Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Colorizing Artists

Claude Monet, 1923, a very valid use of colorization by Dana Keller. I tried unsuccessfully for hours to find color photos of the two paintings for comparison. I was stunned to realize how many water lilies Monet painted.
An oil-tinted, 1963-era photo
portrait. No it's not me. I wore
a red jacket which the artist
was reluctant to color.
There are a surprising number of art media which have acquired over the years a bad reputation. Among them we might include velvet painting, erotic art, balloon sculpture, macramé, and the fine art of colorizing black and white photos. Some of these art forms were quite popular at one time, only to reach a point in which their popularity caused them to become trite (mac-ramé, for example), now residing in the same category as tie-dyed t-shirts. The latter of these arts I just men-tioned (colorizing photos) may, in fact be one of the most hated of the lot. The art is nearly as old as pho-tography itself and may have derived from the art of painting miniatures. As such artists were suddenly denied a sustenance from their work, they struggled to adjust to the "new" portrait technology during the latter half of the 19th-century. They developed the art of oil-painting (tinting) black and white photos to add a sort of artificially lifelike appearance, which continued well into the 1960s (my 1963 high school graduation photo was oil tinted). Of course, with the advent of color film and printing, even this last vestige of such art quickly disappeared.

Red Hawk of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on Horseback, 1905
It disappeared, that is, until the advent of Photoshop and digitized photography. Although such art today is a far cry from that which photo painters rendered for about a hundred years (1860-1960), it is still not without many of the same crude missteps that caused artists and photo purists to come to despise colorization of the tinted variety. Add to that the fact that most photo colorization today centers around the adding of digital color to historic photos such as that of Red Hawk (above). Some might look at such an effort as creating a whole new (and better) work of art than the original. Others might see it as a horrid desecration of an historic artifact. In any case, this and other examples I've collected here serve to underline a longstanding, ongoing problem in colorization--how much is enough (or too much). The line between the two is very real and very thin.

Country store in July 1939, Gordonton, North Carolina, a drastic improvement over the black and white image.
An otherwise neutral image
gains little from the addition
of flesh tones.
Thus, colorization is both a science and an art. That is to say, it takes an extremely astute artist to do it well, while at the same time knowing when to stop. Then there's also the question as to when to colorize and when to leave well-enough alone. Very often I've encountered historic photos in which the addition of color added absolutely nothing to either the human or historic impact of the image. The colorized photo of the Kennedy brothers (right) is a near-perfect example. However, the general store (above) and the famous Depression-era photo by Margaret Bourke-White both benefit greatly from the addition of color. White's American Dream, from 1937, has a gaudy "come alive" quality in the upper region of the billboard which contrasts with the drab, depression breadline beneath it. The result is that colorization strengthens both the sad irony of the message and its visual impact. Despite its dated imagery, the colorized version speaks to us as vibrantly today as it did in 1937.

American Dream, 1937, Margaret Bourke-White.
One of the most difficult and, indeed, treacherous areas of photo colorization is in the area of portraiture. Questions arise from that of simply "why bother" (as with the Kennedy brothers) to the amount of time the artist pours into a single image. The latter can vary wildly from hours, days, or weeks. Flesh tones often range from a deathly pallor to a made-up look akin the art of an embalmer. As a visual historian, everything has to be colored, from the buttons and ribbons on a uniform to nearby props and furniture. Colorist Marina Amaral recalls spending the better part of a month on an early 20th-century photo of New York’s banana docks (below), agonizing over each hat, face, and strip of fabric in the composition.

Banana docks, New York, ca. 1890-1910, Marina Amaral. Despite the artist's best efforts there is minimal color apparent in the image, and what there is seems to have barely more visual impact that the original black and white photo. 

