Tag Archives: Smithsonian

Merchant Princesses

I recently found another Salem painting in the Christie’s Auctions archive that captured my attention and fancy: “Portrait possibly of a Girl of the Derby Family” by C.L. Carter, early nineteenth century (she actually looks more eighteenth-century to me). She’s a lovely girl, but I think she entranced me not only because of her Salem connection, but because she reminds me of another “merchant princess” from long ago and far away: Bia Medici, the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, as envisioned by Bronzino.  I say “envisioned” because while the portrait of the Salem girl captured the fullness of life (I think), the Bronzino portrait is a memorial image of the recently deceased girl. In life and death and in these paintings, both girls represent the privileged positions their respective families held in two mercantile oligarchies, centuries and an ocean apart.

Merchant Princess CL Carter Christies

Merchant Princesses  Bronzino

C.L. Carter, Portrait Possibly of a Girl of the Derby Family, Christie‘s; Angelo Bronzino, Untitled, known as Portrait of Bia Medici, Daughter of Cosimo I or Portrait of Bia, illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Bronzino’s Medici princess has become iconic I think; I use her in my Renaissance classes to illustrate contemporary themes of family, death and remembrance, and Medici power and the students are always very taken with her, perhaps because of the angelic quality Bronzino (working from a death mask) gave her. Joseph Cornell was apparently taken with her as well, as she is the featured image of his 1948 collage sculpture that was part of the Navigating the Imagination exhibition originating at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and shown here in Salem at the Peabody Essex Museum. Another artist who seems to have been inspired by the portraits of these and other merchant princesses is the Australian photographer Bill Gekas, who has posed his very alive 5-year-old daughter in a series of  “reimagined” scenes, with adorable, and engaging, results.

Merchant Princess Cornell

Merchant's Daughter

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Medici Princess), c. 1948, Private Collection; Bill Gekas, The Merchant’s Daughter, © Bill Gekas.


The Art of Letters

I wanted to follow up my Post Office post with one featuring the art of letters, but I’m not sure exactly how to categorize these images:  these are not examples of typographic art, as they feature script rather than print, or ephemeral art, because I’m including works of art which feature letters as well as a few letters that I believe rise to an artistic level.  I looked up “scriptural art”, but that category seems to be reserved for religious works, and scribal art for calligraphy.  So that leaves me with the rather bland title “the art of letters”.***  It happens that some of my favorite images have a focus on reading or writing letters, or present an assemblage of writing materials, or a scrap of paper, with writing, that makes us wonder what’s going on here?  what does that letter say?  The letter is a great device to draw us into the painting: we want to read it!  Look at the note in the hand of this Victorian governess in Richard Redgrave’s 1844 painting:  it–or rather her reaction to its contents–has separated her from the “lighter” children under her watch. The painting was exhibited with the quotation “She sees no kind domestic visage here”, indicating that the letter brought memories of a missed home at best, and news of a death in her family at worst.

Letter Governess

Richard Redgrave, The Governess (1844), Victoria & Albert Museum, London

My very favorite letter painting doesn’t really delve into the emotional aspects of letters and their reception, but rather it presents us with a trompe l’oeil display of printed and writing materials:  an early modern bulletin board!  This is a very ephemeral painting in several ways:  the newspapers and almanac represent the “news” of Queen Anne’s accession in 1702, as does the medal representing her grandfather, Charles I. The painter has included his “signature” on the folded sheet in the center. I love trompe l’oeil in general, but this particular painting has captivated me since the first time I laid eyes on it several years ago; I think that George Tooker’s 1953 painting, The Letter Box, is its perfect companion piece.

