Saturday, August 5, 2017

Art Eyewitness Essay: A Visitation to Art - Reflections on Masterpieces by Sargent, French Classic Drawing and Della Robbia

Henry James and American Painting
June 9 - September 10, 2017

Poussin, Claude and French Drawing in the Classical Age
June 16 - October 15, 2017

By Ed Voves

You never know the direction that art will take you. Great art can lead us to make journeys of discovery that we are not aware of until much later. Sometimes, the act of recognition comes in dimly remembered dreams. On other occasions, art grabs our attention, snapping us wide awake.

Recently, a visit to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York spurred my thoughts from a painting set in Venice by John Singer Sargent to a French seventeenth century drawing to reflections on one of the great episodes of Christian history.

This incident, called the Visitation, is part of the "infancy narrative" in the gospel of St. Luke (Chapter 1, verses 39-56). Mary, bearing the unborn Jesus, journeys to see an older relative. Elizabeth, long the childless wife of Zachariah, is pregnant too. Her child will be the future St. John the Baptist.  

According to St. Luke, Mary had earlier been told by the Angel Gabriel that she will give birth to the Messiah - and that Elizabeth has received glad tidings as well.

And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren: Because no word shall be impossible with God.

The Visitation is a key moment in Christian sacred history, depicted countless times in all manner of artistic media. Elizabeth, upon greeting Mary, realizes that her younger relative will give birth to the Messiah. Elizabeth is the first person to identify Jesus as redeemer of all humanity.

And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:  And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

In addition to its religious implications, the Visitation happens to be a fascinating example of human nature in action. It is an encounter of youth and age, a meeting between women with different expectations and fears relating to the lives of their unborn infants. And possibly a degree of mutual rivalry might be lurking in the emotional mix too.

Human nature is very much in evidence in John Singer Sargent's painting on display at the Morgan's exhibit, Henry James and American Painting. Sargent's A Venetian Interior, painted between 1880 -1882, shows an encounter between two woman in the shabby interior of a once grand Venetian palace, the Palazzo Rezzonico. It is a secular version of the Visitation, featuring the interaction of a veiled  woman and a younger woman, who is clearly making an appraisal of her older compatriot.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Detail of John Singer Sargent's A Venetian Interior, c.1880

What is going on here? The Venetian working class women used the hallway of the Palazzo Rezzonico to escape the fierce summer heat, string beads and have a chat. Sargent's studio was located on an upper level of the beleaguered building. We will never know what the veiled woman is saying or why the younger woman regards her so skeptically.

Sargent was not a religious painter in 1880. His controversial murals, Triumph of Religion, painted between 1890-1919 for the Boston Public Library, were a decade in the future. Yet there is an encounter taking place in this painting, as in depictions of the Visitation. The incredible shaft of sunlight pierces the gloom of the Palazzo Rezzonico just as beams of heavenly light streamed on to countless works of art with sacred themes.

I came close to missing the parallels between Sargent's painting and the Visitation. However, I was able to study a sketch showing the Visitation on view in another exhibit at the Morgan, Poussin, Claude, and French Drawing in the Classical Age.  

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca.1645 

On the Morgan's gallery walls, The Visitation by Laurent de La Hyre (1606–1656) seems impressive but hardly a show-stopper. De La Hyre was highly influential in his day, but his overly didactic style works against the human drama of Mary's encounter with Elizabeth. A similar painted version of The Visitation by de La Hyre (not on view in the Morgan exhibit) undermines the power of the meeting to an even greater degree.

De La Hyre's Visitation sketch, on the other hand, gets more than just an honorable mention. Once we look past all the billowing drapery, the dynamics of human interaction once again take center stage.

The connection between Sargent's painting and de La Hyre's drawing is not obvious. Yet, de La Hyre's sketch helped me see that Sargent's painting also portrayed a dramatic encounter, a meeting of minds and spirits. And, as it turned out, I had recently seen two other representations of the Visitation that made the same point. 

Luca della Robbia, The Visitation, c. 1445

The centerpiece of the recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence was a magnificent nearly life-size depiction of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. This glazed terracotta statue group by Luca della Robbia was assembled from several interlocking parts which had been fired separately in the kiln, no mean feat as any ceramic artist will tell you.

Technical mastery aside, the real wonder is that Luca captured the spirit of the encounter. We see  the loveliness of the young Mary and the wonderment showing through the lines and wrinkles of Elizabeth's careworn face. There is something more, too.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Details of Luca Della Robbia's The Visitation 

Look at Luca's Visitation for more than a moment or two and I think you will discern an element of doubt, of concern, of questioning in the eyes of Mary and of Elizabeth. These sentiments are elusive and intangible. Yet they make their presence felt.

And why not? Would Mary and Elizabeth not question the angelic revelations surrounding the improbable circumstances of both their pregnancies. A virgin giving birth? A barren old  woman with child? Would their instinct or "radar" not be sensitive to the possibility that what God decreed, other human beings might doubt? And what would Elizabeth think after realizing that Mary's son, rather than hers, was destined to be the "Lord."

There is a complicated tangle of emotions involved in the Visitation story. If I had to pick one word to describe the feelings of Mary and Elisabeth it would be "solemn." There is sense of solemnity in almost every artistic depiction of the Visitation. Joyfulness is there, but not unrestrained happiness. New life is waiting to be born - into a world of sorrows. 

With such thoughts in mind, I was not surprised to find that the best description of solemnity is in a book written by the brother of Henry James, whose interest in art supplies the theme of the Morgan's exhibit. In The Varieties of  Religious Experience, William James wrote:

A solemn state of mind is never crude or simple—it seems to contain a certain measure of its own opposite in solution. A solemn joy preserves a sort of bitter in its sweetness; a solemn sorrow is one to which we intimately consent.

