Tag Archives: Art

Winter White Houses

This passing year has been one of little ailments; I actually feel grateful they were not BIG ailments. I strained my right hamstring early last week and have been laid out ever since, meaning that I missed one of my very favorite Salem events: the Christmas in Salem house tour of this past weekend, the major fundraising event for Historic Salem, Incorporated. I was just too shaky and sore to go for it; I’m still a little shaky and sore. It was beautiful bright weather and several of the houses on the tour I had not seen before, so this was a real missed opportunity and I was downcast all weekend. I sent out my husband, and friends sent pictures, so I really have enough for a post but they’re not my pictures so they don’t feel like my story. Nevertheless, they are really spectacular, so I think I’ll feature them in a bit–along with my own decorations when I can get to them–but for right now I just don’t feel that merry and bright so I’m going to feature some stark winter white. As my world was confined to my laptop for several days, I discovered some new and new-to-me artists who conjured up images of winter house which more suited my mood. I was inspired by one of my favorite houses up in my hometown of York, Maine: it always looks a little lonely, and that’s how I felt this past weekend.

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The winter houses of artist, illustrator, and photographer Deb Garlick immediately captured my mood this past weekend: the first two are acrylics, but you can order the last as a print, along with other images, on her website. I find her work both elegant and accessible: she has some adorable “mini-portraits”, and, as befitting her name, also works in food photography and illustration!

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WW wm_thisoldhouseThe Old Farmhouse; The Edge of the Lake; This Old House.

Then I went for a touch more color in the watercolor washes of Kate Evans: her red barn was about as much red as I could handle this past weekend! She has beautiful forests and structures, highlighted in stark relief against all that negative space/snow.

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Red Barn and Woodcutter’s Cabin.

Winter landscapes can be very romantic, of course, but those views were not what I was looking for this past weekend: no horse-drawn sleighs, skating rinks, or cozy cottages. I didn’t want snow that looked even slightly fluffy. This eliminated artwork from much of the nineteenth century in my curation quest but things got bleaker in the twentieth, of course. I really enjoyed discovering the work of the Belgian landscape artist Valerius de Saedeleer (1867-1942) whose works looks inspired by both the Northern Renaissance and twentieth-century realism at the same time. The “gloaming” of de Saedeleer’s second painting below is also evident in one of Edward Munch’s winter landscapes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Whenever I indulge in Munch, I get a bit depressed, and I was already pretty dour, so I turned tail and looked at some slightly sunnier views of winter houses among the works of Swiss artist Cuno Amiet (1868-1961)—-got to get some yellow in here and I aspire to sled!

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Winter House Munch MFA

screenshot_20191209-155337_chromeView of Tiegem in Winter, c. 1935, Christie’s; Winter Landscape, c. 1920, Mutual Art; Edward Munch, Winter Landscape, c. 1898, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Cuno Amiet, Winter House.


Elizabethan Exemplar

It’s been a long time since I featured one of my Renaissance crushes, but today is Sir Philip Sidney’s birthday so time to indulge. Sidney of course was a wonderful poet, but for me he is much more than that: he is the perfect Elizabethan Renaissance Man, multi-faceted, adept at both words and action, on the spot in all the key settings. He is one of those people whose lives can represent an age, albeit a rarefied experience. And he died young, on the battlefield, so that just makes him more: more elusive, more martyr-like, more crush-worthy. His notable contemporaries who lived longer had more layered lives in which both their attributes and their flaws were manifested, but Sidney seems flawless. His biographers note his proficiency in all the subjects in the studia humanitatis, but he himself asserted that one should aim for “well-doing, and not of well-knowing only” in The Defence of Poesy (published posthumously in 1595).

Sidney 2012-03-09-images-sidney_ma409_4_engraving The Sensational Sidney brothers as boys: Sir Philip and Sir Robert, from a painting by Mark Garrard at the Sidney’s ancestral home Penshurst Palace, Kent.

