All images © Carol L. Douglas, Rochester, NY.
No reproduction or reuse permitted without
express consent of the artist.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Local artist

The Tiger, 1929, Charles Livingston Bull, for Barnum and Bailey.
I was trying to locate a show by a friend last week. Google came up with a number of references to her paired with the phrase “local artist.” It’s a funny term, and one I dislike.

There are local movements in art communities (such as the Northern California Tonalists or the Bay Area Figurative Movement) but in general most of us are working within the broader movement of our age. This is particularly true in today’s world, where boundaries are blurred by the internet.

Even worse is the term, “well-known local artist.” It’s amazing how many artists are unknown in their home towns and well-known elsewhere.

Saturday Evening Post cover art, March 6 1918, by Charles Livingston Bull
Consider the wildlife artist Charles Livingston Bull. Born in West Walworth, New York, he demonstrated an aptitude for drawing at a very young age. He enrolled at the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute (now Rochester Institute of Technology) to study drafting, and took a taxidermy apprenticeship at the Ward Museum of Natural History.

Professor Ward sent the young man to the 1893 Chicago World Exposition to design a bird display for the government of Guatemala. His work there garnered him the job of Chief Taxidermist at the National Museum in Washington. Bull took night classes at the Corcoran Gallery of Art for seven years, until he felt ready to pursue a freelance animal illustration career.

Boys’ Life cover art, Apr 1932, by Charles Livingston Bull
He illustrated more than 135 books and numerous articles for magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Collier's, American Boy, and Country Gentleman. As exquisite as his drawings are, he’s pretty much an unknown here, in his hometown.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hold the date

The Servant, by little ol' me, will be in this show.
Sitting in my living room on a cold spring day, Stu Chait and Jane Bartlett and I were trying to track down the threads that connect us. We have many friends in common, but unless you’ve done a meet-cute, most of us slide into friendships without too much fanfare. After some thinking, Stu and I could be precise: we met in the Ellwanger Garden on a glorious September afternoon to paint en plein air. Stu and Jane met at a mutual friend’s opening. Jane and I no longer even remember, we go so far back.

We’ve all travelled a long way since then: Jane concentrates on contemporary dye-work and clothing design. Stu left realism entirely, working with watercolors on canvas. And I am peripatetic, wandering from plein air assignments elsewhere to figure work in my own studio.

Why is this one of my favorite pieces of Jane Bartlett's dyework? Because it is mine!
What links us as artists? All three of us are zealous about craftsmanship. Despite that, all three of us are intentionally loose in our handling, content to find the happy accident that allows a piece to transcend our intentions. Beyond that, we work in highly complementary forms and color palettes.

Vitis, by Stu Chait.
This is all ever so cool, because the three of us are having a three-person show together at RIT-NTIDs Dyer Gallery this July. The opening is tentatively scheduled for July 18. Mark your calendars, and be there or be square.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Monday, April 14, 2014

How not to buy art

I went on ebay this morning and found you some great masters. Here, a Joan Miró for $75... or was it $90?... dollars. The only difference in buying this from a gallery is the bland assurance of the gallerista that it is genuine. And when you get it back to your brokerage office in Des Moines, it will hardly matter.

The Wall Street Journal ran an article called “How to Buy Warhol, Degas and Renoir on the Cheap.” I hope they were using Sarcastic Font, because it should be read as a story of how to get suckered.

What are people buying when they purchase a smudgy scrap of paper or a print overrun from the hand of a master? Not art, for sure, but bragging rights. And they’re not even particularly good bragging rights. Experts can’t agree about the authenticity of paintings that, if accepted into the artist’s oeuvre, could be worth tens of millions of dollars. Does anyone believe they apply the same level of scholarship to a painter’s grocery list?

And here, a genuine Pablo Picasso. You can tell he really did it because of the bull.
There was a time when it seemed like every gallery in New York had a Joan Miró print for sale at a knockdown price. And yet they were anodyne, unmemorable, and their only selling point was that the collector could say they had a ‘name’ work in their collection.

I once sold a Leonard Baskin print on ebay. I needed the money more than I needed the print. Someone got a far better deal than had he or she bought one of those Mirós. But that buyer knew art and knew the market.

