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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Greatest Impact

As the year 2013 draws to a close, journalists and pundits love to expound upon "the year in review." I could do the same with regard to art but...pfft... Why bother? Art this year didn't exactly deprive anyone of their socks. Instead, I thought it might be interesting to discuss which century had the greatest impact on the fine arts. As a matter of necessity, I've limited my consideration to those eras from the Renaissance to the present. Before that, progress in the fine arts was simply too widely dispersed and disorganized to have had much of an impact. Thus I've chosen three centuries as contenders. First, the Renaissance itself, basically the 15th century to which we'll add an extra twenty years (1401-1520), inasmuch as the era doesn't fit neatly into a typical hundred-year span. Second, would be the 19th century (1801-1900), and finally, the 20th century (1901-2000).
Spanish Mannerist painting, ca. 1550.
Why not the 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries? The 16th century period following the Renaissance was saddled with the misbegotten excesses of Mannerism, whose only saving grace was in planting the seeds of the Baroque era. The 17th century had the Baroque style over much of Europe and the Dutch Golden Age--impressive, a real contender, but not quite making the cut. The 18th century had French Rococo, a tasteless overindulgence that would easily, and deservedly, place it at the bottom of any list of great art eras.
The Renaissance--Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, the big three, almost a mantra in academic art history classes, and deservedly so. But bolstering these three great masters are names like Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Alberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Titian, Ghirlandaio, da Massina, Verocchio, and some others of lesser stature. The period began with Lorenzo Ghiberti winning the Florentine Baptistery door panel competition in 1401 and ended with the death of Raphael in 1520. In between, Brunelleschi taught Italian artists how to use linear perspective; Bramante got St. Peter's Basilica off to a good start; Michelangelo's David hopped up on a pedestal outside Florence's Palazzo Vecchio while his Pieta took up residence in the Vatican. Leonardo had a disastrous Last Supper, but succeeded in making Mona smile (sorta). Meanwhile, Raphael did some pretty impressive redecorating for Pope Julius II and nearly made a career out of painting baby pictures of Jesus. Art and science had a race to see which could make the most progress. It was neck and neck at times, but in the end, art won by a furlong.
The 19th Century--Jaques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste Ingres, Eugene Delacoix, Theodore Gericault, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne--quite a cast of characters and every last one of the stars of the show speaking with a French accent. England provided J.M.W. Turner, America added the names of Whistler, Cassatt, and Sargent. Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Gauguin, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Morisot, and a few others all turned in superb performances in supporting roles. Eiffel raised his tower; Manet had a picnic on the lawn, Rodin did some thinking and kissing; Whistler proved to be a mama's boy; Monet made quite an impression; and Seurat invented the dot. David, Ingres, Delacroix, Gericault, Cabanal, Bougeureau, Gerome and way too many others, manned the Academic ramparts against the likes of Monet, Courbet, Millet, Degas, Renoir, van Gogh, and Cezanne. For all its fame, faults, and frivolities, nothing like the French Academie des Beaux Arts had ever existed before (or fortunately, since) nor had such a powerful impact on the arts. Only the Catholic Church during the Renaissance came close to the near total artistic domination of the Academie and its all-powerful Salon competition. The century began with David's Classical Oath of the Horatii (above, left), and ended Georges Seurat taking a day off on A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte (above, right). Both were massive paintings but had little in common beyond that. In between, photography poked its nosed into the art world, trains carried artist into the countryside to paint, and a little guy with one ear ended his painting carreer prematurely with a gunshot. It was a wild and crazy century.
The 20th century--Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Norman Rockwell, Salavador Dali, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Frank Lloyde Wright, Walt Disney, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Steven Spielberg, Jeff Koons--the list of stars grows longer and longer with each century. The list of secondaries becomes longer than both your arms--Braque, Chagall, Duchamp, Vlaminck, Balla, Boccioni, Munch, Gaudi, le Corbusier, Mondrian, Frankenthaler, O'Keeffe, Griffith, Hitchcock, Moses, Close, Gottlieb, Nevelson, and about a hundred more. The list of 20th century art "isms" is enough to choke a horse, starting with Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Art Nouveau and Deco, Expressionism, Futurism, Orphism, Surrealism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism, Op and Pop, and finally a kind of artistic suicide in Minimalism. The 20th century, fortunately, had no institutional dictatorship even faintly reminiscent of the Academie des Beaux Arts, though some might suggest Hollywood's Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPASS) comes close. If the technology rather tiptoed into the 19th century with the advent of primitive photography, the 20th century art world literally got WALLOPED by it, starting with motion pictures, then television, and finally the computer. Painting peaked with Abstract Expressionism, Popped a decade later, then Minimalized itself into irrelevancy shortly thereafter. Frank Lloyde Wright epitomized architecture, the Bauhaus reinvented the box on a grand, soaring scale so we could watch in horror as two of them came crashing down during 9-11. Modern Art became Post-modern. Pixels replace pigments. D.W. Griffith gave birth to a nation of racists, Selznick went with the wind, and Spielberg phoned home with Schindler's List in hope of Saving Private Ryan. And finally, Stanley Kubrick taught us how to love the bomb and then summed up the entire century with an psychedelic, overly optimistic space odyssey scheduled for 2001.
And the winner decide. Not to unduly influence the outcome, but my vote goes with the 20th century by a landslide. Alvin Toffler had it right in Future Shock. It's not a matter of change itself, but the pace of change that counts. The 20th century changed many things. The 21st century will change every thing. There will always be change. In the most fundamental sense, "change" is, in fact, the very definition of life. If you don't change, you die. And even the dead change physically. When people can no longer cope with change, especially the pace of change, that's when they face death. Daily we read about the divisions, not just in American society, but the world as a whole. A great deal of what accounts for this division boils down to those who can and do deal effectively with change and those who can't, don't, or won't deal with change. In art we see a microcosm of the ever-increasing pace of change in the world. Any attempt to slow down this pace of change (or worse, reverse it) is fruitless. The only hope is to try to guide change, and perhaps lessen somewhat its impact. At this time, the second decade of the 21st century, it's way too early to evaluate the impact of this century's changes in the fine arts. The year 1913 gave no hint of two world wars, nuclear weapons, television, or space travel, much less microwave ovens, the Internet, in vitro fertilization, digital photography, or virtual reality. 2013 and the year following is likewise ignorant of the future. Coping with change is best achieved by hoping for the best rather than fearing the worst. Happy New Years!


