Thursday, February 16, 2017

Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence

Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence

National Gallery of Art

February 5–June 4, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The ancient Greeks believed that the world was created of four basic elements: earth, air, fire and water. To this mix, the Greeks added a mysterious spiritual substance called aether. Modern physics long ago disproved this theory. But when you behold the Renaissance-era sculptures of Luca and Andrea Della Robbia, you might agree with the Greeks.

Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence recently opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This is the first major exhibit devoted to the Della Robbia art dynasty to appear in the United States. It was planned and presented by Marietta Cambareri, Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color is a "must see" event. The National Gallery presentation is the second and final appearance of these Della Robbia treasures. We are not likely to see such a display of them in the United States for many years to come.
For over a century, the Della Robbia family fashioned glazed terracotta statues, portrait busts and bas reliefs. Terracotta is a delightful and descriptive Italian art term, meaning "cooked earth." To the basic elements of clay and fire, the Della Robbia artists seemingly added air and water, as symbolized by their signature blue and white glazes. The resulting sculptures exude a lifelike presence and an ethereal force.

Luca della RobbiaMadonna and Child with Lilies, c. 1475

Luca Della Robbia (1399/1400-1482) was born at the turn of the fifteenth century and practiced art for a very long time. He did not start out as a ceramic master but rather trained to be a goldsmith.

Oddly enough, a significant number of the great artists of the Renaissance were apprenticed or studied to be goldsmiths. Filippo Brunelleschi, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Albrecht Durer all started out as goldsmiths but went on to achieve greatness in other fields of art. So too did Luca Della Robbia.

The goldsmith connection is not just a coincidence. This exacting, meticulous craft demanded of its apprentices skills that later turned them into Renaissance masters of architecture, painting and sculpture. Giorgio Vasari acknowledged this in the account of Luca Della Robbia that he included in his Lives of the Artists:

Nor do I marvel in any way at this, seeing that no one ever became excellent in any exercise whatsoever without beginning from his childhood to endure heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and other discomforts; wherefore those men are entirely deceived who think to be able, at their ease and with all the comforts of the world, to attain to honorable rank. It is not by sleeping but by waking and studying continually that progress is made.

Vasari records that Luca was apprenticed under the greatest goldsmith in Florence, Leonardo di Ser Giovanni. Just when Luca made his move to sculpting we don't know. Incredibly, given his tremendous success with terracotta, Luca first made his mark with sculpting marble. Again, we don't with whom he trained - perhaps it was with Nanni di Banco - but in 1431 Luca was awarded a major commission in Florence and achieved a resounding triumph .

Luca was tasked to carve ten bas reliefs for the Cantoria, the organ loft for the S. Maria del Fiore Cathedral of Florence. The spectacular dome designed by Brunelleschi was nearing completion and decorations and statuary for the interior of the great church were progressing too. Luca's carvings of  singing and dancing children, illustrating Psalm 150, was such a success that the leading Florentine authority on art, Leon Battista Alberti, ranked him in the company Brunelleschi, Masaccio and Donatello.

The stage was set for a rivalry in marble sculpting between Luca and the illustrious Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, aka. Donatello (1386-1466). It never happened.

Soon after the seven years spent finishing the Cantoria panels, Luca unveiled a new glazing process for ceramic art. Luca's revolutionary glaze enabled sculptures modeled from clay to appear to have been made from marble. The new glaze held color too with astonishing vibrancy - except for red, still the most volatile color for ceramic artists to use, all these centuries later. 

 Luca della Robbia, Madonna and Child, c. 1441-1445

The most famous of the Della Robbia ceramics were the devotional bas reliefs of the Madonna and Christ Child. This was the Della Robbia "brand," produced in large numbers and subtle variations by Luca and his nephew and successor, Andrea della Robbia (1435–1525). Many of these were produced from molds of the original work of art. With mass production came affordable prices. Della Robbia ceramics were a populist art form - and good business.

The secret of the glaze was kept within the family. It was only shared with one assistant, Benedetto Buglioni (1459/60-1521), who set up his own workshop. Vasari tells a colorful story that Buglioni filched the glaze recipe with help from a servant girl in the Della Robbia household but that is very unlikely. No "cut-throat" rivalry ever seems to have existed between the two workshops.

The trademark Della Robbia images of Virgin Mary, the Infant Jesus and surrounding angels recall the dancing, singing children of the Cantoria. It does not require much of a leap in imagination to grasp Luca's transition from sculpting in marble to working with terracotta.

Nothing, however, prepares the viewer for Luca's three dimensional figures. This is especially so for the near life-size depiction of the meeting of the Virgin Mary and her older cousin, Elizabeth. The key moment of the Visitation, as this episode is called, occurs when Elizabeth realizes that the youthful Mary is to give birth to the Messiah. This is the dramatic subject of Luca's statue, assembled from several interlocking parts.

Luca's The Visitation is a masterpiece of contrasts, of age and youth, of miracle and reality, of bible history and living faith. The elderly Elizabeth, past her child-bearing years, is soon to give birth to the baby who will become John the Baptist. Her young cousin, hardly more than a girl, has been chosen by God as mother of humankind's redeemer, the Christ.

Luca della Robbia, The Visitation, c.1445

The Visitation is normally displayed in the Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia, Italy. It is the first time it has been presented in an exhibition in the United States. Positioned as the center piece of the exhibition, it is actually easier to study at the National Gallery in Washington than in its niche in the church in Pistoia.

The Virgin Mary in this almost impossibly beautiful statue reappears again and again in the glazed terracotta works of the Della Robbia.  A comparison readily springs to mind with the lithe, graceful beauty of Botticelli's mythological women in Primavera. But this relationship is only skin-deep. The Della Robbia artists were devout Christians. Andrea, in fact, was an ardent supporter of the puritanical monk, Girolamo Savonarola, who consigned art works with non-Christian themes to the "bonfire of the vanities."