And who would try to forge an Egon Schiele anyway? Just everyone, that's who.
The buyer who loves art but doesn’t know anything about it should try to learn something about it under the tutelage of good advisors. He shouldn’t be buying putative Old Masters; he should be buying new works that have room to appreciate. And if he isn’t willing to put even that much work into it, he should stick to collecting old LPs and band posters.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

For sale to the highest bidder

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, by Thomas Moran. 1872. Since Moran was paid a cool $10,000 for this painting, his work in Yellowstone was a ‘commercial enterprise.’ Moran’s work led directly to the creation of Yellowstone National Park and an increased awareness of the beauty and fragility of the West. But never mind history and tradition; we can get more dough out of balloon tours.
While the news is filled with stories about Cliven Bundy and an aborted land grab by the BLM, a similar story crossed my radar this week. It’s on a much smaller scale, but it touches me directly. And the root of the problem seems to be the same as that being played out in Nevada: our nation’s resources are for sale to the highest bidder.

Like me, Michael Chesley Johnson teaches plein air workshops. Last week he was teaching in the Red Rock Ranger District of the Coconino Forest when he was stopped by a ranger who told him he can't take his painting workshops onto Forest land without a permit.  Because he charges a fee for his workshops, he is considered a commercial operation. If he continues to flout the requirement, he’ll get a $500 fine.

Michael Chesley Johnson's painters having a huge impact on the environment.
Michael’s groups are very small—never more than four students at a time. Like most plein air painters, he’s also a keen environmentalist, and like most plein air teachers, he polices the area in which his students work, enforcing a strict “leave nothing but footprints” policy.

So Michael duly looked into the permit and found that he can’t get one. Why? Because the Red Rock Ranger District has used up all its permits, doling them out on a ten-year basis.

Tower Falls at Yellowstone, by Thomas Moran, 1876. We have national parks in the west in large part because of artists like Moran.
What is the competition that Michael is theoretically displacing? Red Rock Western Jeep Tours was authorized for 10,055 trips, each with multiple passengers.  In contrast, Michael takes about 30 people out each season. Total.

The Park Service recognizes the need for a different kind of permit for people like Michael, but they won’t get around to creating it until 2016 at the earliest.

The field artists who accompanied every important western journey of exploration contributed mightily toward shaping our national ethos.  Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, William Keith and others defined the American West for the 19th century, just as Ansel Adams did for the 20th century. And all of these artists were unabashedly ‘commercial enterprises,’ just as painters are now.

How do we train new plein air artists in that historic tradition? By taking them out into the field, of course.

Another plein air painter in one of Michael Chesley Johnson's workshops.
I have taught in public parks from the Kit Carson National Forest to Owl’s Head in Maine. The only place I’ve ever bothered to apply for a permit was at Niagara Falls, and that was because it’s crowded. And all they asked of me was a “hold harmless” agreement.

I’ve never been bothered by a ranger—never. But neither had Michael Chesley Johnson, until last week.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Pope’s Daughter

Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI, 1908-14, by Frank Cadogan Cowper, recreates a scandalous incident in the life of Lucrezia Borgia. In 1501, she took the place of her father, Pope Alexander VI, at a Vatican meeting.  The artist uses a humble priest kissing Lucrezia’s feet to indict the church’s worldliness.
My friend K Dee recently put together a photostream of portraits of women to “help me remember, in case I ever start to forget, which sort of female image I find reflects a healthy civil society, and which I do not.” 

Lucrezia Borgia was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and one of his many mistresses, Giovanna de Candia, contessa dei Cattanei. Very little of what we think we know of her is proven, but her legend has been enduring.

Portrait of a Woman, early 16th century, by Bartolomeo Veneto, is assumed to be a portrait of Lucrezia Borgia.
By our standards, Italian Renaissance society was remarkably tolerant, for the Pope openly acknowledged Lucrezia and her siblings. Then again, the Borgias treated the church like their private fiefdom and power base. And as liberal as the Italian Renaissance was about sexual matters, the Borgias stood out as libertines.