Monday, December 30, 2013

Walter Gropius

The cantilevered stairway, Alan W. Frank House, Pittsburgh, 1939-40,
Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer
“There is no finality in architecture – only continuous change.”
                                                                                                       --Walter Gropius
It's very likely that no one architect has influenced how we view and define "modern" more than Walter Gropius. He overshadows some pretty big names, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, even his German mentor, Peter Behrens, in this regard. Yet the man, in his entire career is credited with the design of less than two dozen buildings. Thus Gropius influenced rather than built. He was a teaching architect who, in fact, could not draw. In college, he hired a fellow student to draw for him. It was a shortcoming that plagued him his entire career. However, architectural illustrators are a deutschmark a dozen, while visionary architects are priceless. That was apparently the rational when Peter Behrens hired Gropius into his firm in 1908. There he worked elbow to elbow with future legends such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Adolph Meyer, and other cutting-edge German designers breaking new ground in the area of industrial design--factories, office buildings, and the like.
Faguswerk Factory, 1911-13, Walter Gropius, Adolph Meyer, architects.
Walter Gropius and his door handle.
It was a shortlived association. In 1910, Gropius and Meyer started their own firm in Berlin. Their first commission was for the Faguswerk factory (above) which made wooden "feet" around which shoes were built. The design broke new ground with it's all-glass facade, steel frame, "curtain" walls, and lack of structural corners. However, Gropius architectural career soon came under assault from history. WW I intruded. Come 1914, the budding young architect, an army reservist, was off to fight on the Western Front where he was wounded and nearly died.
The Bauhaus-designed Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany, 1925.
After the war, in the turbulent years of Germany's Wiemar Republic, Gropius was chosen to lead the Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, which he soon transformed into the famous Bauhaus School of Industrial Design. In a very short time (the school moved to Dessau in 1925) Gropius brought on board instructors such as Paul Klee, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, and Wassily Kandinsky. The famous Gropius door handle (above, left) dates from this period (1923). After the Bauhaus move to Dessau, Gropius was involved in the design of large-scale housing complexes in Berlin, Karlsruhe and Dessau.

