Category Archives: Art

In-Vested

Yesterday I was treated to a very special tour of the China Trade gallery and basement of the Peabody Essex Museum by a distinguished and generous curator, and while I was able to snap lots of photographs (exhibition items, packing and conservation materials, amazing things in storage, including a whole subterranean gallery of ship models, some in their original Peabody Museum cases) I came away thinking about just one item, a portrait of Captain William Story by the Chinese artist known in the west as “Spoilum” (Guan Zuolin). The Story portrait stuck with me for two reasons. I had just been reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Custom-House” prelude to The Scarlet Letter, which disses Story as one of the venerable figures, sitting in old–fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, ill voices between a speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms–houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labour, or anything else but their own independent exertions. These old gentlemen—seated, like Matthew at the receipt of custom, but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands—were Custom–House officers. By all accounts this is an unfair characterization of Story, who was ending his storied maritime career with a post at the Custom House as Weigher and Gauger, but you can read about his long career here. The other reason I was so taken by Story’s portrait is far less weighty: once again I wondered, why is his hand in his vest? This is a portrait by a Chinese artist who probably knew nothing of that western convention—or perhaps Spoilum was such a popular artist precisely because he did.

Story PEM

Story Spoilum

Importing Splendor gallery wall at the Peabody Essex Museum with portrait of Spoilum’s Portrait of William Story, c. 1804; close-up from MIT’s “Envisioning Cultures” website.

Everyone seems to associate the hand-in-vest/waistcoat pose with Napoleon but many such portraits predate those of the little emperor. Why put the hand in this position in an expression of apparent disablement? Or is it cloaked power? Then there are the rather spurious theories of Masonic hidden hands or attempts by the artists to lessen the challenge of rendering hands by painting just one. Apparently it was simply a dictate of genteel behavior, handed down from the ages of Greece and Rome (which explains the pose’s eighteenth-century origins, in that most neo-classical of centuries). If it was a question of gentility, you can see how the pose would appeal to merchants and sea captains, self-made men who perhaps wanted to appeal a bit more polished for posterity.

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Young Mariner

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Spoilum Cranstoun

Portrait of a Western Merchant

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Pre-Napoleon in-vested sea captains (+ General Washington): Joseph Blackburn, Portrait of Captain John Pigott, c. 1752, LACMA; John Durand, Portrait of Young Mariner, ca. 1768–1772, collection of John and Judith Herdeg; Charles Willson Peale, General George Washington, 1776, Brooklyn Museum of Art; Chinese-export Reverse Painted Mirror of Captain John Cranstoun, c. 1785, Bonhams; Spoilum, Portrait of Western Merchant, c. 1785, “Envisioning Cultures at MIT; Portrait of an American Ship Captain (Purported to be Captain John Thompson of Philadelphia who engaged in the China trade), c. 1785, Sotheby’s + in the basement of the Peabody Essex: what a treat!


Black Ships

My title is literal, or descriptive. While the phrase “Black Ships” has a larger historical and cultural meaning, as a term used by the Japanese to refer to western vessels approaching their shores in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries (with a long stretch of relative isolation in between), in my typical materialistic fashion I’m referring to my latest collection obsession: reverse glass painted silhouette ships. It’s a potential collection, because I haven’t actually collected anything yet, but a particular Salem example has captured my fancy, so who knows what else I might find?

Black SHip Salem 1st dibs

Perseverance Crop19th Century Reverse-Painted Ship Silhouette on Glass Maple Frame, circa 1840, Trinity Antiques & Interiors, 1stdibs.

