Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, April 30, 2011


As the twenty-first century plods on, we look back over the previous one and consider from whence and how far art as come in the last hundred years. The development has been staggering, especially in the first half of the century. But as we try and interpolate from our hindsight where art may be heading we see little but befuddlement. We realize that painting is not what it was a hundred years ago, either stylistically or in its standing among the other fine arts. Actually, there's little to suggest that it is, in fact, going anywhere in terms of developmental movement. If we feel as if we're standing in something of a haze in looking ahead, we are not alone. A hundred years ago artists and writers were in a similar situation. Much of the nineteenth century had been wasted on academic artistic pursuits, and that art which called itself Impressionism was still so new as to be considered barely legitimate. What we now call Post-Impressionism was looked upon as the wild rantings and ravings of madmen like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cezanne, all of whom were social outcasts suspected of being on the lam from the loony bin (which was pretty accurate in Van Gogh's case).

But these madmen were not without their influence, and the group who fell under that influence, while little known today, were in the forefront of those artists trying to pierce the fog and see where art at the turn of their century might be headed. They were called the Nabis (pronounced NOB-ee), and their number included a new generation who had grown up with Impressionism and assimilated the Post-Impressionism that came after it. Artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and the English artist, Walter Sickert, formed the group. The name was appropriate. It was Hebrew for seers or prophets, which was exactly what they attempted to be. In addition to Cezanne, Gauguin, and, to a lesser degree, Van Gogh, they were also influence by Japanese art, especially Bonnard and Vuillard.

Pierre Bonnard Self-Portrait, 1889
Bonnard was born in 1867, Vuillard, in 1868, at a time when Monet and Renoir were still dabbling on the banks of the Seine, feeling their way into Impressionism. Bonnard's painting style is reminiscent of Renoir's but with the brash color of Cezanne and the Japanese influence stirred into his compositions and choice of subject matter. Vuillard was even more Japanese, heavily into painting complex textile patterns into his intimate interiors populated by his mother (who was a seamstress) and her friends. Many, such as his 1896 painting The Reader, are so "busy" with detail the figures are almost lost in the melange. Matisse must have loved his work. Yet there is always a quiet rectitude, and solid compositional stability to his intricately detailed, Victorian decorations. The Nabis were not the vanguard of twentieth century art. Picasso, Matisse, and their friends quickly upstaged them, but they were a sort telescope through which the nineteenth century attempted to see into the twentieth, and though their vision wasn't particularly sharp, it nonetheless offered at least a glimpse of the cataclysmic changes that were to come.
The Reader, 1896, Edouard Vuillard

Friday, April 29, 2011

Museum of Biblical Message

Even though spiritual themes have permeated art now for hundreds of years, we seldom think of artists as being particularly religious. During the Renaissance, perhaps, we imagine artists such as Fra Angelico, or Raphael, or Michelangelo painting from the depths of their soul some glorious Biblical scene or revelation but since the church became a relatively minor sponsor of world class art, secular subjects have pretty much dominated most artists' output. There are individual exceptions, of course, and artists from to time have employed spiritual elements in some of their work, but such instances have usually been fairly rare. Yet one internationally known, modern-day artist has devoted a surprising amount of his work religious images. In fact, in 1973, the French government opened an entire museum devoted to his Biblical message paintings.

The Marc Chagall Museum of Biblical Message,
Nice, France
The Marc Chagall National Museum of Biblical Message, near Nice, France, is more than just an art gallery. The museum is on a hill amid pine, olive, and cypress trees and features works Chagall created illustrating the Bible and the Song of Songs. His mosaics overlook a pool outside while stained glass windows by Chagall illuminate the non-denominational chapel/concert hall adjoining the gallery complex. Housed in its walls are 17 large paintings mostly illustrating Genesis and Exodus.  They are awash with wondrous color, bursting with winged angels, and other heavenly manifestations such that the most powerful spiritual presence is often felt not in the chapel but in the gallery.

Museum interior
The museum is unique, even though other artists at the time, notably Picasso, Matisse, and Cocteau were decorating similar chapels in and around Venice, Italy, in an effort to integrate art and architecture in a manner not seen since the Baroque era. About the closest rival Chagall's museum/chapel has is a similar complex built outside Houston, Texas, where another Russian-born artist, Mark Rothko, has embellished a chapel with his own style of monochromatic abstractions also inviting silent meditation and contemplation but on a highly personal level, divorced from Biblical influences. During the final years of his life, Chagall devoted his time almost exclusively to stained glass window designs and installations. His work in glass can be seen in the Reims Cathedral, the Art Institute in Chicago, and the Chichester Cathedral in England. He was working on yet another stained glass design when he died of a sudden heart attack at his home near Venice in 1985.  He was 97.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Samual Finley Breese Morse

Among the artists who tried hard to transplant "The Grand Manner" of British painting to this country, none worked more diligently than the illustrious Samual Finley Breese Morse. Born in 1791, the son of a Connecticut minister, Morse twice studied for extended periods in London. The youngest of the troupe of American artists to flock to The Royal Academy for the English version of European classicism, Morse was a protege of the Washington Allston. Allston's influence upon the bright young painter was considerable. His painting, The Dying Hercules, painted about  1813 in London was everything The Grand Manner epitomized.