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) was always connected: He was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, the nephew of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert Dudley, and the godson of King Philip of Spain. I’m not sure he would have been happy about this latter affiliation given that he became a relatively strident Protestant later on, which was perhaps a flaw in Queen Elizabeth’s estimation as she preferred a more moderate public religious stance and must have been very annoyed when Sidney opposed her marriage to Francis, the Duke of Alençon and Anjou, in 1579 on religious grounds. His principled Protestantism is not a problem for me, however: it makes him look like less of a dilettante courtier. Sidney was educated at Oxford but left for a “Grand Tour” on the Continent before taking his degree: clearly he was ahead of his time as this custom did not become popular among the English aristocracy until a century later. He returned to England to the life of a courtier (when he pleased Elizabeth), patron and poet, but clearly longed for some kind of serious placement, which he eventually received in the form of various official diplomatic missions on the Continent. In between, he commenced writing his corpus of poetry, invested in overseas expeditions, and spent time at the estate of his beloved sister, Mary, the Countess of Pembroke, to whom he dedicated his most ambitious work, The Arcadia, and who established a reputation as both a literary patron and poet(ess) herself.

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pixlr_20191130100316782-1 Sir Philip Sidney, 1577-78, courtesy the Marquess of Bath, Longleat House; A trio of Sidney copied portraits from the sixteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries: National Portrait Gallery, London; an 18th century copy, NPG, London, and a 20th century version attributed to Frederick Hawkesworth Sinclair, Pembroke College, Oxford University.

All of the Sidneys are so interwoven with Elizabeth, most conspicuously Philip and Mary’s mother Mary Dudley Sidney (also a writer!) who served and nursed the Queen during her smallpox seclusion, contracting the disease herself and marring her beauty permanently. There is a theme of sacrifice that connects mother to son: Philip accompanied his uncle the Earl of Leicester’s expedition to the Netherlands in 1586 to fight England’s now arch-enemy Spain, and reportedly urged Leicester to push harder, eventually falling on the battlefield himself at the Battle of Zutphen. He was shot in the thigh, but took 21 days to die—likely of gangrene. He then becomes larger than life, memorialized by an ostentatious public funeral (paid for by his father-in-law Francis Walsingham), elegies, biographies and posthumous portraits. He is forever young and bold in imagery, and ever eloquent in text.

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screenshot_20191130-080224_chrome Sir Philip Sidney, early 17th century, National Trust @Knole; by John de Critz the Elder, c. 1620; by John de Critz the Elder, 17th century; by George Knapton, 1739.


The Sculptor’s Mother

I’ve been working my way through all of the artists who were born or lived in Salem since I began this blog so many years ago, but one very notable and successful artist whom I have yet to cover is the sculptor John Rogers (1829-1904), chiefly because I don’t really care for his work. They have not aged well, but the “Rogers Groups” were important expressions of American material culture in the later nineteenth century: often Rogers is referred to as the Normal Rockwell of sculptors, and plaster castings of his best-selling works, depicting sentimental scenes of a young couple about to proclaim their marriage vows before a country parson and a convivial games of checkers “up at the farm,” sold thousands of copies for $15.00 each from 1860 to 1890. Even though Rogers studied in Paris like so many aspiring American artists, he firmly rejected the neoclassical sculptural style of his teachers—-and his time—in favor of a more accessible “vernacular” approach. He wanted to be a successful, popular artist more than an artist: he told his mother so, many times, in letters we can read at the New York Historical Society. The mother of John Rogers was Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers (1805-1877), and she is really my interest and my focus; but I can only get to her through him. And my interest in her started with a dress, the beautiful, ethereal, dress seemingly spun from air and mica (but really Indian muslin and silver) which she wore to her wedding reception in 1827.

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20191031_153222Indian Muslin and silver wedding reception dress of Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers, 1827, Peabody Essex Museum (Gift of Miss Jeannie Dupee, 1979).

