Tag Archives: Art

When the Frame is in the Picture

Starting 2023 off with some color and creativity; I need some brightness. There is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I which I have long admired: it’s from relatively early in her reign, and the artist is anonymous. It’s a serious portrait of a young woman of faith: holding a book (for prayer, presumably) and with a poetic inscription about transubstantiation below: it’s certainly not an official portrait as she would never be so open about her personal religious beliefs in her quest to be Queen of the English people rather than just Queen of the English Protestants. The other notable aspect of the portrait is the frame: there really isn’t one, it’s a faux gilt “frame” which is painted on the same board as the portrait. Later on, much later on, this will become a more common trompel’œil technique, but I think it was pretty novel in 1565!

@Christie’s Images Ltd. The caption reads: Twas God the Word that spake it: And what that Word did make it, That I believe and take it.

When I was looking for a nice image to post for Elizabeth’s birthday this past fall, I came across one of the “Runneth Over” adaptations by DVM/Maloos: and that of another Renaissance Woman! More Rainbow portrait and Mona Lisa, you can’t beat that.

Then I was off and running, discovering lots of cool images. I like to use a relatively narrow focus to discover things, but as I moved forward in time I realized that “frame as part of the picture” is not a discreet search term for modern art. There are indeed quite a few such playful paintings, so I’m just including a few of my discoveries below: I really like the work of Jorge Alberto, whose encased queen card is just one of his faux frame paintings, and I also like this shadowy lemon. As their titles suggest, Sarah Gilman’s Trompe l’oeil after Gijsbrechts paintings reproduce the framed “memo-board” paintings of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish artists rather deliberately.

As the Runneth Over works demonstrate, not all “integrated frame” paintings need to be illusory: my last featured artist is Carolyn Misterek, whose “Everyday Occurences” paintings feature an assemblage of botanicals, flat color, and frames. They seem unassuming yet striking at first glance, but the frame adds something besides dimension: formality, finish, fancifulness?

Three “Everyday Occurences” paintings by Carolyn Misterek.


Remembering the Revolution: Two Caleb Footes

For this Veterans Day 2022 the stories of two Salem men named Caleb Foote: grandfather (1750-1787) and grandson (1803-1894). But there’s a shadow of another man in this post too, a young lieutenant named Benjamin West, the sole Salem casualty of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The younger Caleb Foote is the link between the other two men: a prominent newspaper editor and publisher, he also dedicated himself to the remembrance of both his grandfather, a privateer and prisoner of war who left behind quite a revolutionary record, as well as his great uncle, who did not. Their conjoined histories are a great reminder of both the sacrifices made by the first American veterans and the commitments that their descendants made to their memories.

Fortunately members of the Foote family were meticulous writers and archivists of their own family papers. Caleb Foote the Patriot was a wonderful letter writer and journal keeper, both on land and on sea. So we know his Revolutionary story well, and his grandson amplified it by compiling and publishing his records in the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute in 1889. Several of the original texts are preserved among the papers of Divinity Professor Henry Wilder Foote (grandson of Caleb Foote III) at Harvard. According to a letter to his wife Mary, Foote was with General Washington at Cambridge in the fall of 1775, but returned home to Salem after the new year. He then took to the sea as yet another of Salem’s many daring privateers: his vessel, the Massachusetts brigantine Gates, was captured by the British off Canada in July of 1778, after which he was taken to England and imprisoned in Forton Prison near Portsmouth for the next two years. In Spring of 1779, he wrote to Mary back in Salem: I am sorry to inform you that you need not look for me till December or March next altho it may be my good fortune to be at home sooner. Please to remember me to all friends….Capt. Smith, Mr. Hines, Mr. Campton, Mr. Foster, Jacob Tucker, John Shaw, and Jonathan Tarent are in the prison with myself (as Salem served as a major privateer port, so many of its sailors ended up in Forton or Mill Prisons as prisoners of war). Foote grew increasingly exasperated with his imprisonment over his next letters, and with Mary as well, who did not seem to be writing him return letters (oddly he refers to her as “most affectionate friend” in his early letters and “dear beloved wife” in the later ones!) In the summer of 1780 he sounds bereft: my welfare…is very poor at present for here we lie in prison, in a languishing condition and upon very short allowance, surrounded by tyrants, and with no expectation of being redeemed at present, for we seem to be cast out, and forsaken by our country, and no one to grant us any relief in our distress; and many of our noble countrymen are sick and languishing for the want of things to support nature in this low estate of health; and many of they have gave to the shades of darkness. Some others have entered on board His Majesty’s ships to get clothes to cover their nakedness, which is to the shame of America.” This was the low point, after which Foote and several of his fellow prisoners managed to escape and find their way to Amsterdam, where they signed on as crew of the recently-commissioned Privateer South Carolina, which eventually brought them home. Foote kept the log along the way, and was discharged from service in January of 1782, near the end of the Revolution. Five years later he was dead at the age of 37, having never really recovered from his long and difficult service, and leaving Mary and their children in rather desperate straits according to the successive applications for aid sent to various Federal offices on her behalf by august Salem dignitories like Timothy Pickering and Nathaniel Silsbee.

