Monthly Archives: April 2012

Encircling Salem Artists

There’s been a lot of discoveries since I started this blog over a year ago, but one of the biggest has been a growing appreciation of the artistic environment which existed in Salem a century or so ago, well past what historians consider the city’s golden age.  Culturally speaking, Salem was vibrant not only in the 1790s, but also in the 1890s, when Frank Benson, Phillip Little, Ross Sterling Turner, Dwight Blaney, and John Leslie Breck were within its midst.  I’ve already written about Little and Benson, whose houses I can gaze upon from my bedroom window, but the other gentlemen are more recent discoveries.  Blaney, from an old Salem family (Blaney Street runs down to the Salem Ferry dock), was not only an artist but one of the first serious collectors of American antiques.  In many ways, he is a collecting link between several of these men:  Turner married his elder sister and lived in Salem, and both Blaney and Breck visited them often from their primary homes in the western suburbs of Boston.  Benson and Little were more grounded in Salem (though they summered in northern New England like all artists of means), Blaney seems to have been happily ensconced at both his main home in Weston and his summer house on Ironbound Island, off Mt. Desert in Maine (where he received many distinguished guests, including Breck and John Singer Sargent, and which you can read about here), but Turner and Breck seem like men of the world to me:  student days in Europe, considerable time at Giverny with Monet (Breck), long forays in Bermuda and Mexico (Turner).  They were both advocates of “modern” art, and seem to have been inspired by the cultural environment of greater Boston and the North Shore while at the same time occasionally at odds with it.

I found an interesting notice in the Boston Transcript from the spring of 1890, shortly after Breck had returned from Giverny to hold a one-man show at the St. Botolph Club through which Impressionism was introduced to Boston.  He had also formed a teaching studio with Turner in Salem (at the latter’s house on Bridge Street, a pretty busy thoroughfare now and then) and these developments apparently did not please the anonymous author of the “Fine Arts” column.

     Ross Turner and John Leslie Breck have returned to this country from foreign parts, and threaten to form a class for out-of-door work in painting at Salem during the month of June.  Mr. Turner will give instructions in watercolor work, and Mr. Breck in both oils and watercolors, as well as in drawing from models.  Mr. Breck is somewhat famous in a limited way as the only pupil of the impressionist Claude Monet, and we may as well be prepared for anything and everything when he lets loose a flock of sweet girl graduates, duly inoculated with the impressionistic visual virus, whose landscapes may blend the charms of amateurishness with those of other kinds of incoherence, “till all is blue”.

THE IMPRESSIONISTIC VISUAL VIRUS!  What a great line; it sounds very modern. What a reminder of how new (and apparently threatening)Impressionism was in the late nineteenth century–and also how conservative Boston was.  The reference to “sweet girl graduates” might be an allusion to Breck’s  romantic reputation, gained at Giverny.  No matter, both Turner and Breck seemed to prosper in the 1890s, both in and around Salem and beyond.  Here are some of my favorite works of both artists, representing careers that were both cut short:  Turner died in the Bahamas in 1915, “following a long illness”, while Breck died of asphyxiation in 1899–an apparent suicide–at age 39.

Ross Sterling Turner (1847-1915):  Street Scene in Munich, 1880 (Smithsonian Museum of American Art); The Old Manse (printed etching from Riverside Press’s Hawthorne Portfolio, 1884); Fairylands, Bermuda, 1890 (part of the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Exhibit “The Wonderful World of Watercolours”, closing today); Doorway of Henry Lee Higginson Estate (outside Boston), 1894; and his most popular work, A Garden is a Sea of Flowers, 1912 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

John Leslie Breck (1860-1899):  Willows (1888); Grey Day on the Charles (1894) and The Dragon in Winter, Essex (Massachusetts), 1896.  All accessed through the Smithsonian Institution Inventory of American Art and all in private collections.



Anniversary History

Sometimes I think that all history in the public sphere is anniversaic, as if nothing in the past matters unless there’s a big anniversary involved, generally a centennial.  In the past few weeks, I’ve heard countless stories in the media about the sinking of the Titanic and the opening of Fenway Park, two very diverse events that happened in 1912 and thus share an anniversary in 2012.  On a more personal note, this is a big year for our family as my grandmother turns 100:  1912 was a very big year indeed.

As a professional historian, history-as-anniversary kind of bothers me: it is exclusively event-oriented, ignores more complex social, economic and cultural developments, and is so obviously subjective.  On the other hand, it does raise awareness about the past, which is always a good thing in my opinion, and it can be fun.  I thought I would sprint backwards through the last millennium and pick my own big events for the years 1812, 1712, 1612 and so on, thus demonstrating how very arbitrary such an exercise can be:  as someone trained in late medieval and early modern European history living in New England, my chosen events are going to be very different from those of, say, a modern African historian living on the West Coast.  So what is history?

