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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Dazzle Ships

Imagine how much fun it would have been to go from painting pictures of ships to painting on ships; and not just painting them, but using them as movable, three-dimension" canvases" for some of the wildest, most Cubist paintings ever created. Now, imagine yourself as a German U-boat captain during WW I. You pop your periscope just above the surface, and this is what you see--

Dazzle painting was a form of camouflage particularly effective in moonlight.

"Was zum Teufel?!!" (What the hell?) It's dusk, getting darker by the minute, you have what appears to be a whole damned convoy of British merchantmen parading across your bow before your befuddled eyes. You have only a few precious seconds to ascertain your target's, range, speed, and heading. But how do you manually set a torpedo's range when all those damned stripes are screwing up your optical periscope adjustments. Not only that, it's down to sheer guesswork in trying to ascertain target headings or speed. In some cases, German U-boat captains couldn't even tell for sure how many ships they were looking at. That was how it was supposed to theory. Norman Wilkinson, the artist who helped promote the idea called it the Dazzle system of camouflage. The British Admiralty called him a "nut." They had long tried camouflaging their ships to lessen the likelihood of their being seen. The problem was, a paintjob that was effective at night stood out like a very sore thumb during the day. A destroyer painted a daytime sky blue was about as invisible as a moonlit iceberg when seen at night. In short, it was impossible to make a fifty-ton ship appear to "disappear."
The Brits called it "Dazzle," the Yanks termed it "Razzle Dazzle.")
The original idea came from the British zoologist, John Graham Kerr, (also an American artist, Abbott Handerson Thayer, who proposed a similar theory having to do with color) for the application of disruptive camouflage to British warships during the First World War. In 1914 Kerr sent a letter to Winston Churchill, then serving as First Lord of the Admiralty, explaining that they were going about in all wrong in trying to camouflage ships environmentally when the light and weather at sea changed almost momentarily. Instead, the goal should be to confuse the enemy (not conceal the target), by disrupting a ship's outline. Their ideas were received with something less than enthusiasm. John Graham Kerr, was, of course, no artists so he turned to the marine painter, Norman Wilkinson. Together they approached the admiralty in person. Somewhat to their amazement, they were received with surprising enthusiasm. By that time, the British navy and merchant marine were losing ships to U-boat attacks at an astounding rate. The admiralty were willing to try anything. The men made their case and Wilkinson soon found himself in the enviable position of directing the whole project. Making it all the more difficult, no two ships could be painted alike lest the Germans use their outlandish markings to identify them as to type, size, and capabilities.

WW I Ship Camouflage, Arthur Lismer

Some of Wilkinson's designs.
The British navy gave lip service to testing the scheme but in truth, they didn't have the time nor the patience. Having little to lose, testing would be under real wartime conditions. Of course Wilkinson didn't literally go down to the shipyards and start slapping around paint all over ships in dry dock. Besides, the whole theory rested upon what would later come to be called Op Art--retinal fatigue--tricking the enemy's eyes, not to men-tion the optics of their peri-scope adjustments. Such de-signs, while not quite scientific, did follow certain rules having more than a little similarity to the cutting edge Cubist style of the time. Picasso even tried claim-ing he invented disruptive cam-ouflage. Wilkinson's job was to create the designs on paper, based upon the size, type, and nature of the beast. Every effort was made to disguise the size and shape of the vessel, even to the point of creating ridiculous optical illusions. Stripes were a favorite motif, as were checker-board patterns, fake bow waves, and efforts to make the stern look like the bow. In some cases, ships were painted to look like two vessels.

All color photos have been retouched, either then or in recent years.
Few color photos exist from the WW I era.
Dazzle Ship in Dry Dock,
1919, Edward Wadsworth
Perhaps the most famous ship to receive the "Dazzle" treatment was the RMS Olympic (below), which served as a troop ship during the war. Unlike her younger sister ship, the ill-fated Titanic, the Olympic enjoyed a long, illustrious career after the war, spanning 24 years from 1911 to 1935. Her serviced during the War, gained her the nickname "Old Reliable." Repainted, the Olympic re-turned to civilian service after the war, serving successfully as an ocean liner throughout the 1920s and into the first half of the 1930s. Her Dazzle paintjob may have saved her from a fate worse than that of her sister ship. The problem with disruptive camouflage from the beginning was that there was virtually no way of positively proving its success in reducing the number of ships lost. There were simply too many factors coming into play for any valid numerical evaluations. One couldn't exactly take a poll of former German U-boat captains (those few which survived) or try to allow for all the changes in tactics on either side.

