Category Archives: Art

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.


Christmas Covers

I really like the visual aesthetic of early twentieth-century Christmases, as represented by shelter magazines from that era: cozy, warm and stylish–not so commercial. Colorful, but not glittery. People (or their servants) are making Christmas rather than buying it. House & Garden is probably the most stylish, but it was an evolution, as you will see below. I looked through 10+ years of Christmas covers from 1912 through the 1920s and saw the transformation of the Christmas home from somewhat-realistic refuge to a more idealistic showplace, a transition that seems to coincide with the coming of the First World War and is exemplified in the illustrations of Ethel Franklin Betts. The post-war Christmas spirit is a little bit more romantic and curatorial: the house is presented to us through a series of vignettes. It’s all a bit less accessible, except through all those beautifully-draped windows that allow us to peep inside, drawn by the light.

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House & Garden Christmas covers from 1912-1922 (except the canopy bed, which is a November 1921 issue–I just loved it) accessed via the Online Books page at the University of Pennsylvania. Below is my very favorite cover, from 1925, and the inspiration for this post–a special “storybook” house in Salem, all lit up for Christmas.

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Christmas in Salem 2016

stellar Christmas in Salem tour around Salem Common this past weekend, featuring all the things that I love about Salem houses and Salem people. The combination of generous and creative homeowners, perfect clear and crisp December weather, and myriad magical details made for a very special experience. Here’s just a short list of attractions (I really could go on and on): a McIntire spiral staircase, beautiful views of the Common (as seen through very clean windows–the first thing I noticed when I got home was how dirty mine are), an artist’s atelier/bedroom, an alpine-decorated deck, kitchens extraordinaire, an architectural dollhouse, exceptional artwork and collections. To be honest, I barely noticed the Christmas decorations as I was so focused on the architecture and interior design. I was a bit pressed for time, so I skipped the three institutional stops on the tour–the PEM’s Andrew Safford House, the Bertram House, and St. Peter’s Church–and went right for the private homes, all along the Common and a few adjacent side streets. It seemed to me that the tour was curated for contrast: of scale (larger institutional or single-family homes contrasted with smaller structures and condominiums), of architectural style (everything was built in the nineteenth century but what a difference between the Federal, Greek Revival, Victorian and Colonial Revival!), of design (very modern and more traditional), of embellishment (very decorated and more minimalistic), and above all, of expression: the homeowners expressed themselves in various ways: through their own art or design, or through their collections, or both!

I was fortunate to obtain a press pass so I could take photographs of the houses, but 1) I am not a professional photographer and 2) I got completely overwhelmed by all I had to see/ “capture”, so please go on over to Creative Salem  or to Historic Salem for more polished and comprehensive portfolios: it was really all too much for me, in the best possible way!

Let’s start with a sampling of beautiful rooms, and then I’ll try to present some of the details that caught my eye–just some, because there was so much to see.

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Let there be light! This  was a very enlightened tour, in more ways than one:

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Myriad Mantles……..

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Dazzling Details…….of collections, an amazing restoration, and all sorts of embellishment, including an historic Salem gallery wall, an exterior Christmas tablescape (set up by the homeowner of a beautiful condo, who felt that she need to offer a “bit more”), and the ultimate dollhouse.

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It was impossible for me to capture the complete creativity of Salem artist Thomas Darsney’s stunning home/gallery: his canvases were luminous but the entire home was in fact a canvas, with no surface or detail unconsidered. 

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Just a few exterior shots because again, the light was so beautiful on Sunday……

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Why not tie everything up with a big red bow?

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Cabinets on Canvas

After stuffing ourselves with Thanksgiving dinner the day before, and Thanksgiving breakfast pie yesterday morning, we walked downtown to the Peabody Essex Museum to see their latest blockbuster exhibition, Shoes: Pleasure and PainIt is a fine visual feast for sure, but not exactly thought-provoking for me (and I’m not really a shoe girl–but I did get some great pictures for another post), so I wandered next door to another current exhibition, Samuel F.B. Morses Gallery at the Louvreand the Art of InventionThis traveling exhibition focuses on Morse the artist and “copyist” rather than Morse the inventor: his 1831-33 painting of an imagined exhibition of 40 artworks at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, combined with his role as the “father of American photography” based on his early experimentation with the daguerreotype process, is the inspiration for a complementary display of over 65 photographs from the PEM’s extensive collection. I must admit I didn’t quite grasp the connection between the painting and the photographs—“the spirit of curation, storytelling, and cross-cultural affinities”—but I was happy to see both, and I spent some time trying to find my own connections, which is the very best impact any exhibition can have.

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Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery at the Louvre (Terra Foundation for American Art) in the PEM show, along with his copy of Titian’s portrait of François I and a crop of the artist/inventor instructing his daughter in the center of the painting from a blog post by Shoshana Resnikoff on the PEM blog Connected.

After a bit of thought and browsing around, ultimately I think I made one of the connections the curators of this exhibition wanted me to make by comparing Morse’s “gallery painting” with the original examples of this genre from the seventeenth century. The whole idea of collecting and creating a “cabinet” of curiosities, wonders, or magnificent works of art is so very early modern, and best expressed by Francis Bacon who prescribed that every Renaissance Man should have a goodly huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine hath made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity chance and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature hath wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included. In idealized ways, these cabinets were depicted by a succession of artists, and most ardently by Flemish and Dutch Golden Age painters such as members of the multi-generational Francken dynasty and David Teniers the Younger. There are notable differences between gallery paintings of the seventeenth century and Morse’s painting (besides the fact that the earlier paintings are obviously much better): the people depicted in the former are engaged with the art on the walls and tables through collection and admiration, not replication. As (old) Europeans living in an age of confidence–they probably thought they would always be surrounded by art: the gallery of Archduke Wilhelm, in the Teniers painting below, was newly-assembled following a bout of Swedish looting during the Thirty Years’ War (and many of these same painting came from the estates of English Royalists confiscated by Oliver Cromwell!). Morse’s painting seems more about capturing and transmitting art and culture–by whatever means possible– from the Old World to the New, which seems very appropriate for the inventor of his namesake code.

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david_teniers_el_joven_-_el_archiduque_leopoldo_guillermo_en_su_galeria_de_bruselas_kunsthistorisches_museum_de_viena_1650-52-_oleo_sobre_lienzo_123_x_163_cmHieronymus Francken II, The Cabinet of an Art Collector, 1621, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels; Frans Francken II, Chamber of Art and Curiosities, 1636, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; David Teniers the Younger, The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Gallery at Brussels, c. 1650, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.


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