Marquis de Lafayette, 1826,
Samual Finley Breese Morse
The Old House of Representatives, 1822,
Samual Finley Breese Morse

Upon returning to Philadelphia, Morse, unlike his mentor, didn't eschew the bread and butter business of portrait painting, and in fact he was very good at it. His portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette of 1826 was both powerful and insightful. But he yearned for more. Blending the Grand Manner with American democratic ideals, his painting of the Old House of Representatives of 1822 is a genuine American masterpiece, though in taking it "on tour" so to speak, it was far less successful financially than Morse would have liked.
Gallery of the Louvre, 1831, Samual Finley Breese Morse

Returning to Europe in 1829, Morse spent three more years studying art on the continent. In 1831 he painted a modest (6'x9') canvas called The Gallery of the Louvre. In it he depicted a grand salon in which he assembled a collection of what he considered to be the greatest painted masterpieces of all time. The array consisted of some forty exquisite miniature copies of works by Raphael, Leonardo, Titian, Correggio, Poussin, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Murillo among others. Bringing the painting back to America he once more went on tour with it, hoping to attract those who could not afford to travel to Europe. Alas, he was no more financially successful than before. He had considerably more success, however, reinvigorating the tired old carcass of Trumbull's National Academy of Design which was well established and flourishing when he left it around 1840 to give up art and invent the telegraph.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Monet's Money Miseries

When you're a poor, struggling artist, barely keeping body and soul together, it's important to cultivate wealthy friends. The former described most of the would-be Impressionist during the 1860s when they were part-time or full-time students in one or more of the various ateliers surrounding the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The latter described only two or three of these young artists, lucky enough to come from relatively well-to-do families who supported their decisions to study art and become painters. Amongst these artists were Alfred Sisely, Frederick Bazille, and Paul Cezanne. Claude Monet also came from an upper-class family but had the misfortune of having a rather strong-willed, straight-laced father who objected to nearly every facet of his son's lifestyle and artistic temperament. It came to the point they were barely on speaking terms much of the time, and what financial support did come Monet's way came with so many strings attached the willful young son could seldom abide them very long.
Consequently, Monet was often at the mercy of all manner of economic problems during much of his life, and it was to these friends and fellow artists that he constantly turned whenever his financial affairs were at a low ebb. Sometimes they bought his paintings, often overpaying him, and always buying far more of them than they had any need for. Beyond that, Monet constantly hounded them for money, especially Bazille. In letter after letter he outlined the dire straits in which he found himself, requesting loans, or outright gifts of money to see him through this or that financial emergency. At various times over the years Bazille shared meals and studio space with Monet and several other old friends from their days in the studio of their former instructor, Charles Gleyre.
Women in the Garden,1866, Claude Monet
In the fall of 1866, Monet's financial position was so precarious he was forced to flee Paris for Le Havre to escape the ever-present hounding of creditors, but not before slashing nearly two hundred canvases he could not take with him in order to keep them from being seized and sold for as little as 30 francs in lots of fifty. A year later, he had to leave behind in Paris his pregnant wife, Camille, without financial support, and journey to Sainte-Adresse to live with an aunt. He could not even raise the train fare to visit her after the baby was born. Worsening his situation, his painting, Women in the Garden, was rejected by the 1867 Salon jury, dashing all hopes of  selling other works to help support his wife and son, Jean, born that fall. However by 1868 he was back with Camille and the baby, but without money for coal, paint, or canvases. He was chronically depressed. Once more, he turned to his old friend Bazille who agreed to buy Women in the Garden for the outrageous price of 2500 francs, paid in installments of 50 francs per month, which apparently put something of a strain on the budget of the relatively wealthy young man. He was, after all, himself existing on an allowance from his father.   

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Monet, Manet

Several years ago there was an exhibit in Washington D.C. at the National Gallery featuring the work of two of the greatest artists France ever produced, and two that have kept would-be art appreciators heads spinning for at least a century. The show features paintings done in and around Paris' first train station Gare St. Lazare (pronounced Gar San LaZAR) by Eduoard Manet and Claude Monet. Even back then people confused the names. Stories tell of Manet's dismay at receiving a check made out to Monet. He might well have given the check to Monet since he came from a family of wealth and quite likely didn't really need the money. Monet, on the other hand, was poor most of his life, and in fact, there is some evidence Manet even helped the younger artist financially. Why not? Nearly everyone else did.     

Gare Ste. Lazare, 1872-73, Eduoard Manet
In spite of their differences (Manet was eight years older than Monet), there was a great deal of respect on the part of the older artist for the young, Impressionist upstart. Manet even owned several works by Monet (possibly accepted in exchange for debts owed). Monet repaid his debts in more than paintings, however. After Manet's death in 1883, Monet saw to it that the French Government purchased Manet's controversial Olympia for the Louvre. The differences between the two artists were inherent in the exhibit. Unlike Monet, Manet had no great love of trains or train stations. Monet did numerous paintings from within St. Lazare, while Manet painted only one painting even near the train station. (Even though his studio was within spitting distance of the station.) He once proposed painting a locomotive and its crew but once it became apparent he was more interested in the crew than the locomotive, the project fell through. Manet always preferred people to things.   
Gare Ste. Lazare, 1877, Claude Monet

Monet, on the other hand, set up his easel among the crates, baggage, hustle, and bustle of the train station then waited patiently for those or that which might be obstructing his view to move. He claimed it was much like painting clouds, they too weren't always cooperative. Actually, it would seem that what fascinated Monet as much as anything about St. Lazare was not the trains or the station itself, but the clouds, not in the sky, but clouds of steam and smoke billowing up from the heavy machinery within the glass-roofed structure. Here, in this sooty, confined atmosphere he was painting a new form of subject matter, one that had been handled by no another artists before. So if you're trying to keep the two artists straight in your mind, remember; Monet painted the trains; Manet painted those who rode them. If that doesn't help, don't despair, a visitor to the Washington show was overheard to remark knowledgeably that either spelling is correct.                      