I’m starting out here in Salem, a century ago, where crowds are in Town House Square, soon (April 29) to be the site of a campaign stop by former President Theodore Roosevelt, now a candidate for the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) party.  Roosevelt took the train up from Boston, gave a quick speech, and departed for the next town.

Moving backwards to 1812, my Salem perspective mandates that I pick the War of 1812 as my big event of the year (even though it certainly wasn’t over in 1812).  This war had a huge impact on Salem (and other eastern seaports), in effect ending its golden age.  This summer, there will be courses and exhibits at Salem State University and the Salem Athenaeum:  anniversary history.  I wonder if I was standing on Salem’s highest point, Legge’s Hill (now the site of a hulking YMCA, but offering the best view of Salem Harbor) could I have seen the engagement between the American Chesapeake and the British Shannon or the USS Constitution being chased by two British frigates?

The Constitution in 1803 by Salem artist Michele Felice Corne; the Capitol after burning by British Troops, 1814 (Drawing by George Munger, Library of Congress).

For the year 1712 I’m leaving Salem, no longer the center of the action, and crossing over to Britain. My big event for this year is the invention of the Newcomen Engine, the first machine to harness steam power for practical purposes–in this case, pumping out mines.  Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine might be less well-known than James Watt’s, which came later in the eighteenth century, but it was the first step of the Industrial Revolution.

The Newcomen Steam Engine, circa 1725.

I’m going to stay in Britain for the year 1612 and pick the Lancashire (Pendle) Witch Trials for my event of the year.  This was England’s largest witch hunt, small by continental comparison (12 accusations, 10 convictions on charges of murder by witchcraft, 10 executions) but one of the first trials in England which was focused on collective devil worship as opposed to individual maleficia.  It’s also an exceeding well-documented series of trials, and northern England seems to be gearing up for a Salem-esque 400th anniversary “commemoration”.

A 1612 chapbook about the Pendle Witches, and the 400th anniversary logo.

I’m heading to Italy for the year 1512: it’s the height of the Italian Renaissance and Michelangelo Buonarroti has completed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which is summarily unveiled to the public by Pope Julius II.  I don’t think I need to say anything else.

God Dividing the Waters detail, Sistine Chapel.

You notice that I haven’t left Europe?  I’m going to remain there for 1412 and choose a birth for that year:  the birth, sometime in January, of the “Maid of Orléans”, Joan of Arc, the French national heroine who inspired the French victory in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and was martyred and canonized as a consequence.

Jeanne d’Arc in the company of saints, miniature circa 1485.

I am going to leave Europe and the west for my next big event:  1312 marks the beginning of the reign of arguably the greatest medieval African ruler, Mansa Musa (I) of the Mali Empire in west Africa.  Known for his great wealth, his cultural patronage (including the building of Timbuktu) and his pilgrimage to Mecca, Mansa Musa appears in European maps and texts long after his death.

Mansa Musa in the center of the Catalan Atlas, c. 1375.

North to Europe (sort of):  1212 was a big year in the history of the Spanish Reconquista, the centuries-long struggle on the part of Iberian Christians to recapture their peninsula from Muslim rulers.  At the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa that year, King Alfonso VIII of Castile and his Christian allies (including many crusader knights) won a decisive victory, leading to the decline and fall of the Almohad Empire in Spain.

1112 might have been the year that Hildegard of Bingen, one of the most remarkable and accomplished women of the Middle Ages (mystic, author, artist, abbess, composer) was “enclosed” in the Church by her parents, commencing her spiritual and artistic journey.  In any case, it looks like 2012 will be the year that Hildegard finally receives her canonization, after a long campaign.

One last martyr.  2012 marks the millennial anniversary of the martyrdom of Aelfheagh (Alphege), the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was beaten to death by a mob of drunken Danish Vikings who had taken him prisoner on April 19, 1012.  The Danes who were occupying England at the time wanted “protection money” more than land or power, but the Archbishop refused to be ransomed, and so they killed him in frustration.  He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die a violent death (and subsequently be martyred and canonized):  Thomas à Becket apparently prayed to St. Alphege before he met his own death in Canterbury Cathedral.

British children as Vikings outside St. Alfege Church,  Greenwich, near the scene of the crime.  One view of St. Alphege Millennium observances held around Great Britain last week.

