in is the blackpaper micarta. Micarta is an industrial material of resin-impregnated paper or fabric. Moty likes using the black because it mimics inclusions in tourmalinated quartz. She also is drawn to black slate with inclusions of pyrite crystals that conjure up landscape imagery for the artist. Instead of cutting natural crystals and minerals, she prefers to use their natural shapes as the central design elements. She carefully observes reflection, distortion, and facets, polishing the stones accordingly.

If one image isn’t enough for you, a Google Image search shows tons of beautiful pieces by the artist.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 1E Grade 2: 2.11; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 2: 2.7; Explorations in Art 1E Grade 6: 5.29; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 6: 5.7; A Personal Journey: 7 connections; A Community Connection: 5.2; The Visual Experience 3E: 10.7

Monday, January 7, 2019

A Nice Winter Treat

Charles Kaelin (1858–1929, US), Cape Ann Woods. Oil on canvas, 25" x 30" (63.5 x 76.2 cm). © 2019 Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (BIAA-469)

And, by “nice treat,” I don’t mean the sight of snow. As an art historian, I really like to stop and look into artists I’ve previously never thought a lot about. Charles S. Kaelin is one of those artists. I think he’s an American treasure, and so I’m going to get you acquainted with him so you sing his praises, too. The Butler Institute of American Art has two nice examples of his work (probably because his work was exhibited frequently in Cincinnati during his lifetime).

Impressionism came late to American artists, brought over by artists who had encountered the movement while studying in Paris. Some of the earliest major players were Childe Hassam (1859–1935), Dennis Miller Bunker (1861–1890), William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Willard Metcalf (1858–1925), and Theodore Robinson (1852–1896). This of course discounts Mary Cassatt’s (1844–1926) Impressionist work that predated all of these artists.

Considering how popular Impressionism still is with the public in the 21st century, it is surprising that it was not received with open arms when it appeared in galleries in the 1890s. French Impressionism was introduced to Americans in the 1880s, but was never well received. Critics initially thought that it lacked the grandeur of “true art.” By 1893, however, many American artists were painting in Impressionist styles.

The first exhibit of American Impressionists took place at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in New York in 1898. It was put on by a breakaway—from the National Academy’s stranglehold on exhibitions—group of artists led by Hassam, called The Ten. Ironically, when Impressionism finally found favor in America in the first decade of the 1900s, it was already considered a passé style in Europe, replaced by even bolder experiments in modernism.

If any artist embodied the credentials of an Impressionist, it was Kaelin. He was one of the earliest American proponents of the Post-Impressionist style, which was pioneered by French artists Georges Seurat (1859–1891) and Paul Signac (1863–1935). Kaelin, whose love of nature was described as a “passion,” was born in Cincinnati to a Swiss lithographer. Initially studying lithography at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, he supplemented his studies with painting in 1878 under the Tonalist John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902). Twachtman had just returned from Munich where he had adapted the Dark Impressionist style to landscape. Kaelin acquired a love of landscape painting, following Twachtman’s admonition for subjective expression as opposed to the stale formulas provided by Kaelin’s academic training.

Kaelin, who worked as a commercial lithographer for almost twenty years, produced an early body of work in the form of pastel landscapes, much of it in a filmy, light-infused style through the traditional palette (at the time) of Twachtman. (Twachtman, too, eventually adapted the pure color palette of Impressionism.) He visited Gloucester and subsequently the Rockport Art Colony in Massachusetts in 1900. After coming in contact with American Impressionists there, and inspired by the clear, brilliant light of the Cape Ann region, he made seasonal visits there for ten years. He abandoned his earlier Tonal manner and embraced the Impressionist palette, painting directly outdoors, and ultimately, in the Divisionist style of Post-Impressionism.

Kaelin abandoned his lithography career and moved permanently to Rockport in 1916. He often rendered his outdoor studies on Cape Ann in crayon, in which long, strong strokes of crayon weave together to create overall a tapestry of color. These long, sure strokes are apparent in his oils as well, in which color is supreme, and, in the case of Cape Ann Woods, forms sometimes dissolve to the point where they coalesce, much like the late works of Monet (1840–1926).

Charles Kaelin, Granite Shore. Oil on canvas, 20" x 24" (50.8 x 61 cm). © Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (BIAA-468)