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Modernists and Cezanne

In the attempt to rationalize the passing of the Modernist era into what we've decided to call the Post-Modern era around 1960, the one thing that stands out is a rather "messy" transition. With Abstract Expressionism being such a sensational success with artists in letting them indulge their wildest personal and emotional fantasies, its passing into the realm of just another exploited "ism" to be hung next to all the other work of past art movements in museums and expensive galleries was, and apparently still is, pretty hard to take--almost like the death of a loved one. The fact that so many artists still insist upon visiting its grave underscores the fact that at least the era went out with a BANG!
What does it mean to be "modern"? We might call it up-to-date, or contemporary or perhaps recent. In art, we add an "ism" and talk about Modernism. Roughly speaking, we mean the time from about 1880 to the start of WW II. But in fact, art historians have as much trouble agreeing on the time frame as the meaning of this term. It's a little like Romanticism in that sense. Okay, if we can't precisely place the time frame, how about its meaning? Well, Modernism demands two characteristics. One, being a general tendency for each generation to improve upon the best of the previous generation. The second characteristic is a belief that art could have an impact on modern life and problems. Of course there was little agreement on what those problems were, but that didn't change the emphasis on the fact that art could be part of their solution.   
To our eyes today, both these elements seem a bit naive. Most artist have now long since given up on the idea that there is any kind mainstream art, much less any linear development of it. It seems the our definitions of art have become too broad for it to have a mainstream. And, if ever there was a time when art had much of an impact on society's major problems, I think we're safe in saying it has now passed. When did it pass? That's a little harder to say. Possibly around the end of the 1960s when art historians started talking about the Post-Modern age. But the transition wasn't like passing through a door; it was more accurately like entering a fog.   
Mount Sainte Victoire (One of many versions),
1882-85, Paul Cezanne
Although there are those who might cite others, Paul Cezanne is often credited with having been the first modern artist. The Impressionists fulfilled the first criteria of Modernism to some degree, but they were not so much interested in linear development among the themselves, but in rebellion against what the previous generation had wrought. Cezanne, on the other hand, tried to take Impressionism and, as he put it, "...make something solid of it," which is linear development. On top of that, Cezanne was very much taken with the idea that art could have a profound civilizing effect upon mankind. Perhaps in his day, it could, and did. Whatever the case, whatever Modernism means, Cezanne certainly fills the bill as the first of them.         

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Modern Michelangelo

For hundreds of years, Michelangelo Buonarroti's Sistine Chapel Ceiling has inspired artist far and wide of all nationalities, styles, and religions. In size, scope, and influence it may well be the most important painted surface ever created. For several generations after the Renaissance, it was "required reading" so to speak, for every would-be artist who ever hoped to make a major name for himself. For Artists like Raphael, El Grecco, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and dozens of others who are, in themselves legendary artists, it was a major painting icon to be worshipped from afar, something akin to a glimpse of heaven itself. As time has passed however and styles changed, even with it's recent cleaning, the massive fresco has become more of a tourist attraction than any kind of force to be reckoned with in modern art...well, at least until 19-year-old Ryan Du Val visited Rome.

Ryan Du Val's Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1998
The work had a profound effect on the Northwestern University sophomore. When he returned to his dorm room on campus at the Chicago university, he decided to paint a major portion of the work on the ceiling of his room. Lying on his back atop a portable scaffolding, much as Michelangelo did, Du Val covered the entire ceiling with major scenes from the Sistine Chapel. He must have had a very understanding roommate. Using color printouts from the Internet to guide his choice of colors, and ordinary house paint, he chose the creation of Adam as the centerpiece for his homage to God, man, and Michelangelo. God's outstretched finger points to a smoke alarm. Du Val considered that since he was paying $6,400 room and board per year, he ought to have a little freedom in terms of creative expression as to how he decorated his room.

A problem arose, however, when Ryan learned that the university planned to paint over his masterpiece during winter break.  Horrified, Du Val took the university to court...and won! In a deal brokered by a U.S. district judge, the painting will remain for at least the rest of the school year with the university looking into finding a way to remove the ceiling and preserve the painting to be donated to a school or museum. If not, Du Val will have to cover the cost of repainting the ceiling over the summer. For now, the artist is simply glad the whole thing is over. Perhaps the university is just lucky he didn't visit the Statue of Liberty.

(This item was first posted over ten years ago.  While Ryan Du Val does have a website,, I could find no recent information as to the fate of his mural.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Modern Art Grows Old

It's not often you hear about museums giving away art work. Under most circumstances they'd sooner part with the roof. But that's the situation which some time ago faced the Museum of Modern Art in New York (known affectionately at MoMA). The problem revolved around the name. As this institution became a little long in the tooth, its art became anything but modern. Founded in the 1920s, MoMA is now well passed the three-quarter century mark and some of its collection is much older than that, which in anybody's book challenges the definition of "modern" art. The oldest pieces in MoMA's collection are well over one hundred years old. The problem is, their oldest pieces are the Van Goghs and the Seurats and they are among their most valuable pieces.

Ordinarily, even a museum of "modern" art could simply let the conflict between its name and the age of its best work rest quietly in the back of patrons' minds. But in this case, one particular patron, though she's been dead for over fifty years, will not let the matter rest. Her name was Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a co-founder of the museum and a major name in art even without the added distinction of being the wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr. When Mrs. Rockefeller bequeathed four drawings to the museum in her 1948 will, she stipulated that the two Van Goghs and two Seurats were to be given new homes after fifty years based on the logical assumption they would no longer be appropriate to the collection of a museum whose whole reason for existing was to promote that art which is "modern."

