Monday, December 22, 2008

Woman Documentary Photographer

DID YOU KNOW that photography was the first art form women were actually encouraged to explore during the nineteenth century? At that time, women were not allowed to study in most academic art schools. Have your students make up a list of famous women photographers from the last century and a half. What factors do you think influenced the fact that so many women become documentary photographers?

Like Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott, and Margaret Bourke-White, Consuelo Kanaga was an important documentary photographer in the middle of the 20th century. Unlike her contemporaries, despite a successful career of sixty years, Kanaga received little public acclaim or critical success during her long career. Her political and social ideologies guided her art. At a time when most social commentary in photography involved images meant to shock the viewer into action, Kanaga’s images seduced the viewer with careful composition, intuitive cropping, and reframing.

Born in Oregon in 1894, Kanaga first began taking pictures in 1918 as a staff photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Though self-taught, she became a master printer. She was particularly influenced by the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz, whose work she saw and admired in his journal “Camera Work.” At the same time, Kanaga was deeply committed to radical politics—a passion that began in early childhood.

As a newspaper photographer in California and later as a documentary photographer in New York in the early 1920s, Kanaga recorded rural and urban poverty, displaced children and mothers, and labor unrest. During the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Kanaga traveled throughout the South recording the difficult lives of black migrant workers.

Kanaga’s work appeared in only ten group and six solo exhibitions during her lifetime. At the time of her death, her entire estate was assessed at $1,345 (for 2,500 negatives, 375 prints, and miscellaneous photographic equipment).

This link is great, includes brief bio, poster and photo links.

Here you will find a resource for research into women’s art.

Connections Across Curriculum - Viewing the world through a camera lens is an engaging learning experience. Photographers can capture a moment, shed light on a situation, and explore the world around them as photojournalists. Students can use photojournalism skills to learn the technical aspects of the medium, analyze a variety of situations, and express themselves through storytelling. The New York Times provides resources for incorporating photojournalism into your curriculum.

Monday, December 8, 2008

World’s Oldest Ceramic Vessels

Most people think of ancient Greek painted ceramic vessels when you mention the word “ancient pottery.” What I think of are the sophisticated, elegant, and beautiful ceramic vessels of one of the oldest cultures in the world in Japan, the J_mon Culture.

DID YOU KNOW that J_mon vessels, which were discovered in the 19th century, are the oldest ceramic vessels (not objects) in the world? The J_mon people had a continual culture that is believed to date back as far as 11,000 BCE and lasted until the first millennium BCE. Most Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic cultures developed sophisticated ceramic and other art forms after becoming agricultural communities. The J_mon developed agriculture very late, and remained primarily a hunting-fishing, food gathering culture throughout their long existence. This makes the sophistication of J_mon ceramic vessels particularly interesting. Archaeologists generally consider the period 3000–200 BCE to be the height of the J_mon culture.

The J_mon vessels are coil-built pots decorated with incised or applied decoration. The very term “J_mon” means “cord pattern,” referring to the common decorative motif seen on vessels from the Middle Period (c2500–1500 BCE). This vessel, from the Middle Period, is termed “flame-style” because of the exuberant decoration of the rim. J_mon potters seem to have delighted in exploring a wide range of decorative effects totally unrelated to the intended use of the vessel. This would mean the J_mon ceramics were the first vessels in history designed on an aesthetic basis comparable to the utilitarian.

Cone-shaped vessels such as this one may have been stuck into the soft sand and used for cooking food. They were also used for storage in burials. It has been hypothesized that J_mon vessels were made by women, as were many ceramics in early human societies.

The following link takes you to a website that has links to various museums in Japan with extensive collections of J_mon artifacts:

Connections Across Curriculum - As the study of artifacts, archaeology gives students an opportunity to explore the world around them. Art, history, and science come together to give students a hands-on learning experience. Activities can include visiting a museum or National Park or interpreting objects in the classroom. The National Park Service “Archeology for Kids” website provides information, activities, and resources for educators.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Women Artists in America

Although largely passed over by art historians until the 1970s, women artists have played a significant role in the art world since ancient times. Ask your students to create a work of art that expresses a female perspective. Ask them to address gender issues in a work of art, and if that is relevant in today’s pluralistic society. What biases, if any, do we bring to a work of art based on our gender?

Palmer is considered one of the most important American graphic artists of the nineteenth century. She turned out over 200 farm scenes and landscapes for Currier and Ives, and a good deal more that went out anonymously for the firm. Currier and Ives prints were the alternative to buying fine art for the middle class, and the American public purchased Palmer’s work in great quantities. Few other artists at the time expressed so clearly the optimistic and romantic spirit of the new country.

Palmer received an excellent education in her native London, which included art lessons. This enabled her to work as a lithographic artist when she and her husband immigrated to the US in the 1840s. She and her husband founded a lithographic company in 1845, but it failed. By 1849 she was creating lithographs for Nathaniel Currier, soon of Currier and Ives.

