Friday, October 22, 2021

Art Eyewitness Review: Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution.


Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution

 Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia
October 16, 2021 - September 5, 2022

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Photos by Ed Voves of original Don Troiani paintings, © Don Troiani

The final days of the American Revolutionary War placed Benjamin Franklin in a very curious state of mind. Franklin, the leader of the American diplomats negotiating the terms of the peace treaty, had every reason to be elated. Victory was in the air. Yet, he was in a melancholy mood, ruminating on the human cost of the conflict. 

Writing to fellow scientist, Sir Joseph Banks, in July 1783, Franklin asserted, "There never was a good war or a bad peace."

Reflecting upon the paintings of Revolutionary War battles by contemporary artist, Don Troiani, certainly helps me comprehend Franklin's less-than-exultant remarks. It has been calculated that 24,000 Patriots were killed or died of disease between 1775 to 1783. An equal number of British soldiers and 7,500 Hessian mercenaries paid the price of King George's political folly with their lives. Nobody counted civilian deaths.

Over forty original works of art by Don Troiani bring to life what Thomas Paine memorably called "the times that try men's souls." Complemented by displays of authentic weapons and uniforms, Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution is presented by the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Don Troiani and curator Matthew Skic (right) at the press preview for
  Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution

Troiani, who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, works in the great realist tradition of Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. His specialty is military art, especially of the American Revolutionary War. An excellent companion book to the exhibition presents incisive accounts of the battles and events which Troiani depicts in his paintings, along with fascinating details of his artistic technique and experiences in recreating these bygone events. 

Although narrative paintings of the kind at which Troiani excels are of vital importance to the study of history, these works rarely receive much attention in the realm of art appreciation. As I hope to show in this review, Troiani's paintings are powerful investigations of human emotions and deserve to be considered as accomplished works of art.

That Troiani's paintings are inspired is evident by the powerful effect these works have on the viewer. This is not an emotional, subjective response on my part, alone, as was confirmed during my visit to the exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Mr. Algernon Ward with Don Troiani's painting,
 As Brave Men as Ever Fought, 2020

While examining Troiani's art, I had the great honor to speak with Mr. Algernon Ward, who posed in a new painting by Troiani. Entitled As Brave Men as Ever Fought, it records the march of the 1st Rhode island Regiment, a multi-racial unit formed in 1778. Several companies of African-American recruits, including 100 slaves who were emancipated upon joining the unit, participated in military campaigns during the final years of the war, including the decisive battle of Yorktown in 1781.

At the center of the painting, a young African-American, James Forten, watches with pride as the Rhode Island troops march through Philadelphia on their way to Yorktown. Forten was so inspired that he joined the American Navy. He survived the war, including time as a prisoner of war on one of the infamous "hulks", prison ships anchored near New York. Forten went on to become one of the early leaders of the Abolitionist movement of the early 1800's.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Detail of Don Troiani's painting, As Brave Men as Ever Fought

Mr. Ward, shown in the detail, above, posed as the Rhode Island soldier nearest to Forten. Ward, a native of Trenton, New Jersey, is active in the "living history" movement. He is a member of the 6th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, a group which re-enacts the lives of African-American soldiers over the course of U.S. history.

Mr. Ward was visibly moved as he described his experience of modeling as a Rhode Island Regiment soldier for Troiani. Looking at the finished painting makes him feel like he is "floating two feet above ground."

Such moments of inspiration remind us of the great exertions made in the name of liberty. When freedom is at stake, it is not merely a matter of noble words but of blood too - suffering, wounds, death. Troiani's art helps us appreciate Franklin's war-weary reflections. But these vivid, powerful works of art also testify to the self-sacrificing resolve of the 1776 generation. 

Spanning the nearly decade-long war, Troiani's American Revolution paintings narrate the course of military campaigns and other important incidents of this pivotal era in history. Stressing absolute accuracy, both in details of uniforms, weapons and battle sites and the grim, often appalling, experience of combat, Troiani has filled a glaring hole in the American historical record. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Don Troiani's Margaret Corbin, Fort Washington (detail)

This gap in American history resulted from the almost complete absence of trained artists on the scene at Lexington and Concord, Princeton, Saratoga and Yorktown. With only a few exceptions, pictures of these historic events, dating to the actual time (or close to it), were not created.

A well-developed system of art education and patronage did not exist in the British colonies prior to 1776 - and for many years after. Yet, lack of trained talent alone does not account for the scarcity of contemporary depictions of the American Revolution. A complicated mix of psychological, political and cultural motives, related to the Age of Reason, drew a curtain over the frequent wars and the very real brutality of the era.