Street at Stes-Maries, 1888, Vincent van Gogh
Hospital Corridor at St.-Remy, 1889,
Vincent van Gogh
It was a windfall for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which got the Van Goghs, one, a drawing, which dates from 1888 (Street at Stes-Maries), and another, a gouache painting dating from 1889 during Vincent's stay in the mental hospital at St. Remy (Hospital Corridor at St.-Remy). The Art Institute of Chicago now houses the two Seurat drawings next to the painting for which they were done, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The Van Gogh drawings are now valued at a cool forty million, the Seurats, a mere $1.4 million. But, before you shed tears for MoMA, they continue to exhibit their three other Van Goghs including, perhaps his most famous, The Starry Night and its companion piece, The Olive Grove both painted in 1889 (112 years ago). Nonetheless, for MoMA, parting with four of her most beloved was anything but sweet sorrow.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Abstract Expressionism pushed and pulled art in every direction, twisting it, turning it, tugging it, and taunting it almost to the breaking point. The work of DeKooning, Pollock, Kline, Gorky and the others took art to the edge of nothingness. By the end of the 1950's the movement was becoming a bit decrepit with age. The young punks of Pop Art openly questioned their elders regarding the relevance of an art that spoke to so narrow a constituency as to become meaningless in any real sense insofar as the most of the world was concerned. But before a movement can end it must show signs of exhaustion. And this last gasp of the Modernist Era was called Minimalism.
Suprematist Composition: White on White,
1918, Kazamir Malevich

Die Fahne Hoch!,
1959, Frank Stella

The Russian abstractionist, Kazimir Malevich, had forseen this end as early as 1918 in his vision, White on White. Frank Stella, an American born in 1936, fired the final, suicidal shot that brought Abstraction and the Modernist Era to a not-untimely end. In his 1959 black painting, Die Fahne Hoch!, he claimed to have painted a work no one could write about. Almost the exact opposite of Malevich's White on White, this painting was all black in its careful application of very wide, black, enamel lines leaving a pin striping of  raw gray canvas in a geometrically regular cross pattern. Minimalism was a back-to-basics movement, an admission that everything worth doing in art had been done, and that all that was to follow was endless repetition and variations on past accomplishments remodeled and rehabilitated to have a "new" look but basically "old wine in new bottles." 

Decades of relentless "newness" had led to a virtual vacuum. Minimalism shut the door on Modernist optimism in its sterile painted constructions and raised the question of, "What next?" If the art world's very existence is predicated on innovation, then this apparent end begets a crisis of enormous proportions. In this Post-Modernist era in which we find ourselves, we struggle to make some kind of sense out of what art now is; and if it is now progressing in any real sense, or merely floundering in the sea of nothingness bequeathed us by the Abstract Expressionist movement.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Military Art

The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, 1807, Jacques-Louis David
Napoleon in his Study, 1812,
Jacques-Louis David
Art has always been a tool for the powers that be. This fact is one of the constants of  history. Sometimes this use has been as simple and benign as a glorious art collection adding beauty and prestige to the royal palace. In other cases, it's more sinister, as in Jacques-Louis David's elegant and eloquent propaganda paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte, such as  The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, of 1807, or Napoleon in His Study, painted in 1812, in which David worked from his imagination or used other portraits of Napoleon as source material. And perhaps the ultimate misuse of art by the state has been in the glorification of war. Some of the French artists of the Romantic era were quite masterful in masking the fact that, "War is HELL."

In this country, even thought he propaganda purposes themselves were masked, the U.S. Army, in WW I for instance, had a core of eight commissioned captains assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers who did nothing but follow the war and report back on canvas. After the war, their work went to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. With the advent of WW II, the Corps of Engineers established a War Art Unit in 1942 governed by the War Art Advisory Committee which selected military and civilian artists to serve in the unit. Not unlike the WPA artists programs during the Depression, by early 1943, there were 42 artists at work, 23 from the active military and 19 civilians. Most worked in the Pacific Theater. However, when Congress heard about this modest undertaking, they self-righteously cut the funding for such "foolishness" in such a dire time of war.

WW II artists, 1942, Fort Belvoir, Virginia
The Army reassigned the military artist to other units and fired the civilians. Seventeen of the nineteen civilians joined Life magazine as war correspondents while Abbot Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company involved in the war effort, in coordination with the Army's Surgeon General's office, hired twelve artists to document the work of the Army Medical Corps. In the end, a collection of paintings in a wide variety of styles resulted, not so much in the glorification of war, but in the creation of a sort of visual history of the war not unlike that generated by war correspondents in photographs. By the end of the war, the Army had acquired over 2,000 pieces of art. Today, the Army's Historical Properties Section maintains and exhibits a collection of over 12,000 works with a program of working artists which continues to contribute to the documentation of the military way of life.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Michelangelo, gay?

Over the years, we have been deluged with facts and speculation regarding the sex lives of various Presidents of the United States.  A favorite parlor game amongst art historians, connoisseurs, and critics is speculation  regarding the sex lives of famous artist. Inevitably the conversations turns to whether or not they were gay or straight and the arguments one way or another as evidenced rumor, writings, facts, fiction, or by various elements in their surviving work. It is the latter of these that most fascinate us.   
As an undergraduate in a rather large junior-level art history course, a female student noted that given the lopsided body count of male over female figures in the total work of Michelangelo, and the fact that even his female figures had a transsexual men-with-breasts quality, therefore the man must have been gay. The reaction of the instructor was little short of VOLCANIC. He launched into the hapless young lady with such a vitriolic diatribe jaws dropped all over the auditorium.
Ignudi, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12,
Michelangelo, Buonarotti
Several years later, as I was doing post-graduate work under the same instructor, I stumbled upon references to the Veracci sonnets, love poems written late in Michelangelo's life to a young man, Tommaso Dei Cavalieri, some fifty years his junior. Remembering the outburst from before, I very cautiously mentioned them to the professor one day in his office while conferring with him regarding a paper I was writing. I questioned their meaning, drawing similar inferences as had the unfortunate miss several years before. This time, perhaps realizing I'd done my homework rather than just made wild accusations, his reaction was quite different, admitting that there was a strong possibility regarding Michelangelo's homosexual preferences, while insisting that such speculation had no place in the study or discussion of the man's work. I took a deep breath and let it rest there. 