By the same token, even familiar faces from the dry, black and white history books take on a new life in the talented hands of a competent colorizer, as seen at left in the portrait of Lincoln and below in the image of President Teddy Roos-evelt (the child is unidentified). Albert Einstein seems more friendly in color, though I'm not sure where the black and white or the colorized image of Alfred Hitchcock best captures his macabre persona. Of the colorized portrait of Ab-raham Lincoln, one user observed: “I feel like I’m looking at the man, and not the legend.”
President Lincoln as seen
by Marina Amaral

Portrait colorization and personalization at its best.
Winston Churchill, Yousuf
Karsh, 1941, Colorized
by Sanna Dullaway
Why do these reproductions resonate so deeply with so many people? Color images have a greater impact on our visual memory, and allow details we might otherwise gloss over to leap off the page. Marina Amaral’s colorization of Migrant Mother (below), the iconic Dust Bowl image by Dorothea Lange at a California migrant camp is already stunning in black-and-white. It looks strikingly familiar in color. Every detail, from Florence Thompson’s sun-burnished skin to the frayed fabric on her tattered sleeve, the scuffs of dirt on her son’s cheek, all seem to take on new dimensions and feel more alive. The hardship embodied is timeless, more viscerally human.

Colorizing artists ride a fine line between boldness and restraint as seen in these two Dorothea Lange images by two different individuals of both skill and taste.

Technology and the accessibility of software like Photoshop have allowed colorizing to become not just an artistic hobby, but for artists like Dullaway and Amaral, a career. Amaral first began to experiment with colorizing in 2015 on a cache of black-and-white World War II photos she found online. The artist is now collaborating on a book, The Color of Time, with historian and author Dan Jones. She restored over 200 historical photos for the project, many of which have never been seen in color before. Amaral confides, “I never imagined or planned that colorizing would become my profession or that I would built an entire career out of this."

Peace and War
Although purists may take offense at the idea of reworking history, there’s no question that these images have a powerful effect. Black-and-white images seem sort of alien in that they feel like relics from a bygone era. In grayscale, a historical photograph seems trapped under museum glass. When color is added, everything changes--wars are waged, leaders assassinated, a nation’s greatest moments of pride and disgrace are somehow made more real. Color doesn’t just make these images attractive or more palatable, it throws humanity into high relief and forces us to see historical events as things that happened in real life to real people, not events that turn like pages of a history textbook. It's right there in front of us. It takes us there almost like a time machine.

The Dirigible, Hindenburg, Lakehurst Air Station, Thursday, May 6, 1937

Colorizing artists often receives messages from strangers thanking them for help in gaining a better understanding of historical images after seeing such work in color. These artists often hear from people who are not really history fanatics, but who have started enjoying history on a deeper level once they’ve seen colorization and how it affects the human mind. That’s not to say there isn’t backlash. Colorizing artists are sometimes accused of “defiling” history, though most see their work as more of a complement than a replacement. (For what it’s worth, color photography elicited its own fair share of criticism back in its early days.)


