Tag Archives: Art

A Rare Emblematic Eagle

It is interesting to trace the adoption of the eternal eagle as a national symbol for the United States in the first fifty years of its existence, and its adaptation in Europe and Asia by entities eager to take advantage of the new American market. The eagle has been used in heraldry since time immemorial, so it took more than baldness to make it American (remember, Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey for the national symbol, in part (I think!) because eagles were so universal). There’s a very informative essay on “Eagles after the American Revolution” at the Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (a resource I use often) which commences its analysis with Edward Savage’s Liberty, reproduced on reverse-pained glass in China for the American market around 1800. The image shows the former American emblem, a native goddess representing Liberty, passing her torch to the new not-very-bald American eagle.

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Chinese reverse-painted glass depiction of Edward Savage’s 1796 print “Liberty”, c. 1800, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And after that, a veritable explosion of American eagles, appearing in all sorts of poses and forms before standardization occurs. There is a relatively rare eagle emblem from this era that seems so Salem to me: a triumphant seafaring bald eagle rides into a harbor on a shell boat, with shield and flag brazenly displayed. The harbor looks more romantic than federal, but still, the image seems to represent the commercial and maritime foundations of the American enterprise. This past weekend, I almost purchased a saucer bearing one of these “Eagle riding on/in a shell” images, but ultimately decided it was too dear. Manufactured by only one Staffordshire pottery firm, R. Hall & Son, in the 1820s and 1830s, it seems to be one of the few transferware patterns that has held its value over the past decade.

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“Eagle Riding on a Shell” transfer-printed pottery in green, blue, rose and black made by the Ralph Hall Factory, Tunstall, Staffordshire, England, 1822-40, from the Collections of the Winterthur Museum, Skinner and Northeast Auctions–interspersed with some centennial textiles made by the American Print Works in Fall River, Massachusetts in the 1870s (another era of eagle creativity), collection of the Cooper Hewitt Museum


Face-based History

I am a longtime admirer of Simon Schama, as both historian and art historian, presenter and public intellectual. For me, his study of the Dutch Golden Age, The Embarrassment of Riches: An interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age (1987) is a classic of cultural history, illustrating a masterful engagement of textual and material sources, almost Burckhardtian in its scope. I always have it close at hand. Even though Schama is not principally an English historian, I show bits and pieces of his History of Britain series in class, just because he is such a good communicator–and teacher. As any reader of this blog (or former student) knows, I’m always utilizing (I think of it as playing with, actually, as I am not trained) art in class, in large part due to Schama, even though I am far less knowledgeable and adept than he. Schama’s latest project focuses on British portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, probably my very favorite museum in the world: The Face of Britain is a multi-media history of Britain through its portraits, rather than a history of British portraits. Through an exhibition last year at the NPG, and an accompanying book and television series, Schama examines Britain’s relatively modern history (after all, the portrait is a Renaissance creation) through portraits of individuals which represent both precise historical moments and dynamic trends. A very representative, and compelling, vignette relates the creation of a famous (or infamous) portrait of Winston Churchill, commissioned for the Prime Minister’s 80th birthday by Parliament. There was quite a bit of push-and-pull between Churchill and the commissioned artist, Graham Sunderland, resulting in a portrait that is described by Schama as a “beautiful ruin” detested by the subject, the humiliation of the artist at its public unveiling in 1954, and its eventual  destruction by Lady Churchill or one of her delegates. All we have are studies and photographs of the painting that captured this particular historical moment.

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Preparatory Study for Winston Churchill’s 1954 portrait by Graham Vivian Sunderland, National Portrait Gallery.

