Sunday, April 16, 2017

Frédéric Bazille and the the Birth of Impressionism at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Frédéric Bazille and the the Birth of Impressionism

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
April 9 - July 9, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The prologue to the 1948 film version of Hamlet, directed by Laurence Olivier, concludes with a controversial assertion. "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind."

This line of cinematic psychoanalysis flashed into my mind as I considered the art of Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870). Bazille is the guiding spirit of an excellent new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The exhibit is partly biographical, as well as an inquiry into the origins of Impressionism.

On the surface, Bazille was not a Hamlet-figure. Affable and charming, Bazille was generous in support of his less affluent friends, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Berthe Morisot called him "Big" Bazille and his tall, slightly-stooping frame figures in a number of pivotal early Impressionist works, several of which are on view in the  National Gallery exhibit.

Claude Monet, Bazille and Camille (Study for "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe")

"Big" Bazille was gifted, intelligent, loved by his devoted family and highly-regarded by friends and colleagues in the rising art scene of Paris in the 1860's. Then the upward curve of his life suddenly plunged straight-down into death and near oblivion in 1870.

The immediate cause of death was a German bullet, which struck Bazille during the Franco-Prussian War. But the evidence of his art reveals conflicted emotions and an anxious search for meaning in his life. This led him - fatally - to enlist in the war effort of the corrupt Second Empire of Napoleon III.

Frédéric Bazille, Self Portrait with Detachable Collar, C. 1865-1867 (Detail)

This was an undeserved fate for such an admirable human being. But there is an even crueler irony here. Bazille was not only a pioneer of the Impressionist movement before its formal beginning in 1874. He was killed in a pointless and stupid war, the chief effect of which was to plant the seed of World War I. Bazille was a "lost generation" artist, decades before the battles of 1914-18 claimed the lives of Franz Marc, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilfrid Owen and many more.

Had he followed his father's wishes, Bazille would have become a doctor. After graduating from college with a degree in science, Bazille entered medical school. The appeal of painting and music, however, was too great to resist.

In 1863, Bazille began to taking art lessons in the studio of a Swiss painter, Charles Gleyre. There  he met Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley. There is an intriguing painting on view in the National Gallery exhibit showing portraits of forty-three of the students at Gleyre's academy, each painted by a fellow student.

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of the Frédéric Bazille exhibit at the National Gallery

Most of these aspiring artists are forgotten today, though Renoir and Sisley do appear on the crowded canvas. It is the message behind the image that counts.

What is portrayed here is the competitive, convivial brotherhood of artists among whom Bazille would search for meaning in life and art. Later, Bazille would join the group of painters and writers who met at the Café Guerbois in Paris: Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Emil Zola, Monet and Renoir, with occasional appearances by Paul Cezanne.
Bazille joined in this camaraderie of genius. His paintings and those of his fellow Bohèmes au café are skillfully integrated in the National Galley exhibit, which is on view in the newly renovated East Wing  building.

What is so notable about Bazille's work is how impressive it was from the start - but also how uneven it remained throughout his short-lived career. In 1869, Bazille painted two portraits which appear to have been created by different artists.

Frédéric Bazille, Edmond Maître, 1869

Bazille painted his music-loving friend, Edmond Maître, with the assurance and attention to detail of a seventeenth century master like Van Dyck or Velazquez. This is a work which can stand comparison with the kind of portraits that John Singer Sargent was to make his stock and trade during the 1880's and 1890's.
Bazille's portrait of the writer, Édouard Blau, painted later in 1869, is equal in psychological insight to that of Edmond Maître. But the color is applied, even on the face, with only minimal attention to blending and shadow. Was this due to a search for a new, more expressive style of portrait painting?  The considerable merit of this work raises questions about Bazille's ability to create and maintain a "signature" style, not about skill or attention to detail.

Frédéric Bazille, Édouard Blau, 1869

Bazille collaborated with Blau, working on a theatrical production which was never produced. He also spent a lot of time with Maître studying and playing contemporary music. Such wide-ranging interests speak highly of Bazille's intellect and enthusiasm. But these departures from painting also reveal a emotional response to art very different from that of Monet. 

Monet, though hard-pressed for cash, did not deviate from his single-minded devotion to landscape painting. Bazille, by contrast, was cushioned from financial hardship by a modest allowance from his parents - which he shared with Monet. He was thus able to pursue many artistic paths, but seldom achieved the masterpieces of which his great talent was capable.

The question of Bazille's lack - or change - of focus is observable in one of his best known paintings. This is The Family Gathering, painted in 1867-1868, a truly iconic work of nineteenth century French art.

Frédéric Bazille, Portraits of the *** Family, called The Family Gathering, 1867-68

Bazille painted his parents, relatives and future in-laws during the summer vacation he took on his family's estate, Domaine de Méric, in the south of France. Once again, his reach eluded his grasp. To an incredible extent, Bazille's bravura treatment of the "center stage" group is unbalanced by exceptionally weak handling of the figures on the wings. 

