Masterpiece Memories

I was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston with my family yesterday, a precious place that I visit about once a year but to which none of them, oddly, have ever been. Wandering around the eclectic rooms of the first floor, my brother remarked to me: it’s as if all of these paintings were in the Masterpiece game that we played as children. Now he is a well-educated, worldly New Yorker, so this was hardly his first exposure to these genres, but he was right: as soon as he said it I was plunged back into the late 1970s as well. There was something about the placement of these paintings that reminded us of that old art auction board game!

Masterpiece V & A 1970

Masterpiece Game 1970 board

The 1970 Parker Brothers’ Masterpiece Game, Museum of Childhood, Victoria & Albert Museum Collection and for sale here (for a while; I might need to snatch it up).

The game contained 24 art cards which became emblazoned in our minds: I remember when I first saw one of the original paintings in real life it seemed…………BIG. My brother’s memories was jostled by a Degas-like painting by Louis Kornberg titled In the Dressing Room (1920) in the Yellow Room, while the facing Whistleresque Lady in Yellow (1888) by Thomas Wilmer Dewing looked vaguely familiar to me. I was absolutely certain that Carlo Crivelli’s St. George Slaying the Dragon (1470) upstairs in the Raphael room was a game card, as well as Rembrandt’s 1629 Self-Portrait, in the Dutch Room. But when I returned home to look up the game on various vintage board game sites, I quickly realized that our memories were false: all the paintings including in the Masterpiece game are apparently from the National Gallery in London. Mrs. Gardner’s ladies, saint, and Rembrandt were not our Masterpiece ladies, saint, and Rembrandt, but nevertheless it was good to see them (again).

Lady in Yellow Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Crivelli Saint George Slaying The Dragon 1470

Rembrandt Self Portrait 1629

All Images courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

 


Time Capsules

Greater Boston has been all abuzz this week about the opening of what has been called “the nation’s oldest time capsule”, a brass box deposited by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795. The box was opened by a conservator from the Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday, in the company of the Executive Director of the Commonwealth’s Archives and before flashing cameras. Inside were items that our founding fathers wanted us (or someone in the future) to see: a silver plaque engraved by Revere, a copper medal depicting George Washington, two dozen coins dating from 1652 (before the colonists were allowed to coin their own money), and a title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records. The box was not a big surprise: it had been discovered in 1855, and a few items (mainly newspapers) from that time had been placed within–so we have two generations from the past communicating to us through objects that they chose to represent their times.

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Photographs of the Revere plaque by Jessica Rinaldi @ Boston Globe and conservator Pam Hatchfield by Brian Snyder @ Reuters.

As I read the various accounts of the Boston time capsule’s contents and saw the face of the very excited conservator’s face (above) on television, several thoughts ran through my mind. The first was empathy: every historian (at least historians who work on periods before the twentieth century) has felt that feeling of sheer excitement as they see and touch (through gloves!) crusty old documents from their period for the very first time–or again and again. Working with manuscripts is often difficult but always intimate–much more so than with printed matter. But obviously there’s a difference between an archive of documents and a time capsule: the former is not a “composition”, in that the historian is crafting the interpretation and presentation rather than the historical subjects. And this (rather obvious) realization led me to my second thought, which I’m still considering:  the difference between “accidental” time capsules like Pompeii and Herculaneum and very intentional ones, like the “Crypt of Civilization” in Atlanta, sealed in 1940 and scheduled to be opened in the year 8113. Actually, according to the reigning time capsule expert, William E. Jarvis (author of the 2002 book Time Capsules: A Cultural History and one of the founders of the International Time Capsule Society), the Boston box is not really a time capsule, which much have a specified opening date like the Crypt of Civilization, but rather a “foundation deposit”, a practice that goes way, way back—to Mesopotamia. So I guess there are three forms of object messaging from the past to the present: the intentional time capsule, which Jarvis credits as an innovation of the nineteenth century, the foundation deposit–which is still an attempt on the part of contemporaries to shape the future’s perception of their era–and accidental entities like Pompeii, the uncovered Anglo-Saxon ship burial mound at Sutton Hoo, or the abandoned Antarctic buildings of Carsten Borchgrevink and Ernest Shackleton. Which, I wonder, is more revealing about these past people?

dedication-of-crypt-door 1938

Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle BM

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The dedication of the “Crypt of Civilization” door in Atlanta, 1938, Oglethorpe University Archives; a royal belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo burial ship, British Museum; Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, Antarctica, ©Nigel McCall for the Antarctic Heritage Trust.


