Monday, October 14, 2019

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Impressionist & Post-Impressionist Drawings by Christopher Lloyd & Impressionism by Ralph Skea

Impressionist & Post-Impressionist Drawings
by Christopher Lloyd
Thames & Hudson /$60/288 pages

by Ralph Skea
Thames & Hudson-Art Essentials /$16.95/176 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves 

When the Museum of Modern Art in New York City announced that it would be shutting its doors from mid-June to late October 2019 for renovations and a reconfiguration of its iconic collection, I resolved to journey to NYC before the museum closed

A lot of fellow art lovers had the same idea. MOMA was crowded almost beyond capacity on the day I visited, June 13. Certain galleries, however, were even more packed with patrons than others. 

It came as no surprise that the paintings commanding such elbow-to-elbow attention were works by the 19th century Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists, the "old masters" of  modern art.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) 
 Gallery view of the Museum of Modern Art's Monet Gallery.

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism (also called Neo-Impressionism) command scholarly respect, as well.  Book store shelves are packed with volumes offering new insights into the painters who established "the heroism of modern life" as a valid theme in the visual arts. Two new books from Thames & Hudson have just been published, Impressionist & Post-Impressionist Drawings by Christopher Lloyd and Impressionism by Ralph Skea. Each is an outstanding addition to the literature of Impressionism. 

Why the continuing appeal of Monet, Renoir and Seurat? It was not always so. When MOMA first opened its doors in 1929, interest in the founding generation of modern art was at a low ebb. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Museum of Modern Art, 
showing patrons with Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night.

It was not until the 1950's that the popularity of the Impressionists began to thrive. The publication in 1946 of The History of Impressionism by John Rewald, still the "gold standard" book on the subject, was key to this revival. Hollywood "bio-pics" of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (Moulin Rouge, 1952) and Vincent van Gogh (Lust for Life, 1956) also provided a huge impetus for reawakening interest in La Belle Époque.

Christopher Lloyd's Impressionist & Post-Impressionist Drawings is a particularly impressive
book. From the standpoint of the research and analysis which the author devoted to this topic and the superlative quality of the narrative, this is a book to rival - and complement - Rewald's History of Impressionism. 

In writing about the Impressionist and Post-Impressionists,  Lloyd does not limit himself to  considering preparatory sketches and exhibition-quality pastels. Astute commentary on the working technique of these artists is shared in short, masterful biographical portraits. 

Mary Cassatt, Mother Combing Her Child's Hair, 1901

These brief character studies are models of psychological insight. Throughout the book, Lloyd uses a few, well-chosen words to create an image or prove a point which other books on Impressionism could not match in an entire chapter.

Writing about Édouard Manet, whose most controversial works were often re-workings of classic artistic themes, Lloyd writes, "Manet used the past as a Trojan horse to establish the primacy of modernism."

Edgar Degas, Dancer Shown in Position Facing Three-Quarters Front, c. 1872

Lloyd was for many years the curator in charge of the Queen's Pictures for the Royal Collection. He is also a specialist on the career of Edgar Degas and his 2014 book, Degas: Drawings and Pastels is the definitive work on the most accomplished draftsman of all the Impressionists. His chapter on Degas is a high point of his new book, as well. Here is a more extended sample of Lloyd's marvelous prose:

Degas's art ... is based on a penetrating and intelligent investigation of society comparable with the novels of contemporary naturalist writers such as Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant. A keen observer of ballet dancers, cabaret performers, jockeys, milliners, laundresses, ironers and prostitutes, Degas became respectful of the skills of others and the demands made upon them, to the extent that in the wider sense the challenges they faced can be interpreted as a metaphor for the struggles he had in perfecting his own art. In his depiction of everyday modern life, therefore, Degas sought out the heroic amid the mundane and the universal amid the incidental.

Here we see art history raised to a transcendental plain of human - and humane - commentary. 

In purely artistic terms, Lloyd shows that the famous Impressionist technique of painting directly from nature was only one of the "arrows" in their quiver. Almost all of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists utilized preparatory drawings from time-to-time, as we can see in this sketch by Renoir for The Dance in the Country (1883).

Pierre Auguste Renoir, Study for The Dance in the Country, 1883

Lloyd, of course, is not alone in pointing out that the Impressionists did not always paint sur le motif. This year's premier Impressionist exhibition, The Impressionist's Eye at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, underscored the often methodical attention devoted to drawing. Lloyd, however goes one step further by including the Italian-born artist, Federico Zandomeneghi (1841-1917) as one of the Impressionist artists skillful in drawing. As the illustrations of his work displayed in the book testify, Zandomeneghi was a maestro with pastel chalk.