The Gropius House, 1938, Lincoln, Mass.
In 1934, seeing the Nazi handwriting on the wall, Gropius literally sneaked out of Germany to Italy, thence to England for a time, then in 1937, to the United States and Harvard University. There he headed the Harvard Graduate School of Design and went into businss with his protege, Marcel Breuer. Their first commission, in 1938, was Gropius' own home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, followed by the Alan W. Frank House (1939-40) in Pittsburgh (top). Together, these two strikingly modern homes served to, in large part, bring the International Style (a term Gropius disdained) to America. Later, in 1945, Gropius teamed up with seven younger architects to form The Architects' Collaborative (TAC).

The Harvard Graduate Center (Story Hall), 1949-50, Walter Gropius and TAC.

The JFK Federal Building, 1963-66,
Boston, Mass, Walter Gropius and TAC.
Together, Gropius and TAC was responsible for the design of the Harvard Graduate Center (above), the first college campus building in the U.S. to embrace modern style architecture. The firm's works also included several Boston area schools and hospitals, the University of Baghdad, the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece, the Pan-Am Building (now the Metlife Building) in New York, the J.F.K. Federal Building in Boston (left, 1963-66), a synagogue in Baltimore, and several projects in Germany. Walter Gropius died in 1969 at the age of eighty-six. TAC died in 1995, bankrupt at the age of forty.


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Edouard Detaille

Vive Empereur, 1891, Edouard Detaille
Edouard Detaille, Self-portrait
Wars have been going on since the first Neanderthal heaved a rock at his neighbor for sneering at him funny. How do we know? Because those who make war also write about it afterwards--Julius Caesar, for instance. Artists also paint wars. At first, that was a rather slow, painful (and painfully inaccurate) process, often taking decades and with more than a little "artistic license" involved (not to mention political pressures). Artists slowly got better at what they did, as did the combatants. War and the history of war got more precise with details down to the embossed designs of uniform buttons. Armchair generals can now "re-fight" battles with amazingly authentic realism. Photography has had a lot to do with this reenactment craze (fetish?), but before there was "film at eleven," there were artists either actually in the armies involved, or traveling with them to record the daily lives of the high and mighty generals and the meek and lowly "cannon fodder." The French Academic artist, Edouard Detaille was one of the best of these during his time.
1814. Campagne de France , 1864, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier
Detaille's time was around 1866 to 1912 (he was born in 1848). Detaille didn't start out to be a military artist although he came from a military family, his grandfather having been an arms supplier for Napoleon. Using family connections, he looked up the famed military artist Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier in the hope of getting to meet and study under the inimitable Academicist, Alexander Cabanal. However, there's no record of his ever having accomplished his goal. Meissonier recognized talent when he saw it and "hijacked" the young, seventeen-year-old artist to become a student of his own. The portly, white-bearded (parted down the center), Meissonier had been Napoleon's P.R. man, perhaps as much, or more, responsible for our vainglorious image of Napoleon today as Napoleon himself (above).

Detaille's sketchbook journal from around 1870.
Grenadier of the Old Guard,
Edouard Detaille
Detaille learned two things from Meissonier--accuracy and precision. Along this same line however, Detaille had one great advantage over his mentor, that being photography. Detaille was one of the first artists in France to recognize and openly use photography as a valuable tool in producing his works. His photographer friend was Eugène Atget who, likewise, was among the best in his field at the time. The other great asset (if you can call it that), which Detaille had over Meissonier, was a nasty little dust-up between France and their Prussian neighbors just over the Rhine. Meissonier was forced, by the accident of his birth date, to paint the Napoleonic wars second hand. Detaille not only saw the Franco-Prussian war first-hand, he fought in it as an enlisted man in a cavalry unit--nothing like a little cannon fire to add authenticity to your work. His Vive Empereur (top) from 1891, painted from his own battlefield drawings (above) beats anything Meissonier might have imagined. Detaille's Grenadier of the Old Guard (left) is probably his best portrait painted during the war itself.

