Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Bruegel The Master

Bruegel The Master
by Manfred Sellink, Ron Spronk, Sabine Pénot and Elke Oberthaler
Thames & Hudson /$60/305 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a painter for "all seasons."  In the case of his six-part depiction of the changing cycle of the year, Bruegel created one of the great glories of Western art.  Five of these oil on panel paintings survive and were shown together in a magnificent exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna - just concluded.

This was truly a once-in-a lifetime exhibition, held four hundred fifty years after Bruegel's death. Less than fifty of his paintings are known to exist today. Bruegel painted on oak panel, a seemingly durable format, yet the ravages of time have proven stronger.  Consequently, the rarity of Bruegel's oil paintings makes loaning them an especially hazardous undertaking.

The  Kunsthistorisches Museum has twelve of the Flemish master's paintings in its collection, making it the natural site for an exhibit of Bruegel's work. 

Gallery view of the 2018-19 Bruegel exhibit at the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

The rest of Bruegel's masterpieces are scattered in European collections, save for three in the U.S. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's golden-hued Harvesters did not make the journey to Vienna. The Parable of the Sower, likewise, stayed home at the Timkin Museum in San Diego, California.

There is no substitute to seeing art work in the original, even with significant omissions in a special exhibition.  And the Kunsthistorisches exhibit was indeed a mighty endeavor, with forty of Bruegel's oil paintings, sixty drawings and eighty prints - the greatest number ever assembled.

As an added bonus, the Kunsthistorisches Museum curators displayed period artifacts seen in the paintings. In the photo below, we see a pair of dice, a trencher plate (made from crusty bread which was eaten after it was soaked with sauce from the meal) and a slotted spoon used in cooking fish and mussels during Lent. All appear in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. Beyond is a wall-size reproduction of Carnival and Lent, providing an IMAX-like viewing experience of this fabled work of art.

Gallery view of the Bruegel exhibit at the Kunsthistoriches Museum, showing
 artifacts appearing in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

What a show! But if - like me - you were not one of the fortunate art lovers able to journey to  Vienna, take heart. Thames and Hudson has just published a superb companion book to the exhibition.

Bruegel the Master is extraordinary in the quality of its text and illustrations. The fidelity of the large-format color reproductions to Bruegel's actual paintings is outstanding even by today's high standards. This Thames and Hudson volume ranks with The Prado Masterpieces as one of the outstanding art publishing ventures of recent years.

In some ways, close study of Bruegel's oil paintings and works on paper in a book like this is the best way to comprehend his images. This may sound like putting a brave face on missing the exhibition. However, the level of detail in Bruegel's work is so staggering that information "overload" quickly sets in, even when viewing a relatively uncluttered painting like the Met's Harvesters.

Bruegel was a storyteller of the first rank. He was also moralizer of almost prophetic stature. Bruegel's wondrous paintings are filled with incident and symbolism. It is virtually impossible, in one viewing, to fully comprehend the narrative sequence and allegorical sub-plot of one of his works, much less a gallery full of them. 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight between Carnival and Lent, 1559

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent provides a particularly incisive look into Bruegel's enigmatic views on life and art. This incredible painting also underscores the rivalry of obvious versus hidden meaning which we find in almost every work by Bruegel.

Bruegel shows sensual delight in all its myriad forms on a collision course with religious devotion. From the left, revelers push a beer or wine cask, surmounted by Carnival, the Lord of Misrule, who brandishes a scepter on which cuts of meat and a boar's head are skewered. From the right, Lady Lent, with two scrawny fish on a baker's oven paddle, is followed by well-behaved children eating waffles and pious, soberly clad adults giving alms to the poor.

Everywhere we look on this crowed canvas are characters given over to folly or those trying to keep their feet on the "straight and narrow." But the key to this dizzying scene is smack in the center of the painting.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559 (Detail)

Here we see a couple, man and wife, with a "fool" or jester walking before them. Everyday folks, John and Jane Doe, they represent the viewer, you and me. The woman carries an unlit lamp, signifying ignorance. The man has a strange bulge under his woolen gown. This is believed to represent the "baggage" of self, what we would call ego today. Will they (we) follow the jester and join in the merry-making. Or will they cast away their baggage, light the lamp and follow the path to the church at right.

Bruegel does not provide an answer. That is for us to decide. Indeed, the ultimate message or moral of most of Bruegel's paintings is placed before the viewer, awaiting his or her judgement.  