Mary Foote survived her husband by nearly 40 years, during which time she saw her eldest son, namesake Caleb, die at sea, several years after his wife, leaving their sole child, five-year-old Caleb III, an orphan in 1810. His mother belonged to the large West family in Salem, and he was raised by them, chiefly his grandmother, who was the widow of Samuel West, bother of the Benjamin West who was killed at Bunker Hill. The Wests must have discouraged a seaman’s career for young Caleb, because he began an apprenticeship at the Salem Gazette and essentially never left: rising to editor, co-owner, and publisher. He was also a civil servant and the model of nineteenth-century civic engagement, serving as postmaster, school committee member, state representative, and Whig party chairman, as well as on every single infrastructure committee I could find and on the boards of nearly every Salem insitution. He was a temperate Mason. Caleb Foote spoke about his grandfather and namesake at public events regularly, but it wasn’t until towards the end of his life that he began taking up the cause of his great uncle Benjamin, who was for some reason left off the list of names on the Bunker Hill Memorial. Joseph Felt asserted that Benjamin West died “in the trenches” in his 1827 Annals of Salem, but he was unheralded in Boston until the venerable Foote took up his cause in the 1880s, perhaps inspired by his compilation work on his grandfather’s papers. And so we have some charming remembrances, first from Foote himself, who testified that this great-uncle of mine had some taste and talent for portrait painting, and a life-sized bust portrait of him in his lieutenant’s uniform, painted by himself hung in the house [of his grandmother West] , and its history was often mentioned to visitors. A copy of it is now in the possession of the Essex Institute, in Salem, and another in the family…..Another reminiscence was entered into the record that is even more poignant: a column from the late Henry Derby of Salem, whose grandmother was nine years old in 1775 and a neighbor of the Wests. She told her grandson that she remembered that morning of June 17 very clearly, when the young lieutenant came through her mother’s door exhibiting his insignia of office (a feather in his hat) to bid her goodbye. To the question, “Are you going, Benjamin?” “Yes—right away,” was his quick reply and off he went, never to return. Mrs. Derby remembered his artistic skills too. He had a shop downtown with a beautiful and much-admired sign of himself in the process of painting a carriage: a perfect advertisement for his sign-painting business. After his death and the disposal of his effects, this very sign became the lining of an outside cellar door of his family house, his last earthly residence, and there gratified the eyes of children and passers-by whenever these doors were thrown open, till time and exposure erased the picture of this young patriot and martyr to liberty.”

Salem Printer Ezekiel Russell’s Elegiac Poem on the Bloody Battle at Bunker-Hill, Massachusetts Historical Society; West Reminiscences in William Whitmore Story’s A memorial of the American patriots who fell at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 : with an account of the dedication of memorial tablets on Winthrop Square, Charlestown, June 17, 1889, and an appendix containing illustrative papers (Boston, 1889); Caleb Foote’s 1894 New York Times, obituary, also dated June 17!

A few notes on imagesafter I read about the self-portrait trade sign on the cellar door above, I spent hours trying to find some semblance. No luck: honestly, the close I could come is Norman Rockwell’s Colonial Sign Painter from 1936! As charming as Norman Rockwell can be, this is not what I was looking for. Much more interesting is the story of the West self-portrait at the Essex Institute, which turns out not to have been a self-portrait, but rather a portrait by his cousin Benjamin Blyth. All this is explained in an article on Benjamin Blyth by Professor Henry Wilder Foote, grandson of Caleb Foote III: what a coincidence! I couldn’t find an image anywhere, which is often the case with portraits which are referenced as deposited with the Essex Institute in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century catalogs and periodicals: I presume it’s up at the Peabody Essex Museum’s storage facility in Rowley. In any case, I love the inscription on the back as noted by Foote: The Gentleman The Patriot The Soldier The Hero.

Norman Rockwell, The New Tavern Sign (Colonial Sign Painter), 1936, Norman Rockwell Museum.


A Salem Ghost Story

Even though I recognize no connection between Halloween in general and the Salem Witch Trials (because #theywerenotwitches) and for that reason don’t particularly care for Salem Halloweens, I do like the holiday itself, especially its All Hallows Eve foundations. I like ghosts too, and ghost stories, especially if they are crafted elegantly and not just made up by Salem tour guides. For these reasons, I am always looking for a good Salem ghost story and last week I found one! It’s a humorous ghost story rather than a scary tale, written by Brander Matthews (1859-1929), the very prolific and pioneering professor of dramatic literature at Columbia University. “The Rival Ghosts” was first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1884 and then in Matthews’ Tales of Fantasy and Fact in 1896. Its plot features a Salem house haunted by two ghosts who duke it out before they enter into a spectral marriage, bringing peace to both the house and its owner, a Mr. Eliphalet Duncan, on the eve of his own marriage. Eliphalet Duncan is a young New York lawyer, of Scotch and Yankee stock, as his father had come over from Scotland and married a girl from an old Salem family, dating back to the days of the Witch Trials of course. Both his parents died when Eliphalet was quite young, leaving him two legacies: a haunted Salem house and (eventually) a Scottish title. The Salem house is described as “little” and dates back to the seventeenth century, so I’m picturing it as either the Narbonne House or the John Ward House, both of which I gothicized a bit. The Crowninshield-Bentley House might be a bit late but I’ll throw it in there too: “The Rival Ghosts” is not illustrated in either of its editions, but it seems to be calling out for some imagery!

The Narbonne House of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site; John Ward and Crowninshield-Bently Houses, Peabody Essex Museum.

The Salem ghost never appears to the master of the house, but visitors would see and hear its presence on the second day of their stay, when it became determined to drive them away. So Eliphalet was a bit isolated in his little old Salem house, which became even more unwelcoming after he received word that his Scottish cousin had died, leaving him with the family title. Apparently the title came with a ghost, who was to attend his lord at all times and places, and so the Scottish Ghost was suddenly in Salem. Neither ghost was threatening to the new Lord Duncan, but they clearly hated each other, and caused quite a ruckus in his little house: wailing, rapping, throwing things, and playing a variety of musical instruments. He was determined to find out more about them in order to get rid of them, so that he might have peace and visitors in Salem. Towards that aim he invited an old friend to the house, a very brave friend with whom he had fought in the Civil War: his comrade left on day three of what was supposed to be a week’s stay, driven away by the the cacaphony of the rival ghosts. A very frustrated Eliphalet fled as well, to the White Mountains, accompanied by the personal Scottish Ghost and leaving the House Ghost in Salem: “spooks can’t quarrel when they are a hundred miles apart any more than men can,” our narrator observes.

