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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Mary Elizabeth Price

The Breakfast Table, 1920s, Mary Elizabeth Price
Frederick Price, M. Elizabeth Price,
Rae Bredin, and Alice Price Bredin
aboard ship.
In researching various artists to write about I sometimes encounter entire families of talented individuals who have made their mark as artists (some more pronounced than others). The Pissarro family down through the 20th-century comes immediately to mind, as well as the Peale's of Philadelphia and the Wyeths of nearby Chadds Ford. If art runs in my own ancestral heritage it's a rather small, shallow stream. My mother's uncle, Elwood Rogers, was once a commercial artist in Lima, Ohio, during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. I recall visiting their home once, which was somewhat nicer than ours, so he must have done okay in his field. I believe his daughter also painted. As for my family, that's about it. Not so with the family of Mary Elizabeth Price. Her brother (far left in photo) owned a prominent New York art galley (always helpful if you're an artist). His wife was an Impressionist painter, while her sister married an American Impressionist. They all lived in and around the Impressionist art colony of New Hope, Pennsylvania, around the turn of the century.

The Cheerful Barge, Mary Elizabeth Price
Mary Elizabeth Price.
Mary Elizabeth Price was born in 1877 near he town of Martinsburg, West Virginia. Her parents were Quakers who moved to the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, and later to New Hope, Pennsylvania where Elizabeth grew up. She had a sister and three brothers. She began her art studies in 1896 at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, before moving on to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1904. Later she took private classes from William Langson Lathrop. Price began her career as a New York City art teacher in 1917 teaching at the Neighborhood Art School of Greenwich House.

Delphinium Pattern, ca. 1933, Mary Elizabeth Price

Summer Bouquet, Mary Elizabeth Price
When Price's work is recognize at all, it's usually her floral paintings which are mentioned. She painted on wooden panels coated with a mixture of gesso and red clay. Gold or silver leaf was applied over that followed by the painted image in oils. Her Delphinium Pattern (above) from around 1933 and Summer Bouquet (left) are typical of her work along this line. Personally I find both works rather dull and boring, so typical of that which was expected of women artist during this period, and only modestly Impressionistic. Now, compare them to Price's strikingly colorful The Breakfast Table (top) from the 1920s or her Cheerful Barge from about the same period.

Picking Flowers, Mary Elizabeth Price
57th Street Window, Mary Elizabeth Price
Despite her family connections, the work of Mary Elizabeth Price is not very well known. Could this be the reason why? Did her gallery-owing brother push her to paint what was popular (and salable) at the expense of what seems to have been a natural inclination to move beyond such "feminine" decorative pieces? Her Picking Flowers (above) is purely impressionist and totally gender neutral as is the case with her 57th Street Window (right). It's easy to claim, but impossible to prove, that had she been a man, adverse to "female" content, Price's career and name recognition as an artist might well be quite different today. Even so, some of her paintings have been appraised in the mid-five-figure range.

The Dorothy Bradford (from Provincetown to Boston), Mary Elizabeth Price
The Village Queen, Mary Elizabeth Price
In choosing artists about whom to write, I tend to give a little more latitude to women artist in order to allow for the difficulties they encountered in ascending toward the upper levels of the male-dominated art world of the past two or three centuries. That was not particularly a factor with the work of Mary Elizabeth Price. Her work stands up quite well without any special dispensation on my part. It would be trite, not to mention degrading, to say Elizabeth Price could "paint like a man." Yet, as her The Dorothy Bradford... (above) and her The Village Queen (right) would indicate, at her unfettered best, she certainly rose above any gender stereotype then or now, both in terms of style and content. Mary Elizabeth Price died in 1965 at the age of eighty-eight.

The Welldigger from Titusville, 1928, Mary Elizabeth Price
(not a flower in sight).


Monday, July 6, 2015

George W. Bush Portraits

Former President George W. Bush portrait,
John Howard Sanden, official White House portrait
I was born about three weeks after the end of WW II. That makes me one of the first of the so-called "baby boom" generation. I've always felt being among the first has served me well over my lifetime. Former President George W. Bush has a similar distinction. He was the first of the baby boom generation to be elected President of the United States. He beat former President Bill Clinton by forty-four days. They both beat the first Generation Xer, President Barrack Obama, by fifteen years. Future President George H.W. Bush (now ninety years of age) and his wife Barbara, then of New Haven, Connecticut, became the proud, first-time parents of new baby boy on July 6, 1946--sixty-nine years ago today. Happy birthday, Mr. President.