If Bruegel was a one of the great creators of visual narrative, he was also a supreme master of irony. Nothing is exactly what it seems on the surface of his great works. In Hunters in the Snow, what appears to be a reassuring Winter homecoming scene packs a different, unsettling conclusion. The hunters have returned, safe on a snowy afternoon. In the distance, their friends and family enjoy ice skating or play "kolf," an early form of ice hockey. 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565

Look, however, at what the hunters have brought back - a dead fox. If that's the hunters' contribution to dinner, then there are going to be a lot of hungry townsfolk this evening! 

No self-respecting hunter would bother to bring a single fox carcass for the  stew pot, especially with a pack of hungry dogs. The fox carcass is a trophy, the "scalp" of a dead predator who will no longer raid the chicken coop. 

Hunters in the Snow depicts a world of unremitting toil where playtime is only possible off in the distance. The survival of the townsfolk depends upon the hunters' dedication. The woman bowed beneath on enormous bundle of kindling on the bridge in the lower, right-hand corner of the painting, plays her unsung role. And so too, do the toiling peasants, at left, who are preparing to slaughter a pig and then scald the bristles from the carcass.

All of this work is done in the bone-chilling cold of the Little Ice Age. Bruegel and the protagonists of Hunters in the Snow may not have been aware of the climate shift between 1300 to 1700 which significantly lowered the temperature in Europe. But no painter in all of history ever depicted the effect of winter weather on human beings more acutely than Bruegel.

Bruegel's life was tragically short life (1530?-1569). He made but one trip from his native Antwerp, a lengthy excursion to Italy, 1552 to 1554. But that trip was decisive, shaping  his vision of the world. The arduous journey and sojourn in Italy appeared and reappeared in the subject matter of his paintings. The memory of traversing the Gotthard Pass as he traveled home surely is reflected in his The Conversion of Saul, painted in 1567.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Conversion of Saul, 1567

The vertigo-inducing look at the stragglers climbing up the mountain path leads us to the sight of the sprawling, blue-clad figure of Saul (soon to be the Apostle Paul). Surrounded by a concerned group of fellow travelers, Saul has been thrown from the saddle of his horse by a vision from God. One of the most influential figures in world history, Saul/Paul looks like he just fell from a bar stool.

We behold this pivotal scene like the two cavaliers, one in black, the other in a golden riding tunic. These riders are observing a moment in time when the earth shifts its axis, although they - and we - would hardly guess it from the misadventure taking place in the mountain pass.

Bruegel, a savvy observer of human nature, was equally well-versed in ancient culture and the scientific study of the world about in him. In their commentary in Bruegel the Master, Sabine Penot and Elke Oberthaler write:

Bruegel thinks and acts as a painter in the humanist milieu. He inscribes his main work within a tradition of artistic engagement with the annual cycle that reaches back to antiquity. He consciously confronts the legacy of natural depiction, already considered to be the ultimate standard by ancient authors. Bruegel takes a stand compositionally and technically by starting from, yet surpassing,the landscape tradition,which was especially rich in the Netherlands.  

Bruegel's work was highly esteemed during his lifetime. The Hapsburg Dynasty favored his paintings and bought liberally. This is why there are so many of his paintings now in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum,Vienna's greatest art museum.

Life, however, was to play an ironical prank on Bruegel. Very little documentation of his life survives, leaving a lot of gaps in his life story. However, the Dutch artist and writer, Karel van Mander (1548-1606), wrote about Bruegel in his study of Northern European art called the Schilderboek, published in 1604. Without van Mander's biography of Bruegel, we would know little about him.

Karel van Mander's analysis of Bruegel's work emphasized the earthy humor and wry appraisal of humanity in many of his paintings. He also commented on Bruegel's apocalyptic paintings like The Triump of Death, filled with "weird scenes and drolleries."  

All of this was true, but van Mander's study of Bruegel left the impression that the Flemish master was something of a joker. Van Mander wrote:

Indeed, there are very few works from his hand that the beholder can look at seriously, without laughing. However stiff, serious, and morose, one may be, one cannot help laughing, or smiling.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Peasant Wedding, 1567

If we look at one of Bruegel's most famous paintings, we can see how van Mander reached that conclusion. We can also grasp how wide of the mark was this estimate.  
                                                                                                                                        Bruegel's The Peasant Wedding, 1567, is a joyous celebration life. We may smile at the over-sized beret on the child licking a bowl. Likewise, the look of anticipation on the bagpiper's face is priceless, as a tray of bowls of rijstpap or pudding, is brought in for the wedding guests to enjoy. 

