Monday, September 24, 2012

Mexican Artists in America (Did You Know?)

I’d like to point out in this blog post the contribution of Mexican artists to American art since long before many parts of the country were colonized as American states. The Spanish tried to lure Mexican colonists into to Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona as early as the late 1600s. They established missions in in the Southwest as early as the 1690s. This means that Mexicans were the first people to establish “civilization” in the southwestern United States. Only during the 1820s, when the Mexican government could not persuade enough people to populate those areas, did they allow hundreds of Americans to settle in Texas. The rest is history, the so-called “manifest destiny” idea that Americans developed, believing that the whole continent of North America was meant to be controlled by the US.

The French founded the city of New Orleans in 1718. It was ceded to Spain in 1762 as part of the peace negotiations with Spain at the end of the Seven Years War. Only under Spanish domination did New Orleans begin to flourish and established an urban identity, becoming a center of trade. New Orleans was handed back to the French in 1800 after Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. He sold it to the United States in 1803.
With the increased prosperity came a desire by New Orleans’ well-to-do to patronize the arts. Since the city had no native artists, and no art school existed until the end of the 19th century, many of the artists who rose to prominence under Spanish rule were from Mexico. José Francisco Xavier Salazar y Mendoza was the best known of those artists and the most sought after for portraiture commissions at the time.
Originally from Mérida on the Yucatan in Mexico, Salazar and his family moved to Spanish-ruled New Orleans around 1782. Already an accomplished artist trained in the Spanish Rococo style, he received numerous commissions for portraits of prominent families and community leaders. Under his tutelage, his daughter Francisca became an artist and assisted him in his studio. He may have also been assisted by his brother.
This portrait of a prosperous gentleman reflects Salazar’s awareness of Spanish portraiture of the period. The emphasis in Rococo portraits was a subtle idealization of the subject’s features, emphasis on luxurious garments, and elegance of bearing that would reflect the status and refinement of the sitter. Like most Spanish Rococo portraits, the palette is somewhat darker than that in French and English portraits of the same period. The neutral background is similar to those seen in American portraits of the period. Not unusual for Spanish colonial painters at the time, most of Salazar’s canvases, like this one, were unsigned.

Compare this portrait to those of Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) in Spain at the same time:

Portrait of a Man in a Brown Coat. Oil on canvas.© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1108)
Portrait of the Toreador José Romero, ca. 1795. Oil on canvas. © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2802)

Studio activity:  A portrait in clay. Sculpt a bust-length portrait or self-portrait using clay. Consider realistic proportions, try to show expression (happy or sad), and pay attention to detail. Notice that the eyes of a portrait are halfway between the top of the head and the chin. Make sketches of the portrait before beginning.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8, Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 2.7; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.2; A Personal Journey: 3.2, 6.4; A Community Connection: 2.4; Exploring Visual Design: 3, 9; Discovering Art History: 11.5

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Chicago Artist

Art from Chicago is always dear to my heart because it is my hometown. I lived there during the very fertile artistic period of the 1970s and 1980s. There were gallery openings every Friday night on Huron Street and Superior Street, then full of galleries representing up-and-coming artists. The artists who particularly intrigued me were those who came into their own in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of those artists was Margaret Wharton.

Art in Chicago in the early 1970s had a strong Pop Art flavor. The Chicago School, as it was called, had a strong contingent of women artists. The “school” was characterized in general by funky, vital, and surreal imagery. Subject matter often related to current events or surreal visions of everyday objects. The work of many of the artists, Wharton included, was related in spirit to the Dada movement in Europe of between ca. 1916 and 1922. Dada emphasized the irrational in art and the transformation of the commonplace into bizarre, monumental works of art.

Wharton was trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Many of her teachers were active in the Chicago School, and they encouraged her highly personal vision. In 1973 she helped found the Artemisia Gallery, the first cooperative gallery for women artists in Chicago. Her earliest works were welded articles of clothing, influenced by the plaster works of Claes Oldenburg (born 1929). She also created small, enigmatic boxes reminiscent of the work of Surrealist Joseph Cornell (1903–1972).

She turned to the chair as a primary subject matter for some years beginning in 1975. While many Dada artists and 1960s artists had used chairs as a starting point and added to them, Wharton made sculptures only out of chairs. She sliced, cut, chopped, and deconstructed them, creating new and evocative forms. The titles were often suggestive of religious subjects, such as this piece.

To make Trinity, Wharton cut three chairs into segments and recombined them in limp form, belying their function. The limp nature was perhaps meant to signify the impotence of organized religion. The chair conveys a strong human presence, and no matter what transformation Wharton enacted on chairs, the object never completely strayed from its original form. Her work transcended found object works in that she transformed an everyday objects into sculpture with totemic impact.

Currently, Wharton’s work consists of sculptures created from a variety of found object. She continues to use chair parts in her work. Check out her latest work at her gallery representative: Jean Albano Gallery.

