Click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ideals of Feminine Beauty

It ain't easy being beautiful...or staying beautiful.
Back in the early 1970s as I was working on my masters degree at Ohio University, I wrote a thesis tracking the development of ideals of feminine beauty through the work of three painters, Delacroix, Ingres, and Renoir. In thinking about the subject this morning it occurred to me that, given the conveniences of modern-day Internet research, I could delve more broadly into the subject, not from the limited scope of three artists but instead, looking at how art, culture, society, and specifically women themselves have come to define feminine beauty today--now as compared to then.

Women's fashions don't really change every five years,
it just seems that way. Instead, they evolve constantly.
And that's all I have to say on the subject.
There are numerous complicating aspects in such a query. Perhaps first and foremost are the myriad aspect of what women wear. That's such a massive area of interest I immediately rejected wading into such a needle and thread quagmire. I decided it would sufficient to concentrate simply on makeup, hairstyles, and the influence of the various art and social media involved. The next question was where to begin? Presumably women have at least seemed beautiful since the Garden of Eden and the first palindrome: "Madam, I'm Adam." But inasmuch as beauty has always been in the eyes of the beholder, beauty today is far from that which Adam beheld.
In the early 19th century, neoclassicism and the "natural look" inspired by the Greek and Roman statuary, flourished, as seen in the portrait of Queen Louise of Prussia by Joseph Grassi (upper-right).
It's not that women are more beautiful now than then, it just seems that there are a lot more of them, which I guess stands to reason. In any case I chose as a starting point the year 1800. It was somewhere about that time that, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, women's fabrics and clothes began to be mass produce. As a result, virtually any middleclass housewife could afford to make or buy at least one fashionable frock. And with that came fashionable hairstyles, hats, jewelry (as in cheap), and makeup for the masses. Before that, beauty bespoke wealth. From the early 19th century...not so much.

Ideals of feminine beauty differ from one race and culture
to the other but it's no less prevalent.
Portrait artists are exceedingly conscious as to the prevailing cultural ideals of feminine beauty. As a result, they've often tended to flatter their female clients, sometimes shamelessly. When it comes to women and beauty, they've even been known to be outright liars. However, with the advent of even crude portrait photography came the adage, "the camera doesn't lie." Of course, in the hands of an exceptional photographer there can still be an element of visual prevarication, except that the "shameless flattery" became more subtle and complex.

Notice the differences between artists' efforts to capture
feminine beauty and the more natural "modern" look achieved by Victorian era photographers.
If you were to guess...
It might come as a surprise to some, but those who study the many elements of women's styles and tastes can be quite accurate in pinpointing the approximate years when women's photos were prob-ably taken. The center parting, and the "turban" hairdo, seen in the photo at right, along with the dress, suggest this tiny keepsake likely dates from the 1850s. In fact, women's hairstyles down through history have sometimes changed so ab-ruptly to the point that cultural historians can pinpoint the date within a year or two. Don't expect that kind of accuracy in the case of male portraits, though.

The miracles of Hollywood makeup artists went mainstream thanks to improved printing technology, and with it, magazines aimed exclusively at female moviegoers.
The one key element in virtually every cultural, social, and historic ideal of feminine beauty is youth, as cruelly depicted in the split cartoon at the top. Large eyes, a tiny nose, perfect teeth, long lashes, a flawless complexion, distinct and distinctive eyebrows, a smooth, slender jawline, and a nice smile are all important "features" of a classically beautiful face. So critical are these attributes that they are, surprisingly, not gender specific. All or most of them are to be found in male faces, sometimes to the point of androgyny (bottom).

Thanks to Hollywood, Bollywood, and the powerful presence of today's highly pervasive social media, beauty now has a name. And, as Halle Berry and others have demonstrated, the ravages of aging can be conquered.

