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Monday, March 31, 2014

John Atkinson Grimshaw

Humber Docks, Hull, 1884, John Atkinson Grimshaw
John Atkinson Grimshaw
As anyone who reads my words very often might guess, I seldom praise the Victorian Era. It was too pretty, too pretentious, too prudish, too precious, and insofar as its art was concerned, too preoccupied with the Pre-Raphaelites. For those reasons I was nothing less than stunned when I came upon the paintings of the English Victorian artist, John Atkinson Grimshaw. I not only like his work, it wouldn't be going too far to say I love it. In writing about the efforts of any artist I try not to gush, but this man's Northern English nocturnes are nothing less that gorgeous. And so long as he sticks to his "night" job, his art is among the best produced by any British artist during the 19th century. Yes, he does have a disturbing penchant for delving into "Tinkerbellish" pixies from time to time and his sedate, Victorian ladies in all their buttoned up fineries are as prim and proper as the best (or worst) such images produced by any of a hundred or more British painters of his time. But thankfully, neither such indulgences dominate his oeuvre and in their paucity become little more than divergent curiosities.

A Dead Linnet, 1862, John Atkinson Grimshaw
March Morning, 1867, John Atkinson Grimshaw
John Atkinson Grimshaw was born in 1836 in Leeds (North-central England). From all indications, he seems to have been self-taught, there being no record of any level of higher education in any area of study. At the age of twenty he married his cousin and went to work as a clerk for the Great Northern Railroad. Then, in 1861 he shocked and dismayed his parents by literally quitting his "day job" to become an artist. Grimshaw began displaying his work a year later, mostly fruit, flowers and birds (dead ones at that, above, which might explain his slow start in art). In any case, his output during the 1860s was typical amateurish stuff. His March Morning (left) from 1867 would suggest he was on the right track, he simply needed to get up a few hours earlier. However, by 1870, Grimshaw was so successful he was able to rent a second home in Scarborough. There's no record as to how many children he and his wife produced, but four of them eventually became artists.

Liverpool from Wapping, 1875, John Atkinson Grimshaw
Blackman Street, 1885,
John Atkinson Grimshaw
Though he seems not to have studied art in the academic sense, there's no denying that Grimshaw was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. But Grimshaw could in no way be termed a Pre-Raphaelite. First of all, he wasn't that good. His technique lacks the endless refinement of the brotherhood, and painting in the North of England, it's doubtful William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais or Dante Gabriel Rossetti ever so much as even heard of him. In any case, none of them would ever go down in the annuls of art history as landscape painters, much less of the nocturnal variety. One artist who did paint nocturnal landscapes and was virtually the same age as Grimshaw, was the American expatriate working in England at the time, James McNeill Whistler. Moreover, they seem to have been friends. Whistler painted in an Impressionist style. Grimshaw's style was anything but, about as neat, clean, and sharply focused as could be imagined. After seeing Grimshaw's work, Whistler gave up painting nocturnes.
Boar Lane, Leeds, 1881, John Atkinson Grimshaw

A moonlit Lane, 1873,
John Atkinson Grimshaw
Grimshaw was a master at moonlighting. Although he probably did some of that while still working for the railroad, in this case I'm talking about using the moon to light his works, which must have limited somewhat the nights of the month during which he could paint. Even a full moon doesn't provide much light. Grimshaw's real talent was in making the most of such limited light, no doubt exaggerating it somewhat, but not so much as to make his doing so noticeable beyond the dramatic effects he captured. However, not all of Grimshaw's night scenes were lit by the moon. Many appear to have been twilights or sunsets (and sunrises). In some of my favorites, he also relies on the ghostly glow of London gaslights as well.