Window of Quaker Meeting House, Salem, Peabody Essex Museum.

On the top of Mount Washington (I guess the cog railway had been built), Eliphalet met the love of his life, the sister of a former classmate who was he immediately determined to marry: Miss Kitty Sutton. A long courtship and engagement ensued, during which he told her about the ghosts. She expressed great interest in his family house, but wanted it cleared of spectres, so Eliphalet returned to Salem on a mission. He pleaded with the ghosts to vacate and managed to enter into a dialogue with them, during which it was revealed that the House Ghost was a woman! She had been murdered by her husband back in seventeenth-century Salem and had lingered ever since. Eliphalet suggested a spectral marriage to give them all some domestic peace, but the ghosts protested that there was too much of an age difference (the House Ghost was about 200 years old, while the Scottish Ghost claimed to be 450 years old) before finally consenting. There followed a double wedding, of ghosts and humans, and off the former went, leaving the little old Salem house to the new Mr. and Mrs. (Lord and Lady) Duncan. While it’s not entirely clear how their marriage led the ghosts to vacate, it’s a nice ending to a charming tale, full of spirited negotiations! Another discovery this past week: the old house interiors paintings of the Russian-American artist Morris Kantor (1896-1974), painted in 1930-31 after a summer tour of visiting historic houses. Maybe it was just the timing of these twin discoveries, but they seem like perfect atmostpheric illustrations for “The Rival Ghosts,” particularly this first one: The Haunted House. 

Morris Kantor, The Haunted House (1930), Art Institute of Chicago; Still Life (1931), Artemis Gallery; Interior (1931), Smithsonian American Art Museum.


The Most Magical Plants

Well, October is upon us here in Salem, so that means I’m going to spend all my time inside or on the road. I’m just not a fan of Haunted Happenings, the City’s Halloween festival that starts earlier with each passing year: crowds are converging from at least mid-September now. On September 22, when eight convicted “witches” were hung at Proctor’s Ledge in 1692, you can see people dancing in the streets in Salem. Haunted Happenings is now in its 50th year and this is an anniversary worth celebrating for many, but for me, it’s just fifty years of turning tragedy into treasure. While I do not see or celebrate the connection between the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials and Halloween, I still find the customs and traditions associated with the latter holiday very interesting, and as I’m teaching my “Magic and Witchcraft in early Modern Europe” course this semester, I find myself subsumed in the source and secondary literature of these complex topics. I haven’t taught this course in 5 years so it definitely needs a refresh! I have learned so much teaching this course over my career at Salem State: at the beginning I offered it simply as a corrective to what I saw (and still see) as a simplistic understanding of witch trials here in Salem, but every time I taught it I learned more about Christian theology and European folklore: after about a decade of teaching it I felt that I needed to undertake more serious study of the former and and contemplated going to Divinity School and now I feel like I need an advanced degree in folklore! It’s all so interwoven, and the focus on both magic and witchcraft over the medieval and early modern eras enables one to see how and why pre-Christian beliefs were assimilated into Christianity—and/or demonized. This coming week we are going to look at some important high and later-medieval herbals and the “magic” that was contained therein, so I decided to make a list of the top ten magical plants. This was a more difficult task than I though it would be as so many plants have protective/proactive virtues associated with them, but this is my list. I’m leaving out Mandrake because we all know that’s the most magical plant of them all, and as many plants were seen to be powerful in both facilitating and dispelling magic I’m going with the most efficacious, by reputation.

Vervainactually might be more powerful than mandrake. It was known as both an “enchanter’s plant” and an antidote against witchcraft. Gathering vervain seems to have been somewhat of a sacred ritual and there doesn’t seem to be anything that this plant could not do: protect, predict, heal, preserve chasteness and procure love. Snakes are often included in illustrations of vervain: both slithering varieties in the marginalia and more threatening serpents at center stage. Clearly it was percieved as an effective weapon against both.

British Library MSS Sloane 1975 and Egerton 747.

St. John’s Wort: a powerful demon-repellent as you can see by this retreating demon in the fifteenth-century Italian Tractatus de Herbis (British Library Codex Sloane 4016). Referred to as a “devil-chaser” on the Continent, St. John’s Wort was also worn as a protective amulet and used as decoration for doorways and windows on St. John’s Eve at midsummer, when its yellow flowers bloom. Its association with St. John the Baptist also bequeathed it medical virtues, and it was used to staunch bleeding, especially from the thrusts of poisoned weapons, and treat wounds.

British Library Codex Sloane 4016 and MS Egerton 747.

Rue: one of my very favorite herbs, and the sole survivor of my garden of plague cures from twenty years ago! The “herb of grace” was prized for its potency against the plague, infections, and also poison, signalled by its bitterness. It was also believed to be a preserver of eyesight, but it’s best to focus on the general rather than the particulars with this very efficacious herb, which could ward off witchcraft and was used in masses and exorcisms as well as an abortifacient. I just think its gray-green leaves are beautiful, and it adds structure to the garden all season long.

Plantae Utiliores; or Illustrations of useful plants, employed in the Arts and Medicine, M.A.Burnett,1842. 

Scabiosa: was far more interesting in the medieval period than its profile as a perfect cottage garden plant now. It was known as “Devil’s Bit” because of the appearance of its root, which looks like someone took a bite out of it. According to John Gerard, who was known to “borrow” information rather indiscriminately, “the great part of the root seems to be bitten away; old fantastic charmers do report that the Devil did bite it for envy, because it is an herb that has so many good virtues, and is so beneficial to mankind.” It was perceived as particularly beneficial to the skin, hence its name, a far cry from “pincushion flower.”

British Library MS Egerton 747; William Catto, 1915, Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums.