This central group is anchored by a brilliant depiction of Bazille's parents. His mother looks at the viewer with a mixture of compassion and apprehension while his father stares off into space, perhaps wondering about his son's problematic future. 

Frédéric Bazille, The Family Gathering, 1867-68 (Detail)

Seated or standing nearby are Bazille's aunt and cousins, notably Pauline des Hours, arm-in-arm with her fiance. All are beautifully rendered.

Behind his parents, Bazille painted himself and his uncle glaring from the left-hand edge of the picture. They look like intruders, rather than members of a family gathering.

It is the handling of the right-hand group - Bazille's brother Marc, his fiancee, Suzanne Tissié and his cousin, Camille des Hours - that really raises a major question about Bazille's ability to remain focused.

Once again, it seems to be the case of a different - notably inferior - painter at work. Marc Bazille's arms look like they are made of rubber, while Suzanne Tissié poses with almost rigor mortis stiffness. Most incredible of all is the way that that Camille des Hours holds her face as if it were a mask. She looks as if she had been painted by René Magritte in one of his surrealist works from the 1920's.

Such criticism may seem very harsh for the work of an idealistic young man who was still, essentially, a student. But Bazille had discerned the proper course for his art at the very start of his career. In December 1863, he wrote that “painting figures in the sun” was his ideal. When he focused on that aim, he achieved sensational success.

Frédéric Bazille, View of the Village, 1868

Bazille's View of the Village, 1868, is a testament to what he could achieve when he focused his abilities on reality rather than a "theme." Here a young girl poses on a hill overlooking the village near to his family home. It is very simple, entirely naturalistic and totally believable. The girl, no great "looker" by Parisian standards, exudes an inner beauty and psychological complexity that makes this one of the great character studies of nineteenth century art.

Berthe Morisot thought very highly of View of the Village, believing that it embodied the vision of the rising generation, soon to be called Impressionists, “to place a figure en plein air.” 

Berthe Morisot,The Harbor at Lorient, 1869

Bazille's influence on Morisot can clearly be seen in The Harbor at Lorient, which Morisot painted in 1869, after she had admired View of the Village.

Bazille achieved equally high results when painting landscapes "en plein air.” In 1867, he created a series of works depicting the famous castle, Aigues-Mortes. The bright, almost cloudless sky of Provence, the sun-baked battlements and shoreline were painted in the style that was to sweep the world following the first Impressionist Salon of 1874.

Bazille, despite these path-breaking works of art was still wrestling with himself over the direction of his art when he stunned his family and friends by joining the French Army. It was as perplexing a decision as it was unexpected.

Bazille volunteered to serve in the elite Third Regiment of Zouaves on August 16, 1870. At that stage, the recently declared war with Prussia/Germany was a duel between two rival empires, not as it later became a patriotic struggle to defend the Republic of France from invasion. Bazille was not obligated to join the military and, as a staunch believer in democracy, he detested Napoleon III. 

Why did he risk his life for a despotic ruler who had betrayed the ideals of Republican rule in France? Perhaps the answer can be found in the way that Bazille signed his enlistment papers: "Bazille, Jean Frédéric, esquire, aged 28, history painter by trade.”

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, 1867

Bazille addressed an amazing variety of themes in his short artistic career, 1864 to 1870. However, he never painted a true "history" painting. Perhaps he was thinking of a recent work with a biblical theme, Ruth and Boaz (1870). More likely, the words "history painter by trade” reveal that he was still searching for meaning in art, for proof of himself as a man, for "something" greater than what life had offered him so far.

Whatever motivated Bazille to join the hard-fighting Zouaves, his death in battle deprived the nineteenth century art world of one of its most promising, talented artists.

As the National Gallery exhibit clearly shows, Bazille had already made a significant impact on French art by the time of his death in 1870. In doing so, Bazille set the stage for the Impressionist movement. How ironic that the young man who could not make up his mind helped to determine the future course of Modern Art.

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

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Frédéric Bazille's The Family Gathering, 1867.
oil on canvas 152 x 230 cm (59 13/16 x 90 9/16 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, purchased with the assistance of Marc Bazille, 1924 

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Bazille and Camille (Study for "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe"), 1865. Oil on canvas, 93 x 68.9 cm (36 5/8 x 27 1/8 in.) framed: 121.9 x 98.4 x 10.7 cm (48 x 38 3/4 x 4 3/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Frédéric Bazille's Self Portrait with Detachable Collar, C. 1865-1867. Oil on canvas. 54 x 46 cm. (21 1/4 x 18 in.) Minneapolis Institute of Art. The John R. Van Derlap fund, 62.39 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Frédéric Bazille exhibit, showing Forty-three Portraits by Painters at Charles Gleyre's Studio, c. 1856-1868. Oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm (44 7/8 x 57 1/2 in.) framed: 126 x 160 cm (49 5/8 x 63 in.) The Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris 

Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870) Edmond Maître, early 1869.Oil on canvas, 83.2 x 64 cm (32 3/4 x 25 3/16 in.) framed: 109.2 x 90.2 x 8.9 cm (43 x 35 1/2 x 3 1/2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870) Édouard Blau, probably December 1869. Oil on canvas,  59.5 x 43.2 cm (23 7/16 x 17 in.) framed: 69.5 x 53 x 5.1 cm (27 3/8 x 20 7/8 x 2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection.

Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870) Portraits of the *** Family, called The Family Gathering, 1867. Oil on canvas, 152 x 230 cm (59 13/16 x 90 9/16 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, purchased with the assistance of Marc Bazille, 1924

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Frédéric Bazille's The Family Gathering, 1867. (Bazille's parents, Camille and Gaston Bazille) Oil on canvas 152 x 230 cm (59 13/16 x 90 9/16 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, purchased with the assistance of Marc Bazille, 1924.

Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870) View of the Village, 1868. Oil on canvas, 137.5 x 85.5 x 2.5 cm (54 1/8 x 33 11/16 x 1 in.) framed: 157 x 107 x 8 cm (61 13/16 x 42 1/8 x 3 1/8 in.) Musée Fabre, Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole

Berthe Morisot (French, 1841-1895) The Harbor at Lorient, 1869. Oil on canvas. 43.5 x 73 cm (17 1/8 x 28 3/4 in.) framed: 64.7 x 95.2 x 7.6 cm (25 1/2 x 37 1/2 x 3 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919) Frédéric Bazille, 1867. Oil on canvas. 105 x 73.5 cm (41 5/16 x 28 15/16 in.) On loan to the Musée d'Orsay, from the Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Frank Gehry's Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Frank Gehry and the Core Project Renovations  

at the Phildelphia Museum of Art

Reviewed by Ed Voves

March 30, 2017 was a cold spring morning in Philadelphia. But pure "sunshine" radiated throughout the Philadelphia Museum of Art on that day. An impressive ground breaking ceremony launched the Core Project, the decisive phase of a great renovation effort dating back to 2004. 

My wife, Anne, and I were honored to be invited to the ceremony. A dazzling red carpet marked the path into the rather forbidding Vaulted Walkway on the museum's ground level. Symbolically at least, the light of a new era beamed into this grand museum, home to world-class masterpieces by Thomas Eakins, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and the "Rocky" steps!

The Vaulted Passageway of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The ceremonial shovels used to launch the Core Project renovations are at the ready.

It is important to emphasize the word "throughout" in terms of the Philadelphia Museum rehab effort. This massive project is literally an "inside" job.

When the renovation project, known as the 2004 Facilities Master Plan, is completed in 2020, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be dramatically transformed. The Core Project will reopen and reconfigure huge expanses of space within the honey-colored neoclassical building. These spaces have been blocked-off or under-utilized for many years. 

The renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been placed in the capable hands of architect Frank Gehry. Famed for his innovative design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Gehry also handled an interior-focused renovation of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

At the opening ceremony, Philadelphia's mayor, Jim Kenney (left), sits alongside Frank Gehry (center) and Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In his remarks at the March 30 ceremony, Gehry made the ironic comment that when the Core Project is completed people looking at the museum exterior "won't even know that I've been here."

On the inside, there will be plenty of evidence of Gehry's presence - and expertise.

According to statistics released by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Core Project will open-up  90,000 sq. feet. to the public, of which 23,000 sq. feet will be used for new galleries to display the ever-growing collection of the museum. 

The need for more exhibit space at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been apparent for a long-time. The 2016 Embracing the Contemporary exhibit illustrated the dilemma of providing sufficient display space for the treasures of the Keith and Katherine Sachs Collection. 

The vast array of Modern art in the exhibit - which Keith and Katherine Sachs have promised to give to the Philadelphia Museum of Art - overflowed the Dorrance Galleries where special exhibits are usually shown. Several galleries in the Modern wing had to re-hung to display the remainder of the Sachs Collection. Iconic works by the "Old Masters of Modern Art" like Modigliani's Blue Eyes (Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne) had to find temporary homes elsewhere in the museum.

Amedeo Modigliani, Blue Eyes (Portrait of Madame Jeanne Hébuterne), 1917

With a space crunch like this at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Core Project comes not a moment too soon. Much of the newly available gallery space will be devoted to The museum's outstanding collection of Modern and Contemporary art.

The Van Pelt Auditorium under demolition, part of the initial phase of the              Core Project renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Artist's rendering of the planned Forum of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The view is looking West, as in the above photo of the demolished Van Pelt Auditorium.