This dress is in the stunning new Asian Export gallery of the Peabody Essex Museum. Since its opening about six weeks ago, I have snuck into see it (and several other things) about three or four times: I’m obsessed with it (and several other things)!  The dress is beautiful, but I feel a connection to Sarah largely through her younger sister, Mary Jane Derby (Peabody), who was an artist and the author of a hand-written and -bound journal composed for her grandchildren which a lovely lady from Maine bought at a yard sale and sent to me: I know that I should turn this little book over to her family, or an archive, but I’ve held on to it simply because I cherish it. In the journal, Mary Jane writes about her wonderful childhood in the large mansion on Washington Street that she depicts in one her most alluring paintings. This is the mansion to which Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers would return after her marriage to John Rogers of Boston, and the birthplace of her son John Rogers (Jr.) in 1829.

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Pickman Derby House 70 Wash

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Sara Rogers Salem Literary and Commercial Observer June 9 1827

Mary Ellen Derby, the Pickman-Derby Mansion at 70 Washington Street, c. 1825; Detroit Institute of Arts; a Moulton-Erickson Photograph from the 1880s, Cornell University Library—the house was demolished in 1914 for the present Masonic building; The Margaret, co-owned by Mary Jane’s and Sarah Ellen’s father John Derby, was one of the first American ships to reach Japan, in 1801, Old-time Ships of Salem, Essex Institute, 1917; The Rogers wedding announcement in the Salem Literary and Commercial Observer, June 9, 1827.

Mary Jane and Sarah Ellen Derby seem to have had a perfect Salem childhood growing up in this mansion during Salem’s most prosperous period, the granddaughters of Salem’s most prosperous merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and the daughters of John Derby, Esq, part-owner of The Margaret, one of the first American ships (and THE first Salem ship) to dock in Japan. I’m so dazzled by her childhood (and her dress) that I make the cardinal historical mistake when I look at the post-marriage life of Sarah Ellen: I judge this life by my own standards and perspectives, rather than hers. By all accounts Sarah and her husband had a happy marriage (they had eight children, after all, of whom John Jr. was the second-eldest) but their lives together don’t seem to have been as comfortable as her Salem life. Despite his Harvard degree and Boston Brahmin pedigree, John Sr. was not a very good businessmanshortly after John Jr.’s birth in 1829 the young family was off to Cincinnati where Mr. Rogers attempted to establish a sawmill (and where Mary Jane met her husband, the Reverend Ephraim Peabody, while visiting her older sister) after this failed it was back to (western) Massachusetts for a silkworm enterprise, which also failed after a few years. There was a brief stint in New Hampshire, and then the (now much larger) Rogers family settled in Roxbury, with John Sr. taking up a post (a political appointment?) at the Boston Custom House which he held for the rest of his life. There was no Harvard for John Jr.: he was briefly established in a Boston apprenticeship before he ran off in pursuit of an artistic career. Perhaps this background explains his entrepreneurial attitude towards that career. All of this makes me feel sorry for Sarah: all those moves,, all those children! Did she have any help? Did she look back at her wedding reception dress and think: how did I get here?  But I’m just projecting my own feelings on to her: she had a large and by all accounts happy family and a successful son who addressed all of his letters to that family to her, at its center, or heart (and it looks like despite all of those children, she still might have been able to fit into that dress).

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Checkers photograph Essex Institute

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Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers and her family, New York Historical Society Rogers Collection and the archived online exhibit John Rogers: American Stories where you can see more photographs, get more context, and read letters from John to Sarah; Checkers at the Farm—the second most popular work of Rogers—Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Rogers and Son; photograph of “Checkers”, Smithsonian via Essex Institute Lantern slide: E24240; Advertisement for “Checkers”, Harper’s Weekly 3 (March 18, 1876): 235.


Can I have it both ways?

Today is Halloween; today is Reformation Day, the day that Martin Luther posted—or otherwise “published”— his Ninety-five Theses, a scathing and immediately-accessible critique of the abuses of the Catholic Church which launched a Reformation that would divide and alter western Christendom in myriad ways, changes which are still ongoing today. I live in Reformation Land all year long as most of the courses I teach are centered on this era: it’s either in the foreground or the background, a trigger, a factor, a cause or a culmination. But I also live in Salem, which is increasingly Halloween Land all year long. Usually I dwell in the former and shut out the latter as much as possible until the big night, but on October 31 I think I should be able to “celebrate” both, and when a former student sent me an image of Ninety-five Reeses the other day I realized I could!