Lucrezia was described as having all the attributes of a Renaissance beauty—a long neck, long blond hair, an ethereal carriage. Her father wasn’t averse to horse-trading for her. As the Borgia family’s fortunes rose, one engagement and then another was made and broken, starting when she was 11 years old. She was married at the age of 13, to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro and Count of Catignola. His usefulness to the Borgias soon ended, however, and the Pope quietly ordered his execution. Lucrezia apparently hadn’t yet grown into her Borgia soul: she warned him and he fled Rome.

Sforza refused a divorce and accused Lucrezia of incest with her brother and father. The Borgias responded by alleging the groom was impotent. They of course held the power, and the marriage was annulled.

Lucrezia was probably pregnant at the time of this annulment—perhaps by her husband, perhaps by the chamberlain in her father’s household. She retired to a convent, and a Borgia child was born that year. Meanwhile, the body of the chamberlain and a maid were found in floating in the Tiber. The child, Giovanni, was presented to society as her half-brother.

Portrait of a Youth, c. 1518, by Dosso Dossi, is also presumed to be a portrait of Lucrezia Borgia. If so, it was painted at the end of her life. It radiates exhaustion and cynicism.
In order to strengthen ties between the Vatican and Naples, Lucrezia, now 18, married Alfonso of Aragon, 17. “"He was the most beautiful youth that I have ever seen in Rome,” wrote a contemporary.  Soon, the twisting ties of Alexander’s allegiences made Alfonso a liability. The young man fled Rome. Lucrezia’s family ordered her to lure him back. They returned to the Vatican, where Lucrezia gave birth to their son. Alfonso was attacked by hired killers on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica; he barely survived this attack only to be strangled in his sickbed.

Two years later Lucrezia was given in marriage to Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. To pull this off, she pretended she was a virgin. Little Rodrigo was left behind and she never saw him again.

Oddly, this last marriage stuck. The couple had several children together and survived the fall of the House of Borgia following Alexander’s death. Both parties took lovers, but Lucrezia died giving birth to her eighth child at age 39, to all outward appearances a virtuous Roman matron of piety and good works.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Seeking a crown

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche, 1833, was painted three hundred years after the death of Lady Jane, but immediately after the July Revolution of 1830, which deposed the last of the Bourbon monarchs. It uses an old British story to speak obliquely about recent events in France. 
My friend K Dee recently put together a photostream of portraits of women to “help me remember, in case I ever start to forget, which sort of female image I find reflects a healthy civil society, and which I do not.” This week I’m responding to that by writing about great dames in history.

The void left after the death of Edward VI in England became an opportunity for a remarkable series of women to chase after the crown. Intending to keep it out of Catholic hands, young Edward had named his teenaged first cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his successor.

She was married into a family of power brokers. Her brother-in-law would become Queen Elizabeth’s close companion, confidant and, possibly, lover. Her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, was the principle power broker in her rise and fall.

Lady Jane later wrote that she accepted the crown only with reluctance, and it certainly appears that she was a pawn in a game organized by others. Northumberland moved quickly to consolidate his power, but Mary moved even faster. The Privy Council switched sides, naming Mary the queen and imprisoning Jane and her husband. Northumberland, Lady Jane, and her husband were executed.

Portrait of Mary Tudor by Antonis Mor, 1554. Whatever else you might say about the Tudors, they had fantastic portrait painters working in their courts.
Mary I of England comes down to us with the sobriquet of “Bloody Mary” for her violent suppression of Protestants: she had almost three hundred of them burned alive at the stake. But she should also be remembered as the first successful British female monarch.  She was succeeded by her sister, Elizabeth I, arguably the greatest woman ruler in history.

One more claimant to the English throne deserves mention. Mary, Queen of Scots was the only surviving legitimate child of King James V of Scotland, and a constant thorn in Elizabeth’s side. She was also a Tudor cousin, and Elizabeth vacillated between wanting to name her as her heir and wanting to kill her.

Portrait of Mary Stuart, 1578-79, by Nicholas Hilliard. The mount was done in the next century; the painting is watercolor on vellum.
Mary was six days old when her father died and she ascended to the Scottish throne. She spent most of her childhood in France. At the age of sixteen she married the Dauphin, who in short order left her widowed.