Colyer Tromp l'oeil

George_Tooker_The_Letter_Box

Edward Collier (Collyer), Trompe L’Oeil with Writing Materials, c. 1702, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; George Tooker, The Letter Box, 1953, Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

Moving back to my period, I noticed a while ago that the Tudor court painter Hans Holbein the Younger often included scraps of paper with writing, tucked into a book, laying on a table, or even posted to the wall, in a number of his portraits. The well-known portrait of Thomas Cromwell (of whom I am a fan) is a good example, as is the amazing portrait of Georg Gisze, a German merchant stationed in London (like Holbein). I think the use of written and writing materials is a bit more straightforward here:  Cromwell wants to present himself as a pious public servant and a master of the (written) law, while Gisze is an equally-earnest man of business who holds in his hand a letter from his brother, back home.

Cromwell Frick Collection

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Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, 1532-33, Frick Museum; and Portrait of Georg Gisze, 1532, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

I’m including a few actual letters in this post, both because I spent quite a bit of time searching through the digital collection of the National Postal Museum at the Smithsonian for my last post and because many of the letter “covers” in this collection do rise to the level of art, in my humble opinion. The range is incredible, encompassing patriotic examples from all the American wars, letters from the prisoners of those wars which were delivered in specially-marked envelopes, and letters delivered by planes, trains, and zeppelins. These covers are also a way to look at print and script together. This first envelope, from my own collection, was issued by the Locke Regulator Company of Salem in 1899 (as you can see by the postmark), and then there’s a letter from a Union prisoner of war from 1864 and a letter carried out of Paris by balloon in 1871.

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Letter from Union Prisoner of War

Letter Smithsonian

Covers from 1864 & 1871, National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

These letters look like likely candidates for a John Derian decoupage tray to me: that man loves his fonts and scripts!  But letters moved to the foreground in the decorative arts a while ago, as exemplified by the beautiful silver cigarette case below, “postmarked” in 1903. I wish we could bring these cases back (with an alternative use), and while we’re at it, letters too!

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Silver Cigarette Case Albert Barker Ltd London

John Derian “Sample Script” decoupage tray; Silver cigarette case by Albert Barker, Ltd., London, Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

***EPISTOLARY Art!!! As recommended by Secret Gardener, who has one of the most beautiful blogs out there.


On Gossamer Gowns

As part of my own little Inauguration celebration, I’ve been looking at the Smithsonian’s collection of Inaugural ballgowns of our past and present First Ladies and one thing is clear: the lighter in color and more crystalline the fabric, the more timeless the dress. Nellie Taft, one of my very favorite First Ladies (think cherry trees, subtle support for the Suffragettes and attendance at the opposition Democratic National Convention to quell criticism of her husband) and the first to walk in the Inaugural Day parade alongside her husband and donate her ballgown to the Smithsonian, started the trend with her embellished white silk dress, and those First Ladies who chose more vibrant frocks pale by example. Certainly Mrs. Obama followed Mrs. Taft’s example with her 2009 Jason Wu gown–a century later.

Inaugural gown Nellie Taft 1909

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Inaugural gown of M Obama

Mrs. Taft in her 1909 Inaugural ballgown (Library of Congress), and the gown in the Smithsonian First Ladies Exhibition, along with the Jason Wu gown worn by Mrs. Obama in 2009. Though Mrs. Taft’s dress has discolored with time, both dresses are made of white silk chiffon.

I don’t have any historical evidence, but it seems to me that two more fashionable First Ladies were mindful of Mrs. Taft’s example when they chose their Inaugural ballgowns:  Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Reagan, twenty years apart. Both ladies chose gowns that were creamy and embellished, regal and ethereal.

Inaugural Gown of Mrs. Kennedy

Inaugural gown of Mrs. Reagan

The Bergdorf Goodman gown of Mrs. Kennedy (1961) and the James Galanos gown of Mrs. Reagan (1981), Smithsonian Institution First Ladies Exhibition.

Two First Ladies who abandoned the Taft tradition for their first Inaugural balls and then reverted to form for their second galas were Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Bush. The fashion parallels seem striking with these two ladies!  Both picked lesser-known designers from their home states and bright partisan colors for their first Inaugural gowns–Democratic blue for Mrs. Clinton and Republican red for Mrs. Bush–and then chose more neutral gossamer gowns in gold and silver by Oscar de la Renta for their second balls, in 1997 and 2005, respectively, making them look above-the-fray, transcendent.