Federico Zandomeneghi, Waking Up, 1895

Zandomeneghi was a latecomer to Impressionism, exhibiting at the 1880 Salon. Before this, he was a member of the Macchiaioli art circle, based in Florence. "Macchia" means splash, used in reference to their brush technique, which was similar to that of their French contemporaries.   

The Macchiaioli, in fact, were a parallel avant-garde movement astonishingly akin to the Impressionists. Lloyd is right on target when he notes that Zandomeneghi had only to leave the Macchiaioli's meeting place in Florence for its Impressionist counterpart, "on coming to Paris Zandomeneghi was exchanging the Caffe Michelangioli for the Cafe de la Nouvelle-Athenes on the Place Pigalle..."

Such reflections raise the rather subversive question of why there are so many exhibitions devoted to the Impressionists and so few to the Macchiaioli. According to my research, the last major exhibit of Macchiaioli paintings in the English-speaking world was held in 1986 at the art museums of UCLA and Harvard. Until this omission is corrected, we at least have Lloyd's spirited chapter on Zandomeneghi to remind us of the Macchiaioli.

Impressionism was never limited to one nation, though of course, France and French painters had the starring role in the crucial early years. Ralph Skea, in the second of the books under review, emphasizes the international character of Impressionism in his splendid volume of Thames & Hudson's Art Essentials series. 

Skea,an artist himself, pays special attention to the American and Australian Impressionist painters, some of whom required quite a bit of convincing before joining the movement.
Examining the career of J. Alden Weir (1852-1919), Skea notes that Weir encountered Impressionist paintings while studying in France, finding them "to be unprofessional, lacking in correct drawing and composition."

After returning to the United States, Weir experienced a change of heart. He joined John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) and Theodore Robinson (1852-1896) at the Cos Cob art colony in New England. Weir's The Red Bridge (1895) is one of the greatest of American Impressionist paintings. 

John Singer Sargent, An Out-of-Doors Study, 1889

American Impressionism had special challenges which kept it from achieving the special status it deserved. Two of its most gifted practitioners, Twachtman and Robinson, died tragically young. The most gifted American artist of the era, John Singer Sargent, painted an wide-ranging body of Impressionist works, in oil and watercolor, but became side-tracked by his grandiose mural series for the Boston Public Library. By the time the American - and Australian - Impressionists were hitting their stride, new developments in art had pushed Impressionism away from the vanguard of Modernism.

Skea skillfully incorporates this American episode within the overall saga of Impressionism, all within 176 pages. He recounts the rise and enduring appeal of the Impressionism in an engaging, thoughtful way which will appeal to readers new to the Impressionist's story and rewarding to art lovers who have read Rewald's classic account.

Skea's Impressionism is remarkable both for its concision and the way that unfamiliar artists or little known facts are introduced without affecting the thrust of the narrative. For instance, Skea notes that one of the lesser-known members of the movement, Armand Guillaumin, was one of the first to "to include factory chimneys as a major feature, showing the visual impact of recent industrialization."

Armand Guillaumin, Sunset at Ivry, 1873

Skea makes a bold comparison between Guillaumin's Sunset at Ivry with another Impressionist painting which had been displayed at the first Impressionist Salon in 1874. This was none other than Monet's signature work which was to give the movement its name: Impression: Sunrise.  

Skea writes:
Guillaumin's dramatic representation of a sunset is in many ways a companion picture to Monet's more famous and more abbreviated "impression" of a sunrise. Both images brought to the exhibition the Impressionist commitment to painting light by means of heightened colour effects.

Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise, 1872

Taken together, Impressionist & Post-Impressionist Drawings by Christopher Lloyd and Impressionism by Ralph Skea prove their points. The Impressionists did indeed make carefully composed drawings as part of their oeuvre. Despite the harsh, derisive criticism hurled at them during the early years of the movement, the Impressionists' novel handling of light and their depiction of social themes changed the trajectory of art forever.

How like the sunrises and sunsets they painted are the pictures of Monet and his colleagues! One never fails to see the Sun break through the mists of dawn or sink below the horizon in a veil of fading glory without feeling a sense of awe, a renewed belief that the living spirit of the cosmos will triumph and endure. So too, for the art of the Impressionists.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Book cover images courtesy of Thames & Hudson 

Introductory Image:
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, (French, 1834-1917) A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers, 1865. Oil on canvas: 29 x 36 1/2 in. (73.7 x 92.7 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 # 29.100.128

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Museum of Modern Art's Monet Gallery. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Museum of Modern Art, showing patrons with Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night.