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95 Luther Woodcut LOC

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screenshot_20191031-064823_facebookFrederick Kemmelmeyer’s portrait of Luther, National Gallery of Art+the carved pumpkins on my neighbor’s front stoop; Frederick the Wise’s Dream and the beginning of the Reformation, October 31, 1517, Library of Congress; Cranach’s  Schlosskirche in Wittenberg; the viral meme that inspired me: 95 Reeses!

Well obviously there have been a succession of trick-or-treating/ Wittenberg memes in social media circulation over the last decade or so, but I found this one particularly inspirating, so much so, I even made my own: of individual Reese’s cups. History and candy: the perfect combination.

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Falling for Folk Art

This week I’m focused on spectacular examples of folk art. On Sunday I was up in my hometown of York, Maine, where I heard a great talk at the Old York Historical Society by Karina Corrigan, the curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, and then wandered through the small Remick Gallery showcasing the Society’s collections. There were some very unique items on view, representing both “high” and more vernacular styles, and I was much more drawn to the latter, because, let’s face it, I have high style stuff all around me in Salem (the Maine girl in me would be annoyed at this snobby statement, but I think the Massachusetts woman has snuffed her out, as I have now resided in Massachusetts for longer than I lived in Maine). I was particularly struck by this coat-of-arms for the Sewall family of York, because it looks so very unheraldic to me! The bees have been on the Sewall coat of arms for several centuries—and we can see them on Nathaniel Hurd’s 1768 engraving of the Reverend Joseph Sewall (son of Salem Witch Trials Samuel Sewall because there’s always a Salem connection)—but who are those people, and what is that creature? My class was split between lion and bear when I showed it to them, although several thought it was the Devil.

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Folk Art Hurd MFA

Sewall Family Coat-of-Arms, Old York Historical Society; Benjamin Hurd engraving of the Reverend Joseph Sewall, 1768, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I don’t know if they qualify as art as they are really tools (for combing out flax fibers) but these hetchels looked very creative (and menacing) mounted on the wall; I have never seen them exhibited this way. There are a variety of spellings, but the name for one who  wields a hetchel came to be know as a heckler, and I think there is some sort of connection between the hetchel’s sharp (angry) “teeth” and the modern heckler’s sharp angry taunts. Most of the hetchels that I have seen have long handles, so they resemble brushes, and I always though they must have been the perfect tools for the ascetic practice of (self-) mortification of the flesh.

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But I am digressing……when I got home, despite a stack of papers awaiting me, I indulged in my favorite procrastination pastime of browsing through online catalogs of upcoming auctions, and when I got to Sotheby’s Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra Levin I lingered over every lot. This auction is happening today, so we’ll see what prices these amazing objects fetch. I had an immediate, visceral reaction to the elephant, because pachyderms formed my very first “collection” accumulated from a very young age. I now have boxes in the basement and need no more elephants, but this particular “walking” or parading elephant, presumably Jumbo, has always enchanted me: I have it on placemats, notecards, and bookplates. The amazing painted eagle carved by John Haley Bellamy of Kittery Point, Maine, is surely as impressive as anything a Massachusetts craftsman could produce! A large pair of early 20th century dice—what more can I say? I dressed up with a childhood friend as a pair of dice for Halloween one year in York, and based on the estimates given, these are probably the only things I could afford in this auction. There are plenty of great trade and travel signs (along with weathervanes and whirligigs) so it was hard to choose, but I love the hats and the crocodile, and the “double” eye clock, of course.

Elephants Walking sign Sothebys

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Folk Art Eagle

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Select lots from Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra LevinSothebys.