Battle of Mars la Tour, 1870, Edouard Detaille--the French won this one.
Detaille in his studio, 1910.
Battlefield art always seems to be
painted "life-size" or larger.
Funeral Service of General Damrémont,
1910, Edouard Detaille--a scene from
the Siege of Constantine in 1837.
Fortunately for Detaille, not to mention Napoleon III's ill-fated Second Empire, the war only lasted about a year (otherwise the French might be speaking German today). In any case, and unfortunately for the French, they lost, setting the stage for WW I some forty years later. In its aftermath, Detaille had enough raw material for a lifetime of extremely authentic battle scenes. The Battle of Mars La Tour (above) is bloodier than most, without the typical "glorification" of war seen in much of Detaille's works painted between 1870 and his death in 1912. The Funeral Service of General Damremont (above, left) dates from an earlier war in Algeria (1837). Toward the end of his life, Detaille was having to go further and further back in history to find French military victories to glorify. His 1888 La Reve (The Dream, below) is considered the best of his later works--a meeting of illusionary glory and hard reality.

La Reve, 1888, Edouard Detaille, the paradox of peace and beauty on a battlefield.



Saturday, December 28, 2013

Renaissance Cities--Avignon

Sing along, if you like. The chapel spire of the Papal Palace is at far right.
If you ever see a photo of an ancient city with a bridge which dead-ends in the middle of its river...that's Avignon, more specifically the Pont du Avignon. There's a French children's song, Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse, l'on y danse. (On the bridge of Avignon, they dance, they dance.) It's kind of the French answer to London Bridge is Falling Down, Falling Down. Aside from Picasso's ugly dames in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the song may well be the city's one main claim to fame. The bridge, dating from the 12th century, was washed away by a flood in 1669 and never rebuilt. By the way, the bridge is too narrow for the dance described in the song, which may account for why it was never rebuilt.

The Palace of the Popes, Avignon, France
The Pointillist painter, Paul Signac, painted
Avignon at sunset around 1900.
Bridges, Picasso, and children's ditties aside, the French city of Avignon is best known for its French popes during the century-long schism in the Catholic church, (1309 to 1423). It's famed Papal Palace (above) stands today in the center of the city as an architectural reminder of this dark era in the history of the Catholic church. Although quite historic, it's no architectural masterpiece by any stretch, appearing as a somewhat restored ruin. From some angles it looks like a medieval fortress with a rather inglorious, crenelated watchtower. From the front, it has a kind of sprawling, forlorn appearance of a Gothic cathedral designed by committee, then fortunately left unfinished.
The Papal Palace, Avignon, France, too many architects, too much conflict.
Notre Dame des Doms cathedral,
Avignon, France.
Avignon is located on the Rhone River some 85 km (52 miles) north-northwest of the French Riviera city of Marseilles. Of course, by the time of the high Renaissance rolled around (1480-1520), the sorry episode of French popes and anti-popes was largely a thing of the past, though still something of sore spot for the church. Michelangelo's Pope Julius II was said to be extremely distrustful of the French even some sixty years after the Schism. In looking at the important history of Avignon you quickly come to realize it was far more about the darkest side of church politics than art. Anyone who gripes about politics in Washington, D.C., today should take a peek at that of the Vatican during the 14th century. The conflict between Italian Catholicism and the French version (dominated by the Monarchy) makes our present-day "divided government" seem like a noisy little family spat.
Not to unduly air the dirty laundry of the Catholic church, but just as the church stepped into the power vacuum left by the fall of the Roman Empire during the latter part of the 5th century, the rise of powerful European monarchies during the 14th century (France, England, Spain, Germany) threatened the nearly 900 years of church dominance of European political fortunes. With the election of the French Pope Clement V in 1305, and his subsequent removal of the church government from Rome to Avignon, there began a sequence of twelve popes (eight of them French) plus three "anti-popes" during the next hundred years that literally tore the church apart. During this period the papacy lost much of its temporal power, influence, and respect. The word Catholic means, "universal." Yet, during this time, there were French Catholics, English Catholics, Spanish Catholics, etc.--anything but universal. The French being the most rebellious, Avignon found itself the center of this vicious religious conflict.
Catherine of Siena Escorting Pope Gregory XI Back to Rome on 17th January 1377,
Fresco by Giorgio Vasari, c. 1571-1574.
This ended the Avignon Papacy but not the turmoil, which lasted for another 50 years.
From that point on, things really got messy. The King of France, and later the entire city of Florence was excommunicated, a pope was physically attacked, another arrested, there were armies battling one another, a massacre of several thousands, and for several years, two popes. Eventually, in 1417, with the election of Pope Martin V, things simmered down for a while, though the French continued with their own line of so-called "anti-popes" until 1437. Moreover, the city of Avignon remained under papal control until the coming of the French Revolution in 1791. With all this conflict going on, not to mention a devastating bout with Bubonic Plague in 1348 (two-thirds of the city's population died), it's not surprising that, even during the Renaissance, there wasn't much art going on. Since WW II, however, there has been a cultural renaissance. Today, the city has become something of a tourist mecca since the first Avignon Festival in 1947, consisting of traditional theatrical events and other art forms including dance, music, and cinema, utilizing the city's many historical monuments, parks, and plazas...except for the too-narrow bridge.

