Category Archives: Culture

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.

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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!


She Wears the Green

I looked back through my posts of St. Patrick’s Days past and found: green cards, green plants, greenbacks, green fairies, and green men. Lots of men, in fact, but very few women, unless they were representing (rather negatively) envy or absinthe! So on this particular St. Patrick’s Day, I’m featuring only women, in more positive (though also rather frivolous) displays. I’ve recently discovered the short-lived and absolutely amazing Gazette du bon ton, a French fashion magazine packed with artistic illustrations which was published from 1912 to 1925. Was there a war in there somewhere? You wouldn’t know it leafing through these whimsical pages. The Gazette features lots of seasonal green, and it was also a favorite color of one of my favorite graphic artists from this same period, Mela Koehler. Perhaps these early twentieth-century representations of lively, festive green are meant to counteract the color’s toxic associations of the previous century? I am opening and closing my portfolio with two more serious real females, both anonymous: a folk art portrait from the mid-nineteenth century (featuring a woman who is hopefully not wearing an arsenic-dyed dress–though I fear for the anonymous artist), and a photograph of a (Salem?) girl taken by a Salem photography studio with which I have taken some liberties: I love her jacket so much I wanted to highlight it by “greening” it up a bit for the holiday.

Green Dress Folk Art MFA 1838

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Green Dress Clover Girl Kirchner 1899

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Green Dress Koehler collage

Green Dress Philip Coles NYPL 1912

Green dress Gazette de BonTon Worth 1912

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Green Dress Gazettedubonton00A_0303 1920 Poiret

Girl in Green

Portrait by unidentified artist, 1838-40, M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Dress and Coat, Costume Institute Collection of Fashion Plates, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Raphael Kirchner and Mela Koehler cards, c. 1910, Lauder Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Coles Phillips, Woman in green dress sitting beside tulips, 1912, New York Public Library Digital Collections; Illustrations from Gazette du Bon Ton, 1913-1920, Smithsonian Libraries; undated Salem, MA photograph.


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.


Ghosts of Presidents Past

When a ghost appears, you know that something is not right: restless spirits always have a mission. Sometimes it is inspiration; sometime censure, but one always has to take notice. The relationship between the dead and the living depends on the historical context but in general, the former are often demanding something from the latter: prayers, respect, fortitude, compensation, correction. Medieval people were expected to compensate, in forms of religious ritual, for the premature, unexpected, and “bad” deaths of their dearly departed, while modern people are generally expected to learn from the spectres that haunt them, in one way or another: Dickens’ Christmas ghosts being prime examples. And then there are political ghosts, who have vast powers of assessment and judgement and can be utilized as a supreme moral compass: I don’t think it will be long before we see some of these spectral appearances! Looking through some digitized periodicals in preparation for my Presidents’ Day post last week, first very casually and then more intently, I came across quite a few presidential ghosts: Presidents Washington and Lincoln are clearly the most powerful (and summoned) apparitions, but they were not the only spirits roused from the dead because of compelling earthly concerns. In this first image from Punch (a periodical which utilizes ghosts to put forth its point of view fairly often) King George III asks George Washington what he thinks of his “fine republic” now (1863–in the midst of the Civil War), to which the President can only respond “humph!”.

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Punch, or the London Charivari, January 10, 1863.

This is an unusual presidential ghost sighting; usually we do not go to “Spirit-Land” (which appears to be populated with jellyfish as well as prominent people), spirits descend down to our realm. Much more common are these pair of cartoons commenting on the contentious election of 1884 between two scandal-ridden candidates: James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland: The Honor of our Country in Danger (again, Puck) and The Honor of our Country Maintained (George Yost Coffin, “respectfully adapted” from the Puck cartoon). The assembled ghostly presidents Washington, Lincoln and Garfield (recently assassinated so at the height of his power) are clearly the monitors of “honor”, before and after the election. The narrow winner of this contest, Grover Cleveland, clearly needs all the spiritual guidance he can get, as the ghosts of his predecessors appear regularly throughout his term(s).

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“Honor” cartoons relating to the presidential election of 1884, Library of Congress;  “The Lesson of the Past”, Puck, July 1887: Lincoln inspires Cleveland to assert “I will not fail”.

Theodore Roosevelt inspires lots of ghostly visitations too, including a whole entourage of past presidents in Puck’s July 1910 cover cartoon: “Just Luck”. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Jackson wonder how did we ever run the country without him? while observing an industrious Teddy by the light of the moon. A couple of years later, however, there is a more censorious visitation by Washington when Roosevelt rescinded his pledge not to run for a third term in 1912. This Washington looks positively Dickensian!

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Just LuckcoverPuck, July, 1910; “Anti-Third-Term Principle” cartoon by Clifford Berryman, 1912, U.S. National Archives.

War-time presidents, or those on the verge of war, need lots of encouragement (as do nations), so the ultimate war-time president, Abraham Lincoln, appears behind Woodrow Wilson on the eve of World War I, and several decades later the latter returns the favor for Franklin Roosevelt. In the interim, we have a rare sighting of Warren G. Harding, wishing his successor Calvin Coolidge “Good Bye and Good Luck” and encouraging him to “write his own book”. This strikes me as a bit of over-reach for this device: did we really need to summon the ghost of Warren G. Harding?

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Ghostly back-up in 1917 and 1935, New York Times and Library of Congress; J.N. “Ding” Darling cartoon from 1923, © 1999 J.N. “Ding” Darling Foundation and Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.


