Monday, April 27, 2015

Revisiting Gandhara

Pakistan, from Gandhara, Head of a Bodhisattva, late 100s to early 200s CE. Black slate, 12 ¼" x 10 x 9" (31.1 x 25.4 x 22.9 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-71)
 Believe it or not, this is a Buddhist bodhisattva (saint). My very first posting for this blog was about the Greek invasion of northern India and how it affected some of the earliest images of the Buddha. I just thought I’d revisit the topic because it’s a fascinating example of how this world truly is a global village. Did you ever join hands with three or four friends around a really old, big tree? That’s sort of how I look at these artistic connections!

The early Indus Valley civilizations produced mostly small-scale sculpture of steatite and limestone. The most notable sculpture of the Mauryan period (320–185 BCE) was edict pillars erected during the reign of its greatest leader Ashoka (304–232 BCE). Many monastic communities were hewn out of rock and adorned with sculpture. The earliest stupas from the first 200 years BCE had important carved gateways and surrounding fences, and included some larger-scale figures of the Buddha. In southern India, religious complexes were decorated with complicated bas-relief programs.
After the collapse of the Mauryan dynasty (ca. 185 BCE), India broke into several local power centers, each vying for supremacy and troubled by harassment by northern peoples. One of these, the Kushan, had left the western borders of China (called Yuezhi by the Chinese). The Kushan entered India through Afghanistan in the first one hundred years BCE. They had already displaced the Persians in the lands once conquered (332 BCE) by Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE). After establishing a dynasty in India, the Kushans established trade with Roman colonies.
Two significant styles developed between the 100s and 400s CE, the art of Gandhara (now Pakistan), and the art of Mathura (far to the south and east). It was during the Kushan period when the first sculpted images of the Buddha were produced. Because there were no Buddhist figural images before contact with Western cultures, Roman and Hellenistic forms gave shape to sculptures of bodhisattvas and the Buddha.
The Gandhara-type Buddha typically has an oval face, arching high brow, and broad nose. The wavy hair, tied in a ribbon, was a Greek style seen, for example, in the Vatican's "Apollo Belvedere." This fashion detail gradually became the symbolic top knot (ushnisha) on the Buddha's head, which was a symbol of his wisdom. The moustache is an Indian characteristic, as is the caste mark on the forehead. Gandhara Buddhist figures had a profound influence on subsequent images of the Buddha. Ironically, in the 500s CE, in the region where the sculpted image of the Buddha was born, an invasion by Huns stamped out Buddhism forever.

Pakistan, Bust of a Bodhisattva, from the Gandhara region, 100s–200s CE. Gray schist. © Dallas Museum of Art. (DAM-20)

Pakistan, Head of the Buddha, from the Gandhara region, ca. 200s CE. Schist, 7" x 4" x 2 15/16" (17.8 x 10.2 x 7.6 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2971)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.2, 1.3-4 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1; A Community Connection: 3.2; A Global Pursuit: 3.5; Beginning Sculpture: 5; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 13.2; Discovering Art History: 2.1, 2.2, 4.2

Friday, April 24, 2015

Patriots Day Week

Joseph Badger (1707/1708–1765, US), Mrs. John Haskins, 1759. Oil on canvas, 35 13/16" x 28 3/8" (91 x 72 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-694)

Since Monday was Patriots Day, as well as the running of the Boston Marathon, I’m celebrating this week—in an art historical way, of course—with one of my favorite colonial portrait painters: Joseph Badger. He is sort of in the shade (art historically speaking) of more prominent early painters such as John Smibert (1688–1751) and John Singleton Copley (1738–1815). All three artists were active in Boston at some point. Once the American colonies were prosperous, well-to-do Americans wanted to show that they had just as much class as their English counterparts, and one way was by commissioning portraits. Portraiture was, aside from overmantle landscapes, practically the only subject matter in early American painting.

In the first three decades of the 18th century, prosperous Americans preferred to have their portraits painted by artists born and trained in Europe, primarily in England. These painters, such as Peter Pelham (1691–1751), John Wollaston (c. 1710–1775), and John Smibert, were able to portray fashionable colonists in the same idealized, courtly style as English gentry. With Smibert in Boston gone by mid-century, the vacuum was filled by artists such as Badger.

Badger was evidently wholly self-trained. He moved from his native Charlestown into Boston in 1733 to work as a house and sign painter. He took up portraiture in 1740, and may have visited Smibert’s studio in Boston as it was near his. Badger rose in prominence in 1746 after Smibert’s retirement. He thrived as a portrait painter until the 1760s, when he was eclipsed by the more sophisticated style of a younger contemporary (and eventual royalist), John Singleton Copley.