And that concludes my millennium of time-traveling (really hit-and-run) history!


Hearts and Jacks

It’s spring awakening time in the garden, and two of my particular favorites have popped:  Bleeding Heart (dicentra spectabilis) and Jack-in-the-Pulpit (arisaema triphyllum).  These two plants, so strident yet so vulnerable, really capture the spirit of the season for me more so than any other development.  The fact that their blooms are so short-lived makes them all the more precious.

Really beautiful.  Most of the plants in my garden were chosen for their European heritage, but these two have different origins.  The Bleeding Heart comes from China, and the Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a native wildflower. Somehow they snuck into my Eurocentric garden, thank goodness. Bleeding Hearts are often referred to as “old-fashioned” flowers but in fact they were not introduced to the west (by intrepid plant hunter Robert Fortune) until the 1840s.  I really prefer the white version of Dicentra, but the pink variety seems to be a lot more common, and more inspirational to artists and designers. Given the common name, you can imagine that there have been lots of literal metaphorical representations of the plant over the years, which I will spare you, but also some really lovely illustrations.

Miss Harris, Luna Moth on a Bleeding Heart, watercolor and white gouache over graphite on paper, 19th century (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University); William Hood Fitch illustration for The Natural Order of the Vegetable Kingdom by Daniel Oliver, 1874;  “Flying Heart” wallpaper, late 19th-early 20th century (Victoria & Albert Museum, London); Jane Sassaman “Iris & Bleeding Hearts” fabric at amazon.com.

Jack-in-the-Pulpits didn’t have to be hunted down; they were right here in the shady woodlands of North America.  They don’t seem to be really appreciated until the mid-nineteenth century, when they were alternatively referred to as “Indian Turnips”.  George Goodale’s Wildflowers of America (1886) explains their oratorical name:  “the arched roof over the spare, erect body, bears a suggestive resemblance to the old-fashioned ‘sounding-board’ placed over a pulpit to increase the resonance of the speaker’s voice; and from this remote likeness has come one of the common names of the plant–Jack-in-the-Pulpit.”  Wildflowers contains 51 colored plates by illustrator Isaac Sprague, including that of  Jack-in-the-Pulpit below.

This plant, and particularly its flower, has inspired artists as diverse as Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and Georgia O’Keeffe, who produced a whole series of Jack paintings:  she saw a bit more sensuality in the flower than Dr. Goodale did above!  Her six canvases, completed in 1930 and later donated to the National Gallery of Art, chart the evolution and essence of the flower:  below are numbers 2 and 3, depicting full bloom. More attainable, and permanent, images of Jack-in-the-pulpit can be found on the cotton fabric offered by Etsy seller fabricsandtrimmings.


Plant People

The chalkboard-painted backsplash in my kitchen( (which is really not a backsplash at all, a topic for another day), in a color called “peapod”, compelled me to find a few more spring green, pea pod accents for the room.  A simple search uncovered one of John Derian’s decoupaged mini-trays, featuring two people dressed in pea pods, an item that I’d seen before but never really took note of.  My curiosity about the source of the image led me to the blog of the New York Historical Society, which offered up more of Jerome B. Rice’s trade cards from 1885:  not only anthropomorphic peas, but a beet, onion, and potato as well!  Interesting that there is a Mr. Potato-body rather than a Mr. Potato Head, one of my favorite childhood games.

Jerome B. Rice Trade Cards from the Bella Landauer Collection at the New York Historical Society.

So now of course I forgot all about my kitchen and went off on a quest for anthropomorphic plant images.  It wasn’t a difficult quest, as I knew where to begin:  with the mystical medieval mandrake, a plant with a decidedly human root system which has long been the stuff of legend.  There are biblical references to it, as well as Shakespearean ones, and in between all the medieval herbals refer to the plant that shrieks or groans when it is pulled from the ground, a sound that is absolutely fatal to those who hear it, necessitating a dog-pulling technique if one wants to be bold enough to try.  All sorts of secret virtues, both magical and medicinal, are attributed to the plant, from the ancient era to Harry Potter.

Three views of the Mandrake:  Harley Manuscript 5294  (12th century) and Sloane Manuscript 4016 (15th century), British Library, and Hieronymous Brunschwig, Kleines Distillierbuch  (1500), Smithsonian Institution.

Now it is time for a distinguished late Renaissance plant person:  Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1576 until 1612  (and avid cultural patron), depicted as Vertumnus, the Roman God of the seasons, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  You would think that Arcimboldo was on dangerous ground with this “portrait” but apparently Rudolf admired it–I’m sure that the latter knew what he was getting as this painting is very representative of Arcimboldo’s rather whimsical (strange?) works.  This is an image that never fails to amuse (repulse?) my students; it captures their attention at the very least!