Some familiar landmarks of the old museum have already been demolished as part of the project. We visited the vacated space of the Van Pelt Auditorium, scene of so many great lectures and classic film presentations. The auditorium had been torn down to provide access to the great central space that Gehry's plans will open-up.

This great public space is being styled as the Forum. The title from ancient Rome is well-chosen, even if the Philadelphia Museum is designed like a Greek temple. The Forum will provide better access routes throughout the rather cramped museum. It will also impart a sense of majesty to the interior of the museum to match that of its Greek temple facade.

Artist's view of of the planned Forum as seen from an overlook space.

A spectacular staircase will dominate the Forum, providing access from the renovated Vaulted Walkway - where the groundbreaking ceremony took place - to the exhibit floors. One of these new gallery areas will be designated for a reconfiguration of the museum's American art collection, one of the finest in the world. Of the new gallery space to be made available by the Core Project, 11,500 sq. feet will be dedicated to the display of American art.

What better way to honor the great artists from Philadelphia's past - and future ones too! During the 1876 Centennial Exposition,Thomas Eakins' Gross Clinic was banished to a display of hospital beds and medical equipment at this first world's fair held in the U.S. But now Eakins' masterpiece is going to hang in style in the new American art galleries!

A cutaway view of the model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Core Project. The Great Stair Hall with Calder Mobile is above the new Forum planned by Frank Gehry.

A fabulous scale model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with cutaways of the Core Project renovations is currently on display at the museum. It is a work of art in its own right and it will be a pleasure to refer back to this model as construction moves forward.

There will be so much more in the "new" museum, beyond the majestic Forum. New restaurants and shops, state-of-the-art classrooms and a terrific art studio for school groups. There will better access for the physically-challenged and the elderly.

If all goes according to plan, the Core Project will add a total of 169,000 square feet to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I hope that somewhere in all that bustling, creative space there will be a memorial of some kind to Anne d'Harnoncourt. This great lady was the long-time director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the person who brought Frank Gehry to the museum as the architect of the Facilities Master Plan.

Anne d'Harnoncourt in 1994 
Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

I frequently saw Ms. d'Harnoncourt at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, though I did not know her personally. I never had the chance to interview her, as I occasionally do Mr.Timothy Rub, the dynamic director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art today. I did not begin reviewing art exhibitions until 2008, the year that Ms. d'Harnoncourt died, tragically, years before her time. The first great exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that I reviewed was one of the last that she planned, the awesome Frida Kahlo exhibit in 2009.

Anne d'Harnoncourt positively exuded love of art and love for people. You just felt that love whenever you saw her. I still sense her spirit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I have the feeling that she will be there at the grand opening ceremony of the Core Project renovations in 2020.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved Images Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art  and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image: 
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Portrait of Frank Gehry at the Opening Ceremony of the Core Project Renovations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), The Vaulted Passageway of the Philadelphia Museum of Art prior to the Opening Ceremony of the Core Project Renovations, March 30, 2017.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Jim Kenney, Frank Gehry and Timothy Rub the Opening Ceremony of the Core Project Renovations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Amedeo Modigliani, Blue Eyes (Portrait of Madame Jeanne Hébuterne), 1917. Oil on Canvas, 21 1/2 x 16 7/8 inches (54.6 x 42.9 cm). Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, # 1967-30-59.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), The Van Pelt Auditorium of the Philadelphia Museum of Art under demolition.

Artist's rendering of the planned Forum of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, looking West. Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Artist's view of of the planned Forum as seen from an overlook spaceArchitectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), A cutaway view of the model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Core Project. 

Anne d'Harnoncourt in 1994Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York City

Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity

Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York City 

October 19, 2016 - April 23, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The exhibit space of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) in New York City  consists of two moderately-sized galleries. The ISAW is located a couple blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of  Art at 15 East 84th Street. What ought to be a classic illustration of a sapling wilting under the shadow of a mighty oak tree is not true at all. 

The ISAW is a research and graduate education institute of New York University. It mounts two important exhibitions each year and somehow manages to encompass whole civilizations or historical epochs in the confines of these two galleries.

In its latest exhibit, Time and the Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity, ISAW has brought together an astonishing range of art works from museums throughout Europe and the United States. ISAW has no permanent collection of its own, but knows how to pick the best of the best.

I was especially impressed that a silver figurine from the treasure of Mâcon was loaned to ISAW from the British Museum. This is the Statuette of Tutela with Planetary Divinities, the introductory image of this review.

In 1764, a vast hoard of ancient silver and gold, mostly coins, was discovered in Mâcon in France. All but eight figurines and one silver plate were melted down for the face value of the bullion. The British Museum was able to purchase the exquisite Statuette of Tutela and seven others before they were consigned to the smelting furnace. 

As the name of the ISAW exhibit proclaims, the over-arching theme of the present exhibition is the biggest one imaginable: time.

Time is the absolute component of life: of our daily lives, of the march of history and ultimately of the nature of the universe. Everyone and everything exists in time. 