The experience of birth involves pains that lead to new life. Mothers forget the pangs of child birth when they behold their infants. And with each new born child comes an opportunity to redeem this fallen world.                                                                                                                                  
One of the fascinating details I discovered while researching the Visitation, is that the choice of word to describe Elizabeth's relationship with Mary is the Greek term syngenis. This is often translated as "cousin," as in the King James Version. But a more correct translation is "relative" or "kin." As biblical scholars note, Mary and Elizabeth might have been distant relatives, even members of different tribes of Israel. The Visitation may have been an effort to heal the wounds of family divisions or estrangement.

The second artistic rendition of the Visitation comes from a surprising source, St. Michael and All Angels' Church in Haworth, Yorkshire. This is the Church of England parish church where Rev. Patrick Brontë was the "perpetual curate" or minister from 1820 to 1861. Here his novelist daughters, Charlotte, Emily and Ann, lived  and wrote immortal works including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, West Yorkshire

The current church was built between 1879 and 1881 after the Brontës had died. Only the tower remains of the church the Brontës knew and where all are buried, save for Anne. A set of magnificent High-Victorian stained glass windows grace the church, which my wife Anne and I visited this past spring. The Visitation is one of the scenes prominently displayed.

No one who looks closely at this stained glass depiction of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth can deride it as an example of Victorian sentimentality. There is such a notable feeling of tension between the "cousins" that one might almost conclude that the artist was aware of the syngenis issue. The arms of the two women are stretched to form an embrace that is not reflected in the expression of their faces. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of The Visitation, St. Michael and All Angels' Church

Mary's probing eyes meet those of Elizabeth in an interval of suspended engagement. The stained glass scene of St. Michael's Church shows the moment of decision when human beings decide to love or not to love. We know the outcome to the Visitation story. Mary and Elizabeth do embrace. They do recognize the wonder of new life arising within their bodies.

Many people at moments like this cannot embrace the person opposite to them. They hang back, frozen in an act of judgment, like Sargent's young woman in the Palazzo Rezzonico.   
As I researched the place of the Visitation in Western art, I came across the version of this biblical incident painted by Jacopo Pontormo (1494–1557). This Mannerist painter is no great favorite of mine but his rendering of the Visitation is a masterpiece.

Other depictions of the Visitation show servants in the background or Elizabeth's husband, Zachariah, off to the side. Here Pontormo has posed a young woman and an older women facing towards the viewer. They are focusing directly on us. Although these women are not graced with halos above their heads, they bear striking resemblance to Mary and Elizabeth. It is an uncanny  technique of drawing us into the moment of decision, to love or not to love.

Jacopo Pontormo, The Visitation, 1528-1529 (detail)

Pontormo would probably have identified these woman as servants. Yet, they serve no supporting role in this painting. The two woman, looking directly at us, are alter egos for Mary and Elizabeth. Their eyes meet ours and the wordless questions are asked.
Will we reach out to embrace the "other" person?  Will we cherish the gift of life they carry within themselves?

That is the message I derived from studying Sargent's A Venetian Interior and Laurent de La Hyre's compelling drawing of the Visitation. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca. 1645 

Such thoughts were far from my mind when I walked through the door of the Morgan intent upon learning about  the artistic circle of Henry James and French art of "le grand siecle."   
Man proposes. God disposes. 

As I said at the beginning of this essay, great art can direct us on journeys of discovery over which we have little or no control. But once we get to where we're going, then a pattern of meaning will almost magically appear.The invisible walls which once barred our way crumble, letting the light of spirit stream in.                                                                                                                                       
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the  Morgan Library and Museum, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and Anne Lloyd

Introductory and Leading Images: 
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of John Singer Sargent's  A Venetian Interior, c.1880 - 1882. Oil on canvas.  60.7 x 49.8 cm Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA                       

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca. 1645, black chalk and gray wash. The Morgan Library & Museum; Bequest of Ethylene Seligman; 1994.4

Luca della Robbia (Italian, 1399/1400-1482) The Visitation, c. 1445. Glazed terracotta. 151 x 148 x 60 cm (59 7/16 x 58 1/4 x 23 5/8 in.) Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia. Displayed  by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Feb. 5–June 4, 2017

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Details of The Luca Della Robbia's The Visitation.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, West Yorkshire

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Detail of Stained Glass Window (c. 1879-1881) of St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, West Yorkshire. 

Jacopo Pontormo  (Italian, 1494–1557) The Visitation, 1528-1529 (Detail). Oil on panel. 202 × 156 cm (79.5 × 61.4 in) Church of San Francesco e Michele, Carmignano. Wikipedia images, The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing Gmb

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca. 1645, black chalk and gray wash. The Morgan Library & Museum; Bequest of Ethylene Seligman; 1994.4

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Urban Scene: 1920-1950 at the National Gallery of Art

The Urban Scene: 1920-1950

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

February 26, 2017 - August 6, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Saturday's Child, according to Mother Goose, "works hard for a living." Martin Lewis, the great Australian-born artist, used this nursery tale as the title for one of his greatest works, Quarter of Nine - Saturday's Children. We will shortly look at this extraordinary drypoint etching.

Martin Lewis (1881-1962) was a master printmaker, as was Howard N. Cook, whose image of the surging tide of traffic, human and vehicular, in New York City, introduces this review.The art works of Lewis, Cook and other printmakers are currently on display in a small, but hugely important exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Urban Scene: 1920-1950 opened last February and runs until August 6, 2017.                  