Palmer specialized in landscapes. Figure drawing was her weakest skill, and other artists in the company sometimes assisted her on this. She often rode out to the countryside in Long Island to sketch the scenery on site. Palmer lived in Brooklyn all her years in America. She never went farther west than Hoboken, New Jersey, but produced numerous views of the western American territories including views of the Rocky Mountains she had seen in other artists’ studies.

Although most of the artists who produced designs for Currier and Ives were men, most of the artists who worked in the New York studio were women. They meticulously watercolored thousands of lithographs that were then sold for as cheap as 10 cents.

For a brief bio and beautiful painting by this talented artist, click here.

Click here for more information about Currier and Ives. The “Education and Outreach” section contains an interactive feature for students.

Here you will find a resource for research into women’s art.

Connections Across Curriculum - From agricultural beginnings to the Industrial Revolution, Currier and Ives prints reaffirmed the national identity that was taking shape in the United States. Images of daily life were popular, as well as current events that gave Americans a sense of pride in their country. How do Palmer’s contributions help shape our view of 19th century America? How do Americans display their national identity today?

Monday, November 24, 2008

American Impressionist Watercolors

Watercolor can be a tricky medium to master because of its transparency. Maybe that’s why I stick to oils in my personal painting. But, in the right hands, watercolors can produce amazing results.

John Singer Sargent was reared in Europe by American parents. He studied at academies in Paris where he learned traditional, conservative painting methods. His career and reputation were built on portraiture of wealthy people. Between 1885 and 1889 he was immersed in Impressionism, befriending Monet and painting outdoors with the master impressionist.

By 1900, he tired of confining himself to portraiture, and turned to landscapes with the interest of depicting light and reflected light. He had grown up sketching in watercolor, and it was his medium of choice after 1900. He traveled all over Europe, always preferring to paint outdoors with watercolor. His exhibitions in America between 1907 and his death showed a majority of watercolors to oils, which sold to major museums such as the Brooklyn Museum and Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Like Winslow Homer and James Whistler, Sargent broke the long, stodgy green-yellow-brown tradition of watercolor by adopting the impressionist palette and relying on the white of the paper to aid in giving the effects of light and reflected light. This is clearly evident in The Shadowed Stream, where Sargent used the paper to indicate the reflection of the sky. All in all, Monet and the impressionists would have been proud of works such as this!

For great collections of Sargent’s watercolors, follow these links to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Metropolitian Museum of Art.

Connections Across Curriculum - The shift from hand-ground pigments to commercially available pan and tube paints in the 19th century allowed artists to paint outdoors more easily. Students can follow in these artists’ footsteps, using watercolors to create studies of their surroundings, such as geography, animals, and plants. This creative process allows for detailed study and leads to discoveries overlooked by a passing glance.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Have you ever had your students try their hand at fashion design? Many non-western cultures have influenced western fashion. What cultures do you think would have an interesting impact on western dress? Can you point out non-western influences in fashion in the last twenty years?

I have always been fascinated by the evolution of fashion and how it impacts our lives, and the lives of people in the past. Having studied the history of fashion, it is quite easy for me to sometimes date undated paintings simply by what the people in the painting are wearing. One of the easiest periods to date is that around the time of the Titanic sinking (1912).

DID YOU KNOW that at that time women’s fashions were greatly influenced by fashion designer’s perceptions of what was “Oriental,” i.e. from the Arab world? This came about during the first decade of the twentieth century because of the wild popularity in Paris of the Ballet Russe, formerly the Imperial Russian Ballet. The most popular ballet they performed was “Shéhérazade,” (1910) by Rimsky-Korsakov. Shéhérazade was the heroine of the “Tales of a Thousand Nights,” a group of stories thought to have been written in Persia. The “Persian” costumes for that ballet influenced women’s fashions until the advent of World War I (1914).

This design typifies women’s dresses in the period before World War I: high waist and demi-train influenced both by the French Empire style (1804–1815) and the perceived Middle Eastern fashion, less emphasis on rigid corseting, and an unbroken line in the skirt. Such dresses were jokingly called “hobble skirts.” Although they were not that crippling, they were narrow enough to prevent a woman from taking normal strides. The diaphanous underskirt, and turban-like headwear are directly related to what European designers considered a “harem” costume in middle eastern countries.

This outfit is very theatrical in nature, and possibly itself influenced by a costume from the Ballet Russe itself, especially in the snake head form of the turban. Or could it be an allusion to Eve and the serpent from the Fall of Humankind story in the Old Testament? Hmmm.

Fashion-Era is a fascinating site chronicling two centuries of women’s clothing and includes social history along with brilliant costume plates:

Connections Across Curriculum - Fashion is a reflection of the way people live their lives, as well as the current events influencing those lives. The second decade of the 20th century was no exception, bringing with it war abroad, as well as more rights for women and African Americans at home. As the fight for women’s suffrage intensified, the physical restriction of the “hobble skirt” is an interesting reaction to this movement. As women entered the workforce during World War I, clothing styles changed dramatically to fit a more practical lifestyle. Today, fashion styles and trends change from season to season. What current events do you see influencing fashion in the 21st century?


