Category Archives: Art

An Antiquarian Artist

I’ve been thinking about commemoration—past, present, and future–a lot lately, yet another consequence of the constant interplay between what I do and where I live. I’m pretty sure my understanding of English and western European history between 1400 and 1700 is grounded in historical sources, but I’m increasingly aware that my “knowledge” of American history is much more a product of projection than evidence. And as Massachusetts heads into a prolonged period of commemoration for the 400th anniversaries of Plymouth and its successor settlements (including Salem, which will have to “remember” without its hijacked historical sources), I’ve been reading up on the scholarly literature, and just finished We are What We Remember: The American Past through Commemoration, a volume of essays edited by Jeffrey Lee Meriwether and Laura Mattoon D’Amore. Two essays in particular, D’Amore’s “Patriarchal Boots: Women, Redcoats and the Construction of Revolutionary Memory”, and Anne Reilly’s “The Pilgrimization of Plymouth: Creating a Landscape of Memory in Plymouth, Massachusetts during the Pilgrim Tercentenary of 1920-21”, were quite resonant for me, and almost as soon as I was done with them we were off to see commemoration in practice rather than theory: at the annual reenactment of the Boston Massacre by the Bostonian Society at the Old State House. It was interesting to see the “Colonials” mingle with the large crowd assembled: when well-worn revolutionary phrases were shouted out, I heard several individuals wearing capes, cocked hats, and mob caps replying not yet…..that’s from 1774, or 1775.

We are Crop

Boston Massacre 8

Boston Massacre best

This is a really great event but there are too many glaring lights! Can’t we turn off Boston for a half-hour or so? I suppose not, but we should remember that this epic event was clothed in darkness. Even Revere’s iconic print, which is so important a foundation for our collective memory, casts it in light: it’s not until a century later that we see darker depictions. I wanted to see more after the reenactment, so I started looking around, and came up with several references to a painting by Walter Gilman Page (1862-1934), a prominent Boston artist whose commemorative painting of the Massacre was exhibited in 1899-1900. It received strong reviews, but I can’t find the actual painting anywhere–only illustrations and lantern slides. As you can see, it is dark. Where is it?

Boston Massacre Art Exchange 42

Boston Massacre Page

Page was a wonderful portrait artist (best known for his extremely humanist portrait of a dying Grandmother in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and an active member of the Nantucket Art Colony, but he seems to have been particularly passionate about historical paintings: he depicted several other revolutionary events (Paul Revere’s ride, of course) and also reproduced portraits of founding fathers. The 1899 article in the Art Interchange (the source of the illustration above) notes that Mr. Page’s keen interest in American history of the Revolutionary period is indicated by his membership in several historical societies—charter member of the Society of Colonial Wars for Massachusetts, charter member and vice-president of the Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the Revolution, and member of the Bunker Hill Monument Association. He is also chairman of the Tablet Committee of the Sons of the Revolution, whose business it is to mark with properly inscribed tablets the scenes of historical events connected with the War of the Revolution. He has been prominently connected with the movement for art and art decoration in the public schools, and is chairman of the Committee of Massachusetts’ Artists for the Paris Exposition of 1900. Artistry and memory: a winning combination, from time immemorial.

Antiquarian Artist Hutchinson.JPG 1900

Antiquarian Artist HancockWalter Gilman Page’s portraits of Thomas Hutchinson (1900, copy of the 1741 portrait by Edward Truman), Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and John Hancock (1906, after John Singleton Copley, Skinner Auctions).

March On

The first of March: a notable historical day from my own geographical perspective, as it marks the anniversaries of both the incorporation of the first English “city” in North America, my hometown of York, Maine (in 1642), and the commencement of the most dominant event (unfortunately) in the history of my adopted hometown of Salem, Massachusetts: the Witch Trials of 1692. March is also one of my favorite months, so I always wake up happy on its first day. I am sure that this is a minority opinion among my fellow New Englanders, for whom March is generally perceived as the muddiest monthIt certainly can be muddy here, and cold, snowy, rainy, dark, windy, and raw. But it can also be bright (like today) with a brilliant sun that seems to highlight the material world in stark detail. It is the month of all weather, and also a month of transition. That’s what I like about it:  you are heading somewhere in March (towards spring); you are not already there (like winter or summer). I like to be en route, in transition, looking forward, in the process—and March feels like that to me, all month long. If you look at magazine covers from their turn-of-the-last-century Golden Age, advertising artistry rather than celebrity, many seem to convey that movement, if only to depict the wind. At least those that don’t feature rabbits.