Unlike her sister ship, the Titanic, the RMS Olympic enjoyed a long
and illustrious career, both during and after the First World War.
Dockyard, Portsmouth, 1918, J. D. Fergusson
However, those artists who took part in designing such optically disruptive designs, found that paintings of the ships they may or may not have saved from destruction becoming quite popular after the war. Painters such as Herbert Barnard John Everett, Edward Wadsworth, J. D. Fergusson (left), Arthur Lismer, and of course, Norman Wilkinson himself, each contributed colorful, sometimes nearly abstract, versions of their work. Edward Wadsworth Dazzle Ship in Dry Dock (above, right) dating from 1919 (after the war) is especially "dazzling." The merchant ship by an unknown artist (below) is almost sea sickening.

Merchant Vessel at Sea During Choppy Weather in a Dazzle Camouflage by an unknown artist.
Convoy, 1918, Herbert Barnard John Everett

The U.S. Navy carried over the principles of
Dazzle camouflage with their WW II vessels.


Friday, April 29, 2016

Panama Canal Art

Panama Canal, Alson Skinner Clark
Yesterday, April 28, 2016, my wife and I passed through the Panama Canal aboard the MS Island Princess. The journey took some ten hours and covers about 48 miles as seen from our balcony on the Promenade Deck (below). It's a trip I've been planning for about ten years now, though it's been well down on my "bucket list" until recently. However, as I've checked off one "must-see" venue after another around the world, the canal has been steadily moving up the list. Then when my wife let it be known she did not wish to spend another vacation sitting in hotel rooms while I traipsed through a half-dozen major art museums, I suggested, a two-week cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Los Angeles through the canal. She likes long, nothing-to-do-but-eat-and-relax cruises so, Panama it was.
Princess Cruise Line's Island Princess. Okay, so it's not the most
stunningly beautiful ship afloat, but it's better than a rowboat.
Launched in 2003, it was designed specifically for canal transit.
When one thinks of art, very likely some stunning, early 20th-century engineering marvel like this probably does not come to mind. Except for the Eiffel tower perhaps, most engineering marvels (especially from that period) are very often not particularly lovely--not that such beauty is as absolute necessity in terms of art content. It does help somewhat, though. As with most such works of man, the element of beauty depends entirely on how you look at them--your point of view--and not just the artist's viewing angle, location, and color selection, but also the viewer's frame of mind. The esthete would note that the Panama Canal is a far cry from the Taj Mahal, while the aforementioned Mr. Eiffel might cry, "WOW! What a gorgeous ditch."

The canal project as seen by the French, 1881.

Our friend Mr. Eiffel might also lament the fact that his own countrymen had been the first to attempt such a ditch--and failed miserably. Fresh off their success in digging the Suez Canal, the French moved on to bigger and better things, turning the first spade of Panamanian dirt in 1881. It quickly became apparent that a ditch across a desert was a far cry from the engineering trials and tribulations inherent in digging one's way (at sea level, no less) across the Central American Continental Divide (the Culebra Cut, top). As if that weren't challenge enough, then there were the damned mosquitoes. The worker mortality rate for Yellow Fever (and Malaria) was astounding--over two-hundred a month at one point. Worse still, the French didn't even know what was causing this devastating health problem. The French effort went bankrupt in 1889 after reportedly spending $287,000,000 and costing an estimated 22,000 lives to disease and accidents. It also wiped out the life's savings of roughly 800,000 French investors. The French asking price for a buyout was $100-million. Teddy Roosevelt negotiated them down to $40-million. A little "gunboat diplomacy" and another $10-million managed to free Panama from an uncooperative Colombia.

The politics of freeing Panama from Colombia may have been a bit shady, and billions of mosquitoes lost their lives in the process, but American engineering and the newly invented, but still crude, "steam shove," got the job done.
When U.S. President, Teddy Roosevelt (above), took over the project in 1904, he didn't start building locks and dams but in killing mosquitoes to keep them from killing American workers. Having conquered that foe, the key to the success of the Panama Canal was not in ditch digging so much as in dam building, specifically in harnessing the rough and tumble Chagres River which, during the rainy season (nine months out of the year) rises as much as thirty-five feet. The American solution was to create a massive, sprawling lake (Gatun Lake) some twenty-six meters (85 feet) above sea level (the largest dam and the largest manmade lake in the world at the time). This, of course, eliminating a hell of a lot of digging, not to mention supplying a reliable source of water flowing down hill on both sides to allow for gravity-fed system of huge locks, each 110 feet wide and 1,050 feet long. Moreover it was a two-way ditch.