                                           The flesh now earth, and here my bones,
                                           Bereft of handsome eyes, and jaunty air,
                                           Still loyal are to him I joyed in bed,
                                           Whom I embraced, in whom my soul now lives.

                                           --Michelangelo Buonarotti, written in 1543 upon
                                              the death of Cecchino Bracci at the age of 15.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Medieval Encyclopedia

In this day, it's hard to imagine an artist with so little ego that he never signed any of his work, or one that could go an entire lifetime with little or no lasting recognition. One Such artist was Erhard Reuwich. Okay, so he's not totally anonymous. He was probably born sometime around 1450 though that's only a rough guess. He seems to have worked in the Rhine River Valley near Heidelberg. And, though enough of his drawings and engravings exist to give him a name, his greatest work is only an attribution based upon the fact that one of the drawings in it looks like one he did of a Turk about the same time. Reuwich is said to have been the illustrator, perhaps even the writer, of one of the first ever encyclopedias. (This attribution is disputed by some experts.)
Venus and Mars, c.1480,
Master of the Housebook
If you're envisioning a multi-volume Britannica forget it. The roughly bound book is first of all a hand-lettered, hand illustrated one-of-a-kind tome depicting everything from half a suit of armor (to show how its put together) to the latest invention called an aquamanile--basically a finger bowl (which must have come in handy given the scarcity of silverware at the time). The book is titled, Love and War: A Manual for Life in the Late Middle Ages, though it undoubtedly had a somewhat less literary title in its previous life as a reference book in a medieval castle library. The volume seems to have been a family manual for making love, war, sugar cookies, laxatives, and stain removers (among other things). The artist, often referred to as the Housebook Master, seems to have had sense of humor as well, depicting the Joseph, in a Holy Family painting, as hiding behind a bench, rolling apples past the infant Jesus to amuse him.

Lover's Garden, c.1480,  Master of the Housebook
The Sun and his Children,
c. 1480, Master of the Housebook 
Even the tools of war apparently had more than one use. He shows a ladder used for scaling castle wall which seems also to have been applicable for courting lovely young damsels. In another illustration, involving astrology, a young man waits in a bath while a young lady wearing no more than a sweet smile dips a toe to test the waters. To the right are the words, "Beautiful bodies parched by love's heat, My children find love's duties sweet." (They must have been Aquarians.) If all this is starting to sound interesting, you can have one of seven hundred, limited edition copies for the immodest price of $1,980 each. It would make a great coffee table book to impress your friends. The original goes for somewhat more than that.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Max Weber

In the first two decades of the twentieth century it is difficult to overstate the influence Alfred Stieglitz and his 291 Gallery had on cutting edge art in this country.  There was virtually no Avant-garde artist working in this country (meaning New York City) that weren't intimately connected with Stieglitz, or hadn't at least exhibited at 291 Fifth Avenue. The typical routine tended to be that they were "discovered" by Stieglitz, went to Europe, (Paris and/or Munich) studied Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, Delaunay, Kandinsky and a few others, then came back carrying with them an amalgamation of many of these styles to try and make a go of it in this country. This group included artists such as John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and Max Weber among others.

Composition with Three Figures,
1910, Max Weber
Weber is an interesting case study. Born in 1881 in Bialystok, Russia, his Jewish parents brought him to this country when he was ten. He grew up poor in Brooklyn where he attended the Pratt Institute.  There he studied under Arthur Wesley Dow who, had worked with Gauguin. From Dow he picked up an emphasis on structure and patterned design. As was typical of the time, he went to Paris to complete his art studies, working under Robert Delaunay while studying the Fauves, Cezanne, and apparently Cubism, given the similarities between his Composition with Three Figures painted in 1910, and Picasso's 1907 Les Demoiselles d' Avignon. The Cubist and African influence is unmistakable.

He returned to New York in 1908. His big break came three years later when Stieglitz invited him to exhibit at the 291 Gallery. However two years after that, some of his paintings were refused at the 1913 Armory Show. In a fit of pique, he withdrew them all. It was a major career error. He went unrepresented in the most important Avant-garde show of its time. Many of Stieglitz's other artists made major names for themselves while Weber faded from view.

Rush Hour, New York, 1915, Max Weber

Chinese Restaurant, 1915,
Max Weber
The next few years were difficult for him. In his painting Chinese Restaurant (1915), he experiment with Synthetic Cubism, and in the same year, in painting Rush Hour, New York, there is the element of Futurism as he attempted to capture the powerful rhythms of the streets in abstract form.  But as with many artists who are ahead of their time, Weber suffered for it. Critics had nothing good to say about any of his work. Everyone else ignored him. Disillusioned and broke, Weber gradually turned to representational images in the early 1920s, letting Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and a number of other art movements pass him by. By the time of his death in 1961, he was largely forgotten.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Maurice Vlaminck

In the late 1800s, the English art critic, John Ruskin, rhetorically accused James McNeill Whistler of "...flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued him for it. In a stuffy English court of law he won his case of slander and was rewarded damages of one penny. Whistler was distressed and angered at the outcome but nonetheless felt vindicated. He'd made his point. The irony of it all is that Ruskin should have saved his venomous outrage for someone more deserving--someone like Maurice de Vlaminck. The only problem is, Vlaminck would have been delighted at such an outburst, seeing it as a different sort of vindication, in that the flinging of paint pots was precisely how he might have described his art himself.