Love this. I’ve seen lots of reverse glass paintings before, mostly on clocks and mirrors, but this silhouette version is more striking and timeless—I’m going to need to see more. There were two Federal-era Salem ships named Perseverance: one was shipwrecked off Tarpaulin Cove, Naushon Island in Vineyard Sound in 1805; the other had a later (and longer) life sailing to Sumatra. The former ship was memorialized by Italian-born Salem painter Michele Felice Corné in his 1805 painting Perseverance Wrecked near Tarpaulin Cove, and the dashing Salem sea captain Richard Wheatland has a connection to both vessels: he was master of the first Perseverance, and part-owner of the second. I’m not sure which ship is portrayed in “my” painting: obviously the lighthouse is a prominent feature, leading one to assume that this is the first Perseverance, but the lighthouse on Naushon Island was not built until 1817 (but this is an 1840 perspective, perhaps creative license is being taken?)

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Perseverance Richard Wheatland Salem Michele Felice Corné’s Perseverance Wrecked (1805), and a portrait of Captain Richard Wheatland by the Chinese artist Spoilum (Guan Zuolin), from MIT’s “Visualizing Cultures” site.

I found some super-tacky ship silhouettes from the twentieth century, and some elegant Victorian examples: there seems to be no in-between. I’ll spare you the former, and here are some of my favorites of the latter category, nearly all of them from auction archives, and well-beyond my price range. I think my “collection” might end up being more virtual than tangible!

Black SHip Victory

Black Ship Royal Albert

Black Ships collageH.M.S. Victory, H.M.S. Royal Albert, H.M.S. Foudroyant, another Victory, and View from the Coast of H.M. Ships MarlboroEuryalus.


From Space to Place

The City of Salem has purchased a large vacant lot at 289 Derby Street which has long served as an industrial and commercial site given its location on the South River that opens up into Salem Harbor. A few weeks ago a public “placemaking” process commenced, under the auspices of the City, CBA Landscape Architects, Salem Public Space Project and Creative Salem : engaging events are happening every Wednesday night until June 21st and people can also write their ideas on an on-site chalkboard whenever they happen to be passing by. After all the unimaginative private projects that have come our way over the last few years this is a welcome opportunity for the public to imagine and impact a key Salem development, and transform an empty space into an inviting place.

Placemaking Lot

Placemaking 1897 The lot today and on the 1897 Salem Atlas, marked by the old lightbulb. It was R.C. Manning & Company’s coal and lumber yard then, and it served in a similar capacity well before and after. Below: the process of placemaking.

Placemaking board

Placemaking Boards

Placemaking Events

I’m feeling left out as I have my summer research seminar class every Wednesday night so I’m missing all these events! I guess I’ll just have to put my idea out here. It’s not really original, it’s a bit silly, and it probably doesn’t suit the lot, but here it is: a Monopoly Park. To pay tribute to one of Salem’s most illustrious businesses and products, I’d like to see this lot transformed into some semblance of the iconic board game. This is how I envision it: real estate lots around the perimeter, perhaps just painted concrete (maybe some benches that somehow reference the look of Monopoly houses and hotels), inside a courtyard of grass, with tables that look like Community Chest and Chance cards and topiaries that look like Monopoly tokens! Can’t you picture it? I really can (with a little help from some of the pins below), and I think it would be pretty low maintenance with the exception of the topiaries. Topiaries can be troublesome.

Monopoly in the Park in San Jose, California: Why San Jose and not Salem? Ours could be better: more creative, more green, more place-appropriate, more of a Monopoly Park than Monopoly in the Park.

Monopoly in the ParkMonopoly in the Park in San Jose (You can see more images at Anna Fox’s Flickr album); there have also been temporary life-sized Monopoly boards built in other places, including Atlantic City, of course.

Monopoly in the Streets of Chicago: the creation of an anonymous artist referred to as Bored. Those plywood cards could be enlarged for our tables! Dice for stools.

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bored-3 Street Monopoly by Bored, via Colossal.

I’m not sure how to integrate the Monopoly houses and hotels into the design (benches? public bathrooms? snack bar?) but we could have Monopoly murals on the side facade of the adjoining brick building, just like there are now (this would require Hasbro’s permission–and perhaps we could get some underwriting too?). I’m seeing green, so it would be great if the tokens could be topiaries but I guess they could be sculptures—which would enhance the park’s attraction all year long.