Garlic: also has a devilish nickname, the “Devil’s Posy,” and cure-all connotations, so that it was also known as the “Poor Man’s Treacle.” (Treacle is an English sweet now, but in the late medieval and early modern eras it was an anglicization for “theriac,” the universal panacea.) There’s an interesting old tale that when Satan stepped out of the Garden of Eden after his great triumph, garlic sprang from the spot where his left foot lay, and onions from where he had placed his right foot. Like so much folklore, I’m not entirely sure what to do with this information. The key attribute of garlic was its pungent odor: like the bitter taste of rue, this signalled strength: enough to ward off witches, plague, and I guess vampires (though medieval people do not mention the latter).

Garlic (right) and a coiled snake, British Library MS Egerton 747.

Foxglove: a plant with more folkloric pseudonyms than any other! Foxglove: gloves for foxes or fairies or witches? Fairy fingers, ladies’ thimbles, rabbit flowers, throatwort, flapdock, cow-flop, lusmore, lionsmouth, Scotch mercury, dead man’s bells, witches’ gloves, witches’ bells: these are just some of its variant nicknames. Dead man’s bells indicates some knowledge of its potentially poisonous effects, but its cardiac attributes were not known until the eighteenth century. What a tangle with all these names! It’s so interesting to me that a plant can be associated with both witches and the Virgin Mary, as digitalis apparently was. Some of its names also testify to belief in the “doctrine of signatures” by which the appearance of herbs signals their use: foxglove flowers were said to look like an open mouth, and their freckles symbolic of inflamation of the throat: hence, throatwort.

Woodblock trial proof for textiles, 1790-1810, Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Hollywas perceived as very holy, of course. Very little nuance or contradiction with this plant, which Pliny, who seems very accepted by the medievals even though he was a Pagan, credited with the powers to protect and defend against withcraft, lightening, and poison. Its red berries became associated with the blood of Christ over the medieval era, along with its thorny leaves, which made it even more potent. Plant it close to the house, all the traditional authorities say (I feel fortunate that someone did that for my house long ago).

Elizabeth Blackwell’s Curious Herbal, 1737-39.

Moonwort: a little lesser known, but worthy of inclusion if only because it supposedly possesses the ability to open locks and guard silver, as well as unshoe any horses that happen to tread upon it or even near. Ben Jonson referred to it as one of the ingredients of “witches’ broth,” but by his time I think they were throwing everything into that brew. It’s a tiny, tight-fisted, flowering fern (Botrychium lunaria) that just looks like it must have magical qualities, but was also used to heal wounds.

George William Johnson, The British ferns popularly described, and illus. by engravings of every species (1857).

Henbane: is perhaps the most powerful of the bane plants, indicating death by poison, and another plant with both harming and healing virtues, demanding skillful use. It is always mentioned in reference to witchcraft in the late medieval and early modern eras, specifically as an ingredient in ointments (and salves which enabled witches to stick to their brooms!) This might be why it was referred to as the “Devil’s eye” in some regions. But it was also a powerful sedative, known to take away pain, and a hallucinogenic which could take away sense.

Henbane (on the right) in BL MS Egerton 747; Patrick Symons, Still Life with Henbane, 1960, Royal Academy.

Deadly Nightshade: related to henbane, but even more potent. Every bit of this plant was known to be poisonous, and early modern botanical authors urged their readers to banish it from their gardens. With knowledge and caution, henbane was a plant one could work with, but hands off deadly nightshade! Only the Devil tended it; in fact it was difficult to lure him away from this menacing crop of  “devil’s berries” and of course it was yet another ingredient in the strange brews of witches. Its botanical name, Atropa belladonna, indicates its use:  The eldest of the Three Fates of classical Greek mythology, the “inflexible” Atropos cut off the thread of life, and the “beautiful ladies” of Renaissance Venice used it in tincture form for wide-open, sparkling eyes. The English adopted the term belladonna in the later sixteenth century, but they also referred to deadly nightshade simply as “dwale,” a stupefying or soporific drink.

William Catto, Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museum.


Are Hollyhocks Colonial or Colonial Revival?

And now for a really important question, but about all I can take on during these dog days of summer: are hollyhocks Colonial or Colonial Revival? The hollyhocks were simply beautiful and characteristically statuesque at the Saint Gaudens National Historic Site when we stopped by on the way back from Vermont a few weeks ago and I started thinking about them. Hollyhocks don’t look like a particularly useful plant but they are on the cover of so many books on “Colonial” gardens published at the beginning of the twentieth centuy: they seem to be the very symbol of the Colonial Revival garden (along with the sundial and the arbor). So what’s the story, Colonial or Colonial Revival?

Hollyhocks in Cornish, NH and on the cover of early 20th centuy gardening books: Shelton (1906); Ely (1903); Bennett (1919); McCauley (1911); “Colonial” woman and hollyhocks in font of the John Ward House, Salem in a c. 1911 photo by Mary Harrod Northend; layout for a Colonial Garden from Colonial gardens; the landscape architecture of George Washington’s time (1932).