If you build it, they will come...artists, that is...and tourists (above-top).
George Washington Goethals (left portrait) took over the building of the canal. Colonel David du Bose Gaillard (right portrait). U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was in charge of the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Gatun Dam, as well as excavating the Culebra Cut.
The construction of the canal was completed in 1914, 401 years after Panama was first crossed by Vasco Núñez de Balboa. The United States spent almost $375,000,000 (roughly equivalent to $8,600,000,000 now) to finish the project. This was by far the largest American engineering project at the time. The canal was formally opened on August 15, 1914, with the passage of the cargo ship SS Ancon. Now, flash forward one-hundred years and we find a canal that, while still vital and viable, is, at the same time, hopelessly outdated. An expansion plan now nearing completion has two new flights of locks built parallel to, and operated in addition to, the old locks. Each flight ascends from sea level directly to the level of Gatun Lake. The new lock chambers feature sliding gates, doubled for safety, and are 427 m (1,400 feet) long, 55 m (180 feet) wide, and 18.3 m (60 feet) deep. This allows the transit of vessels with a beam of up to 49 m (160 feet), an overall length of up to 366 m (1,200 feet). As amazing as these numbers sound, some of the newest cruise ships being built today are already too large to pass through even the new and improved canal. Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, for instance, has a maximum width of 198 feet. The new locks are scheduled to open in June, 2016, little more than a month from now.

Present day watercolors by New Orleans artist, Al Sprague.
The shipping revolution that antiquated a canal.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

James Monroe Portraits

President James Monroe official White House portrait, 1819, Samuel F. B. Morse.
What? You were hoping for a painting of Marilyn Monroe?
When you probe the Internet in search of our fifth President of the United States, you run into as much regarding Marilyn Monroe as you do James Monroe. I suppose it would be no contest as to which has become the more famous, the president famous for the Monroe Doctrine or the movie star famous for having sung Happy Birthday to another president--John F. Kennedy. Speaking of birthdays, today, April 28, 2016, would have been James Monroe's 258th birthday...had he lived this long. He didn't. He died on July 4th, 1831, at the ripe old age (for his time) of seventy-three. He was the last of the so-called "Founding Fathers."

James Monroe with Cabinet, Clyde Deland
James Monroe, 1816, John Vanderlyn,
National Portrait Gallery
It's hard to imagine in this age of dirty, rotten, stinking political diatribes, but James Monroe was elected president with eighty percent of the electoral vote and reelected, four years later, with nearly one-hundred percent. Only one elector voted against him (in favor of John Quincy Adams). Tradition has it he wished to maintain George Wash-ington's record as the only president ever chosen unanimously by that body. Actually, there was more to it than that, political chicanery, as usual, so complex I won't bore you with the details. Regardless, historians aren't kidding when they refer to this period in American history as the "Era of Good Feeling." There was only one vi-able political party, the Democratic Re-publicans, the Federalist party having fractured into nothingness when it be-came known they were considering disunion. This was some forty years before the Civil War, which also brought down the Whig party in the 1850s. Isn't it sad that we're still struggling with racial equality 150 years after that war ended?

Ash Lawn is interesting in that, having been added to several times over the years, it has three main entrances. Oak Hill is said to have been designed by Thomas Jefferson.
As much as we today tend to worship and adore our founding fathers, particularly the first five presidents among them, we must also reconcile ourselves to the fact that virtually all of them before the Civil War owned slaves. James Monroe became a slave owner upon the death of his father. Young James was only sixteen at the time. At various times he owned at least two plantations, which he operated in absentia using between thirty and fifty slaves. Throughout his entire life, Monroe’s relationship with slavery revealed a pattern of paternalistic racism. While he never advocated for their equal rights, Monroe sought a gradual end to slavery and promoted the re-settling of freed slaves either in the Caribbean or in Africa. He also allow certain slaves a degree of self-determination in work assignments, sought medical treatment for slaves who were ill, and demanded that his slaves have access to the basics of food, clothing, and shelter. Monroe sold his small inherited Virginia plantation (Highland) in 1783 to enter law and politics. It was only later that he fulfilled his youthful dream of becoming the owner of a large plantation while wielding great political power. Yet his plantations were never profitable, largely because he owned much more land and slaves than he could adequately manage while at the same time involved in his practice of law. He was rarely on-site to oversee the operations. Overseers treated the slaves harshly to force production. Nevertheless, the plantations rarely broke even. Moreover, Monroe incurred debts as the result of his lavish lifestyle and was often forced to sell property (and slaves) to pay them off.