Summer, 1890s, John Atkinson Grimshaw
Snowbound, 1883,
John Atkinson Grimshaw
I mentioned earlier Grimshaw's more traditional Victorian works, his Summer (above) from around 1890 (possibly one of his daughters) suggests an understanding and appreciation for Impressionism not seen in his nocturnal scenes, or, indeed, his earlier portraits such as 1883 Snowbound (left). In this case he paints a much more refined image, akin to his earlier Pre-Raphaelite yearnings. Even though his female figures are typically and tolerably Victorian, Grimshaw's pixie paintings (he referred to them as spirits) are downright insipid. His Spirit of the Night from 1879 (below) could well have been an inspiration for J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan).

Spirit of the Night (detail), 1879,
John Atkinson Grimshaw

Although it's unlikely, given the lighting conditions, that Grimshaw was an in plein air painter, one can't master the mysteries and beauties of the nighttime by spending those hours secluded in the comforts of a studio. There are precious few letters or records as to John Atkinson Grimshaw's life and working routine (he was an artist, not a diarist) but all those night prowling the streets of Leeds and Liverpool in the dank dampness of the British mists proved not to be advantageous to the man's health. He died in 1893 of Tuberculosis at the age of 53.

Two Thousand Years Ago, 1878, John Atkinson Grimshaw.
At times, Grimshaw showed signs of wishing he could be a Pre-Raphaelite.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Samuel Hieronymus Grimm

An English Harvest Home, 1776, Samuel Grimm
Very seldom do we stop to consider how much journalism and the mass media we know today has changed over the centuries. I was born in 1945, and just in my lifetime, now approaching seventy years, newspapers have gone from ruling the journalistic roost to struggling to cover the cost of the paper their printed on. Television has gone from a seven-inch black and white novelty to a seventy-inch color commodity. Iconic news magazines have either disappeared or now exist only on the Internet. And as for the internet...well, we all know what instantaneous social media has done to and for journalism (for better or worse). There's no point in discussing that. Going back into the 19th century, when type was set by hand and images (what few there were) had to be carved into blocks of wood, journalism was more weeks-old rumor than eye-witnessed facts. Going back a century before that, to the 18th century, we're talking about printed pages posted upon walls. Pictures? What pictures?

Northeast View of Selborne from the Short Lythe (Foldout frontispiece), Samuel Grimm,
 The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, by Gilbert White and Sir William Burrell.
South Gate at Rye,1785,
Samuel Grimm
Actually, there were pictures, though during the 1700s, they'd not yet been married to what passed for journalism at the time. In printed form, they were called etchings; and such art, as it relates to journalism or history (which have always gone hand in hand), were classed as topographic landscapes. In effect, they depicted the "lay of the land" (above). That might include everything from simple rolling hills and streams, to muddy (or dusty) country roads. In cities, such works would depict cathedrals, palaces, and other architectural edifices. In England during this time, perhaps the best of all such landscape artists was the Swiss-born Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (no relation to the fairy tale Brothers Grimm). If you're expecting to see a picture of the guy here, forget it. He didn't do faces. Despite the narrowness of his talents, when Samuel Grimm died in 1794, he left behind more than 2,600 such drawings and 882 watercolors resulting from his travels, almost literally, to "every nook and cranny" on the island.
Tintern Abbey located near Hay-on-Wye, ca. 1780, Samuel Grimm.
(Probably his best watercolor depicting ruins).
Bodiam Castle Interior, 1784,
Samuel Grimm
In many cases, Grimm's drawn and painted images have turned out to be the only surviving visual records of many of the structures he drew. In fact, by the time Grimm got around to drawing some of them, they were already in ruins (above, a particular fascination of his). England has not been a particularly "peaceable kingdom" either before Grimm was born in 1733, or after his death. The bombings of WW II damaged or destroyed a HUGE amount of England's architectural heritage. Some it was rebuilt. The highly detailed paintings and drawings of Samuel Grimm and other topographical landscape artists like him, contributed immensely to that undertaking. Beyond that, in the years after his death, it was discovered that his etching of the coronation of the boy-king, Edward VI (below), was the only surviving image of the event.
The Coronation of Edward VI, Samuel Grimm
Helmsley Castle, York, Samuel Grimm
Besides ancient ruins resulting from England's 16th century religious wars, the vast majority of Grimm's drawings (many serving as source material for later artists, who created the actual etchings) were of castles and churches, with a generous quantity of stately manor houses thrown in for good measure. His Helmsley Castle (right) in York was one of his more popular etchings. But there are also country fairs (below), historic events (and some not even close to being historic), as well as a smattering of genre scenes depicting the common folk of the day being...well, common. His An English Harvest Home (top), from 1776, is typical of this type of work, and one of his best.