Inaugural Collage Clinton

Inaugural Collage Bush

Mrs. Eisenhower’s 1953 Inaugural gown was not really neutral, but rather (and of course) pink and with a distinct 1950s silhouette. Still, I think its 2000 rhinestones render it rather regal–and it is pale pink. I think it might be my favorite, even though it is not as timeless as the columns that came before and after.

Inaugural ballgown of Mrs. Eisenhower 1953

Mrs. Eisenhower’s Nettie Rosenstein Inaugural ballgown, 1953, Smithsonian Institution First Ladies Exhibition.

While looking for Mrs. Johnson’s Inaugural gown, I had a happy surprise.  Lady Bird wore a buttery yellow, very 1960s satin gown to the 1965 Inaugural ball, but four years earlier, just before President Kennedy’s Inauguration, she and her daughters posed in their gowns:  on the right, Lynda Bird Johnson is wearing my wedding dress:  the same Harvey Berin dress that I bought from a Boston vintage dealer years ago. It’s really fun to see it on her.

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Lady Bird Johnson with her daughters Luci Baines Johnson, left,  and Lynda Bird Johnson, right (in my dress!), 1961. Getty Images.

One last Inaugural gown:  this one worn by a mere guest rather than a First Lady. Actually, I don’t think the word mere is appropriate when referring to someone who wore this gown:  the “Four Leaf Clover” gown designed by Charles James for Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Jr. to wear to the 1953 Eisenhower Inaugural ball. Too conspicuous and architectural for a First Lady, perhaps, but WOW.

Inaugural Gown by Charles James 1953

Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of Mrs. Cornelius V. Whitney, 1953.


Best Bedside Books 2012

Well, it’s the time of year for lists, lots of lists:  best and worst, most important, so on and so forth, lists of ten things that characterize the passing year in one way or another. I’ll do my part with a best books list, with a qualification:  these are titles that were published in 2012 which I consider to be essential for bedtime reading, or bedtime reference, to be more precise. I do like to read in bed before I sleep, but I drop off quite rapidly, so I need a quick hit of compelling information, and/or some visual stimulation, before I’m gone. I’ve given up fiction altogether for this purpose, and I never read any sort of academic history later at night:  my bedside books need to be “dippable”; I will pick up one or the other from the stack–too tall for the bedside table–and dip into it every other night or so, in order to see or learn something before I fall asleep (books that do not perform these services leave the stack rather quickly). Several amazing natural histories were published this year which are perfect for this purpose, so I’ll start with them.

Natural Histories cover

Natural Histories. Extraordinary Selections from the Rare Book Archive of the American Museum of Natural History Library. Edited by Tom Baione.  Sterling Signature, 2012.

Nothing fascinates me more than the merger of art and science and this first book illustrates that historical merger in an extraordinary way. It is the ultimate gift and coffee table book, as it comprises a collection of historical sources relating to every branch of natural history from anthropology to zoology, succinct yet substantive contextual essays, and lots of images, as well as frame-ready prints, but it is also incredibly informative and inspirational. Similar in its historical range and the compelling nature of its images is the National Library of Medicine’s Hidden Treasure, and rather more whimsical (yet still empirical) is Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.  A 21st Century Bestiary. These books are just visual feasts, and I also learn something every time I pick them up.

Hidden Treasure

the-book-of-barely-imagined-beings-a-21st-century-bestiary

Hidden Treasure:  the National Library of Medicine.  Edited by Michael Sappol.  Blast Books, 2012; The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson.  Granta Books, 2012.