The Chatou Bridge, 1906-07, Maurice Vlaminck
Vlaminck was born in 1876 and landed in Paris about 1901 with something of the same impact as a UFO.  All his life he was quite the bull in a china shop. It was then and there he met Andre Derain (b.1880). The two of them stumbled upon the Galerie Bernheim, which at the time was holding the first ever retrospective of the work of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh hit them like a "ton of bricks".  Vlaminck declared, "I love him more than my mother and father!" With Derain, and later Matisse, Vlaminck retreated to the banks of the Seine at Chatou and there painted the railway bridge with such raw, violent, flaming, exploding colors as to quite likely have startled even Van Gogh had he still been alive.

The Seine at Chatou, 1906, Maurice Vlaminck
Vlaminck never had an art class in his life and was intensely proud of that fact. In spite of a continuing struggle to feed his wife and two daughters, Vlaminck had a life-long disdain for past masters, rules, and tradition artistic values. "I don't care a damn for other people's painting. In art every generation has to begin all over again." He declared. In contrast to the bourgeois Derain, or the patient artistic explorations of his cohort, Matisse, Vlaminck painted instinctively with an insatiable curiosity for the crude expression of nature. The wildest of the "wild beasts", as the Fauves were called, Vlaminck, went further in exploiting color for color's sake than anyone at the time had dared to go. If he didn't exactly bash it in, he at least drove right up to the door to modern art and pounded on it so loudly the next generation was obliged to let him in and acknowledge the debt they owed his brash disregard for the niceties Impressionism or the restraints of traditional representational art.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Matthias Grunewald

In 1480 was born a painter named Matthias Gothardt, known to art historians as Matthias Grunewald.  By the time he was 30, he was working in the court of the archbishop of Mainz as an architect, hydraulic engineer, and painter. It sounds like a strange combination now, but during the Renaissance, it wasn't at all uncommon. There was not the split between arts and sciences then as now. Leonardo is said to have fulfilled similar divergent duties at the same time. Between 1510 and 1515 Grunewald was called upon to create an incredible religious masterpiece of oil painting that likewise had as its purpose the bridging of art and science, or in this case art, religion, and the healing sciences.

Isenheim Altarpiece (fully closed), 1512-16, Matthias Grunewald
The Isenheim Altarpiece is some 9 1/2 feet tall and over 10 feet wide.  It is mounted on a carved predella (stand) upon the front of which is depicted Mary, the mother of Jesus, and two other women preparing the body of Christ for burial. The altarpiece was painted for the hospital run by the Abbey of St. Anthony which treated primarily patients with skin diseases, plague, and leprosy. The Altarpiece commemorated the fourth century Egyptian hermit for which the Abbey was named. Part of the medical treatment of the hospital involved each patient viewing and praying at the altar, which was felt to have healing powers. On weekdays, the two folding wings of the altarpiece were closed.  Flanking them, two fixed wings depicted St. Sebastian on the left and St. Anthony on the right in a typical, Northern Renaissance style.

Isenheim Altarpiece (partially opened), 1412-16, Matthias Grunewald
What is not so typical however, upon the closed, hinged wings in the center, was painted the most horrific crucifixion imaginable to man; a scene in which the body of Christ is not only obviously dead but appears to be in the first stages of decomposition as well.

Isenheim Altarpiece (fully opened), 1512-16, Matthias Grunewald
In contrast, when opened up, the presentation is that of four separate, panels of equal size. Upon the two left panels are gloriously presented an annunciation and a liturgical reading of something called the Golden Mass celebrating the divine motherhood of the Virgin. The right center panel is painted to illustrate the heavenly and earthly realms of the Madonna and Child while the rightmost panel (perhaps the most visually impressive) is a wondrously graphic depiction of the resurrection. Overall, it is strikingly different from the Italian Renaissance (during which time it was painted) in more than just painting style. Unlike works such as Michelangelo's story of Genesis in his Sistine Ceiling, Grunewald, in his altarpiece, attempts an appeal to the heart, rather than the intellect. It was not merely narrative decoration but an integral part of the worship service. It is art, triumphant over science, and religion triumphant over all. 
Isenheim Altarpiece as seen today, disassembled
(wings removed) so that all images may be seen at once.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Matisse's Students

From colonial times, American artists have been drawn to Europe to study. This trek across the sea continued until the advent of WW I. Until the Revolutionary war, most American artists studied in London, but along with the break from England came a breaking away from English influence in American art. Paris became the place to go to learn to paint, though Munich and Dresden in Germany sometimes drew Americans into their circle of influence. During the early 1900s, though the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Academy Julian continued to attract American students, one man alone probably had greater influence upon American artists than all these hallowed halls of academic art combined.  His name was Henri Matisse.

Henri Matisse, 1933
Often, as in the case of Marguerite Thompson, the American artist/student, sojourning to Paris during the first decade of the twentieth century, they initially intended to study at the Ecole des Beaux-arts.  However with the Avant-garde exhibits blooming like Paris in the springtime, the lure to the Fauves, or Cubism, was often irresistible. And it was Matisse who attracted them like flies to honey. Among the American flies were Alfred H. Maurer, Arthur B. Carles, Patrick Henry Bruce, Henry Lyman, and Miss Thompson. Typically, they often met Matisse for the first time though their friendship with American expatriots Leo and Gertrude Stein. Though often they also flirted with other French art titans such as Picasso and Delaunay,  inevitably it was Matisse and his Fauvist, expressionistic colors that captured them and sent them back to America after a few years with irrational, bold, shocking, primary colors leaping from their palettes.