The Urban Scene: 1920-1950 is the kind of exhibit that can easily be overlooked. Etchings and lithographs do not command the kind of attention that art exhibits about Monet or Matisse achieve. 

Also, the National Gallery of Art has been having a "career" year since the renovated East Wing reopened on September 27, 2016. One outstanding exhibit after another has been mounted:  Della Robbia's Renaissance sculptures, Frederic Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism, East of the Mississippi: 19th Century American Landscape Photography to name a few. It would be a great misfortune if The Urban Scene: 1920-1950 gets lost in the shuffle.

The Urban Scene has two great lessons to teach. First the artistic medium, in this case printmaking, does not need to be "cutting edge" to be effective. The second, even more significant, point is that the everyday life of "blue collar" America - gritty, unsentimental, raw-edged - is a fit subject for great art.

The first point, dealing with printmaking media is perhaps the most problematical. Why did Lewis and company choose drypoint etching, woodblock printing and lithography to create images that directly rivaled the path-breaking photographs of Bernice Abbott and Lewis Hine?

Louis Lozowick, Allen Street, 1929

When you compare Louis Lozowick's lithograph, Allen Street, 1929, with Under the El at the Battery by Berenice Abbott there seems little difference. Both print and photo brilliantly handle the dappled light shed by the metal superstructure of the elevated platform on the street below. Superficially, the same seems to be the case for Samuel Margolies' Men of Steel and the series of photos by Lewis Hine of the construction workers of the Empire State building.

At second glance, one realizes that there is a spiritual quality about the prints, an intimation of the "other reality" that lies all around us. There is no art term that defines this all-encompassing presence. "Numinous," a word borrowed from theology, perhaps comes closest to conveying this idea.

The men in Lozowick's Allen Street evoke an old term to describe people - "souls." The man striding through the shadow at center and those highlighted by the glaring sun evoke a sense of ethereal "being" that defines their humanity. However sketchy  or indistinct their bodies are depicted in the print, in this "other reality" they are souls.

"Numinous" is the most fitting word to describe the shafts of light beaming down on the Men of Steel by Samuel L. Margolies (1897-1974). Margolies, a native of New York City, was a printmaker for the W.P.A during the Depression. He was well-acquainted with how close to the margin of survival many people lived. His etching of a forlorn "Hooverville" shack, Beware of the Dog (not in the exhibit) testifies to his documentary ability. But mostly, Margolies created images of the "heroic" New York skyline or snow-clad country vistas. 

Men of Steel is much more than "heroic" New York. And it is very different from Lewis Hine's vertigo-inducing photos of men at work on the Empire State Building. I get queasy just looking at Hine's pictures of cloth-capped workers dangling from cables high above the streets of New York City.  

Margolies used the drypoint etching technique on Men of Steel. The etched lines, slanting down from the top right-hand corner were meticulously inscribed to achieve modulations of light and shade. These beams of light caress the buildings  below the construction workers, who are so intent in their work that they hardly notice.

Samuel L. Margolies, Men of Steel, c. 1939 

Margolies' level of skill is little short of miraculous. What we see here is an inverse of the expression, "There but for the grace of God go I." Such are our feelings when we look at Hine's photos. But Margolies "men of steel" are being safeguarded by the providential stream of grace, pouring down upon them, upon New York City and ultimately on all humankind.

It wasn't just these "men of steel" who were unaware of God's grace. People during  the 1930s often strained to see any evidence of divine intercession. The Depression-decade was a tough time to live. The more waspish Americans were likely to see the blackest of humor in the old saying that "God takes care of drunks, children and the United States," 

The grimness of life during the American 1930's is forcefully evoked in Clare Leighton's wood engraving, Breadline, New York, 1931 and Benton Murdoch Spruance's lithograph, The People Work - Evening, 1937. Both artists used time-worn techniques - in Leighton's case, almost anachronistic - to brilliant effect. What newspaper photos and newsreel footage showed, these two works "revealed." 

Clare Leighton, Breadline, New York, 1931

In these unsparing images, life is reduced to a rat race, to "brother can you spare a dime." Yet, even here, we detect a hint of spiritual presence at work. Like the fire warming the numbed fingers and hands of the down-and-out men in Breadline, a sense humanity will flare-up to unfreeze our calloused hearts. 

Look at the bottom right-hand corner of The People Work - Evening. There, squeezed against the edge of the picture, you will see the face of a smiling, older woman. It is the one and only clearly defined countenance in the entire scene.

Benton Spruance, The People Work - Evening, 1937

Benton Spruance (1904-1967) was one of the dominant figures of the Philadelphia art establishment during the 1930's and 40's. He often had a polemical slant to his work. But here, the elderly woman is finding inner peace amid all the hubbub. Or is she just amused by the madness of the human comedy taking place all around her?

Ambiguity too has a role to play in art. What better place for the "gray area" of life than a black and white print?

In Quarter of Nine - Saturday's Children, Martin Lewis raises questions and doubts about the meaning of modern urban life. The scene takes place with a medieval-looking edifice in the background. This is the now demolished 71st Regiment Armory on the southeast corner of 34th Street and Fourth Avenue in New York City. Lewis, whose studio was a couple blocks away at 145 East Thirty-Fourth Street, no doubt witnessed such a scene many times. 

Martin Lewis, Quarter of Nine - Saturday's Children, 1929

With a mastery rivaling Margolies, Lewis depicted streams of light pouring past the faux-towers and battlements of the armory.Trooping up Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) is a cavalcade of city dwellers, counterparts to Spruance's troll-like hoard. Who are these stylishly-dressed young women in tight-fitting flapper coats, bundled against the wind of a late winter morning in 1929?

The title of Lewis' print may provide the answer. Quarter of Nine most likely means that these urbanites are rushing to get to work on time.