Monday, May 14, 2018

The 1913 Armory Show

1913 Armory Show, 2014, James R. Huntsberger
Virtually anyone who knows much about art, especially Modern Art, especially modern American art has heard of New York City's famed 1913 69th Regiment Armory Show. There the showing of American and European avant-garde art racked up an astounding attendance figure of more than 87,000 visitors (in the middle of the winter, no less). From New York the show moved on to Chicago where the attendance was more than twice that of New York (188,700), followed by a showing in Boston where, due to a lack of space, the exhibit was stripped of American artists and the crowd dwindled to just 14,400. (Bostonians always have tended to be a stodgy lot.)
The handwritten plan is labeled as a proposed arrangement. How accurately it was followed is problematical. Notice the prominent placement of van Gogh's work near the entrance while the cubist works are tucked away in a far corner.
So important was this show in the history of American art that I've mentioned it, or written about it, on several occasions. For a background understanding, check out the first Invasion of Modern Art, as well as Duchamp (and others) in discussing Vernacular Art. When the show opened, word of the outrageous content spread quickly. The crowds hurried first to the Cubist and Futurist rooms, eager to see the worst. There, most of them felt obliged to laugh, while others were struck dumb in an open-mouth stare. A few were seized with deep despair. So unfamiliar were these violently abstracted forms that they represented something of a blow to the face—a bomb thrown at the art establishment. One dismayed art connoisseur noted, “It makes me fear for the world. Something must be wrong with an age which can put these things in a gallery and call them art. The minds that produced them are fit subjects for alienists and the canvases—I can’t call them pictures—should hang in the curio room of an insane asylum.”
1913 Armory Show overview.
Words of the Devil,
1892, Paul Gauguin
The exhibition was a brilliant success in every way. The attendance was large, and sales were numerous and remunerative. The exhibition set the town talking and thinking. At the turn of the century, the teeming metropolis of New York City was taking large strides into the future. Yet its art world, was about fifty years behind the times. The deeply conservative National Academy of Design functioned as its primary gatekeeper, awarding opportunities to the select few who emulated the historical and landscape paintings of 19th-century Paris salons. New York was home to a mere smattering of progressive galleries, while the few public art museums in American cities functioned as little more than shrines to the Old Masters. Picasso, Duchamp, Paul Gauguin (left), Edward Hopper, and the 1913 Armory Show scandalized America. The American estab-lishment was eager to demonstrate a cultural lineage that ran all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Gilded Age millionaires, who made up the country’s small collector base, sought to acquire grand artworks as a symbol of their status. It was, a system that effectively stifled innovation. However, rumblings of dissent against the National Acad-emy appeared long before the Armory Show.
The driving forces behind the Armory Show.
Robert Henri and a group of artists known as The Eight (later known as the Ashcan School) rejected the idealized subject matter championed by the National Academy. Instead they sought to paint the reality of contemporary life in the United States. At about the same time, in 1911, an American Impressionist named Walt Kuhn, a man who lived his life with a sort of reckless bravado, was struggling to get his art shown. He began to plot a cultural revolution. Towards the end of that year, Kuhn formed a society of artists who would stand in direct opposition to the Academy. They called themselves the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. A middle-aged artist named Arthur Bowen Davies was voted in as the organization’s president in 1912. Kuhn and Davies had both studied in Europe where they developed a strong appreciation for the groundbreaking developments that were taking place, particularly in Paris. Both also had ambitious dreams of altering the very fabric of American art and culture. The pair would be particularly instrumental in bringing to U.S. shores a kind of art the likes of which most Americans had never seen before. With the same sprawling exhibition, they would also provide opportunities they had found so lacking in their own careers to benefit other American artists.
Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II), 1912 Wassily Kandinsky

Le Divan Japonais, 1892,
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
There was no jury. The 1913 Armory Show was, "Come on in." Such openness had never happened before. Not every submis-sion was accepted, of course (Duchamp's urinal Fountain, for example). But com-pared to the elitist undertones of the Acad-emy’s juried shows, the Armory Show embraced a broad range of artists and styles. Throughout 1912, Kuhn voyaged across Europe to obtain artworks for the show. Along the way, he picked up Improv-isation 27 (Garden of Love II), (1912) by Wassily Kandinsky (above). Its bold, sket-chy lines, vivid colors, and flat, ornamental approache to space set this canvas in stark opposition to the virtuosic techniques so beloved by the Academy. Kuhn included van Gogh's Mountains at Saint-Rémy (below), from July of 1889.

Mountains at Saint-Rémy (Montagnes à Saint-Rémy),
July 1889. Vincent van Gogh.
While Kuhn was collecting art in Europe, back home, other members of the society gathered together works from a couple hundred American artists. These included abstracted landscapes by Albert Pinkham Ryder, a still life by Marsden Hartley, and, notably, work from female artists, including the muscular nudes of Kathleen McEnery. Days before the month-long exhibition finally opened on February 17, 1913, there developed a linear tour through the evolution of modern art, from Ingres to Matisse. The impact was immediate. It would be difficult to overstate the role of this exhibition in changing American understandings of art, both for artists and collectors. Today, we live in a very small world, one where you can watch what’s happening at a gallery in London or Paris. That was not the case then. Color photography wasn’t widely accessible, and the quality of black-and-white photos was often poor (as you can see in some I've chosen). Thus, artists and collectors had to rely on verbal descriptions to understand the incredible extent of the artistic revolution happening across the Atlantic. It was impossible for an American who couldn’t afford to travel to know about the newest art from Picasso.