She returned to Scotland. Four years later, she married her first cousin, Lord Darnley, another aspirant to the English throne. While his scheming character may have attracted her at first, it eventually dawned on Mary that he was a threat to her well-being. Darnley was killed when his home was bombed. The prime suspect, the Earl of Bothwell, married Mary one month after he was acquitted.

It was typical of Mary’s career that she would act impetuously, with disastrous results. Denounced as an adulteress and murderer, she was imprisoned and forced to abdicate the Scottish crown in favor of her infant son.

Mary escaped from prison and raised an army, which was defeated. She fled to England, expecting her cousin Elizabeth to help her regain her throne. Elizabeth promptly parked Mary in the Yorkshire countryside and opened an inquiry into Darnley’s murder. Elizabeth ensured that no verdict was ever reached, and Mary spent several years in sumptuous imprisonment in England.

That didn’t prevent her from plotting against her cousin, however, who remained curiously reluctant to deal with her in the decisive Tudor manner. Finally, in 1587, Mary was tried and convicted of treason. Elizabeth’s Privy Council ordered her swift execution, and her career was at an end.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A true warrior queen

Zenobia in Chains, 1859, by Harriet Hosmer. The American sculptor Harriet Hosmer portrayed Zenobia twice. This version depicts Zenobia being paraded through Roman in Aurelian’s Triumph. It is impossible to read this statue retrospectively without considering it as a commentary on the dual American questions of the age: women’s rights and abolition. It just figures that when Hosmer showed it in Europe, many questioned whether a woman would have been capable of producing such a monumental work.
My friend K Dee recently put together a photostream of portraits of women to “help me remember, in case I ever start to forget, which sort of female image I find reflects a healthy civil society, and which I do not.” I’m not sure I’d call the collapsing Roman empire a ‘healthy civil society’ but Zenobia is certainly one of its heroines.

In the third century AD, the Roman Empire was coming unglued. Emperors were assassinated, a Persian revolt couldn’t be put down, generals were locked in power struggles, and the frontiers were open to attack. The governor of the eastern provinces chose to deploy his legions to defend his territory rather than fight with other Romans.

Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, modeled c. 1859; carved after 1859, by Harriet Hosmer. “I have tried to make her too proud to exhibit passion or emotion of any kind; not subdued, though a prisoner; but calm, grand, and strong within herself,” wrote Hosmer.
In the usual manner, he too was murdered.  His son, Vaballathus, was named rex consul imperator dux Romanorum and corrector totius orientis of the new Palmyrene Empire. That was a mouthful for a child who was barely walking, so the real power behind the throne was his mother Zenobia.

Zenobia was the daughter of a governor of Palmyra. While she claimed she was a descendent of the Ptolomies and Dido, Queen of Carthage, she was more likely a Romanized Syrian with some Egyptian and North African ancestry. She was well-educated and fluent in Greek, Aramaic, Egyptian and Latin. And of course—because she is a queen of legend—she was beautiful. It is probably true that she rode, hunted, fought, and drank like her male officers, or she could not have commanded them in the field.

Who knows how long the Romans might have ignored her had she contented herself with governing Syria and its surrounds? But by 269, Zenobia was on the move. She conquered Egypt and beheaded its Roman prefect. She proclaimed herself Queen of Egypt.

From that to the absurd: the Duchess of Devonshire dressed as Zenobia for her own Jubilee Costume Ball in 1897. Playing dress-up Zenobia has been popular forever, it seems.
Her victory was short-lived. By 273, Rome had reestablished enough equilibrium to challenge Zenobia. The Emperor Auralian arrived in Syria and crushed Zenobia’s army near Antioch. Zenobia and her son were captured along the Euphrades as they fled by camel.