In 1929, most Americans still worked a six-day or five-and-a half-day work week. The Ford Motor Company instituted a Monday to Friday schedule in 1926. But it was not until President Franklin Roosevelt signed the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that the two-day weekend was authorized by law.

Nobody likes working on a Saturday. The hustling pedestrians, straining to get to work by nine a.m., are no doubt thinking of what they will do with their truncated weekend. Most likely, they are thinking of home. Lewis was a master of night scenes. Nearly two decades after Quarter of Nine - Saturday’s Children, Martin Lewis created Yorkville Night in 1948, also in drypoint, showing homeward-bound New Yorkers. 

The superstructure of an elevated platform looms overhead, as in Louis Lozowick's Allen Street lithograph. It is the light coming from the under the awning of the corner produce market that dominates the scene. The glow speaks of the items being selected for dinner that will be enjoyed at home. This light silhouettes the two women walking away from the store with their purchases. 

Martin Lewis, Yorkville Night, 1948

Lewis was celebrated in his day for such nocturnes as Yorkville Night. His incredible skill with the technique of hatching and cross-hatching gained the attention of Edward Hopper. Lewis shared the secrets of his technique with Hopper, helping  the great painter become an accomplished printmaker as well.

A year before Lewis created Yorkville Night, Stow Wengenroth (1906-1978) evoked "night in the city" with his lithograph, Quiet Hour. In an exhibition where every work on display is a certified masterpiece, I must say that Quiet Hour takes the top prize. That is saying a lot because Quarter of Nine -Saturday's Children has been a personal favorite of mine - and still is. 

Stow Wengenroth, Quiet Hour, 1947

Quiet Hour
is suffused with the numinous feeling so evident in Men of Steel, but without the etched beams of light/grace. Instead, the feeling of spiritual presence suffuses the entire picture plane. This setting could be interpreted as a menacing or haunting scene,  a place of alienation or loss. Instead, Wengenroth counterbalances the empty streetscape with the beckoning glow of the house light pouring out a welcoming glow from the doorway.

"We'll leave a light on for you."

Is there a more comforting, reassuring sentence in any language than that? That's the feeling I get from viewing The Urban Scene: 1920-1950 at the National Galley, a truly wonderful exhibit.

I like to think that Wengenroth's Quiet Hour is scene that a returning World War II veteran would have appreciated. 

Here is the old neighborhood. There's our neighbor's car (a 1940 Studebaker Champion Coupe, if I'm not mistaken) reflecting the light of the street lamps on its hood and fenders. There's the tree I used to watch magically growing green in the spring, as it will do again in a couple of months. There's the light in the doorway of ...



Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Introductory image:
Howard Norton Cook (American, 1901-1980) Looking up Broadway, 1937 lithograph Image: 330 x 241 mm Sheet: 450 x 315 mm National Gallery of Art, Washington, Reba and Dave Williams Collection, Gift of Reba and Dave Williams

Louis Lozowick (American, born Ukraine,1898 -1973) Allen Street, 1929 lithograph in black on wove paper image: 19.1 x 28.5 cm (7 1/2 x 11 1/4 in.) sheet: 28.2 x 40 cm (11 1/8 x 15 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Jacob Kainen

Samuel L. Margolies (American, 1897 -1974) Men of Steel, c. 1939 drypoint image: 378 x 300 mm, sheet: 476 x 381 mm National Gallery of Art, Washington, Reba and Dave Williams Collection, Gift of Reba and Dave Williams

Clare Leighton (American, born England,1898 -1989) Breadline, New York, 1931 wood engraving Image: 298 x 200 mm Sheet: 444 x 293 mm National Gallery of Art, Washington, Reba and Dave Williams Collection, Gift of Reba and Dave Williams

Benton Murdoch Spruance (American, 1904-1967) The People Work - Evening, 1937 lithograph in black image: 34.61 x 48.26 cm (13 5/8 x 19 in.) sheet: 40.64 x 58.1 cm (16 x 22 7/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection

Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881-1962) Quarter of Nine - Saturday's Children, 1929  drypoint on laid paper plate: 25.1 x 32.7 cm (9 7/8 x 12 7/8 in.) sheet: 34 x 45.7 cm (13 3/8 x 18 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Addie Burr Clark

Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881-1962) Yorkville Night, 1948 drypoint sheet: 10 7/8 x 14 3/4 in. (27.62 x 37.47 cm) image: 8 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. (21.59 x 29.21 cm)National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Bequest of Frank B. Bristow)

Stow Wengenroth (American, 1906-1978)  Quiet Hour, 1947 lithograph image: 8 3/4 x 15 in. (22.23 x 38.1 cm) sheet: 11 1/16 x 17 11/16 in. (28.1 x 44.93 cm) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Bequest of Frank B. Bristow)

Saturday, July 1, 2017

This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal at the Morgan Library & Museum

This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal 

Morgan Library and Museum, New York City
June 2 to September 10, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

It is an odd sensation to look at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City and see the portrait of Henry David Thoreau looming overhead. Thoreau's questioning face is imprinted on a museum banner, advertising the new exhibit, This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal

The traffic flows up Madison Avenue past the Morgan in a steady stream of cars, buses, trucks. The breeze gives the museum banner a ripple now and again, imparting a sense of vitality to what after all is just a silk-screened image. Thoreau on his banner seems very much alive.

As we head toward the door of the Morgan, it's hard not to feel that Thoreau's eyes are appraising us, taking our measure.  Go inside the Morgan and you will find the original of the Thoreau portrait, a small daguerreotype about the size of a modern wallet photo. Those "all-seeing" eyes are there too.