So as you can see, hollyhocks were a mainstay in the “old-fashioned” gardens of the Colonial Revival era, but were they actually revived? Were they also present in gardens from centuries prior? I think that the answer is a qualified yes: hollyhocks were both Colonial and Colonial Revival, but the hollyhocks of the earlier era were a bit different than that of the latter. When horticultural authors in the early modern England referenced hollyhocks (which they spelled in many different ways, believe me), they meant Althea officinalis or what we call Marsh Mallow today. Marsh Mallow is a great old plant that I used to have in my garden but it disappeared last year. All mallows were utilized for their soothing effects, and John Winthrop included them in his order for “garden seeds” dispatched to London in 1631. The hollyhock in particular seems to have been an Asian variety brought west in the wake of the Crusades, and while it is often said that the naturalist William Turner fashioned the name hollyhock (or holyoke) in his 1551 Newe Herball, it dates from the fourteenth century at the very least. Turner’s Herball contained woodcut illustrations copied directly from the lovely colored engravings of Leonhard Fuch’s De Historia Stirpium (1543), and he also followed Fuchs in giving hollyhocks the scientific name Malva hortensis. The Fuchs illustration is below: as you can see, it is definitely a familiar hollyhock, but noticeably smaller than our modern variety. And that’s what happened to the Hollyhock: it was improved through hybridization in the nineteenth century. Malva hortensis became Althea Rosea and ultimately Alcea Rosea. The Boston nurseryman John Breck, author of the influential The Flower Garden or Breck’s Flowers (1851), disdained the popular dahlia and promoted the humble hollyhock, as a great improvement has been made in this old-fashioned, ordinary flower, within a few years, that has brought it before the public under a new phase; and it now bids fair to become as popular as many other flowers have been when taken in hand by the florist. Breck was referring to the cross-breeding success of his colleague across the Atlantic, Saffron Walden nurseryman William Chater, who had produced double hollyhocks with large flowers, “of better form, more substance in the petal, and more decided in colour.” And thus the hollyhook took off, its success limited only by the onset of a rusty disease that is still with us, unfortunately.

Sixteenth- and nineteenth-century hollyhocks: Wellcome Images; George Baxter’s print of Valentine Bartholomew’s Hollyhocks (1857), Victoria & Albert Museum.

Another major factor in the increasing popularity of the hollyhock must have been the many artistic depictions appearing on both side of the Atlantic from the 1870s: painters of all artistic schools, from impressionism to realism, painted stunning and soaring hollyhocks, often in the company of women. I could include hundreds of such paintings in this post, but I’ve limited myself to just a few of my favorite works. I’ve started out with Ross Sterling Turner’s Hollyhocks from 1876 because he is a Salem artist, but it’s not as representative as a painting fom the very same year by another New England artist, Eastman Johnson. Girls and hollyhocks just go together! It’s no wonder that the garden writers of the next decades, among them so many women, favored them. Hollyhocks were also a framing device, as Childe Hassam demonstrated in his many depictions of his friend Celia Thaxter’s garden on the Isle of Shoals in the 1890s (reproduced in An Island Garden in 1894): they could define an entrance, a view, or even the gardener herself. My favorite depiction of hollyhocks is in Abbot Fuller Graves’ painting Portsmouth Doorway (1910) at the Peabody Essex Museum, but everybody else’s impressionist over-the-top hollyhocks with a woman-in-white work seems to be Frederick Carl Friesek’s Hollyhocks from the following year.

Ross Sterling Turner, Hollyhocks (1876), LA County Museum of Art; Eastman Johnson, Hollyhocks (1876), New Britain Museum of American Art; Childe Hassam, In the Garden (Celia Thaxter in her Garden) (1892); Smithsonian Museum of American Art; Abbot Fuller Graves, Portsmouth Doorway (1910), Peabody Essex Museum; Frederick Carl Frieseke, Hollyhocks (1911), National Academy of Design.


A July Afternoon, Old Lyme

One hot morning last week I was looking at some paintings by the American Impressionist artist Matilda Browne (1869-1947) when I realized I wanted to see more. It was apparent that the best place to do that was the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, so I hopped in the car and drove down there, arriving in the early afternoon. I was supposed to be doing lots of other things but I ran (drove) away instead: I’m a firm believer in doing that from time to time and have always been grateful that I have the ways and means to do so. Old Lyme is a beautiful town: I’ve been there quite a few times but never to the Griswold Museum, and it was a real feast for the senses, especially at this time of the year, when the Colonial Revival garden in back of Miss Griswold’s mansion was at midsummer peak. There is the 1817 mansion, embellished with the art of Miss Griswold’s artist-boarders who established the Old Lyme Art Colony at the beginning of the twentieth century, the garden and grounds with trails along the Lieutenant River, the modern gallery with cafe and gift shop, and several studio-outbuildings which give the impression of an artistic community past and present. It was a perfect place to spend an afternoon in July, as everything was bathed in that golden midsummer glow, much like the painting by once-resident Edward Simmons of the same title. And I saw lots of Matilda Brown’s paintings too.

Edward Simmons’ July Afternoon, Old Lyme (1906) and the house, garden and grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum.

Florence Griswold’s life (1850-1937) was in some ways common, in other ways not. She was born into a wealthy family, exemplified by the grand 1817 mansion on Old Lyme’s main street, whose money was increasingly diminished to just the house and grounds with no means to keep both. After the death of her father in the 1870s, the house was transformed into a school for genteel ladies, and after the death of her mother in the 1890s, into a boarding house by Florence and her sister. The artist Henry Ward Ranger came to stay in 1899, and convinced other artists to follow suit in the years to come, and the house evolved into an artistic community with Miss Griswold very much in its center and her house the foundation of an emerging art colony in Old Lyme. Apparently extending patronage (in the form of credit) to artists became a higher priority than holding on to the family home, and she lost it before her death in 1937, but over the next decade the Florence Griswold Association was able to purchase it and establish the museum. The first floor of the house is maintained much as it was in her time, while the second floor has galleries devoted to the work produced there, including paintings of the house itself, illustrating her role as “the keeper of the artists.” Resident artists, including Matilda Browne, also painted the house itself, most prominently its door and mantle panels, leaving their mark in more ways than one. While the Old Lyme Art Colony is associated most prominent with American Impressionism because of the residency of Childe Hassam and others, you can also see works representative of the less well-known (at least to me!) school of Tonalism associated with Ranger. And there are also some very impressive cows.

ABOVE: Matilda Brown, Miss Florence’s; Charles P. Gruppe, The Griswold House at Old Lyme; Woodhull Adams, Miss Florence’s Parlor (1912); painted panels in the Griswold dining room. BELOW: Front hall and parlor of the Griswold House, Miss Griswold’s bedroom and a guest bedroom.

