Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Celebrating Back-to-School

My nieces and nephew return to school this week, and I thought we should celebrate with an image of school in American art. With a twist, of course. I’ve written about Winslow Homer before in this blog, but, I’d like to focus on his work as a phenomenon common in the US in the latter half of the nineteenth century: the idea of the “good ol’ days.” 

Nostalgia is a strong ingredient in many periods of American art. Americans had their vision of the “idyllic” days of the early American republic after the Revolution (1776–1783) shattered by the Civil War (1860–1865), which injured and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and caused massive destruction. In the decades following that war, American artists tried to recapture the essence of “innocent” America, something that patrons wanted to see.

Homer was already renowned as an oil painter by 1873. In that year he became interested in experimenting with watercolor. By the 1880s he was exhibiting with the American Watercolor Society. By the time of his death he had produced over 700 watercolors. This painting is one of a series he did on schools and school children. As in many works like this, the painting has the air of being an illustration due to the anonymity of the figure and undetermined location. It does, however, indicate Homer’s keen observation of the human figure and the nuances of indoor lighting. This scene is thought to depict an art lesson, in which the students learned how to construct forms using lines in different configurations.

This painting is a scene of everyday life (genre) without any obvious moral message. However, Homer’s series on the common activities of rural public schools emphasized a return to normal life after the horrors of the Civil War. The simple fact of a basic art lesson has been elevated to iconic value in a society attempting to heal. Ironically, by the mid-1880s Homer had abandoned figures almost altogether in order to focus on scenes that represented the power and drama of nature.

Two other Homer school scenes:

The Red Schoolhouse, 1873. Oil on canvas.(NGA-P1082)

Snap the Whip, 1872. Oil on canvas. (BIAA-24)

Other American artists in the Good-ol’-Days mode:

Eastman Johnson, Barn Swallows, 1878. Oil on canvas. (PMA-1732)
Martin Edgar Ferrill, Country Dance, 1883. Oil on canvas. (NGA-P1077)
Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Homecoming, 1885. Oil on canvas. (13338)
Amzi Emmons Zeliff, The Barnyard, late 19th century. Oil on canvas. (NGA-P1067)
Activity: A scene of everyday life. Have students create genre paintings about their life using watercolor, markers, or colored pencils. Emphasize complementary colors (those colors opposite each other on the color wheel). In the scene of everyday life, emphasize lines and shapes. Plan colors by writing down pairs of complementary colors.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 5.25, 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 3.15; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.6; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.3; A Personal Journey: 2.1, 2.4; Exploring Visual Design: 10, 7; Discovering Art History: 12.3

Monday, August 20, 2012


I’m a sucker for color in any artist’s work, any medium. I am always intrigued by artists who seem to go through phases (much like Picasso), because, as a painter, I don’t see it in my own work. Someone recently (yesterday) pointed out to me my gradual disinterest in buildings in my landscapes and the emphasis on pure landscape—devoid of buildings or human beings. I had to think at what point I did that, and could not pinpoint it. However, I would imagine it is the same for other artists. This work by Léopold Survage intrigues me because he went through an intense period of interest in Cubism, and then gradually returned to representational art. What’s interesting about his courtship with Cubism is how it summed up many of the avant-garde tendencies of the second decade of the 20th century.

Survage (also known as Léopold Sturzwage, Leopold Stürzwage, Leopoldij Sturzwasgh, or Leopoldij Lvovich Sturzwage) was a Russian artist born of a Finnish father and Danish mother. Although he initially studied piano (taking a diploma in 1897), he decided to become an visual artist, studying in Moscow starting in 1906. He was associated with the circle of avant-garde artists that included Aleksandr Archipenko (1887–1964), Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964), and Natalija Goncharova (1881–1962). He moved to Paris in 1908, quickly becoming a member of the group of avant-garde artists there, associating with Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) in particular (who painted Survage’s portrait). Although Archipenko considered Survage a Constructivist, Survage held himself to be a Cubist. He exhibited with the Cubists in 1911 and 1912.

From 1912 to 1913, Survage sought to unite his musical background with abstract cubist compositions that he called Colored Rhythm. In this he was similar to another Russian émigré Vasily Kandinsky, who also thought that painting could express musical ideas. Survage’s intention was to turn the cubist experience into film, using highly structured pictures linked by repetition of a group of symbolic elements that evoke a sensation as an analogy to music. If he had succeeded in getting the project going, he would have been the first abstract animation film artist.

After 1922, having failed to produce a Colored Rhythm film, his subsequent commissions were to produce theater and ballet scenery. These works, I think, helped moved him away from Cubism. From 1925 to 1932 he lived in the southern French city of Collioure, a mecca for painters. He developed an appreciation for the life and labors of the local people, which populate his paintings of the period and after. Another French artist who turned away from an avant-garde (Fauvism) style back towards realism after moving to Collioure was André Derain (1880–1954).