Very few of the Della Robbia ceramics had secular or non-Christian themes. The allegorical image, Prudence, which serves as the introductory image of this review is very much in keeping with Christian iconography. Prudence holds a mirror of self-knowledge, rather than vanity, with the Janus-like face of the elderly sage testifying to the wisdom of the past.

 Andrea della Robbia, Bust of a Young Boy, c. 1475

The lifelike quality of Andrea della Robbia's Bust of a Young Boy was obviously modeled on a living person. It was almost certainly intended as a portrait of the young Jesus. Andrea created this around 1475, the same time as he was working on the garlanded roundel of Prudence.

This was the era when pre-Christian philosophical ideas were being embraced by Florentine intellectuals. Chief among these was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) who created a new Platonic academy in Florence under the patronage of Cosimo de Medici. But the Della Robbia were such staunch supporters of Savonarola that two of Andrea's sons entered the Dominican religious order.

Andrea, reflecting Savonarola's emphasis on austerity, took the momentous step of modifying the Della Robbia glazing technique. He sought to evoke a more naturalistic skin tone to make the Christian saints, even Jesus, appear as flesh and blood beings. 

Giovanni della Robbia, Pietà, c.1510/1520

In some of the Della Robbia statues, the skin was left without glaze. The rough terracotta of the Pieta sculpted by Giovanni della Robbia, Andrea's son, at some point between 1510 and 1520, is particularly effective. This conveys Christ's suffering and his mother's anguish to a degree that more polished works with this theme, including Michelangelo's celebrated version, do not.

Santi Buglioni (1494-1576) also utilized the part-glazing technique after he inherited control of the Buglioni workshop from his adoptive father, Benedetto. 

In this very accomplished - and affecting - portrait of Mary and Jesus, Santi Buglioni brilliantly used the unglazed surface of the terracotta to emphasize the humanity of Mary and the infant Jesus. Here Mary's face has lost some of the extreme youthfulness depicted in Luca's The Visitation. Mary is still a young woman, but age and apprehension about her son's welfare are beginning to take a toll.

 Santi Buglioni, Madonna and Child, c. 1520's

The Della Robbia ceramic statues and bas reliefs became a fixture of Italy and much of Europe during the 1400’s and 1500’s. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, this distinctive art form became a victim of its own success. The family largely died out and the secret of the glaze recipe died with them. Then, during the Victorian era, art scholars like John Ruskin and Walter Pater rediscovered the Della Robbia ceramics.

Art enthusiasts began collecting Della Robbia ceramics once again and Americans, in particular, purchased these works with enthusiasm.

Over the entrance of the Sculpting with Color exhibit is displayed one of the greatest Della Robbia works purchased by an American. This is Giovanni della Robbia’s multi-part masterpiece, Resurrection of Christ, created in the first decades of the 1500’s. Originally commissioned by the aristocratic Antinori family of Florence, it was bought by the president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, A. Augustus Healy, in 1898. Healy donated it to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1908.

Giovanni della Robbia, Resurrection of Christ, c.1500-1520

Technically speaking, Resurrection of Christ is a “lunette relief.” On an spiritual level, it is a testament of belief in God’s grace as manifested by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Initially, this might seem a contradiction. Front and center on the 46-part lunette, next to the risen Christ, kneels the proud Antinori donor. This was likely Niccolò Antinori who purchased the family palace in Florence for “4000 large and heavy florins” in 1506.

One should not be too preoccupied with this act of self-promotion. Niccolò stands in – or kneels – for all humanity. 

In this astonishing work of art, the Roman soldiers, clad in fancy armor and contemporary Florentine garb, flee in panic. Niccolò stays and prays. For all his wealth, Niccolò Antinori is like the leper cured by Jesus, one of ten healed, but the only one who remembered to thank God.

In a way, Niccolò Antinori was also a surrogate for Giovanni della Robbia, creator of this magnificent piece, and for Andrea and Luca before him. The Della Robbia were all men of faith, who thanked God with their art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the  National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Introductory Image: 
Robbia, Andrea della (1435-1525) Prudence, ca. 1475. Glazed terracotta. 164.5 cm (64 3/4 in.) weight: 1223 lb. (554.749 kg) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1921

Robbia, Luca della (Italian, 1399/1400-1482) Madonna and Child with Lilies, c. 1475.
Glazed terracotta. 48 x 37 cm (18 7/8 x 14 9/16 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Quincy Adams Shaw through Qunicy Adams Shaw, Jr., and Mrs. Marian Shaw Haughton  

Robbia, Luca della (Italian, 1399/1400-1482) Madonna and Child, c. 1441-1445. Glazed terracotta. Framed: 120 x 79.5 x 17 cm (47 1/4 x 31 5/16 x 6 11/16 in.) image: 63 x 50 x 14 cm (24 13/16 x 19 11/16 x 5 1/2 in.) Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Firenze  

Robbia, Luca della (Italian, 1399/1400-1482) The Visitation, c.1445. Glazed terracotta.
151 x 148 x 60 cm (59 7/16 x 58 1/4 x 23 5/8 in.) Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia

Robbia, Andrea della (Italian, 1435-1525) Bust of a Young Boy, c. 1475. Glazed terracotta. 13 x 11 13/16 x 7 7/8 in. (33 x 30 x 20 cm) pedestal: 1 13/16 in. (4.6 cm)
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Firenze

Robbia, Giovanni della (1469-1529/30Pietà, c. 1510/1520. Glazed terracotta. 72 x 44 x 32.7 cm (28 3/8 x 17 5/16 x 12 7/8 in.) Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, 1943.4.70