Aurelian took Zenobia and Vaballathus as hostages to Rome, parading Zenobia in golden chains during his Triumph. Nobody knows whether Zenobia was executed or pardoned, for she disappeared from history at this point. Legend says she was married off and lived to bear several daughters.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Empress Dowager Cixi

A tinted photograph of the Empress Dowager Cixi, Regent of the Qing Dynasty. Her portraits included a painting given to Teddy Roosevelt as well as extensive photographs. 
My friend K Dee recently put together a photostream of portraits of women to “help me remember, in case I ever start to forget, which sort of female image I find reflects a healthy civil society, and which I do not.” Today we’ll look at the story of a remarkable woman who prospered by being more toxic than her society.

The Empress Dowager Cixi was born in Beijing in 1835, an unimportant daughter of a mid-level bureaucrat. At 16, she was one of sixty girls in a cattle-call to choose consorts for the new Xianfeng  Emperor. Cixi made the cut.

 Concubines of the Xianfeng Emperor fishing at a pond, 19th century. The figure at left is probably Cixi; the one at right is the Empress Ci'an.
Despite the plethora of women in his harem, the Emperor had trouble producing an heir. In 1856, Cixi gave birth to his only surviving son, Zaichun. This propelled her up through the harem ranks so that by the time Zaichun reached his first birthday, she ranked second only to the Empress.

Unusually, Cixi could read and write. This granted her unprecedented access to the Emperor and an informal education in how to govern.

In September 1860, British and French troops attacked Beijing and burned the Emperor's Old Summer Palace to the ground. The Emperor and his entourage fled Beijing. The Emperor turned to booze and drugs, became ill, and died.

Portrait of Empress Dowager Ci'an (co-regent with Cixi). Since Ci’an was an Empress and Cixi a lowly concubine, Ci’an had precedence, but this was a matter of formality, not fact. Her portrait corresponds with descriptions of her as good-natured and naive. 
An eight-member Regency ruled on behalf of his heir, who was then five years old. Balancing the Regents’ power were the former empress, the Dowager Empress Ci’an, and the former concubine, the Dowager Empress Cixi.

The Dowager Empress Ci’an was good-natured and naïve: the perfect tool for the former concubine. The situation was inherently unstable, and at the correct moment, Cixi staged a coup with the support of a coterie of princes. To demonstrate her compassion, Cixi executed only three of the eight Regents, eschewed torturing them, and refused to execute the ministers’ families.

Ruling from “behind the curtain,” Cixi issued an Imperial Edict on behalf of the young Emperor stating that the two Empresses Dowager were to be the sole decision makers “without interference.”  Her partner being malleable, Cixi had absolute control of the Chinese state by the mid-1860s.

Portrait of Empress Jiashun, Cixi’s daughter-in-law. It is speculated that Cixi poisoned her when she was pregnant with an heir to Cixi’s dead son.
In 1872, the Emperor turned 17 and was married to the Empress Jiashun. The relationship between Cixi and the new Empress was fraught. “I am a principal consort, having been carried through the front gate with pomp and circumstance, as mandated by our ancestors. Empress Dowager Cixi was a concubine, and entered our household through a side gate,” the new Empress said.

Foolish girl. Cixi ordered the couple to separate. The young Emperor—a man of weak intellect and weak character—began to act out his sexual desires in the brothels of Beijing. He contracted syphilis and died at the age of 19. His young pregnant Empress followed him into the grave a few months later, perhaps at Cixi’s hand. They left no heir. After considerable uproar, Cixi’s four-year-old nephew was tapped to become the next Emperor.

The Empress Dowager Ci'an died suddenly in 1881; rumors swirled that Cixi had poisoned Ci’an. Now the sole Regent, Cixi maintained her iron grip on power even after the new Emperor reached his majority and began to reign as the Guangxu Emperor.

As he grew into his role, the Guangxu Emperor began flexing his muscles, initiating a series of modernizing reforms. These particularly displeased Cixi because they would have checked her power. Once more, the Empress Dowager Cixi took over. The Emperor was never formally removed from the throne, but he was a powerless puppet from then on.

The Guangxu Emperor died suddenly on November 14, 1908. The Empress Dowager installed a new child emperor on the throne and promptly keeled over herself. Turns out that the Guangxu Emperor was poisoned; modern forensic testing shows he had arsenic levels 2000 times greater than normal. It appears that, knowing she was dying, the Empress Dowager’s last act was to prevent him from ever taking power in China.