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus (Rudolf II), 1590.  Note the pea pod eyelids!

Fast forward to the Victorian era and its obsession with flowers and their essence and meaning, very well expressed by J.J. Grandvilles Les Fleurs Animées (1847) in which a virtual army of flowers begs their commander Flower Fairy for permission to transform themselves:  “We are tired of this flowerlife. We wish for permission to assume the human form, and to judge, for ourselves, whether that which they say above, of our character, is agreeable to truth.”  They receive permission to join the human world, but the 54 etched and hand-colored plates that chart this evolution (devolution?) present them as beautiful but hybridized versions of humanity.

As far as I can tell, the  Grandville illustrations were issued as postcards in the 1870s and again around 1900, along with a veritable flood of flower people postcards on the market:  sugary sweet floral children and young maidens, which make Grandville’s flower girls look quite sophisticated and artistic.  Below is Miss Periwinkle, from a card dated 1900.

There are so many flower people out there from this era that I have to admit that I’m more interested in the rarer fruit and vegetable people, like the Rice pea pods that started my quest. Rice’s trade cards apparently initiated or reflected a trend of anthropomorphic crop images, as illustrated by the “cabbage girl” below (although what Dutch cabbage had to do with the flavoring this Baltimore company was offering I do not know), and a group of radishes from a British nursery in the 1890s.

The postcard manufacturers of the new industry’s golden age could clearly not resist the potential that “cantaloupe” (with or without an e) offered for plays on words, so we have several examples from the first decade of the twentieth century:  for a romantic attachment, and against:  we are too young, dear, we cantaloupe.

This last cantaloupe card is part of a series entitled “Garden Patch”, illustrated by E. Curtis for the prolific postcard publishers Raphael Tuck & Sons of New York City in 1907 and 1908. All of the cards in the series can be viewed here , including my favorites:  featuring a [water]melon, lettuce (be married), and a turnip (your nose is a little turn [ed]ip).  The latter is a bit of a stretch, but at least it gives us a full basket of vegetables.


Bicycle Girls

I seem to be returning to the topic of women bicyclists again and again, but I can’t help myself:  I’m so struck by the images I keep coming across.  The last photograph in the collection/exhibition I shared in my last post is an equally striking one:  ladies (and some men) on a cycling tour of the North Shore rest long enough on Salem Common to have their picture taken on October 15, 1885.  This is just before the introduction of the modern “safety bicycle”, so they have been touring, rather precariously I would think, on their penny farthings.  And I’ve cropped the photograph of Essex Street activities from this same post, just so we can see the shirtwaisted lady in the foreground a bit better:  she looks like a model for the bicycle art of her era, examples of which are below.

bicycle-girl-essex-street text

Some more photographs, spanning the era of a bicycle craze for women (and men) from the 1890s through the 1920s: a stereoview issued by the American Stereoscopic Company in 1897, an image from what looks like a rather well-to-do British family’s album in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and a bicycle girl messenger for the National Women’s Party in 1922 (Library of Congress).

These women look so happy–well at least most of them do.  Bicycle girls often appear in the illustrative art of the era as well, in single prints, advertising posters, and on magazine covers.  On both sides of the Atlantic, the most eminent graphic artists of the day appear to have been inspired by their carefree images, including Will Bradley, Cecil Aldin, and Charles Arthur Cox, who created 10 absolutely charming covers for the Chicago-based bicycling magazine Bearings in the 1890s.

Will Bradly advertisement for Victor Bicycles and Cecil Aldin illustration for Rudge Whitworth Bicycles, both 1896 and Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Charles Arthur Cox’s covers for Bearings Magazine, New York Public Library Digital Collection.


Past and Present

A very special post today, presenting some seldom-seen images of Salem streets and people from 1860 to 1930, part of an exhibition of photographs from the collection of the Phillips Library of the Essex Institute (now Peabody Essex Museum) held at Old Town Hall in 1974.  This was an interesting time in Salem’s built history; the city had just been through the worst of urban development and was now embarking on a redevelopment plan to save what was left.  The captions on the back of the enlarged postcards, which must have been souvenirs of the exhibition, refer (with great hopefulness) about the various elements of this plan, including the creation of the pedestrian mall on Essex Street, which is slated for a major redesign now, in the present.  These photographs are amazing; I’ve included a few present shots for comparison but I didn’t do that for every image because frankly, it was depressing:  I prefer to stay in the past.