History painting during the eighteenth century generally dealt with the distant past, events from Biblical stories and Greek and Roman times. During the 1700's, only Antoine Watteau, among great artists, created authentic representations of recent warfare. Watteau painted several remarkable scenes of soldier life during the War of the Spanish Succession, 1702-1713.

Right from the first volley of musket fire at Lexington, the American Revolution was different. It was a "people's war" not a dynastic struggle over who would sit on the throne of Spain. It was a conflict where stirring visual depictions of the rebellion against British tyranny might have made a huge impact. Initially, that seemed to be the case.

The first work in the exhibition of Troiani's paintings focuses on the notorious Boston Massacre of 1770. Confronted by a swiftly-escalating riot, a platoon of British infantrymen opened fire on a crowd of brickbat-throwing Bostonians. Paul Revere's crude but effective print of the "massacre" is displayed next to Troiani's more accurate version.

Paul Revere, The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, 1770

Revere's print helped galvanize the resistance of American Patriots against British rule. However, it was years before another powerful image of the Revolutionary War was created by an American-born artist, one who had fled to England, shortly before the fighting began. 

John Singleton Copley's The Death of Major Peirson portrayed a minor incident in the American Revolution after it had become a global war. With most of the British Army fighting in America, French troops tried to seize the English Channel island of Jersey on January 6,1781. Their attempt failed thanks to the heroic defense led by Major Francis Peirson, who was killed early in the fighting.

John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 1782 

With Britain clearly losing the war in America, Copley took some of the sting out of the impending defeat with The Death of Major Peirson. He showed valiant Britons fighting to defend their home soil, just as the American Patriots were doing. The Death of Major Peirson was wildly popular when it was displayed in London, without damaging Copley's reputation in America. Even so, Copley never returned to the now independent United States. 

The dramatic years between Paul Revere's The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street and The Death of Major Peirson were left an almost blank canvas which various artists later sought to fill. Many of the paintings of the Revolutionary War were only created decades after the event. The results were often simplistic, over-romanticized and in many cases misleading. Not only do Troiani's paintings document events which had earlier been ignored, but he has been setting the record straight for incidents which had been inaccurately represented.

Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution makes several important points. Considered according to these insights, the struggle for American independence appears in a more complicated, yet, more inspiring light.

Troiani's paintings show that two "wars" occurred under the overarching title of the Revolutionary War. The first involved set-piece military campaigns, fought according to the conventional tactics of the 18th century. The British usually won these engagements, though at such a cost in blood that "victories" like the Battle of Freeman's Farm led eventually to Patriot triumphs at Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown in 1781.

Ed Voves, Photos (2021) 
Don Troiani's Freeman's Farm (above) & Victory at Yorktown (details)

The second, parallel struggle was an even more terrible conflict. It was marked by raids, ambushes, scorched-earth destruction and cruelty toward prisoners and civilians.This second war was largely an "All American" affair, pitting frontier Patriots  vs. Loyalist rangers. It was, in fact, the first American Civil War.

Several of Troiani's paintings on view at the Museum of the American Revolution deal with this brutal "second front." Of these I was particularly impressed, indeed fascinated, by The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany, August 6, 1777. This bloody, hard-fought struggle in the forests of western New York was notable for the involvement of Native Americans on both sides of the battle line.

One of the most influential factors in the successful establishment of the English-speaking colonies in America was the support of the Six Nations,  the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy. The help of the Six Nations was especially crucial in winning the French and Indian War, 1755-1763. However, the Revolution broke the unity of this impressive Native American confederation. Most of the member nations, especially the Mohawks, remained allied to the British. However, the Oneida supported the Patriot cause.

During the summer of 1777, pro-British warriors of the Six Nations, along with a small force of British troops and American Loyalists, tried to march across the wilderness of western New York to support the British army under General Burgoyne which was advancing down from Canada. Once the link-up had been achieved, the combined force aimed to cut-off New England from the rest of  Patriot-held territory.  


Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Don Troiani with his painting, The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany

The force of British, Loyalists and Native Americans, under Lt. Colonel Barry St. Leger, needed to capture Fort Stanwix (near present-day Rome, N.Y). Before they could do so, a Patriot relief column marched to support the defenders. The resulting battle is powerfully brought to life in one of Troiani's biggest paintings, 50 x 80 inches, which the Oneida Nation commissioned him to paint in 2005.

Troiani's battle scene is a very complex work, especially impressive in the brilliant effects he achieved in depicting dappled sunlight, shrouded by dense clouds of gunpowder smoke. But it is human drama that takes center-stage in this powerful representation of frontier warfare. 

Troiani's The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany is dominated by two, confronting protagonists. On the left is the Oneida warrior, Thawengarakwen, whose name means "He Who Takes Up the Snow Shoe." Wounded in the wrist, he relied on his wife, "Two Kettles Together" to load his musket for him. On the right, advancing from behind the cover of a tree, is a green-coated Loyalist ranger.