Salem Sensory Overload

An amazing weekend in Salem, for the city, objectively and collectively, and for me, personally. I’m writing at the end of a long day, which will be yesterday, during which I gave a morning presentation on the Remond Family of Salem, an African-American family who operated many successful businesses in the mid-nineteenth century while simultaneously supporting every social justice cause it was possible to support (which were many) next door at Hamilton Hall, and then made my way to the long-heralded opening of the new wing of the Peabody Essex Museum. Both were really important events for me: I’ve been focused on the Remonds since I moved next door to Hamilton Hall, and in attendance at my talk was George Ford from California, a Remond descendant who is so dedicated to his family’s story and memory that he just want to be where they were. And except for a few professional events I had to attend at the Peabody Essex, I have not visited the museum since December of 2017, when the non-announcement was made that its Phillips Library, encompassing the majority of Salem’s written history, would be removed to a new Collection Center in Rowley, Massachusetts. Over time I realized that I was only hurting myself, as the Peabody Essex is indeed a treasure house, and the historical references of new Director Brian Kennedy and media reviews of the new wing and the #newpem infused me with hope, and so I was excited to return, but also a bit anxious. (There was also a big food truck festival in Salem but don’t expect me to report on that!)

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 The Remonds in the morning, and the new PEM Wing in the afternoon!

As exasperated as I can often get with Salem, you must know that it is an entirely engaging city and place to live, always, but this weekend was particularly intense. If the famous PEM neuroscientist Dr. Tedi Asher had affixed monitoring devices to me I would have given her readings off the charts, I am sure! I was nervous about going into an institution which I have been so critical of over these past few years–not to exaggerate my influence, it was just an internal feeling. I have friends and acquaintances who work at the museum and it never felt good to criticize the place where they worked. Everything seems different now, with the new Director, Brian Kennedy, acknowledging Salem, community, founders, even slavery (i.e. historical realities rather than cultural idealizations, and potential engagement or even interest in historical interpretation!) with every passing press report. Expectations can make you anxious too though, and I was anxious to see what role the new dedicated Phillips Library gallery in the new wing would play, as an expression of priorities, as an indication of respect for the old (dry) texts which always require a bit more effort to make them shine. So here I go into the PEM, heading straight for the new wing, with all of my anxieties and expectations. What do I see first?

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A wall! And an amazing N.C. Wyeth mural titled Peace, Commerce, Prosperity–both of which I loved. Before I looked at anything, I was struck by that wall: the side of the East India Marine Hall which I had never really seen; it must have been alongside the former Japanese garden but I never noticed it for some reason. Maybe I was just focused in my mind on the back wall of Hamilton Hall which borders my own garden, which I stare at all the time and think of the Remonds working on the other side, but all I could see when I entered the new wing was this wall. It might also have been my admiration for the Georgian Pickman House, which formerly stood in the same spot I was standing in—-maybe I was trying to conjure up its orientation—but for whatever reason, I stood staring at that wall for quite some time. (Yes, Salem’s history is weighing on me, just a bit). Then I snapped out of it, spent some time looking at the lovely Wyeth mural, and moved into the new Maritime gallery, where I was caught. There’s no other word for it, caught. I was transfixed by everything, and as soon as I got to the trio of paintings of ships in various stages of “tragedy and loss” by the Salem deaf-mute artist George Ropes, I realized that I wanted–or needed– to come back to this very intimate gallery every day, or as often as possible. Such a clever installation with its angled walls, ensuring that you discover something new around every corner, and everything so very evocative of the perils and promise of the sea. And such a thoughtful mix of old exhibits and new, including the venerable glass-encased ships’ models we can see in all the old photographs of the Peabody Museum. I saw many things that I had only seen in pictures before, but also “old friends”. There were texts, not just paintings and objects. Stunning, substantive, respectful: I was very impressed.

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20190929_150342-1The treasures of the new Maritime Gallery: the George Ropes paintings are STUNNING; I can’t possibly capture their beauty here. Lovely to see many East India Marine Co. artifacts plus texts and sketchbooks; Ange-Joseph Antoine Roux, Ship America at Marseille, 1806; a reverse glass painting by Carolus Cornelius Weytz, c. 1870; Ship Models and dashing Salem Sea Captains John Carnes and Benjamin Carpenter by William Verstille; Vases by  Pierre Louis Dagoty, c. 1817.