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844-1926) Mother Combing Her Child's Hair, c. 1901. Pastel on gray paper: 25 1/4 x 31 5/8 in. (64.1 x 80.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Mary T. Cockcroft, 46.102

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, (French, 1834-1917) A Ballet Dancer in Position Facing Three-Quarters Front, c. 1872. Pencil and black chalk, heightened with white chalk on pink wove paper: 41 x 27.6 cm (16 1/8 x 10 7/8 in.)  Harvard Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum. # 1965.263

Pierre Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919) Study for The Dance in the Country, 1883.  Brush and brown, blue, and black wash over black chalk or graphite: 49.5 x 30.5 cm (19 1/2 x 12 in.) Yale University Art Museum. Bequest of Edith Malvina K. Wetmore.  #1966.80.25

Federico Zandomeneghi (Italian, 1841-1917) Waking Up,1895. Pastel mounted on board: 60 x 72 cm. (23 5/8  x 28 3/8 in.) Palazzo dei Te, Mantua.

John Singer Sargent  (American, 1856-1925) An Out-of-Doors Study, 1889. Oil on canvas, frame: 41 1/2 x 48 5/8 x 6 in. (105.4 x 123.5 x 15.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund, 20.640

Armand Guillaumin (French, 1841-1927) Sunset at Ivry, 1873. Oil on canvas: 81 cm. x 65 cm. (25 1/2 x 32 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Impression: Sunrise, 1872. Oil on canvas: 48 x 63 cm. (19 x 25 in.) The Musée Marmottan, Paris.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Cost of Revolution at the Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia


Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier  

Museum of the American Revolution  
Sept. 28, 2019 through March 17, 2020

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original photography by Anne Lloyd

The American Revolution began in 1773 with a defiant prank that resulted in 340 chests of tea tossed into Boston Harbor. A decade later, on November 25, 1783, America’s struggle for independence ended with a practical joke.

The last British troops to evacuate New York City nailed the Union Jack onto the flagpole at their fort near the Battery. The Redcoats slathered grease on the flagpole so that the victorious Patriots would have a tough time replacing the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes. It took a few attempts, but Old Glory eventually was raised over New York City.

During the ten year interval between the Boston Tea Party and the British departure from New York, a living-nightmare of suffering, slaughter and sobering loss of life took place.

Xavier Della Gatta, The Battle of Paoli, 1782

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia has just opened a superb exhibition, entitled Cost of Revolution. This remarkable display of art and historic artifacts focuses on the life, sufferings and death of one soldier of the American Revolutionary War, a British officer named Richard St. George.

Before examining the life of Richard St. George, let us briefly look at the estimates of those who were killed in battle or died of disease,1775-1783: 24,000 Patriots, 24,000 British, 7,500 Hessian mercenaries and 600 French soldiers and sailors.

No figures are available for civilian deaths, but these were certainly in the thousands. Many of these non-military fatalities, as was the case in the opposing armies, were inflicted by a far deadlier foe than musket-armed foot soldiers: smallpox. A dreadful smallpox epidemic ravaged North America during the American Revolution. Particularly hard hit were African American slaves who fled to refugee camps set-up by the British early in the war, only to be stricken

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Joseph Wright of Derby's The Dead Soldier (detail), c.1789

The cost of America's Revolution? A butcher's bill likely to have numbered 75,000 dead.

With all of this slaughter and suffering, why did the Museum of the American Revolution focus on just one soldier's plight? Was the experience of Richard St. George, a lieutenant in a British light infantry unit, so revealing of the hardships of the many? Moreover, is it fitting to use the tale of a soldier who survived the war, though horribly wounded, to illustrate the "cost" of Revolution?

A resounding yes to all of the above! The decision to chronicle the life of Richard St. George is a truly outstanding effort of bringing the past to life. In this superb exhibition, the curators of Cost of Revolution probe many vital issues of the era of the American Revolution - and topics of relevance to our contemporary world, as well.

Thomas Gainsborough, Richard St. George Mansergh-St. George, 1776

In addition to his courageous service during the American Revolution, Richard St. George was a talented amateur artist and man of wide-ranging cultural interests. Shortly before sailing to join his British Army unit in the American colonies, St. George posed for his portrait in 1776. Selecting Thomas Gainsborough to paint his likeness was an inspired choice. Gainsborough  portrayed St. George as "every inch the officer and gentleman" but also an untested, "unbloodied" soldier.

In contrast to this "before the battle" portrait, the noted Irish artist, Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1739-1808), later painted a number of portraits of St. George still bearing the marks of his wartime head wound suffered at the Battle of Germantown in 1777. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo, 2019)
Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Richard St. George, c. 1800

This portrait of St. George, actually done after his death, shows him wearing a skull cap to cover his battle scars. 