M27740-26 001

March Harpers 1895

March 1896 2

March Inland Printer 1896

March Black Cat

March 1897

M33739-10 001

March Scribners 1905

M33739-1 001

March covers from 1895 (2); 1896 (3);1897; 1900; 1905 & 1907; Swann Auction Galleries, Boston Public Library, and Library of Congress.


I find myself these days full of feelings of dissent and resistance but looking for more whimsical ways to express the same, as you can’t be strident all the time. It’s boring, and exhausting. So a flashing reference caught my attention, to a dinner party in Baltimore in February of 1777 attended by two of the most strident people in history: John and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts. The next day, John noted in his diary [II, 434]: Last evening I supped with my friends, Dr. Rush and Mr. Sargeant, at Mrs. Page’s, over the bridge. The two Colonel Lees, Dr. Wisherspoon, Mr. Adams, Mr. Gerry, Dr. Brownson, made the company. They have a fashion, in this town, of reversing the picture of King George III in such families as have it. One of these topsy-turvy kings was hung up in the room where we supped, and under it were written these lines, by Mr. Throop, as we are told: Behold the man, who had it in his power/ To make a kingdom tremble and adore, Intoxicate with folly. See his head Placed where the meanest of his subjects tread. Like Lucier, the giddy tyrant fell; He lifts his heal to Heaven, but points his head to Hell.

George III

King George III by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, National Trust, Uppark

Well I like this “fashion”, and can certainly think of one or two people I’d like to turn upside down at the moment. I’m sure we all can. Apologies to my British friends: I couldn’t find an image of a Baltimore dining room with a topsy-turvy portrait of King George, so I simply turned him upside down myself. But we must note that like so many of their revolutionary sensibilities, the new Americans were simply following a British example: in this case the “world turned upside down” sentiments of the English Revolution in the previous century. The leader of that revolution, Oliver Cromwell, was himself turned upside down when an Indian monarchist of the Victorian era purchased his portrait and displayed it topsy-turvy in a delayed protest of the regicide: the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery followed suit when it acquired the portrait, and Tate Britain when it exhibited it. Another topsy-turvy ruler is Philip V of Spain, whose portrait is traditionally upended in the Almodí Museum in Xàtiva, in retribution for the burning of the city at the close of the War of the Spanish Succession.

Topsy Turvy Tate cromwell_for_web_0

Robert Walker (in the style of), Inverness Museum and Art Gallery

Topsy Turvy King 2

The first Bourbon King of Spain, Philip V.

Later in the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, the upside-down, topsy-turvy motif was mostly used in a satirical or critical way, the point having been established: “it is monstrous that the feet should direct the head” (in the words of my favorite queen, Elizabeth I, to make up for turning George III upside down) or something’s not right here. There was also a two-sides-of-the-same-coin message in some topsy-turvy images, as well as a general sense of we’re being tossed about/PLAYED. That’s how I feel.

topsy turvy collage

TOpsy Turvy Economy 1979 Jean-Michel Folon Smithsonian NPGTopsy-turvy “Talons” Kaiser Wilhelm I and Emperor Napoleon III, 1878, Victoria & Albert Museum; the Topsy-turvy Economy, 1978, Jean Michel Folon, Smithsonian/National Portrait Gallery.