Buglioni, Santi (1494-1576) Madonna and Child, c. 1520's. Glazed terracotta. height: 41 9/16 in. (105.57 cm) The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, 27.218

Robbia, Giovanni della (1469-1529/30) Resurrection of Christ, c.1500-1520. Glazed terracotta. 156.2 x 349.3 x 29.2 cm (61 1/2 x 137 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.) Brooklyn Museum, Gift of A. Augustus Healy

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America at the American Folk Art Museum

Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America

American Folk Art Museum
October 6, 2016–February 26, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Teddy bears and fairy tales were not part of the bedtime ritual of children in early America. Instead, the sobering prayer from The New England Primer was chanted, sing-song, for nearly two hundred years:

Now I lay me down to sleep,  
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take

A profoundly moving exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City provides insight into the haunting presence of Death during the colonial era and the formative years of the American Republic.

To modern sensibilities,The New England Primer prayer may seem morbid, indeed harmful to a young child. Look about the gallery walls of the American Folk Art Museum and you will come to understand why Death was acknowledged each long-ago night. 

The paintings in Securing the Shadow all portray deceased people, for the most part children. Many of the works are posthumous portraits, painted after the moment of death. Several paintings belong to a second category, begun when the subjects were hale and hearty, only to be finished after Death had snatched them away.

People in early America were well aware of Death - and not just because of the New England Primer prayer.

Well into the nineteenth century, the number of babies born into an American family normally ranged between eight to ten. On average, five of these children would likely die before reaching adolescence. Temperate regions like Pennsylvania tended to be healthier than Tidewater Virginia or bitterly cold New England. Yet sudden outbreaks of disease could strike anywhere. The dreaded Yellow Fever killed 5,000 people in Philadelphia in 1793. In a few short months, half the population of the City of Brotherly Love was wiped out.

Charles Willson Peale, Rachel Weeping), 1776

One of the first paintings on view in Securing the Shadow comes from Philadelphia. Charles Willson Peale originally painted this as a solo portrait of his deceased daughter, Margaret, in 1772. Little Margaret died that year of smallpox. Later, during the momentous year of 1776, Peale added the grief-stricken countenance of his wife, Rachel, to the enlarged work.

Rachel Peale had cause to weep. Margaret was her second child to die and a third, Eleanor, died the following year. Mrs. Peale died in 1790 after having give birth to ten children. A year later, Charles Willson Peale married Elizabeth DePeyster from New York who bore him six more children before she died in 1804. Of Peale's seventeen children from the two marriages, six died during childhood. This is an "average" figure for the period.

There are no "average" emotions involved in losing a loved one, particularly a child.

Hiram Powers is chiefly known for his  1844 statue, The Greek Slave, which scandalized many and inspired others. Six years earlier, Powers' first born child died from a brain tumor. The grief-stricken sculptor made a cast of the head of the four year old boy. Some of the eyelashes, eyebrows and hair were embedded in the plaster. 

Hiram Powers, James Gibson Powers, c. 1838

Powers' love for his "Jimmy" was mixed in too. As a result, this plaster cast projects a sense of earthly realism and spiritual immortality that few other works of art in the exhibit can match, poignant and powerful though they are.

And the other works in Securing the Shadow are poignant and powerful. What really sets most of the paintings apart from Powers' cast of his son is a more subtle difference. The posthumous portraits share a coded visual language familiar to the people of the time, but now mysterious to us.

Joseph Goodhue Chandler, Charles H. Sisson, 1850

The majority Americans of the pre-Civil War era shared an evangelical Christian heritage. Almost all would have recognized the whip in the hand of young Charles H. Sisson as a symbol of Christ's agony and martyrdom. The New England artist, J.G. Chandler, painted the portrait of Charles H. Sisson, who died on December 8, 1850 aged three years and ten months. The parents of the little boy were indeed martyrs, enduring the deaths of four of their eight children at young ages.

Ambrose Andrews, The Children of Nathan Starr,1835

The Children of Nathan Starr seem a much healthier family - deceptively so. The youngest  - a little boy - clad in a gray dress points not at the badminton shuttlecock but toward heaven. Little Edward Starr died in 1835, the year that Ambrose Andrews, an itinerant New England artist, painted this picture.

Four years later, Oliver Tarbell Eddy created a similar work. Here another little boy in a dark dress holds objects related to his early death. Eddy's The Alling Children is a masterpiece of Christian symbolism.

Stephen Alling, holds a hammer with wooden boards and nails at his feet. This alludes to Christ's death on the Cross in the same way that medieval depictions of Jesus as an infant had done. Young Stephen Alling was just four years old when he died  in 1839. He seems  much more mature in Eddy's painting, just as the little Jesus had been depicted in icons as more of a man than a child.

Oliver Tarbell Eddy,The Alling Children, Ca. 1839

In a final touch, the three sisters of Stephen, Mary, Cornelia and Emma regard their deceased brother with the mournful solemnity of Christian saints like Mary, Christ's mother, and Mary Magdalen at the foot of the cross. 

The father of these Alling children was a wealthy New Jersey jeweler. Stephen Ball Alling (1808–1861) could pay for the services of a major artist like Eddy. Most bereaved parents in the U.S, during  the late 1830's, especially after the Panic of 1837, could only afford lesser talents to memorialize their children.

A fairly typical example of these "naive" portraits is Mary and Francis Wilcox by Joseph Whiting Stock. The title of the book on the stole bears the title "Remember Me." The child Mary points toward heaven just as little Edward Starr had done. In a very touching gesture, the actual toys that the two children pose with in the picture, a porcelain doll and a Staffordshire bank, are placed next to their portrait in the Securing the Shadows exhibit.