Monopoly gameMonopoly Mural

Monopoly Big Cat

Monopoly Token CollageCanadian artist An Te Liu’s Monopoly House in suburban Toronto; Tom Taylor’s mural for Hasbro; a 6-foot tall promotional replica of the new cat token, carted around London in 2013; the displaced iron token (my favorite!!!) and the hat from “Your Move“, (Daniel Martinez, Renee Petropoulis & Roger White), a public art project commissioned by the City of Philadelphia.

So that’s my pitch: a Monopoly Park/ Parker Brothers Place. The other idea that keeps popping into my head is move Samantha to Derby Street, a far more appropriate place than Town House Square. But every time I criticize that stupid statue I get into trouble, so I’m just going to leave that there.


Wrong Impression

I am absolutely fascinated by this c. 1780s mezzotint depicting the capture of Major John André which I recently found in the digital collections of the Winterthur Museum for several reasons: it is by a Salem artist, Samuel Blyth (1744-95), more primarily known for his heraldic paintings, musical instruments, and the fact that he was the older brother of the more prominent pastellist Benjamin Blyth(e), its naïve presentation, in which everyone looks strangely happy rather than surprised, and its lyrical title: Ye foil’d, ye baffled Brittons/This Behold nor longer urge your Pardons, Threats, or Gold; Seen in each virtuous Patriotic Zeal/ To save their country and promote its weal/ Disdaining bribes to wound a righteous Cause/ While ANDRE falls a victim to the laws.

Blythe print Winterthur

I am also interested in this image because it gets the essential detail of André’s capture—the fact that he was dressed in civilian clothes rather than a uniform, which led to his arrest, prosecution, and execution as a spy—wrong. The Major is clearly in uniform here, and the New York militiamen who captured him look a bit too “regular” as well. Contrast this with one of many depictions of the capture issued in the mid-nineteenth century, when everyone has their story–and image–straight (well nearly everyone: a Currier and Ives print somehow places George Washington in the scene). By that time, after Thomas Sully’s influential 1812 painting, André is uniformly uniform-less and boot-less, with the papers relating to the capture of West Point supplied by Benedict Arnold revealed.

Andre

Andre by Sully WAMCapture of Major John Andre by John Paulding, David Williams and Issac Vanwart, New York: Sowle and Shaw, 1845, Library of Congress; The Capture of Major André, Thomas Sully, 1812, Worcester Art Museum

Could Blyth’s mezzotint be the first image of André’s capture? I can’t find an earlier one, and that would be yet another Salem “first” (and first impressions are often wrong). This would explain his mistaken details–although he certainly has the bribery attempt down. What is the source of his vision, and his copy: the Foil’d and Baffled Brittons? Was he carving out a future for himself in the emerging industry of patriotic publishing? Apparently earlier mezzotints of George and Martha Washington once attributed universally to Boston printmaker Joseph Hiller might have been the work of Blyth: these images cast a man who has been primarily associated with rather elitist creations in a new, populist light—a Revolutionary transition doubtless made by many American artists.

Holyoke Coat of Arms

Blythe collage Holyoke Family Coat of Arms, late eighteenth century, attributed to Samuel Blyth, Northeast AuctionsLady Washington and His Excellency George Washington Esq., mezzotints after Charles Willson Peale, c. 1776-77, possibly Joseph Hiller or Samuel Blyth, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


March of…….

I’m interested in the concepts and visualizations of march or marching on this first day of March, 2017 and trying to divorce the term from its predominantly military and political references. I’m tired of the march on and more interested in the march ofwho or what else is marching besides soldiers and activists? As I browsed through my favorite databases of museum and library collections and auction archives a few trends emerged, though it took some time to cull out all the military marches and marches on Washington, past and present. The third most popular use of the concept of marching has to do with time and/or progress: up until the middle of the twentieth century the “march of time” inevitably means progress–after that it’s not all that certain. Beyond time, the word is used to highlight certain social campaigns (the March of Dimes) or trends, often on sheet music or editorial cartoons. Then there are various whimsical marches that are more representative of artistic expression than any larger commentary. Animals are often marching, and after 2005, of course, it’s all about the March of the Penguins.