In Praise of Townhouses (and Small City Living)

This weekend will bring the (38th) annual Christmas in Salem house tour, centered on the “City Sidewalks” of downtown Salem, with decorated homes on Central, Crombie and Chestnut Streets open, along with a house on Hamilton Street. I love this tour: for me it highlights Salem at its best, showcasing the creative continuity of the city rather than exploiting one dark time, in stark contrast to that other big Salem event (yes, I’m referencing Haunted Happening, which I still can’t get out of my system). I’m not exactly sure what the “City Sidewalks” theme means, but for me it conjures up a streetscape of diverse buildings—large and small, residential, commercial and institutional–closely aligned together so to form a community characterized by the integration of all the activities of daily life: a city, and to be more precise, a small historic city like Salem. Maintaining the balance between all of these diverse structures is challenging: the materials, scale, and infrastructure of modern construction can be a constant threat. Consequently preservation and planning advocacy is absolutely paramount, and the proceeds from the annual Christmas in Salem tour go towards these efforts on the part of Historic Salem, Incorporated.

Townhouses Central

Townhouses Crombie

Townhouses Chestnut2Central, Crombie & Chestnut Streets, Salem

I am certain that the tour committee also wanted to emphasize the diversity of residential structures in downtown Salem, as everything from an above-the-shop flat (in a Bulfinch building no less) to a sea captain’s mansion (designed by McIntire of course) will be on view. They are all townhouses in the general sense of the word, but the more specific designation—a multi-level, semi-detached structure–will be represented on the tour as well. The two 1906 covers of The House Beautiful below illustrate my vision of winter/Christmas in an urban village of townhouses–and the one on the right features the Chestnut Street mansion of Pickering Dodge, who commenced the construction of one of the tour’s featured townhouses–just next door– for his daughter and son-in-law in 1828. Since I acquired my own townhouse, which was built just the year before on the same street, I’ve bookmarked images of townhouses—semi-detached and freestanding, exteriors and interiors—that have enhanced my appreciation of their functionality and design: first and foremost the two “party” paintings of Boston artist Henry Sargent in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. The Dinner Party (1821) and The Tea Party (1824). It might not be Christmastime, but it feels like it in these festive parlors. Another great townhouse interior painting is Robert Scott Tait’s A Chelsea Interior (1857-58) featuring the author Thomas Carlyle, along with his wife and dog in the parlor of their London townhouse:  again, likely not Christmastime, but the “shotgun” perspective is classic townhouse. The taller townhouses of the 1850s are featured in the wintry Street in Winter: Evening by an anonymous artist, who casts light on the city sidewalks from a shop window: in the next century all of those windows will be lit up, especially at Christmas time.

Townhouse collage2

Townhouse Dinner Party Sargent

Townhouse Tea Party Sargent

Townhouse Chelsea

Townhouses New England Street

Townhouse paperHenry Sargent, The Dinner Party & The Tea Party, 1820s, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Robert Scott Tait, A Chelsea Interior, collections of the National Trust; A Street in Winter: Evening, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; I am very enamored of this townhouse wallpaper from the new Hearth & Hand/Magnolia collection at Target.

Christmas in Salem “City Sidewalks” Tour, December 1,2 & 3, 2017—more information and additional events here:

Cole, Catskill and Creative Storytelling

On Saturday morning I drove straight across Massachusetts into New York State to Catskill, home to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. The artist lived and worked at Cedar Grove, a bright, airy and porch-encircled Federal house overlooking the Hudson River and Catskill mountains, from 1833 until his premature death in 1848. Given the glorious weather we’ve been having this October, it was my intent to explore Cole country via the Hudson River School Art Trail, but I was waylaid by Cedar Grove and the village of Catskill: by the time I was done with both it was twilight. Oh well, next time, but at the very least I should have taken the Skywalk across the Hudson on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to the majestic Olana, the home of Cole’s protege Frederic Edwin Church. These two men were linked in life and now their houses are linked thereafter. Cedar Grove was purchased by the Greene County Historical Society in 1988 and declared a National Historic Site in the next year: after an extensive renovation it was opened to the public on the 200th birthday of Thomas Cole in 2001.