Joseph Whiting Stock, Mary and Francis Wilcox, 1845

Joseph Whiting Stock's paintings exemplified the "naive" or folk tradition in American art. Stock was also a model of Yankee ingenuity and his journal and account book provide us with detailed records of life and art in early America.

Stock's journal also grimly records the constant reckoning of Death. Some of the entries for commissions read tersely, "Jane Livsey, her daughter from corpse." The joint portrait of Francis and Mary Wilcox was noted  on  February 15th, 1845. "deceased children of P.f. Wilcox."

Other entries in Stock's journal are more emotional. On February 28, 1838, he wrote of the death of a seven year old boy he had painted a few years before:

Eugene B. Sperry who departed this life the 26th inst. at 10 minutes past 1 o clock, A.M. O. Eugene! Thou wast a brave little fellow and generous' But thou art gone to thy happy home to join thy father ...

Stock empathized with the sorrows of those he painted for he was not stranger to suffering. Stock was born in 1815 in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1826, he was crippled from the waist down when an oxcart fell on him. He took up art and using a specially constructed wheelchair was able to begin a professional career.

Stock was one of the first Americans to make regular use of railroad travel to conduct business, traveling throughout New England and New York to paint portraits. In 1839, tragedy struck again when he was badly burned mixing a batch of varnish. An emergency hip operation to prevent infection saved his life and he quickly returned to his wide-ranging travels. He died, aged 40, of tuberculosis in 1856.

As his life ebbed, the ever-resourceful Stock painted portraits based on daguerreotypes. These early photographs were used by others to record the image of deceased persons and thus were a form of competition to the portraits of the dead that Stock frequently painted. 

Young Woman with Rose, c. 1844

Securing the Shadows presents a special installation of postmortem daguerreotypes from the Burns Archive. Some of the deceased are posed with grieving family members or individually, as in the example included here, with a hand-tinted rose.

Death was so constant a factor of life in early America that the boundary between portraits of the living and those of the dead are sometimes hard to tell. The wonderful, Picking Flowers, which serves as the introductory image to this review is a case in point. 

We do not know if this unnamed little girl was painted from life or was, to borrow Stock's journal phrasing, a "daughter from corpse." Yet, she steps on a crushed flower, a cat seizes hold of a mouse at her feet. These are symbols of death. The goldfinch in the branches above the child is a Christian symbol of the Resurrection.

Ultimately, the works of art on view in Securing the Shadow are about redemption. These paintings and photographs preserved an image of the fleeting lives on earth of those who have passed on to immortal life with God in heaven.

The Soul, as these compelling images proclaim, does not perish with the Body.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Introductory Image
Picking Flowers, attributed to Samuel S. Miller (c. 1807–1853), probably New England, 1840–1850, oil on canvas, 44 1/2 x 27 1/2 in., collection Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0255.1961. Photo by Richard Walker

Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741-1827) Mrs. Peale lamenting the death of her child (Rachel Weeping), 1772, enlarged 1776; retouched 1818. Oil on canvas. 36 13/16 x 32 1/16 inches (93.5 x 81.4 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1977-34-1 Gift of The Barra Foundation, Inc., 1977

Hiram Powers (American, 1805-1873) James Gibson Powers, modeled c. 1838. Plaster. 11 1/4 x 6 1/4 x 5 5/8 in. (28.7 x 16.0 x 14.4 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Museum purchase in memory of Ralph Cross Johnson  1968.155.110

Joseph Goodhue Chandler (American, 1813-1884) Charles H. Sisson, 1850. Oil on canvas.
122.2 x 63.7 cm (48 1/8 x 25 1/16 in.) Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch 1953.5.5 National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Ambrose Andrews (American, 1801–1877) The Children of Nathan Starr,1835. Oil on canvas, 28 3/8 x 36 1/2 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Nina Howell Starr, in memory of Nathan Comfort Starr (1896–1981), 1987, 1987.404. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.

Oliver Tarbell Eddy (1799–1868) The Alling Children, c. 1839. Oil on canvas. 47 1/8 x 62 7/8 in. (119.7 x 159.7 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1966 Accession Number: 66.242.21  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Joseph Whiting Stock (American, 1815-1855) Mary and Francis Wilcox, 1845.
Oil on canvas. 122 x 101.6 cm (48 1/16 x 40 in.) Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch 1959.11.2  National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. 

Young Woman with Rose, artist unidentified, United States, c.1844, tinted sixth-plate daguerreotype, collection of Stanley B. Burns, MD. Photo courtesy Stanley B. Burns MD & The Burns Family Collection and Archive.

Friday, January 27, 2017

I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson at the Morgan Library

I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson 

The Morgan Library and Museum, New York City
January 20 through May 21, 2017.

Reviewed by Ed Voves

"'Hope' is the thing with feathers," Emily Dickinson wrote, "That perches in the soul..."

Dickinson (1830-86) is the "solitary" genius of American literature. Like the unabashed little bird in this much-loved poem, Dickinson composed her verses amid the storm of America's Civil War and of her own personal anguish.

A thoughtful, brilliantly curated exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum considers the life of Emily Dickinson from a slightly different vantage point from the received wisdom about her. 

The exhibit takes its title from another of Dickinson's poems, I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson. The exhibit shows that Dickinson was not quiet so reclusive, so remote or withdrawn from society as earlier biographers have maintained. 

The "solitary" nature of Dickinson's creative achievement was not the result of heightened individualism but rather of a profound inward focus. Dickinson nurtured insights and aspirations, sentiments and experiences with sublimated energy. This quiet, yet deliberate, cultivation flowered into 1,789 poems, some of the greatest ever written by an American poet.

Emily Dickinson may have written these poems anonymously but she was certainly a "somebody" - even though she did not want to proclaim it like a frog in an "admiring" bog.