Works by Survage after 1922:
Activity: Decorate a grid with colors that create visual movement. Draw a grid on an 11 x 8 ½” piece of paper with pencil. Using the primary colors red, blue, and yellow, color the grid in so that the colors vibrate against each other visually and create the perception of movement or rhythm.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 5: 3.15, 6.25; A Community Connection: 6.5; Exploring Visual Design: 4, 7, 12; The Visual Experience: 16.6; Discovering Art History: 14.2

Monday, August 13, 2012


Embroidered and stitched decoration on fabric is one of the oldest art forms in the world, vying with ceramics for that honor.  Davis Art Images recently acquired digital images of works of art from The Library Company of Philadelphia, a museum started by Benjamin Franklin! One of the works that charmed me the most was this beautiful sampler executed by a school girl in 1820s Philadelphia.  I’ve always found samplers fascinating as documents of particular periods in history. I bet there’s a lot most people don’t know about the genre, especially its long history in art.
Since ancient times, artists have decorated textiles with embroidery, cross-stitch, and various other kinds of stitches. The word “sample” comes from the French éxamplair, meaning a model pattern to copy or imitate. This evolved by the 16th century to saumpler, exemplar, or sampler. Early samplers were often thin bands meant to be decorative borders on various household textiles. The art form was practiced not only in Western Europe, but also in Asia and the Middle East. Patterns from the Middle East influenced European samplers. Before the 15th century, most patterns were passed down from person to person. With the rise of the middle class in the 16th century in Europe, there evolved the demand for pattern books, the first of which was published in 1523 in Augsburg, Germany.

Early sampler artists were both men and women. Indeed, the art of embroidering fabric was such as prized art that guilds formed. The embroidery of material was also an art form that could be practiced at home more easily than painting or sculpture, and so became a popular expression for women artists. Samplers were often listed in royal inventories as items of greatly appreciated value. The earliest known American sampler was produced in the Plymouth colony in 1645 by a woman named Loara Standish.

During the 19th century, the genre of the sampler was largely redefined in America as the province of women, an “appropriate” way for young women to learn important sewing skills for household needs. Already in the 17th century samplers had become small, embroidered pictures, commemorating family events, combinations of intricate decorative motifs, religious subjects, or repetition of numbers and letters as writing practice. Embroidery was often referred to as “handwork” or simply “work,” indicating that it was a way of keeping young women busy in a useful project. Such samplers were often proudly displayed in frames as signs of accomplishment and status.

Margaret Stevenson’s sample is a combination of the embroidered picture type, and the decorative border that characterized the earliest sampler work. Both the building (indicating the influence of Neoclassicism, such a popular style in the early American republic) and floral border are executed in the cross-stitch technique, which was almost universally used in American samplers.

Activity:  Plan a border design for an embroidered art work. Make a printing stamp from clay. Create a small block of clay, and carve a design into one side.  On a pad containing ink or paint, press the stamp into the ink and then press it on a sheet of paper, imitating an embroidered border from early samplers, or such as the floral border in the sampler discussed above. Be sure to carefully plan how the pattern should appear on the paper. Try using two or three different colors with the same stamp.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.32, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 5.27-28 studio, Exploring Visual Design: 6

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

An Olympics Ode

Because I was just amazed by a recent showing of fencing at the London Olympics, I decided to dedicate this post to the 2012 Olympics, and feature a painting of a sport that is played in the Summer Olympics. I always watch tennis when it’s on, so I present to you this work by George Bellows of tennis at Newport, Rhode Island. Most people only associate Bellows with the Ash Can School of painters at the turn of the 20th century, but few know that he was actually offered a position on the Cincinnati baseball team at the time, but turned it down in order to pursue a career in art. Please don’t ask me what the name of the Cincinnati team was at the time, I think (but, I’m not sure) it’s the Reds now.  

Although George Bellows is often associated with the group of Philadelphia artists known as the Ash Can School for their paintings of gritty scene of urban life in New York, he initially did not exhibit with the eight original artists. He eventually, however, became a leader in the group. Bellows was born in Columbus, Ohio and studied art at William Merritt Chase’s School of Art in New York in 1904. Chase (1848–1916) was a leading American Impressionist. At his school, Bellows came under the influence of the leader of the Ash Can School, Robert Henri (1865–1929), whose style is often characterized as “Dark Impressionism” with emphasis on dramatic lighting and slashing, fluid brush work. His painting was also influenced by the impressionist palette as transmitted through Chase, who had painted in France.

Stag at Sharkey’s. © Cleveland Museum of Art (CL-547)
Bellows is remembered more for works such as this, with a dark palette typical of the Ash Can School.

Florence Davey © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P1099)
 However, he also produced such high key works as this one with a decidedly impressionist palette and interest in the fleeting effects of light on his sitter. It could be argued that even his gritty scenes of urban life dissolve into large brush strokes that suggest light struck forms. However, I prefer many of Bellows later pieces because his palette became decidedly richer.
This is true of other Ash Can School artists, particularly John Sloan (1871–1951):

Twin Lights, Purple Rocks. Worcester Art Museum, © 2012 Artists Rights Society. (WAM-230sloars)

Bellows produced various versions of prize fights in New York. He also produced many versions of tennis games, both in paintings and prints. Such light-filled, high-valued coloristic works show the duality of Bellows’ style. At the same time he was painting gritty street scenes of New York, he was also admitted as a full member to the conservative National Academy of Design. Such tennis paintings are a smorgasbord of atmospheric light and movement, hallmarks of Impressionism, while satisfying his interest in sports. I have to say I prefer this palette to the more academic one he uses for his urban scenes.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.9, 2.10; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 5.26; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.1-.2 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.4; A Personal Journey: 2.4, 7.2; A Community Connection: 6.4; Exploring Visual Design: 4, 12; Discovering Art History: 15.1