J.F. Griswold, The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush-Hour at the Subway). Just above, Cubism, by John Sloan.
The artwork that generated the most headlines was almost certainly Duchamp’s now-famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase (upper image, above) from 1912. Armory Show visitors, saw no nude figure. Duchamp and his "nude" became a lightning rod for any number of satiric cartoon drawings (above). ARTnews even issued an invitation to their readers offering a $10 reward to anyone who could decode the meaning of this inscrutable work. One man wrote in, suggesting that Duchamp might have been experiencing a brain malfunction at the sight of a nude woman. “The painter, never having seen a nude lady, in doing so becomes rather confused. The picture plainly shows this emotion, a veritable brain-storm.” The winning poem hypothesized that the figure was, in fact, a man. The painting, nonetheless, found a buyer.

Monk Talking to an Old Woman,
1824-25, Francisco Goya.
This typifies the reaction of many

visitors to the Armory Show. Never
again was the American art world
allowed to dictate that art must
be beautiful.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Matthew Pratt

The American School, 1765, Matthew Pratt. The standing figure is West, the figure in front of the blank canvas is that of Pratt.
One of the tasks I do often in writing for the Internet is to evaluate artists and their work. That would include unknown artists from hundreds of years ago to the up-and-coming contemporary artists of today. Probably the most difficult art to evaluate is that of the portrait artist. At first reading, that sounds like it should be fairly cut-and-dried. Either it looks like the subject or it doesn't. That's true, except when we have no idea what the subject of the portrait looked like, and sometimes no idea even whom the subject might be. That opens up a third unknown. Sometimes the portrait seems not at all attractive, raising the questions, was the subject really that ugly (male or female) or was the artist simply inept in his or her rendering. A case could be made for both factors being a problem. Adding to that is the fact that most good portrait artists tend to flatter their subjects to some degree. Thus, the unattractive sitter may, in fact, have been even more unattractive that what the artist has portrayed. That's especially a problem when the artist is largely self-taught. Was he or she simply a poor student, or did they have a bad instructor (or both).
Matthew Pratt had a tendency to exaggerate the length of the neck in painting his female subjects. Was this poor anatomy or was it a matter of style demanded by his subjects?
I've encountered this quandary in various art periods, but never more than in dealing with American portrait artists of the colonial period. There's seldom a problem with the real masters of the 18th century American art scene--John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West (above), Gilbert Stuart, John Smibert, Charles Wilson Peale, or John Trumbull (among others). They were all excellent examples of artists who rose above the difficulties of a nascent art world in the pre-revolutionary period. The problems mentioned above arise in evaluating the second tier of American portrait artist, men like Ralph Earl, his brother, James, William Jennys, Jacob Eichholtz, Edward Hicks, and Matthew Pratt. The list of American itinerant artist is surprisingly long, their talents falling across the entire range from godawful to merely somewhat uneven. The Philadelphia painter, Matthew Pratt is a good example of what I mean.
Matthew Pratt, Self-portrait,
ca. 1764
Pratt was born in Philadelphia in the year 1734. His father was a goldsmith, his mother, Rebecca Claypoole, the sister of the artist James Claypoole Sr., a sometimes portrait painter but also a housepainter and galzier (which says a lot about his talent as a portrait artist). Perhaps his primary claim to fame was that he took on his nephew as an apprentice when the boy was a mere lad of fifteen. Pratt learned from his uncle the basic aspects of portrait painting along with a healthy dose of business acumen. In 1764 Pratt escort-ed his cousin, Betsey Shewell to Eng-land for her marriage to the American expatriate artist, Benjamin West. West was gaining a distinguished reputation in England. Pratt stayed on in England for two and a half years as a pupil and colleague to West. It was during this period that he painted one of his best known works, The American School (top).