Artists who painted our last "Founding Father."
Monroe was first elected to the Virginia legislature in 1782. A year later he was elected to Congress, serving in Annapolis until Congress left for Trenton in 1784. By that time, the government was meeting in the temporary capital of New York City, Monroe had retired from politics. However, In Virginia, the struggle over the ratification of the proposed Constitution involved more than a simple clash between federalists and anti-federalists. Virginians held a broad range of opinions as to the shape of the proposed new national government. George Washington and James Madison were leading supporters while Patrick Henry and George Mason were leading opponents. Those in the middle ideologically became the central figures. Led by Monroe and Edmund Pendleton, these "federalists who are for amendments," criticized the absence of a bill of rights while also worrying about the taxation powers of a central government. Virginia ratified the Constitution in June 1788, largely because Monroe, Pendleton, and others set aside their reservations and vowed to press for changes after the new government had been established. Virginia narrowly ratified the Constitution. Monroe ran for a House seat in the First Congress but was defeated by James Madison. In 1790 he was elected by the state legislature as United States Senator. He soon joined the "Democratic-Republican" faction led by Jefferson and Madison. By 1791 Monroe was the party leader in the Senate.

Artist John Trumbull’s Capture of the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton
shows a wounded James Monroe.
Besides serving his country in various political roles including President, James Monroe, hardly out of his teens, was also a Revolutionary War hero. In early 1776, about a year and a half after his enrollment at the College of William and Mary, Monroe dropped out to joined the Continental Army where his background as a college student and the son of a well-known planter enabled him to obtain an officer's commission. He never returned to earn his degree. In June 1775, after the battles of Lexington and Concord, Monroe, and some other William and Mary students joined twenty-four older men in raiding the arsenal at the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg. They confiscated some 200 muskets and 300 swords to arm the Williamsburg militia. Monroe is regarded as the last U.S. President to see combat as a Revolutionary War officer of the Continental Army. Washington's army, including Monroe's regiment, was chased from Long Island in the fall of 1776. They moved down the length of New Jersey shore, crossing the Delaware River in December. Washington decided that only a bold step could save the Army and the revolutionary cause from oblivion. He ordered his force, which had by then shrunk to about ten percent of its original strength to under three-thousand,to cross the Delaware River on Christmas Eve, 1776, in the Battle of Trenton. Monroe and his regiment crossed over and marched through a blinding snow storm north and east towards Trenton. Along the way, they were spotted by a young patriot doctor, John Riker, whose dogs had been awakened in the pre-dawn morning. Riker volunteered to lend his services to their efforts. Avoiding detection, the Americans approached Trenton from north and south. As the Hessians awoke Christmas morning, they tried to get several artillery pieces into action in order to pour grapeshot into the Americans ranks. Lieutenant Monroe and General Washington's cousin, Captain William Washington, led their men as they rushed to seize the guns before they could fire. Both were severely wounded. Captain Washington lost the use of both hands, while Monroe had to be carried from the field bleeding badly from a shoulder wound, which had severed an artery. It would be the young volunteer doctor, John Riker, who clamped the artery, saving the life of a man who would go on to achieve so much as a Virginian and as a future President. Monroe was sent home to nurse his injuries. The Battle of Trenton would be Monroe's only battle as he would spend the next three months recuperating from his wound. In John Trumbull's painting, Capture of the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton (above), Monroe can be seen lying wounded at left center of the painting. In the famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (below), Monroe is depicted holding the American flag.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.
On January 16, 1786, the future President married a 17-year-old New York beauty named Elizabeth Kortright. She first caught his eye in 1785, while he was in New York serving as a member of the Continental Congress. The six-foot-tall, twenty-six-year-old Monroe, a practicing lawyer, and famous war hero, married for love, not money. Elizabeth's father, once a wealthy privateer, had lost most of his fortune during the Revolutionary War. After a brief honeymoon the newlyweds returned to New York City to live with her father, until the Continental Congress adjourned.

As First Lady, Elizabeth Monroe, had some big slippers to fill,
following in the footsteps of the legendary Dolley Madison.
The new President, George Washington, appointed Monroe Minister to France in 1794. As ambassador, Monroe secured the release of Thomas Paine in revolutionary France after his arrest for opposition to the execution of Louis XVI. The government insisted that Paine be deported to the United States. Following that, Monroe arranged to free all the Americans held in French prisons. He also gained the freedom of Adrienne de La Fayette and issued her and her family American passports (they had already been granted citizenship for contributions during the Revolution.) A strong friend of the French Revolution, Monroe tried to assure France that Washington's policy of strict neutrality did not favor Britain. But American policy had come to favor Britain. Monroe was stunned by the United States' signing of the Jay Treaty in London. With France and Britain at war, the Jay Treaty alarmed and angered the French. Consequently, Washington had differences with Monroe and fired him claiming "inefficiency, disruptive maneuvers, and failure to safeguard the interests of his country."