In 1912, the child emperor Puyi abdicated, ending over 2000 years of imperial China and beginning a long period of instability that would result in the Chinese Civil War.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Two Elizabeths

This Bavarian polychrome statue of Elizabeth of Hungary, c. 1520, is so lifelike that she could be the engineer in the next cubicle.
My friend K Dee recently put together a photostream of portraits of women to “help me remember, in case I ever start to forget, which sort of female image I find reflects a healthy civil society, and which I do not.” Today I focus on two Elizabeths.

In popular literature, Elizabeth of Hungary is most known for a miracle of the roses (which is a frequent image in Catholic iconography). She was, however, a real woman who lived a real life of good works.

Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, c. 1365, by Pietro Nelli, tempera and gold on panel, focuses on her miracle of the roses.
The daughter of King Andrew of Hungary, she was the niece, through her mother, of another saint of the church, Hedwig of Silesia. She was affianced to Louis IV, future Landgrave of Thuringia and taken to that court as a young girl so that she might grow up in the culture in which she would reign. At age 14, she and Louis were married.

She must have been a remarkable 14-year-old. As he traveled to meet his liege responsibilities, she ran his fiefdom. She built a hospital and distributed alms during a period when plague, floods and famine ravaged Thuringia. Rather than resenting his wife’s religiosity, Louis encouraged her distribution of his worldly goods.

In 1227, Louis died in Otranto while en route to join the Sixth Crusade. His brother was appointed regent for their young son, and Elizabeth’s power came to an end. That year she left the castle. Elizabeth lived in the strictest celibacy and self-denial for the remainder of her short life, resolutely resisting all machinations by her family to make her another politically-profitable marriage.

Mother Seton lived too recently to be the subject of great art. (In part, contemporary artists are hampered by having some idea of what she looked like.) Here, from a prayer card.
Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first US-born saint. Born in 1774, she was the child of affluent, educated, and well-connected New Yorkers. At age 19, she married a wealthy and prominent businessman. The couple belonged to fashionable Trinity Church, where Elizabeth helped found The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children.

In 1802, the family’s fortunes reversed: William Seton declared bankruptcy and sailed for Italy in an attempt to cure his tuberculosis. The trip killed him. It was there that Seton was introduced to Catholicism, to which she converted in 1805.

Impoverished and widowed, Seton tried to start a school for proper young ladies, but her conversion was anathema to the elite of New York. In 1809 Elizabeth took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and accepted the invitation of the Sulpician Fathers to move to Emmitsburg, Maryland. There she founded the Saint Joseph's Academy and Free School for the education of Catholic girls and the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's, dedicated to caring for the children of the poor. By 1818, the sisters had established two orphanages and another school. Today six groups of sisters trace their origins to Mother Seton's initial foundation. Mother Seton herself died of tuberculosis at the age of 46.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Great Dames

Boudicca and her Daughters on the Victoria Embankment is the most famous representation of the British queen. Queen Victoria felt a resonance with Boadicea; the work was as commissioned by Prince Albert and executed by Thomas Thornycroft.
My friend K Dee recently put together a photo stream of portraits of women to “help me remember, in case I ever start to forget, which sort of female image I find reflects a healthy civil society, and which I do not.” That in turn reminded me of Lady Antonia Fraser’s wonderful Warrior Queens: The Legends and Lives of Women Who have led Their Nations in War, and I decided to focus on great queens and their artistic representation this week.

One of Fraser’s primary subjects is Britain’s Boadicea. I have a half-finished portrait of her in my studio that I will be working on next week.
Her name comes down to us as Boudica, Boudicca, Boadicea or Buddug. It derives from the Proto-Celtic feminine adjective boudīka, which translates to “victorious” in English. What we know of her comes from the writings of Tacitus and Cassius Deo.

Boadicea's husband Prasutagus was a client-king of the Roman Empire. Although his will left his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Emperor, upon his death, his kingdom was annexed to Rome. Boadicea was beaten, their daughters were raped, and Roman financiers claimed the family assets as their own.

Boadicea Haranguing the Britons, line engraving, published 1793, by William Sharp, after John Opie. The engraving is finer than the painting.