St. George was shot in the head by one of the deadly marksmen of Washington's army. Because Germantown was  close to Philadelphia (today it is a Philly neighborhood), the wounded officer was rushed to a hospital where skilled medical care was available.

"Rushed" to a hospital is a bit of an exaggeration. St. George later drew a sketch of himself, wrapped in a blue cloak, being taken in a farm cart along with other wounded troops to an aid station. St. George entitled the sketch "My triumphant return into Philadelphia." Later, this somber scene reappeared in a painting of the Battle of Germantown which St. George commissioned an Italian artist, Xavier Della Gatta, to paint.

Richard St. GeorgeMy Triumphant Return into Philadelphia, c.1777-78

Triumphantly or not, the wounded St. George made it back to Philadelphia. Desperate injuries call for desperate remedies and that is what saved St. George. A surgeon removed part of his skull with a medical instrument called a trephine saw. 

Trephine (Skull Saw), Mütter Museum, Philadelphia

By performing this gruesome operation, fatal swelling of brain tissue was prevented. This enabled the wound to heal by keeping it bandaged and clean. Eventually a silver plate was inserted over the opening in St. George's skull.

It goes without saying that this "brain surgery" was performed without anesthetics. Wounded soldiers were given a "dram" of whiskey or brandy and had a musket ball placed in their mouths for them to "grit" their teeth upon, to keep from choking. Then the surgeons set to work amputating limbs or, in St. George's case, sawing a hole in his head. Wounds in the torso were inoperable and soldiers shot in the chest or abdomen rarely survived.

The emotional scars St. George suffered went much deeper than this nearly fatal gunshot could inflict. His brush with death created a lingering psychic condition which today we call posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Richard St. George, Self-portrait of the artist, c. late 1780's

His continued suffering led St. George to investigate spiritualism and other-worldly phenomenon in the years following the Revolutionary War. St. George cultivated friendships with prominent figures in the British cultural scene, who were involved in the great shift of thought and feeling we now call Romanticism. 

With his abundant talents, incredible life experiences and sensitive disposition, St. George might well have become a major author or artist himself. St. George, alas, had one more character trait which ultimately determined that he would not "cheat" fate.

Richard St. George Mansergh-St. George was an Irishman.

Born about 1752 into a family of wealthy Protestant aristocrats, St. George was by birthright a member of Ireland's "ascendancy." St. George's family, prominent in Britain's military, owned a vast expanse of Irish lands which he eventually inherited. Courageous, self-confident to the point of arrogance, the Anglo-Irish warrior-gentry embodied Oliver Goldsmith's immortal words in The Traveller (1764)

 Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,                                                                           I see the lords of human kind pass by.                                                                               Intent on high designs, a thoughtful band,                                                                         By forms unfashion'd, fresh from Nature's hand;                                                               Fierce in their native hardiness of soul,                                                                             True to imagine'd right, above control ...

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Flag from the 1798 Irish Revolt

In 1798, the seemingly absolute sway of the "Ascendancy" suddenly was challenged. Radical insurrection, triggered by the French Revolution, reached the shores of Ireland.  For the second time in his life, St. George confronted the "cost" of revolution, and this time paid the full price.

The Museum of the American Revolution received cooperation of the highest order from a number of Irish museums, making a carefully-balanced treatment of the life and times of Richard St. George possible. One of the treasures of Ireland's National Museum is on view in Cost of Revolution. This is the bloodstained pocketbook or wallet of Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798), a leader of the United Irishmen, who tried to break Britain's control of Ireland.

Theobald Wolfe Tone's Pocketbook, National Museum of Ireland

I cannot recall any previous exhibition in the United States dealing with the 1798 "Year of Liberty" in Ireland. Cost of Revolution is a true revelation in this respect.

The same can also be said for the more familiar events of the American Revolution. There is always something to be learned from history, especially when, as in the case of the Museum of the American Revolution, "living" history is the goal.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Living history educator, Matthew van Nostrand

At the press preview, several "living history" educators from the museum's staff were present. Two of them were dressed in the combat attire of St. George's regiment, the 52nd Foot, as the British called infantry units. 

St. George and his comrades were light infantrymen and here another surprise from the past is in store. During the Revolutionary War, the British became as skilled as the Americans in "Indian-style" tactics, taking cover and firing from behind trees. A Scottish officer, Major Patrick Ferguson (1744-1780), introduced a breach-loading rifle during the war. A working replica of the Ferguson rifle was on hand at the press preview which museum president, Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, expertly explained. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, director of the Museum of the American Revolution,
 explaining the breach-loading rifle invented by Major Patrick Ferguson

The Ferguson rifle was the most advanced firearm of the eighteenth century but, fortunately for Washington's Continentals, it was a little too advanced. According to Dr. Stephenson, this rapid-firing weapon quickly clogged after a number of shots, due to the build-up of residue from the crude gunpowder used during the 1770's.