Country Fair, 1765, Samuel Grimm.
It would appear country fairs haven't changed all that much.

Stonehenge, Samuel Grimm
Curiosity, coupled with wanderlust, a wealthy patron or two, and more than adequate talent, comprise a fortunate combination. Grimm's primary patron and traveling companion, Rev. Sir Richard Kaye, commissioned him to draw and paint "anything curious" as in his "snapshot" drawing of Stonehenge (left). Like many photojournalists today, Samuel Grimm had a fascination for oddities. His Mother Ludlene' Hole in Moor Park (below) from 1790, depicts a cave near Farnham which was the home of a 17th century woman known as Mother Ludlene, also known as the White Witch of Ludlene. When Samuel Grimm died in 1794, he left his money to his niece in Switzerland. Naming his friend, Sir Richard, his executor, Grimm ordered in his will that all his paintings and drawings be destroyed. Fortunately, the Reverend Kaye valued them more than did the artist.

Mother Ludlene' Hole in Moor Park, 1790, Samuel Grimm


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Louis Grell

Sun God Apollo in his Chariot, 1921, Chicago Theater, Louis Grell,
(over the proscenium arch).

The Chicago Theater, the first of
the 1920s movie palaces.
When we think of murals today...well, actually, we don't often think of murals today. But if we did, we'd probably tend to only think of them in terms of art history, probably painted mostly in the Baroque era up through the eighteenth century when canvas paintings began to take on wall-sized proportions. However, murals have never actually gone out of style, though their popularity may have waxed and waned somewhat during the last couple hundred years. In recent years it has waxed eloquently in various small town, outdoor civic murals, from images commemorating history or historic personages to those in big cities more akin to graffiti. Strangely, the latter are often far more interesting, creative, and more relevant with regard to the social milieu of today. Another period during which such large-scale works of art were highly popular dates from the post-WW I era, most often seen in the form of WPA post office walls or soaring above the Beaux-Arts opulence of early movie palaces and Art Deco hotels. One of the artists who proved very adept both at painting such works and cashing in on their popularity, was Louis Grell.

Man and the Planets, 1935, Louis Grell
Louis Grell was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1887. That was the perfect year to be born if you wanted to grow up to become a muralist. He worked in his father's meat market until the age of twelve when his family decided to send him to Hamburg (no pun intended) Germany, to study art. Though that may seem to be a rather tender age to shuttle off a young boy to a foreign country, it was just as well. It took him two years to brush up on his German sufficient to enroll in Hamburg's prestigious School of Applied Arts. There he teamed up with one of his professors to paint murals in various public venues, bolstering both his skills and his reputation. Winning top honors at what was, in effect, the German version of an art prep school, Grell was awarded a place at the Royal Academy in Munich.

Grell (third from left) and some of his Chicago artist friends from around 1917,
living and working together at the Tree Studio.
The Tree Studio Building today.
Once he'd graduated from the University, Grell took the obligatory "grand tour" of Europe soaking up all the classical culture and art history that was to serve him so well in providing content for the culturally starved American movie palaces and their awestruck patrons during the coming decades. In returning to the U.S. in 1907, Grell had some success in completing a botched mural in Salt Lake City, but neither he nor the times were yet right for more than a mere taste of things to come. So instead, Grell returned to Munich to continue his studies. With the advent of war fever in Europe, Grell made something of a hair-raising escape from Germany to Norway in 1914 then, a year later back to the U.S. to work in New York as a Broadway theater set designer. A year later he was back in the Midwest teaching at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (now the Art Institute of Chicago).