Time's importance should occasion no surprise. But people throughout history have not been able to agree about time anymore than tribal or national boundaries. 

Roman Calendar Inscription with Zodiac, 1st century A.D.

Most city states in ancient times had  civic and religious calendars and dating systems unique to themselves. For ancient Romans, time and history began with the founding of the city by Romulus (738 B.C. to us). The first Roman calendar was composed of only ten months and was a thorough mess. February was later added as the last month of the year, but was then squeezed to fit between January and March. 

It took Julius Caesar to straighten things out in 46 B.C. Caesar introduced a proper twelve month calendar, which unfortunately for him included the Ides of March. 

With just two galleries at their disposal, the ISAW curators wisely limited the exhibition to Greek and Roman civilization. But they do acknowledge the influence of ancient Egypt and the Babylonians, especially the latter on the rise of astrology which retained a powerful influence throughout ancient times. The ISAW exhibit brilliantly reveals a Classical world that was considerably less "classic" than we have been led to believe.

Roman Frieze showing Putti with Sundial, 140–160 A.D

The Greeks and Romans measured the course of the day using sundials, as is well known. However, one of the wonderfully strange objects on view in the ISAW exhibit is a small portable sun dial shaped like a ham! Historians surmise that the shape (like a Prosciutto ham) had an "eat, drink and be merry" connotation. It actually functioned, though the Greeks and Romans also used portable sundials that look like official time pieces by our standards.

Portable Universal Sundial, 1st–4th century A.D.

Many of the other works of art and artifacts displayed in Time and Cosmos seem alien to the image we have long held of the Greeks and Romans as founders of Western Civilization. And even some of the exhibit pieces that do conform to the conventional view of the Classical Age raise questions.

The superb mosaic from the Villa of Titus Siminius Stephanus in Pompeii likely depicts Plato's Academy with the sitting figure directly under the tree being Plato himself. Or it might depict the "seven sages." These pioneering thinkers included Thales of Miletus, the first "scientist" whose many accomplishments included predicting the solar eclipse of 585 B.C.Thales believed in the unity of nature whose phenomena could be explained without reliance on mythology.

Roman Mosaic Depicting the Seven Sages ("Plato's Academy"), from Pompeii

The ancient Greeks and Romans generally ignored the writings of Thales with his emphasis on scientific method. Astrology retained a strong grip on the minds of ancient people until the triumph of Christianity in the fourth century A.D. (and behind closed doors after that). The surviving art and artifacts from antiquity testify to the ceaseless efforts by people, great and small, to comprehend what was in store them, to prepare for and - if possible - to deflect "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

The ISAW has an intriguing stone object on display, a fragment of what is called a "parapegma." The museum text calls it a "precursor to the modern day almanac." On it were inscribed market days in a nine-day cycle and a peg could be inserted in notch holes to keep track. This prosaic use in turn was related to astronomical, meteorological and astrological lore attached to each of these days. 

Roman Parapegma, after 8 B.C.

It is easy enough to understand the day-to-day use of the parapegma, but what purpose was served by the beautifully carved "Altar" with Zodiacal Frieze and Heads of the Twelve Gods is hard to ascertain. It was mounted on a pedestal and may have been purely decorative. But we have no idea what - if anything - was placed in its center space. Perhaps a mirror for individuals to reflect on fate or some device for divination, but this remains a mystery.

"Altar" with Zodiacal Frieze and Heads of the Twelve Gods, 117–138 A.D.

The ISAW exhibit also presents a short visual "reconstruction" of the extraordinary Antikythera Mechanism. In 1900, a Greek sponge diver found fragments of what is now considered the first mechanical computer at an ancient shipwreck site. Named for the nearby island where it was found, the Antikythera Mechanism was a box containing bronze gears permitting complex calculations. Three external dials controlled the settings.

A century later, historians of science are still trying to figure out the workings of this amazing machine. The main purpose, as outlined by the ISAW, is clear. The Antikythera Mechanism can be "understood to be dedicated to astronomical phenomena and operates as a complex mechanical 'computer' which tracks the cycles of the Solar System."

The Antikythera Mechanism dates to 70 B.C., the final flourishing of ancient Greek scientific endeavor. Many of the works of art in the ISAW exhibit date from the "high noon" of the Roman Empire, during the second century A.D.

This brings to mind Edward Gibbon's famous remark about this period in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which was published in 1776:

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.

Gibbon, a leading thinker of the Age of Reason, wrote his magisterial book entirely based on the surviving literature from ancient times. Gibbon knew about the religious cults of antiquity but very little archaeological evidence about them had surfaced by the time of his writing. As a result, Gibbon could find a kinship between the 1700's Enlightenment and the age of the Good Emperors.