Warfare during the "Age of Reason" had more in common with the horrors of the Thirty Years War than with enlightened rationalism of Voltaire and Diderot. 

As the centerpiece of the gallery dealing with the Battle of Germantown, a life-sized - and incredibly life-like - display of two light infantrymen of the 52nd is on view. We are confronted with the "face" of battle. The features of the sword-bearing officer are modeled on those of Richard St. George.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Gallery view of Under Attack at Germantown
at the Cost of Revolution exhibition

The astonishing realism of this sculpture has to be seen to be believed. Once you look into the eyes of these grim-faced warriors, you start to realize what it means to fight for your life, to kill or to be killed.

My wife and I were very moved to come face-to-face with Richard St. George when we studied this stunning work of historical recreation. Anne and I had seen a similar display dealing with the Napoleonic Wars at the National Army Museum in London many years ago. I mentioned this to Dr. Stephenson who said that both statue groups were based on the research of a great historian-illustrator named Gerald Embleton,  

At the risk of contradicting myself, I did discover a link between the Age of Reason and the bloodshed of the American War of Independence. Adam Smith, the great Scottish economist, published a treatise of philosophy entitled Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). In this work, Smith makes an observation showing the way that human beings can connect with the experiences of others, on different sides of the battle line and across centuries.

Adam Smith wrote:

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves feel in like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers … it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Gallery view of the Cost of Revolution exhibit,
showing Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of Richard St. George

That is precisely the effect that Cost of Revolution has, informing, stimulating and challenging our "imagination only that we can form any conception of what" are the feelings of other human beings.

The resonances of Richard St. George's life are truly palpable in the exhibition galleries at the Museum of the American Revolution. 

The experience of combat, of living with a debilitating wound, of being caught a second time in the chaos of political upheaval are not abstractions in Cost of Revolution. For a moment, however brief, our imaginations are moved to feel and to understand what Richard St. George endured when a well-aimed bullet at the Battle of Germantown stretched his body and his mind "upon the rack" of suffering - from which he was never to be free. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Original Photos: Copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved.                                                                                        
Images courtesy of the  Museum of the American Revolution 

Introductory Image:

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Under Attack at Germantown (detail), gallery display at the Cost of Revolution exhibition, the Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia.

Xavier Della Gatta (Italian, active 1777-1828) The Battle of Paoli, 1782. Oil painting commissioned by Richard St. George. Collection of the Museum of the American Revolution , Philadelphia.   

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Joseph Wright of Derby's The Dead Soldier (detail), c. 1789. Oil on canvas: 40 x 50 inches (101.6 x 127 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Accession Number B1974.3.25

Thomas Gainsborough (British, 1727-1788) Richard St. George Mansergh-St. George, 1776. Oil on canvas: 230.2 × 156.1 cm.  National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest, 1922. #1223-3

Hugh Douglas Hamilton (Irish, 1739-1808 ) Richard St. George, c.1800. Oil on Panel, Private Collection.

Richard St. George (Irish, c.1752-1798) My triumphant return to Philadelphia, c. 1778. Ink, watercolor on paper. Harlan Crow Library, Dallas, Texas.

Trephine (Skull Saw). Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Richard St. George (Irish, c.1752-1798) Self-portrait of the artistWatercolor wash: 24 x 37 cm. (9.4 x 14.6 in.) Museum of the American Revolution, Gift of Mr. Roger Shuttlewood

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Flag from the 1798 Irish Revolt, on display in the Cost of Revolution exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution.

Theobald Wolfe Tone's Pocketbook, National Museum of Ireland

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019), Living history educator, Matthew van Nostrand, of the Museum of American Revolution.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, director of the Museum of the American Revolution, explaining the workings of the breach-loading rifle invented by Major Patrick Ferguson.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of Under Attack at Germantown, exhibit display at the Cost of Revolution exhibition, the Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Cost of Revolution exhibit, showing Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of Richard St. George.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass at the Yale University Art Gallery

A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass 

Yale University Art Gallery
March 29 - September 29, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

It was Benjamin Franklin, along with a lesser-known patriot named Christopher Gadsden, who proposed the rattlesnake as a symbol of defiance during the years of crisis leading up to the American Revolution. The now familiar “Don’t Tread on Me” snake certainly made for a powerful emblem of resistance. The British "milords", safe and sound in their Whitehall offices, failed to get the message.