Grell's most famous student,
before a mouse made him rich.
Needing studio space and a place to live, Grell, along with about a dozen other local artists and students (above) founded (or perhaps, refounded) what they called the Tree Studio Art Colony (above, left) in 1917 where Grell and his wife, Friedl, were to live and work until his death in 1960. They had no children. While teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts, one of Grell's students was a sixteen-year-old night-school prodigy named Walter Elias Disney (left). At the time, Grell, apparently took little notice of the boy, but during the ensuing years, as the fame of a certain little mouse grew, Grell seems to have recalled him to family and friends in somewhat greater detail.

Interior of the Chicago Theater featuring three of Grell's murals.
Bacchus, 1921, Chicago
Theater, Louis Grell.
During the 1920s and 30s, Grell began to gain a certain degree of fame himself, landing mural commissions for the growing chain of Paramount theaters starting with the landmark Chicago Theater on State Street (top), but also including Paramount theaters in New York's Times Square, Toledo, Ohio, the Gateway Theater in Chicago, and the Manos Palace in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. If you've never seen one of these so-called "movie palaces," from this era, they're well-worth the effort to find one (they're becoming scarce) and take a tour. The Chicago Theater was the first and arguably the most lavish, (opening in 1921) at a time when the theater itself was far more impressive than the grainy, silent, black and white, main attractions. Grell's Sun God Apollo in his Chariot (top) is but one of a dozen or more by Grell and other muralists of that era whose paintings decorated the architectural grandeur intended to match that of the granddaddy of them all, the famous Paris Opera House. Some would say the Chicago and one or two others managed to surpassed the French model.

The Netherland Hilton's Palm Court with it's numerous monochromatic Grell murals.
One of the Grell panels from the Netherland.
In later years, mostly during the 1930s, Grell was called upon to lend his talents in the more modern (and tasteful) style of various Art Deco hotels such as the Netherland (Hilton) which occupies the greater part of Cincinnati's Carew Tower (now the second tallest building in the city). I can recall as a business college student in the Queen City during the early 1960s gazing up in awe and wonder at the work of Louis Grell (thought the name of the artist was unknown to me at the time) and his magnificent tromp l'oel murals which appeared to be carved in low relief just below the ornate ceiling of the hotel's Palm Court (above).

Keep Looking Up, 1956,
People's Church of Chicago,
Louis Grell, his last mural.
The Resurrection, 1949
St. John's Lutheran church
Council Bluffs, Iowa, Louis Grell
Bum Alley, 1951, Louis Grell
In later years, mostly the 1950s, Grell was commissioned to do religious works in numerous churches throughout the Midwest including two striking examples, his Resurrection (above, left), painted in 1949 for a church in his hometown of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and his final mural before his death, Keep Looking Up (above, right), dating from 1956. Also one of later works, painted for the Detroit Water Board Building, is the eye-catching Neptune on Horses (below) from 1956. His Bum Alley (right), a canvas painting from 1951, is somewhat less pretentious, and probably not suitable for behind the altar.

Neptune on Horses, 1956, Detroit Water Board, Louis Grell
(one of two for the building).


Friday, March 28, 2014

Under Funk & Wagnall's Front Porch

Yes, Dr. Isaac K. Funk once lived in this house on Staten Island.
This may or may not have
his mayonnaise jar.
Recently it has come to my attention that one of my readers has been using some kind of postal time machine he's invented to send my daily missives to a certain 19th century artist in Paris. And while I'm flattered (I think), I'm also somewhat uneasy in knowing my words might somehow "warp" the history of art. Still more disconcerting is the fact that our Parisian friend has written back, taking me to task for some (much, actually) of what I've written. Inasmuch he obviously has no Internet access, I was instructed to find his written comments in a hermetically sealed mayonnaise jar under Funk & Wagnall's front porch (with kudos to Johnny Carson). In the belief that this artist should be heard, I've decided to post his comments here (discreetly edited) interspersed with comments in my own defense (in yellow).