Madonna of St. Jerome, 1764-66, Matthew Pratt
Despite the title of the painting, while in England, Pratt developed the style of the London School of artists. Although Pratt was four years older than West, he became his first student in a long line of others, as well as West's assistant. In London, Pratt also painted his one and only (insofar as I can tell) religious work, Madonna of St. Jerome (above), which strangely utilized figures and images from both the first and fourth centuries--acceptable, perhaps, if the work was seen as allegorical, but not so much if Pratt intended it as a biblical scene.

Thomas Paine, Matthew Pratt
Although Pratt never gained the same degree of notoriety as his teacher, West, he still left a large oeuvre of works behind him. Pratts' catalogue includes portraits of famous early Americans such as West, the essayist, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin. Pratt's style is often difficult to identify, but it is clear that he was influ-enced by both American and English painters. In 1770, Pratt once more jour-neyed to England and Ireland when he had to claim an inheritance for his wife. While he was there, Pratt painted a few portraits in both Dublin and Liverpool. Pratt also worked in New York from 1771 to 1772 where he was commission to paint a num-ber of government portraits. While he was there, Pratt became friends with John Singleton Copley. The following year, Pratt traveled to Virginia and worked briefly in Williamsburg (below).

Elizabeth Gay (Mrs. Thomas Bolling) with twins Sarah & Ann, 1773, Matthew Pratt--not one of his better works.
By most standards, Pratt was mainly a portrait painter, but he could not live off his income from portraits alone. After the Revolution, Pratt's career slowed, despite the fact that he went into a business partnership. As a partner in Pratt, Rutter and Co., his business offered portraiture and ornamental painting. In order to support himself, Pratt would also paint signs for business owners. These were often hailed for their beauty and for the great skill in which they were created. Pratt created signs for taverns, counting houses, and other shops with a skill matched by few in Philadelphia during his lifetime. During the latter part of his career, Pratt became more known for these unusual signs than for his portraits. The artist died in 1805.

Mrs. Samuel Powel, Matthew Pratt
During his lifetime, Pratt was said to have created a considerable number of por-traits, though today very few are at-tributed to him. Perhaps this is due to the fact that he may not have signed all of his works. The only painting attributed to him that is signed is The American School. This leaves a great possibility for many of Pratt's unknown and otherwise unauth-enticated works to surface all over New England, Virginia, England, Ireland and possibly even Jamaica. As to the point I was making in the beginning, even though he was not self-taught and displays a significant dose of English style portraiture, Matthew Pratt must still be considered an itinerant painter, albeit one of the better practitioners of the art. Thus, as exemplified in the two female portraits below, it would seem he did not do women well (the sober, but sensitive Mrs. Samuel Powel portrait, above, seeming to be an exception). Perhaps he was above flattering his subjects, or, on the other hand, maybe they were every bit as homely looking as Pratt rendered them.

Two of Matthew Pratt's long-necked matrons. This trait, whatever its source, does not appear in the artist's male portraits. Maybe Pratt was sick the day West taught the female anatomy.


Monday, April 30, 2018

Via 57 West

New York City's Via 57 West (center)--distinction amid monotony.
Vitruvian Man, Leonardo
This past spring as my wife and I gazed down from the observation level of New York's Freedom Tower at some two-hundred years of American architectural history spread at our feet, I was intrigued by a brand new, highly unique structure unlike any I'd ever seen before (bottom). The most common three-dimensional shape used in mankind's endless attempts to shelter himself is that of the cube. That is, of course, due to the fact that, while people are not cube-shaped, their range of motion, as Leonardo demonstrated with his Vitruvian Man etching, is best likened to a cube in conjunction with a sphere. The sphere not being a very practical nor stable geometric shape, architecture down through the eons has tended to default to the cube.
Via 57 West is situated on prime real estate, in the city's trendy Chelsey District, mid-town Manhattan, with a view looking out over the Hudson River.
From overhead, Via 57 West
takes on a presence never
before seen in American
If the sphere is inherently unstable, the pyramid has, down through the ages, proven to be the most structurally sound shape to be found (just ask the Egyptians). The problem with the use of triangular shapes in domestic architecture is that the inhabitants keep bumping their heads into the obligatory sloped ceilings within. When con-fronted with these advantages and limitations, architects of the Danish-American firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) sought to combine the best features of both shapes. What do you do when asked to design a distinctively unique skyscraper amid the jagged teeth of hundreds of other similar structures marking the New York skyline? The firm's architects studied the scene not from the site between 57th and 58th Streets in Manhattan but from across the Hudson River in New Jersey. What they saw, among all the cubes, was a notable lack of imagination and specifically the absence of pyramidal shapes. Could they overcome the inherent difficulties of the pyramid, replacing vertical lines with diagonal ones? Look below; they could and would.