It was quite a shift to move from the mellow tones and painterly animals ensconced in the old Griswold House to the museum’s modern galleries, which are currently showcasing a retrospective of artist Dana Sherwood’s more whimsical work, including an installed Bedroom Bestiary (2021) below. Very charming images, but I wanted to stay in the past, as usual, and in the garden, which was lush, lush, lush. So back to Miss Griswold’s environment I went: to the realm of her boarders and borders. It was Matilda Browne who lured me to coastal Connecticut after all.

Works by Dana Sherwood in the 2002 Krieble Gallery; Matilda Browne’s Clark Voorhees House (1905) and Saltbox by Moonlight; William Henry Howe’s Repose, September Days in Normandy (1888-89); back in the garden—somehow I never thought of using sage as a border plant like this.


An Enigmatic Etcher

I wanted to share some examples of the work of the Salem artist George F. White, Jr., better known as George Merwanjee White (1849-1915), but I wish I could also share more details about his life. He’s a bit mysterious, particularly his chosen middle name, Merwanjee, a notable Parsi name. He was the proverbial “son of a Salem ship captain” whose most well-known works are quite local in focus, yet there is evidence that he also traveled widely, in both Europe and India. White’s father, George F. White Sr., made many voyages to the Indian Ocean for shipowners from Salem, Boston, and even New York, so perhaps his son might have accompanied him and was thus exposed to Indian influences, but this is complete conjecture on my part. In any case, by the time White Jr. married at the age of 27 he had shed the “F.” and acquired the “Merwanjee” and that is how he was known throughout his life. George M. White is recognized as part of an “Etching Revival” in Boston and Salem,, a movement which began in the last two decades of the nineteenth century in the latter city, exemplified by the little-known artists Harriet Frances Osborne and White and the more well-known Frank Benson. In addition to his etchings, White produced oil and watercolor paintings and was also recognized as a gifted producer of bookplates, but architectural etchings and drawings seem to be his preferred genre. There is a beautiful portfolio of his images of old Salem houses published by subsciption in 1886 entitled Etchings of Old Houses and Places of Interest in and about Salem which has been digitized for the “Peabody Essex Museum Publications” at the Internet Archive, and below are some of my favorite views. First, the process of production, followed by what was then generally known as the “Roger Williams House” and now the “Witch House,” the Philip English Mansion, the “Old Bakery” on St. Peter Street, later to be moved and renamed the John Ward House at the Essex Institute, the seventeenth-century survivor Narbonne and Pickering Houses, the lost Lewis Hunt and Richard Prince Houses, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location on Union Street.

 

White’s images are of both old Salem houses—emerging landmarks—which had survived the dynamic nineteenth century (or most of it) as well as fabled houses which had not, thus expressing the beginnings of a preservation conciousness which is also evident in the similar sketches of Edwin Whitefield’s Homes of our Forefathers series, which was published just about the same time. Whitefield is a bit more romantic; White a bit more realistic. White wants to show and tell us what was special about the English, Hunt, and Prince Houses, and he’s wistful about the “picturesque” past: this is a word he applies to both the lost Prince House and the “living” Pickering House, the exterior of which was “fashioned” in the picturesque style of a bygone age in the 1840s. You can’t help but feel that modernity is encroaching.

Heliotype prints from George Merwanjee White’s Etchings of Old Houses and Places of Interest in and about Salem, Limited Edition, 1886.


The Jeremiah Lee Mansion

There are two structures which made an impression on me early in my childhood and sort of set the standard for historic grandeur in my mind: Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth College, where my father began his career, and The Lady Pepperrell House in Kittery, Maine, close to my hometown of York where we moved when he moved on to the University of New Hampshire. Of course, Dartmouth Hall is a Colonial Revival reproduction of an earlier building, though apparently a very faithful one. I didn’t know that when I stared up at it when I was five or so, and a decade later when I first became concious of the Lady Pepperrell House it evoked that memory. To me, both were New England Georgian exemplars. And yesterday I visited another Georgian exemplar, the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in nearby Marblehead. It was the opening day of its season, and I knew that the charming Rick, one of the most knowledgeable people around about all aspects of local architectural history (just follow his instagram account and you will learn something every day, sometimes every hour) was on docent duty, so I made my reservation and ran over there. It was a cold and gloomy June 1 (especially after a warm Memorial Day weekend), but the house seemed warm and cheerful to me despite its size: this is a grand mansion in every sense of both words.

The Mansion is made entirely of wood, but designed to give the appearance of an ashlar stone facade.

A bit of history and then I’ll show you some of my interior shots—the gloom outside really highlighted the color inside and I got some great views, if I do say so myself! The mansion was built by 1768 by Colonel Jeremiah Lee (1721-1775), a wealthy “merchant prince” of Marblehead, who was just as engaged in the civic and political life of this bustling maritime community as he was in his brilliant shipping career. Lee was the wealthiest merchant in Massachusetts acccording to tax records from 1771, and he might have been America’s largest pre-revolutionary shipowner with full shares in over twenty vessels. For someone who clearly had so much at stake within the commercial context of the Atlantic world and the British Empire, it’s quite remarkable to see how Lee risked all by becoming a committed Patriot, and even though he did not die in battle, he contracted pneumonia by sleeping in a chilly and wet cornfield on the outskirts of Lexington and Concord on the eve of those battles in April of 1775, certainly a martyr to the cause. So Lee only lived in his trophy house for seven years, and his widow Martha Swett Lee for another decade. We have to dwell in the past a bit longer to understand the sheer scale of this mansion: it seems almost oversized for Old Town Marblehead now, but Marblehead in 1770 was the second largest settlement in Massachusetts, while Salem was the fourth! After the Revolution, Salem commenced its economic and demographic boom, but while the first US census of 1790 reported Salem as the 7th largest city in the new nation (with a population of nearly 8000), Marblehead was still in the pack in 10th place (with a population of 5661). So this mansion represents not only the wealth and cosmopolitan taste of Jeremiah Lee, but also of pre-revolutionary Marblehead. That said, this structure is so very conspicuous and grand, that I understand the words of Miss Hannah Tutt, historian of the Marblead Historical Society, which acquired and restored it after 1909:  Fashioned as it was, after the homes of his ancestors, it needed but the hawthorne and the hedgerows to transport one to old England, and indeed the very timbers, of which it was framed, were grown in the mother country. Built at a cost of over ten thousand pounds, it could hardly be rivaled throughout the whole province of Massachusetts Bay—and overshadowing, with its grandeur, the humble home of the fisher folk, no wonder it became to them the “Mansion,” and the “Lee Mansion” it has always been, the pride of the whole town (The Lee Mansion. What it Was and What it is, 1911). Ok, context completed, let’s go inside: first floor first.