Benjamin D. Maxham, Henry D. Thoreau, Daguerreotype, 1856.

Along with this daguerreotype, the Morgan curators have assembled a remarkable array of documents, chiefly volumes of Thoreau's Journal, and artifacts which illustrate the extraordinary flight of mind and the rather ordinary daily life of Henry David Thoreau.

This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal is the third biographical exhibit which the Morgan has devoted to a nineteenth century literary giant in under twelve months. These have been stellar displays of genius, starting with Charlotte Brontë in September 2016 and Emily Dickinson in January 2017. A fourth, examining Henry James and the Victorian art scene, recently opened and will be reviewed in Art Eyewitness in the coming weeks. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Exhibition banners, Summer 2017, at the Morgan Library.

If This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal enables us to focus on Thoreau's life through the prism of his journals, there is one factor that needs to be noted. This is not - primarily - a "life and times" exhibit. There are certainly references to the very troubled era in which Thoreau lived and to which he responded with the brilliant essay, Civil Disobedience, and hard-hitting speeches denouncing slavery.

Henry D.Thoreau's Journal, open to the entry for November 11, 1858. 

The Morgan exhibit, however, does not stray from Thoreau's journal entry for November 1, 1858, which provides the title and the theme for this splendid museum display.

Give me the old familiar walk, post office & all – with this ever new self – with this infinite expectation and faith.

Thus, the Morgan exhibit enables us to see through the eyes of the Concord/Walden Pond Thoreau rather than the Lyceum-circuit Thoreau. Yet, what amazing eyes those were!

Ellery Channing (1818-1901), Thoreau's great friend and walking companion, wrote that Thoreau's eyes were "the deepest set blue eyes that could be seen, in certain lights, and in others gray, — eyes expressive of all shades of feeling, but never weak or near-sighted..."

Henry D. Thoreau's t-square, protractor and compass, from the Concord Museum

Thoreau did a lot of looking and evaluating during his life. The tools of his "trade of life" are on display in the Morgan exhibition. These include his surveying equipment - t-square, protractor, and compass. Thoreau's spy glass is there too, bought for the hefty sum of eight dollars. Even Thoreau's sharp eyes needed some help in observing the avian population of Concord, Massachusetts.

If Thoreau earned his bread from surveying, making pencils, doing handy-man chores, he also devoted himself to gaining insight, of the world, of himself. This was his true vocation and This Ever New Self illustrates Thoreau's intellectual life with his personal copy of the Bhagavad Gita, his notebooks and volumes of his celebrated Journal, one of the crown jewels of the Morgan Library collection.

Henry D. Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854

A first edition of Walden; or, Life in the Woods is on display, as might be expected. In this remarkable book, we read one of Thoreau's great insights from his sojourn in the woods:

Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?

Thoreau was an extraordinary man, to be sure. But most of his life was consumed with ordinary, everyday pursuits. If he achieved this "greater miracle" it was with his Journal rather than his spyglass.

Almost all of the exhibit artifacts on display in This Ever New Self are otherwise unremarkable, but for their place in the story of Henry David Thoreau.. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Henry D. Thoreau's desk, ca.1838, from the Concord Museum

Thoreau's desk, upon which he jotted down his thoughts in his Journal is one of the truly iconic objects of American culture. Made from Eastern White Pine and painted a rather sickly shade of green, it would hardly raise an eyebrow on Antiques Roadshow except for the man who wrote upon it.

The same could be said of Thoreau the man. He was redeemed by his thoughts, by the courage with which he plunged into his own psychic depths, rather than his deeds. His life was rather hum-drum and even the two years at Walden Pond hardly bear comparison with the privations of a Tibetan monk.

Thoreau's attitude to his fellow Americans occasionally fell short of the uncompromising standards of human conduct he propounded in his writings. 

In her wonderful book on Civil War-era America, Ecstatic Nation, Brenda Wineapple relates how Thoreau was introduced to Walt Whitman by Bronson Alcott in 1856, the year after Leaves of Grass was first published. Thoreau, watching the crowds on the streets of Brooklyn, "suddenly turned and asked, 'What is there in the people? Pshaw! What do you (a man who sees as well as anybody) see in all this cheating political corruption?'" 

That was not the kind of remark that would endear anyone to Whitman, who later declared that "Thoreau’s great fault was disdain—disdain for men (for Tom, Dick and Harry)."

Was Thoreau incapable then of the "greater miracle" he had written about, of looking "through each other's eyes for an instant?”

Perhaps the most significant words in Thoreau's exasperated question to Whitman were "cheating political corruption." From the "gag rule" that prevented discussion of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. Congress to the political patronage system that operated at all levels of government, America in the decade before the Civil War was indeed a mass of "cheating political corruption." 

Thoreau's frustration with the seemingly ineradicable flaws in the American character was surely a factor in his dialog with Whitman. Then again, adjusting to life in NYC might have been more than Thoreau could handle. The Morgan exhibit displays a letter from an earlier visit in which Thoreau complained to his mother that “I walked through New York yesterday – and met no real and living person.” 

 William James Hubard, Henry David Thoreau, 1837

Yankee and Harvard man though he was, Thoreau was equally unsparing towards the political apathy and expediency of his fellow New Englanders in the struggle against slavery. This attitude, of course, is what landed him in Concord Jail for a night in 1846.

Incredibly, the lock and key that kept Thoreau incarcerated were preserved when the Concord Jail was demolished in 1871. The lock had been made in Birmingham, England. It was used from 1788, when the jail opened, until 1871. New Englanders have well-deserved reputation both for frugality and a sense of history. A gentleman named A. Gardner Heywood saved the lock and key and gave these talismans to the Concord Antiquarian Society.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Steel lock and key from Middlesex County jail, ca. 1788

As extraordinary as this act of preservation is, it was Thoreau's action that transformed the lock and key into relics in the saga of American democracy. Thoreau wrote in Walden that: 

One afternoon [July, 1846], near the end of the first summer when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler's, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere referred, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house.