Boadicea raised the Iceni and neighboring tribes—estimated to be 100,000 strong—in what would become the longest-lasting revolt against Roman rule by a client state.  The natives sacked Camulodunum (modern Colchester), Londinium, and Verulamium (St. Albans) before being defeated by Suetonius in the Battle of Watling Street. Boadicea committed suicide rather than be captured by the Romans.

Considering that Boadicea is one of the fundamental heroes of early Britain, she is shockingly unrepresented in art. One has to ask why the Pre-Raphaelites, with their consuming interest in British history, gave her such a cold shoulder. Her militancy, her political skill, her energy, and her mastery apparently gave them fits; they were much more interested in the wasting maiden.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Friday, April 4, 2014

When the going got tough...

This Dardanelle, Arkansas, Post Office WPA Mural is not much different from the one in my home town, except that the crop is cotton.
The logical successors to the Ashcan school were the Federal Art Project painters. This was the visual arts part of the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. At no other time in American history has government made such an effort to support the arts in all forms. While autocrats sometimes employed art to create an ethos for their state, democracies do not, in general, use art and artists like this.
Whereas this WPA Office Mural from Arlington, Massachusetts is distinctly northern in character, and refers back to our original settlement stories.
Since non-representational artists—still considered the avante garde—were not making much of a living in the Thirties, you can imagine what a boon government support was for them. But most of the WPA art was representational, and most of it was local. We remember the WPA for the murals in our post offices, libraries, schools and hospitals, not because it supported the likes of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock before they became famous.
Could this be from anywhere else but America’s heartland, celebrating corn as it does? In this case, Mount Ayr, Iowa.
Yesterday I wrote that art is primarily a reflection of the aspirations and values of the society that created it. The WPA art is an example of art as a change agent. In the midst of the Great Depression, America needed to be reminded of her exceptionalism. In government buildings across the country, painters did just that.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Does art reflect society or society reflect art?

McSorley's Bar, 1912, by John Sloan. McSorley's is the oldest Irish tavern in New York City. It only admitted women after being forced to do so in 1970. I got into my last-ever bar fight there, with an undergrad from NYU who imagined I’d slighted his girlfriend. “I can take him,” I insisted to my husband. “Who expects a roundhouse from a blue-haired church lady?”
Yesterday a reader asked, “Does art reflect society or society reflect art?” It seems to me that art is primarily a reflection of the aspirations and values of the society that created it. That is not to downplay the importance of social justice in art, and it doesn’t mean that artists can’t change people’s minds. Think of the tremendous courage it took for Émile Zola to publish J'accuse, and the influence it has down to this day. But even that was responsive to a reality: the injustice of institutional anti-Semitism.

By the turn of the 19th century, America had recovered a bit from its earlier unbridled optimism. This could be seen in its literature, with writers like Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, and Frank Norris describing the dark side of the American experience. The painterly equivalent was called the Ashcan School.

Steaming Streets, 1908, by George Bellows. The Ashcan painters did not gloss over the filth and danger of our cities.
The Ashcan painters opposed both American Impressionism and the highly polished work of painters like John Singer Sargent. They were darker, rougher, and harsher. They were not just interested in light and air; they also wanted to paint the grime, the frozen manure and the poverty that were also part of our urban reality.

From the standpoint of trendiness, their moment was short-lived. The Cubists, Fauvists and Expressionists took over the avant garde high ground with the Armory Show of 1913, and suddenly the Ashcan painters were lumped in with all those boring old realists from the 19th century.

Eviction (Lower East Side), 1904, by Everett Shinn (gouache). Shinn had watched the eviction of an old musician from his apartment, which inspired this picture of misery and despair.    

That should not minimize their artistic and social importance. Painters like Robert Henri, George Bellows, George Luks, John Sloan, and William Glackens cast a long shadow. They were the first painters to admit that America was not Elysium, and the flaws they painted have only gotten more noticeable with time. 