Through the front door, you step into this amazing 16-foot-wide entrance hall which extends to the back of house, and it’s all about the central staircase and the handpainted English wallpaper panels, which extend up to the second floor. The house served as the Marblehead Bank for about a century after it left the possession of the Lee family and before it came under the stewardship of the Marblehead Historical Society, so the back and upper stories were closed off. According to Rick, visitors could strip of pieces of this wallpaper as souvenirs in the front part of the first-floor hall, so reproduction paper replaced those parts, but the most of the wallpaper is original and glorious. There is a grain-painted “banquet hall” to the left, and a parlor/drawing room to the right.

There are actually very few items related to Jeremiah Lee in the house; most of the decorative accessories derive from the period but not the family. One feels the presence of Jeremiah and Martha (especially as you pass the copies of their full-length portraits painted by John Singleton Copley on the way to the second floor; the originals are in the Wadsworth Athenaeum), but you feel like you are visiting an eighteenth-century house rather than their house. A very grand eighteenth-century American house. I really appreciated the curation: the Marblehead Historical Society/Museum has been the recipient of a steady succession of decorative donations over the century since it has acquired the Lee Mansion, but the decorative accessories on display were chosen clearly to highlight and complement rather than overwhelm. Nothing competes with the architecture (well, I don’t think anything really could.) On to the second floor.

Second-floor Chambers: the two front rooms are still of considerable size, but things get a bit cozier in the back. The blue-trimmed chamber is a suite of connected small rooms including one with odd proportions and amazing wallpaper! The room with all the yellow damask—a guest room according to Rick—is simply stunning. And you can see that the furniture is top-notch and very complementary.

Beautiful rooms on the second floor, as you can see, but what I am not really showing you is the view. Remember, Marblehead was a busy seaport when this mansion was built: it was not, and is not, a rural estate. Now its grounds are a bit deceptive: there’s a nice side garden but the original lot was quite shallow and a large parcel of land in the back was a later acquisition by the Museum (there is a very interesting article by Narcissa Chamberlain, the wife of photographer Samuel Chamberlain who lived just one street over, about its original boundaries in the April 1969 issue of the Essex Institute Historical Collections). The large windows of the mansion frame the street views out front and the very green views out back, but all I could see was yellow inside, because there is a lot of yellow, but also because I’m working on my new book, a study of saffron, and so I see it everywhere. On to the third floor.

More saffron and more chambers on the third floor: I need these “bed chairs” or whatever you call them! Writing in bed is one of my favorite activities but it takes a toll on one’s back. These third-floor bedchambers were precious. I love this portrait of Miss Selman, the hatboxes, these curvy fancy chairs and settee. Two other rooms on the third floor were a catch-all room with a random collection of museum items (including sea chests with their charts still inside!) and a parlor/playroom/servant’s room in the rear, also filled with wonderful items. I’m not really focusing on the portraits in this post, but there are many interesting ones to see.

And down another side staircase (I seem to remember that there are four staircases in the house) to the first-floor kitchen and a small dining/breakfast room where one of Colonel Lee’s logbooks rests on a table and his contemporary Elbridge Gerry looks on. I starting writing as soon as I got home so I wouldn’t forget all the detailed information which Rick imparted to me, but of course everything was just too much to take in so I’m going to have to go back again. I can think of so many sub-stories: the people in the portraits, a Dartmoor Massacre drawing, the wallpapers and printed tiles, those bedchairs, the contributions of my favorite preservationist, Louise du Pont Crowninshield, a summer Marblehead resident. The Marblehead Museum purchased the adjacent property, the site of the Mansion’s brick kitchen and slave quarters, just last year and archeological investigations into the histories of slavery and service in this corner of Marblehead are commencing this very summer. So while there is a lot to see in this majestic mansion, it is not a static site but rather a dynamic one, engaged in an evolving process of discovery and reinterpretation.

The Jeremiah Lee Mansion & Garden: more information and reservations here.


The Power of Juxtaposition

The Peabody Essex Museum has opened a new integrated exhibit of items from its American and Native American collections entitled On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America and I made my first visit last weekend. This is an “ongoing” exhibition, which I guess means permanent, and I’m glad it is going to be on view for some time as it offers quite a lot to take in and think about: there are new things to see but even familiar items are cast in a new light through their arrangement. While the exhibition explores various themes relating to “being and belonging in America” its overall curation is what captivated me on this first viewing: it seemed as if there were a succession of cascading vignettes crafted from the artful juxtaposition of both like and unlike objects. Juxtaposition is a powerful way to engage and to teach: I use contrast and comparison quite a bit in class but I wouldn’t call my efforts artful. In contrast, On This Ground’s presentations cross genres and time very fluidly, right from the beginning when a video featuring Elizabeth Solomon, a member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, is contrasted with the original Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1628-29 through which King Charles I claimed the land of her ancestors (I have to say that the Charter actually belongs to the Salem Athenaeum, which placed it in storage at the Essex Institute long ago; the PEM seemed to develop an interest in exhibiting the Charter only when the Athenaeum was seriously considering selling it in 2006, so it’s great to see it as one of the opening exhibits of this important new exhibition.)