Two paintings, one portrait.
When Monroe returned to the U.S. in 1796, he brought his family back to his Oak Hill plantation in Virginia. For the next 15 years, Monroe was held various political offices including President James Madison's offer to serve as Secretary of State. Six years later, Monroe himself was elected president from 1817-1825. During their 1st year in Washington, the Monroes lived in temporary lodgings until the White House, which had been destroyed by the British during the War of 1812, could be repaired. As first lady, Elizabeth deferred to her husband's wishes to minimize White House social events. He and Elizabeth both deplored the opulent displays of the previous first lady, Dolley Madison. They preferring more private, stately affairs modeled after European society. White House social life also declined along with Elizabeth's declining health. Washington society mistook the lack of White House social events for snobbery. Shortly after office, President Monroe embarked on a "Goodwill Tour" of the United States. Paying expenses out of his own pocket, the new President was greeted by cheering crowds, celebratory picnics, dinners, and receptions in every city he visited. Monroe is most noted for his proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which stated that the United States would not tolerate further European intervention in the Americas. Incidentally, Monroe's purchase of Florida from Spain in 1819 for five-million dollars (about $92-million in today's cash) set the stage for Walt Disney's lakeside Kingdom, which today is worth somewhat more than that.

The USS James Monroe, still enforcing
the Monroe Doctrine yet today.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ulysses S. Grant Portraits

Official White House Portrait Ulysses S. Grant, 1875,
By German-born artist, Henry Ulke
It's time we honor yet another President of the United States on his birthday, today April 27th. On this date in 1822, the eighteenth President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River about twenty-five miles southeast of Cincinnati. Although Grant was a two-term president (who could have been elected for a third term if he'd chosen to run), he is best remembered as the one general of the U.S. Army who, more than anyone else, won the Civil War. In fact, few would argue that Grant was a much better general than he was president. Moreover, he was a much better general than any other of the many professions he pursued in trying to support his wife and four children. At one time or another Grant tried his hand at farming, horse training, selling firewood, managing real estate, store clerking, and even art. While a student at West Point, Grant studied under the Romantic artist Robert Walter Weir. There are nine works by Grant in existence. Two are pictured below.

Grant painted exclusively in watercolor and was quite
proud of his expertise with a brush.
After learning to paint at West Point in 1843, Grant spent the next eleven years in the army as a quartermaster, seeing combat during the Mexican War. After the war, married to Julia Dent Grant with a growing family, Grant became bored with the tedium of the peace time army, so in 1854 he resigned his commission to try his hand at farming, and several other civilian pursuits, none of which he was very good at. Then, on April 12, 1861, Grant was saved from a tiresome life as a store clerk in his family's leather store in Galena, Missouri, by the firing on Ft. Sumter and the start of the Civil War. Two days later, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to fight the war. Grant was one of them, along with the regiment of Missouri volunteers he helped recruit. Initially assigned the rank of Colonel, by May, Lincoln had promoted Grant to Brigadier General (one star). His National Portrait Gallery painting by Ole Peter Hansen Balling depicts Grant (below) in the uniform of a four-star general (a rank created by Congress specifically for him). It dates from around 1865 when Grant was at the height of his popularity.

Ulysses S. Grant, National Portrait Gallery, 1865, Ole Peter Hansen Balling
Grant's wartime exploits and dramatic victories are far to numerous and complex to relate here. It's a measure of his heroic popularity that every artist and his brother-in-law wanted Grant to sit for a portrait. Being something of an artist himself, the retired general had little else better to do so he accommodated them. The results, demonstrating a wide range of talent, can be seen below. Compare them to the official White House portrait of President Grant (top) by the German-born artist, Henry Ulke, painted in 1875, late in Grant's second term.