(They're both guys.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring, ca. 1665, Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer
She was first featured in a painting. In modern times she has inspired a novel, a motion picture, a stage play, a Barbie Doll, and the backside of a Bristol, England, apartment building. Yet, despite all this we don't even know her name. In 1999, Tracy Chevalier called her Griet, though the name is as fictional as her novel, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, and the 2003 motion picture starring Scarlett Johansson based upon the novel. We know she was probably a servant girl in the extensive household of the painter, Johannes Vermeer (who had eleven children). The painting isn't dated so, as with its subject, all we can do is conjecture. The best guess is around 1665. And perhaps most ironic of all, the pear-shaped "pearl" earring was fake, probably made of polished tin or glass. A man with a wife and eleven kids to feed could hardly have afforded such an outsized bauble.
The painting, as seen today in the Mauritshuis Museum
(below) in The Hague.
Sometimes referred to as “the Dutch Mona Lisa”, The Girl with a Pearl Earring was painted by Johannes Vermeer. Relatively little is known about the artist and his works, and this painting is no exception. It is unclear whether the painting was commissioned, and if so, by whom. In any case, it is probably not meant as a conventional portrait, but a "tronie," the Dutch term for an unconventional portrait, basically a painted head. The Girl with a Pearl Earring is universally recognized as Johannes Vermeer's absolute masterwork. Yet the painting remained in complete obscurity until it was rediscovered in 1882 and sold for two guilders (about €24 or $28 today), the price of a reproduction. At the time the painting was in poor condition. Thus a number of questions arise. Did Vermeer sell the painting during his lifetime? Why was the original background a deep, transparent green rather than the black we see today? What significance did the turban have? Which painting procedures did Vermeer employ? Which pigments did he use? Was it drawn using a camera obscura?

The Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, Netherlands,
where Vermeer's masterpiece resides today.
Girl with a Pearl Earring,
1999, Tracy Chevalier
After the most recent restoration of the painting in 1994, the subtle color scheme has been greatly enhanced. During the restoration, it was discovered that the dark background, today somewhat mottled, was initially intended by the painter to be a deep enamel-like green. This effect was produced by applying a thin, trans-parent glaze, over the present-day black background. However, the two organic pigments of the green glaze, indigo and weld (both plant dyes), have faded. The ground is dense and yellowish in color and is composed of chalk, lead white, ocher and a little black. The dark back-ground of the painting contains bone black, weld, chalk, small amounts of red ochre, and indigo. The face and draperies were painted mainly using ochres, natural ultramarine, bone black, charcoal black and lead white. So, given its mundane essence, why is Girl with a Pearl Earring considered such a masterpiece of the painter's art? Click on the video below, which explains the details better than I ever could.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is also a 1999 historical novel written by Tracy Chevalier. Set in 17th century Delft, Holland, the novel was inspired by Delft school painter Johannes Vermeer's painting Girl with a Pearl Earring (above, right). Chevalier presents a fictional account of Vermeer, the model, and the painting. The novel was adapted into a 2003 film of the same name and a 2008 play. When published in the United States in January 2000, the book became a New York Times bestseller, going on to sell over two million copies in thirty-six languages.

Scarlett Johansson as Griet, the Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The movie poster for
the 2003 film based
on the novel.
Screenwriter, Olivia Hetreed, read the novel before its publication. She and her husband's production company convinced Chevalier to sell the film rights. Initially, the production was to feature Kate Hudson as Griet with Mike Newell directing. Hudson withdrew shortly before filming began, however, and the film was placed in hiatus until the hiring of director Peter Webber, who re-initiated the casting process. As his feature film debut, Webber sought to avoid employing traditional characteristics of the period film drama. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra used distinctive lighting and color schemes similar to Vermeer's paintings. Scarlett Johansson starred as Griet, a young 17th-century servant in the household of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (played by Colin Firth) and set in the city of Delft, Holland. When released in December, 2003, Girl with a Pearl Earring earned a worldwide gross of over $31-million (from a $10-million budget). It garnered mostly positive reviews with critics praising the film's visuals and performances while ques-tioning elements of its story. The film was subsequently nominated for ten British film awards, three Academy Awards, and two Golden Globe Awards.

And finally, a 2014 mural by street artist, Banksy, was been painted on a wall in his home city of Bristol, England. The image, a parody of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, was posted on his website. Girl with a Pierced Eardrum is painted on a building in Hanover Place in the city's Harbourside district. It incorporates an alarm box as the model's earring. The work was vandalized within 24-hours after its appearance with splotches of black paint (below).

Girl with the Pierced Eardrum, 2014,
Banksy, Bristol, England.