Cole Cedar Grove


Cole 13

Cole 14

As you can see, Cedar Grove is not a large house so how or why did I spend so much time there? It’s all about the interpretation: and the fact that it is such an inviting place to be: the public is invited to come in, wander around, take pictures (with no flash, of course), and even sit down, on blue-cushioned chairs that looks exactly like the period chairs on which Cole himself sat. His cape is draped casually on a bench; reproductions of his letters are scattered on every surface. By the time that this house museum was created, Cole’s works and papers had been long dispersed and ensconced in museum and archive collections: consequently the curators had to be creative in their interpretation. They have used the familiar–or rather the intimate, the aesthetic (striking paint colors throughout and modern art works in rotating exhibitions, plus reproductions of Cole’s works), and technology, in the form of Second Story’s immersive interpretations which plunge the visitor into Cole’s worldview and creative process. It’s very effective.

Cole 11

Cole Parlor

Cole 2

Cole 12

Cole Second Story Best

Cole Second Story 2

Cole Stairwell

Cole 10

Cole 9

Cole 4

COle 7

Cole 6

Cole 5

And then there was the Old Studio, where Cole worked, and the New Studio, and one of the loveliest outhouses (a three-seater) I have ever seen: a lot to appreciate. Some grounds: not as many as once were as a large parcel was taken for construction of the Rip Van Winkle bridge in 1935.

Cole Outhouse

I misjudged the time because our weather has been so warm: it feels like summer but the days are much shorter. Actually, I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked at Cedar Grove because I dawdled in Catskill, which was a happy surprise. It is one of those perfect New York State river towns, with a lovely main street lined with nineteenth-century buildings with more flourish and color than you’ll ever find in New England. Within were antiques, art, and food, and every narrow lot fronting the street that does not have a building on it has been turned into a perfectly-maintained little park. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a cleaner town. There was an old movie theater, of course, and a courthouse, and beyond the main street was the river on one side and neighborhoods of old houses on the other in many different architectural styles: stately Greek Revivals, eclectic Victorians, lots of those New York Italianates with compressed windows on the third floor. Certainly not Cole’s Catskill, likely much better, and I never say that when comparing the present to the past.

Cole Catskill

Cole Catskill 6

Cole Catskill 7

Catskill Clean

Cole Catskill 8

Cole Catskill 4

Cole Catskill 2

Cole Catskill 3

Catskill house

COle Catskill 5

Cole Catskill first

Scary Busts

I have several odd phobias including busts: I can’t stand to look at a sculpted portrait busts. They look like severed heads to me—even if they are beautiful. And many are: particularly classical ones, also Renaissance and Baroque ones, but after that I think we should have just left that genre to past masters. My distaste for these disembodied sculptures is a perennial problem because I’m a historian, so I often find myself in rare book libraries, which always feature busts. I just sit myself down as far as I can get away from them, and then get down to business. I think my dislike of busts is very consistent, so much so that when the art historian daughter of a colleague brought two busts by Salem’s iconic master woodcarver/architect Samuel McIntire, the namesake of my neighborhood, to my attention, my reaction was not: wow! but instead oh no. Here they are: busts of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, and Voltaire, both commissioned by the Reverend William Bentley in 1798-99 and later donated to the American Antiquarian Society.

Busts collage

Maybe I could be in the presence of Voltaire (right) for a few moments, but that John Winthrop bust is simply frightening! You only have the profile above: here he is, face forward: really scary, even in a lovely watercolor of the actual bust made by Joseph Goldberg for the Index of American Art in the 1930s. We are separated by several degrees, but I’m still afraid.

Bust Winthrop Index of American Design NGA

I did not feel very good about disliking, even fearing, something made by McIntire, who is revered here in Salem of course, until I read the entry in William Bentley’s diary on the day that he received the commissioned work: MacIntire returned to me my Winthrop. I cannot say that he has expressed in the bust anything that agrees with the Governor. So he didn’t like it either! Nevertheless, he accepted it and paid McIntire his $8.00 fee. But it’s not McIntire, it’s me: even the works of the greatest sculptor of that era, Jean Antoine Houdon, are off-putting to me. Houdon’s Voltaire? Horrifying–much more so than McIntire’s. I will say that the famous Houdon bust of Washington seems less alarming to me, although this multi-perspective video creeps me out.