Thoreau spent but a single night and was released next morning. A mysterious person paid his poll tax, probably his Aunt Maria. A proper New England lady, she was scandalized to have a member of the family in prison. Thoreau was so annoyed at losing the moral high ground that a prison sentence conferred that the town sheriff had to force him to leave.

It's amazing that a semi-comical incident like Thoreau's night in jail should have resulted in the writing of Civil Disobedience, which in turn influenced Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and many other freedom fighters of the twentieth century.

Gandhi and Dr. King espoused a non-violent form of civil disobedience. How ironical, that Thoreau should have championed John Brown, the Abolitionist who tried to purge America "with blood" to rid the nation of the evil of slavery. Did Thoreau, in the last years of his life, stray from the path of righteousness, the path he inspired others to take later?

Less than a year before he died in March 1862, Thoreau posed for a new type of photograph called an ambrotype. This occurred on August 21, 1861. A month earlier, the Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, had ended in the rout of Union forces. The Civil War was on and a purging with blood was indeed taking place.

Edward Sidney Dunshee, Henry D. Thoreau, Ambrotype, 1861

And there was nothing Thoreau could do or say or write that would make any difference. By the time that Thoreau sat for this ambrotype, he was dying - slowly - from tuberculosis. You can see death creeping across his gaunt, weary face.

How different from the daguerreotype of 1856, which Thoreau had posed for to satisfy the request of an admirer in Michigan. Calvin H. Greene had sent Thoreau five dollars for two of his books and the portrait photo. Thoreau complied, sending the books, the daguerreotype and $1.70 in change.

By 1861, Thoreau had nothing left to give. Even the gleam in his eyes was gone. Only the words of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, of Walden and of Civil Disobedience remained as his legacy.

No greater gift than these words could Henry David Thoreau have bequeathed to his countrymen and to freedom-loving people around the world and across the centuries.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017) Exhibition banner forThis Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal, Summer 2017, at the Morgan Library and Museum.

Benjamin D. Maxham (American, 1821-1889)  Henry D. Thoreau, Daguerreotype, Worcester,
Massachusetts, June 18, 1856. Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Exhibition banners, Summer 2017, at the Morgan Library and Museum.

Henry D. Thoreau (American, 1817–1862) Journal notebook for November 9, 1858–April 7, 1859 (open to the entry for November 11, 1858). The Morgan Library & Museum; purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909.

Henry D. Thoreau’s t-square, protractor, and compass, from the Concord Museum; gift of
Cummings E. Davis or George Tolman, before 1909; Th12, Th12c, Th13.                                       

Henry D. Thoreau (American, 1817–1862) Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854. The Morgan Library & Museum, bequest of Gordon N. Ray, 1987

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Henry D. Thoreau's desk. Eastern white pine, painted green, Concord, Massachusetts, ca.1838. Concord Museum; gift of Cummings E. Davis, 1886; Th10

William James Hubard (American, 1807–1862), Henry D. Thoreau, Cut paper silhouette 
portrait, Cambridge, 1837. The Neil and Anna Rasmussen Collection.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Steel lock and key from Middlesex County jail, ca. 1788
Concord Museum, gift of Cummings E. Davis, 1886; M2081

Edward Sidney Dunshee (American, 1823–1907) Henry D. Thoreau, Ambrotype, New Bedford, Massachusetts, August 21, 1861. Concord Museum; gift of Mr. Walton Ricketson and Miss Anna Ricketson, 1929; Th33b

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.

The Berlin Painter and His World:

 Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.

Toledo Museum of Art 

July 8 to October 1, 2017

Reviewed Ed Voves

Pheidias. Praxiteles. Apelles.

We know the names of many great sculptors and painters from Ancient Greece but precious few of their works of art have survived. 

By contrast, an amazing number of terracotta vases, pots and other vessels that were decorated with scenes from mythology and daily life have been preserved. Yet, the names of many of these vase painters have been lost to history.

An impressive - and important - exhibition is currently highlighting the work of one of these anonymous vase painters from Athens. The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C. was organized by the Princeton University Art Museum, where I saw it shortly before it closed on June 11. This exhibit will appear next at the Toledo Museum of Art starting July 8, 2017.

The Berlin Painter exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum, spring 2017

"Berlin Painter" is a distinctly odd name for a master of ancient Greek art. This great Athenian artist, who lived around the time of the Persian Wars, has been called by this title for reasons we will discuss below. Since 1911, when the existence of the Berlin Painter was first deduced, over 330 works are now attributed to him.

When I went to the Princeton University Art Museum, sixty of the Berlin Painter's oeuvre were on view, along with examples of works by fellow vase painters, chiefly from Athens. A surprising number of the treasures gleaming in the gallery display cases were discovered in Italy. The Etruscans, the dominant power in Italy before the rise of Rome, were enthusiastic consumers of Greek wine and olive oil. They were also devoted collectors of Greek art, including the paintings of the Berlin Painter on the wine jugs and oil flasks that contained these precious liquids.

Just who was the Berlin Painter?

The scholarly "Sherlock Holmes" who discovered the Berlin Painter was an Oxford don working patiently in museum galleries and storerooms across Europe. Sir John Davidson Beazley (1885-1970) was one of the world's greatest experts on Greek red-figure pottery. In this technique, a scene or individual figure was painted directly on the unglazed surface of the ceramic piece. A coat of shining black glaze was applied to the rest of the vessel.