Bon jour Monsieur Lane:

I have read with great interest your kind words regarding my painting skills, though I think you have somewhat overestimated my influence over my art colleagues and young artists yet to come. At least I hope that's the case.

I must, however, take issue with your constantly blaming Paul and I for what you have the audacity to term "modern" art. If what I've seen of "modern" art is the shape of things to come, then Pardonnez-moi, but I shall forever reject such reckless nothingness in favor of "old-fashioned" art.
Which leads me to wonder what examples of Modern Art have been forwarded to him, not to mention the wisdom of his having been exposed to what can only be termed "art of the future" as related to his time.

My friends and I down at the Café Guerbois often discuss the direction in which our art, painting in particular, is taking us. Not even the most radical among us, Monsieur Monet or Monsieur Renoir, or that rascal, Edgar Degas, could ever embrace such a horrendous degradation as you routinely present and praise in your misbegotten column.

I'm guessing, due to his mention of the Café Guerbois, that his comments appear to have been written sometime in the late 1860s or early 1870s.

Furthermore, I am insulted that you would associate me with the likes of this imbecilic Senor Pic-ass-o or his friend Monsieur Braque. Even that trou du cul (pain in the posterior) Louis Duranty, whom I almost shot and killed the other night, has been kinder to me than your despicable implication that I have been somehow responsible for what you term "Cubism." You can consider yourself fortunate you live in the 20th century not my own or a similar fate might befall YOU!
Yes, I am, indeed, fortunate in that regard (in more ways than one). However, maybe I should get a concealed carry permit, just in case.

Although I'm starting to come to terms with regard to this new "Impressionist" merde crap. and even starting to respect Paul Cezanne's crude daubs, about the only example of your so-called "modern" art I've seen which I find at all acceptable comes from a talented amateur named Vincent (sorry, I can't recall the last name). He shows some promise, though I'm told he's something of a ne'er-do-well personally. Several of the mademoiselles I know and advise are far, more talented and technically adept. Berthe Morisot and my student, Eva Gonzales, as well as Mary Cassatt will, I'm sure, far outshine this Vincent character in the future.
Although it would seem our friend's begrudging appreciation of "Vincent" (I'm assuming he means van Gogh) is quite perceptive, I suppose it's not surprising that he hates Picasso (who probably hadn't even been born yet when his words above were apparently written). Even many artists of his own time had little good to say about Picasso. 
Despite my abhorrence of your "modern" art and your totally misplaced opinion regarding any intrinsic value it might have, I do find your own painting efforts to be quite promising. You should go far, young man, if you can just manage to keep your ignorant critical musing to yourself. I know little regarding your educational background, but even though you seem to be able to string words together with some degree of literary aptitude, I find your aesthetic judgments to be the height of stupidity.
Thanks...I think. As you may have noticed I've deliberately held back the identity of my "guest commentator" in something of a game, curious as to how many people are sufficiently well-versed in this mid-century era of art history. If you think you know who he might be (or are certain you know), go ahead and click on the title under picture of the artist's wife below to reveal his name.
The Artist's Wife, 1866

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Eugene Grasset

Young Girl in the Garden, Eugene Grasset.
(As with many such design artists, dates are rare and largely uncertain.)
Eugene Grasset, Self-portrait--one of
his few works not done in Art Nouveau.
My mother always had a fondness for antique jewelry (actually, any kind of jewelry). My wife does too, especially that from the early 20th century, sometimes referred to as Fin de Siecle. That pretty much means jewelry based upon Art Nouveau designs, which heavily dominated female tastes of that era. I, myself, have never cared much for such fancy foolishness, but that's just me. I much prefer the more sleekly modern, more masculine ideals of the Art Deco period which followed it. If you like organic and plant motifs, idealized, lightly attired young ladies, and overly curvilinear font styles, you'd like with Art Nouveau. Moreover, it wasn't just those of the feminine gender at the time who took a liking to the style. Actually it was invented by men and, for the most part, promoted by them. One of them was the Swiss-French artist, Eugene Grasset, sometimes referred to as "The Father of Art Nouveau."