One of the most beautiful, but troubling, works on display in Time and Cosmos dates to Gibbon's "most happy and prosperous" era. Statuette of Nemesis with Portrait Resembling the Empress Faustina I, eighteen inches in height, comes from the Getty Museum collection. It was one of the first exhibit objects to "catch" my eye in the ISAW exhibit, but the more I read and thought about it, the more questions it raised.

Statuette of Nemesis with Portrait Resembling the Empress Faustina I, 150 A.D.

Nemesis, the goddess of divine or "moral" retribution, is usually thought of in terms of delivering "just desserts" to arrogant or law-breaking individuals. This Nemesis, however, has the facial features of Faustina, the wife of the Roman emperor, Antoninus Pius, who ruled 138 to 161 A.D. 

Despite the placid countenance of Faustina/Nemesis, this statuette is one of menacing portent.The wings of Faustina/Nemesis exemplify swift justice, the wheel of destiny in her hand signifies control of present and future. The prostrate figure under the foot of the goddess is an enemy of Rome. 

Antoninus Pius ruled Rome during a comparatively peaceful period of the often violent Pax Romana. His predecessor, Hadrian, however, had attempted to impose the values of Greco-Roman civilization on the Jews of Palestine by building a temple to Jupiter in Jerusalem. Bitter memories of the Roman destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. were still very much alive. In 132, the revolt of Simon bar Kokhba challenged Hadrian's heedless policy, as well as the value system we see on display in the ISAW exhibit.

Nemesis, in the form of six Roman legions, eventually crushed Simon bar Kokhba and his rebels. Is there a connection between this statuette, discovered in Egypt, and the Jewish resistance to Greco-Roman civilization? Might the prostrate man under the heel of Faustina/Nemesis symbolize Simon bar Kokhba or someone else in Rome's eastern dominions who dared to think in different terms from the ruling elite?

We are unlikely to know the answer to this question. Indeed, it is a bit unfair to reach beyond the basic framework of Time and Cosmos to raise such an issue. There is so much here to think upon and ponder. Yet, it is the mark of a great museum exhibition that it sparks provocative thoughts such as these.

Time and Cosmos is ultimately concerned with "world view" - in ancient times and for all time. Just one more month remains to see this superb exhibit but the issues it addresses so brilliantly are truly "for the ages."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) and the British Museum

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Statuette of Tutela with Planetary Divinities, from Mâcon, France, 150–220 AD. Silver with Gilding Dimensions: H. 13.9 cm; W. 6 cm; D. 4.2 cm. The British Museum. GR 1824,0424.1 © Trustees of the British Museum. Digital image courtesy of the  British Museum's Open Access Policy.

Roman Calendar Inscription (Menologium Rusticum Colotianum) with Zodiac, Festivals, and Agricultural Activities, found near the Palatine, Rome. 1st century A.D. Marble.H. 66.4 cm; W. 41.3 cm; D. 38.7 cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Inventory Number:2632 © Institute for the Study of the Ancient World / Guido Petruccioli, photographer

Frieze from a Roman Sarcophagus Representing Putti with Sundial. 140–160 A.D. H. 34.5 cm; W. 23 cm; D. 7.4 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Inventory Number:MA1341. Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines  © RMN-Grand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski / Art Resource, NY

Portable Universal Sundial. Believed to have been discovered near Bratislava, 1st–4th century A.D.  Bronze. H. 6.4 cm; W. 6.1 cm; D. 2.5 cm Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. Inventory Number:51358 © Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford

Roman Mosaic Depicting the Seven Sages ("Plato's Academy"), from the Villa of Titus Siminius Stephanus, Pompeii. 1st century BC–1st century A.D. Stone Tesserae. H. 96 cm; W. 94 cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Inventory Number:124545 © Institute for the Study of the Ancient World / Guido Petruccioli, photographer

Roman Parapegma with Lunar Days, Market Days, and Planetary Weekdays, believed to be from Latium, Italy. After 8 B.C. Marble. H. 53.5 cm; W. 33 cm; D. 3 cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Inventory Number:2635 © Institute for the Study of the Ancient World / Guido Petruccioli, photographer

"Altar" with Zodiacal Frieze and Heads of the Twelve Gods, from Gabii, Latium, 117–138 AD. Marble. Diameter. 83.5 cm; D. 26.5 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Inventory Number: MA666 Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines © RMN-Grand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski / Art Resource, NY

Statuette of Nemesis with Portrait Resembling the Empress Faustina I,  discovered in Egypt, 150 AD. Dolomitic Marble. H. 46.4 cm; W. 20.3 cm; D. 12.7 cm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California. Inventory Number: 96.AA.43  Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent at Philadelphia Museum of Art

American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent

Philadelphia Museum of Art
March 1, 2017 - May 14, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In the world of art, as in the course of everyday life, it is wise to expect the "unexpected." 

The latest blockbluster exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent, is a case in point. For once, this is not just the case of using name recognition to "sell" the show. Both Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent were true masters of watercolor painting. But neither artist played a pioneering role in America's enthusiasm for watercolor painting that began in 1866.