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

American naturalism

High-Jake Game, c. 1861, by Thomas LeClear. Before official colored regiments were formed in 1863, several volunteer regiments were raised from free black men, including freedmen in the South. The Confederacy had passed a law stating that blacks captured in uniform would be tried as slave insurrectionists in civil courts—a capital offense with automatic sentence of death. Many captured black soldiers were summarily executed without even the pretense of a trial. For this young man, this is a high-stakes game indeed.
Before there was an Ashcan School, there were genre painters. Thomas LeClear’s most famous painting, Buffalo Newsboy, is dear to all who grew up visiting the Albright-Knox Art Museum. LeClear was contemporary with Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet but the difference between their worldviews is striking.

This difference derives not from talent or temperament, but from place. The French naturalists described a society where there was limited social mobility. The working poor expected to remain poor forever. LeClear, on the other hand, described the boundless optimism of a people who believed poverty was a transitory state and that anyone could go from rags to riches. LeClear’s newsboy is saucy, healthy, energetic, and not the least bit fazed by his low beginnings.

Buffalo Newsboy, c. 1853, by Thomas LeClear, is a favorite of Buffalonians. It harks back to when Buffalo was a boomtown. 
LeClear painted some of his most famous canvases during the Civil War. By concentrating on children, he could obliquely point to difficult issues of democracy and emancipation. That he was able to retain his optimism during this cataclysm speaks volumes about his, and the nation’s, character.

Thomas LeClear was born in the village of Candor, Tioga County, New York. In 1832 his family moved to Ontario. A few years later LeClear became an itinerant portrait artist and decorative painter traveling in a range across New York and as far west as Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Young America, c. 1863, by Thomas LeClear.  “The locality is a street in Buffalo, and the man on the sidewalk evidently engaged in counting up his gains is a portrait of a well-known operator in stocks, who goes by the name of “three cents a month,” a contemporary, Henry T. Tuckerman, wrote. 
In 1839 he moved to New York City, where he studied with Henry Inman. By 1847 he had begun to win substantial recognition for his work. That year, he moved to Buffalo in a calculated move to increase his income. At the time, Buffalo was a boom-town and LeClear quickly acquired many wealthy patrons

In the early 1860s LeClear moved back to New York City. He was elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design in 1863. He became a prominent portrait painter as well as a genre painter.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The poorest of the poor

The Laundress (La Blanchisseuse), c. 1863, by Honoré Daumier. This painting exists in another two versions, one of which is owned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
In the context of art, naturalism is a kind of painting that attempts to look reality square in the face. It seeks to depict people and their transactions with as much honesty as is possible. Since naturalism arose in tandem with the Industrial Revolution, it frequently investigated the changes which the Industrial Revolution wrought.

The Third-Class Carriage, 1863-65, by Honoré Daumier.  While Daumier has us focus on one family—a mother with her infant child, a tired grandmother and a sleeping boy—they represent all of the working class, with their solid bodies and weary stoicism.
Mid-19th century French painters were particularly good at this, and nobody was more incisive than Honoré Daumier. Daumier was a bit of an artistic polymath, excelling at printmaking, caricature, painting and sculpture. He was tremendously prolific, producing more than 6000 pieces of work in his lifetime.

The Uprising, c. 1860, by Honoré Daumier. Daumier was unique in seeing the nascent labor movement as a fitting subject for art. Daumier is very spare with the details here, driving our attention inexorably to the figure in the center. In this, he suggests the coming Impressionist movement.

In Daumier’s era, washerwomen did their work at lavoirs, which were public places set aside for clothes washing.  It was dismal and hard work. Duamier lived on the Quai d'Anjou on the Île Saint-Louis. This afforded him many opportunities to see the washerwomen at their work along the Seine.  His washerwomen, would have been amused by the modern conceit of “Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work Day” since it was a fact of life for the 19th century poor. They are tired, but they are strong, and they exhibit the same monumentality as Millet’s gleaners.

The Burden (The Laundress) c. 1850-53, is another look at the same subject. Again, the figure is monumental and impressionistic, but here she and her child are both driven. The paint handling clearly suggests the next generation of French painters, particularly Van Gogh.

Having grown up in a working class household himself, Daumier was uniquely sensitive to working class life. However, he did not just paint the poor; he depicted (and caricaturized) the whole gamut of French society.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!