I’ve been interested in folklore for quite some time, and an amazing new edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published this year: this bicentennial edition of The Annotated Brothers Grimm was edited and annotated by Maria Tatar, Chair of the Program in Mythology and Culture at Harvard.  It really is a definitive edition, and also includes many classic illustrations.  There’s nothing better than reading Grimm fairy tales before you fall asleep:  food for dreams!

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The Bicentennial Edition of the Annotated Brothers Grimm. Edited by Maria Tatar.  W.W. Norton, 2012.

I always have architecture and design books in my bedside stack, also good for dreaming, and the ones I purchased this year are American Decoration by Thomas Jayne and London Hidden Interiors by Phillip Davies.  Their titles are self-explanatory. I love Jayne’s traditional style, and with its 180 properties and 1200 photographs, Hidden Interiors is positively encyclopedic.

Book Jayne

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American Decoration:  A Sense of Place, by Thomas Jayne. Monacelli Press, 2012. London Hidden Interiors, Phillip Davies. An English Heritage Book, Atlantic Publishing, Ltd., 2012.

Both art history and history texts seldom function well as bedside books, as they require a bit more sustained concentration. If they are far removed from my academic interests, sometimes I can make them work out of sheer ignorance/ interest and curiosity (or if they have relatively short chapters!)  Right now I have two books in these categories by my bed, both very recently published:  Eleanor Jones Harvey’s The Civil War and American Art, which is the companion volume to the exhibition that’s on right now at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and Todd Andrlik’s Reporting the Revolutionary War, which presents a narrative of the American Revolution through contemporary newspaper reports, including several from the Salem Gazette.

CivilWar_500

Reporting

Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Civil War and American Art. Yale University Press, 2012; Todd Andrlik, Reporting the Revolutionary War. Before it was History, it was News.  Sourcebooks, 2012.

Salem is a “walkable city”, and I think more places in car-obsessed America should be walkable cities, which is why I purchased urban planner Jeff Speck’s Walkable City. How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time. I’m learning a lot from this book, but I do think it is better read in the daytime rather than just before bed. And last but not least, a perfect bedside book that my brother just gave me for Christmas:  Simon Garfield’s Just My Type. A Book about Fonts. This was actually published in 2010, but I also have another Garfield book that was published this year, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, (Gotham) so together they can fill out my top ten list.  Typography and cartography: two very interesting, yet contained topics.  Perfect for end-of-day reading.

Walkable City

Just-My-Type

Jeff Speck, Walkable City. How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012; Simon Garfield, Just my Type. A Book about Fonts. Gotham reprint, 2012.


The Power of the Printed Image

Most of the courses that I teach focus on the period in which printing technology first emerges, so I am constantly assessing the influence of print on the Renaissance, the Reformation, and nearly every aspect of early modern society and culture. Consequently I have a particular and professional appreciation for the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ digital exhibition Picturing Words:  the Power of Book Illustration, which began its life as a “real”exhibition at the Smithsonian and on the road and then evolved into a virtual one. Ironically, I think most exhibitions that feature texts work better online than in rooms, and I bet this one does too:  you can get closer to the images, for longer, and come to appreciate the influence they must have had in their own time, and their continuing power in ours. The images in the exhibition are organized into three categories, inspiration, information, and influence, with an additional section of pictures which illustrate the process of printing illustrations from Gutenberg’s time to ours. I think that all the images are well-chosen, but for the purposes of this post I am limiting myself to just five illustrations, with a few more for context.

First up, from the Information column, a work I refer to often in all of my classes: the pioneering anatomical treatise by the Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, or “The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body” (1543).  In the Fabrica, Vesalius took on authoritative Galenism with the help of draftsmen from Titian’s workshop:  the result was a triumph for empiricism and a great example of the often-close relationship between art and science in the Renaissance. Several images are in the Picturing Words exhibition, but you can “turn the pages” of the entire text at the National Library of Medicine.  I love the title page, with Vesalius conducting a theatrical dissection, his face turned to us, the audience and readers, as well as the artfully placed skeletons and body parts.