Dickinson had an excellent education, was well-read and was a gifted musician. She was linked to a network of kindred souls - intelligent, vivacious relatives, friends and schoolmates. Thanks to her family's role in the administration of Amherst College, Dickinson was also exposed to the forward-thinking culture and contentious social issues of her day.

Dickinson was a classmate of Helen Hunt Jackson, the courageous advocate of Native American rights. Jackson encouraged, indeed prodded, Dickinson into publishing a poem in a volume called A Masque of Poets (1878). Dickinson's other literary advisers - and friends - were the crusading editor, Samuel Bowles, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, staunch Abolitionist and Civil War hero.

A Masque of Poets Including Guy Vernon, a Novelette in Verse, 1878

Success is Counted Sweetest was the poem contributed by Dickinson to a A Masque of Poets. Amazingly, this work, with its theme of dying soldiers and the bitter taste of defeat, was originally written in 1859, two years before the opening shots of the Civil War. Today, we would likely say that Dickinson was "channeling" when she wrote "Success." But in the nineteenth century, a more appropriate word was used. Prophecy.

It is difficult to evoke or define prophecy in terms of a museum exhibition. So the Morgan's display, organized with the help of Amherst College and Harvard University, necessarily emphasizes Dickinson's life and times.

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of I’m Nobody! Who are you? at the Morgan Library

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are presented with the very image of New England gentility. The childhood portrait of Emily Dickinson, her brother Austin and her sister, Lavinia, is set against a wall covered with flowery wallpaper. This design was recreated from samples of the actual wallpaper recovered during renovation of the Dickinson home.

Wallpaper in Emily Dickinson’s bedroom in Amherst, recreated at the Morgan Library.

The portrait, painted by a regional artist, Otis Allen Bullard around 1840, would excite little interest today, but for the fact that the youthful, auburn-haired Dickinson and her siblings posed for it. 

Otis Allen Bullard, Emily Elizabeth, Austin, and Lavinia Dickinson, Ca. 1840

Significantly, Dickinson is holding a small book and a flower in the portrait by Bullard. During her childhood, Dickinson collected flower and plant samples which she pressed onto the pages of a herbarium. 

The Bullard portrait and the example of a herbarium from the era - Dickinson's actual one is too delicate to leave Harvard's library - exemplify the proper, high-toned world of Dickinson's childhood, the world she both evoked and rebelled against in her poetry.

Anne Lloyd, Photo of the first page (facsimile) of Emily Dickinson's herbarium

Most of the visually-stimulating objects in the exhibition reflect the moral certainties of the America into which Dickinson was born. Liberty there was - 1776 was still a living memory - but the Puritanical discipline and restraint of the New England Way was still in force, certainly in towns like Amherst, Massachusetts. 

The cut paper silhouette of Dickinson, dated to 1845, the Stereoscope card photo of students at Mount Holyoke College where Dickinson went to school and the lock of her hair that Dickinson sent to a friend in 1853 - are all talismans of a society based on certitude and sentimentality.

Rectitude, responsibility and intimacy are so well represented in the exhibition that the converse - Dickinson's rebelliousness - is palpable even with the absence of documentary evidence. 

Charles Temple, Emily Dickinson, Cut paper silhouette, 1845

At some point in the  early 1850's, as she reached adulthood, Dickinson refused to continue to attend Sunday religious service. She also balked at proclaiming her Christian faith at a public revival meeting and began to refrain from visiting or writing close friends. 

This withdrawal extended even to her confidante, Abiah Root (1830-1915). A surviving letter to Root dated to 1846, reveals that Dickinson felt that "I have not yet made my peace with God" even at that early stage of her life.

What is particularly significant about the 1846 date is that it took place during a period when a series of deaths of friends and teachers began to undermine Dickinson's acceptance of the image of God as a personal savior. These tragic early deaths also contradicted the widespread idea that the natural world was a benign environment testifying to God's grace.  

As Dickinson disengaged from those around her, she described or commented upon the process, but often in cryptic or contradictory terms. In 1873, she wrote a two line verse on a music program.

Of our deepest delights there is a solemn shyness                                                             The appetite for silence is seldom an acquired taste

It is clear that Dickinson's personal rebellion was not inherited, though a strain of Yankee contrariness may have  played its part. Rather it was based upon experience, "acquired" in her confrontation with death.

Mortality, as the theme of some of her greatest poems, made its debut in 1844. In that year, the young Dickinson stood at the deathbed of her fifteen-year old friend and cousin, Sophia Holland. Dickinson, was so distraught that she had to be sent to stay with relatives in Boston in order to recuperate. But part of her emotions never healed. Dickinson wrote of the experience, "it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be permitted to watch over her or even look at her face."

Almost every year thereafter brought some sort of challenging loss. But it was not always death's hand that did the deed. In 1853, one of Dickinson's closest friends, Susan Gilbert became engaged to Austin Dickinson, her brother. Their friendship continued - one of the most vital relationships in Dickinson's life - but there were differences and difficulties that contributed to Dickinson's increasing isolation.

In September 1861, another emotional crisis occurred, this time based upon an unknown relationship. Following this, Dickinson launched into one of her greatest creative periods. Over 800 poems were written during the Civil War years.

Dickinson wrote on whatever piece of paper was at hand, as noted with the music program for the two-lined Of our deepest delights. The Morgan exhibit provides numerous examples of Dickinson's poems and letters in all their variety.

Emily Dickinson, Alone and in circumstance, Ca. 1870

While some of the poems were hastily scrawled, Dickinson went to great lengths to write "fair copies." Some were were decorated, collage-style, like Alone and in a circumstance.
The names of “George Sand” and “Mauprat” were clipped from the May 1870 issue of Harper’s Monthly, and pasted to the sheet of paper. A profile of Athena or Lady Liberty was embossed on the paper and a three-cent postage stamp affixed to it. 

