Monday, May 20, 2019

New Season, New Website, and New Blog Look!

Utagawa Toyokuni III (Kunisada I), Girls in a Garden at Cherry Blossom Time. Triptych, color woodcut on paper, 14 5/8" x 30 3/8" (37.2 x 77.1 cm overall). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. Gift of Mrs. Kingsmill Marrs. (WAM-680)

It’s spring here in Worcester, MA, and more than just the trees are changing. I’m excited to let you all know that Curator’s Corner is getting a new look. If you visit me after May 21st, you’ll see a whole new site because Curator’s Corner will now live on You can still access the blog from While you’re there, you may want to check out the other great content that you can access! There will be tons of articles from SchoolArts magazine to browse, plus plenty of inspiration from Davis Publications.

Excited to see you in the new digs,
Karl Cole

Monday, May 13, 2019

Ancient Egypt Find

Ancient Egypt, Head of a Nobleman, possibly from Memphis, ca.1878–1841 BCE. Quartzite, 7 5/16" x 9 7/16" x 8 ¼" (18.5 x 24 x 21 cm). © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-711)

Because of the recent news about an exciting archeological find in Giza, I decided to show some stunning portraits from ancient Egypt. 

Realism in funerary portraits is not as unusual as one might think, given that kings and their families were depicted in very stylized, idealized fashion. Lower-ranking people were often depicted with a great deal of realism, such as this nobleman of the Middle Kingdom. After the collapse of the Old Kingdom in the 2150s BCE, Egypt underwent a period of political turmoil (called the First Intermediate Period) for about 150 years before strong kings reasserted control in Dynasty XI (1986–1937 BCE). Some art historians ascribe the sensitive realism of Middle Kingdom portraits to the stress of political turmoil that plagued Egypt at the time. I just think this is a beautiful portrait. Okay, the ears are a little exaggerated.

Ancient Egypt, Head of a Priest, ca. 380–332 BCE. Graywacke, 4 1/8" x 3 3/8" x 4 ½" (10.5 x 8.5 x 11.3 cm). © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-23)

After the decline of the Late Kingdom (712–343 BCE), Egypt was ruled by numerous outsiders, including Nubians (from the south in present day Sudan), Persians, and ultimately Greeks and Romans. Each succeeding group of rulers adopted Egyptian religious and artistic practices, and took advantage of the riches of Egypt. After the death of Cleopatra (30 BCE), Rome took over from the Greeks and basically used Egypt as a main source for grains for bread to feed their growing empire.

This priest’s head shows a degree of realism that almost resembles Roman funerary portraits, but it is, of course, too early for that to have been an influence. The sensitivity of the carving of the features is amazing, and here the ears are not exaggerated. It is a very dignified portrait of an older man, complete with a mole on his left cheek and laugh lines.  

Ancient Egypt, Funerary Portrait of a Woman, possibly from Fayyum, ca. 150 CE. Encaustic on wood, 17 5/16" x 11 5/16" (44 x 28.7 cm). © 2019 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5041)

Roman Egyptians adapted the traditional burial practices of mummification and dedicatory funerary portraiture. However, they opted for realistic encaustic portraits on pieces of wood that were placed over the head of the mummy. This emphasis on realistic portraiture is totally Roman in style and is comparable to the funerary sculpted busts of the Republican period (509–27 BCE).

Correlations to Davis programs: A Global Pursuit 2E: 1.4; Beginning Sculpture: 5; The Visual Experience 3E: 15.3; Discovering Art History 4E: 5; Experience Painting: 7

Monday, May 6, 2019

May Day Late

Unknown American Artist, Landscape, fireboard, from Perry County, PA, ca. 1825–1835. Pigments on pine board, 31 ¾" x 37 ½" (80.6 x 95.3 cm). © 2019 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8201)

Being a painter of landscapes and cityscapes myself, I’m always eager to share with you little landscape gems that come to my attention. Since I missed May Day with this post, this bouncy little treasure from the Philadelphia Museum of Art will have to be my “hooray, hooray for the first of May.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, landscape was down the list on European academic categories of “noble subjects.” When the American colonies finally became prosperous, the first art people wanted to commission was portraits depicting them in the same gleaming spotlight as their prosperous counterparts in Europe. Portraiture dominated American painting until after the Revolution (1775–1783). Landscape evolved gradually during the early 1800s, basically from the 1820s on, until we had a full-blown American school of landscape painting called the Hudson River School.

Interestingly, although landscape was not being commissioned by early Americans from professional painters, it was the lot of “decorators,” who painted window shades, carriages, doors, and walls to earn a living. Many of the early American portraitists had side hustles doing decorative painting.

Obviously, no one who could afford a portrait wanted it on a fire screen or overmantel (and I still don’t understand why “mantel” is spelled that way). Like Japanese screens of the Edo Period (1615–1868) that separated rooms, Americans enjoyed landscapes on these two distinctive supports—fireboards (fire screens) and overmantels (boards that lined the wall above a fireplace mantel).

The artists who painted these works were similar to the itinerant limner painters who were self-taught. But there is a freshness of conception and a wonderful sense of composition that makes many of these works really delightful and beautiful. They are not typically based on European models, and often reflect local environs. In the fireboard above, I’m wondering what the artist used to paint the sponge-like indication of leaves?

The overmantel below is simply awesome in the energetic American rhythm of the trees across the composition, dotted with early American homes. Even though it was painted in Massachusetts, the trees look like palms!  

Unknown American Artist, Townscape, overmantel from Wheeler House, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1787–1793. Oil on eastern white pine panel, 24 7/8" x 60 1/16" (63.2 x 152.6 cm). © 2019 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-441)