The making of Churchill’s portrait is a study in power dynamics, and Schama explores other kinds of relationships in his exhibition/presentation/narrative: “The Face of Power” is accompanied by “Faces of the People”, “The Face of Fame”, “The Look of Love”, and “The Face of the Mirror”. The essential relationship in all of these categories, however, is between the artist and the subject, and consequently it is a bit difficult to string along an entire collective history. I didn’t see the exhibition, but I heard from friends that it was confusing because of its conceptual-rather-than-chronological structure. I do have the book and I’ve seen several episodes of the series, and (once again) Schama’s superior communication skills do seem to carry us along, especially as we move among variant genres: “portable portraits”, miniatures, statues, engravings, photographs. I didn’t learn too much from his analysis of the Tudor and Stuart portraits–I’ve heard all that virgin and martyr stuff before–though I do appreciate the inclusion of Oliver Cromwell’s “warts and all” portrait and the “mourning portraits” Kenelm Digby commissioned of his beloved Venetia. I got a little lost in the later seventeenth century, but thought he made effective arguments for the representational value of portraits from the eighteenth century up through much of the twentieth, and I LOVED his “faces of the mirror”: I always though of self-portraits as being exclusively individualistic and not particularly dependent on context, but no longer! As is often the case with Schama, his transitions were subtle and his connections convincing, so in the end I found myself agreeing with his assertion that”portraits bring you into their company”.

Historical faces from Schama’s Face of Britain: Sir Francis Drake, whom Schama calls “the first genuine heroic famous Englishman”, principally because he is a “man of action”; Two very different portraits by William Hogarth: David Garrick as Richard III and the convicted murderess Sarah Malcolm in prison; Two earnest expressions of love by Thomas Gainsborough (for his daughters) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (for Jane Morris, the wife of his William), and some amazing artists’ self-portraits, for which Schama provides plenty of context: Gerlach Flicke (cropped), an imprisoned sixteenth-century artist who painted the first English self-portrait so that his “dear friends….might have something by which to remember him after his death.”, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and William Orpen, “Ready to Start” fighing (?) in the Great War. Apparently Orpen later regretted his trivializing accouterments.

NPG 4032; Sir Francis Drake by Unknown artistSir Francis Drake by an unknown artist, c. 1580, ©National Portrait Gallery

british-faces-800_hogarth_davidgarrick_as_richardiii David Garrick as Richard III, William Hogarth, © Walker Art Gallery

british-faces-hogarth-sarah-malcolm-in-prison Sarah Malcolm by William Hogarth, Sarah Malcolm © Scottish National Gallery

british-faces-gainsborough-daughters-npgThe Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly, Thomas Gainsborough ©National Gallery

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882; Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris)Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ©Society of Antiquaries of London

british-faces-gerlach_flicke_by_gerlach_flicke_crop Gerlach Flicke, ©National Portrait Gallery

British Faces Self-portrait_c.1747-9_by_Joshua_Reynolds_(2).jpgSir Joshua Reynolds, ©National Portrait Gallery

british-faces-498px-william_orpen-ready_to_start-1917 William Orpen, Ready to Start, ©Imperial War Museum


Drawing down the Moon

One artist whose work I have admired for quite a while but never really knew how to contextualize in a topical or thematic way is Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). He seems to be one of those people who was not of his time. I guess you would call him a Victorian artist, but he reacted against his dynamic age by creating rather romanticized, even primitivized (if that is a word) landscapes and pastoral scenes, in several mediums. I find much of his work–particularly his early work– very appealing yet hard to pin down: some of his paintings look and feel as if they could date from either the early seventeenth century or the late nineteenth. The monochromatic drawings which he called “blacks” (the first two images below) look strikingly modern to me, and deliberately designed to illustrate the effects of moonlight. I was looking and thinking about the Harvest Moon over the past few nights and suddenly one of these popped into my mind. So I looked up his works at the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a few other places, and found that my memory was correct: this was a man who could really draw (down) the full moon–and its crescent counterparts as well. The then-nineteen-year-old’s biblical inscription on the last drawing below is both timeless and timely: The / moon / also to / rule by night / for his mercy / endureth / for ever. Thou crownest / the year / with thy / goodness.

The Harvest Moon: Drawing for 'A Pastoral Scene' c.1831-2 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon: Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’ c.1831. Tate Britain

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Samuel Palmer, Nocturnal Landscape with Full Moon and Deer, c. 1829-30. Victoria & Albert Museum

 

Coming from Evening Church 1830 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, Coming from Evening Church,  1830. Tate Britain

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Samuel Palmer, A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star,1830.  British Museum

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Samuel Palmer, Harvest Moon, 1833. Yale Center for British Art

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Samuel Palmer,Christmas, or Folding the Last Sheep, 1850( Etching; second state of five). Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Samuel Palmer, Harvest Celebration, c. 1824 (Leaf 20, ink drawing from a sketchbook). Victoria & Albert Museum


