Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays!

I’m not big into the whole commercial Christmas thing, but I am into Christmas trees. In the spirit of that, I offer you one of my favorite paintings of trees. Granted, it’s not loaded with ornaments and lights, but, geez, it’s a gorgeous little study of a blossoming tree. What better way to celebrate the “holidays” than celebrating nature? After all, the evergreen (Christmas tree) is an ancient symbol of the endurance of nature and rebirth in all cultures. What better symbol for this season than the tree? And, speaking of “rebirth,” one could say that American impressionists fueled a rebirth in American art at the end of the 1800s!

Through the colonial period up until the 1800s, American artists looked to European painting for inspiration.  Although the American Academy of Fine Arts (Philadelphia) and the National Academy of Design (New York) were well established by the mid-1800s, young American artists during the 1880s looked to France for inspiration in painting. Despite the infusion of Impressionism and other modernist tendencies early in the 1900s, Realism persisted as the chief American mode of expression into the middle of the 1900s. But, thank goodness for American Impressionism!   

Childe Hassam was born in the Boston area and trained as an illustrator and painter. By the 1880s he was painting scenes of Boston in the dark palette of the Munich school, a group aware of Impressionism, but emphasizing contrasts in light and dark much like Baroque artists. That style is now called Dark Impressionism. Hassam went to Europe in 1883, spending three years in Paris starting in 1886, during which time he was exposed to Impressionism. His palette lightened and he adopted the short, quick brush strokes of Impressionism as well.

Back in New York, starting in 1890 Hassam painted in the impressionist manner. Initially, he and the other Paris-influenced artists were not critically acclaimed. But, by the mid-1890s, Impressionism was a more-or-less accepted style in American art. Hassam’s favorite locations to paint in the summer were in New England. This painting of a brook near New Canaan comes from his summering in Cos Cob. He also produced many paintings from the artists’ colony in Old Lyme, CT.

This work, while still displaying the broken color and importance of brush work of all Impressionism, also shows how, throughout his life, Hassam leaned toward more expressionistic brush work. I love this work, because not only is it a study, but, in my mind it mimics a Christmas tree—the blossoms are the lights!

Childe Hassam in Winter:
Boston Common at Twilight, 1885–1886. Oil on canvas, 106.68 x 152.4 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-93)
Late Afternoon, New York: Winter, 1900. Oil on canvas, 94 x 74 cm. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-579)
The Breakfast Room, Winter Morning, 1911. Oil on canvas, 64 x 77 cm. Worcester Art, Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-87)

Studio activity:  Create a personal tree. In a personal style, create an artwork with a tree as the subject. Use chalk, oil pastel, or acrylic to engender expression in the tree depicted. Try to personify the tree, give it emotion that expresses a personal point of view. Choose colors, exaggerated lines and shapes to make the tree seem calm, energetic, angry, happy, or sleepy.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 4: 1.6, 6.33, 6.34; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.26; Exploring Visual Design: 4. 6; Discovering Art History: 13

Monday, December 17, 2012

Traditions of Change

My husband and I received several ceramic art pieces, one of my favorite art forms, as wedding presents. One of my favorite manifestations of this genre is the ceramic art of the Carolinas. I can’t think of any other cultures that made as compelling of ceramic works with faces other than the Moche in Peru. In Southern ceramic artwork, face vessels originated with pre-Civil War (1860–1865) African American potters, possibly influenced by their contact with wares they saw in the Caribbean on their way to slavery in the US. The genre eventually migrated to the rich ceramic art environment in other southern states, particularly North Carolina. German immigrants and German-American descendants settled in North Carolina’s Catawba Valley in the late 18th century as farmers who brought their pottery-making tradition with them. For over 200 years the farmer/potters of the Valley produced utilitarian storage vessels, including churns, milk crocks, preserve jars, molasses jugs, meat and grain storage jars, and a variety of tableware. The advent of refrigeration and mass production nearly killed the centuries-old pottery tradition in the region, but it has revived spectacularly.

Native bands such as the Cherokee and Catawba in western North Carolina had ceramic traditions the extended well before the arrival of white settlers, primarily pit-fired wares. Alkaline glaze is a Southern ceramic tradition initiated by German immigrants to North Carolina’s Catawba Valley in the late 1700s. The term “alkaline” refers to the flux, the material used to lower the melting point of the glaze. In the South, lime and wood ashes are most commonly used. To achieve the glassy surface, potters use clays with high silica content, iron slag, sand, or even bottle glass. The German settlers and their descendants produced earthenware until the early 1800s, when they switched to stoneware.

Burlon B. Craig of Vale, North Carolina, was one of the last of the traditional North Carolina potters to work in alkaline glaze. He is credited for having kept the traditional methods of production, forms, and glazes once prevalent in the Catawba Valley alive by mentoring other potters to adopt traditional methods along with their innovative techniques and material. He dug his own river clay from several locations, including a South River pit once used by the Catawba Indians.

While Craig’s utilitarian wares were extremely popular, he became famous for his face jugs, a traditional favorite with tourists since the 1920s. The face jug had been adapted by the descendants of German settlers during the late 1800s from African Americans.  The jug was used as “child-proof” to scare them away from the contents in the jar, usually home-made alcohol. Among African Americans, in the tradition of African burials in which household personal items were included with a deceased person (like many cultures around the world), such pots were often set on graves. If the pot would become broken, it was assumed that the deceased was having a fight with the devil.

