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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Lambert-Sigisbert Adam

Neptune Calming the Waves (detail), 1737, Lambert-Sigisbert Adam
Neptune Calming the Waves,
1757, Lambert-Sigisbert Adam
In writing about art and artist on a daily basis, I've come to realize that there is a definite deficit in my depiction three-dimensional art. It's not that I dislike sculpture or sculptors; I love being able to walk around museum pieces, viewing them from all sides as I hunt for where the hell the curators put the damned titling label. I've always felt it should be on the pedestal, perhaps all four sides of the pedestal. At worst, it should be on the floor at the base of the pedestal. Instead, very often, it's somewhere on a wall clear way the hell across the room from the piece it proclaims. I hate it when they do that. In any case, I think maybe one reason I don't discuss sculpture as much as I should is that there is so little carved sculpture being done today. It's all additive...clever perhaps, meaningful (if you put a little effort in making it so), and even beautiful. But to me though, that's a construction. I know, technically, additive or subtractive (carved), it's all sculpture, but I'm just enough of a "stick-in-the-mud" admirer of Michelangelo, Bernini, Canova, Rodin, and Lambert-Sigisbert Adam to consider their talents superior to those artists dedicated to assemblage as invented by Picasso barely a hundred years ago.
Lambert-Sigisbert Adam Self-portrait
If you choked on the final name in my "much admired" list, you're probably not French, probably not big on sculpture in any case, and probably never visited Versailles. As part of my homework before visiting France next spring I'm brushing up on all things French so as to know which wine to order with croissants. In speaking of any French sculptor named Adam, it's easy to get confused. Lambert is referred to as l’aîné (the elder) to differentiate him from his two younger sculpting brothers, Nicolas, known as "the younger", and François Gaspard Balthazar Adam (perhaps called "the youngest"). Their father, Jacob-Sigisbert Adam was also a sculptor but for some strange reason didn't rate being called "the elder" as would be the case in most such circumstances. Their sister, Anne, was the mother of Claude Michel, known as Clodion, who received his early training in the studio of his uncle Lambert-Sigismund Adam. The family came from the town of Nancy (northeastern France). Are you still with me, or did you get hung up on one of the branches of this highly sculptural family tree?

Perseus, Lambert-Sigisbert Adam
Lambert-Sigisbert Adam was born in 1700, which at least makes keeping track of his age at different points in his career quite simple. In 1723 (when he was twenty-three) Lambert won the Prix de Rome, not by creating a sculpture but by restoring one, a fragmented Roman group called Achilles and the Daughters of Lycomedes. The Prix de Rome (prize of Rome) meant a year's all-expenses-paid stay in the "Eternal City" studying Roman art (though by that time in was mostly Renaissance art). There, Adam no doubt became familiar with the work of Bernini and other Baroque masters of the mallet and chisel; though in associating Adam with the Baroque it becomes necessary to add the word "late" before the term in that there is a distinctly Rococo element in all he did (the evolving style at the time).

St. Gerome, Lambert-Sigisbert Adam
Adam apparently liked Rome, he was still there in 1732. That's when he was one of sixteen sculptors to submit plans in the competition for the redesign of the city's famed Trevi Fountain. He won (unanimously, in fact). However, the Roman art community was outraged that a foreigner should be chosen for such a prestigious commission. The decision of the judges was apparently "not final". They awarded the commission to Alessandro Galilei, only to strip him of the prize because he was a Florentine, thus allowing Nicola Salvi and his student, Luigi Vanvitelli the honor. To save face, Adam admitted he'd not sought permission from the director of the French Academy to compete, which brought to an end his prolonged "studies" in Rome.

Versailles, Basin of Neptune, The Triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite,
1736-40, Lambert-Sigisbert Adam.

Nymph Hunting with Heron, 1739,
Lambert-Sigisbert Adam
Back home in Paris around 1737, Adam created a model for the sculptural group The Triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite (above) which was later cast in lead for the Neptune Basin at Versailles. It was seen as such a triumph that Adam never again had to worry about where his next franc was coming from. Elected to the French Academy the same year, Adam did a portrait bust or two (three, actually) but his academic ticket to prosperity had bigger things written on it. The Triumph of Neptune stilling the Waves (top) in 1737, found its place in the Louvre (then the home of the French Academy). In the following years, his work took its place in the imitation Versailles palaces popping up all over Europe until his death in 1759.