What is remarkable about these two protagonists is the expressiveness of their faces. These are individual human beings, swept-up in the terror of war. What sticks in the memory after studying this compelling work is the piercing gaze of the Oneida chief and the stunned awareness of danger of the Loyalist soldier after glimpsing three muskets being aimed at him through the smoke of battle.


Ed Voves, Photos (2021) 
Details of Don Troiani's The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany

After spending quite a long time analyzing Troiani's The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany, I went and re-examined paintings I had studied earlier. Over and over again, I found that Troiani had invested the characters in these works with the same individualism and psychological depth that made Thawengarakwen, Two Kettles Together and the Loyalist soldier such compelling figures in the Oriskany battle scene. To say that I was impressed is an understatement.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Don Troiani's Morgan's Rifles (detail)

Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution is the first retrospective of Troiani's visual narratives of the events of 1775-1783. It is the third major exhibition mounted by the Museum of the American Revolution, brilliantly complementing the permanent exhibits. Troiani and the staff of the Museum of the American Revolution, especially Matthew Skic, Curator of Exhibitions, have indeed filled in the "blank canvas" of these war-torn years in a way that contemporary artists were unable to do. 

By capturing the emotional torment, the terrible stress and the personal sacrifice of the Revolutionary War generation, Don Troiani has primed the canvases of his remarkable paintings with the Spirit of Liberty, for which so many fought and for which so many died.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Several photos by Ed Voves are of paintings by Don Troiani © Don Troiani. 

Introductory photo: Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Detail of Don Troiani's Artillery of Independence, Siege of Yorktown, Virginia, October 9, 1781. Painted 2013. Oil on Canvas, Private Collection

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Don Troiani and curator Matthew Skic (right) at the press preview for Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution at the Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia. PA.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Mr. Algernon Ward with Don Troiani's painting,
As Brave Men as Ever Fought, 2020. Painted 2020. Oil on Canvas, Museum of the American Revolution, funded by the National Park Service Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail.

Paul Revere (1734-1818) The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, 1770. Hand-colored engraving and etching: 10 1/4 x 9 1/8 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1910, # 10.125.103

John Singleton Copley (American, 1738-1815. The Death of Major Peirson, 1783. Oil on canvas: 8' 1'' x 12'. Tate Britain. N00733

Ed Voves, Photos (2021) Details of Don Troiani's paintings, Freeman's Farm  & Victory at Yorktown. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Don Troiani with his painting, The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany, August 6, 1777. Painted 2005. Oil on Canvas: 50 x 80 inches, Collection of the Oneida Indian Nation.

Ed Voves, Photos (2021) Details of Don Troiani's The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Detail of Don Troiani's Morgan's Rifles. 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel at the Barnes Foundation


Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel

Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
September 26, 2021 - January 9, 2022

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia recently opened an exhibition devoted to the art of Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938). This is the museum's third survey of a French woman artist, active during the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel follows in the footsteps of Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist (2018) and Marie Cuttoli, the Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray (1920).
The three exhibits, if considered together, trace a cultural continuum during the revolution of Modern Art. Morisot, Cuttoli and Valadon, respectively, were women of the affluent, middle and working classes. Each proved capable of creating or commissioning inspired works of art which graced the walls of their exhibitions at the Barnes. 

Of these three trend-setting women, Suzanne Valadon's life journey from artist's model to professional artist was perhaps the most extraordinary. Forging a path through the obstacle course of poverty and social class, Valadon lived and loved and painted on her own terms. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Nancy Ireson of the Barnes Foundation
Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel is, surprisingly, the first exhibition of Valadon's art works in the U.S. For that, we have to thank Nancy Ireson of the Barnes Foundation for planning and organizing this brilliant survey of all aspects of Valadon's life and work.

Scholars and enthusiasts of Impressionism will immediately recognize Valadon's name - and more to the point, her face and figure. Valadon was the model for many key Impressionist works, including two of Renoir's 1880's dance paintings. Dance at Bougival and Dance in the City were "show-stoppers" at the landmark 2015 Discovering the Impressionists exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2015)
 Gallery view of the Discovering the Impressionists exhibition
 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Before the opening of Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel, I wondered if Ireson and ther colleagues at the Barnes could entice the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to send Dance at Bougival down to Philly for another visit. But instead of such a well-known favorite to open the exhibition, another, lesser-known, painting featuring Valadon was selected. The choice, unexpected and unsettling, sets a provocative tone for the whole exhibition.