Yet, when we look at the serene contentment on the bride's face, we don't feel like laughing. Sitting in front of the green cloth of honor, she is queen for this day, her day. There is food and drink aplenty on this happy occasion. Wars and rumors of wars, of the kind depicted in The Triumph of Death, will not cast a shadow on this wedding feast. 

Bruegel's The Peasant Wedding is a hymn to love and life. I wish I could have seen this wonderful painting at the Kunsthistorisches Museum exhibition. But such a transcendent work of art like this needs to be savored. It calls for our eyes to look at this painting - and Bruegel's other masterpieces - again and again, absorbing its message of humanity and hope.

Thanks to Thames and Hudson's Bruegel The Master, we can do that to our heart's content.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   ***
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria, and Thames and Hudson, Publishers.

Introductory Image:
Bruegel The Master, 2019 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Gallery view of the 2018-2019 Bruegel exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Photo courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Gallery view of the Bruegel exhibition, showing artifacts and utensils depicted in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559. Photo courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, 1530?-1569) The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559. Oil on wood panel: 118 cm × 164 cm (46 in × ​65 in). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image appears in Bruegel The Master (Thames & Hudson), pp. 122-123.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Detail of The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559. Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, 1530?-1569) Hunters in the Snow, 1565. Oil on wood panel: 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × ​63 3⁄4 in). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image appears in Bruegel The Master (Thames & Hudson), pp. 224-225.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, 1530?-1569) The Conversion of Saul, 1567. Oil on wood panel:  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. 108 cm × 156.3 cm ( 42.5 in × 65.5 in). Image appears in Bruegel The Master (Thames & Hudson), pp. 246-247.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, 1530?-1569) The Peasant Wedding, 1567. Oil on wood panel: 114 cm × 164 cm (45 in × 65 in). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image appears in Bruegel The Master (Thames & Hudson), pp. 258-259.                                                                                                                                                                                       

Monday, December 31, 2018

Art Eyewitness Looks at the Art Scene in 2018

Reflections on the Art Scene during 2018

By Ed Voves
Original Photos by Anne Lloyd

 A new year beckons on the horizon and, like Corot's Curious Little Girl, we strain to look over the wall to get a sneak peek. But at the moment of truth, she - and we - look back to see what we are leaving behind. 

That's human nature for you. We want to experience the new while preserving all that we can of the familiar, "comfortable" world of experience. During 2018, I came across a profoundly moving quote that comments upon the way that we appreciate beauty and attempt to integrate it into our art and our lives.

"When a beautiful rose dies", Agnes Martin (1912-2004) wrote, "beauty does not die because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness in the mind."

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Roses, c. 1912

Martin wrote those words in an essay, Beauty is the Mystery of Life (1989). Reading them - initially as a wall text at the Philadelphia Museum of Art - was a great comfort to me during a difficult year. The quote brought to mind a painting of roses by Pierre Renoir, created late in life when he was crippled by arthritis and confined to a wheelchair. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018)
 Film frame from Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Painter, 1920 Silent Film

A film of the aged Renoir, made shortly before his death in 1919, was displayed in the Barnes Foundation's outstanding spring 2018 exhibition, Renoir: Father and Son, Painting and CinemaThe Barnes exhibit showed the close relationship of Renoir and his film director son, Jean Renoir. 

During the First World War, Jean Renoir was badly wounded and spent six months home leave recovering from his wounds. During the time he spent with his aged father, he was inspired to go on to become a great artist himself, albeit with a movie camera rather than a paint brush. In my review, I wrote:  

This life force, what the French during the World War I era called elan vital, was the great gift which the elder Renoir gave to his wounded son during the six months of convalescence. It lasted Jean Renoir a lifetime, during which he shared this gift with the world.

As I reflected on Renoir's last years, my own father, Ed Voves, Sr., was confined to a wheelchair and in rapidly declining health. He died in November, aged 96. A veteran of World War II, my dad had a special gift for helping others. It was hard to watch him in his final days, but the spark of his elan vital did not flicker out until near the very end.

And when it did ... well elan vital like beauty is an "awareness in the mind" and it lives on the memory of the people we help, either with good deeds or great art... which can be the same thing.