Tastes in painting and sculpture change, and nowhere more so than during the political, cultural, and philosophical upheavals in France during the second half of the 18th-century. The next generation of artists and critics considered Adam's work too "Berniniesque" and in fact, gave only grudging admiration for Bernini himself, and his highly theatrical Baroque style. Ironically though, in architecture, the Baroque continued to dominated well into the next century eventually evolving into the Beaux-Arts style (which was, in fact, mostly Baroque by a French name).

Child Pinched by a Lobster, 1740, Lambert-Sigisbert Adam--OUCH!


Friday, November 21, 2014

Nicholas Lancret

A Family in the Garden, 1738, Nicholas Lancret.             
The little girl is getting her first taste of coffee. (Her reaction might be more amusing.)               
Today we take for granted that artists--mostly painters and photographers--deal with the fun and funny stuff from which the best moments of life are derived. We also see this among the often hilarious viral videos popping up every day in the Internet. What we don't often consider is that painters hundreds of years ago also enjoyed this type of art. Most commonly we see it in light-hearted genre from many different countries and eras. But this kind of are was especially prevalent during the French Rococo era (roughly 1700 to 1750). The Baroque had passed away, as had the great "sun king," Louis XIV (in 1715). Louis XV was five years old when he came to the throne. His uncle, Phillip II of Orleans, was his guardian and regent until the child-king came of age in 1723 (at the age of thirteen?). Neo-classicism had yet to rear its sober head. In between, art in Europe, but especially in France, took a light-hearted, playful turn.
The Pleasures of Bathing, Nicholas Lancret
Nicholas Lancret Self-portrait
Some art historians consider the Rococo decadent, inconsequential, frivolous, and in modern terms, "silly." I suppose, depending upon your point of view, there were all of these elements, but I tend to think of the Rococo in the most positive light--frivolous. And what's wrong with frivolous? Frivolous is fun. Frivolous is funny. And if that equates to "silly" then so be it. Antoine Watteau is often thought of as "the" French Rococo artist icon, but a friend of his, Nicholas Lancret, could be just a frivolous and perhaps even more "silly." Even his elongated face and fluffy hair (right) look silly.

Breakfast Ham, Nicholas Lancret.
Nicholas Lancret was born in 1690, which means he began as an artist about the time the Sun King abandoned Versailles for a still bigger "mansion in the sky"....or somewhere. Lancret first studied under the Baroque painter, Pierre d'Ulin. However, Lancret's admiration for Watteau induced him to switch to Watteau's master, Claude Gillot, who had been Watteau's master. Watteau was but six years older than Lancret. The important factor here is that Watteau died in 1721 at the age of thirty-six. Lancret didn't. He lived another twenty-two years. He was thus able to, in effect, pick up where Watteau left off, though one look at his work, as compared to Watteau's, would indicate that Lancret was definitely the lesser of the two in virtually all respects, except perhaps his light, dry sense of humor.

The Four Ages of Man: Youth, Nicholas Lancret
The Music Lesson, Nicholas Lancret--
typical of Rococo frivolity.
Nowhere is Lancret's humor more refined and lighthearted than his Breakfast Ham (above, left). Lancret seems to have loved to "picnic in the park," a theme he repeated in various guises many times during his career. By the way, don't expect to find dates attached to Lancret's work. Many of his paintings were, in fact, small murals as part of Louis XV's redecoration and expansion of Versailles (right). Very often secondary artists leave behind little documentation. Likewise, as with Lancret, they have elicited very little study by art historians in establishing much in the way of a chronology to their work. In fact, one of the major reasons we're aware of Lancret's art comes from the fact that over eighty of his paintings were later turned into engraved prints (by Lancret himself and others). Thus, not only did he live longer than Watteau but Lancret's early work was, at the time, more popular, a fact that seems to have driven a wedge between the two artists. Lancret's series, "The Four Ages of Man," dates from 1835. Childhood (above) has a playful charm the easily accounts for Lancret's popularity. An etching based upon the same series, Maturity (below) was rendered by Nicolas de Larmessin. It typifies the translation from painting to print.