Bearded Days

I listened to a great program on National Public Radio’s On Point show with Tom Ashbrook yesterday about the return of the beard which featured a historian and a style expert:  the perfect combination! Here is Mr. Ashbrook’s introduction to the broadcast: Maybe you saw it at your house over the holidays.  At your New Year’s Eve party.  Men’s facial hair all over the place.  Beards have been growing back into fashion for a while.  From the hip streets of Brooklyn to the Hollywood red carpet.  Now they’re everywhere.  And not just a little scruff.  Beards that have grown for a year.  “Yeards,” they’re called.  Beards worthy of a Civil War general or Paul Bunyan.  Of a lumberjack.  “Lumbersexual” is the funny, hot term of art.  This hour On Point:  What is it in the air, in the culture, in the minds of men, that’s brought back the beard? The topic resonated with me immediately:  I did look around my holiday table and see beards, including one that could be called a “yeard”! And I’ve definitely noticed more beards among my students over the past year or so. I must admit, however, that I had never heard the word “lumbersexual” before yesterday.

The historian on the program, Dr. Stephen Mihm from the University of Georgia, talked primarily about the rise and fall of beards over the past century or so, in reference to his recent New York Times article, “Why CEOs are growing Beards”. I’d like to go back a bit further with this topic, to the Renaissance, which is always the beginning/big break for me. I remember distinctly reading a journal article in graduate school about one of the lesser-known cultural consequences of the Discoveries:  European men, upon their realization that the newly-discovered Amerindians were decidedly less hairy than they, decided to emphasize their “superior” masculinity by letting their facial hair grow. The Reformation also celebrated the beard, even though its spiritual leader, Martin Luther, remained steadfastly clean-shaven. The lavish beard of the leader of the Reformation movement, John Calvin, is absolutely integral to his image. It’s actually quite shocking to examine the first century of oil portraits, say from 1450 to 155o, and view the shift from the clean-shaven Renaissance men, apparently eager to separate themselves from the shaggy Middle Ages and emulate their classical forebears, to the much more hirsute men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Bearded Age Memling 1471

Bearded Age Ghirlandaio

Bearded Reformers

Clean-shaven Renaissance Men and (mostly-) Bearded Reformers:  Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin, 1471-72, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp / © Lukas—Art in Flanders VZW; David Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1490; Detroit Institute of Arts/ Bridgeman Art Gallery; Luther in the Circle of Reformers, German School, c. 1625-50, Deutsches Historisches Museum.

I think that the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries must be golden ages for the beard, with the resolutely beardless eighteenth century in between: Dr. Mihm commented yesterday that he didn’t think there was a bearded signer of the Declaration of Independence. Certainly facial hair was the mark of success and power in the seventeenth century: it’s hard to find a notable man who was not so adorned, at least before 1650. In the second half of the century, the mustache and goatee are more common–it’s almost as if a beard would be too much competition for the long luxuriant locks of later-seventeenth-century cavaliers. And after that, very little facial hair is visible among the minority segment of western society who would or could sit for portraits until the second half of the nineteenth century. We are all familiar with images of bearded Civil War Generals and Robber Barons, but at the same time they became symbols of working-class radicalism, encouraging members of respectable society to pick up their (safety) razors–for a century or so.

PicMonkey Collage

Goya Sebastian Martinez y Perez 1792

Degas Collector of Prints 1866

PicMonkey Collage

Two kings of the very hairy seventeenth century: King Charles I, c. 1640 by Anthony van Dyck (Parliamentary Collection), and King Charles II, c. 1670 by Peter Lely (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II). A representative of the clean-shaven eighteenth century: Sebastián Martínez y Pérez, painted by Goya in 1792 (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Beards are back in the nineteenth century: A Collector of Prints by Edgar Degas, 1866 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the two iconic bearded robber barons, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, painted by society portraitist Theobald Chartran in 1895 and 1896, the last days of the beard (apparently until now!)