The British also missed the point of a small green-tinted glass vessel made around the same time. This slightly tipsy-looking cream pitcher, perched on cabriole legs and paw feet, hardly looks like a fit companion to the pewter ale mugs of the Sons of Liberty. Yet, in its way, the diminutive glass pitcher was a direct challenge to the British Empire. 

American Flint Glass Manufactory, Cream Pitcher,1769–74

Henry William Steigel, a German-born artisan of genius, gets the credit for this remarkable object. Steigel (1729-1785) established the American Flint Glass Manufactory in Manheim, Pennsylvania, in 1769. Steigel did so in defiance of the notorious Townsend Duties, passed by Parliament in 1767 to tax manufactured goods imported into the American colonies – even when most of these were purchased from Britain. By making their own glassware - and iron tools and weapons - Americans like Steigel declared their independence from Great Britain years before 1776. 

This jaunty pitcher, made from mold-blown potash-lime glass, was on view in a fabulous exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery. A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass closed on September 29, 2019.

If you were not able to visit New Haven, CT, in time to see  A Nation Reflected, don’t despair. Yale University has published a catalog of the exhibition which, even by the very high standards of art books today, is beautiful to behold. 

American Glass, The Collections at Yale (2018), written by John Stuart Gordon

With large format photos of exceptional clarity. American Glass, The Collections at Yale, also features an authoritative text. Written by John Stuart Gordon, this is an absolutely authoritative and compelling book. It will be consulted time and again, whenever art lovers wish to learn more about glass making's role in American history and art.

Such praise, however, raises an important question. How significant are glass cream pitchers, compote bowls or whiskey flasks in the great drama of U.S. history? Is glass making a "sidebar" to the big story of the rise of American painting from Benjamin West to Andy Warhol?

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) 
Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass
 at the Yale University Art Gallery

A Nation Reflected was on my exhibition radar for a long time. I was determined to get to the Yale University Art Gallery - however late in the day - to answer these questions. As I surveyed the splendid display, It was not long before I realized that the incredible glass pieces on view were testaments to the rich human experience underpinning America's experiment in art, science and democracy.

Kensington Glass Works, Sailors Rights Flask, 1826–32

The story of culture in the U.S.A. cannot ignore folk art, which is as important as forms of higher wisdom and creativity. Much of the originality and innovation of America emerges from the "hardscrabble" reality of the nation's working  - rather than leisured - class. The same is true of humor as can be seen in this zany, turtle-shaped flask. 

This singular piece is known as the "Sailors Rights Flask" in reference to the outrage over the conscription of U.S. sailors by the British Navy. This high-handed policy helped trigger the War of 1812. What this turtle-design has to do with seamen's welfare is anyone's guess. The fact that it was made in Philadelphia over a decade after the war ended in 1815, suggests that there is no connection at all. The most likely explanation is that a craftsman at the Kensington Glass Works looked at a common flask design, realized that it was shaped like a turtle and then added legs, tail and dorsal ridge. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) 
Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass exhibition
Sailors Rights Flask, center

I suspect the reason for doing so was for the sheer joy of adding some wit and whimsy to the world in shape of a glass turtle.  Or perhaps we could say, just for the "hell of it!"

The serious, high-minded things of life march through history with the comical, the sentimental and the troublesome. In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette accepted the invitation of President Monroe to visit the United States. Lafayette (1757-1834) was one of the last surviving heroes of the American Revolution. Volunteering to serve with the Patriot cause before France formally became the ally of America in 1778, Lafayette had fought valiantly, earning the admiration and friendship of George Washington. 

Lafayette's 1824 tour of the still-young nation was a significant event, generating huge amounts of excitement and celebrations wherever the French hero visited. Flasks bearing his image were a popular item. So were charming little salt dishes, shaped like steam boats. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
From left, Flask Depicting the Marquis de Lafayette,1824-30
 and Salt, made by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Works,1827-35

This nautical salt dish, made in Sandwich, Massachusetts, bears the abbreviated form of the French nobleman's name, "Lafayet," on the paddle wheel. This would have been carved onto the mold which shaped the boat/dish, along with all of the other intricate details. Truly, this little blue memento is a testament to the high level of skill that went into its making.

Coventry Glass Works,  Flask Depicting the Marquis de Lafayette, reverse, 1824-30

The reverse of the amber-colored colored flask, however, tells a tale about revolution which the elderly Lafayette would have been loathe to remember. The reverse image is not the heroic Marquis in profile but a liberty cap set onto a liberty pole. During the 1820's, these were treasured icons of the American Revolution of 1776. Liberty cap and pole had different connotations in France. They were symbols of the 1793 Terror during the French Revolution.