The Four Ages of Man: Maturity, etching by Nicolas de Larmessin based upon a painting by Nicholas Lancret (badly in need of restoration).
The Wedding Feast in the Village, Nicholas
Lancret--another "picnic in the park."
Another of the "Four Ages of Man," series, Youth (below), illustrates Lancret's warm affection for young people, especially those in the teenage courting period. The fourth in the series, Old Age (below) is, like so many of Lancret's paintings, very much in need of cleaning and restoration. But standing in the shadow of Watteau, Lancret's Rococo images seem not to place very high on the list of thousands of others in France alone, needing similar costly and time-consuming work. One only has to compare Childhood, and Youth (bottom), which have been restored, to Old Age to quickly see the debilitating effects of age and grime in masking the delightful brilliance of color that were so much a part of Lancret's popularity.

The Four Ages of Man: Old Age, 1735, Nicholas Lancret.
The painting's decrepit condition seems to reflect its title.
The Wedding Dance, Nicholas Lancret.
Although Lancret could not reasonably be said to have "died young," as did Watteau, he was still only fifty-three at the time of his death in 1743 (about an average lifespan for this era). Art historian seem to have allowed Lancret's mature work a grudging admiration. One of his last paintings, A Family in the Garden (top), from 1738, is often considered to be his best work. As for myself, I tend to favor his Four Ages of Man: Youth (below) or The Wedding Dance (right), which appears to be a companion piece to The Wedding Feast in the Village (above, left).

The Four Ages of Man: Youth, 1735, Nicholas Lancret.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

The House of Worth

Paris in the 1850s (left) and the House of Worth gown from 1926. Notice the train persists.
Charles Frederick Worth
In today's fashion publishing world, it's interesting the number of magazines touting men's apparel as compared to those showcasing the latest women's fashion trends. Besides the fact that men seem to be hardwired not to care too much about how they look or keeping up with clothing styles, probably the overwhelming reason for this publishing phenomena is the fact that, even going back a century or two, there have not been all that many changes in the cut of men's dress suits and other apparel. A man wearing today's standard three-button suit would not look particularly out of place in any decade of the past hundred years or more. Now, take a look (above) at how far women's gowns have evolved since the early 1800s. Why is that? Well, transportation modes for one thing, women in the workplace for another, and feminine fickleness would probably round out the top three. Another important factor was Charles Frederick Worth.

Ball Gowns, 1860s, Charles Frederick Worth
Worth is often referred to as the "father of haute couture." Of course, women wore "designer" dresses in Paris long before Charles Worth could hold a pencil or wield a needle. Usually they were one-of-a-kind creations designed and made for a specific woman, often for specific occasions. Worth changed all that. His business model revolved around the fashion model parading about wearing one of his dresses while he and others milled around taking orders for similar or identical gowns. Then the orders, measurements, and other details were sent to "the factory" to be sewn by hand either by company seamstresses or farmed out to women working independently out of their homes. Of course, quite apart from Worth, Elias Howe, around 1845, had something to do Worth's success. Howe's sewing machines, both the home and industrial models, changed the clothing industry forever.

1888 Russian court dress, Charles Frederick Worth
A Worth Evening Dress, 1893.
As his name suggests, Charles Frederick Worth was not French. Worth was English, born in 1825. He got his start working in his hometown of Bourne, Lincolnshire, selling fabrics and draperies. He came to Paris in 1846 where he also worked for a drapery shop, and there married one of their models. Models? In a drapery shop? I though only Scarlett O'Hara wore draperies. The company, Gagelin and Opigez, also had a sideline making shawls and bonnets. Worth began designing and making simple outfits for his new wife. Ladies visiting the shop saw them, liked them, and began asking for copies. His success in selling "window treatments" as we call them today, brought him a partnership in the firm. He urged them to move into high fashion but the curtain makers were unwilling to risk their reputation by descending into the dressmaking business.