The Kiss of the Siren was painted in 1882 by Gustav Wertheimer (1847-1902), an Austrian artist active in Paris. It is a very pre-Impressionist painting, though it dates to only a year before Dance at Bougival

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Gustav Wertheimer's The Kiss of the Siren, 1882 

With its morbid mix of mythology, misogyny and erotica, The Kiss of the Sirenwould seem to be more relevant to the theories of Sigmund Freud than the life of an artist's model who yearned to draw and paint. Yet this weird painting yields revealing insights into the society in which Valedon lived and labored.                                                                                                                                                    

   Gallery view of the Suzanne Valadon exhibiton at the Barnes Foundation.
 A display of paintings for which Valadon modeled appears at right.   
Modeling was hard work. Holding a pose for fifty minutes at a time, often in contorted body postures, was exhausting labor. And since modeling involved sessions of posing nude, the potential damage to a young woman's reputation was considerable. Modeling like acting was regarded by many people in the late 1800's as a step above prostitution.
Modeling was not the first career choice of Suzanne Valadon. Born in 1865, Marie-Clémentine Valadon was the daughter of an unwed mother who cleaned homes and worked as a laundress. Valadon tried to escape such toil and drudgery by performing as a circus acrobat.
After being injured in a fall from a trapeze, the sixteen year-old Valadon began modeling for some of the most dynamic painters in France, including  Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The Impressionists were, for their era, remarkably free of gender bias as testified by their respect for Morisot whom they regarded as a colleague rather than a "woman artist."

It was Toulouse-Lautrec who wittily compared Valadon to Suzanna, the Old Testament heroine who had been spied upon in her bath by the wicked elders.  Valadon, whose attitude to sexuality was frank and independent, evidently enjoyed the joke. She began signing her works of art with the Hebrew woman's name.

While posing, Valadon also observed the artists sketching and painting her. She had nursed a love of art from childhood and began to draw in her spare time. When Toulose-Lautrec saw her early efforts, he was much impressed. But it was Edgar Degas who paid Valadon the supreme compliment. He purchased one of her drawings - and then urged her on to further efforts, including print-making.

“From time to time in my dining room,” Degas wrote to Valadon, “I look at your drawing in red pencil, still hanging, and I always say to myself: ‘This devil … had the genius of drawing.' Why don’t you show me something else?” 

With the support and assistance of Degas, Valadon became quite expert in printing techniques, especially drypoint etching. In 1894, Valadon's skill and dedication was recognized by the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She became the first woman artist to be admitted to the ranks of this important exhibition group.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021)
 Suzanne Valadon's Nude with Striped Blanket, 1922

The naturalness of the people Valadon depicted in her early drawings and prints, relaxed and at peace with their bodies, is key to understanding her as a person and as an artist. This naturalness was carried over to Valadon's later paintings, particularly her nudes.
The Barnes exhibition devotes much attention to Valadon's nudes. Valadon staked her claim to paint them from her own viewpoint as a woman and as a professional artist. That she did so, was based on personal choice but also on the artistic regard with which nudes were held - and their high-selling prices on the art market. 

Overwhelmingly - but not exclusively - Valadon's nudes are female. How different these are from the femme fatale in Gustav Wertheimer's neurotic Kiss of the Siren! The young women Valadon painted "in the state of nature" are healthy and comfortable with themselves, as unburdened from anxiety and embarrassment as they are from corsets and shirtwaistes.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's Black Venus, 1919

This includes the striking and forthright Black Venus, painted in 1919. Unlike other nudes showing African women from this era, Valadon's model is free of all manner of social commentary, political symbolism and agenda. She stands an independent person, free to be herself.

Valadon remained a figurative, realist painter for her entire life. However, living and working in Montmartre, Valadon was aware of the radical developments and evolving currents of Modernism. There are certainly allusions to the work of her contemporaries in her paintings. But for the most part, these references serve as a way to assert her own unique viewpoint, what we would call today her "take" on the world.
Valadon was familiar with the Symbolist movement which dominated much of French art in the 1890's and early twentieth century. Valadon had modeled for the premier Symbolist painter, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), so it is not surprising that she should have taken up the theme of Arcadia, as can be in her Joy of Life, painted in 1911.

Suzanne Valadon, Joy of Life, 1911

Another painter, Henri Matisse, painted a pastoral landscape, or perhaps "dreamscape" is more appropriate, entitled Joy of Life (1905) now in the collection of the Barnes foundation. There are certainly allusions to this icon of Modernism in Valadon's 1911 painting. But for the most part, these references serve as a way for her to assert her own unique viewpoint of such an idyllic world. It is myth setting, to be sure, but inhabited by flesh-and-blood people.

