Friday, December 19, 2014

Art Eyewitness Review: When the Greeks Ruled Egypt

When the Greeks Ruled Egypt: Alexander the Great to Cleopatra

Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) of New York University
15 84th Street, New York City

October 8, 2014 - January 4, 2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

As Alexander the Great lay dying in Babylon in 323 BC, he was asked to whom he would bequeath his vast empire. Legend has it that Alexander gasped in reply, "To the strongest."

Alexander's senior generals, known to history as the Diadochi or "successors," began to squabble over who should get what province to rule. Before long, they were at each other’s throats like Mafia capos after the death of the Don.

This bloodstained chapter in ancient history forms the political backdrop to a splendid exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) of New York University. When the Greeks Ruled Egypt charts the social, cultural and religious aspects of Ptolemaic Egypt, the most enduring state to emerge from the chaos following Alexander's death.

One of Alexander's junior lieutenants, Ptolemaios or Ptolemy, survived the ensuing bloodbath. Ptolemy was not "the strongest" of the Diadochi. But he was the smartest. Ptolemy took control of Egypt, the most easily defended province. Ptolemy also seized custody of Alexander's body which he installed in an elaborate sarcophagus. Ptolemy's rule as Alexander's heir was solidified in 305 B.C., when he nominated himself as king. His dynasty continued to rule Egypt for an amazing three centuries.

The longevity of Ptolemy's dynasty in Egypt derived from a delicate balancing act which is very evident from the 150 objects on view in the ISAW exhibit. 

After assuming power, Ptolemy and his successors embraced the traditional culture of Egypt. In particular, they celebrated the ancient cult of Isis, Osiris and Horus,  soon known by his Greek name, Harpocrates. At the same time, the Greek philosophical and scientific initiatives which Alexander had championed were given pride of place in the Ptolemaic political agenda. 

The ISAW exhibit focuses almost exclusively on Egypt, but the insights it shares helps promote a general understanding of the post-Alexander Hellenistic period. So much attention has been lavished on fifth century B.C. Athens and on the extraordinary career of Alexander that the Hellenistic age often gets only a cursory "look-see" in history text books. 

The late Michael Grant was one historian who examined the Hellenistic Age in detail. It is worth quoting his 1982 book, From Alexander to Cleopatra, on the psychological foundations of that period:

Reality was one keynote of the time... just as the scientists were making new efforts to explain what happens in the universe, so writers and artists wanted to show life as it is. And to show life as it is meant showing the individual as he or she is: this was the age, the first age, of the recognition, development and delineation of the individual person.

To promote creative endeavor among the native Egyptian population and the growing Greek immigrant population in Egypt, Ptolemy and his successors had to square the circle of two very different sets of artistic standards.

Block Statue of Shebenhor, 664–525 B.C.

Egyptian art was founded upon idealized forms, codified and sanctified by practice dating back to the Old Kingdom two thousand years before. Consummate craftsmanship combined with a determined adherence to tradition. The result was an art both static and spiritually moving.

Fragment of Vase Depicting Berenice II, 246–221 B.C.

The emerging Greek school, on the other hand, was busily delineating individual character traits into portraits of gods and men. From the Hellespont to Afghanistan, a revolutionary art brimming with human vitality followed in the footsteps of Alexander's phalanx.
In Egypt, as Ptolemy I secured his power base, tradition and realism found the means to co-exist - and flourish.

A superb example of the handling of "eternal" themes by Egyptian artists is the head of a priest named Wesirwer which means "Osiris Is Great." It dates to a point between 380 to 342 B.C., before Alexander had ousted the Persians from control of Egypt.

Head of Wesirwer, Priest of Montu, ca. 380-342 B.C.

This head of Wesirwer was sculpted from schist, a stone which the Egyptians had been using in masterful fashion for millennia. Despite the glimmer of human familiarity in his almond-shaped eyes, Wesirwer might well have been the subject of the sculptor of the alien beauty of the Amarna princesses, dating to 1353 to 1336 B.C.