No one single photo can capture all the shapes and details of a structure on the scale of Via 57 West. The building changes shapes depending upon the viewpoint.
Technically, Via 57 West is not a true pyramid. A true pyramid demands a square base. However, the NYC street grid consists of blocks on a 1:4 or (at best) a 1:3 ratio of the sides. Thus the designers were forced to slice off a corner mass amounting to about one-sixth of a pyramid as their basic shape. Then, in order to accommodate a sunlit courtyard, they carved out another wedge starting on the fourth floor up through to near the tip on the 32nd floor, providing not just sunlight to grow some 43 trees in their mini-park but also providing a stunning view of the Hudson River and its Jersey shore.

With the sun from the south and the view to the west, the second "slice" from the pyramid not only made environmental sense, but also provided a highly distinctive shape.
Needless to say, the diagonal dictates of the exterior of the building created tremendous problems in planning the interior. The area overlooking the courtyard is basically an elongated "U" with the top opening facing the river (below). In order to maximize balcony views the apartments were laid out in a 45-degree herringbone pattern while being of a size to accommodate the highly competitive, high-end, New York real estate market. The result, however, made for some rather strange-shaped floorplans, particularly as seen in the studio and one bedroom apartments.

The pyramidal shape of the building demands that the floors towards the top become smaller and smaller near the point.
So, what's it like to live in a pyramid (or at least part of one)? Surprisingly the apartments look very much like what you'd find in any urban high-rise. There are no sloped ceilings to bump ones head into and, for the most part, the rooms are the same basic cube-shape we've become accustomed to down through the centuries. It's only when you step out onto a sometimes tiny balcony that you discover the diagonals and come to realize why you're paying $2,900 for a modest one-bedroom apartment (or studio). From that price, rentals zip upwards to $9,000 per month for a roomy three-bedroom plan (below).

Quite apart from the exorbitant rent, cutting corners takes on added meaning when you live in a pyramidal apartment complex.
The apartments inside Via 57 West are, by design, bland, allowing the occupants to impose their own personalities and lifestyles (or pay a designer to do so). The model apartments, shown to would-be renters, are designed in what the developers term a "Scandimerican" style (Danish-modern with an American flavor). The iconic luxury apartments at 625 West 57th Street feature floor-to-ceiling windows with captivating views of the Manhattan skyline and the Hudson River. Stylish Italian cabinetry, stone countertops, and Energy-Star appliances add culinary artistry and utility. Master bathrooms offer similar countertops and cabinetry, along with white-tile floors and walls. Many rentals have balconies and terraces that seamlessly blend outdoor and indoor space.

White and neutral colors predominate in the Scandimerican décor at least until the rental clients move in.
Via 57 West also provides state-of-the-art amenities for its residents, including a 22,000 square-foot courtyard professionally landscaped and brimming with dozens of native plants, as well as barbecue grills. A top-notch gym offers a swimming pool, dedicated studios, and an indoor basketball half-court. Even more, the residents lounges, reading rooms, screening room, game room, and event room offer plenty of exclusive recreation space. Located on the far west side, at 625 West 57th Street, the location is just a few blocks from the world-renowned Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, as well as a dozens of fine-dining restaurants and shops.