Fancy Dress Costume, 1870, Charles Frederick Worth
A Charles Worth creation, 1898-1900.
So, having slipped into the French fashion industry through the back door, Worth found a rich Swede to bankroll him, whereupon he opened his own shop in 1858. Success came quickly as the Empress Eugenie, wife of the Emperor Napoleon III, discovered his talents and began patronizing Worth's establishment. With that, her rich, and titled friends began to follow suit. Soon, Worth was dressing princesses, duchesses, baronesses, and all other ladies whose lords could afford him. Entertainment figures such as Sarah Bernhardt and Nellie Melba (for whom melba toast was named) began patronizing him. Often his wealthy customers came to Paris specifically to acquire their annual "wardrobe" for each year's social season. Eventually that came to mean far more than ball gowns. Women then had morning dresses, afternoon dresses, evening dresses, and intimate apparel worn only in the boudoir. With the kind of following, that's a lot of ladies and an enormous number of dresses. Soon, Worth found himself turning away business in an effort to maintain some semblance of exclusivity.

Afternoon Dress, 1872, Charles Frederick Worth.
A Worth wedding gown, 1898.
Charles Worth was the first to put designer labels in all his clothes, also the inventor of Paris fashion shows as we know them today, held four times a year, when he displayed his newest creations. Ladies would choose a design, then choose the colors and fabric, often even the trim, all of which was custom made to fit their corseted, hourglass figures. Worth's yards and yards (I'm tempted to use the word "acres") of luxurious fabrics were nothing new to the mid-century Paris fashion world, but all the "ruffles and flourishes," made feasible with the aid of Howe's marvelous, timesaving machine, were new, and Worth employed them lavishly. Worth was, in fact, the first of his kind, a dressmaker, turned designer, considered by Parisians to be a true artist

An 1887 creation by Charles Frederick Worth
now in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Worth, behind the scene.
When the Franco-Prussian War came to Paris 1871, Worth simply closed up shop. After the war, when the ladies waistlines were somewhat thinner from near starvation, Charles Frederick Worth reopened as The House of Worth (very clever name). His sons, Gaston and Jean-Philippe joined him in the business, then took over themselves after their father's death in 1895. The business continued to flourish under their management and later that of their son, Jacques,(who started the company in the perfume business). Later, he brought his son, Jean-Charles, into the business. The great fashion dynasty came to an end in 1952, with the retirement of Charles Frederick Worth's great-grandson. The business merged with Paquin and later closed in 1956. An attempt was made to revive the firm in 1999 under designer, Giovanni Bedin, who displayed his first new collection in 2010, then introduced a ready-to-wear line in 2011. Since then, only the perfume line has continued to be successful.

The House of Worth Collection, 2010. Charles Frederick must be rotating in his grave.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ancient Portraits

A Fayum Mummy Portrait, 50 BC to 250 AD
Modern day painted portrait
With the advent of modern portrait photography, the painted portrait has risen in cachet, fallen in popularity, risen in price, and fallen in numbers, while rising in quality. Of course, all these elements are interrelated, some having to do with cause and effect, others simply correlation. Add into this the digital revolution of the past decade or two, and it appears likely that the preservation of faces in search of immortality will never be the same again. Strangely enough, there's really nothing new in all that. Nowhere is this more obvious than in comparing the art of painted portraiture now with its earliest beginnings during the first few centuries of the Christian era. All too often we think of painted portraits as if Leonardo da Vinci invented them when he made Mona smile (sort of).

A Greek or Roman figure from
the first century AD.

That's wildly inaccurate, of course, though the style and nature of painted portraits changed greatly about that time (early 1500s),from mostly the profile images dating back to Greek ceramics, to the familiar three-quarter views we take for granted today. For that we can thank the Netherlandish van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan, and those such as Antonello da Messina who carried their new approach to portraiture south to Italy. But even taking that into consideration, the painted portrait goes back another thousand years or more to the Roman Empire, though the Romans (Italians) had little to do with it. Their tastes in wall decorations leaned more toward frescoes and mosaics, neither of which lend themselves very well to portraiture (below). No, the real experts in portrait painting during this time were the Egyptians.