Puritan Winter

Two images which I first saw long ago established an everlasting, though certainly ideal, image of New England Puritans in my mind, and I am certain that I am not the only one for which this is true: these are illustrations by the nineteenth-century Anglo-American artist George Henry Boughton (1833-1905) of Pilgrims walking to church in the winter–steadfast souls in a harsh landscape. The first painting is the well-known and widely-disseminated Pilgrims Going to Church (1867) and the second is an engraving of two particular Pilgrims, John and Priscilla Alden, presumably also on their way to services in the snow, she with bible in hand and he with gun. Both paintings emphasize the vulnerability of the Puritans by presenting them in a barren seasonal landscape, yet clearly they are armed with both their faith and their relationships, as well as their muskets.

Puritan Winter Boughton

Puritan Winter John and Priscilla Engraving

George Henry Boughton, Early Puritans of New England Going to Church (1867), Collection of the New-York Historical Society; Puritan couple on their way to Sunday worship, engraved by Thomas Gold Appleton (1885).

Boughton became one of the most influential crafters of the Puritan image through both his own paintings (The New York Times predicted that his iconic 1871 painting The Return of the Mayflower would “live as long as the memory of the Mayflower itself lasts”) and reproductions thereof, many commissioned by the entrepreneurial publisher Alfred S. Burbank of Plymouth, who owned and operated his “Pilgrim Bookshop” from 1872 from 1932. Boughton’s Puritans appeared on trade and post cards, diverse souvenirs, and as individual prints for decades. Below is his favorite Priscilla Alden, even more vulnerable in the absence of John, in both the original 1879 painting and a turn-of-the-century trade card.

PicMonkey Collage

Boughton’s Puritan paintings reveal a reverence for the origins of the country of his childhood, but his work and life should be viewed in an Atlantic context: he was born in Britain and lived in his native country for most of his adulthood. He traveled widely on the Continent, studied in France, and was clearly just as influenced by western European artists and scenes as American history. But I think his American paintings also influenced his life’s work: looking over his cumulative oeuvre, I noticed a penchant for depicting Priscilla-like women in winter, often alone, seemingly and simultaneously both vulnerable and strong in their purposes and thoughtful in their gazes. Even when one of Boughton’s winter women is dressed in the more elaborate attire of his own era (as in The Lady of the Snows below) she still bears traces of the Puritan Priscilla.

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Boughton Puritan Maiden

Boughton Gathering Firewood in the Winter

Boughton Watercolor Illustration to Love in Winter 1890s

Boughton Lady of the Snows

George Henry Boughton, Girl with a Muff, Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC); A Puritan Maiden (1875), Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute; Gathering Firewood in the Winter, Christies; Watercolor illustration to ‘Love in Winter’, Christies; The Lady of the Snows (1896), Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.


A Very Porcine New Year

Along with four-leaf clovers, chimney sweepers, mushrooms, and horseshoes, pigs were the most common symbols of good luck for the New Year a century ago, and they appear on all sorts of greeting cards for that purpose. This is a tradition that is more continental than British, and more eastern European than western–although some of the most charming New Year’s pig postcards I have seen are French. The lucky pig does not seem to have taken hold in New England expressions–even those by the Polish-born Louis Prang–but in New York State (or more specifically, Saratoga Springs), smashing a peppermint variety heralds in the New Year. Traditional New Year’s Day fare from central Europe features pork as well, though this seems a bit contradictory to me–why would you want to eat your lucky charm? Best wishes to everyone for a joyful 2015: may we all be as happy as veritable pigs in clover!

The best pigs are from Vienna……Carl Josza, Raphael Kirchner (c. 1899-1900), and more Mela Koehler (c. 1910), from the Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Porcine New Year

Porcine New Year MFA 2

Porcine New Year Koehler 1

Porcine MK MFA

Porcine New Year 1910 Koehler MFA

Skiing (Swedish) and Skating (French) pigs, c. 1914-1915

Porcine New Year Swedish pre-war

Porcine New Year 1915 Skating

German postcards from the Spehr collection, available here: all the symbols (minus mushrooms) from 1908, and a pig on top of the world in 1915.