Badger’s lack of training is evident in his unsophisticated, stiff treatment of the human figure, and simple, forthright likeness of the sitter, as seen in Mrs. John Haskins. The presentational gesture of her right hand is an English 1600s and 1700s portrait device meant to point to the sitter’s accomplishments, material success, or, in this case, to a companion portrait of her husband. Like English portraiture, Haskins is surrounded by a filmy, non-specific landscape populated by wispy trees and a glowing sky, which forms an aura around the figure.

This portrait by William Hogarth (1697–1764) from roughly the same period shows interesting differences in how the English late-Baroque style translated in America. What I love about American portraiture from the pre-Revolutionary period is the absolute fidelity to the sitter’s likeness. This penchant for unvarnished realism in American painting is what I believe makes it a standout against European painting of the periodan honest, forthright and sympathetic depiction of people who were blazing trails in a totally new country, away from the many decadent indulgences of the prosperous classes in Europe at the time.

William Hogarth (1697–1764 Britain), Mrs William James, 1744. Oil on canvas, 30" x 25" (76.2 x 63.5 cm). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-416)

Other portraits by Badger:

Dr William Foster, 1755. Oil on canvas, 35 3/4" x 28 1/8" (90.8 x 71.4 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0811)

Rebecca Orme (later Mrs Joseph Cabot), 1757. Oil on canvas, 25 5/8" x 20 3/4" (65.2 x 52.7 cm). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-460)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3; A Community Connection: 2.4, 6.2; Experience Painting: 6; Exploring Painting: 10; Exploring Visual Design: 3; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.3; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 11.5

Monday, April 6, 2015

National Ocean Awareness Week

William Trost Richards (1833–1905, US), Thunderheads at Sea: the Pearl, 1871. Watercolor on paper, 7 ½" x 12 7/8" (19.1 x 32.7 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1057)
With the arctic ice flows melting and the oceans rising because of climate change, we should call April 4-10 Hey, Wake Up and Pay Attention to the Ocean Week. Needless to say, the oceans are vital to the planet’s survival. They have also been vital as subject matter in art since the artists of ancient Egypt and Crete painted walls with scenes of marine life. Of the many artists who specialized in painting the many moods of the ocean, I like the Dutch Baroque painters first and William Trost Richards a very close second. If I were locked in an empty room with nothing but a Richards seascape to look at, I’d definitely be happy as a clam (the pun stays).

Richards was born in Philadelphia, and most of his life, between numerous trips to Europe, he spent winters in Pennsylvania and summers in Newport, RI. He had little formal schooling, but studied briefly with a landscape painter. He initially worked as an illustrator and designer of decorative metalwork, but early on his interest was in landscape. He first exhibited with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia at the age of 19. At 21 he was introduced to the Hudson River School artists and his lifetime devotion to landscape was confirmed. Between 1854 and 1869 he honed his skill at landscape by doing incredibly detailed drawings of elements of nature.

Richards’ many trips to England starting in 1855 exposed him to the Pre-Raphaelite artists there. The Pre-Raphaelites eschewed the theatrical painting of Romanticism and emphasized the realism of late medieval and early Renaissance painting, before the bombastic painting programs of the High Renaissance in Raphael and Michelangelo. In America, Pre-Raphaelite painters abandoned legendary or religious subjects favored by their English counterparts for extremely detailed paintings of nature. Their work was influenced by the writings of the English critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), who advised artists to follow nature as closely as possible to produce art that was transcendental.

Richards avoided the large, often exotic landscapes of the Hudson River School artists in favor of intimate views of nature. He is often named as a member of the White Mountain School because of his many landscapes of New England. The integrity of his realism in nature got him elected to the National Academy in New York in 1862.

After the Civil War (1860–1865), taste for the Hudson River School’s romantic-realist views of nature waned. After 1870, Richards concentrated almost entirely on views of the ocean in every conceivable type of weather. He spent hours wading into the surf to do detailed studies of the waves and effects of light on the water, often producing watercolors, such as Thunderheads at Sea: the Pearl, which he translated into oils on canvas in the studio. This Thunderheads at Sea very much reminds me of Dutch Baroque seascapes with its low horizon line and dramatic, dominating cloud formations. It is very clear to see in Richards’ works the power of nature and the reverence the Pre-Raphaelites had for it, and how, in their minds, nature summed up the existence of the divine.

Some more seascapes by William Trost Richards:

Calm Before a Storm, Newport, 1874. Watercolor on paper, 8 ¼" x 13 5/8" (21 x 34.6 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1058)

Marine, 1898. Oil on canvas, 52 1/4" x 33 ¼" (132.7 x 84.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4592)

A Rough Surf, after 1890. Oil on composition board, 8 3/16" x 14 3/8" (20.8 x 36.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2689)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.21, 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.5; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.5, 3.14, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.7, 2.7-8 studio, 2.9, 2.11, 2.connections; A Community Connection: 5.4, 6.2; Experience Painting: 2; Exploring Painting: 11; Exploring Visual Design: 5, 11, 12