The art exhibitions of 2018 surveyed the varieties of artistic experience (to borrow a phrase from William James) to an extraordinary degree. Indeed, it was often difficult to shift mental "gears" from one insightful exhibition to another. Yet all, in their way, showed how the creative spirit, the sense of the beautiful, is extended and shared from artists to art lovers across the span of generations and centuries.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018)
 Gallery view of the Between Worlds: the Art of Bill Traylor exhibition 

Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor, which continues until March 2019 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was a particularly powerful examination of art at its most elemental. Traylor, born a slave in the pre-Civil War South, began painting mystical, often mystifying, scenes late in life when he could do no other work. These singular images, he declared, "just come to me."  Through his painting, Traylor transmitted elements of African and African-American culture, along with talismans of his personal experience. His was an elan vital which would not be denied. 

Traylor was not a "primitive" painter. He was a "primal" artist, as was Alberto Giacometti.

The vast exhibition of Giacometti's all-encompassing oeuvre - sculpture, painting and sketches- at the Guggenheim Museum, New York was easily the most spectacular exhibition of 2018. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit  

Art work is Giacometti's Man Pointing (1947)

Seldom has the main rotunda of the Guggenheim with its spiraling ramp and galleries been utilized to better effect. Not only was the evolution of Giacometti's art brilliantly charted, but so too was the struggle of this deeply civilized man, who battled with his inner demons amid the near collapse of Western civilization during the Second World War and after the dawn of the nuclear age. 

What made the struggle and despair of "civilized" human beings so desperate during the 20th century was the terrible sense of loss. This applied to what was destroyed in the apocalyptic wars and also what never had a chance to be created. Towering masterpieces never painted, great novels never written, vital achievements lost because death robbed their would-be creators of life and the opportunity to create. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018)
August Macke's Strollers at the Lake II, 1912, (left) and Franz Marc's The Dream, 1912

2018 marked the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. The Neue Galerie, the splendid museum of German and Austrian art in New York City, marked this solemn occasion with a much needed exhibition devoted to Franz Marc and August Macke. These close friends and brilliant Expressionist painters were both killed in battle on the Western Front. Despite their importance in the development of modern art, works by these great German Expressionists are rarely shown in the U.S. Incredibly, this beautifully mounted exhibition was the first ever major display of Macke's paintings in America. 

Trying to find a unifying context for 2018's special exhibitions is a rather fruitless endeavor. However, two seemingly contradictory trends were very much apparent. 

This past year highlighted the absolute necessity of collaboration between museums for mounting major "shows."  In marked contrast, a growing number of successful exhibitions were drawn exclusively from the resources of individual institutions. This self-reliance in exhibition presentation is likely to become the dominant model for museums in the future.

Cézanne Portraits illustrated the first of the two trends. It was a "once-in-a-lifetime" exhibition - a display of a lifetime's creative output by one of the greatest artists of all time. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Paul Cézanne's Self Portrait, c.1875.

The Cézanne show was a triumph, in no small part because of the difficulty of bringing together so many seminal works by Cézanne for such a long period. The traveling exhibition was shown over the course of 2017 and 2018 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the National Portrait Gallery in London and finally at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., where Anne and I saw it in March 2018. It was organized by John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at MOMA, working with curators Mary Morton of the National Gallery of Art and Xavier Rey of the Musée d’Orsay. Talk about a team effort!

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Eagle Pendants, Chiriqui culture, 800-1519 A.D

The same could be said about Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas. This fabulous survey of the creative genius of the Native American kingdoms was originally presented by the J. Paul Getty Museum as part of a series on Latin American culture, "Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA." It then traveled to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which also presented a first-rate exhibition on Spanish colonial painting at the same time. The effect of these collaborative efforts was magical.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) 
Curators of the Berthe Morisot exhibition. From left: Nicole R. Myers, Dallas Museum of Art, Sylvie Patry, Musée d'Orsay, and Cindy Kang of the Barnes Foundation

Also of note was the Berthe Morisot exhibition, a joint effort by four museums, the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation. On view at the Barnes until mid-January 2019, the exhibition is a much needed retrospective of an artist who was regarded as a great painter by her fellow Impressionists. Following her death in 1895, Morisot was marginalized by art historians for much of the twentieth century. This exhibition sets the record straight.