Painted by mostly unknown artist (except as noted), each portrait depicts Grant the general, not Grant the President. His presidency was lackluster at best, plagued by numerous scandals with which Grant was unable to cope.
Ulysses S. Grant was president from 1869 to 1877, the Reconstruction era in the South, the beginning of the Gilded Age in the North. His wife, Julia, it would be safe to say, enjoyed his presidency much more than did her husband. He may be the only president in the history of the country that did not campaign for the office. Instead he sat on his front porch in Galena, Missouri, and simply waited for the nation to elect him--which it did, overwhelmingly. Grant won the 1868 election by 300,000 votes out of 5,716,082 votes cast, receiving an electoral college landslide, of 214 votes to his opponent's 80. At the age of 46, Grant was (at the time) the youngest president ever elected. Julia Grant's eight years as First Lady were filled with formal dinners, which had as many as twenty-nine courses, as well as state receptions. Few families have ever "enjoyed" the White House more.

Although her husband had his portrait painted often, Julia Grant seems to have been one of the few First Ladies to have avoided the painter's brush. The date of the rather amateurish dual portrait (above-left) is unknown. That of Lyle Tayson, bottom-left) is not.
The Grants brought with them to the White House four children, Frederick Dent Grant, born in 1850, Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., born in 1852, Ellen Wrenshall (Nellie) Grant, born in 1855, and Jesse Root Grant, born 1858. The eldest, Frederick, would have been nineteen when his father became president. The youngest, Jesse, would have been fourteen. Occupied by four teenagers, (three of them boys) the White House must have been a lively place at the time. Julia Grant certainly did her part, hosting lavish dinners and frequent parties during what she termed "the happiest period" of her life. With Cabinet wives as her allies, she entertained extensively and extravagantly. Contemporaries recall her fine dresses, jewels, silks, and laces. Upon leaving the White House in 1877, the Grants made a trip around the world that became a journey of triumphs. In later years, Julia proudly recalled details of hospitality and magnificent gifts they received.

A Grant family photo, probably taken around 1865.
Grant's Tomb, Riverside Park,
New York City.
The period following the Grant family's round-the-world jaunt was a sad, murky one for the general and former president. Long a connoisseur of fine (and some not-so-fine) cigars, Grant was suffering from throat cancer. A series of Wall Street debacles left the family virtually destitute, often living off the charity of longtime friends. Only a lucrative contract to write his wartime memoirs saved the family fortunes. The book, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was a critical and com-mercial success. In the end, Julia Grant received about $450,000 in royalties (a huge sum at the time). The memoir has been highly regarded by the public, military historians, and literary critics. Grant portrayed himself in the persona of the honorable Western hero, whose strength lies in his honesty and straight-forwardness. He candidly depicted his battles against both the Confederates and internal army foes. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) called the Memoirs a "literary masterpiece." Grant died in June 1885, just days after scribbling the final notes of his memoirs. He and his wife are buried in the largest private mausoleum in the United States, located in a New York City Park overlooking the Hudson River (above, left).
An illustrated history of Ulysses S. Grant's military service, 1843-1965.

General Ulysses Grant Statue,
John Lopez, Rapid City, SD


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Strange Still-lifes

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream, Ham, Eggs, and Razor Blade; Au jus, Ben Tripp
Copyright, Jim Lane
Father Hubbard (You Are What You Eat),
1998, Jim Lane
If there's one type of painting which today, gets even less respect than the late, great, comedian Rodney Dangerfield, it is undoubt-edly the still-life. I've always enjoyed painting them; I've never enjoyed trying to sell them. In fact except for paintings of cars (which are in a class all their own) I can't even remember the last time I sold a still-life. I do remember once, a client supplying the objects for me to paint, what amounted to a commissioned still-life (an arrangement of antique firearms arrayed upon a hearth before a roaring fire). Why is it art buyers today tend to ignore still-lifes? The French call them "nature morte." which seems to translate, oxymoronically as "dead life." I've railed about this before. I've done my part. I've searched high and low for items to paint which might instill new life in the genre. My most recent one (three or four years ago now) was a close-up of a very delicious looking salad I was served one evening while on a cruise. I called it Honeymoon Salad (lettuce alone). I suppose my strangest still-life (certainly my largest) was an installation piece I painted life-size of our kitchen pantry (above, right), stocked floor to ceiling with food. Then I installed life-size Masonite cutout portraits of myself and our dog in front of it trying to decide what to have for dinner. I called it Father Hubbard (You Are What You Eat).