The Shots heard round the World

No, not that one, the (three) ones that came years before, which killed Major-General James Wolfe on this day at the decisive Seven Years’ War Battle of Quebec in 1759, a death that was disseminated around the world through the iconic 1770 painting by Benjamin West. The painting and its reproductions, in oil, print, tole, pottery and caricature, became a powerful symbol of the emerging British Empire, even though it was rather ironically the creation of an American-born artist. West broke with tradition by depicting the fallen hero in contemporary uniform rather than classical dress, thus intensifying the identification of his contemporaries, yet still portrayed an eternal, Christ-like figure. The painting was a sensation when it was first exhibited, and for quite a few years thereafter.

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Benjamin West, Death of General West, 1770National Gallery of Canada.

I’m hardly the first historian to pontificate on the importance of this painting: I’m leaning pretty heavily on the analysis of Simon Schama (albeit in “historical novella” form in Dead Certainties:  Unwarranted Speculations, 1991) and Linda Colley, more straightforwardly in her magisterial Britons. Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (1992). Colley calls the painting a “splendid fraud” in that none of the onlookers were even there, most particularly the pensive Native American, who was of course fighting on the other side in what is referred to as the “French and Indian War” over here. Still, Colley observes that “The Death of Wolfe started a vogue for paintings of members of the British officer class defying the world, or directing it, or dying in battle at the moment of victory.”  I think this “vogue” was probably due as much to the prints of the painting as the painting itself (most after William Woollett’s engraving), because they were everywhere, in constant circulation  up until at least 1820 as far as I can tell: through the American and Napoleonic wars, when Britain needed its heroes. I suppose it was only the cult of Nelson that diminished that of Wolfe, somewhat.

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Print made by William Woollett, 1776; Etching for John Young’s  ‘A Catalogue of Pictures at Grosvenor House’, 1820; Print by John Rogers , 1830, all Collection of the British Museum; Tole Tray, Northeast Auctions; Creamware Jugs, Christies Auctions; and The Death of the Great Wolf, a satire on the passing of the Treason and Sedition Bills, in 1795, James Gillray, British Museum.


Hildegarde Hawthorne Hits Salem

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s granddaughter Hildegarde (1871-1952), a prolific author of ghost stories, garden books, biographies and travel narratives as well as an ardent feminist and suffragist, returned to her ancestral city the year after its great fire (which she mistakenly dates to 1913 rather than 1914) so that she might gather material for her forthcoming book, Old Seaport Towns of New England. With “Sister” in tow, she disembarks into a bustling city which she clearly does not find as charming as Newburyport to the north or Newport to the south. The “insistent present” is bothersome in Salem, and she feels much closer to the spirit of her illustrious grandfather when she looks at the “tenements” of Union Street than the new House of the Seven Gables, “which used to belong to some relatives of ours”. She does, of course, love Chestnut Street.

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Chestnut Street and the Beverly Bridge, Salem Side, by John Albert Seaford, from Old Seaport Towns of New England (1916)

And there’s lots more to see obviously, BUT (it seems like there is a but hanging over every sentence) new Salem or invented Salem seems to be intruding on old Salem too much:  You can easily spend a couple of days looking up the houses where famous men were born in this solid old city (for a feminist, she doesn’t seem to care about the house of famous Salem women). They seem to have had had an extraordinary hankering for the place. Not but what Salem must have been a particularly beautiful place in the days when these notable births were most common. It is now, in many spots, though it has lost much of its looks with advancing age.  For, oddly enough,as it becomes older it becomes younger, and the youth is not an improvement. After two days in town, Hildegarde left Salem at sunset, over the Beverly Bridge, vaguely disturbed by the conflicting impressions of her noisy, commercial present, that will not let you be, and the obstinate power of her past, equally insistent. It seems to me as if these last lines could have been written in 2016 as easily as 1916.

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Two of Hildegarde’s other titles; Hildegarde, second from left, at the New York Womens’ Suffrage Parade, 1913, ©Paul Thompson, Getty Images.