The difference between Valadon's handling of great themes of art and Matisse's interpretation is best appreciated by comparing one of her key paintings, The Blue Room, with Matisse's odalisque paintings.
Shortly before World War I, Matisse visited Algeria and Morocco in order to explore the culture of these countries. The influence of his visits affected Matisse's art in numerous ways. One was his series of paintings of scantily-clad young women, posing in submissive postures. Matisse's odalisques recalled Ingres' Grand Odalisque (1814), the signature work of exotic sensuality, Orientalism.
Valadon's The Blue Room resoundingly rejects the whole Orientalist genre, whether Matisse's paintings or Ingres'. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's The Blue Room, 1923

In The Blue Room, Valadon decorates the setting with many of the hallmarks of Matisse, particularly the colorful and richly-textured fabrics he so loved, as can be seen in the flower-printed bedspread and stripped pantaloons. Valadon's protagonist, however, is anything but a docile odalisque. Instead, she is a sturdy, self-assured, working-class woman, smoking a cigarette. She is her own woman.

With The Blue Room, Valadon effectively turned the tables on the whole tradition of male-painted portraits of women as "objects" of desire. When Valadon painted women - with or without garments - she never portrayed them as objects. She treated them the way she wished to be treated herself - as an individual.

Suzanne Valadon. Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte, 1913

Valadon's Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte is a fine example of her ability to create a sensitive, fully-realized portrait. The sitters was her niece and her daughter. Painted in 1913, it is a striking examination of the stresses and cares of life - of a mature woman and of a child. As with most high-caliber portraits, we are enabled to appreciate this work on the level of the individuals it portrays and also to reflect upon the timeless, universal questions it poses. 

What fears and anxieties lie behind the haunted eyes of Valadon's niece? Why does her little daughter, gazing at us with a blank, listless expression, clamp down so firmly on the head of her doll? We will never know, but this "gray area" of uncertainty is fertile ground for speculation and reflection upon the human condition.

Following World War I, Valadon continued to experiment in new genres, landscape and still life, always with notable skill and success, but always as a Realist painter. 

Suzanne Valadon, The Violin Case, 1923

Valadon's undeviating realism was an aspect of her "naturalness" and it certainly brought her financial success and popular acclaim. The 1920's and early 1930's were a time when many people, including in France, regarded Abstraction and Surrealism with suspicion, even hostility. There was a call "for a return to order" and, on the surface, Valadon's paintings went with the flow, rather than against the current.

Lack of talent or awareness of the trends in art had little to do, I think, with Valadon's decision to continue painting in a traditional, figurative style. This manner of painting testified to her basic beliefs - as an artist and as a human being.

"In what I've painted, there's not a stroke, not a line, that isn't based on nature. Nature brings me the discipline of a robust truth for the construction of my canvases, designed by me but driven always by the emotion of life."

The "emotions of life" for Valadon were frequently unhappy during the last two decades of her life. Her marriage to a much younger man, initially contented, soured and she experienced much heartache over the troubles and travail of her son, Maurice Utrillo. An artist of promise, alcoholism blighted Utrillo's career and disappointed his mother's belief in his "genius."

As the years passed, Valadon recorded her own image in several self-portraits. The Barnes exhibition displays one, painted in 1927, which is, beyond doubt, a masterpiece. Sophisticated in its composition, it is even more remarkable for its honesty. 

Suzanne Valadon, Self-Portrait, 1927

Here is the face of a person without illusions but one who refuses to look away or ignore reality. It is the face of a person who has witnessed much pain but remains capable and determined to continue seeking beauty.

Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel at the Barnes succeeds on every level by which an artist's retrospective can be judged. Valadon's reputation suffered somewhat over the years, as Abstract art crowded depictions of "naturalness" off the center stage of the art scene. Happily, that is no longer the case. The exhibit will later travel to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.  

Ed Voves, Photo (2021)
 Gallery view of the Suzanne Valadon exhibit at the Barnes Foundation

Most importantly, the Barnes exhibition shows that Valadon lived and worked by a creed that we would all do well to emulate. Suzanne Valadon was not merely a successful or "professional" painter. As an artist, she created works of art which reflected her personal code of life.

"You have to be hard on yourself, be honest, and look yourself in the face."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. 

Introductory Image: Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's Family Portrait (Detail), 1912.  Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, Gift of M. Cahen-Salvador in memory of Madame Fontenelle-Pomaret, 1976.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Nancy Ireson of the Barnes Foundation at the press preview for the Suzanne Valadon exhibition, September 23, 2021.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2015) Gallery view of the Discovering the Impressionists exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gustav Wertheimer's The Kiss of the Siren, Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Barnes Foundation Photo (2021) Gallery display of paintings for which Suzanne Valadon modeled. On display at the exhibit, Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's Nude with Striped Blanket, 1922. Musée d' Art Moderne de Paris. Museum Purchase, 1937.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's Black Venus, 1919. Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Menton, Gift of M. Charles Wakefield-Mori, 1939

Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) Joy of Life, 1911. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's The Blue Room, 1923.  Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Limoges. State purchase, 1924.

Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte, 1913. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, purchased from the artist, 1937. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / Image © DeA Picture Library / Art Resource, NY

Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) The Violin Case, 1923. Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, Museum Purchase, 1937. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / Image © Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, France/ HIP / Art Resource, NY 

Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) Self-Portrait, 1927. Collection of the City of Sannois, Val d’Oise, France, on temporary loan to the Musée de Montmartre, Paris. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York Image by Stéphane Pons

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Art Eyewitness Essay: Samuel Palmer's Mystical Landscapes


Art Eyewitness Essay: 

Samuel Palmer's Mystical Landscapes

By Ed Voves

If you speak to hunting or fishing enthusiasts, it isn't the deer or the trout that they "bag" which really resonates in their recollections. It is the "one that got away."

The same is true for art lovers. Of the special exhibitions that I could not manage to visit, the Metropolitan Museum's 2006 exhibition of the art of Samuel Palmer sticks in my mind as "one that got away."

In early June 2021, my wife and I went to New York for a visit, to the headquarters of the auction company, Sotheby's. We went specifically to see a collection of manuscripts and literary works relating to the celebrated Brontë family.  Among the objects on view was a rare draft of poems, composed and written by Emily Brontë, which inspired the eventual decision of the Brontë sisters to publish their epic novels.

Another gallery at Sotheby's featured an exhibition, Fine Line: Master Works on Paper from Five Centuries. Anne and I peeked in and were surprised to find that we had the gallery to ourselves. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020)
 Samuel Palmer's A Shepherd leading his flock under the full moon.
 C. 1829-1830

Even more amazing was the presence of a watercolor by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). Moreover, this signature work dated to Palmer's fabled years when he lived and worked in the "valley of vision" of Shoreham, Kent. 

The Palmer watercolor on view at Sotheby's was one of his darkly-hued "Blacks" or "moonshines." It is entitled A Shepherd Leading His Flock under the Full Moon, painted in 1829-1830.

Palmer often painted such works entirely with black and brown watercolors, sometimes with touches of India ink. Occasionally, Palmer mixed gum arabic with his colors to give added definition and texture to his works which deliberately reflected his love of medieval art. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) 
Detail of A Shepherd leading his flock under the full moon,1829-1830

Not surprisingly, Palmer's compositions usually depicted the the hours of twilight or night with the moon prominently overhead. Palmer was a vigorous and expert - practitioner of scratching-out the light areas in these nocturnal paintings, thus letting the heavy paper or card stock provide the color of moonlight or the lingering rays of the setting sun.

A Shepherd Leading His Flock under the Full Moon was on view at Sotheby's for a very practical reason. It was being advertised for sale at an upcoming auction, to be held in London. The appraisal price was £700,000 to £900,000. When the final bid was made and the gavel sounded on July 7, 2021, Palmer's "moonshine" had sold for £1,588,000, twice the low estimate. 

Such an astronomical sum would have been inconceivable to Samuel Palmer. He regarded the London art market as a disagreeable "pit." During his years in rural Shoreham,1825-1833, Palmer aimed to use a small financial legacy to create a haven for idealistic artists where "the beautiful was loved for itself." 

Among Palmer's closest friends and a frequent visitor to Shoreham was George Richmond, who later created a celebrated portrait of Charlotte Brontë. He did the same for Palmer, complete with the "biblical" beard and flowing hair which he affected during the Shoreham years.

George Richmond, Samuel Palmer, c. 1829

Palmer's vision, however, soon had to compete with reality. Frequent rejection of his "primitive" paintings by the Royal Academy led, remorselessly, to the dwindling of his funds and the eventual dispersal of the "Ancients" as his band of brother artists called themselves.  

I might have regarded my one-on-one encounter with Samuel Palmer at Sotheby's as a similarly brief, if rewarding, episode. But another incident soon revived my interest in this fascinating, mystical artist.

Shortly before 11:30 PM on September 14th, I glanced up at the night sky from our front porch. I was stunned to see the moon, very-low to the horizon, to the southwest of our home. It appeared to be setting, though it was far too early and in the wrong place for that to be happening. The moon, blood orange in color, appeared to be skewed by the diagonal shadow over its upper reaches. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021)
View of the Moon over Philadelphia, September 14, 2021

It was an eerie, unsettling image. Anne gamely took a couple of photos for the record. Neither of us could remember ever seeing the moon that low, that color, in that position at that time in the evening.

No doubt there is a scientific explanation for the moon's appearance on September 14th. But I did not pursue the matter because my thoughts were already turning to Samuel Palmer. It was "moonshines" like this which stimulated him to create singular, unforgettable works of art such as the one I studied at Sotheby's.

