Monday, August 29, 2011

Women, Restriction, and Art History

I have previously mentioned in this blog my observation that even though women artists are not covered adequately in art history surveys, they nonetheless were an integral part of art history. I said it once and I’ll say it again: there has been no period in history throughout the planet Earth that women have not been an important contribution to ART. That all said, I find the historical restriction of women from art schools (up until, more or less, the 19th century) ridiculous. As human beings, some of us (artists) are given the gift of acute observation and the ability to record that in a work of art. This is certainly the case with Barbara Regina Dietzsch. There were pockets where women artists flourished before the 19th century, and one of them was Nuremberg in Germany. I can’t decide what I admire more about this woman’s work: her technical ability or that she flourished as an artist at a time when it was difficult for women to do so.

Dietzsch was the daughter of an artist (Johann Israel Dietzsch 1691–1754) from whom she probably learned her profession, and the sister to five brothers who were also all artists. During the late Baroque period, it was common for women artists to be trained by their artist fathers. It was also common to restrict them from the studies that male students undertook; studies after nude models being the biggest hurdle for women (though activities such as simply leaving the house unescorted were also frowned upon).

Naturally (and I say that not as a pun), women artists were encouraged to focus on still life, portraits, and studies of nature. This opened up to them the popular genre of botanical studies, which I feel is closely aligned to still life. From the Renaissance through the 18th century, close studies of nature were, not surprisingly, wedded to the belief that all of creation was a reflection of the divine. In Post-Reformation (c1520s) Northern Europe, the compendiums of botanical studies were called Floralegia. This connection between divinity and nature is called physico-theology, an important movement in the Reformation in Northern Europe.

Although Dietzsch’s studies of birds, bugs, and flowers are painstakingly realistic, they differ from purely botanical studies in that they do not include peripheral studies of seeds, petals, etc. Dietzsch’s work was immensely popular in Northern Europe. Ironically she was asked by several courts in Germany to be the court artist but she declined, perhaps because that would have restricted her freedom as an artist. She worked steadfastly day and night, to the point where neighbors claimed she never left her home in Nuremberg.

All of her work was based on observation from nature. Her typical format was like this work from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC: the subject isolated on a neutral background. The vellum ground helped her achieve nuances in texture. Such studies of nature were avidly collected by the upper-middle class in northern Europe to be displayed in cabinets or collected in albums. One viewer of her works in a cabinet said that the cumulative effect was like looking at a garden.

Activity: Paint a colorful garden using primary (red, yellow, blue) and secondary (orange, purple and green) colors. Look for lines and shapes for inspiration, and try not to be too concerned with background detail, as Dietzsch was not, in order to highlight the garden itself. (Explorations in Art Grade 2, lesson 1.3)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.19, 4.20; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Pioneer Etcher in Chicago

I always delight in sharing with you my many “Aha!” moments. One I had this week came while strolling through my mental art collection, pondering the element of positive and negative space and the principle of approximate symmetry. I particularly like introducing you to an artist who has an interesting background story, or, who played a pivotal role in some way in art history. Bertha E. Jaques fills the bill. It is interesting to me that many written histories of women artists gloss over those who were graphic artists. That is a shame because there were many fascinating women who specialized in printmaking. And I’m particularly partial to artists from the Midwest where I was born and raised.

The so-called “revival” of etching— in other words, etching as a stand-alone art form rather than as a way of copying paintings—is often cited as having begun in the 1860s with the founding of the Society of Etchers in France. Although some American artists had used etching as early as the 18th century, nothing really came of the medium until 1866 when a French artist visited the US armed with etching supplies and examples of prints from “revivalist” etchers in Europe. In 1877 the New York Etching Club was founded. In 1892, Chicagoans were introduced to etchings from European artists at the Chicago Columbian Exposition. Printmaking in Chicago (and the Midwest) at the time was predominantly lithography and wood engraving.

Bertha Jaques was born in Ohio and lived in Iowa. She studied painting. She did not come to printmaking until she went to the Columbian Exposition, impressed by the etchings she saw of French artists. She subsequently bought a copper plate from a hardware store, as well as wax, pitch, and nitric acid. Her first tool was an old dentist’s drill. Her physician husband helped her make etching equipment from surgical instruments. She then bought a press in Milwaukee, and in 1897 produced some of the first etchings in the Midwest.

Jaques founded the Chicago Society of Etchers, an organization that disseminated at least 40,000 prints across the Midwest, popularizing the medium of etching. Landscape and botanical prints dominate Jaques’ oeuvre, many of which, like this example, she hand colored. Although she produced over 400 etchings and drypoints, none were produced in large editions. She was more of an advocate for the medium, and as such, she is in my Hall of Fame of artists from the Midwest.

Other pioneering American women printmakers:

Mary Cassatt

Bertha Lum (check out my post about Bertha Lum)

Helen Hyde

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.20, Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.2, Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19, A Global Pursuit: 6.2, A Community Connection: 8.2

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Yakimono in Japanese refers to a “fired thing.” A reverence for nature has historically been part of Japanese art since ancient times. Interestingly, the evocation of the respect for nature has been as strong in ceramics as it has in painting, calligraphy, sculpture, and architecture. There has traditionally been a strong spiritual element to Japanese ceramics because of their connection to Zen and tea. This is just as true today as it was centuries ago. We just added an image of this gorgeous work to our digital collection and, yes, it was a “Wow!” moment. This artist is awesome.

The oldest art form to survive from Japan is ceramics. As in China, ceramic arts are an honored art form even above sculpture. Until the eighth century CE, the predominant ware in Japan was unglazed stoneware. Intentional high-fire glazing of stoneware did not occur until the Kamakura period. Japan did not successfully produce porcelain until the early seventeenth century. Up until that time the famous Chinese porcelains were highly prized by the imperial household and nobility.

Ceramics production never reached the scale that it did in China. Japanese art encouraged the emergence of strong personalities and distinctly individual styles in ceramics. There is a tradition of celebrated artist-potters in Japan. The tea ceremony, popular from the Momoyama (1573–1615) through the early Edo periods, influenced a great period of ceramics activity. The tea ceremony had a preference for simple wares. Ceramics continue to be a significant art form in Japan. It is evident that strong personalities, such as Sugiura Yasuyoshi, still have significant influence in ceramic art in Japan.

Yasuyoshi’s works definitely carry on the Japanese tradition of ceramics and the reverence for nature. The artist carries the significance further, in asserting that his flower pieces also emphasize the texture of the clay, another aspect of the respect for nature. Yasuyoshi’s work of the 1980s and 1990s was dominated by large installations of ceramic “megaliths” in series called Ceramic Stones and Ceramic Boulders.

This camellia piece comes from a later series called Ceramics of the Natural World. Although we in the west would look at this as sculpture since it is non-utilitarian, the artist calls all of his forms “vessels.” He regrets that many ceramic artists in Japan need to produce utilitarian wares to make a living rather than persevere in ceramics as artists.

Find out more about Yasuyoshi on, which includes images of his many kinds of “vessels.”

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 5-6 studio, A Personal Journey: 3.3, A Global Pursuit: 7.3, The Visual Experience: 13.5, Discovering Art History 4.4