The Asian Export Gallery on the second floor of the new wing was extremely well-designed as well, with an entrance “foyer” covered entirely in c. 1800 Chinese wallpaper from a Scottish castle showing us just how cherished, and integrated, products from Asia were in the west. This opened up into a spacious gallery, providing a vista for what can only be called a “Great Wall of China”! This space was delightful aesthetically, but it was also a teacher’s toolbox for me: all of our introductory history courses are focused on global connections and trade, so I was able to photograph about three PowerPoint’s worth of photographs, for which I am very grateful. Then it was upstairs to the new wing’s third floor, where Fashion and Design reigned—particularly the former, so many mannequins. I have to say that compared to the other two galleries, this one left me cold, but I’m sure that I’m in a minority as it was the most crowded space of my afternoon. We all respond to different materials in different ways of course, but I was struck by the contrast of the rather “old-fashioned” display of Iris Apfel’s ensembles with the modernity of the actual clothing: draped sheets à la eighteenth century with bespectacled mannequins in front? To me it looked inartful, kind of like a throwaway installation, but maybe I’m supposed to notice the juxtaposition? I’m not sure: there were just too many mannequins—it was a crowd for me. There was a readily apparent flow, or connection, between the objects in the Maritime and Asian Export galleries below, but here I could not link the fashion and non-fashion items into any semblance of a story. But again: it was crowded, so I’ll have to go back and try again.

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20190929_154325-1Perfect place to text, no? LOVED this painting of Two English Boys in Asian Clothing, c. 1780 by Tilly Kettle, “the first prominent British artist to work extensively in India”; the “Great Wall” in its partial entirety and detail; the Fashion and Design gallery on the third floor of the new wing.

By this time, I was running out of time (chiefly because I spent so much time in Maritime World) but I wanted to see how some older spaces were impacted by the addition of the new wing—namely the adjacent East India Marine Hall—as well as the heralded dedicated Phillips Library gallery. Here disappointment began to kick in, so read no further if you want a fluffy, disengaged appraisal: that’s not what I do here. The old hall, so stunning and so missed by me, was all dark, reduced to background for artist Charles Sandison’s digital projections of words and phrases from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ship captains’ logs. I had seen this before, as PEM’s first “FreePort” installation a decade or so ago, so I was surprised to see it again. I really liked it before: it was definitely immersive. It was not what I wanted to see now; I was hungry for real words and texts after their authentic integration in the Maritime gallery and so these fleeting, ephemeral images felt fleeting and ephemeral. But this is a temporary installation so I’m not going to go on and on about it; I’m looking forward to what’s next for East India Marine Hall.

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20190929_152822Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0.

On to the new Phillips Library dedicated gallery space! I was anxious, so maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly, but it actually took quite a while to find it. My very handy Visitor Map, which was handed out to everyone as we entered the PEM, indicated that it was right behind East India Marine Hall on the same floor, but because the circular staircase in the rear of the building was blocked off you couldn’t quite get there from where I was without going up, down and all around for some reason. Again, it might have been me, I was going by sheer sensation here, but the difficulty of access seemed to combine with the closet-like room I eventually found to give me a profound impression that the Peabody Essex Museum really didn’t want to showcase the collections of the Phillips Library. Here was an afterthought, thrown in behind the restrooms. I hate to rain on this parade, but that is what I felt. The “Creative Legacy of Hawthorne” exhibit seemed uninspired to me as well, but to be honest, I couldn’t really take it in, I was so disappointed by this sad space. I’ll have to go back and look at it again, if I can muster the willpower. I know that the new Phillips Librarian is happy to have this space, and I’m sure he and his staff will do as much with it as they possibly can, but there’s no way that I can say that it was anything other than a great disappointment to me, right now. The contrast between this disposable space, and all of the wonderful, powerful, thoughtful and spacious galleries I had just seen was almost unbearable: I just had to walk away. There was a large panel which gave a brief history and description of the Library and an introduction to its new reading room in Rowley which I couldn’t quite capture with my camera so I made a collage of different sections: there was no filter with tears, “broken” and “recoil” didn’t look quite right, so I settled for worn.