The juxtapositions are not always so jarring: each culture gets the opportunity to tell its own stories as they cycle through history, as exhibit text proclaims that “history is not linear” repeatedly. Then there is convergence, but there are intra-cultural juxtapositions too: I particularly liked the contrast of proximity between the works of two of Salem’s most well-known sculptors, William Wetmore Story (Marguerite) and Louise Lander (Evangeline), as the latter was explicitly slandered by the former. And the Hawthornes are in close proximity, as they also shut their doors to Miss Lander. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work of Salem’s even more famous “people’s sculptor,” John Rogers, in real life (clay), so it was great to see The Wounded Scout: its sentimentality was a good match for what I think is a new acquisition by the PEM (in honor of recently-retired curator Dean Lahikainen), Tompkins Harrison Matteson’s The Pillory Scene from The Scarlet Letter (chap. 12, p. 185-188), 1860.

But there are also some starker contrasts which are illuminating: with context but also aesthetically, including two “political teapots” placed side by side (“Stamp Act Repeal’d, 1760s & Nuclear Nuts Teapot Variation #13 by Richard T. Notkin, 2001), a very fancy dressing table paired with some equally fancy boots, and so many aligned portraits. The internal “windows” of the gallery space open up some interesting juxtapositions as well.

There were two aspects of the exhibition that remain rather “unsettled” in my mind, one very general and the other very particular. So of course I have to go back and settle them! It seemed to me as if the Native American objects came from a much broader geographic region, but that just might be my parochial perspective. And once again (for the 99,000th time) I am troubled by the Salem Witch Trials. I was really excited when I read the thematic label for the “Heroes & Histories” section of the exhibit, especially the opening line if the same stories are repeatedly told, whose stories are we missing? That’s Salem in a nutshell: we just keep telling the same story! So I kept going, and there’s the same old story of the Salem Witch Trials in (very familiar; TOO familiar) images, objects and texts. I just don’t understand how a(nother) Tompkins Harrison Matteson painting represents a “new way of looking at the past.” The most recent historiography of the Salem Witch Trials has focused on Salem as a “frontier” society: wouldn’t this be a relevant perspective to explore here?

This was just one discordant corner of this sweeping exhibition, which otherwise struck a pitch-perfect balance of the familiar and the new for me. The two paintings which captured my attention for the longest time were one which I was quite familiar with (Alvan Fisher’s Salem from Gallows Hill, 1818) and one which was brand-new to me (Bahareh and Farzaneh Safarani’s Twilight Reincarnation, 2018). I like to orient myself in the past through the former, while the latter simply delighted me with its fleeting window shadows, so much so that I forgot to contextualize the painting altogether.

On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America: ongoing at the Peabody Essex Museum.


When Nixon went to China and Life Magazine came to Salem

For some reason, I’ve been going through the archives of Life magazine over the last month or so: it started with the photographs, and then I had to read the stories too. Life seems like it was a perfect mix of news and popular culture: we don’t have the like now, do we? And I doubt we ever will again with our very diffused and digital media. I’m no twentieth-century historian, but it also seems to represent the collective mindsets of its changing times: it really excels at representing wartime America, of course, but the later decades too. So far my favorite issue bears a beautiful Elizabeth Taylor on the cover on the occasion of her fortieth birthday: but inside the focus is on President Nixon’s imminent trip to China. It was fifty years ago this very month, and a very big deal. For some historical context, Life went to Salem, which emerges as kind of cultural intermediary between the United States and China, as it was the first American city to become thoroughly acquainted with the East. And so we get to read about Elias Hasket Derby and his ships, and see Derby Wharf, and all sorts of “exotic souvenirs” brought back from China by Salem’s daring merchants and later installed in the old Peabody Museum of Salem. It’s all great, but the best photograph is an aerial view of Chestnut Street where nothing much has changed in fifty years.

“When the US Sailed to China,” Life magazine, 25 February 1972. Photographs by Henry Groskinsky.

I think that the Peabody Essex Museum is still playing that intermediary “West meets East” role, although now the perspective is far more global than western. I know that I fault the PEM often for its displaced library and limited local offerings, but their East Asian and China Trade galleries are beyond impressive. I find myself teaching the first half of World History this semester for the first time in a decade, and I really had to do a lot of preparation before I stepped into the classroom (well, first it was on the screen as we had a “staggered” opening). China is the star of pre-1500 world history, and all my “color” comes from the PEM! Its collections are much stronger in later-dynasty objects, but there’s still some wonderful things on display from earlier eras. Much has happened in the past half-century: the Cold War is over, and Life magazine has also concluded its run, but Salem’s “China Cabinet” not only endures, but has been expanded considerably (and we no longer refer to its contents as souvenirs). In fact, aside from Salem’s built landscape, PEM’s East Asian collections constitute one of the largest and most lasting material legacies of “its” history in situ: this seems like an odd statement, but I think it is true.

Yichengyong Picture Workshop, Tianjin. Family celebrating the New Year and welcoming wealth from all directions, 1908-11, reproduction of detail from a woodblock print; Standing official with tablet, Jin dynasty, early 13th century; Guangzhou artists, Tea packer and porter, about 1803; Guangzhou artists, Wu Bingjian, Known as Houqua, about 1835; George Chinnery, detail from Dr. Thomas Richardson Colledge and His Assistant Afun in Their Opthalmic Hospital, Macau, 1833. There’s an emphasis on people and their relationships in PEM’s present galleries, but there’s also the “Great Wall of China” and a transplanted 18th-century Chinese house, Yin Yu Tang, to see.