Craftsman Confidence

As part of my recent immersion in early nineteenth-century design trends, I browsed through digital volumes of The Craftsman over its 1901-1916 run, every issue readily accessible at the University of Wisconsin’s wonderful Digital Library of the Decorative Arts and Material Culture. This was not a difficult task, as Stickley’s magazine is so interesting: such a heady mix of practicality, philosophy, and politics! How can you not enjoy a magazine with article titles like “Was Jesus a Carpenter?”, “The Century of Ugliness” (which was of course the 19th century from their point of view–when craftsmanship was compromised by industrialization), and “A Plea for True Democracy in the Domestic Architecture of America”?  In the end though, I came away feeling sad, as the editors and authors were so very hopeful for their new century, and their hopes were not fulfilled–the most anachronistic aspect of the magazine is its strident optimism. Everything can be reformed and everything is “civic”: not just education and urban planning, but also architecture and horticulture, even clothing. Birds are just as essential as bookcases, as the magazine espouses an integrated doctrine of conservation, craftsmanship, and community. The persistent quest for everything that is simple and “true” does get a bit pedantic as time goes on, even though I would like to live in their well-crafted and orderly world much more than in our disposable and disorderly one! But as soon as I saw Kaiser Wilhelm II depicted in a rather romantic fashion by the “new” German artist Arthur Kampf my browsing grew increasingly melancholy: I knew that the twentieth century would obliterate all opportunities for “Craftsman World”, and transform all those hand-crafted bungalows into cookie-cutter ranches.

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Images from The Craftsman, 1901-1916, including the first cover and Stickley’s device, “Als Ik Kan” underneath a joiner’s compass, borrowed from Jan Van Eyck (Flemish for “All that I can do”), a Craftsman door and two-family house, “affording an opportunity for economy of construction without loss of architectural beauty”, living room, dresses “designed for comfort with a purpose in their ornamentation”, hexagonal urban planning, bookcases, urban villages, 1914 cover, and the foreboding Kaiser.


Conflagration Commemoration

Across the Atlantic, the year-long commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Great London Fire of 1666 is peaking this weekend, today actually, with a contained conflagration: a 400-foot wooden replica of the seventeenth-century city will go up in flames on the Thames at 8:30 pm tonight. This is only one spectacular event amidst many creative ventures  organized by the arts production company Artichoke, which seeks to”transform people’s lives and change the world through extraordinary art” along with other institutional purveyors. The Artichoke events include illuminations, projections, lectures, interactive performances, pub crawls, a “fire food market” and “fire garden”, all offered under the umbrella of “London’s Burning”, while London’s more traditional institutions are offering a variety of thematic exhibitions and displays. It’s a very complete commemoration, befitting a transformative event in London’s–and Britain’s–history.

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Fire of London model Flames projected onto the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the symbol of post-Fire London. Photograph: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images;  the David Best-designed wooden model to be set on fire tonight @artichoketrust.

Fire has played such a huge role in London’s history–not only in the seventeenth century, but also in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when another Great Fire of 1834 leveled much of Westminster and the Blitz destroyed much of the central City. The commemoration of tragedy in general, and fires in particular, must necessarily focus on loss and devastation but also on rebuilding–and how the process of rebuilding reflects on the particular society that is engaged in it. I think an incandescent commemoration of 1666 is appropriate because it will illuminate the loss at least as much as the rebuilding–which has always been the focus in remembrance of this particular Great Fire: Wren’s London. We don’t even know how many people died over those three burning days: we have precise knowledge of property damage but a woeful lack of comprehension about the human toll. When the Fire burnt itself out late in the day on September 5 it had consumed 13,200 houses, 87 churches, and St. Paul’s Cathedral and left up to 200,000 people homeless, but how many people?  Who knows: anywhere from hundreds to thousands (doubtless including anonymous souls who had survived the preceding plague year), yet we still seem to repeat the ridiculous number of only six verified deaths. Then as now, it seems that we can only begin to process the enormity of destruction in a visual and structural way.

Griffier I, Jan, c.1645-1718; The Great Fire of London, 1666

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The paintings of Dutch artist Jan Griffier I (c. 1645-1718), who came to London just after the Great Fire, seem to be particularly influential depictions: his view of the burning of Ludgate (Museum of London Collection) was reproduced in scores of prints over the next century and a half (Trustees of the British Museum).


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