Initially, Lafayette had been an ardent supporter of the 1789 uprising in Paris, sending the key to the Bastille to Washington. Lafayette saw the French Revolution as a way to create a constitutional monarchy. But when radicals like Danton and Robespierre seized control of the movement, Lafayette went into exile and was promptly arrested by the Austrians who blamed him for the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette. Despite Washington's efforts, he languished in prison for many years.

Liberty caps and liberty poles were thus more of a nightmare to Lafayette than a happy memory. This shows how works of folk art like this flask reveal the complexities of 
history. They are far more important than just nostalgic yearnings for the "good old days."

The tangled web of American history is nowhere more apparent than in a string of glass beads dating to the early 1600's. This is an easy-to-miss work in the exhibition catalog, as it was in the exhibit. Yet, it is one the most most significant pieces in Yale's glass collection.

Unknown artist, likely from Venice, Italy. Strand of Beads, 1600–1625

These beads were once thought to have been made at the glassworks at Jamestown, Virginia, soon after the first English colony - to survive - was founded in 1607. The English colonists came in search of gold and then in search of land for a viable cash-crop, tobacco. They needed trade beads to barter with the Native Americans and a glass-blowing works is recorded as having been established. When these beads were purchased in 1929 by the noted collector, Francis P. Garvan, they were believed to have been made at Jamestown.

As Gordon shows in his book, the years of scientific research devoted to this string of beads proved that Garvan had bought the beads based on wishful thinking. These glass beads were indeed manufactured during the 1600's, but most probably in Venice.The hunt for glass beads or any kind of glass made at Jamestown continues. 

Garvan's purchase is important, all the same, because it shows how quickly the British colonies in America were drawn into the international economic order which produced the Townsend Duties, among its less pleasant aspects.

A Nation Reflected (and the companion book by Gordon) also provided insight into technical aspects of historic glass making and scientific utilization of glass as well. On view were the amazing  “The Yale Microscope,” attributed to the English scientific instrument maker, Matthew Loft, 1725–35, and the Clevinger Brothers' Two-Part Flask Mold.

Possibly Matthew Loft, “The Yale Microscope,” 1725–35

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
 Two-Part Flask Mold, made by Clevinger Brothers Glass Works, 1930-60

The "Yale Microscope" was called a "prospect glass" when it was purchased in 1735. According to John Stuart Gordon, it is likely the oldest microscope in the U.S. - Harvard's slightly older instrument was lost in a 1764 fire. By contrast the Clevinger flask mold dates to a much later period, the 1930's, but provides valuable insight into how earlier flasks like the Lafayette/Liberty Cap flask was made.

The masterpieces of American glass from later periods of U.S. history provide equally fascinating insights into the development of American art and society. One of my favorite pieces in the Reflecting America exhibition was the Hobbs, Brockunier & Co "yellow-red" vase, 1886-87. This exquisite work dates from the Gilded Age period when fabulously wealthy U.S. art collectors appeared to have gained a monopoly of the world's "things of beauty."

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Vase, made by Hobbs, Brockunier & Co., 1886–87

In 1886, the Baltimore magnate, W.T. Walters, purchased a rare 18th century Chinese vase. Walters spent $18,000, a staggering sum for the period, to buy the fabled "Peach Bloom" porcelain vase. When word of Walter's record-smashing acquisition hit the news, the  West Virginia glasshouse, Hobbs, Brockunier & Co, made a daring bid to create a facsimile in glass.  Using state-of-the-art technology, Hobbs, Brockunier created a heat-sensitive glass that showed subtle gradations of color from yellow to red.

While still beyond the means of most Americans, the Hobbs, Brockunier & Co. vase was within the purchasing range of the second-tier of art collectors. This work of art is truly beautiful, both in the exhibit case or on the page of the companion book by John Stuart Gordon. Though hardly an affirmation of democracy in the arts, the Hobbs, Brockunier "yellow-red" vase enabled an art work of ethereal beauty to remain in the public eye.

One "second-tier of art collector" deserves special mention. The son of Irish immigrants, Francis P. Garvan (1875-1937) was a Yale graduate and prominent lawyer. He was also a sincere American patriot and an enthusiast for American art, especially works created in colonial America and the early period of U.S. history. His collection was not intended for his own, exclusive enjoyment.

"Early or late at the vineyard gate," Garvan wrote in 1930, "the rich heritage of American citizenship is for all alike."

Harris & Ewing, photographers. Francis Patrick Garvan, 1919

Garvan focused on collecting rare and precious glassware in order to preserve this delicate and often overlooked genre. In 1930, he donated his collection to Yale. Many of the most notable pieces in the America Reflected exhibition, such as the "Jamestown" beads and Steigel's tipsy cream pitcher came to Yale thanks to Garvan. 