Victoria and Elizabeth

I can’t say that I think the newest PBS series Victoria is very good, but yet I still seem to be watching it: it’s cozy, just what we need for winter and these anxious times. I also can’t put my finger on what I dislike about it: the acting and consequently the characters draw one in, but the world in which the latter live seems somehow airbrushed and empty, hardly the colorful milieu of Victorian London. Victoria should not be thrust into the arcades and slums of course, but when there is a ball at Buckingham Palace more than twenty people should be in attendance. So far, it seems like a 1980s miniseries to me, with less anachronistic hair and clothes. The “downstairs” scenes and storylines seem so contrived, and so desperately anxious to remind us of Downton Abbey. I will say that the second episode piqued my interest, because it touched on something I’ve been curious about myself: the “relationship” between Victoria and the first long-reigning English queen, Elizabeth I. Victoria is wondering about her romantic future, and she gazes upon the coronation portrait of the Virgin Queen and wonders aloud to ever-present sexy Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewall–who probably is the major reason I’ve kept watching) that perhaps she should abstain from marriage as well. Later on she dresses as Elizabeth for a masquerade ball (at which, again, there are maybe 30 people in attendance). Did this ever happen? I don’t think so, but I do know that there were lots of comparisons made between Victoria and Elizabeth in the popular press, both at the beginning of the former’s reign, and later on, when they were “two great queens”.

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Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria and Queen Victoria in Elizabethan fancy dress.

The comparisons began with Victoria’s coronation procession in 1837, and continued until the end of the century, coinciding chiefly with moments when the Queen had to exercise her limited political powers, such as during the debate over the Irish Church Bill in 1869, or when there was a general concern about her presence, or lack thereof. The later 1860s was clearly a time to summon Elizabeth, the strong queen who ruled alone, in order to compel Victoria to come out of the prolonged mourning state she had been in since the death of her beloved Albert in 1861: in “A Vision” (third from the top): a “frowning” Elizabeth tells Victoria that she has “let grief prevail over duty”. Newspapers with anti-Republican leanings could use the Virgin Queen as a patriotic symbol and make their points without carping editorials. I’m not quite sure what the Hamlet allegory means, but the depiction of Prime Minister Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, descendant of Elizabeth’s Cecil ministers, and favorite of Victoria, as a modern-day Walter Raleigh would have been a rather obvious comparison, I think. Ultimately the first great queen (looking very mannish I must say) bows to the second, at the time of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

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Elizabeth and Victoria in British periodicals from 1837, 1843, 1868, 1869, and 1887, ©British Museum and ©National Portrait Gallery.

 


Keeping Christmas

Well, after all that immersion into Puritan anti-Christmas tracts I was doubting my own Christmas observances–powerful stuff! I’m pretty Protestant in my religious sentiments (though raised Episcopalian—on the fence) so there is something there that resonates with me, plus I’ve been teaching Reformation history for 20+ years! So I thought I would go back to the ultimate source (well, after the bible), Martin Luther, and see what he thought about Christmas. Next year, coming fast, is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the commencement of the Reformation, so I have a stack of timely publications by my bedside to consult, but the best source by far was an older compilation, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by the eminent Reformation historian Ronald Bainton. It is very clear from this collection of Luther’s sermons that he was no Puritan, and some of his most inspiring words were written about the Nativity. Luther does not tell us how to celebrate this event, but given his exuberance at Christmas time, combined with his natural hospitality (offered through his wife Katharina, who regularly had visitors at her table in addition to their six children and assorted hangers-on), we can imagine that he would not condemn a festive observance of the holiday. Three centuries later, the German artist and illustrator Carl Schwerdtgeburth created an image of Luther and his family with a Christmas tree in their midst, an image that went viral just at the time that the Christmas we know and love was created. There is no historical basis for this image, but it was disseminated so far and widely in its time–and even more so in ours–that the legend of Luther’s Christmas tree will never die.

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The nineteenth century interprets the sixteenth: Carl Schwerdtgeburth’s popular print of Luther and his (lit) Christmas tree, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

While all Protestants sought to reduce the power of the saints by disdaining the observance of traditional Feast Days, Christmas was an exception for Luther (and even for Calvin, though not for all Calvinists–the Puritans a notable case in point) who clearly perceived it not only as a day that rightly focused on Christ but also as a social holiday. There is a liberation and a joyousness in Lutheran theology–attained only through God’s gift of grace in return solely for faith–that can support all sorts of festivity: for if you possess faith your heart cannot do otherwise than laugh for joy in God, and grow free, confident and courageous. For how can the heart remain sorrowful and dejected when it entertains no doubt of God’s kindness to it, and of his attitude as a good friend with whom it may unreservedly and freely enjoy all things. Such joy and pleasure must follow faith; if they are not ours, certainly something is wrong with our faith (2nd Christmas sermon, 1522). This is only one small passage of a much longer sermon, but I think it’s representative–and a great antidote to all those dour Puritan tracts!

I’ve always been a bit concerned that the joy and pleasure that I experience during the Christmas season is too materialistic–not focused on gifts per se but rather on the “trimmings” of the season: lights, decorations, trees, wreaths, food, drink, stuff.  But this year I’m given myself license to “unreservedly and freely enjoy all things”. Luther’s Christmas tree might be the stuff of lore and legend, but I don’t think he would have any problem with decking the halls.

“Keeping Christmas” in Salem, 2016–my favorite trimmings:  a beautiful Italianate house (which has been going through an extensive restoration) all dressed up for the season, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths, downtown lights, and Paxton’s perfect window.

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I’m not hosting Christmas this year, so I instead of the usual HUGE tree I went for two smaller potted ones, because I hate seeing trees die. The mantles and bookcases have the usual creature compositions, including mice, deer, foxes, elephants, rabbits, and a lone giraffe.

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And hedgehogs from medieval manuscripts for my gift tags: they supposedly rolled on the ground to collect grapes for their young, making them look quite Christmassy. Merry Christmas, everyone!


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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