President George W. Bush by Robert Anderson, National Portrait Gallery
As with all recent presidents, George W. Bush has two official portraits, the one by John Howard Sanden (top) which hangs in the White House, and a second, in this case by Robert Anderson, belonging to the National Portrait Gallery (above). Bush must be a difficult subject. Neither portrait, both by highly reputable portrait artist, are particular good likenesses. Sanden's portrayal is the better of the two, yet lacks much more than a stereotypical photographic likeness. The NPG's less formal image by Anderson is troubled by a tired half-smile, which obscures the authenticity of the likeness.

George W. Bush Self-portrait
George W. Bush, Ronbert Sherr
Both are a far cry better than Bush's attempt to capture his own likeness (above, left). The best Bush image, insofar as likeness is concerned, can be found in Robert Sherr's portrait (above, right) painted to match a similar one of the elder President Bush seen a few days ago. In fact, this portrait may be the better of the two. I remarked then that Bush should take lessons from Sherr. Sherr's portrait of George W. bears an expression I see as more pleasant and less strained than either of the other two. Also, the expression seems more accurate than even that which Sherr painted of the elder President Bush some years before.

President George W. Bush, Mark Carder, Union League, Philadelphia, PA
A third major portrait of former President George W. Bush hangs in Philadelphia's Union League (above). Painted by Mark Carder, has a somewhat stiff, bland look about it. However, there's nothing stiff or bland about the two unofficial portraits below, which, though not exactly flattering, are considerably more so than the vast majority of others I encountered in selecting them. The oval image juxtaposed with the penny (below, left) is a miniature painted by the husband-wife team of Wes and Rachelle Siegrist. With its warm distinctive smile, appears to much more closely coincide with the George W. Bush we've all come to know so well. It's roughly three inches tall. The portrait by K. Zerphii (below, right), is simply another indication that the former president, himself, isn't the only one who struggles to capture the face of the forty-third president on canvas.

President George W. Bush mminiature,
Wes and Rachelle Siegrist.
George W. Bush, 2007, K. Zerphii

Former first lady, Laura Bush, official White House
portrait, John Howard Sanden.


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Visiting Versailles

Of all the rooms in Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors is undoubtedly most
impressive, famous, and historic. Surprise: It was once an open terrace.
In thinking back about our recent week in Paris, the greatest disappointment I have is that I did not schedule an all-day excursion when visiting the Palace of Versailles. Having come that far, I spent no more than about three hours touring what some would call the most impressive palace in all Europe. Having visited Catherine's Palace and the Peterhof Palace just outside St. Petersburg, I'm not so sure I'd rate Versailles quite that high even though both the Russian temples of Romanov extravagance were designed and built emulating Louis XIV's somewhat larger overindulgence in the Paris suburbs. In reminiscing about what I saw and what I missed, I'm not going to get involved in the planning, style, construction, or colorful history of the place. That I did some three years ago. Just click on the link above.

Versailles' golden fence, glistening in the sun. The chapel is just behind the statue.
Interior of the chapel.
Our tour group of about eight entered the palace grounds through a gate at the end of Rue des Reservoirs near the Chapel of St. Louis. This gate would appear to be a minor side entrance to the grand entry plaza or Minister's Court. I felt almost as if we were "sneaking" onto the grounds. If first impressions count for much, I was stunned by the gilded gate and fence around the place. I remember the gates to the Russian palaces being more colorful and ornate, but not appearing quite so blatantly ostentatious. Our first stop was, in fact, the chapel, a moderate-size, four-story, Baroque affair with a frescoed, barrel ceiling. With it's glistening white Corinthian columns, it seemed more classical than Baroque. Strangely, the floor of the chapel is one level below the base of the columns (left). I was especially taken by the gold leaf altar (below, right). I can't recall any of its kind quite so lavish other than that of St. Peter's in Rome.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The original hunting retreat is highlighted in red while the royal apartments extend east to create a "U" shape forming the Royal Court. The chapel and the royal opera can be seen anchoring each end of the north wing.
The chapel altar would not be out
of place in many cathedrals.
The official, main entrance to the original hunting lodge/palace is accessed from an inner Royal Court facing east toward the community of Versailles which grew up around the royal retreat during the 17th and 18th centuries (above). From the chapel, we move across a narrow courtyard to a relatively recent wing with a grand staircase leading to the royal apartments on the second floor. There we passed through a number of lavishly decorated bedrooms and drawing rooms used by VIP guests, eventually coming to the King's bedchamber (below, left), a huge, ostentatiously decorated room in red, white, and gold, its massive bed centered upon a stage-like platform with a broad railing and gate. The king actually conducted official business as he was being bathed and dressed. Those waiting to be received remained on the opposite side of the railing. There's even a massive stage curtain that could be tied back to reveal the sleeping area once the King was up and about (eight a.m. each morning).