Contemporary examples of the American genius for glass-making were also well-represented in the Yale exhibition and are covered in detail in Gordon's book. One display case alone held three outstanding pieces from recent years: Josh Simpson's Mega World (1991), Mark Peiser's Cliff with Pines PWV 319 (1981) and Spring Grass II by Toots Zynsky (1983).

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass exhibition.

Photo shows (from left) Josh Simpson's Mega World (1991), Mark Peiser's Cliff with Pines PWV 319 (1981) and Spring Grass II by Toots Zynsky (1983)

I was well-acquainted with Josh Simpson's otherworldly globes. Most of these small wonders can be held in the palm of your hand and really do evoke undiscovered planets. Mega World (1991), however, is the size of a bowling ball or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that it has the appearance of mighty Jupiter when seen from a few light years away.

Josh Simpson, Mega World, 1991

What really impresses me about Mega World, as with Simpson's other "undiscovered planets," is the air of mystery it conveys. The sense of possibility for human discovery and creative expression is down there on the surface of Mega World, waiting for us once we land and disembark from our "spaceship."

Mystery, possibility, discovery and creativity in the American story are nothing new, however. These "intangibles" were very much present before Jamestown, after Jamestown and even now in the America of today. A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass made that abundantly clear and so does John Stuart Gordon's companion book.

May it always be so.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery and the Library of Congress.

Introductory Image:
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) John Doggett, attributed, Looking Glass, 1802–25. Eastern white pine, birch, gilding, and silvered plate glass: 72 1/2 x 38 1/4 in. (184.2 x 97.2 cm) Mabel Brady Garvan Collection Yale University Art Gallery 1931.316

Attributed to American Flint Glass Manufactory, Cream Pitcher, Manheim, Pa., 1769–74. Mold-blown potash-lime glass. Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection 
Yale University Art Gallery and Yale University Press, Cover art for American Glass, the Collections at Yale by John Stuart Gordon, 2018

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass at the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo shows Mosaic Window, ca. 1890, created by the Belcher Mosaic Glass Co.(right-hand corner).

Kensington Glass Works, Sailors Rights Flask (Turtle Whimsy), Philadelphia, 1826–32. Mold-blown soda-lime glass. Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection 

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass at the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo shows Harvey Littleton's Exploded Green Vase, 1965 (left) and the Sailors Rights Flask ,1826–32 (center). 

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass at the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo shows Flask Depicting the Marquis de Lafayette,1824-30, and Salt, made by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Works,1827-35

Coventry Glass Works (Owned by Stebbins & Stebbins, Coventry, CT,1813-50) Flask Depicting the Marquis de Lafayette, reverse, 1824-30.  Mold-blown  soda-lime glass: 6 1/8 x 3 1/8 x 2 1/8 inches. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Mrs. Glen Wright, 1941.132.

Unknown artist, likely Venetian. Strand of Beads, 1600–1625. Flameworked soda-lime and potash-lime glass: 20 1/2 in. (52.07 cm) Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, #1930.1734

Possibly Matthew Loft, Tripod Compound Microscope, “The Yale Microscope,” London, 1725–35. Oak, maple, brass, sharkskin, vellum, glass, and cardboard. Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, inv. no. ypm hsi.020001. Courtesy the Division of Historical Scientific Instruments; Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University;

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Two-Part Flask Mold, made by Clevinger Brothers Glass Works, 1930-60. Cast iron, 8 1/2 x 9 1/4 x 18 1/2 in. Yale University Art Gallery

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Vase, made by Hobbs, Brockunier & Co., Vase, Wheeling, W.Va., 1886–87. Mold-blown lead Coral Ware glass and pressed lead glass. Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with a gift from William Bates, Jr., in honor of Edward S. Cooke, b.a. 1977, and Charles F. Montgomery, hon. 1970 

Harris & Ewing, photographers. Francis Patrick Garvan, three-quarter length portrait, seated at desk, facing left, July 13, 1919. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs division,  the digital ID cph.3b38631.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass at the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo shows Josh Simpson's Mega World (1991), Mark Peiser's Cliff with Pines PWV 319 (1981) and Spring Grass II by Toots Zynsky (1983).

Josh Simpson, Mega World, Shelburne Falls, Mass., 1991. Pulled and lamp-worked soda-lime glass with silver and gold leaf. Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with a gift from Stewart G. Rosenblum, j.d. 1974, m.a. 1974, m.phil. 1976, ph.d. 2010, in honor of his aunt and uncle Helen D. and Benjamin S. Gordon. © Josh Simpson