Each May, Altera Rosa, a meeting of lovers of roses, highlights Liesse Cloister
Benedict XII of  the Palace of Popes in Avignon.

Additional items dealing with Renaissance cities can be found by clicking on the various links below:

London, Ferrara, Rome, Urbino, Milan, Constantinople, Florence.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Albert Samuel Anker

Sleeping Boy in the Hay, Albert Anker
Mary-Go-Round, 1975, Jim Lane,
My own genre of genre.
I like genre painting. I know, as a modern-day writer who expounds upon art from all eras, I'm not supposed to. I'm supposed to find it quaint, syrupy sweet, sentimental, and even "cute." The problem is, I've been known to paint genre subjects from time to time so I dare not distance myself too far from such art. Technically, "genre" (pronounced, JON-ra) means a type, sort, kind, or category. How such a designation came to be applied to household scenes, and more generally, to common daily social interactions from various eras? I'm not sure. In researching the term, it appears no one else is either. In fact, the word is sometimes used so broadly it gets subdivided into a hierarchy of genre works with history painting at the top and still-lifes or architectural scenes at the bottom--which is probably more than you really wanted to know on the subject. Suffice to say the term may have evolved by default--no one quite knew what to call this genre of painting so they called it simply "genre."
The Village School, Albert Anker
Albert Anker Self-portrait, 1891
Though such work has long been looked down upon by proponents of "high" art, everyone else seems to have some affection for it. Yes, it can be overly sweet, cutesy, and sentimental, yet that may be one of the reason many people seem to like it. But, it can also be quite the opposite, harsh, brisk, strident, even downright ugly. It's life at the most basic level, and, as we all know, life can be beautiful, but it can also be all those other things as well. Genre painters have existed since the Egyptians started marking up their walls to the present day. We all know of Norman Rockwell and the other Saturday Evening Post artists who, for the most part, painted genre. But one of the best I've ever encountered was the Swiss painter, Albert Samuel Anker.

Sunday School Walk, 1872, Albert Anker--a field trip, literally to a field.
Little Girl Knitting, Albert Anker
Albert Anker was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1831, the son of a veterinarian. As so often happened in centuries past, his family encouraged him to be anything but an artist. He initially studied theology. He was twenty-three before he was able to persuade his father to support him in studying art. He moved to Paris where first he studied under the Academic artist Charles Gleyre (also Swiss). Later he graduated from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, then moved back in with his parents, establishing a studio in their attic. Anker's success as an artist apparently came rather quickly. Within four years he was married and starting a family of six children who often appeared in his paintings. Children knitting (left) or reading were always a favorite subject for Anker, perhaps because such activities required good eyesight (especially knitting) which the adults in the family may have lacked.