Please share your monotype/monoprint experiences. Which do you prefer to teach your students? What types of surfaces do you use to transfer the colors? Have you ever tried doing one monotype over another like Mazur? If so, how did it come out? Did you ever try a large-scale monotype?

A monotype is usually conceived of as a small-scale, intimate medium, due to the tenuous nature of the original surface from which the print is taken. Because the surface of the plate is featureless (no marks made on it), only one print is available in this process. A monoprint uses a surface that has marks in it made with a burin or other tool.

Michael Mazur is an artist renowned for his monumentally scaled monotypes, who exhibits internationally.

Mazur’s complex monotypes are the result of multiple monotypes on one receiving surface, whether it is paper or canvas. The plate is wiped off after one image is transferred, and another design is printed over the initial one, creating a sophisticated depth to his work. He sometimes makes additions to the monotype in pastel or other media. Mazur brings to the printed image the spontaneity and immediacy of painting. Inspired by the monotypes of Edgar Degas, Mazur has used the phenomenon of “ghosts,” the pale residual images that monotypes can produce, to explore serial or narrative ideas in which the image evolves from sheet to sheet.

Wakeby Day II is part of a series inspired by the artist’s memories of Wakeby Lake on Cape Cod. Basing his composition on memories gives the work a lyrical quality. The inset panel on the two right panels represents a nighttime view of the same scene, a device through which the artist explores the passage of time, the rhythms or nature, and the multiple layers of a memories and a single experience.

You can see more examples of Mazur’s monotypes on his website at:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Politics and Art

How many instances of political satire or criticism can you think of throughout the history of art? And how does this art compare to the negative comments political candidates fire at each other in the twenty-first century? What is the current state of political cartoon art in the US? Is it on a par with Daumier’s works?

France experienced three major revolutions in 1789, 1830, and 1848. The hard put upon working classes rebelled because of the corruption and greed of the French monarchy, the incompetence and corruption of the French legal system, and the placid acceptance of the status quo by the middle class.

Daumier began making political cartoons in the 1830s during the reign of the corrupt King Louis Philippe. Political cartoons had begun to flourish during the late 18th century before the 1789 revolution and bloody Reign of Terror during which thousands were guillotined if they were suspected of any ties to the old regime of the Bourbon monarchs and court. The failure of the government to adequately reform French society led to the 1830 and 1848 revolutions, and it was a particularly ripe situation for political cartoons to once again flourish.

Daumier’s unflattering depiction of Louis Philippe as a huge “Gargantua” devouring the resources of France’s beleaguered lower classes earned him a six-month prison sentence for insulting the king. Equally popular targets for Daumier were the greedy, unscrupulous lawyers and judges of the French legal system. This lithograph depicts lawyers and judges proclaiming their moral superiority while secretly picking each other’s pockets. Such unflattering portrayals of political figures made him a hero to the working poor.

Connections Across Curriculum – Cartoons continue to play an important role in drawing attention to political and social issues. Students must use analytical and visual literacy skills to interpret what issues are being raised and why a cartoon may or may not be effective. Humor can be persuasive, so it is important to know one’s own point of view and not be swayed by clever images and wordplay (especially in these days preceding the presidential election). The National Gallery, Washington, has hundreds of Daumier’s cartoons!

Click here to see other examples of Daumier’s political art in Davis Art Images.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Greco-Roman Influence in Buddhist Sculpture

This is my favorite image in our new edition of A Global Pursuit.

The influence of Greco-Roman art is still present in western art. What examples of Greco-Roman influence can you think of in the art of other parts of the world? And why do you think the influence is still so strong in western appreciation of art?

DID YOU KNOW that Alexander the Great conquered lands in central Asia that bordered northern India in 327 BCE? He was trying to wipe out all traces of the Persian Empire. During the time of the Roman Empire (flourished 27 BCE–c453 CE), these lands became Roman colonies that sat on the western end of the “Silk Road” to China. An early Indian dynasty, the Kushan (flourished c50–320 CE) of northern India, traded with the Roman colonies and thus was transmitted the Roman version of the classical sculptural style. The historical dates for the Buddha are c563–483 BCE. The very first images of the Buddha were produced during the second century CE, and they show strong influences of classical sculpture, presumably based on images of Apollo.

Connections Across Curriculum – The Greco-Roman influence shows students that no culture exists in a vacuum. Art and culture that is passed down through the “Western Tradition” made its way east as well. Eastern technology that traveled along the Silk Road had a major impact on western history in the form of printing methods, navigation technology, and gun powder.

For more info on early Indian Buddhist art go to

Click here to see other examples of Indian Buddhas.