The Via 57 West pool is on the third level overlooking the Hudson.
Via 57 West is not massive insofar as New York architecture goes. It does occupy most of a full city block, but rises "only" thirty-two stories in competing for instant recognition with the likes of the Freedom Tower or the Empire State Building. For a building of such unique design, the public spaces inside on the lower floors are distinctively underwhelming (below). The Via 57 West is a hybrid between the European perimeter block and the traditional American high-rise. The building peaks at 450 feet at its north-east corner, thereby maximizing the number of apartments and graciously preserving the adjacent Helena Tower’s views of the river. The building's volume changes depending on the viewer’s vantage point. From the west, it is a hyperbolic paraboloid (warped pyramid). From the east, the "courtscraper" appears to be a slender spire.

The diagonal meets the cube.
In recent decades, some of the most interesting urban developments have come in the form of nature and public space, as designers reinsert them into antiquated post-industrial pockets. Examples include the pedestrianization of Broadway and Times Square; widespread bicycle lanes, the High Line Park, and industrial piers turned into parks. Via 57 West continues this process of greenification allowing open space to invade the urban fabric of the Manhattan city grid. In an unlikely fusion of what would seem to be two mutually exclusive forms--the courtyard and the skyscraper--the "courtscraper" is the most recent addition to the Manhattan skyline.

Views from the balconies of Via 57 West are just as impressive as those from the West Side Highway.
Via 57 West as seen from the Freedom Tower.