On the Stove, 1895, Albert Anker. Bedrooms get cold during Swiss winters.
Girl Holding Two Cats,
Albert Anker
It is, in fact, when painting children that Albert Anker most excels. Many are simple head and shoulders portraits, but it's when he moves them into his genre scenes that we can most appreciate their lives, their joys and sorrows in growing up during the late 19th century. On the Stove (above) was probably not typical, but nonetheless speaks volumes as to the childhood penchant for improvisation in keeping warm at night. His painting, Girl Holding Two Cats speaks as warmly of his love of animals (being the son of a veterinarian) as much as it does his love of children. Many, if not most, of Anker's paintings of children, if given modern-day dress, could pass quite easily for portraits of kids today. Children change. Children mature into adults; but childhood is a constant. Details, then and now, may differ, but the experience of "growing up"...not so much.

Child Funeral, 1863, Albert Anker. Death was an ever-present part of childhood.
Though there is an unavoidable nostalgic sweetness to even the most typical children's genre Anker produced, there is also an exploration of the stark reality that death was an ever-present part of childhood during the 19th century. Two of Anker's six children died before reaching adulthood. His Child's Funeral (above), painted in 1863, is a sobering expression of the fact that not all genre, not all the depictions of lovely, loving children, bore "happily ever after" endings. The funeral depicted was probably not that of one of Anker's children (the date is a little early for that) not to mention the fact such a painting, coming from a grieving father, would have been deemed unseemly, not to mention heartrending to produce. However, another Anker painting does, in fact, depict the artist's toddler son, Ruedi on his deathbed (below).

Ruedi Anker on his Deathbed, 1869, Albert Anker
The Drinker, 1868, Albert Anker
--no Norman Rockwell genre here.
With his family raised, Albert Anker (there's little mention of his wife, Anna) traveled broadly throughout Europe, spending winters in Paris. His subjects grew to include the elderly as well as more than thirty highly realistic still-lifes, quite often including food items. He died in 1910 at the age of seventy-nine. He is considered today the "National Painter" of Switzerland largely for his enduring glimpses of daily life during the Victorian era. Many Swiss postage stamps bear images of his work. His home and studio in Bern (bottom) where the artist was born and raised, and there raised his own family, is open to the public by appointment, including a personal tour by Matthias Brelin, the artist's grandson.

The Albert Anker House and Museum (built in 1803), Bern Switzerland,
just as the artist left it.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Jenny Eakin Delony (Rice)

Arkansas Made, 1896-1900, Jenny Eakin Delony, her most poignant work.
Jenny Eakin Delony Self-portrait
Virtually every state in the U.S. has it's "favorite son" artist. My home state of Ohio, for instance, often touts George Bellows or Howard Chandler Christie as its most worthwhile contribution to the great panoply of American art. Recently I stumbled upon a similar contribution from the state of Arkansas, except that this "favorite son" was actually a favorite daughter, Jenny Eakin Delony (Rice). The state of Arkansas has never been what you'd call the heart and soul of American Art. Its list of great entertainers, politicians, and athletes far exceeds that of its artists. Not only is its list of artists short, but contains the names of only two painters (both male, both relatively unknown). Though Mrs. Delony Rice wasn't on that list, she very well should be. Her portraits, miniatures, wildlife, and landscape paintings stand up well against those who were included.

Psyche (after Curzon), 1889,
Jenny Eakin Delony, painted
while studying in Paris.
As interesting as her work may be, Jenny Eakin Delony's art education would seem to be even more so. Born in Washington, Arkansas, in 1866, she starting in the Cincinnati Art Academy in 1886. She moved on to Paris to the Academie Julian for a couple years, followed by time spent studying and painting in Venice, before ending up back in Paris among the first group of women ever admitted to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1896. From there she moved on to study "artistic anatomy" at the École de Médecine (whatever that might have entailed, drawing cadavers, possibly). Not satisfied with that, returning to the U.S. around 1900, she studied under the famed William Merritt Chase, eventually becoming his secretary (that figures).