Samuel Palmer, Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star, c.1830

Samuel Palmer came of age during the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when the first, disturbing implications of industrialization were becoming impossible to deny. It was a very unsettled era, much like our own, two centuries later.

Born in 1805, Palmer early displayed notable artistic promise. Beginning in 1819, he had landscape paintings in watercolor accepted for display at the Royal Academy. But this great success at such an early age did not lead to the expected step of formally enrolling in the Royal Academy or working in the studio of one of the RA's leading painters.

A deeply sensitive youth, Palmer was consumed by a classic religious faith/doubt struggle. Then, on October 9, 1824, Palmer was introduced to William Blake. Palmer's outlook on life, art and spiritual destiny shifted onto a high, transcendental, plateau after meeting Blake, the "prophet" of British art. This encounter set him on the path to Shoreham, Kent, twenty miles to the south of London, where he founded his now famous art colony.

At this point, I want to recognize the great research into Palmer's life by William Vaughn, the noted British art scholar, who was the co-curator of the 2006 Metropolitan Museum exhibit. Vaughn is also the author of the definitive book, Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall, published in 2015, by Yale University Press. It is a little late to do a book review, but this magnificent volume needs to be acknowledged as foundational for understanding Palmer and appreciating his art.   

It is not my intention to write a biographical essay on Palmer by drawing upon Vaughn's intensive study and brilliant commentary. Rather, I am offering some reflections on why Palmer's art is so appealing in troubled times.

Palmer's reputation, of limited influence while he lived, was revitalized by a landmark exhibition in 1926. Palmer's mystical landscapes struck a chord with the "Lost Generation" of World War I. In 1947, with London still devastated by the World War II "Blitz", a major study of Palmer's years at Shoreham sparked a second revival. In an age marked by pandemics and global strife, we now find ourselves searching for answers, psychologically in need of a new "Samuel Palmer moment." 

Two centuries ago, Palmer was in a similar state of doubt and anxiety. In a particularly insightful chapter of his book, Vaughn analyzes a rare, surviving sketchbook of Palmer's. Filled with pithy "notes to self" as well as drawings, it is a revelatory document, opening a window to the young Palmer's mind and soul.

The seventy-seven page sketchbook, dates to 1824-25, the period when Palmer was befriended by Blake. There are certainly Blake-like elements among the sketches, but the notes show Palmer to have been less a disciple of Blake than a kindred soul.

Palmer's notes and sketches can be studied online, via the website of the British Museum, where the actual sketchbook resides. The range of Palmer's ideas and observations is truly remarkable. Detailed, minute study shares the pages with visionary observations. Palmer recorded useful data, the texture of tree bark and the shape of leaves, along with thoughtful, often humorous, "memoranda" to spur himself on.

Samuel Palmer
Studies, formerly in a sketch-book of 77 sketches, c. 1824

This sense of Palmer's individualism is key to comprehending him. He was truly a singular artist and a unique human being. Conventional accounts describe him differently, as a disciple of Blake and as the leader of the Ancients. Once Blake died and the Ancients went their separate ways, Palmer's early promise faded away. So say the textbooks.

Palmer, however, is not easily bracketed with other artists. His art was similar to Blake's in spirit rather than in form. As Vaughn shows, Richmond and the others in the group only visited Shoreham for brief intervals. The Ancients never formed a "united front" in the way that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood did, during the 1850's.

Palmer was always his own man and his own artist. Like many devout Christians, he was convinced that the hand of God could be seen in the natural world. John Constable likewise affirmed his belief in this idea of "intelligent design" when he asserted that "nature is congenial with the elements of the planet itself ... We are no doubt placed in a paradise here if we choose to make it such …"

Read closely, there is a secular, earth-focused note to Constable's statement. Palmer would not have disagreed with making "a paradise here." However his artistic - and cosmic - vision reached beyond to where "nature has properties which lie still deeper, and when they are brought out the picture must be most elaborate and full of matter ... and be what would have pleased men in the early ages, when poetry was at its acme, and yet men lived in a simple, pastoral way."

Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon, 1833

Palmer envisioned using images of shepherds, plowmen and other county folk to promote traditional social values and Christian religious ideals. It was no easy task as the Industrial Revolution propelled Britain on an increasingly mechanized and urbanized course of development.

In 1832, political events challenged Palmer's hopes for a "a paradise here" and in the hereafter. The Great Reform Bill brought political power to the British middle-class. The rural land-owning aristocrats and the Church of England had to adapt -and so did Palmer.