Voltaire collage

Even the most handsome Salemite, Nathaniel Hawthorne, as carved by the most gifted sculptor of his generation, Daniel Chester French, is scary. Granted French chose to depict Hawthorne later in life rather than in his splendid youth, but still: sad and scary. Quite conversely, a bust that was crafted to repel, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Anima Damnata (1619), I find far less threatening: one expects a Damned Soul to be scary, but not Nathaniel Hawthorne or John Winthrop.

Bust of Hawthorne NYPL

Bernini collage

Posters (and More) @ the PEM

In my recent post on the Phillips Library, I deliberately excluded any commentary on the Peabody Essex Museum, but most of the commenters did not. Any large expansive institution inserting and asserting itself in the midst of a small city like Salem is going to incur a lot of commentary, and the Peabody Essex Museum is not an exception. I wanted my post to focus on Salem’s material heritage, so I excluded its enveloping institution, but in fact my feelings towards the Peabody Essex are mixed. I understand that in order to be successful, the 1992 merger of the former Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem had to result in a completely new museum, rather than a Frankenstein-esque amalgamation of the two former institutions. That has happened: the Peabody Essex is new, and dynamic, and thriving. I do miss the dusty Essex Institute a bit, just because I like those sorts of institutions, and I think Salem needs a historical society/museum run by professionals for passion and preservation, rather than profit. But I know it is never coming back. However, its archive, the Phillips Museum, must come back. And meanwhile, the Peabody Essex is here, and expanding like a force of nature: one must embrace it. I appreciate many things about the PEM: its collections, its community programming, even its shop. It is a constant resource for me as both a curious individual and a teacher. But just as I want to see more of its historical records, I want to see more of its collections–and it seems to me that the showcase, display, and interpretation of the PEM’s permanent collections are deemed secondary to the mounting of blockbuster exhibitions time and time again: DRESSES, HATS, SHOES. The first great expansion of the relatively new PEM over a decade ago was explained in terms of the need to have more exhibition space to display the Museum’s collections, as is its current project, but in the interim we have seen lots of DRESSES, HATS and SHOES (and several months of McIntire and Gould, to be fair).

At present, the PEM has two blockbuster exhibitions on view coincidentally: the summer-long exhibition Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style and It’s Alive, a showcase of classic horror and science fiction movie posters from the collection of Kirk Hammett. When I first heard about both, I thought, oh no, posters and posters taking up precious gallery space (away from the permanent collections): ephemera. But I have visited Ocean Liners several times over the summer and I think it comes very close to the “glocal” vision first expressed at the time of the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum: local history with an enhanced global context. It is maritime history ramped up several notches, encompassing art, history, culture, and style. There are posters, of course, but wow, several of them speak volumes in terms of their impact and message. It’s Alive just seems like a collection of movie posters to me, not really an exhibition, but if I were a curator at the PEM with October hordes passing by my door, I wouldn’t have turned them down either!

PEM ExhibitionsPortholes and eyes at the PEM.

PEM Exhibitions 3

PEM Exhibitions 4

PEM Clyde

PEM Exhibition LinersPEM Exhibitions 7

PEM Exhibitions 5

PEM Murals

PEM Fashion

PEM Luggage

PEM Exhibitions 6

PEM Exhibitions 2

PEM Enlist

PEM Enlist LOCJust a few items from Ocean Liners, which also includes some amazing ship models of which I don’t seem to be able to take a good photograph. Stanley Spencer’s Shipbuilders on the Clyde: Riveters (1941) is amazing! The panel from the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic is displayed in full majesty, altar-style, in the midst of renderings from other pre-World War I ships–this was an era in which the interiors were certainly not streamlined. I never knew there was Titanic “recreation diorama” for tourists just a couple of years after the disaster! This Fred Spear Enlist poster from 1915, showing victims of the Lusitania sinking, really stopped me in my tracks–the last image is from the Library of Congress. 


PEM EX Wallpaper

PEM Exhibitions KarloffMy favorite posters from It’s Alive, on either side of some very atmospheric wallpaper.

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