Detail of an Ancient Roman Fresco Portrait of Terentius Neo and his Wife,
about the best Roman portraiture ever got during the first century AD
A Roman bust labeled a First Century
Republican.  I know some 21st-century
Republicans who look about the same.
First of all, before we can talk about ancient painted portraits we have to locate reasonably well preserved examples. That's why we have hundreds of Greek and Roman portraits in marble but virtually none on painted surfaces. Forget canvas painting; Leonardo may, indeed, have invented that. Before his time, painting was done on wooden panels covered with gesso (basically plaster and rabbit skin glue). Though some survived; most didn't; and those that did, didn't do so very well. Moreover, the faces on them were either royalty or deities, not to mention being highly stylized. It comes down to the fact that painted portraits during the days of ancient Rome were not very common, not very archival, and not very well done. And, in any case, the highly skilled art and artists did not survive the fall of the Roman Empire (above). All of which brings us back to the riverbanks of the Nile.

Portrait of a Boy,
Roman period,
2nd century
This and the portrait at right are
among the best preserved from
the Fayum Mummy portraits.

I don't think I need to delve into the long history of Egyptian attempts to mitigate death by embalming, sculpting, and by the time of Caesar and Cleopatra, painting the faces of their dearly departed upon their sarcophagi. It was in this latter endeavor that the art of portrait painting first reached its zenith, starting in the first century BC and extending into the first few centuries of the Christian era. However in contemplating this era, we must discard some modern concepts. First, being funerary art, they did not hang on the walls of the rich and famous. For that we can be thankful or else we'd not have them around today to admire and analyze. They were preserved in the highly archival tomb rooms, many discovered only in the past century or two. Second, the Egyptians discovered that pigments and beeswax, melted together, made a highly effective (and fortunately, highly archival) painting medium.
One of the worst and one of the best. The male figure on the left is from around 250 BC.
The female portrait on the right is undated, though probably much later
(note the absence of stylization).
Notice the left eye is
smaller than the right
eye, which is said to have
a surgical cut beneath it.
Today, we call it encaustic painting. That's not to say it was a quick and easy hobby activity for talented amateurs. I've not tried it myself, but some I know who have say that while it can be an exciting, highly expressive painting medium, it is also highly technical, unforgiving, time-consuming, and frequently frustrating. Moreover, as a method of painting, it does not lend itself to realism, which makes the incredibly natural qualities of Egyptian portrait painting from this era all the more amazing. The other thing to keep in mind in appraising such work is that, as today, there were excellent (above, right), good, fair, bad, and simply god-awful practitioners of such art. It would seem, then as now, you got what you paid for.
One of the hallmarks of portrait painting, at least up until the Renaissance, was the tendency artist have had in wanting to stylize the face. Most often this can be seen in their handling of the eyes. Just as women spend hours (okay, several minutes) a day applying mascara and eye-shadow makeup, portrait artists have long had similar inclinations. The Egyptian portrait masters were not immune to such temptations, yet amazingly, some seem to have resisted the urge (above, right). But, despite some degree of stylization, these Egyptian painters also seem to have had an instinctive handle on lighting the face, creating textures, mastering proportions, hair, bone structure, expressions, and skin textures. Of course we'll never know how well they did at capturing likenesses, but inasmuch as all the skills mentioned above contribute so much to a good likeness, the artists' expertise in handling them would also suggest a similar skill in capturing the actual appearance, perhaps even the personality, of their deceased subjects (below).

Even on male portraits, the eyes
are often larger than life.
Besides emphasizing the
eyes, mouths are often a
little too narrow in width.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

West Virginia Art

B & O Class M1 in West Virginia, William Gardoski. The railroad "made" West Virginia,                     
even though western Virginia before the Civil War was seen as little more than a                     
scenic obstacle in getting from Baltimore to Ohio. Coal changed all that.                      
If Andy Warhol had been born a
fifty miles south of Pittsburgh,
he might have painted this.
A little over a week ago I wrote highlighting the art and artists of my home state of Ohio. We live about ten miles from the Ohio River, across which lies John Denver's "Almost Heaven, West Virginia..." (from his 1995 hit song Take Me Home, Country Roads). If that's the case, then southeastern Ohio is almost "almost heaven." Our family has close ties to the Mountain State. My wife was born there, her family is from Wood County (Parkersburg), West Virginia, and I've done more than my share of arts and crafts shows in that state. I've also painted a fair number of landscapes depicting the hills and valleys, rivers and streams that have caught the eyes of artists for almost two centuries. Yet strangely, insofar as art is concerned, the medium of choice for West Virginians seems not to be painting but photography. I'd venture to guess there are two to three times as many professional photographers in the state as there are painters.