The King's bedchamber.
The Queen's bedchamber
On the opposite side of this main core structure was the queen's bedchamber (below, right, that of Marie Antoinette). It's no less lavish, and roughly the same size, though not quite as "official." The queen's d├ęcor was lighter and brighter, favoring shades of blue and gold, considered to be more feminine in nature. Connecting these two august chambers, as well as other ancillary rooms, was nothing less that the massive "Hall of Mirrors" (top). I lost track of how many different bedchambers I passed through in progressing around the "U". Two more can be seen below.

The Burgundy Room?

Yes, the bed is sterling silver.
There was also a media room, the Royal Opera (below), as well as additional apartments for younger members of the royal family. Large as the royal quarters were, they and public rooms used for dining and entertaining actually occupied less then one-fourth the 721,182 square feet of floor space (67,000 square meters). The rest was occupied by various governmental offices, a representative meeting hall, and living quarters housing the important officials of the court and their families. Stretching for more than a quarter mile, at it's broadest point, the palace grew to its current size over a period of about one-hundred years as the size of the French government mushroomed to the point the economy could no longer afford such opulence. And if the palace itself was horrendously extravagant, the surroundings, the Gardens of Versailles were no less so (though I had little more time than to snap a bad picture of them from the overlooking terrace).
The Royal Opera, situated at the northern end of the north wing.
The stage was as big as the seating area.
Zeus. That's not the length of the palace
in the background, that's its width.


Saturday, July 4, 2015

Calvin Coolidge Portraits

Official White House portrait, President Calvin Coolidge,
1931, Charles Sydney Hopkins

Smiling for votes,
October 22, 1924.
The lyrics above are by George M. Cohan. They were first performed on Broadway in 1904 in the musical Little Johnny Jones. We tend to associate the tune with James Cagney, who sang it in the 1942 film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which he played Cohan. Quite apart from any association with Cagney or horse racing, the lively chorus could well have been the campaign theme song for President Calvin Coolidge when he ran for reelection in 1924. The words are especially appropriate in that today, July 4th 2015, would have been Coolidge's 143rd birthday. Yes, old "Silent Cal" was actually born on the Fourth of July, in 1872, just four years short of our nation's hundredth birthday.

Although the lyrics might well have fit, the tune to which Cohan fit them (even then, more than a hundred years old), would have been totally out of character for the somber Vermont Yankee. In scouring the photo archives, I found barely a handful in which the man was smiling; and most those were obviously taken during the 1924 campaign for reelection (above, right), for example. Even at that it would seem to be a rather forced joviality. Let's face it, the man was not only "silent" but somber as well. In gathering the meager number (for a president) of painted portraits, absolutely none of them even hint at a smile. Fellow New England Yankee, Charles Sydney Hopkins, in his official White House Portrait of President Calvin Coolidge (top) painted him perhaps the most somber of them all.

President Calvin Coolidge, 1928, Joseph E. Burgess, National Portrait Gallery
President Calvin Coolidge
by an unknown artist.
Virtually every president has two painted portraits, the official White House portrait, and one in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Joseph E. Burgess' painting is a stiff, full-length, standing pose (above), though it's usually cropped to a head and shoulders version (with little or no loss). Although Coolidge was probably the most photographed president up to that time, his two official portraits and two other insignificant works are apparently the only such painted images rendered during his lifetime (he died of heart failure in 1933). The most pleasant of these (right) is by an unknown artist, possibly William McGregor Paxton, who is known to have painted both Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge. The slick, realistic style is similar in some ways to Paxton's. However, it also has the look of a more recent work leading me to believe it was probably painted posthumously from a photo.

President Calvin Coolidge
(artist unknown).
Grace Anna Goodhue
Coolidge with Rob Roy, 1924,
Howard Chandler Christy
The other portrait of Calvin Coolidge (left) by an unknown artist, is by far the most surprising of the lot, still quite unsmiling, but having such a loose, bold, almost Cubist style as to nearly cause the sitter to hint at a smile. I would appreciate it if anyone could provide me with reliable attribution for either of these works. In contrast to these, the official White House portrait of First Lady, Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge with Rob Roy, by Ohio artist, Howard Chandler Christy (below, right), is exceedingly informal in all respects, from it's surprisingly slender shape to the inclusion of the Coolidge's white collie, Rob Roy. There have been many White House pets, but none have ever found their way into an official portrait. The stylish red sheath dress also suggests that Grace Coolidge was not nearly as somber as her husband (who forbid her to drive a car, talk to the press, or mention politics).

Calvin Coolidge Time Cover,
 01-16-28, Samuel J. Woolf
A recent Calvin Coolidge
caricature, Jason Cottle.
As with all presidents, some of the most insightful portraits are seen in drawings, cartoons, or caricatures. That is no less the case with Coolidge. Though painters seem not to have found him particularly interesting, Coolidge's somber persona and small-government political philosophy have, starting with the Reagan Administration, and more recently in the eyes of conservatives, once more brought him to the forefront of the political world. The Obama poster parody (below) would seem to be in keeping with those developments.