Girl with a Pearl Earring
the Barbie version, Mariel Clayton


Monday, July 24, 2017

Thomas M. Thomson

Molly, Thomas M. Thomson.
I'm not in the habit of highlighting living artists. I consider them to be the human equivalent of a "work in progress." Likewise, I don't see it as my duty to promote the careers of living artists. Yet, every so often I come across the work of a young artist which, for one reason or another, I find fascinating (often for undefined reasons). Likewise, by dwelling primarily on artists from the past (sometimes inferior to those of the present), I run the risk of relegating this space to a home for dead and dying artists. Thus in keeping with the theme of "Art Now and Then," let me now present a very "now" artist by the name of Thomas M. Thomson.
Springtime, Thomas M. Thomson, reminiscent of
Jean-Honoré Fragonard's 1767 The Swing. I was tempted
to label it "Springtime Swingtime."
I think I should mention from the start that this artist should not be confused with the Canadian landscape painter, Tom Thomson. This Thomson, Thomas M. Thomson, is young, paints figures, portraits, and wildlife exclusively and, at the risk of comparing pears and pomegranates, is the better artist. His work is charming, exciting, colorful, thoughtful, exotic, sometimes erotic, not to mention simply beautiful. He's also very prolific and, for some unknown reason, does not have his own Website. Yet his work is readily available in some depth in several online galleries.

The video at the bottom demonstrates the painting
of this self-portrait.
When I said Thomson was young, I was speaking relative to most other living artists of his obvious experience and skill. He's only forty-nine. (Any artist youthful enough to be my son I consider young.) One of the problems in writing about young artist living today is that they seldom have much in the way of a biography. Thomson has never been deprived, depraved, criticized, ostracized, demonized, or lionized. He's too young, perhaps too unrecognized, for any of that. He was born in Rota, Spain, in 1968, and exposed to art from early childhood. He attended Florida State University, where he focused on the fundamentals of composition, perspective and figural accuracy. He has pursued an exciting career in art following his graduation in December of 1993. Thomson's mediums of choice are Oil on Canvas and Pencil on Paper. That's about all his official biography (probably an autobiography) has to say about him.

Queen Takes Night, Thomas M. Thomson
That being the case, I shall have to let his artwork speak for him. Perhaps I should do that more often in that many artists have more to say through their work than any posthumous praise merchant's parsing puff piece.

Restrained, yet meaningful, Thomson's progressive series
offers insights into his painting techniques and working methods.
Thomson's celebrity portraits not only display his skill in rendering an exceptional likeness, but whether in action or repose, offering insights into his subjects' profession, personality, and lifestyle. In many ways, this skill is equally important as simply capturing the subject's appearance.

Thomson seems to be at his best when "faced"
with a portrait commission.
I like an artist who's not afraid to startle his viewer.
Whether painting the very old (below) or the very young (below that), Thomson is equally adept at capturing the essence of his subject. Will Thomas M. Thomson make his mark in the highly competitive world of Realism and portrait art or simply be one of many equally talented purveyors of painted pulchritude? I have a feeling art history a century from now will be kind to him. Yet, it's hard to say. That's one of the risks inherent in writing about famous artists of the future.

Not exactly "painted pulchritude," but profound in exhibiting the artist's drawing skills an insight into the geriatric genre.
I wonder if either of them speak Mandarin.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Andy Warhol's Homes

Andy Warhol in his Lexington Ave. townhouse living room.
Over the past several months I've been exploring the lives of well-known artists through a closer look at the places they've created for themselves to live, work, and play. Very often an artist's native habitat has a great deal to do with the art which they've produce. In most cases that involves only one major home (as with Monet's Giverny), and seldom more than two, as with Georgia O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch and her "town" home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. This morning I noticed that Andy Warhol's former retreat in the Hamptons (Long Island, New York) had recently sold for a cool $50-million (the original asking price had been $85-million). It wasn't long before I realize that the artist's Hamptons estate was only one of five homes he had owned or occupied during his career in New York. That piqued my interest. Although many artist eventually become comfortably well-off, even for a Pop icon such as Warhol, homes in the multi-million-dollar price range signify a lot of green (and I don't mean the pthalocyanine hue).
Warhol's estate in the Hamptons. The main house is in
the foreground overlooking the cliffs, while the recently
added horse stables are at the back of the property.
Andy Warhol died in 1987 so he never lived to see his 1972 investment of $225,000 skyrocket to the stratospheric figure the 30-acre oceanfront compound recently garnered (a 70-fold increase). Warhol purchased the remote Montauk estate (which had once been a fishing village called Eothen) as a means of escaping the New York City party rat-race only to import the same party celebrities such as Mick and Bianca Jagger, Jackie Onassis Kennedy, her socialite sister, Lee Radziwill, Jerry Hall, Julian Schnabel, Liza Minelli, Elizabeth Taylor and John Lennon. Andy Warhol, almost single-handedly made Montauk chic. Besides the main house the compound included six guest cottages, to which have now been added a horse stable, extensive riding trails, a swimming pool, and tennis court, to complement the breathtaking ocean views.