The contrasting tendency of mounting exhibitions with local resources has a lot to be said for it. The Metropolitan Museum mounted an impressive exhibition, Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence, almost entirely based on its collection. In October 2018, the Met staff also created a long-term special display of its "Golden Age" Dutch paintings. I will be reviewing this sensational exhibit of "only at the Met" paintings early in 2019.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018),
Gallery view of Fabulous Fashion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
 The dress is a 1962 palazzo pants ensemble designed by Irene Galitzin.

The Philadelphia Museum  of Art, midway through a massive renovation project, mounted three outstanding exhibitions during 2018, all drawn exclusively from its vast holdings.  These were Old Masters Now (November  2107 to February 2018), Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 (April to September 2018) and its current blockbuster, Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now, which runs to March 3, 2019.

Under very challenging circumstances, the Philadelphia Museum of Art staff covered themselves in glory during 2018. Spring 2019 will be welcomed with a similar "home-grown" exhibition on the techniques of the Impressionists
Both trends represent good news. Only a kill-joy would go searching for a negative point of view regarding the mounting of special exhibitions. Yet, there certainly are ominous factors regarding the wonderful art exhibits we have grown so accustomed to. The one which really concerns me is the demographic factor of age of museum visitors.

My concern isn't based on age in terms of years. I didn't begin seriously studying art until I was thirty or thereabouts. Young people have a lot of life challenges to meet and the admission charge to an art museum can be a daunting prospect for someone with college loans to repay or young children to rear.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA

Quite often, I see very few young art patrons in the museum galleries. I wonder if, having grown-up in a digital world,  young adults will continue to derive inspiration from seeing original works of art. Certainly, interactive technology is helping redefine art exhibitions for a computer-savvy audience. I think we will see more touch screens and  computer simulations - and fewer visiting masterpieces - in future exhibitions.

I still retain hope in "expecting the unexpected." The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in London presented an outstanding exhibition on the Anglo-American landscape painter, Thomas Cole (1801-1848) during 2018.

Thomas Cole, View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains, 1827

Cole, who grew-up in the industrializing region of Lancashire, was moved by the splendor of the American wilderness to embrace landscape painting. This was a defining moment in art history and one that could not have been predicted a half-century before when landscape painting hardly figured in the appreciation of fine art.

Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, was not alone in his passion for the majesty of nature during the early 1800's. The emphasis on landscape painting - first apparent in Holland in the late 1600's, then later in Great Britain and finally in the U.S. - was largely based upon a sense of "paradise lost." 

Detail of Thomas Coles's View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts,        after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, 1836

By the late 1700's, there was growing unease at the encroachment of cities, factories and mines on the precious realm of nature.  A sensitive and visionary artist, Cole grasped the fragility of the natural world and made this awareness the presiding theme of his art.

Hopefully, as artificial Intelligence, robotics and late-stage mechanization impinge on society, a new generation of art lovers will arise to appreciate the great works of art and support the museums which care and exhibit them.

Ultimately, the health and well-being of the art world takes us back to Agnes Martin's quote on beauty. I explored her comments further and found a wealth of insight - some of it unsettling - but filled with soul-enriching truth.
The path to great art does not proceed from Point A to Point B to Point C, from a great idea to painting a masterpiece to a place on a gallery wall. Art is not dependent on art museums, art exhibitions or even upon a need for visual representation. 

Great art can be composing an outstanding piece of music as Leonard Bernstein did - or listening intelligently to the music of a great composer. Great art comes from planting and nurturing a rose or a sunflower. Great art is standing back and seeing the rose or sunflower, appreciating it as a seed of beauty which will continue to flower in our minds. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Sunflower at the Saul Agricultural School, Philadelphia

Art, in a myriad of differing creative expressions, is based on a healthy, emotional response to life. Art is a reflection of what we see in life and give back to life. 

That thought, art as a reflection, was literally reinforced by an extraordinary work of art which Anne and I saw several times this past year in New York City. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Tear sculpture by Richard Hudson at Plaza 33 in Manhattan

Tear, an enormous sculpture made polished steel, is the creation of British artist, Richard Hudson. It is displayed, not in a museum but smack in the middle of Plaza 33, outside Penn Station. Not a place given to introspection but now a site for reflection!

With this image and these moving words of Agnes Martin, Art Eyewitness bids you a Happy 2019.