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Well let’s try to end on a high note, shall we? No one likes a killjoy. The whole opening of the new wing was handled wonderfully by the curators and staff of the PEM: everyone was on hand, all weekend long, to help, and guide, and answer questions. The Visitor Map (and these cute buttons for all of the new galleries, except, of course, for the Phillips Library) is great. There was a wonderful spirit about the place. Not only is the new wing impressive architecturally: it offers some interesting views of Salem from its upper stories. The new garden is a thoughtful space: I’m looking forward to seeing how the plant material fills in. It was good to be back in the Peabody Essex Museum after my long absence. Salem’s mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, shared her reactions to the opening of the new wing on social media and someone forwarded her post to me. She was clearly as excited as the rest of us and why not: it was, again, a big weekend for Salem. Mayor Driscoll wrote that As we enter these doors we’ll know more about 16-year old sea captains who sailed around the globe and brought back treasures and trinkets to their hometown. Humankind is amazing when it comes to rising up to challenges. We tell those accounts, see those treasures, wonder what it was like and how it came about, marvel at the possibilities….we do all that here. In this space. In our city. Yes in our city, in Salem: but we can’t tell those accounts if we don’t have our history: trinkets and treasures are not enough. And we don’t have to wonder, we could actually learn and know, if we had our history, but we don’t: it’s not here, in our city, in Salem.

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20190929_153255The Phillips Library Gallery is #206 on the Visitor Map + adorable buttons; the new garden; view from the third floor of the new wing.


The Burning Church

For the last month, it seems like whenever I engaged in any form of social media I found myself looking at a primitive painting of a burning church. This image, by the nineteenth-century British expat artist John Hilling (1822-1894), who worked in Massachusetts and Maine, was chosen to illustrate a Smithsonian Magazine piece on David Vermette’s book A Distinct Alien Race: the Untold Story of Franco-Americans. It appeared on my feeds again and again as I’m often researching Franco-American communities in New England: it’s a favorite topic of students in the research seminar I teach, as Salem had a large and influential community of resident French Canadians in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, just one labor force for the city’s then- bustling textile mills. This community still has representatives in Salem today, though it was profoundly impacted by the Great Salem Fire of June 1914 which struck right in the heart of its neighborhood. So obviously, research topics abound, and apart from those inquiries, there’s something about a church in flames, whether by accident or intent, that always captures one’s attention.

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So here’s the image which has followed me online for last month or so: John Hilling’s Burning of the Old South Church, Bath, Maine, 1854 from the collection of the National Gallery of Art. There are several very interesting things about this painting: it is not signed by Hilling, but only referred to as his work in contemporary records–as well as his obituary; Hilling was documenting an event, so it is part of a sequential series which he created in several sets–indicating demand for such images; and even though this inflamed church looks like the perfect New England Congregational house of worship, it is being attacked for its recent alien occupation by a Catholic parish by a Nativist mob of Know-Nothings, in that contentious summer of 1854. Hilling created a before scene in which this mob appears to be looting the Church, and then an after in which it is in flames, and while browsing through the lots of an upcoming Doyle auction this weekend I found another stage of this scene by Hilling: a peaceful scene of the Church pristine.

CHurch Hilling Before Doyle

CHurch Gibbes Old-South-Church-by-John-Hilling-e1522359188267

Church Looting WoA-AMP-OC 518-dt

Hilling Sotheby's

Hilling Sothebys 2Doyle Auctions; Gibbes Museum of Art; Jeffrey Tillou Antiques; Sotheby’s Auctions.

We know that besides Bath, Hilling lived in Charlestown, Massachusetts, so I can’t help but wonder if his Church scenes were inspired by another notorious expression of anti-Catholicism twenty years before: the burning of the Ursuline Convent on St. Benedict (now in Somerville; then in Charlestown) in 1834. The “memory” of this epic event seems to have had a fast hold on all who witnessed or even heard of it, and I bet Hilling was no exception, even though he was only a boy and likely not even in this country when it happened.

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Harry Hazel, The nun of St. Ursula, or, The burning of the convent. A romance of Mount Benedict (1845).


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