Sir John Davidson Beazley in November 1926 

In 1911, Beazley visited the museum of ancient art in Berlin, the Antikensammlung Berlin. As he began studying the Greek red-figure vases, a large amphora or lidded jar drew his attention. Examining it closely, Beazley experienced an epiphany.

Ed Voves, The Berlin Painter's "Name Vase" at the Princeton University Art Museum

This red-figure work, painted with a depiction of a satyr and the god Mercury, is a truly distinctive piece. But what struck Beazley were its similarities in artistic style and form with other red-figure works that he had examined. Beazley concluded that this unsigned amphora had been painted by an artist whom he dubbed the  "Master of the Berlin amphora."

If this title sounds a bit like the way that medieval paintings are credited to anonymous artists - "Master of the Merode alter piece" for example - that should come as no surprise. Beazley was also an expert on Flemish art from the late Middle Ages.

The lidded amphora with a hung-over satyr, the dapper Mercury in his winged-cap and a delicate-looking fawn is considered the "name vase" of the Berlin Painter.

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), The Berlin Painter's "Name Vase" (details)

The name vase is also a mysterious piece. Its theme evokes Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, particularly the over-size wine goblet held by Mercury. But Dionysus does not appear on the amphora. A single satyr was painted on the other side. We are still in the dark about the message which the Berlin Painter sought to convey.

After making this brilliant deduction, Beazley continued to study Greek vases, drawing analytical sketches by the hundreds. These drawings enabled him to compile a list of works created by the "Master of the Berlin amphora."

Beazley took a hiatus from his labors to serve in British naval intelligence during World War I. His brilliant powers of analysis were put to good use in Room 40, the famous center for cryptanalysis, which broke the German radio communication code.

After the war ended, Beazley returned to the red-figure hunt. In an article published in 1922, he identified one of the most beautiful Greek vases in existence as a masterpiece by the Berlin Painter. Now one of the jewels of the Metropolitan Museum's collection, this amphora, dating to 490 B.C. (the year of the Battle of Marathon) shows a young singer playing the kithara, swaying to the sound of the music.

Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Young Man playing the Kithara (detail), ca. 490 B.C.

As the Berlin Painter's oeuvre was established, so was the work of other anonymous Greek vase painters. One of these, known as the Kleophrades Painter, is believed to have been a competitor of the Berlin Painter in Athens. Beazley had identified the Kleophrades Painter only the year before he discovered the Berlin Painter. 

A comparison of the two artists is fascinating. Beazley contrasted the Berlin Painter and the Kleophrades Painter, respectively, as the "the painter of grace and the painter of power." 

The parallel lives of the Kleophrades Painter and the Berlin Painter took place amid the profound changes and challenges in Greek life during the late sixth and the fifth centuries B.C. Their art illustrates the rise of democracy and individualism in ancient Greece around 500 B.C.  The red-figure vases of both also testify to the supreme ordeal faced by the city states of Greece when the Persian Empire launched invasions in 490 and 480 B.C. 

While the Berlin Painter emphasized individuals or intimate scenes such as that depicted on his name vase, the Kleophrades Painter aimed at dramatic effect. Wrap-around scenes, both from daily life and mythological events were his specialty. 

Attributed to the Kleophrades Painter, Four Male Youths in Conversation               early 5th century B.C.

The Kleophrades Painter often painted on the type of water pot known as a kalpis because this vessel gave him greater expanse on which to pose his figures. A fine example is the hunting group, depicted on the pot from the Getty Museum, on view in the exhibition.

This superb piece also shows another trademark of the Kleophrades Painter, the elaborate frames and borders for his scenes. By comparison, the Berlin Painter's elegant protagonists stand in splendid isolation, figures of warm, amber humanity set against the shimmering black glaze. 

As Greece braced for the second invasion, much better prepared than the initial Persian expedition which the Athenians had decimated at the battle of Marathon, artistic taste changed. The "action painting" of the Kleophrades Painter soared in popularity. The Berlin Painter followed suit with a raging battle between Herakles and a platoon of Amazons. It is dated to this time period, as the Greeks sharpened their swords and prepared to engage the Persian hordes at Thermopylae and Salamis.

Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Amazonomachy with Herkales , Ca. 480–470 B.C.

This Amazonomachy is a brilliant piece, but one cannot escape the feeling that the Berlin Painter was just a bit out of his element with such a"CinemaScope" production. The Kleophrades Painter was a master of foreshortening, equal to the masters of the Italian renaissance. His protagonists reach out and draw us into battle scene encircling the surface of the water pot. This cannot be said of the Berlin painter.

In this combat of Herakles and the Amazons, the Berlin painter has created "spectacle" and "costume drama." His strengths as an artist have been muted in the crowded composition. In the remarkable portrait of the youthful Ganymede which introduces this review, we see a Leonardo-like command of the human form and spirit. This is all but lost in the Amazonomachy.

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), The Berlin Painter's Amazonomachy (detail)

But when we focus on individual figures, the "painter of grace" makes his presence felt. In the depiction of the mortally wounded Amazon, stretching her hand heavenward in the last moment of life, we glimpse a sublime example of the Berlin Painter's art.

Both the Kleophrades Painter and the Berlin Painter created their works in what art scholars now call the "severe style." This rather odd term was formulated by German art historians beginning with Johann Winckelmann in the late 1700's. They wanted to show that a major change had taken place in Greek art, leaving the Archaic age behind.

The enigmatic "smile" of the kouros and kore statues, the stark "black-figure" format in which humans are almost always portrayed in stiff profile on vases, the overwhelming emphasis on war and violence as themes in art: such were the predominant elements of Archaic Greek art. Beginning in the last years of the sixth century, B.C., these were being replaced by the "severe" style.