Beauty is an awareness in the mind. It is a mental and emotional response that we make. We respond to life as though it were perfect. When we go into a forest we do not see the fallen rotting trees. We are inspired by a multitude of uprising trees. We even hear a silence when it is not really silent. When we see a new born baby we say it is beautiful – perfect. The goal of life is happiness and to respond to life as though it were perfect is the way to happiness. It is also the way to positive art work.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:
Camille Corot (French, 1796–1875) The Curious Little Girl, 1860–64. Oil on cardboard, laid down on wood: 16 1/4 x 11 1/4 in. (41.3 x 28.6 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1999, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002. Accession Number:1999.288.2 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) Roses, c. 1912. Oil on canvas:  8 7/8 x 17 5/8 in. (22.5 x 44.7 cm) Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Accession Number BF1168 © The Barnes Foundation

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018)  Film frame from Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Painter, 1920 Silent Film produced by Gaumont Actualities. Distributed by Gaumont Pathé Archives. Film was shown at the Renoir: Father and Son exhibit at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Between Worlds: the Art of Bill Traylor exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. Photo shows Bill Traylor's Man and Large Dog, ca. 1939-1942.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Alberto Giacometti's Man pointing, 1947 (cast by 1949).  Bronze, 70 1/16 x 37 3/8 x 20 1/8" (178 x 95 x 52 cm) Tate Museum, London. # 2016.136. Photo shows Man Pointing in the Giacometti exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, N.Y.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) August Macke's Strollers at the Lake II, 1912, (left) and Franz Marc's The Dream, 1912. Photo shows these works at the Neue Galerie exhibition, Franz Marc and August Macke, 1909-1914.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Paul Cézanne's Self Portrait, c.1875. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Gift of Jacques Laroche.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas exhibition, showing Eagle Pendants, Chiriqui culture,  800-1519  A.D. Gold. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018)  Curators of the Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist exhibition at the Barnes Foundation. From left: Nicole R. Myers, Dallas Museum of Art, Sylvie Patry, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and Cindy Kang of the Barnes Foundation.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The dress shown is a 1962 palazzo pants ensemble designed by Irene Galitzin.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA.

Thomas Cole (American (born in England), 1801–1848) View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains - Sunny Morning on the Hudson, 1827. Oil on panel: 47.31 x 64.45 cm (18 5/8 x 25 3/8 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston  # 47.1200. © The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Thomas Cole (American, 1801-1848) Detail of View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836. Oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 76 in. (130.8 x 193 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908 (08.228). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Sunflower at the Saul Agricultural School, Philadelphia, PA.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Tear sculpture by Richard Hudson (British, born 1954) at Plaza 33 in Manhattan near Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. Polished stainless steel: height: 250 cm. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal

Philadelphia Museum of Art
 November 11, 2018 - March 3, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

The March girls, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, are celebrating their 150th birthday this year.  That's a lot of candles to put on a cake. But a celebration of the "sesquicentennial" of the publication of Little Women, the much-loved novel by Louisa May Alcott, is definitely in order. 

How to wish happy birthday to the heroines of Little Women, without triggering the fire alarm? A visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art's exhibition, Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal, is just the ticket.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017)  Gallery view of 
 Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal

Little Ladies is based on what for decades was a hidden treasure of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Three Victorian-era dolls and their wardrobes had been donated to the museum over the years and - incredibly - never displayed until the 1990's. The first collection had been bequeathed in memory of Mrs. Gardner H. Nicholas in 1922 before the present-day museum building was even completed.

For decade upon decade, these remarkable Victorian dolls and clothing languished in the storage vaults of the Philadelphia Museum of Art until an assistant curator of textiles and costume, Kristina Haugland rediscovered them in 1990.

Haugland organized a highly successful exhibit in 1991 entitled Perfect Little Ladies: the Art of Dress in the 1870s. Now Haughland is back with two major fashion-related exhibitions: Fabulous Fashion: From Dior's New Look to Now and Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal.

As the subtitle of the exhibit affirms, Victorian dolls were designed with an educational purpose in mind - one could define it as "social conditioning" - to guide young girls along the path to the womanhood as virtuous and stylish wives and mothers.

Before we examine these "Little Ladies" as role models, let's look at the dolls!

Approximately two feet tall, the dolls were often called Parisiennes, as most were made in France. The toy manufacturing firm, Bru of Paris, was the leader in doll-making during the Victorian heyday covered by the exhibition, from 1867 to 1885.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) "Miss Fanchon" Fashion Doll, c.1870

In an early example of product "branding," each of the dolls had a signature name: Miss Fanchon, Miss G. Townsend and Miss French Mary. Miss Fanchon, the most famous, strikes a rather matronly pose, clad in a fur-trimmed green and gold jacket and skirt, dating to the early 1870's. In her hand is a calling card, an absolute essential for every woman - and doll - to carry as she made the circuit of shopping and social visits.