If keeping up with Jenny Delony's travels as a student leaves your head spinning, tracing her whereabouts and various teaching positions during the remainder of her life would twist it off completely. Her portrait of Hetty Green in 1905, said to be the richest woman in America, lifted her to national prominence, though the majority of her portrait subjects were from her home state. Her work in establishing university art departments in Virginia and Arkansas ranks her as one of the great art educators in American History. She was also something of a "suffragette." She married twice. Her first husband, Nathaniel Rice, died after two years. She was divorced from her second husband after ten years, at which she returned to signing her work Jenny Eakin Delony Rice. She had no children. (When would she have found the time?) She died of cancer in 1949.

Stream in the Hills with Homestead, Jenny Eakin Delony,
the influence of William Merritt Chase is evident.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Cards

The official 2013 White House Christmas card is a pop-up designed by Michigan artist, Chris Hankinson. You can buy one on eBay for $125.
John Callcott Horsley Self-Portrait, 1882
"Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you." That was the message on the first commercially printed Christmas card designed by British artist John Horsley Callcott to be sent by his friend, Sir Henry Cole, back in 1843. Included was the Horsley envelope, the first with prepaid postage. The man was too busy to write individual holiday greetings (or, apparently, to lick postage stamps). Cole had one thousand printed (and hand-colored). Twelve are known to still exist. Today, Christmas cards have faded in popularity from their height in the 1950s when my mother used to send between 50 and a hundred each year (postage was three cents). Today, what with the cost of the cards themselves, the ever-rising price of stamps, and the time-consuming (and boring) chore of addressing each one, the practice is rapidly fading into obscurity. It's much too easy and virtually cost free to send such greetings via e-mail, complete with music and annimations even the most expensive, high-tech, greeting cards today can't touch.
Callcott's 1843 Christmas card upset some folks in its depiction of a child
imbibiing a little Christmas cheer.
Looks like he could use a little
Christmas cheer.
Sir Henry Cole was a British bureaucrat and inventor born in 1808, who began his public service career at the age of 15 as an assistant in the Public Records Office. By the time he left there four years later he'd completely reorganized the place. He's sometimes credited with having invented the first postage stamp. Whatever the case, Cole's time-saving contribution to Christmas customs caught on. The Victorian era saw the design, printing, and popularity of Christmas greetings (below, right) multiply among the British upper classes from the queen on down to the postman (who likely sneaked his greetings by for free). Lace and lads and lassies dominated the illustrations, though it's uncertain whether Callcott ever created any more of them.

A 1905 vintage Christmas postcard with the now hated Xmas abbreviation.

A Victorian Christmas card
dating from around 1870.
Around 1873, the British lithographers, Prang and Mayer, headed by designer, Louis Prang, took note of the growing popularity of Christmas cards and decided to export the custom to America. They were immediately popular, though their success had a downside. Cheap imitations eventually drove the company from the market as Victorian folding cards were quickly replaced with the postcard version (above). An 1885 Prang greeting (below, left) has a thoroughly modern Santa talking on the phone with children from around the world. (Who writes letters to Santa Claus when you can talk to him on the phone?)

A thoroughly modern 1885 Santa.
Politicians, from presidents on down, have long sent printed Christmas greetings to important friends (especially campaign donors), though most featured summer scenes. However, it wasn't until 1953 that there was an official White House Christmas card signed by President Eisenhower and Mamie. It was a rather subdued affair featuring the presidential seal on a solid blue background, but it's the thought that counts. In 1961, Jackie Kennedy incorporated a photo into the greeting (below), a summer view of ducks on a pond with the mansion in the background (not at all Christmasy). The following year featured a watercolor rendering of the Red Room in the White House minus any decorations. That same year the front of the card featured a photo of the White House in the snow. Religious themes are a rarity in White House Christmas greetings.

The 1961 White House Christmas card. Shouldn't there be snow?
The 2013 White House Christmas greeting this year (top) is probably the most novel ever sent out by a president and his family. First of all it's a "pop-up". I can't tell for sure, but it looks as if there might even be an LED inside to give a warm glow through the windows. Beyond that, it's signed by, not just the president and first lady, but also their children. However most innovating (some might say annoying) is that the White House dogs, Sunny and Bo have added their paw prints at the bottom.

Below is my 21st century greeting card to my readers (ca. 2010):

Sing along, if you like.