A greater sense of humanity certainly began to emerge in Greek art as democracy made its presence felt. Vase painters and sculptors emphasized naturalism in the way they depicted both human beings and the gods. Why the German art writers chose to categorize this rising new spirit as "severe" escapes me. But there is no doubt that the Berlin painter was in the vanguard of one of the great "awakenings" of the human spirit.

Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Nike at an Altar, early 5th century B.C.

An outstanding example of this new spirit, "severe" or sensitive, is on display in the Berlin Painter exhibit. Painted on the surface of a wine jug with a trefoil mouth is Nike, winged goddess of victory, from the British Museum collection. Nike flutters above an altar where she is about to give thanks.  

There are a number of images of Nike on display in the Berlin Painter exhibit. Most are elegant, lithe spirits. The British Museum Nike is a more amply-endowed being. She holds an incense-burning thymiaterion in her right hand and a libation bowl in the left. Her pleated dress is a chiton, covered by a stole called a himation, standard garb of Greek women. Everything about this Nike is matronly, nurturing. She is more of an "earth mother" than a goddess, though a hint of the archaic "smile" hovers on her lips.

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), The Berlin Painter's Nike at an Altar (detail)

I was so struck by the everyday,down-to-earth presence of Nike that I spent some extra time and extra effort trying to get a close-up photo of her expressive face. It wasn't easy as the over-head lighting combined with the gleaming black glaze to make picture taking in the gallery a frustrating proposition. Yet, I persevered and I must say that the Berlin Painter was able to evoke the spirit of the women of ancient Greece to a remarkable degree with the British Museum Nike.

Women had a very limited roll in ancient Greek life, beyond child-bearing and house work. Taking part, if in a limited role, in religious ceremonies was the exception to the rule. This endearing work emphasizes the public place of women in society, marking an advance in human awareness as well as the arts.

With every giant step forward, there is usually a halting half-step back. The Berlin Painter exhibition concludes with several painted vases that the government of Athens commissioned as rewards for victory in athletic competitions. But the Athenian leaders evidently insisted that these be painted in the traditional black-figure style from the "good old" days. 

Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Black-figure Panathenic Prize Amphora, 480–470 B.C

That the leaders of the world's first democracy should require its best vase painter to paint in a style that recalled the preceding age of oligarchs and tyrants is baffling in the extreme. The Berlin Painter, whoever he was, probably did not pay much heed to this inconsistency. Whatever medium is chosen - or prescribed - a great artist will find ways to create great art. 

At a critical juncture in Greek history, an unknown Athenian painter of vases whom we call the Berlin Painter did exactly that.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:                                                                                              Attributed to the Berlin Painter (Greek, Attic, fl. ca. 500-ca. 460 B.C.) Red-figure bell-krater: Ganymede, Side A. 500–490 B.C. Ceramic. h. 30 cm (11 13/16 in.) Paris, Louvre Museum, Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities (G 175) Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), View of the Princeton University Campus, showing a banner for The Berlin Painter and His World exhibit.

Sir John Davidson Beazley by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd) half-plate film negative, 18 November 1926 NPG x41553 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), Gallery View of The Berlin Painter and His World exhibit at the Princeton University Art, showing the Berlin Painter's "Name Vase" Red-figure Amphora of Type A.

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), The Berlin Painter's Name Vase, Red-figure Amphora of Type A: Satyr and Hermes, side A (detail); Fawn, side A (detail)

Attributed to the Berlin Painter (Greek, fl. Ca. 500-Ca. 460 B.C.) Young man singing and playing the kithara, Ca. 490 B.C. Terracotta amphora, red-figure painting.  H. 16 5/16 in. (41.50 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fletcher Fund, 1956. Accession Number:56.171.38 Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

Attributed to the Kleophrades Painter  (Greek, fl. Ca. 510-ca. 470 B.C.) Attic red-figure hydria: four male youths in coversation, two dogs, early 5th century B.C. Ceramic. 40.6 × 38.4 × diam. 31 cm (16 × 15 1/8 × 12 3/16 in.)The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California BP-89 86.AE.7 (Courtesy of Princeton University)

Attributed to the Berlin Painter (Greek, fl. Ca. 500-Ca. 460 B.C.) Red-figure Neck-amphora with Ridged Handles:  Amazonomachy with Herkales , Ca. 480–470 B.C. Ceramic. h. 55 × diam. 30.2 × diam. rim 19.1 × diam. foot 16.6 cm (21 5/8 × 11 7/8 × 7 1/2 × 6 9/16 in.) Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig (BS 453) Courtesy of Princeton University Museum of Art

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), The Berlin Painter's Amazonomachy with Herkales (detail)

Attributed to the Berlin Painter (Greek, fl. ca. 500-ca. 460 B.C.) Nike at an altar, early 5th century B.C. Oinochoe, with trefoil mouth, red-figure painting. Ceramic  H. 38.1 cm. The British Museum (E513/ 1859, 0301.6)BP-59 1859,0301. Courtesy of British Museum

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), The Berlin Painter's Nike at an Altar (detail)

Attributed to the Berlin Painter (Greek, fl. ca. 500-ca. 460 B.C.) Black-figure Panathenic Prize Amphora; Athena between Columns Topped by Cocks, side A; Runners , side B.

Ca. 480–470 B.C. Ceramic. h. 62.3 × diam. 41.9 × diam. rim 18.5 × diam. foot 13.9 cm (24 1/2 × 16 1/2 × 7 5/16 × 5 1/2 in.) Collection of Gregory Callimanopulos, New York. Courtesy of Princeton University Museum of Art