Still-life, 1924, Patrick Henry Bruce
Back in this country they met with mixed reactions.  Some, like Carles and Maurer, fell into place in Stieglitz's 291 Gallery and went on to become strong, Modernist influences as Dada and Surrealism took hold. Henry Lyman mixed Matisse and Picasso along with collaged newsprint and wallpaper in his work to become a major force in establishing modern art in Philadelphia. Marguerite Thompson returned to her native California where she enriched her paintings of giant redwoods with Matisse's brand of decorative color. Others were not always so fortunate. Particularly Patrick Henry Bruce. He had left his home state of Virginia to study with Robert Henri in New York before being drawn to Paris, Delaunay, and Matisse. His work, perhaps more than all the others, reflected the genius of Matisse, Cezanne and the Paris Avant-garde. But after being forced to return home just before the war, his work tended toward flat, geometric patterns and lost the fresh spirit of his Paris masterpieces.  Lacking both critical acceptance and sales, even when returning to Paris after the war, Bruce grew bitter and depressed. In 1936, he destroyed most of his work before returning to this country where, a few months later, he committed suicide.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Maaccio's The Trinity

It's generally accepted that the Early Renaissance began about 1400 with the contest to find a designer for the Baptistery doors opposite the new Florence Cathedral. If this is the so, then a good case can easily be made that the first great painter of the Renaissance was Tommaso Giovanni di Mone Masaccio. He was born in 1401 in Arezzo near Florence, the son of a young notary. Not much is known about him other than the fact he must have admired and studied deeply the work of Giotto in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. At the age of 21 he became a member of the painter's guild and began his life's work in painting a series of fresco's in the Brancacci Chapel sometime after 1425.

The Trinity, 1425, Masaccio
The most famous of these is The Trinity. It's a huge thing, some 25 feet tall and just over ten feet wide. This single work was to revolutionize painting for generations to come. Its presence was said to have had a marked influence on Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and every other painter to come out of Florence for the next two hundred years. It was a total departure from anything that had ever been done before. First of all, the painting utilized a one-point perspective with the vanishing point set near the base of the main scene at the eye-level of the viewer making the illusionary niche seem an extension of the chapel itself. Behind an architectural facing and beneath a deep barrel vault the figure of God stands on a shallow balcony supporting the weight of his son on the cross while a white dove hovers just above Christ's golden halo.

Below that are the figures of Joseph and Mary, painted life-size with Mary interceding for humanity. Slightly below and flanking it on either side, just outside the niche, are portraits of the donors of the work, the Leni family, Lorenzo and his wife. Below that is the open tomb with a skeleton above which are inscribed in Latin the haunting words, "I was that which you are. You will be that which I am." Though the painting is somewhat deteriorated today, badly in need of cleaning, the figures are in every way realistic and believable, a vision, as it were, of mankind's relationship to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost--a presentation so perfect and powerful as to impact the viewer both emotionally and spiritually. Its impact on artists especially left them with a whole new way of seeing and painting both man and God.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mary Cassatt

The female presence among the ranks of great artists is abysmally thin. In the last hundred years, only the names of Berthe Morisot, Georgia O'Keefe, Helen Frankenthaler, and Mary Cassatt stand out from the legions of their male counterparts. Morisot was of the old world, a world in which many women were taught art but few excelled in it. O'Keefe and Frankenthaler were women of a new world, trailblazing a path for the thousands of women artists today. Mary Cassatt, however, does not fit neatly into either of these molds. She was born in the old world, but transcended it to be a leading force to be reckoned with in shaping the new world order of art to which O'Keefe and Frankenthaler were heirs.   
Born near Pittsburgh in 1844, Mary Cassatt studied art for four years during the Civil War at the Pennsylvania Academy. Feeling stifled at the then predominant learning mode in which artists (especially female artists) drew almost exclusively from plaster casts, shortly after the war, she fled to Europe and Paris in search of a freer, more accepting climate in which to learn and practice her art, just in time to grab the train to Impressionism with fellow-passenger and best friend Edgar Degas. Though both displayed with this group of ground-breaking artist, neither of them were die hard impressionists. What they shared with the impressionists was a quiet disdain for the high and mighty "official" subject matter of Academic art.    

The Bath, 1893, Mary Cassatt
Like Degas, Cassatt preferred the mundane over the exulted. She especially liked exploring the relationship between mothers and their children. Her 1893 painting titled The Bath is more about motherhood than anything ever conceived by Whistler or Hallmark. There is warmth and love without sentimentality. There is freshness without Impressionist color saturation. There is beauty without prettiness. Her work is feminine without being delicate or fussy. Beyond her painting, in this century, Cassatt was instrumental in introducing some of her wealthy American friends to the works of artists such as Courbet, Manet, Monet, and Degas for their collections. Late in life, she developed cataracts and had to abandon painting, but apart from her own work, her most lasting impact upon art may well have been the bridges she built between the French avant-garde artists she knew and loved and those from her own country that would make their art mainstream. She died at her country home outside Paris in 1926.  She was 82.   

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Four Hundred Years of Art Marketing

When an artist sells a painting, or some other work of art today, he or she probably doesn't think much about today's art market, much less how that market came to be. When you stand quite close to something quite large, the "big picture" becomes overwhelming--too big to contemplate. Artists know their own work, their local competition, and have some feel for sales prospects in the local area. Beyond that, the artist either doesn't care about, or knows the futility of caring about the larger art market. Though the way artists sell their work is changing gradually, for many artists, the so-called "art market" seems almost hypothetical. Or, it seems always to have "always been there," something like Mount Everest. Actually, a more apt comparison might be Mount Rushmore.