Smoky Mountains Twilight, Teresa Pennington
(I know, the Smoky Mountains aren't in West Virginia, but Teresa
is; and perhaps she's describing them rather than naming them.)
Not surprisingly, West Virginia artists, regardless of their media, overwhelmingly choose, above all else, to depict the hills and valleys of their state. (Few who have ever seen real mountains would consider the Appalachians to be among them, though West Virginians proudly do). Likewise, high on the list of typical subjects for West Virginia painters are, wildlife, rural genre, history, trains (top), and the mixed blessings of the state's coal fields (below). Such scenes as Gerald Carpenter's Aging in West Virginia do not endear him to those promoting state tourism, but one need not even leave the interstate highways winding up, over, around, and sometimes even through the so-called "mountains" to see hundreds of such blighted landscapes.

Aging in West Virginia, Gerald Carpenter.
Although some of the state parks in West Virginia feature what might pass for mountaineer art galleries, most native painters, and artisans live and die by the summer arts and crafts show around the state. Unfortunately for painters, most of the outsiders visiting and buying at such shows do not consider painting to be an authentic native art. Thus, painting sizes are often relatively small, prices ridiculously reasonable, with style and content tending toward what easterners would consider "folk art." Watercolor landscapes are quite popular, if for no other reason than they suggest to the purchaser that they were painted "on location" (whether they were or not). Once more, the art of photography dominates.

At West Virginia arts and crafts shows, painting is necessarily considered
a performance art. (I once did the same scene he's painting, only larger.)
Winter at Glade Creek Grist Mill.
Without a doubt, the most painted, most trite, most overexposed, scene in West Virginia is the Babcock State Park Glade Creek Grist Mill. Even if you've never known it by name, it probably looks familiar. It may well be the most photographed mill in the United States. And before you marvel at how well preserved it is, the picturesque landmark is only forty years old--its a total reconstruction--based upon a similar one which had once ground corn and other grains elsewhere along Glade Creek. Bill Holkham's watercolor (below) is one of the more original depictions I've seen. Winter at Glade Creek Grist Mill (left), leaves me in a quandary. It's a beautiful, eye-catching image, but I'm unable to decide if its a highly realistic painting or just another (but not-quite-so- tiresome photo of the grinding tourist attraction. By the way, (in the interest of full disclosure) several years ago, back in 1976, when the mill was brand new, I succumbed to temptation and painted it.

Babcock State Park,  Bill Holkham
Being a landscape painter in West Virginia is not a path to world renown or from rags to riches. The Internet and some obviously do-it-yourself Websites help, but even when the artist goes out of his way to try and place the scene geographically in a potential buyer's mind, the reaction is likely to be, "huh?" West Virginia landscape artist, Keith Johnson, in displaying his Germany Valley, (below, 2013) writes: "Germany Valley, Rt. 33 near Riverton, West Virginia, Pendleton County. Okay, I'll take his word for it. Even on a map, I had trouble finding Pendleton County, much less Germany Valley (it's on the far eastern border, due west of Washington, D.C.).

Germany Valley, 2013, Keith Johnson
Pale Horse, 2013, Keith Johnson.
All of this is not to imply that West Virginia art and artists lack sophistication or expressive works apart from landscapes, waterfalls, and reconstructed grist mills. The same Keith Johnson of Pendleton County, West Virginia, who painted the remote Germany Valley (above), also rendered the Pale Horse (left), which wouldn't look out of place in any big-name, prestigious, east-coast art gallery more easily found on a map.

Extreme finger painting--the next generation of West Virginia artists.