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march-of-time-collage

One of several satirical prints showcasing future long-distance travel entitled The March of Intellect (“Lord how this world improves as we grow older”) published by T. McLean, London, 1828-30, and Dawn of the Century March & Two-Step, 1900, also featuring the “march” of technology, Smithsonian Institution Collections. By the middle of the twentieth century, the newsreel series The March of Time was much more realistic than idealistic. Also from the Smithsonian: I LOVE the 1928 print by artist and illustrator Robert Lawson (1892-1957) entitled The March of Progress below:  the gleaming modern buildings of the rising New York City skyline loom above sad fairy-tale characters exiting the scene (Central Park), led by a lone wolf: there’s no room for whimsy in 1920s New York!

marchofprogress-lawsonRobert Lawson, The March of Progress, 1928.

Forcing someone to march in line is an easy and effective way to constrain/tame/demean and mimic them–a visual device that is very apparent in Henri Gustave Jossot’s famous anti-clerical caricature from 1902:  the “Geese”. This image pairs very nicely with that of another French artist, René Magritte’s Le Marché des Snobs sheet-music cover from 1924, coming up in an auction of vintage posters at Swann Auction Gallery later this month. Another Swann lot, Rodolph Bresdin’s  Le Marché aux Parasols, illustrates that “marching” doesn’t necessarily have to be strident, purposeful, good or bad, just (somewhat) active.

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Henri Gustave Jossot, The Geese, from L’Assiette au Beurre, 17 May 1902; René Magritte, Marche des Snobs. Sheet music, 1924; Rodolphe Bresdin Le Marché  aux Parasols, 1866, Swann Auction Galleries.


A Heightened Sense of Detail

It’s rather jarring to read the lines written by Salem’s chatty diarist, the Reverend William Bentley, about his encounter with the Salem artist George Ropes Jr. in 1804: “Paid G. Ropes’ Bill for head of Curwin, Salem, Minister, the painting by him. He is a dumb boy with Corné. Had receipt. $4.00”.  Bentley had commissioned a portrait copy of the Reverend Samuel Curwen from Ropes, who was then an apprentice of the Italian emigré artist Michel Felice Cornè. George Ropes, Jr. (1788-1819), the son of a Salem sea captain (how many times have I written than?) was indeed born deaf and was by all accounts speechless for all of his relatively short life, but Bentley’s notes upon his early death are more telling: Died of consumption, deaf and dumb, a painter, active, acute, circumspect, and esteemed.”  Ropes had to become the primary breadwinner for his family upon his father’s death at sea in 1807 and so he became a practical  painter of signs and such as well as an artist. While all art is evidence for the historian, I’ve always felt that Ropes’ works are more documentary in their detail, particularly two paintings in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Launching of the Ship Fame (1802) and Crowninshield’s Wharf (1806). I’ve shown it here several times, but I can’t post on Ropes without including his masterpiece, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), which is also in the collection of the PEM. Those poplars! I can never see this painting too many times.

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George Ropes, Jr.: The Launching of the Ship Fame, Crowninshield’s Wharf, and Salem Common on Training Day, all courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

My favorite story about Ropes comes from the Pickering Genealogythe source of endless interesting anecdotes about Salem people. In another testimony to his skill and eye for detail, it is noted that on one occasion when the parlor in the house of Jarathmeel Peirce was being papered, it was found that there was not enough, and it being imported paper, more could not be obtained. He undertook to finish it by painting, which he did so accurately that it was impossible to tell where his work began or where it ended. A decorating crisis averted!  Ropes is probably best known for his marine paintings, including a lovely “portrait” of George Crowninshield’s famous luxury yacht Cleopatra’s Barge, and several paintings of the USS Constitution in battle during the War of 1812.The US Constitution Museum has a series of four paintings painted by Ropes (after Corné) depicting the famous engagement with the HMS Guerriere in August of 1812 which earned the victorious American ship the nickname of “Old Ironsides”, and at the end of next month, a Ropes painting of the victory of the Constitution over the HMS Java in December of 1812 will be auctioned off at Dan Morphy Auctions in Pennsylvania. Artistic reportage, and some pretty bold titles, from this silent “signmaker”.