Andy Warhol's birthplace, the right half of a two-family duplex.
It sounds trite to say, but Andy Warhol came from humble beginnings--Pittsburgh, 3252 Dawson Street, in the city's South Oakland neighborhood (above). Born in 1928 and raised in Pittsburgh, Warhol began as a successful commercial illustrator. After exhibiting his work in several local galleries in the late 1950s, Warhol began to receive recognition as an influential and controversial artist. He began exhibiting his work first in New York City during the 1950s. He held exhibitions at the Hugo Gallery and the Bodley Gallery in New York. In California, his first West Coast gallery exhibition came in 1962, at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. The exhibition marked his West Coast debut of Pop Art. Andy Warhol's first New York solo Pop Art exhibition was hosted at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery in November, 1962. The exhibit included the works Marilyn Diptych, 100 Soup Cans, 100 Coke Bottles, and 100 Dollar Bills. At this time, Warhol was sharing bedrooms with the 1930s dancer Franziska Marie Boa on the second floor of a 1865 era converted firehouse (below). His roommate was the figure painter, Philip Pearlstein. They lived there until they were evicted.

The old firehouse at 323 West 21st Street, would appear
to have been extensively updated since the days when
Warhol and Pearlstein crashed there. It can now be
rented for $33,000 per month.
As Pop Art took hold in the New York art world, during the late 1960s, Andy Warhol took hold of Pop Art. Warhol's painting of a can of Campbell's soup cost $1,500 while each autographed can sold for $6. The American Supermarket, a show held in Paul Bianchini's Upper East-Side gallery, was one of the first mass events that directly confronted the general public with both Pop Art and the perennial questioning of the very definition of art. Warhol's bank account ballooned and with it his need for adequate living quarters, which he found in the 16 1/2-half-foot-wide, five-story townhouse, at 1342 Lexington Ave. between 89th and 90th Streets. He was at the height of his career, in the years 1959 through 1974. It’s where he created iconic works such as his Campbell’s Soup Can designs, some Marilyn Monroe silkscreens and the dollar bill paintings.

Warhol's dining room and studio at 1342 Lexington Ave.
A look at the Lexington Ave. floor plan gives some indication
as to what $60,000 would buy in 1959. The Warhol estate
sold the townhouse in 1989 for $593,000.
Even as Pop Art faded into art history during the 1970s, Andy Warhol's fame and fortune never wavered as he plunged into moviemaking, publishing, music, photography, and other art media. He quickly outgrew his Lexington Avenue home/studio in favor of what was known as the Decker Building, a six and a half story townhouse on East 66th Street(somewhat wider than his previous abode). This studio came to be known as "The Factory," which indeed, it was, turning out Warhol art with the help of assistants at a prodigious rate.

Andy Warhol's fabled "Factory" was also Party Central
for the New York art World.
Actually, the Decker Building on East 66th Street between Madison and Park Avenues was only the first of as many as six other Warhol studios each bearing the same designation. Warhol bought the Decker building in 1974 for just $310,000. After his death in 1987, records show the property remained part of his estate until it was sold in 1991 for $3,000,000. The buyer made a handsome profit, later selling the property for $6.5-million. Today, Andy Warhol's modest-sized townhouse has been listed with a not-so-modest asking price of $38.5-million.

Look what just $38.5-million will buy when a famous artist
has a red informational plaque by the front door. A silvery
statue of the artist (below) just across the street
helps boost the asking price too.
The Andy Monument, 2012. The
shopping bag is from Bloomingdales.