The Shoreham experiment came to an end. Most biographies of Palmer effectively conclude at this point, with a brief afterward on his "disappointing" London-based career. While Vaughn extols the soulful, moonlit landscapes of the Shoreham years as works of special brilliance, he does not regard Palmer's later years as devoid of achievement.

Two points need to be emphasized in considering the "later" Palmer. 

Samuel Palmer, Near Underriver, Sevenoaks, Kent, c. 1843

As Palmer adapted to the dictates of the Victorian art market, he displayed exceptional talent and versatility. Due to his lack of formal, Royal Academy training, portrait painting was not an option. Yet his landscapes compare favorably with other major British artists. Whether paintings like Near Underriver, Sevenoaks, Kent (painted in watercolor in 1843 after Palmer decided  to concentrate on that medium) or etchings which he took-up in the 1850's, Palmer demonstrated a high level of mastery, indeed.

Samuel Palmer, The Herdsman's Cottage, 1850

The second point is perhaps more significant. Although he no longer embraced the "wonted outlandishness" of the Shoreham years, Palmer never ceased experimenting with new, unconventional techniques. As a result, he was accused of eccentricity and of "excesses" similar to those of J.M.W. Turner. Palmer was perhaps quietly pleased at this last rebuke, as he always had high regard for Turner.

Implicit in such criticism is the fact that Palmer always found a way to impart some form of mysticism, some element of spirituality to his later works of art, paintings or etchings. In a world of conformity, hedged in by High Victorian materialism and Social Darwinism, Palmer continued to reserve a place where human beings could commune with God under the light of the moon. 

Samuel Palmer, The Lonely Tower, c. 1880-81

"I have beheld as in the spirit, such nooks," Palmer confided to George Richmond, "caught such glimpses of the perfumed and enchanted twilight - of natural midsummer."

Palmer made this revelation in 1827, early-on during the Shoreham years. And though he left his Kentish refuge in 1833, this experience of the presence of God in nature, traveled with him. 

Such a "nook", the place in which human beings encounter divinity, can be found anywhere. Wherever the Spirit dwells, there this meeting may occur. In a moon-lit garden or in the night sky above your home, there God is.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Original photos by Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved. 

Introductory image: Samuel Palmer (British, 1805-1881) In a Shoreham Garden, c. 1829. India ink, with watercolor and gouach: : 28.2 cm x  22.3cm. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Samuel Palmer's A Shepherd leading his flock under the full moon. Ca. 1829-1830. Black watercolor over black chalk; heightened with scratching out on card: 148 x 178 mm. Sold for £ 1,588,000 GBP on July 7, 2021 at the Sotheby auction, Fine Line: Master Works on Paper from Five Centuries.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Detail of Samuel Palmer's A Shepherd leading his flock under the full moon,1829-1830.

George Richmond (British, 1809-1896) Samuel Palmer, c. 1829. Pencil, pen and ink: 9 3/8 in. x 8 in. (238 mm x 203 mm) National Portrait Gallery, London. Given by Misses F.M. and E. Redgrave, 1927. NPG 2154

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) View of the Moon over Philadelphia, September 14, 2021.

Samuel Palmer (British, 1805-1881) Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star; bundles of corn and a farmer with staff in the foreground, c.1830. Watercolour and bodycolour, with pen and ink. varnished: : 197 mm x  298 mm. British Museum, 1985,0504.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Samuel Palmer (British, 1805-1881) Studies, formerly in a sketch-book of 77 sketches bound originally in sheep-skin, c. 1824.Tower and head,at left a tower surmounted by a weather-vane, crescent moon behind, at right the profile of an old man, c.1824 Pen and brown ink. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Samuel Palmer (British, 1805-1881) Studies, formerly in a sketch-book of 77 sketches bound originally in sheep-skin, c. 1824 Studies of trees, three large, one small, in a lightly indicated landscape, c.1824 Pen and brown ink. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Samuel Palmer (British, 1805-1881) The Harvest Moon, 1833. Oil and tempera: 22.1 x 27.7 cm. Yale Center for British Art

Samuel Palmer (British,1805-1881) Near Underriver, Sevenoaks, Kent, ca. 1843. Watercolor and opaque watercolor applied with brush, and ink and pen:10 3/4 x 15 1/8 inches. Rhode Island School of Design # 69.154.13

Samuel Palmer (British,1805-1881) The Herdsman's Cottage, 1850. Etching: Plate:  4 7/8 x 4 inches (12.4 x 10.1 cm) Sheet: 13 7/16 x 9 5/16 inches (34.1 x 23.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. #1985-52-22830

Samuel Palmer (British, 1805-1881) The Lonely Tower, c. 1880-81. Opaque watercolor over traces of graphite on board:  6 5/8 × 9 1/4 in. (16.8 × 23.5 cm.) Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Gilbert Davis Collection. #: 59.55.984