The "Little Ladies" were made of leather bodies and bisque-fired ceramic heads. Bisque is the first firing in the ceramic process, which removes all water from the clay. For plates, tea cups and other dinnerware, a second firing is need to make a hardened, durable surface. By stopping at the bisque-firing stage, the surface has a skin-like feel to it, imparting a rather uncanny realism to the dolls. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of a Bisque-fired Ceramic Head of a Victorian Doll.

Bisque-fired ceramic dolls, however, were delicate in consequence of only one kiln-firing, another reason for encouraging lady-like decorum in the way they were handled. The dolls faces were painted to a light pallor with just a hint of rosy cheek, very much the desired skin tone of gentile ladies during the 1870's. No tanning salon for Miss Fanchon!

The greatest joy of dolls is, of course, dressing them up. For that, the Victorian girl lucky enough to own a Miss Fanchon doll had an incredible range of dresses, undergarments  and every conceivable accoutrement from which to select. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Miniature Lady's Fan on view in the Little Ladies exhibition.

Every major type of garment from dressing gown to fancy ball dresses, from bridal attire to "widow's weeds" was made - and made with such artistry and painstaking skill that it is difficult to tell from a photo whether the dress is doll size or human scale.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Doll’s Dress and Sash, c.1870

In a master stroke of planning, several full-size dresses are on display in the Philadelphia Museum  exhibit which permit detailed comparison with the apparel of the Little Ladies.

The human-size clothing includes a woman's day dressmade from striped silk satin and silk taffeta, dating to 1870, and a child's dress, made around 1867. Big or small, these dresses are masterpieces of Victorian-era couture.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) 
Woman's Day Dress: Bodice, Skirt, and Bustle Drape, c. 1870

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Girl's Dress, c. 1867-1868

Lurking underneath the flowing silk skirts of both Victorian ladies and "little" ladies was the elaborate set of undergarments which are displayed in miniature in the exhibition. The ritual of covering the female body with layer upon layer of "unmentionables" beggars description. But we'll give it a try!

The first garment to go on was a knee-length chemise, covered by a pair of drawers. A  horsehair bustle provided padding for her "bottom". Over this went a hoop-skirt and petticoats. A bone corset was placed on her torso and laced-up tightly to insure that her waste-line met the proper feminine proportions. Cardboard dress shields were inserted under the lady's armpits to keep sweat from soiling the silk dress that somehow had to be placed over this mass of material.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) 
Doll underwear in the "Foundations of Fashion" display at the Little Ladies exhibit.

I think it fair to say that not even a Japanese samurai of the 1500's ever had to face such a complicated and suffocating regimen in donning his armor as a young lady during the Victorian era had to deal with just to get dressed!

Th nineteenth century dolls and their garments (and undergarments) make the Little Ladies exhibition hugely enjoyable, as well as informative. Combined with the Dior to Now exhibit in the adjacent gallery, this Victorian fashion show will make a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art a real delight.

There are some sobering points to be considered while viewing the Little Ladies exhibition. As previously noted, one of the salient points of these dolls was to prepare young ladies for their role as wives and mothers. Just as the cost of a Harvard degree for the "son of the house" was an investment in the young man's future, so too were these dolls for his sisters as they were guided along their life path to marriage and motherhood.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), “Miss French Mary” Fashion Doll, c.1875

Miss Fanchon was as much an instructional tool as a toy and she didn't come cheap. Bisque-headed dolls were priced around $10 during the 1870's. A full ensemble of silk evening dresses, polonais walking suits, corsets and hoop-skirts, hair brushes and parasols might cost more than $300. That might not sound extravagant given the price of today's toys. Comparison with the wages and the cost of living during the mid-Victorian "mauve" decades is another matter.

A skilled worker in the United States, an iron molder, earned $3.06 per day in 1870. Unskilled laborers or factory workers were often paid half of that wage. Women and children's salaries were subject to further disparities. Teachers were paid abysmally, an average salary for a male teacher during the 1880's was $72 a year, woman teachers receiving a third less.

Food during the post-Civil War decades was plentiful and relatively inexpensive. This was also the "age of shoddy" and cheap factory products made it possible for the working class to "get-by" during periods of high employment. But quality items were often beyond the reach even of skilled workers. A pair of men's heavy-duty work boots cost $3.94 in 1872, more than a day's wage for an iron molder.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) 
A Victorian doll's dressing room, with wire clothes hangers, invented in 1869.