Before the Civil War, watercolor painting in America was deemed to be acceptable only for Sunday-afternoon artists and women. It was hardly  the "stuff" of Yankee manhood or the valor that  won the day at Gettysburg. 

The Union had waged  the Civil War with ruthless determination and technical expertise.  Once the shooting stopped, the expectation was high that these traits would carry over into other aspects of American society. The important role of technology should  have sparked a mania for photography, which had played a big role in the war. Likewise, the intense patriotism should have prompted a wave of battle paintings or works to honor the martyred Abraham Lincoln.

Nothing of the kind happened - at least not in 1866. Instead, a group of little known artists launched what soon became a nation-wide mania  for watercolor painting and collecting.

The founders of the American watercolor revolution were hardly household names - then or now.  Samuel Colman, Gilbert Burling, William Craig and William Hart were certainly proficient artists. The exhibit displays works by all, with the exception of Burling. These painters were heavily indebted to the British watercolor tradition and to the writings of its leading theorist, John Ruskin. What they lacked in the way of originality, these pioneers compensated for with persuasive charm and crusading zeal.

Fidelia Bridges, Milkweeds, 1876

The influence of Ruskin on American watercolor painting is exemplified by the work of Fidelia Bridges, (1834-1923). A New England artist who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, Bridges painted "truth to nature" watercolors of such outstanding merit that she could not be denied a prominent place in the burgeoning watercolor movement - despite being a woman.

The new popularity of watercolor quickly led to the organization of a professional society. Colman was elected president of the American Watercolor Society in 1866. A year later, the organization mounted a successful show at the National Academy of Design, which became an annual event of great popularity. 

Soon first-rank artists like John LaFarge were answering the call to exhibit at the AWS shows in New York City. Sales revenue - the greatest inducement of all - kept pace with Colman's congenial, alliance-building leadership. 

In 1873, the greatest war artist of the Civil War, Winslow Homer "discovered" watercolor. Only the year before, Homer had painted his hugely popular tribute to American children, Snap the Whip, in oils. Snap the Whip is a nostalgic work of art. Wistful reflection on pre-industrial America was a keynote of many works by AWS painters, too.

This backward-glance is beautifully represented in the Philadelphia Museum exhibit by Edwin Austin Abbey's The Two Sisters. The two protagonists of this astonishing watercolor are dressed in  the early nineteenth century Federal period style. Abbey combined translucent watercolor and opaque gouache to create a work that is suffused with subtle color. 

Edwin Austin Abbey, The Two Sisters, 1882

This vibrant work of art, on special loan from Yale, is so delicate and light-sensitive that it is kept behind a curtain at the exhibit except when being viewed for very short periods by visitors. The damaging effect of light on watercolors can only be thwarted by extreme care. Because of this, opportunity to take gallery photographs was limited at the press preview.

Abbey's effective use of translucent and opaque watercolor was rivaled by another AWS stalwart, Thomas Moran (1837‑1926). Born in England, Moran was a great admirer of J.M.W. Turner, sometime to such a degree that it is difficult to distinguish their works. Moran took a lead from the hardy, well-traveled Turner and brought his watercolor box along  on an expedition to the American West soon after the Civil War. 

Thomas Moran, Big Springs in Yellowstone Park, 1872

In a way, Moran's Big Springs in Yellowstone Park, 1872, recorded a frontier that was fast disappearing, just as Abbey's genteel Federal period had vanished. Moran's depictions of the West, both in watercolor and in oil, played a major role in promoting the idea of National Parks to preserve the natural beauty of America. Moran also pointed the way for Winslow Homer to make his mark in watercolor.

Homer, "the always unexpected Mr. Homer" as a reviewer called him, followed the lead of both Abbey and Moran. He painted both pensive young women and barefoot country boys and the frontier-like conditions of Maine and the Adirondack Mountains in New York. But his style was all his own and it was not long before he was recognized as America's premier painter in watercolor.

Winslow Homer, Building a Smudge, 1891

Not all the reviews of Homer's work were glowing. Homer did not take kindly to negative criticism in the proliferating journals like Scribner's Monthly. Some years, he refused to send any work to the AWS shows. Instead, he would paddle-off into the woods of New York and New England, building a "smudge" to keep the vociferous flies at bay - along with the art critics.

Other years, Homer would seek artistic refuge on the North Sea coast of England, where he painted watercolors of stalwart fisher folk, or go to the tropics where he painted the luminous A Garden in Nassau in 1885 .            

Winslow Homer, A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Homer's facility in every form of watercolor and in every setting was matched by John Singer Sargent. Twenty-years younger than Homer, Sargent joined the exhibiting ranks of the watercolor fellowship somewhat late in his career, though he had always painted privately in the medium. 