During the 1600s, there was a gradual shift of art patronage from commissioned work to that done "on speculation" (meaning it was sold either by the artists or through agents). This was largely the result of the gradual decrease in church sponsorship of the arts and the rise of Protestantism in Europe, which took a much dimmer view of such expensive "decorations" than did Catholicism. Concurrent with this trend was the widespread use of printed material in place of strictly visual forms in religious education. A gradually improving (and institutionalized) education system brought with it a gradually increasing literacy. This chain reaction also was at least partly what triggered the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle classes (or bourgeois, as the French would have it).   
Through most of the 1700s, there still remained widespread government support of the arts (which meant commissions) but in Holland, France, Germany, and England, where lived the most upwardly mobile middle classes, they easily made up the loss of church commissions. Often, of course, this meant simply more commissions rather than work purchased "off the shelf," so to speak. But with the founding of the French Academy in 1648, with its annual Salons, even though still tightly controlled by officialdom, these affairs were basically high-classed "art markets" as much as showcases. An artist had to have work accepted frequently into the Salons in order to sell. With acceptance came commissions, of course, but an artist might do dozens of smaller works to sell himself between big commissions. Thus the Salons helped spawn and drive the free market in artwork. And, as hated as they were by those seeking to broaden the definition of art in the nineteenth century, the Salons still served a very important purpose and could not be ignored, even by those who wished to.   
The poor, put-upon Impressionists were prime examples of this. The problem with Impressionism was that the work was largely hated and scorned by the rising middle class of the time. A funny thing happened to the bourgeois as they rose to relative comfort and prosperity. They tended to imitate the aristocracy in matters of art and taste. And, they relied on the decisions of the Academic Salon jurists and art critics/journalists of the time to tell them what they liked. While Impressionism may have sparked some increase in the reliance on the open market, these works were such a small part of all art sales as to be almost negligible. Academic art was mainstream, be it Romantic, Rococo, or Classical. The open sale of these works, which had started a good two hundred years before, was the tail wagging the dog-eat-dog commissioned art market by the 1880s and the dawn of Modernism. Yet, that nineteenth century art market "mountain," though it seemed eternal, was acquiring a new face. Despite rock-hard resistance from the Academic establishment, the Impressionists and their Modern Art descendants (and agents), gradually gave a new appearance to an old, monolithic, economic landmark much as Gutzon Borglum later did to Mount Rushmore.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Mark Tansey

Perhaps one of the strangest paintings done in the last 30 years came from the hand of Mark Tansey. It's an enormous painting, some ten feet in length and over six feet in height. It hangs in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The painting is titled the Triumph of the New York School. The title proclaims the historical conquest of American Abstract Expressionism over the mainstream Paris School after World War II. Painted in 1984, at first glance the daring, deep contrast of the red, monochromatic painting is striking. It has the appearance of a giant photo from a Sunday magazine section with realism appropriate to the style. The work appears to be a history painting depicting the battlefield surrender of one army to another. Upon closer inspection, the surrendering army on the left, dressed in World-War I uniforms can be seen as French, while an American army on the right (in WW II uniforms) stands by with a certain casual, non-chalance accepting the capitulation.  
The Triumph of the New York School, 1984, Mark Tansey

It is at this point that the wealth of irony inherent in the work comes to the fore. Each of the more than a dozen officers on each side is a recognizable portrait of famous artists, critics, and writers, including on the French side, the Surrealist Andre Breton and Pablo Picasso (dressed in fur), and on the American side such painters as Jackson Pollock and the highly influential New York art critic, Clement Greenberg. In the background is a war-torn landscape dotted by the smouldering fires of recent artistic conflicts over which the New York School has unconditionally triumphed. The two or three French officers are mounted on anachronistic horses while the American "cavalry" is a modern armored half-track.   
Aside from providing interesting intellectual delights for art historians, the painting's purpose is to shake up conventional ideas about history and truth. The soldiers of WW I surrendering to those WW II is as absurd the comparison of art and war. In addition, the documentary photographic realism of such an impossible historic scene challenges our notions regarding the reliability of photography itself. Today, with many off-the-shelf computers coming bundled with scanners, printers, and photo-editing software, this element of the painting now seems academic. It serves to underline the gradual disappearance of the line between the painted image an the photographic image. With the photo, merely another tool of the artist, and artistic editing merely another tool of the photographer, all images are merely that--images.   

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mark Rothko

In 1903, Marcus Rothkowitz was born to a poor Jewish family in the ghetto of Dvinsk, a city in Russian-dominated Latvia. When he was ten, amidst the turmoil of war-torn Europe, his family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Portland Oregon. An outstanding student, he won a scholarship to Yale, but left school at the age of 20 to become a bookkeeper. He also started taking life-drawing classes. It was then he began painting. His early work consisted of quiet street scenes in a decorative, Urban Realist style. During the Depression he subsisted on part-time jobs, WPA artists' workfare programs, and teaching positions while his marriage to a fellow artist disintegrated. He too disintegrated into a nervous breakdown.   
Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea,1944, Mark Rothko
Near the end of WW II, Mark Rothko remarried. His palette brightened. His usual, dismal outlook did too. One of his best works from this period reads something like a marriage portrait. Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea has a primordial, delicately decorative quality amid an uplifting sweep of delightfully organic but unidentifiable forms. Influenced by Milton Avery as well as his friend and fellow artist, Adolph Gottlieb, there seems also to be a hint of Joan Miro as well. Rothko also claimed to have painted this work in response to having seen Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. It was the New York School with an Italian Renaissance flavor.   
Despite his alliance with the Abstract Expressionist of the time, Rothko always vehemently denied being an Abstractionist. His insistence on subject matter in his work even as he moved into the 1960s and his trademark color-field paintings spawned a preoccupation amongst critics to lend narrative meaning from births to burials to his work. More likely, Rothko's insistence upon subject matter was a reaction to the fear that his painting might be considered merely "decorative". Late in life, as his work became more popular and highly salable, he began to show signs of clinical depression. In 1970, he committed suicide by slitting his wrists. He was 67. Following his death and a landmark court battle between his heirs and the executors of his estate, prices for his paintings vaulted into the stratosphere.  Also stratospheric was the seven-million-dollar judgement won by his heirs against the directors of a charitable foundation established in his will.