As I am essentially materialistic at heart, the images from the exhibition that appeal to me the most are from the Influence category, as in influencing design and attracting consumers.  Asher Benjamin’s Practical House Carpenter has always been a favorite source for architectural images, and even though I’m about a century late for these particular products, I am quite drawn to these stoves and shoes. It’s important to remember in this digital age that print was at least as important to the Consumer Revolution as it was to the Scientific Revolution.

Columns, stoves and shoes:  images from Asher Benjamin’s The Architect; or, Practical House Carpenter, Boston: B.B. Mussey, 1853; Oriental and American Stove Works, Perry & Co., New York: The Van Benthuysen Printing House, 1874; Queen Quality Smart Shoes, Thomas Plant Co., Boston, 1910.

My last image is from the Inspiration section, but I have bypassed the medieval religious texts in favor of a page from David Pelletier’s The Graphic Alphabet (1996).  The link between the two is through the use of letterforms as illustration, an interesting feature of the exhibition:  ornamented capitals in the past, letters as ornaments in the present.

David Pelletier, The Graphic Alphabet.  New York: Orchard, c. 1996.


Gardening by Mail

Leaving aside our unnaturally warm March week, this is the first really springlike weekend, and a long one at that with the commemoration of Patriot’s Day here in Massachusetts on Monday.  Lots of things have popped up in the garden, though I suspect many plants never went to sleep during this warm winter.  I’m not sure what I’ve lost; there are some conspicuous holes but it’s still a bit early.  In any case, I always buy a few things in the spring and find places for them, often from some of my tried-and-true catalog sources.

The healthiest and hardiest plants in my garden come from Perennial Pleasures Nursery in East Hardwick, Vermont.  When I started the garden over a decade ago, I wanted to have only heirloom plants, and their little catalogs featured lots of varieties from the 17th through the 19th centuries, along with all the essential information about how to grow them.  I learned a lot from those catalogs, and I still have them, as well as all of the plants I purchased from them.  Now Perennial Pleasures only sells their specialty, phlox (of which they have many varieties that you cannot get anywhere else), by mail, along with a few other plants, but their plant guide (which you can download from their website) remains an essential reference for gardeners.  And if you’re in the Northeast Kingdom this summer, they have a Phlox Festival during the first two weeks of August.

After a couple of summers, I abandoned my “heirlooms only” rule because it was a little limiting, and there are lots of beautiful modern varietals out there that I wanted in my garden.  One particular summer, I became obsessed with alstroemeria, and the search for more varieties took me (virtually) to Digging Dog Nursery in northern California.  Since that time I’ve moved on from alstroemeria but not from Digging Dog, which supplies lots of healthy and well-established plants that you seldom see in regular nurseries.

Another online source of plants you don’t see anywhere and everywhere is Avant Gardens of Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  I generally drive down there as it’s not too far for me but I know they do a large mail-order business.  Lots of varieties of my favorite perennials, like the masterwort above, and unusual annuals as well.

Seeds have been a mail-order product for more than a century, and one of the oldest US suppliers is Comstock, Ferre & Co. of Wethersfield, Connecticut, a beautiful colonial town just outside Hartford.  Except for a little recent gap during which they were purchased by Missouri-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Comstock has been in the business of selling “hardy northern” seeds for 200 years. You can purchase their heirloom seeds online or at their retail location in Wethersfield, a charming cluster of buildings. Their seeds come in really lovely packets, another major attraction for me.  In fact, I am rather ashamed to admit that I have purchased seeds in the past (like the vegetable assortment from Monticello below) simply because I liked the packets they came in.

Now that I’ve shifted the focus of this post from plants to paper I might as well keep going!  Gardening by mail has a long history, and the Smithsonian Institutions Libraries have a great collection of  nursery catalogs from around the world and the last century or so.  Here are some of my favorites:  from a local seller in black and white, and nurseries in England and Maryland in vibrant chromolithographic color.  How different the last two catalogs are:  a rather restrained British offering of “golden” seeds and an exuberant display of Italian-American patriotism in the waning days of World War I.