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George Ropes, Jr., the last of the Constitution and Guerriere paintings, USS Constitution Museum Collection; Constitution vs. Java, Morphy Auctions.


Why are there no WPA Murals in Salem?

The various initiatives of the Works Progress Administration made their mark on Salem during the Depression: substantive work on Greenlawn Cemetery and the Salem Armory was completed, Olde Salem Greens was carved out of Highland Park, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created along Derby Street. Many historic structures in Salem were measured and photographed under the aegis of the Historic American Building Survey, for which I am grateful nearly every day. I’m sure there were more infrastructural improvements implemented with federal funds in Salem in the 1930s, but I don’t have the time or the inclination to lose myself in the massive archives of the New Deal!  There is a conspicuous absence of federally-funded art in Salem however: no murals in the Post Office or City Hall illustrating the city’s dynamic and dramatic history. This absence is conspicuous because Massachusetts in general, and the North Shore in particular, is home to some notable New Deal murals, commissioned by various Federal cultural agencies to embellish public spaces with uplifting, patriotic, accessible American scenes while simultaneously providing unemployement for artists. There are amazing murals in Boston, Worcester and Springfield, and in Natick, Lexington, and Arlington, and here in Essex County, in Gloucester City Hall, Abbot Hall in Marblehead, the Topsfield Public Library, and the Ipswich Post Office. Moreover, there were several Salem artists who painted murals for the WPA elsewhere–but not in the city of their birth or residence. Why?

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Umberto Romano, “Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield”, Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, formerly the US Post Office, Springfield, Massachusetts, photograph by David Stansbury, and Hollis Holbrook,” John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians”, US Post Office, Natick, photograph by Thomas Cortue, both part of the joint Smithsonian National Postal Museum and National Museum of the American Indian exhibition, “Indians at the Post Office: New Deal-Era Murals”; Aiden Lassell Ripley, “Paul Revere’s Ride”, US Post Office, Lexington; and Charles Allen Winter’s “Protection of the Fisheries”,  and “Education” , two of 6 murals in Gloucester City Hall that have been recently restored.

I’ve been wondering about this for a while, but this weekend I was engaging in my semi-regular weekend fantasy-shopping-on-1stdibs session and I came across a study painting by Dunbar Beck for a mural entitled The Return of Timothy Pickering which eventually embellished the interior of the Danvers Post Office, where it remains to this day. And I thought to myself: why the hell was the mural commissioned for DANVERSWhy didn’t it come to Salem? Timothy Pickering is one of the most famous native sons of Salem, his house is here, and his mural should be here too. Danvers is the former Salem Village, and was long part of Salem, but still this mural clearly portrays Salem Town and harbor.

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Dunbar Beck, Study Painting for the Danvers Post Office mural “The Return of Timothy Pickering”, currently available from Renaissance Man Antiques on 1stdibs.

So, why no murals of Salem’s earliest settlements, famous vessels, lively port, sea captains’ mansions, or Witch Trials on the walls of public building downtown?  Well there would have had to be some visual reference to 1692, and that was hardly an uplifting American episode that could be used to raise spirits during the Depression. That’s the curse of 1692, which manifests itself time and time again. Or maybe there was no place for one in Salem’s relatively new Post Office or venerable City Hall. But I for one would like to see a simplistic scene of North America’s first elephant stepping on Salem soil somewhere around town.


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