Studio activity:  Make an expressive face pot. Take a lump of clay and form it into a ball. Using the thumb, create an opening (hole) in what will be the top of the pot, and work the hole bigger, thinning and smoothing the interior and outside of the walls of the pot until it is the desired size and shape. Apply nose, eyes, lips, and ears with separate pieces of clay, or use a pencil or other sharp tool to incise the lines of the eyes and mouth.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 2: 3.17-18 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.23-24 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1-2 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 6.31-32 studio; Exploring Visual Design: 2, 6; The Visual Experience: 10.15

Monday, December 10, 2012


I've been at the art historian thing for a looooooonnnnnng time. So, it will be no surprise to you all that I came across a glaring error in our database of digital images. I received this image—gad! In the 1980s—and it came under the heading of actor prints. My completely substandard Japanese translation skills (I know that “mizu” means water), added to the farce. At the time we received this image, I had no access to online dictionaries that could help me translate the piece. But, now I know! This is not an actor print; it’s a public service announcement!

I have a major interest in Japanese art—especially color woodcut prints. And one can’t have that without an interest in Japanese culture, because the two are so intertwined.

Measles was predominantly a Western disease that spread due to our forcible trade with Non-Western countries. 500,000 Hawaiians died from measles after the Western countries decided that it should be “civilized.” Who’s to know how many natives of Central and South America and Africa died from measles after being exposed to European “civilizers”?

Japan was introduced to measles starting as early as the 1500s, when the Portuguese established trade with the country. This was cut off during the Edo Period (1615–1868), when the Japanese dictator feared a foreign takeover. They allowed foreigners (Western Europe and Australia) to deal through one port: Nagasaki. The final opening of the door of Japan, and the spread of measles there, came in 1854 when the US, under Admiral Perry, forcibly opened the ports of Japan to trade. After that, measles became a major health problem in Japan, much on the scale with smallpox in Western Europe and the US at the same time.  

I’ve written about the Ukiyo-e style many times, but never realized the medium was also used for public service! This woodcut advertises the dangers of measles, and uses a deity to depict the eradication of measles, which they have translated into demons. When I received this labeled as an “actor print” I should have realized that the title Hashika Yakubyo Yoke was not a name, but the subject title. Look at other actor prints and I hope you’ll forgive my ignorance. It’s amazing how art history can open our eyes to the dissemination of information in other cultures. It’s fascinating that the Ukiyo-e style was not only used to popularize fashion and actors, but also to spread propaganda and news.

An Actor Print:

Utagawa Yoshitaki (1841–1899, Japan), The Actor Gennosuke III from Osaka, ca. 1860. Color woodcut withsilver and brass leaf, 24.3 x 18.7 cm. © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2672)

Studio activity: Do a drawing that illustrates an illness in a humorous way. Decide what symbols are to be used to represent the illness, be it a human figure, a plant, or an animal. Using markers or colored pencils on 11 x 8 1/2" paper, depict a person either fighting or suffering from an everyday illness. Be sure to include details of how the person looks when he or she is sick.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 3.17; A Personal Journey: 4; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 12; The Visual Experience: 9.4, 13.5; Discovering Art History: 4.4

Monday, December 3, 2012

More of the Legacy

Working with new images is so awesome, because I learn something new every few days. Before I added these images from Godey’s Lady’s Book to our collection from the American Antiquarian Society, I had never heard of Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879). Well, let me tell you, the deeper I studied, the more convinced I am than ever what an important role women have played in our society and our art. Hale was, for 50 years, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most influential social magazine in 1800s America. Although the 1800s in America is remembered as a period when women were advised to devote their lives to the household, many women made their mark in art, literature, education, and politics. Yeah, women stayed in their homes all right on the frontier, doing everything from farming to gutting animals for food to raising families.

Hale was born in New Hampshire. Her mother was her first teacher and passed on to her a love of reading. Subsequently, she was tutored by her brother, a Dartmouth student, and afterwards by her husband, who was a lawyer. After the premature death of her husband in 1822, she was determined to see that her five children were educated, and turned to writing as a vocation. She published several poems to moderate success and published her first book Northwood, a Tale of New England, which was the first American novel published by a woman. She eventually became editor of the “Ladies’ Magazine” in Boston in 1828, and after that, in 1837, of Godey’s Lady’s Book in Philadelphia.

Godey’s was meant to keep women up-to-date on current fashion, mores, and literature. Although the articles and editorials were meant to preserve the woman’s place within the household, Hale pushed many then-radical ideals about women. She was instrumental in the founding of Vassar College for women and was a keen proponent of higher education for women, unavailable at the time. Although she was not for women’s voting, she believed that well-educated women could inform their husband’s votes. She did not favor the monthly fashion plates, like this example (because she favored more modest dress for women), but she did coin the term “lingerie” for women’s undergarments, which has stuck to this day.

Other achievements by Hale include convincing President Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She compiled a book that recognized over two thousand women writers from the earliest recorded history. Godey’s magazine was published at a time when Philadelphia was recognized as the publishing capital of the United States. Another interesting fact, aside the fact that Hale was the first editor of a magazine devoted to women’s issues, was the fact that these fashion plates were hand-colored by—what Godey referred to as—his “corps of women colorists.” This mirrors the fact that most of Currier and Ives lithographs were hand-colored by women.

Studio Activity: Design an outfit for a contemporary woman. Carefully consider the kind of woman you want to design for. Draw the outline of a person on lightweight cardboard, paying close attention to the proportions of the arms, legs, and head. Cut out the figure and lightly trace around it on paper. Sketch the features of the clothing on the paper outline and color them with markers or colored pencils, paying special attention to details such as patterns or border designs. Cut out the finished paper outfit and attach it to the cardboard figure, filling in details of the face and hair.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.33, 6.34; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.3; A Personal Journey: 3.3; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 7; The Visual Experience: 9.4.