Andy Warhol's library.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Sears and Roebuck Homes

Sears Modern Homes catalog from 1922. During the 1920s
sales ranged from 125 to 324 units per month.
If someone wants to build a new home in 2017, first they either pour through dozens of home planning magazines from which they may order blueprints, or they hire an architect, depending upon the depth of their pockets. The architect will draw up something truly unique, while purchasing plans from magazines or online will get you something usually quite conservative and conventional, though not necessarily cookie-cutter as to style and design. The difference is about half the price--sugar cookies or gourmet soufflé.
In the 1920s, "modern" meant central heating, electricity, asphalt shingle roofing, modern plumbing, porcelain fixtures and bathrooms (though they remained optional).
At a time when Sears and Roebuck is closing its retail outlets around the country about as fast as they can locate the door keys, it's thought provoking to realize that about 110 years ago, you could choose a "house kit," from their famous mail-order catalog, have it shipped to you in a railroad car, ready to be unloaded, trucked to your site, and nailed together by friends and family, or if so inclined, become the ultimate do-it-yourselfer. That's what Frank Nixon of Yorba Linda, California did in 1922, though just which company he ordered from remains uncertain. One thing for certain, it wasn't Sears or their perennial rival, Montgomery Ward. What he built is probably the most famous kit-built house in the world. His son, Richard, was born there, and is today buried nearby at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library.
"The house my father built."
From 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold between 70,000 and 75,000 homes through their mail-order Modern Homes program. Over that time Sears designed 447 different housing styles, from the elaborate multistory Ivanhoe, with its elegant French doors and art glass windows, to the simpler Goldenrod, which served as a quaint, three-room and no-bath cottage for summer vacationers. (An outhouse could be purchased separately for Goldenrod and similar cottage dwellers.) Customers could choose a house to suit their individual tastes and budgets.
More pricey than most Sears offerings, The Carlton offered
a nod toward Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie style homes.
More choices than
a Chinese menu.
Sears was by no means an innovative home designer. Instead, they were able followers of popular home designs but with the added ad-vantage of modifying houses and hardware ac-cording to buyer tastes. Their Carlton model (above) was not the norm. Individuals could even design their own homes then submit the blueprints to Sears. The company ran their own lumber mills. Once custom cut, they would then ship off the appropriate fitted materials, putting the home owner in full creative control. Thus, Modern Home cus-tomers had the freedom to build their own dream houses, while Sears helped them realize these dreams through quality custom design and fav-orable financing.
A Magnolia recently sold for $90,000.
The process of designing a Sears house began as soon as the Modern Homes catalog arrived at your doorstep. Over time, Modern Homes catalogs came to advertise three lines of homes, aimed for customers’ differing financial means: the top of the line Honor Bilt, their medium-priced Standard Built, and a low-cost Simplex Sectional. The largest and most expensive Sears model was the Magnolia (above). Only seven Magnolias are known to still exist. There are, however, "fake" Magnolias (below) which are virtually indistinguishable from Sears models.
During the height of Sears homebuilding venture, architects and
builders alike freely "borrowed" from (as in copied) one another.
To make matters more than a little complicated, there were at least eight other companies marketing pre-cut homes, including Aladdin, Bennett, Gordon-Van Tine, Harris Brothers, Lewis, Pacific Ready Cut Homes, Sterling, and Wardway Homes (Montgomery Ward). For instance, both Sears and Wardway offered a model each called The Lexington, (below). Sears was a standard colonial style while Wardway's Lexington was Dutch Colonia. However, Sears offered a nearly identical Dutch Colonial they called the Puritan.
Sears' version of the Lexington (above), Wardway's
version can be seen below.

The Sears version of the Dutch colonial style they
called the Puritan (below)
The Sears Dutch colonial Puritan. This home above
was probably built with the plan reversed.
It's not unlikely that you could drive through residential neighborhoods in most communities and see a dozen or more homes quite similar to those featured in Sears' mail-order catalogs from the 1920s. Few of them would be authentic Sears homes however. Some of them would be fairly attractive by modern tastes, some quite old-fashioned looking, and some we'd find downright ugly. Sears Alhambra (below) falls into the latter category. Fortunately few were built, still fewer remain, and no builders copied Sears homeliest home.

Alhambra's Moorish architecture was a total mismatch
for most American families and neighborhoods.
Catalogs such as Sears also offered several variations on churches, which were shipped in large sections for assembly. You wanted brick walls? Cedar shingles? You could order them. Fancy stained-glass? Plain windows for a cheaper budget? Just check the right box. I searched for Sears churches and could not find any references to authenticated examples, but there were plenty of illustrations involving barns, garages, outhouses, even chicken coops. I've heard it said of one of today's retail mega-stores, if you can't find it at Walmart, you don't need it. It would seem that line may have originated long ago with Sears.
Call in the neighbors, we got a barn to raise.

Sears' garages were all designed for
1920s vehicles. Virtually all of them
still in use have had to be enlarged.