Studio activity:  Design a non-functional chair. Using markers, crayons or colored pencils, design a chair that would be a work of art rather than a chair in which to sit. Be sure to include details such as attached objects, the shape of the members of the chair (arms, legs, back, seat), and the colors of the design.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Since I got married over the weekend, I thought I’d present to you something you’re probably not used to seeing: a wedding dress in brown (no, I’m not wearing a dress at my wedding!).  If this doesn’t conjure up visions of Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke, nothing will! I think it is interesting about traditions that have passed, and exactly why they became traditions.

When Queen Victoria (1819–1901 Britain) got married in 1840, she set a style of wedding dress (white for “purity”) that has endured to the 21st century (Say Yes to the Dress, etc.). Before that time, a bride simply wore her fanciest dress, regardless of the color. Wealthy women who could buy a new dress usually wore brown or green. These colors were traditional, symbolizing fertility.  I guess purity and fertility as symbols of a wedding dress seem rather old-fashioned to us nowadays, but the white wedding dress has really stood the test of time. Think of Billy Idol’s White Wedding!

The bustle was the descendant from the crinoline (hoop skirt) of the 1850s and 1860s. It was a collapsible cage covered in linen that was supposed to make sitting easy. If one looks at furniture from the period, there were many chairs designed to accommodate the bustle and train, i.e. with shorter legs, wider seats and typically no arms. While the style seems a bit outlandish to us, it harks back to women’s dresses of the late 1600s which also took on outlandish proportions.

Ellen Curtis was a dressmaker in Cincinnati. She wore many of her own designs, such as this wedding dress, to advertise her beautiful sewing ability to sell her dresses. Such a complicated outfit would have been made to order after a fitting. Can you imagine a shop full of outfits like this on hangers in different sizes??

Here are some other atypical (to what we’re used to in the 21st century) wedding gowns from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute (an AWESOME collection), including an odd short dress from the 1930s:

ca. 1868, American

1938, French

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Oil Painting in Italy

I really love the Philadelphia Museum of Art, especially the monastery-like room in which I saw this painting displayed. I also really like getting the side-eye from this guy, because this artist is one of my favorites in the Italian Renaissance. The reason he is one of my favorites is because he was influenced by northern European painting (shut up, I know I’m Swiss, what does that have to do with it?).  While most art historians consider the Italian Renaissance the epitome of culture, and the major influence on art all over Western Europe, I feel we should look at Northern influences on Italian Renaissance art.

Until the late 1400s in Italy, tempera was the preferred painting medium. Oil painting had become the preferred painting medium in northern Europe—specifically Flanders—in the early 1400s. Also, during that time, the three-quarters portrait became popular in northern Europe, as opposed to the profile portrait that remained popular in Italy through the middle of the 1400s. By the late 1400s, the three-quarters view portrait was universally popular in Italy. What’s interesting about this change in format in the portrait eloquently expresses the Renaissance belief in the uniqueness of every human being.

This sitter engages the viewer with his eyes in almost a defiant manner. Such self-assurance is typical of the Renaissance revival of antique learning, such as the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato (425—347 bce) who advised people to “know yourself.” By many art historians, Antonello da Messina is considered one of the finest Italian Renaissance portraitists who achieved a psychological depth in his portraits. This portrait originally had a dark (probably black, cleaned off?) background that helped focus attention of the sitter’s face.

Antonello was born in Messina and died in Venice. He worked in Sicily for several years and then went to Naples, where it is thought that he saw an oil painting by the Flemish master Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390–1441). It is also possible that he saw the work of another Flemish master, Rogier van der Weyden (died 1464), who visited Italy around 1450. That Antonello was influenced by the Flemish oil technique is evident in his work, and he may have transmitted the medium to other artists, especially those in Venice where he moved in 1473. Venetian artists were among the first Italian artists to adopt the oil medium in their painting.

Typical portraiture of the period in Italy:

Paolo Uccello, attributed to (1397–1475), A Young Lady of Fashion, 1460s. © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. (GM-46)

Scheggia (Giovanni di Ser Giovanni di Mone Cassai) (1406–1486), Portrait of a Lady, ca. 1440–1450. © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-3257).
Unknown Artist, Profile Portrait of a Boy, from northern Italy, ca. 1460/1470. © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0955)
Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi) (1444/1445–1510), Giuliano de’ Medici, ca. 1478. © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0056)


Activity: Create a self-portrait or portrait of a friend in a Renaissance setting or costume. Start painting with light colors then work toward darker shades to produce shadows. Create highlights with tints (colors mixed with white). Try to reflect a specific period by the costume, objects, or background. Use a fine-tipped brush for details. Compare the portrait to Renaissance portraits from museums and how the time difference affects the result.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3:.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 2.7; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.2; A Personal Journey: 3.2, 6.4; A Global Pursuit: 4.4; Exploring Visual Design: 7, 10; The Visual Experience: 15.8; Discovering Art History: 9.1