Weary of the "grind" of society portrait painting in England, Sargent "went public" in 1904, just a few years before the still vigorous Homer died in 1910. One of Homer's last watercolors, Diamond Shoal, proves that he was still at the top of his form in his last years. 

Winslow Homer, Diamond Shoal, 1905

Had Homer not died in 1910, a "duel" in watercolors with Sargent might well have ensued. The Philadelphia exhibit devotes an entire gallery to a "compare and contrast" examination of the watercolors of Homer and Sargent. It is very intriguing but there is no record that either artist viewed their work in such a competitive spirit. It was much more of a case of "passing the torch" of artistic leadership from one master to another.

Sargent did more than keep the golden age of American watercolor going into the twentieth century. His bold use of translucent watercolor to explore the ever-changing quality of light raised the medium to a new, almost miraculous, height of achievement.

John Singer Sargent, Spanish Fountain, 1912

It is only fitting, when mentioning superlative achievement, to acknowledge the curator of this fabulous exhibit, Kathleen Foster. One of the greatest contemporary authorities on American art, Dr. Foster conceived and organized American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent. She wrote the text of the exhibit catalog in its entirety, a most impressive achievement. Most exhibit books are written by a team of scholars. 

Dr. Foster's achievement is definitive not merely for the depth of her research but also its wide-ranging field of study. The "Golden Age" of American watercolor embraced the  Aesthetic Movement of the 1870s, design for commercial enterprises like the celebrated Rookwood Pottery, the "house beautiful" ideal and the American mural movement. All of these strands are woven into an exhibit which will not soon be topped for its authoritative scholarship and its sheer, soul-restoring beauty. 

The American watercolor movement coincided with the rise of Impressionism in France. This can create a bit of confusion for non-experts on American art. Several early figures of American watercolor painting were considered "Impressionists" but these artists were influenced by the thriving Munich school of painting rather than by Claude Monet and his confrères. The French Impressionists did not favor watercolor to any significant degree.  

Childe Hassam, Boulevard at Night, Paris, 1889

Eventually Childe Hassam, an American Impressionist and an accomplished watercolor painter, united the two schools of art with outstanding works in watercolor.

American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent concludes with an insightful look at the science of watercolor.  We are reminded that the achievements of the age of Homer and Sargent were also based upon a material revolution in watercolor, developing from hard brittle cakes to disposable tubes of color. 

Watercolor Box belonging to Winslow Homer, 1900‑1910

John Singer Sargent died in 1925, the end point of this wonderful exhibit. Vast changes were in store for American art in the the years following 1925 - and for American society. 

Watercolor, however, has retained its popular appeal with the public and with professional artists alike. Watercolor became an American Art just as Baseball became America's game. Rising from English roots, watercolor was utilized in the post-Civil War years to create a truly national art form. Since then, watercolor has never gone "out-of-style" in America, however much the styles of art change and evolve.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Yale University Art Gallery, Yale Open Access policy, for Edwin Austin Abbey's The Two Sisters, 1882

Introductory Image: American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent, 2017 (cover) Image credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art 

Fidelia Bridges (American, 1834‑1923) Milkweeds, 1876. Watercolor on paper, Sheet: 17 1/4 × 13 inches. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, New York, Proctor Collection

Edwin Austin Abbey (American, 1852–1911) The Two Sisters, 1882. Watercolor and gouache over graphite underdrawing, sight in frame: 59.2 x 89.5 cm (23 5/16 x 35 1/4 in.) Yale University Art Gallery, The Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Collection. 1946.130

Thomas Moran, (American, born England, 1837-1926) Big Springs in Yellowstone Park, 1872. Watercolor and opaque watercolor on paper, 9 1/4 × 19 1/4 inches. Private Collection

Winslow Homer (American, 1836‑1910) Building a Smudge, 1891. Watercolor over graphite, with scraping, on wove paper, Sheet: 13 3/4 × 20 9/16 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Gift of Ann R. Stokes, 2002.

Winslow Homer (American, 1836‑1910) A Garden in Nassau, 1885. Watercolor and opaque watercolor over graphite, with blotting and scraping, on textured cream wove paper, Image: 14 1/2 × 21 inches. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection.

Winslow Homer (American, 1836‑1910) Diamond Shoal, 1905Watercolor and graphite on paper, Sheet: 14 × 21 7/8 inches. Private Collection.

John Singer Sargent (American, active London, Florence, and Paris, 1856‑1925) Spanish Fountain,1912. Watercolor and graphite on white wove paper, 21 × 13 3/4 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1915.

Childe Hassam (American, 1859‑1935) Boulevard at Night, Paris, 1889. Watercolor on paper, 8 × 12 inches. Private Collection

Watercolor Box belonging to Winslow Homer, 1900‑1910. Manufactured by Winsor & Newton, London, founded 1832. Watercolor pigments and metal, 8 1/8 × 8 1/4 inches. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, Gift of the Homer Family.