Still Life: A Butcher's Counter, 1810-1812, Francisco Goya
The Slaughtered Ox, 1655,
Rembrandt van Rijn
Down through the centuries of art history, I'm by no means the only artist to try to breathe new life into the genre of still-lifes by choosing strange subjects. The Spanish painter from the early 19th century, Francisco Goya, traveled to his local butcher shop to paint what appears to be a substantial quantity of fresh beef as seen in his Still Life: A Butchers Counter (above) from around 1810. How fresh the beef was when Goya finished painting it is a matter open to question. Notice, the skinned head to the left with the eye still open. It is debatable as well whether Goya was aware that no less an artist than the Dutch master, Rembrandt van Rijn, had also tried to shake up the still-life painting establishment with his The Slaughtered Ox (left), as far back as 1655, some 150 years before. If either succeeded in their noble mission, the results were only temporary. By and large, still-lifes are still the most boring type of painting an artist can produce.

The Picnic, 2006, Veronique Le Merre,
Maybe if we quit slaughtering cattle to satisfy the demands of McDonald's and their ilk, these friendly bovine might offer an opinion as to why the still-life they contemplate in Veronique Le Merre's The Picnic (above) is so lackluster. Do the horn and the shoe offer a clue? Still-life artists, it would seem, have tried about everything to get noticed, from painting the extremely mundane as in News and Views (below). by Parimal Vaghela to Ben Tripp's delicious looking, but lethal, Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream, Ham, Eggs, and Razor Blade; Au jus (top). Is the razor blade intended merely as a garnish or as a means of cutting the ham?

News and Views, Parimal Vaghela
One artist I came upon, Yoonkyung Kim, of South Korea has even gone so far as to title a painting My Strange Still-life Painting (below). This one is but the first in a series of similar works. Macabre? Perhaps, yet strangely elegant, even beautiful. It would seem the artist is showing off the "pearly whites" as well as pearly pinks and blues. Okay, the pearly whites could use a bit of polishing.

My Strange Still-life Painting, Yoonkyung Kim, South Korea
Sometimes still-life painters have to strain the definition of still-life, even strain the bounds of good tastes as well. Justin "Coro" Kaufman with his miles-long still-life, Jackson (below) certainly stretches the definition, almost to the point it melts into the realm of the urban landscape. Is it, in fact, still a still-life or has it become something else. And if so, what? There doesn't appear to be a living soul in sight, as if the automobiles have devoured their human masters only to find that there sheer numbers leave them just as incapacitated, to the point they become, in effect "still-death." Tracking a different tack, Kaufman presents us with the startling image, Condom, Large (bottom). Worse, it appears that it might be a used condom. Most would say he's surged far beyond the limits of good taste. But then, the very definition of "strange" suggests that good tastes may not be a meaningful criteria in any attempt to jolt those who don't buy still-lifes into sitting up and taking notice. Would you hang it over your couch? Probably not. But hanging it over the commode in the bathroom might make it a humorous conversation piece. Or perhaps a place on the wall beside the bed in your boudoir, as a frequent reminder of the benefits of safe sex, might make it seem not so strange.

Jackson, Justin "Coro" Kaufman

Condom, Large, Justin "Coro" Kaufman


Monday, April 25, 2016

Felix Vallotton

Landscape of Ruins and Fires, 1914. Felix Vallotton
It's hard for a young artist to guess the ultimate direction of his or her career; how their work will be treated by critics, the buying public, and art connoisseurs both during, and especially after their lifetime. Part of this is sheer serendipity. Much has to do with critical decisions artists make as to where they live, their marriage (singular or plural), the friends they make, people they encounter, and causes they embrace. It has to do with world events as well--wars, economic disasters, political upheavals, and most of all how the artists react to all these things. It has to do with their health as well, personal habits, and general demeanor. All of these things are quite apart from the artist's actual creative output, their style, their choice of media, the quantity and quality of their work, and their knack for self-promotion. Some elements the artist has a modicum of control over, but they are all intermingled to such a degree as to cause the artist's legacy to be, not totally, but virtually unpredictable. That could certainly be the case with the Swiss-French painter, Felix Vallotton.
Felix Vallotton, age twenty (top-left), to sixty (bottom-right).
Felix Edouard Vallotton was born into a conservative, middle-class family in Lausanne, (western Switzerland) where he attended Collège Cantonal, graduating with a degree in classical studies in 1882 at the age of seventeen. Though obviously a "quick study," there is nothing in that to suggest the man would become well-known, or even that he would become an artist. The best that could be said was that his formal education put him good stead for his decision that same year to move to Paris and study to be an artist. He landed at the Academie Julian under the watchful eyes of Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger. The former was a better painter than he was an instructor; the latter just the opposite; both nonetheless steeped in the traditional academic straight-jacket worn by the vast majority of French artist of their era. Actually, Vallotton probably spent more hours in the Louvre, studying the old masters, especially Holbein, Durer, and Ingres, than he did in class.

Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach, 1885, Felix Vallotton
In any case, after a mere three years of study, in 1885, at the tender age of twenty, Vallotton painted two portraits, the first of himself (above, top-left), the second a Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach (above). Both are outstanding, not just for a young art student, but as compared to the work of virtually any portrait artist working in Paris at the time. Vallotton's self-portrait received an honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1886. Judging by such prodigious talent and critical acclaim, one might guess the young man to be well on his way to a long and prosperous career as a leading Paris portrait artist. One would be wrong. Oh, he was modestly successful in the years following his initial studies at Julian, but mostly he lived by writing as an art critic and teaching classes.

The Patient, 1892, Felix Vallotton
Portrait of Paul Verlaine
(woodcut), 1891, Felix Vallotton
Then, in 1891, Felix Vallotton made his first woodcut, a Portrait of Paul Verlaine (left). Even though he was an accomplished artist with a brush, as seen in the genre painting The Patient (above), from 1892, Vallotton quickly decided he loved etching grooves in wood more than daubing oils on canvas. In the western world, the relief print, in the form of commercial wood engraving, had long been utilized mainly as a means to accurately reproduce drawings, painted images, and, by Vallotton's time, photographs. Vallotton's woodcut style was unique in its starkly reductive opposition of large masses of undifferentiated black and areas of unmodulated white. Vallotton emphasized outline and flat patterns, generally eliminating the gradations and modeling traditionally produced by cross-hatching. He was influenced by post-Impressionism, Symbolism, and especially by Japanese woodcuts.

Vallotton did woodcut images of virtually all the major artists, writers, and thinkers of his day.
For a single decade at the end of the 19th-century Félix Vallotton became famous, not as a painter (Paris was overflowing with painters at the time), but above all else as a print maker. Vallotton’s bold approach to the woodcut is credited by many art historians of his time, and still today, as having modernized and revitalized the art form in the Western world. Vallotton's woodcut subjects included domestic scenes, bathing women, portrait heads (above), and images of street crowds; most notably, scenes of police attacking anarchists. He usually depicted types rather than individuals, eschewed the expression of strong emotion, blending graphic wit with an acerbic, ironic sense of humor. His La Paresse (below), from 1896, is an interesting example.

La Paresse  (which translates as Laziness), 1896, Felix Vallotton
Portrait de Gabrielle Vallotton,
1908, Felix Vallotton
Vallotton's woodcuts were widely published in books and periodicals all over Europe as well as the United States, and are said to have been a significant influence on the graphic art of Edvard Munch, Aubrey Beardsley, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Around 1892 Vallotton became affiliated with Les Nabis, a group of young artists that included among others, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, and Édouard Vuillard. During the 1890s, when Vallotton was closely allied with the avant-garde, his paintings reflected the style of his woodcuts, with flat areas of color, hard edges, and simplification of detail. In 1899 Vallotton married an attractive, wealthy widow with three children, Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriquez (left), thus enabling him to obtained French citizenship. About the same time, no longer obliged to eke out a livelihood at printmaking Vallotton began to once more concentrated on painting, developing a sober, often bitter realism independent of the artistic mainstream. His Portrait of Gertrude Stein (top-right in the group below) dates from 1907 and was painted as an apparent response to Picasso's portrait of her the previous year. Vallotton is said to have started at the top and methodically worked his way to the bottom in painting it.

The Artist's Wife (top-left), Gertrude Stein (top-right), the Nabis painters, Bonnard, Vuillard,
Roussel, Cottet and Vallotton, from 1902, (midway down on the left), Emile Zola from 1909
(lower-right), and the artist's parents (bottom-left).
Vallotton responded to the coming of war in Europe in 1914 by volunteering for the French army, though by that time almost fifty years of age, he was rejected. Eventually he did make it to the Champagne front in 1917, on a commission from the Ministry of Fine Arts. The sketches he produced became the basis for a group of paintings not unlike an earlier work, Landscape of Ruins and Fires (top), dating from 1914. After the war, In his final years of his life, Vallotton concentrated especially on still lifes (below). He died in 1925 on the day after his 60th birthday, following cancer surgery in Paris. Vallotton was a highly prolific artist. By the time of his death, he had completed over 1700 paintings and about 200 prints, in addition to hundreds of drawings and several sculptures. Yet, despite the lopsided numbers, Vallotton's legacy finds him most remembered for his woodcut prints rather than his paintings.

Virtually all of Vallotton's still-lifes involved food.
Sunset, 1925, Felix Vallotton--his final painting.

Self-portrait profile (woodcut),
1895, Felix Vallotton