Porcine Postcard New Year's

Porcine New Year 9 World


All Wrapped Up

I think I spent more time on wrapping my Christmas gifts this year than purchasing them: I rationalized this by incorporating presentation into the cumulative “thought” that counts! I became rather enchanted with several images of seasonal, botanical anthropomorphism and they kind of took over my holiday: I made cards to affix to many of my gifts and even some custom wrapping paper via Spoonflower. Despite intensive searching online and off, I can’t find the creators of these images: the children transformed into Christmas trees, mistletoe, and plum puddings were issued as holiday cards by the Courtauld Gallery a few years ago, and the little holly sprites come from a vintage Christmas postcard in my possession, but I have no idea where they poinsettia lady comes from–she’s one of those random, unidentified, Tumblr images. If anyone has any information about these plant people, please forward so I can give proper credit!

All Wrapped Up 003p

All Wrapped Up 004

All Wrapped Up 007

Horsley_ChristmasCard

Holly Sprites Paper

Plant People for Christmas 2014.

 


Mummers Mumming

A 14th-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library contains the first illustration of mummers, costumed players or “guisers” performing occasionally out-of-doors in a merry band, for amusement and/or some form of compensation. These mummers, wearing masks of stag, rabbit, and horse heads, are in good company: accompanying them in the margins of this cycle of Alexandrian romances are knightly puppets, dancing monkeys, hunting hares, monks and nuns on piggyback, and monstrous men. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to associate their appearance with Christmas revelry in the text of the manuscript, but several centuries later the Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson did just that in his 1616 Christmas Masque, in which the progeny of Father Christmas personify and epitomize the main institutions of the season: “Mis-Rule, Caroll, Minc’d Pie, Gamboll, Post and Paire, New-Yeares-Gift, Mumming, Wassail, Offering, Babie-Cake”. And from that point on, mumming was an essential part of the Merry Old English Christmas, as described by a succession of English social “historians” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From his American heritage perspective, the novelist Washington Irving (whose biography of Christopher Columbus laid the very solid foundation for the Flat Earth Myth), contributed to this association with his Bracebridge Hall sketches, first published in 1820. Mumming is part invention of tradition, part social commentary in the industrializing nineteenth century, both a sentimental look back to the way things were in a supposedly-simpler society and a controlled expression of seasonal “misrule” by the villagers or the workers for that society.

mummers_illuminated Bodley

Mummers 14th 19th c.

Bodleian MS Bodley 264, f. 21v: The Romance of Alexander in French verse, by Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise and his workshop, 1338-44, with additional sections added in England c. 1400; Illustration from Old England, A Pictorial Museum, edited by Charles Knight (James Sangster & Co, c. 1845).

In the vast revival (or creation) of Merry Old Christmas that occurred over the nineteenth century, one book really stands out for me: Thomas Kibble Hervey’s The Book of Christmas:  descriptive of the customs, ceremonies, traditions, superstitions, fun, feeling, and festivities of the Christmas Season (1836). This is really a delightful book, made more so by the original illustrations by Robert Seymour. Hervey presents mumming as traditional custom and folklore, in the company of Morris and sword dances, regional plays and London pantomimes, and Christmas caroling, and definitely de-emphasizes the misrule. And Seymour’s illustrations (which you can see almost in their entirely here) depict the Christmas that we all want to have. Their audience was perhaps interested in escaping the increasingly-complex world that was being created by industrialization and urbanization, but it is rampant Christmas commercialization that makes me want a Merry Old Christmas with mummers, whether it was real or not!

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Hervey’s Book of Christmas (1836), with illustrations by Robert Seymour,University of St. Andrews Special Collections.

Modern Mummers (excluding those from Philadelphia–a whole other story!):

Mummers Eurich 1952

Mummers 1980s

Mummers, 1952, Frank Ernst Eurich, Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries; Fritz Wegner commemorative stamp for the 1981 GB Folklore series.


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