There is some scholarly speculation that the stamp, which bears the image of a railroad locomotive, may refer to the poet's father. Edward Dickinson was a dedicated proponent of railroad development. One would have thought that the poem I like to see it lap the miles (1862) would have served as a better vehicle to acknowledge the train enthusiast, Edward Dickinson, than the spider-haunted Alone and in a circumstance. Emily Dickinson's poems have levels of subtle meaning that we may never penetrate.
The Morgan exhibit also displays examples of the hand-sewn books, called fascicles, that Dickinson made to preserve her poems. Audio stations enable visitors to comprehend the various draft states of twenty-four of Dickinson's poems. 

Effort is also made to provide an overview of Dickinson's legacy and the effort involved in bringing Dickinson's poems to publication after her death.  

Mabel Loomis Todd, was entrusted with the editorship of Dickinson's poems by Lavinia, Dickinson's sister. Todd was assisted by Dickinson's mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. But their diligent, devoted work has been tainted to a certain degree by the fact that Todd, who was married to an Amherst professor, was Austin Dickinson's mistress. Despite her affection for Austin, Emily Dickinson refused to meet Todd, leaving the room whenever Todd visited the Dickinson home.

This bizarre twist to the story of Emily Dickinson sounds like the plot of an Edith Wharton novel and is best kept to a minimum in an exhibition such as the Morgan is presenting. This indeed was the wise decision of the exhibit curators.

Fortunately, I’m Nobody! Who are you? concludes on a high note, though a speculative one.

 Photographer unknown, Two Woman, Ca.1859

A daguerreotype, dated to around 1859, was recently discovered showing  two unidentified women. With a high of degree of certainty, the woman on the right is likely Kate Scott Turner, a known friend of Dickinson.  

The woman on the left... Emily Dickinson...?

When you compare the only authenticated photograph of Emily Dickinson, the famous daguerreotype from 1847, with the 1859 photo, the temptation is either to accept or deny the 1859 image out of hand.

When I look at this picture, I am reminded of a remark that Emily Dickinson's niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, made about her aunt:  “She was not daily bread. She was stardust."  

I can't be absolutely certain that the woman on the left in this daguerreotype is Emily Dickinson. But I am absolutely certain that when I look into the eyes of this woman from the Civil War-era, what I see is vivacity, intelligence, a questioning spirit.



Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         

Emily Dickinson, Daguerreotype, ca. 1847. Daguerreotype, ca. 1847. 3 3/4 × 6 1/2 × 1/2 in. (9.5 × 16.5 × 1.3 cm)  Amherst College Archives & Special Collections. Gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956, 1956.002.

A Masque of Poets Including Guy Vernon, a Novelette in Verse, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1878. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Gordon N. Ray, 1987.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Gallery view of I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, January 20 through May 21, 2017.

Reconstructed wallpaper from Emily Dickinson’s bedroom in Amherst, displayed at
the Morgan. Photography by Janny Chiu.

Otis Allen Bullard (American, 1816–1853), Emily Elizabeth, Austin, and Lavinia Dickinson, Oil on canvas, ca. 1840. 27 15/16 x 24 in. (71 x 61 cm) Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) of the first page (facsimile) of Emily Dickinson's herbarium. The original is preserved at Harvard's Houghton Library, MS Am 1118.11.

Charles Temple (American,1824–1906), Emily Dickinson, Cut paper silhouette, 1845. 4 1/4 × 4 3/4 × 1/2 in. (10.8 × 12.1 × 1.3 cm)  Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.

Emily Dickinson (American, 1830–1886), Alone and in circumstance, Poem with “George Sand” and “Mauprat” clipped from Harper's Monthly pasted to sheet, ca.1870. Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.

Photographer unknown. Two Women, Daguerreotype, ca. 1859 3 3/4 × 6 1/2 × 1/2 in. (9.5 × 16.5 × 1.3 cm)  Private collection.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Mad Enchantment by Ross King &Turner by Franny Moyle

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies

 By Ross King 

Bloomsbury/403 pages/$30

Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner 

By Franny Moyle

 Penguin Press/508 pages/$35

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Claude Monet and J.M.W. Turner were long-lived painters whose later years witnessed the creation of some of their greatest works of art. Both were self-centered, occasionally difficult, men who did "not go gentle into that good night..."

The words of Dylan Thomas's famous poem seem to have been written with Monet and Turner in mind. Yet, neither of these "wise men at their end" raged against "the dying of the light."

The aging Monet did battle a variety of eye ailments including cataracts, and Turner was widely considered to be deranged. Instead of raging against the spreading shadows of mortality, these Old Masters glimpsed the dawning of new visions of art.

The  prophetic experiences of Monet and Turner are recounted in two outstanding recent biographies, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King and Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner by Franny Moyle. 

Mad Enchantment focuses with fascinating detail on Monet's reclusive last years in his garden at Giverny. Moyle's portrait of Turner, by contrast, stretches from his birth to the post-death litigation that was part of his momentous legacy.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) and J.M.W.Turner (1775-1851) have been paired in a number of recent art exhibitions. The comparison is not without its merit. Turner was the premier landscape painter of the first half of the nineteenth century while Monet dominated the latter part of the 1800's. Beyond this timeline relationship, the question of "passing the torch" is exactly that. A question.

Turner was not the "first Impressionist," as some writers assert. He hardly ever painted out-of-doors, even with watercolor of which he was one of the greatest masters in art history. Instead, Turner preferred to take notes of what he observed. 