Monday, April 23, 2018

Why Paintings Become Famous

Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665, Jan Vermeer

It has always fascinated me to contemplate why some paintings down through the centuries have become so famous that even those who know only a little about art can instantly identify them, often even naming the artist. At the same time other works of art, by other artist, as well done and visually satisfying have remained virtually unknown. Why is Jan Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (above) considered priceless while the painting below, Filling the Lamps, both having similar content, is totally unknown. The answer lies in the three major factors which determine a painting's monetary value--the lasting impact of the painting's style or content; a fascinating story or mystery attached to the painting; or the work's testament having to do with some tragedy, or hardship linking the artist to a particular work. There are other factors, of course, but those are the most common.
Filling the Lamps
Let's consider the artist first. Little is known of Jan Vermeer himself. Mostly he's admired for his masterful use of light and shadow. Vermeer did not leave many biographical traces and only about three dozen paintings by the artist survive today. In contrast, the artist who painted Filling the Lamps has never been recognized for any earthshattering effects as to style or technique, and his surviving works number in the hundreds. If you haven't already guessed by now, the artist was Jim Lane. Numerous theories abound as to whom Vermeer's sitter may have been. Some scholars maintain that it must be the artist’s daughter, Maria (the likely model for several other paintings currently attributed to Vermeer). On the other hand, there are those who believe the more salacious notion that she was Vermeer’s mistress. Regardless, it wasn’t until almost three centuries after Vermeer’s death that The Girl with a Pearl Earring was chosen for an exhibition poster at Washington's National Gallery of Art in 1995. Following that, the painting quickly rose to celebrity status. To my knowledge, Filling the Lamps has never been displayed publically. Moreover, I couldn't even tell you who owns it much less recall the name of the model.
Mona Lisa, 1503-06, Leonardo Da Vinci
On the other hand (either one will do), there's little doubt as to the above model's identity. Her name was Lisa Gherardini, though we might rightfully question: "Who the hell was Lisa Gherardini?" Leonardo, it seems, made her famous, but neglected to write her biography. Mona Lisa is considered by many to be the most well-known painting in the world. While today. you would be hard-pressed to find someone who couldn’t immediately recognize that crooked smile, this wasn’t always the case. Leonardo painted her in Florence, around 1507 (actually he worked on it over a period of three or four years). His Mona Lisa did not win much praise, however, until the early 20th-century. While it was admired within small circles of art critics and historians, few others had much interest in the painting at that time. Then, in the summer of 1911, things changed drastically. The Mona Lisa vanished from the walls of the Louvre. What followed was a media explosion, complete with ”wanted” posters plastered all over Paris. Crowds formed at police headquarters, and before long, short films and songs were made about the vanished painting. Overnight, a somewhat obscure work of art became the world’s most famous painting. More than two long years passed before Vincenzo Peruggia, a former employee of the Louvre, was arrested as he stupidly attempted to sell the painting to a director of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Peruggia claimed that, as an Italian patriot, he believed Mona Lisa belonged in an Italian museum. Following months of speculation and media coverage, Mona Lisa finally returned to the Louvre, where she remains the most visited painting in the museum. (Tip: if you want an up-close look, rent a wheelchair.)
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907, Gustav Klimt
With a story that In many ways is quite similar, Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted in 1907, was one of six Klimt works confiscated by the Nazis from an Austrian home during World War II. After the war, the works became part of the Galerie Belvedere’s collection. The Austrian government claimed the paintings had been willed to the museum and displayed Bloch-Bauer’s portrait under the title The Lady in Gold. In 1998, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, began an eight-year legal battle to secure the painting of her aunt which had once hung in her childhood home. What many saw as a portrait by one of Austria’s most famous artists was actually an important part of Altmann’s past. After the violence and oppression that Altmann’s family experienced in Austria, she wanted the paintings in her new home in the United States. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before the Austrian government finally returned the Klimt paintings to Altmann. This most famous legal battle in art history, eventually inspired a movie starring Helen Mirren in 2015. The court case helped catapult the painting (by whatever name) to international fame.
A Lady and a Gentleman in Black, 1633, Rembrandt van Rijn
If you're starting to notice a pattern here, read on. If you walk through the galleries of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, you'll notice something rather peculiar. Thirteen empty frames hang on the walls. These frames serve as reminders of works of art that were stolen in 1990. During the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, museum security guards admitted two men who were disguised as police officers. Once inside, the men tied up the guards and proceeded to steal thirteen works with an collective value of $500-million. Despite a $5-million reward for information leading to the recovery of these paintings, the theft remains unsolved. Included in the heist were three paintings by Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Manet, and several sketches by Degas. Apart from the most famous, A Lady and Gentleman in Black (above) included Rembrandt’s only known seascape. Both, were cut from their frames. More than a quarter-century later, experts are still puzzled by the choice of works, as even more valuable pieces were left untouched. The media attention surrounding the theft brought unparalleled attention to the stolen works.
Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh
And finally, two very dissimilar paintings by quite dissimilar artists, stand to break the mold.Neither have ever been stolen. The first, Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh, is so well-known as to need little in the way of explanation. Like his tragic, foreshortened life itself, the painting has deeply haunting quality to be found in the work of few other artist before his time or since. Starry Night, painted in 1889 (less than a year before his suicide), is widely considered to be van Gogh's magnum opus. The piece was painted from memory and whimsically depicts the view from his room at the sanitarium where he resided in at the time.
The Goldfinch,  1654,
Carel Fabritius
Though the two paintings bear no physical resem-blance, the plight of The Goldfinch is, in many ways, no different from that of van Gogh as he neared the end of his life. It depicts a chained bird on its perch in front of a mundane background. The melancholic image of an animal tethered to this drab setting strikes a chord with many view-ers. When it was brought to the Frick Collection in New York in 2014, 200,000 people lined up to catch a glimpse of the famed bird. One part of the public’s fascination with this work may, like van Gogh, well be the artist’s own tragic ending. At the age of thirty-two, Carel Fabritius died in a careless explosion of gunpowder that destroyed a quarter of the city of Delft. Many of his paintings were destroyed in the explosion. The Goldfinch was painted in Fabritius’ final year and is one of about a dozen which survived. Another reason for the work’s rise to fame is Donna Tartt's 2014 Pul-itzer Prize-winning novel named for the painting. The intriguing novel, coupled with the fact that The Goldfinch is among the few remaining paint-ings by one of Rembrandt’s most promising students, suggests why this work continues to captivate viewers.