Such was the disparity between the the cost of high price fashion dolls like Miss Fanchon and the economics of sheer survival for many Americans during the post-Civil War era. However, a more positive interpretation can be drawn from of these comparisons.

If girls from "good families" were schooled in the code of "proper" womanhood by playing with dolls like Miss Fanchon, many went far beyond that accepted role later in life. Many young women, reared in comfort and plenty during the Gilded Age, displayed social consciences of the most enlightened kind. 

Eleanor Roosevelt in Long Island, NY, 1887.

Jane Addams (1860-1935), Lillian Wald (1867-1940) and Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) were just a few of the daughters of the Victorian aristocracy who devoted themselves to the welfare of Americans of all classes.

A short-distance from the site of the Little Ladies exhibition, one of the treasures of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is on view. It is the marble monument sculpted by August Saint-Gaudens in honor of Maria Gouverneur Mitchell.

The daughter of one of the most prestigious doctors of Philadelphia, S. Weir Mitchell, Maria Mitchell contracted diphtheria in 1898 and died, aged twenty-two. She taught in a the school at Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. She is likely to have to have been exposed to diphtheria while teaching. Diphtheria was one of the deadliest infectious diseases among children during the Victorian era until a vaccine was introduced in the 1920's.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) 
Detail of August Saint-Gaudens' Angel of Purity, 1902

The Saint-Gaudens sculpture, commissioned by Maria's grieving parents, is entitled The Angel of Purity. It is on display at the entrance of the American galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For over a century, this moving work of art was placed near the family pew in Saint Stephen's. It is worth taking a few moments after enjoying the Little Ladies exhibition to pay a visit to Maria Mitchell's angel.

Maria Gouverneur Mitchell (1876-1898) would have played with dolls like Miss Fanchon or Miss French Mary and have read Little Women. But her moral education did not stop with role-playing and identifying with the protagonists of Little Women. A daughter of privilege, Maria Mitchell also learned the lesson that the social "niceties" include living according to the Golden Rule.

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

Introductory Image
“Miss G. Townsend” Fashion Doll, 1870s. Made in France. Philadelphia Museum of Art (Gift of Edward Starr, Jr., 1976-58-9) © Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017)  Gallery view of the Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) "Miss Fanchon" Fashion Doll, c.1870. Bisque head with powdered hair, kid body stuffed with sawdust: 20 1/2 × 8 11/16 inches (52 × 22 cm) #1922-58-1a
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Gardner H. Nicholas in memory of Mrs. Gardner H. Nicholas, 1922.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of a Bisque-fired Ceramic Head of a Victorian Doll.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Miniature Lady's Fan on view in the Little Ladies exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Doll’s Dress and Sash, c. 1870. Gifts of Edward Starr, Jr., 1976-58-9; and Gardner H. Nicholas in memory of Mrs. Gardner H. Nicholas, 1922-58-1. Philadelphia Museum of Art.                                                                                                                       
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Woman's Day Dress: Bodice, Skirt, and Bustle Drape, c. 1870. Made in United States: Striped silk satin, silk taffeta. waist: 24 inches (61 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art # 1948-61-3a--c. Gift of Mrs. George Farnum Brown, 1948

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Girl's Dress, 1867-68. Made in United States: Ivory cotton/wool plain weave, red silk/cotton velvet ribbon, cotton lace. Center Back Length (Dress): 30 1/2 inches (77.5 cm) Waist: 22 inches (55.9 cm)  Worn by Mrs. J. Bertram Lippincott (Joanna Wharton), American, 1858 - 1938. Philadelphia Museum of Art. # 1952-23-1  Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Lippincott, 1952.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Doll underwear in the "Foundations of Fashion" display at the Little Ladies exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) “Miss  French Mary”  Fashion Doll, around 1875, France. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. James Wilson Wister, née Elizabeth Bayard Dunn, 1970-215-1a

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Victorian doll's dressing room, with wire clothes hangers, invented in 1869.

Artist Unknown. Eleanor Roosevelt in Long Island, NY, 1887. National Archives. Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of August Saint-Gaudens' Angel of Purity (Maria Mitchell Memorial), 1902. Marble: 8 feet × 48 inches × 12 inches (243.8 × 121.9 × 30.5 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art # 2005-2-1