Moyle vividly recounts the story behind one of Turner's key works, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. In 1810, Turner observed a storm sweeping over the hills and moors of Yorkshire. He was entranced by the spectacle but declined the offer of a sketch block upon which to make a detailed drawing. A few notes scrawled on the back of a letter were enough.

"There," Turner exclaimed to the young son of his great patron, Walter Fawkes. "Hawkey, in two years you will see this again, and call it Hannibal crossing the Alps."

J.M.W.Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812

Turner was as good as his word. In 1812, he exhibited the finished painting, filled with references to the conflict of empires and to the awesome power of nature.

The creative process behind Snow Storm differed from Monet's approach to painting. Monet did not merely observe the world, but painted directly from nature for much of his life - but not entirely. King notes that Monet was a bit disingenuous when he claimed that he "painted entirely out of doors." Virtually all of Monet's paintings were completed in his studio, "often far from the motif and with much teeth-gnashing labor."

 Monet was, none-the-less, the greatest student of nature among the major painters of his era. Even the vast paintings of water lilies of his last years, painted in his studio, were the result of an obsessive effort of continuous investigation of nature. The fabled nymphéas represent a "dialogue" between man and nature, between Monet and the very stuff of creation, earth, water and air, as revealed by the water garden he created at Giverny.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916

Turner's influence on Monet is therefore a matter of controversy. Many commentators claim that Monet's sojourn in England, 1870-71, was a transforming experience, owing to the influence of studying Turner's works on display in London museums. Such a contention is dubious, certainly in terms of artistic technique. Monet, along with Renoir, had already painted the "proto-Impressionist" works at La Grenouillere in 1869. Monet confided to Camille Pissarro in 1871 that Turner's works were "antipathetic because of the exuberant romanticism of his imagination."

So, is there a basis for pairing Monet and Turner in art exhibitions or in a joint book review? The answer, based on the fascinating insights provided by King and Moyle is an emphatic "yes."

There are so many parallels in the life experiences of Monet and Turner that differences in technique might easily be forgotten. Both men loved the sea and rivers, capturing the reflection of light upon water as they navigated their painting boats on the Seine or the Thames. 

Both men also dedicated themselves to grand visionary enterprises. Turner devoted himself to provide a financial endowment for "decayed" artists (later contested by his relatives) and to bequeath a impressive array of his greatest paintings to the British nation. Monet painted works to benefit wounded soldiers during the First World War and labored to create a permanent exhibition of his nymphéas in appreciation of France's trial and triumph in the Great War.

The agonized effort to create the Grand Decoration, as Monet's series of water lilies is called, is the overarching theme of Ross King's Mad Enchantment. It is a story that has few counterparts in art history, except perhaps Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes, about which King has also written a splendid book. 

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1914-26 
This version at MOMA is similar in size to the Grand Decoration in Paris

One of the most notable accomplishments of Mad Enchantment is the gripping descriptions of the herculean efforts involved in painting the cycle of water lily paintings for the Grand Decoration. Far from withdrawing from the world, Monet at Giverny probed to the very essence of nature, just as Turner had done decades before. King writes:

Monet was not, as Cézanne had claimed,"only an eye," for his incredible accuity of vision was combined with an equally adroit hand capable of subtle but masterful techniques... 
Paradoxically for a man who wished to give the impression of the spontaneous capture of a fleeting moment in time, he sometimes used a dozen or more layers of paint on a canvas.

Henri Manuel, Monet at work in his large studio,1920

Monet, as King relates, used every "trick" in the painter's book to create the effect he wanted. Turner had been a kindred spirit in this respect, using varied undercoats of color, thick layers of paint in some instances, stretches of canvas barely painted at other times, rubbing-off paint, applying pigment with brush, palette knife and - in Turner's case at least - the artist's oldest utensil, his fingers.

Both Ross King and Franny Moyle have placed the humanity of their respective protagonists "center stage" in their accounts. These are classic biographies, blessedly free of deconstruction, political agendas and other post-modern baggage. Wide-ranging research, perceptive analysis of the great works of art and compelling narratives make each book a "must" read for art enthusiasts.

The story of how Turner and Monet struggled against the art establishments of Britain and France is, of course, well-known. King and Moyle, however, show that Monet's battle against the Salon and Turner's controversies lasted much longer than generally realized. 

Félix Nadar, Claude Monet, c.1899

Even after Monet's desperate financial woes began to lesson in the 1890's, he still faced criticism over the place of Impressionism in art. Acceptance in some conservative circles came at the expense of dismissal by a number of avant garde critics for being passé.

Monet was fortunate in having a powerful advocate in Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France who masterminded the Allied victory in 1918. Clemenceau guided, goaded, pampered and encouraged Monet to complete the Grand Decoration. When Monet died in 1926, it was Clemenceau who saw to the installation of the nymphéas in the Orangerie Museum in Paris.

Félix Nadar, Georges Clemenceau, early 20th Century

After a rapid rise to prominence in the 1790's, Turner had to contend with opposition from Sir George Beaumont, co-founder of the National Gallery, who strongly disapproved of the lack of "finish" of Turner's paintings. Beaumont died in 1827 but Turner's reputation had sustained critical, if not mortal, injury.

Richard Doyle, Turner Painting One of His Pictures, 1846

For the rest of his life, Turner faced derisive criticism for allegedly painting with "soap suds and whitewash." 
It was Turner's good fortune to find an advocate like Clemenceau - though not as highly-placed in the British establishment. 

 Francis Holl (after George Richmond), John Ruskin, 1857

John Ruskin (1819-1900) championed Turner with his multi-volume work, Modern Painters. And just as Clemenceau handled the details of installing the nymphéas in the Orangerie, Ruskin was the principal executor of the great mass of Turner's works, eventually displayed in the Tate Gallery in London.

There is a further parallel between Turner and Monet that needs to be examined in more detail than King or Moyle were able to do. This task however might best be handled by a psychologist rather than by a biographer. 