Art Nouveau was a style cutting across nearly all the visual arts at the turn of the 20th century, especially architecture as seen here in examples from the Baltic city or Riga.
A brooch by Grasset,
typical of Art Nouveau. 
Grasset was born in 1845 in Lausanne, Switzerland, the son of a cabinet maker and sculptor. As is quite often the case, his childhood was what we might term "art-rich." Even today, art in the home at an early ages is a huge plus for any would-be artist. He studied art locally as a teen then moved on to Zurich intent on a career as an architect. When he graduated, his family likely could not afford the traditional "grand tour," but Grasset was afforded a trip to Egypt that was to have a profound effect on his art over the rest of his life. About this same time he picked up a liking for Japanese prints. Upon returning home, Grasset began working in the area of furniture and fabric design, also adding to his portfolio jewelry, stained glass, tapestries, painting, and sculpture (everything, it would seem, except architecture). In fact, just about anything having to do with art, especially the decorative arts, he did and did well. It was a time, particularly in the relative backwaters of the Swiss art world, when an artist, to earn a living, virtually had to be versatile.

Product advertisements led to posters, which led to art prints, which led to fame and fortune.
Grasset designed (and named after himself)
a type font lending itself to Art Nouveau.
All of these factors came together to form Art Nouveau, even before there was a quite inadequate term for it. Art Nouveau translates simply to "new art" which was something of a defacto designation for a half-dozen or so European versions of similar organic motifs. Grasset seems to have "felt" his way into Art Nouveau as he began producing commercial artwork (which often took the form of posters) around 1877 when printing techniques began allowing for mass production and distribution. His Grasset Italic typeface (right) is from this period. Working from Paris, the art capital of the world at the time, publishers there and in the U.S. discovered his work and the money to be made in selling it in poster form (then, as now, a very economical way to cover the cracks in the plaster).

St .Etienne Briare, France, 1895, Eugene Grasset
A hallway door window by Grasset.
Besides wall art, Art Nouveau lends itself to stained glass quite well--just ask Louis Comfort Tiffany. In Paris, Grasset lent himself to stained glass as seen in his rose window designed for St. Etienne, Briare, France, in 1895 (above). During the so-called Belle Époque of the late 19th century, stained glass spread from the lofty heights of churches to the lofty heights of upper-class homes, as seen in the tessellating design for a hallway door designed by Grasset (left). I did a little stained glass in college; this thing must have been a nightmare to cut and assemble. Stained glass was not particularly lucrative. The money was in publishing as Grasset turned more and more to illustration, as seen in his Harpers Magazine Christmas cover (below, right) and his print depicting the Laying the Foundations of the Eiffel Tower from 1887 (below).

Laying the Foundations of the Eiffel Tower, 1887, Eugene Grasset
Harper's Magazine,
Christmas, 1892, Eugene Grasset
It would be easy to dismiss Grasset simply as a period artist intent upon creating pretty pictures and milking the art style he mostly fathered for all the coins it could produce. Yet there also creeps into the content of some of Grasset's posters some very un-pretty "modern" social ills of his time. Although artists had long depicted the desperation of alcohol abuse (and the occasional absinthe drinker) Grasset's A Drug Addict Injecting Herself (below) dates from the early 20th-century, a time when the use of hard drugs was not deemed a suitable subject for art. Despite being a stylized poster rather flat in design and execution, it is all the more powerful because of Grasset's painfully harsh rendering. One has to wonder in what quarter he found a market for such a grossly decadent depiction. It's about as far removed from his lovely, red-headed, Christmas angel with the weirdly deformed trumpet (right) as can be imagined.

A Drug Addict Injecting Herself, early 20th century, Eugene Grasset