Norman Street from the vantage point of Chestnut Street, 1885 and this morning.  A shocking comparison.  All of those charming houses on Norman are gone, replaced by parking lots.  Consequently the people are gone too; this is one of the most dangerous intersections in the city for pedestrians.  For orientation,  that little stubby post in the center of the modern shot is the remnant of the gaslight on which the policeman leans in the 1885 photograph.  And they say the 20th century was progressive?

Busy downtown Salem:  the Boston & Maine Railway Station, demolished in 1954, Front Street, looking toward Washington, in 1885, and Derby Square and Old Town Hall in 1890.

Delivery boys for the Salem Evening News pose for the photographer in front of the Daniel Low building, 1886, Edward’s Market on Hardy Street, circa 1900, and the Toll House on what is now Salem’s main “big box” thoroughfare, Highland Avenue, 1860.  Toll rates for sleighs and sheep!

Bathers at Collins Cove and wharves and pavilions at the Willows, 1891.

The Jonathan Corwin house in disguise as an apothecary, 1872 and today, as the “Witch House:  a rare present improvement (thanks to Historic Salem, Inc.) except for the name.

Across the street from the Jonathan Corwin house, looking down Essex Street  toward Washington, 1885 and today. At least the street hasn’t been widened beyond recognition.  Look at that bicycle girl in the foreground of the 1885 picture!

Appendix:  the Future?  A rendering of the new and improved Essex Street pedestrian mall below. No cars, more people, just like 1885.


Out and About in Concord

Yesterday was Patriot’s Day here in Massachusetts, commemorating the Battle of Lexington and Concord (even though it actually happened on the 19th; it’s a convenient long weekend for state employees such as myself).  My own Patriot’s Day tradition is to walk the Battle Road through Lexington, Lincoln and Concord, sometimes with a crowd, sometimes with just my immediate family, sometimes by myself.  This year I was all by myself, so I thought I might run the route rather than walk it, but I completely wimped out because of the heat:  it was in the high 80s, making it a very uncomfortable day for Boston marathoners (the other big event of the day).  I did walk most of the route, then I bailed and had lunch and went shopping in Concord Center.  Not very patriotic!

Concord is a stunning town, full of beautiful houses and lovely landscapesNathaniel Hawthorne definitely preferred his beloved Wayside to any of his Salem dwellings, I must admit.  Salem was a little busy for him in the middle of the nineteenth century, and he always felt the burden of his family’s witch-hunting past there.  Concord was bucolic, but not so isolated that he couldn’t find interesting people to talk to like the Alcotts (from whom he bought his house) and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I’m always impressed by the variety of historic houses in Concord.  There are lovely colonial houses, but also houses in the full spectrum of nineteenth-century styles:  vernacular farmhouses, Greek and Gothic Revivals, Victorians,  and lots of center-gabled houses that I associate more  with New York than New England.  It is a wealthy town, so it has its share of Mcmansions too.  Here are a few photographs of some of my favorites, but I could have snapped many more.

Flags and banners all around Concord for Patriot’s Day; with the heat, it seemed more like July 4th than April 16th.  The tower on the last house above mirrors Hawthorne’s “writing tower” at the Wayside, below in 1910 Detroit Publishing and 1941 HABS photographs.

I have long admired the stone Gothic Revival house below:  look at the windows, the trim, the fence!  It’s spectacular.  Behind it is Concord’s hillside cemetery, with flags for Revolutionary War veterans.

More Concord houses:  a very random sampling.

A colonial house with a stone-like facade, the Old Manse, Hawthorne’s other Concord address, where he and his bride Sophia stayed after their marriage, an amazing house across from the Old Manse–its additions go on and on, a pristine colonial which is just over the line, in Lincoln, and my newest Concord house.

There’s a lot more to do in Concord than just walk around and take pictures of houses.  There is great shopping in its center, including one of my very favorite shops called Nesting on Main and a really neat kitchen shop, among others.  There are the Wayside and Orchard House museums and the great little Concord Museum, of which I am completely jealous for Salem, which deserves a dedicated history museum just as nice.  The Concord Museum gives you a great chronological timeline with period rooms and furnishings, and also has revolving exhibitions:  currently they are featuring 70+ treasures from the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection arranged in an exhibition entitled The Object of History.

Tabletop items at Nesting on Main, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study in the Concord Museum, along with the portrait of Dorothy Quincy, circa 1720 by an anonymous artist, part of “The Object of History:  Colonial Treasures from the Massachusetts Historical Society”, on view until June 17.

And then there is Walden Pond, which was very crowded this particular hot APRIL afternoon.


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