Conservatives moan, "Where's old Silent Cal when we really need him?"


Friday, July 3, 2015

Harvey Pratt

Racing with the Feather, Harvey Pratt
I've long maintained that painters can do things photographers only wish they could do. Twenty or thirty years ago when I first made that claim, it would have gone unchallenged. Today, with the advent of digital photography, those behind the camera have gained somewhat on the artist. Just as any professional photographer in decades past possessed some degree of darkroom skills, even amateur digital photographers today sometimes have highly refined computer skills in the area of digital image manipulation, which may outstrip those of most painters today. Although digital photos are still printed on paper, very few get that far without at least some tweaking using photo-enhancement software. In fact, the better the digital photographer becomes using a mouse (or digital drawing pad) the fewer demands are placed on his or her camera skills. In working with film, trial and error was expensive and skills at "getting it right the first time" were at a premium. That's not so much today. It might even be safe to reverse my outdated declaration. Today, photographers can do things artists only wish they could do.

The Three Guardsmen, Harvey Pratt
Harvey Pratt
Forensic artist, Harvey Pratt has lived and worked through this transition. And, like other artists willing to change "with the times," he has no doubt come to learn new skills, abandoning others, and adapting new tools to old techniques, thus simplifying, improving, and hastening artistic outcomes. However, as Pratt's Racing the Feather (top) and his sculptural figures, The Three Guardsmen (above), unequivocally prove, this forensic artist is every bit a traditional painter/sculptor. The Oklahoma native is also a Native American, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. As Oklahoma's top forensic artist, he's also a lawman, having joined the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation in 1972 as a narcotics investigator, retiring in 1992 as an Assistant Director. Today, at the age of seventy-four, he remains with the agency as a full-time forensic specialist.

Bigfoot, one of Harvey Pratt's major interest in which
he employs his forensic drawing skills.
Sandman, a facial reconstruction
based upon a skull.
As fascinating as his Native American art might be, Pratt is but one of thousands of such artist all over the West working to preserve their traditional cultural images. On the other hand, Pratt is probably the only Native American forensic artist working today (though he often conducts training seminars which likely have included younger such artists). Be that as it may, he's undoubtedly the most experienced, having practiced his art for over forty years. Pratt has also turned his forensic drawing skill toward "fleshing out" the legendary sub-humanoid creature known as Bigfoot (above).

Forensic art can be broken down into eight specialties. The painted clay figure of Sandman (right) involves two of them, historic reconstruction and skull reconstruction. Among the others are: witness description composite drawing; skull tracing; soft tissue postmortem drawing; age progression, photo enhancement; and sometimes, courtroom sketching. For the most part they could all be loosely categorized as recreating what was from what's left. Pratt's expertise in one of the most difficult (and valuable) of these specialties can be seen in his drawing of Roy Russell Long (below, right) based upon descriptions offered by two eye-witnesses. The actual photo (below, left) of the convicted double murderer allows for an accurate indication of Pratt's skills.

Roy Russell Long photo (left) and Pratt's color
drawing (right) from eyewitness descriptions.
Skull facial reconstruction (below) allows for a face to be reconstructed in clay over a bare skull, in this case an unidentified, highly decayed body found in a shallow grave. By comparing Pratt's reconstruction to photos of local missing persons, Oklahoma City Police were able to identify the body.

Skull facial reproduction (left), allowing the postmortem
identification of an unknown individual (right).
With the modern day presence of surveillance cameras on nearly every street corner, Pratt has broadened his skills to include photo enhancement. Many such cameras (perhaps even most of them) provide only brief, low-resolution records of passers-by which are, for identification purposes, virtually worthless. However, in the hands of a skilled artist (using digital technology or simply a pencil), such images can be improved to the point they become a valuable tool in directing investigative efforts toward a certain individual. Sometimes, as photos are disseminated electronically, they can also deteriorate to the point of likewise becoming virtually useless. The image (below, left) was of a Louisiana skull reconstruction. Pratt was able to reproduce the photo, enhance it digitally, and then draw the features more accurately and in color, making identification of the decayed body possible.

Photo Enhancement
Forensic art is an "art" only in the sense of employing artistic skills for very practical, rather than creative pursuits. As valuable as such skills may be, few artists could resist employing them in creative endeavors. Pratt's Chief Magpie (left) is one such example, a portrait done in oils prepared using several of Pratt's forensic skills. By the same token, the artist's bronze One Butt (below) uses none of them.

Chief Magpie, Harvey Pratt

One Butt, Harvey Pratt