Both Turner and Monet were accomplished at depicting  the human figure - early in their careers. Monet in fact started as a caricaturist and a very good one. But he abandoned this celebrity art form to devote himself to landscape. The longer Monet painted, fewer and fewer people appeared in his works, until they disappeared entirely from his garden scenes in Giverny.

Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899

The young Turner painted a masterful self-portrait in 1799 and never bothered to create a really creditable human likeness again.

Moyle, with her astounding insight into small but significant details, notes that Turner presents himself in the Self-Portrait with powdered hair. This coiffure had gone out of vogue due to the French Revolution. Aristocrats, anxious to keep their heads on their shoulders, affected a more plebian hair style. Turner's father, whom he deeply loved, was a barber and wig-maker. The change-in-style had ruined the business of Turner Senior.

J.M.W.Turner, Self-Portrait, c. 1799

Turner's Self-Portrait was painted around the time he was elected as an associate member of the Royal Academy. The whitened-hair can be interpreted as flattery of the British political establishment in the hope of getting full Royal Academy status, which he achieved in 1802.  But it is more likely to have been a sensitive gesture of a loving son to his proud father.

For the rest of his long life, Turner resorted to populating his paintings with hobbit-like figures or even "stick-men," as in the case of Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. People just don't seem to have mattered much in Turner's world-view, when compared to the cosmic forces of nature.  A similar emotional process apparently affected Monet as well.

Both Moyle and King  present evidence that some of this blinkered approach to their fellow human beings was due to the very human foibles of Turner and Monet. Turner, for all his generosity of spirit, was so focused on his income that he charged one of his most devoted patrons, Sir John Leicester, a consulting fee to critique an amateur painting by the nobleman. It was an incredible gaffe.

Turner was also so competitive, even when he was a well-established and wealthy artist, that he could not resist turning the "tables" on rival artists. Yet, when David Wilkie died in 1842, Turner painted one of the most affecting memorial works in all of Western art, Peace - Burial at Sea.

J.M.W.Turner, Peace - Burial at Sea, 1842

Turner and Monet certainly had their faults but lack of humanity was not one their shortcomings.  In actuality, people did not shrink in size or disappear from the canvases of Turner and Monet. Instead, these gifted painters placed the viewer, the beholder, in short, us, into the picture. 

When we look at Hannibal's troops cowering under a threatening sky, we become protagonists, no longer spectators, in this drama. We stand in meditative communion with Monet's nymphéas and we are no longer in an art gallery. We are truly one with nature.

Claude Monet, Waterlilies, 1908

In her moving commentary on Turner's last works, Moyle writes:

In these late paintings Turner used every ounce of his painterly virtuosity to depict a complex, mysterious world and contain it within a single holistic emblem. As if encouraging his viewer to peer through a multidimensional telescope, he shows time, science, different worldly planes and natural phenomena in a mysterious kaleidoscope.

Turner, Moyle concludes "sought to communicate the ultimate truth about the world of which he was a part..."

If one really wants to trace the influence of Turner on Monet, this example of seeking  "to communicate the ultimate truth"  is where the trail leads. This "example" rather than painterly technique is the gift that Monet found for the taking during his sojourn in England in 1870-71
Cherishing "the ultimate truth about the world of which" we are a part is still here - for the taking.  And you don't have to be a Modern Painter to partake of this gift.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image: Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies. 2016 (book cover ) Courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

J.M.W.Turner (British, 1775-1851) Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812. Oil on Canvas, Support: 1460 x 2375 mm. Tate Britain. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest,1856 N00490

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Water Lilies, 1916. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.  Photograph by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Water Lilies, 1914-26. Oil on canvas, three panels, each 6' 6 3/4" x 13' 11 1/4" (200 x 424.8 cm), overall 6' 6 3/4" x 41' 10 3/8" (200 x 1276 cm). Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, ID # 666.1959.a-c

Henri Manuel (French, 1874-1947), Monet at work in his large studio, 1920. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc and Getty Images

Félix Nadar (French, 1820-1910) Claude Monet, 1899. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Félix Nadar (French, 1820-1910) Georges Clemenceau, early 20th Century. New York Public Library Digital Gallery: [] and Wikimedia Commons

Richard Doyle (British, 1824-1883) Turner Painting One of His Pictures, 1846. Woodcut, 3 3/8 in. x 4 1/8 in., Acquired, 1973. National Portrait Gallery, London, D6996   
Francis Holl (British, 1815-1884) John Ruskin, Stipple engraving of portrait by George Richmond, 1857. 21 3/4 in. x 16 in. (551 mm x 407 mm) plate size; 22 1/2 in. x 17 3/4 in. (573 mm x 450 mm) paper size. Given by Mrs C.M. Baker, 1937. National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D33440

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) The Japanese Footbridge, 1899. Oil on canvas,  81.3 x 101.6 cm (32 x 40 in.) framed: 101 x 120.7 x 7.6 cm (39 3/4 x 47 1/2 x 3 in.) Gift of Victoria Nebeker Coberly, in memory of her son John W. Mudd, and Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. No.1992.9.

J.M.W.Turner (British,1775-1851) Self-Portrait, c.1799. Oil paint on canvas, Support: 743 x 584 mm, frame: 985 x 820 x 110 mm. Tate Britain. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest,1856. N00458

J.M.W.Turner (British,1775-1851) Peace - Burial at Sea, 1842. Oil paint on canvas, Support: 870 x 867 mm framed: 1110 x 1108 x 120 mm. Tate Britain. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest,1856. N00528

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Water Lilies, 1908. National Museum Wales, Cardiff. Photograph by  National Museum of Wales Enterprises Limited/Heritage Images/Getty Images