Pine Cone Time

(Having spent more time than I have trying to determine whether “pinecone/ pine cone” is one word or two, I’m opting for two).  Along with the Christmas tree, there is no more omnipresent natural motif at Christmas time than the pine cone, which is rather ironic, given its decidedly pagan roots.  In classical mythology, the pine cone is most prominently featured on the thyrsus, the staff held by Dionysus and his bacchanalian cohorts.  The thyrsus is made from a stalk of fennel topped by a pine cone, representing the farm, the forest, and all sorts of fertility; in both classical and more modern imagery it is more representative of revelry than religion.

A.E. Becher, Bacchanal Scene (with pine cone-topped thyrsus leading the way, in left-hand corner),1903

With the coming of Christianity, the pine cone fades into the background as a natural motif and a way to bring some “life” indoors during the long winter.  I’ve seen pine cones in medieval manuscripts, but I think they become more apparent in early modern decorative arts.  Pine cone knobs are common features of eighteenth-century porcelain, like this beautiful coffee pot from the 1730s.  Fabrics and wallpapers also featured pine cones in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as they do today.

Mulhouse Fabric, 1830s, Victoria and Albert Museum

Cotton Pine Cone fabric from the Whispering Pines Catalog.

Even if pedestrian pine cones don’t make it into the final product, they often served as objects of study for artists.  The two charming studies (made between 1950-75) by Samuel Chamberlain (also a brilliant photographer, whose Salem Interiors remains one of my favorite books) in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art illustrate his composition process.  The pine cone comes into its own in the recent drypoint by Jake Muirhead, from the Old Print Gallery.

Pine cones remain a popular element of seasonal decor because they’re so affordable (free!), accessible and flexible:  you can make ornaments, garlands, swags, topiaries, tablescapes, and wreaths out of pine cones, or just scatter them around.  And when the holidays are over and the glitter goes away, the pine cones can remain until the Spring, when more signs of life begin to appear.  Here are a few pine cone items that transcend holiday decor, and could (I think) be made at home (relatively) easily.

Pine cone garland from Anthropologie, map “pine cone” ornament from Turtles and Tails, and rustic pine cone mirror from Wisteria.


Past and Future Plants

My Christmas tree is en route to its final destination, the annual bonfire at Dead Horse Beach at Salem Willows, and I am perusing garden catalogues, the focus of every gardener I know in January and February.  I love my White Flower Farm catalogue, which seems to arrive precisely on January 2 every year, as well as those from Perennial Pleasures in Vermont and Select Seeds in Connecticut, but even with its beautiful photographs and substantive descriptions of plant culture I have to admit that it cannot compare to its counterparts of a century earlier in terms of pure aesthetics.  Late Victorian and early twentieth-century seed catalogues are truly works of art, as illustrated by these covers from Boston and Marblehead nurseries, all from the Smithsonian Institution Library.

My Salem predecessors a century or more ago might have purchased their seeds and plants from these local purveyors, but THEIR predecessors had an extremely prestigious horticulturalist immediately in their midst:  Robert Manning, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle and one of  the founders of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.  Manning (1784-1842) maintained a large orchard and nursery in then-pastoral North Salem or North Fields adjacent to his homestead at 33 Dearborn Street (very recently featured on Historic Salem‘s 31st annual Christmas in Salem house tour) which was said to feature over 2000 varieties of fruit trees, half of which were pear cultivars.  He was THE pear and fruit-tree expert, a title that was solidified with the publication of his Book of Fruits:  Being a Descriptive Catalogue of the Most Valuable Varieties of the Pear, Apple, Peach, Plum and Cherry, for New-England Cultures in 1838, a standard work that was frequently reprinted in the mid-nineteenth century under the title The New England Book of Fruit.


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