When we look at Wesirwer, we never for an instant think that he will open his pursed lips and speak - except perhaps with the "voices of silence" worthy of André Malraux.

That's not the case of the regal and imposing Head of a Ptolemaic Queen, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This work is thought to be a portrait of Arsinoë II, daughter of Ptolemey I and later Queen of Egypt from 278 B.C. to 270 B.C. Despite the goddess-like demeanor of this marble likeness, we immediately sense a powerful personality, that of a charismatic, capable woman who lived in an age which gave Greek women a role in power politics for the first time.

Marble head of a Ptolemaic Queen,  ca. 270–250 B.C.

Head of a Ptolemaic Queen is certainly an idealized, reverential portrait. The flattened crown of the head is thought to have been covered with a veil made from stucco. A much less flattering likeness of Arsinoë II appears in a fragment of a faience vase, also in the Metropolitan collection, and it shows a very formidable character, indeed.

Fragment of a Vase Depicting Arsinoe II,  ca. 275–270 B.C.

Arsinoë II was noteworthy - or notorious - for being the royal consort of her brother, Ptolemy II.  As bizarre as this might sound, Arsinoë had earlier married a half-brother, Ptolemy Kerauno, after her first husband, King Lysimachus of Macedonia, was killed in battle. But Arsinoë began to plot against Ptolemy Kerauno and barely escaped with her life. Two of her sons were not so lucky.  When she reached Egypt, Arsinoë put some cold steel into the statecraft of her second brother-husband, helping Ptolemy II to build an impressive battle fleet and beat off an enemy attack.

When Arsinoë II died, Ptolemy II deified his sister-wife and a vigorous religious cult arose. Arsinoë II was worshipped as a goddess in Egypt, by the Egyptians as a counterpart of Isis and by the Greeks as a new Hera or Demeter. In this way, the Ptolemaic regime found common ground for Egyptians and Greeks, alike.

Other significant ethnic minorities needed to be accommodated as well, especially the Jewish immigrants who settled in the newly established city of Alexandria. The ISAW exhibit devotes one of its two galleries to showing how three languages, Egyptian demotic, Greek and Aramaic were written and spoken in Ptolemaic Egypt. This was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society which despite some strain and occasional discord was remarkably successful in giving opportunity to citizens of different racial origins.

Ptolemy I and his successors, each of whom was also named Ptolemy, were immortalized by portraits in the tradition of the great pharaohs of Egypt's distant past. But one of the Greek innovations to Egypt - coinage - provided the Ptolemaic regime with a way impress its image on Greek and Egyptian subjects alike.

Greek coins, unlike the serene uniformity of early Egyptian portraiture, exuded individuality. We can see this, beginning with a coin minted in Alexandria in 310 B.C., five years before Ptolemy promoted himself from governor of Egypt to its king. The silver tetradrachm presents a lifelike portrait of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s intense "war face" is contrasted by the heroic, elephant head piece he wears, symbolizing his conquests in the Indian subcontinent.

Such realistic character studies of the Greek rulers of Egypt continued to be issued down to the last and most famous of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII.

The coins of the Ptolemaic dynasty literally profile the "warts and all" looks of its members. Ptolemy I had a distinctive long, hooked nose. A gold octadracm minted around 260 B.C. by his successor, Ptolemy II, showed his sister-wife, Arsinoë II, next to him on one side of the coin; his father, Ptolemy I, appears alongside his queen, Berenice, on the other. The trademark hooked nose is very much in evidence on the portrait of Ptolemy I. 

Octadrachm of Ptolemy III Euergetes,  ca. 246–221 B.C.
A similar octadracm was issued by Ptolemy I's grandson, presenting the matched heads of his parents and grandparents (shown here, though it does not appear in the ISAW exhibit). It was a touching tribute by Ptolemy III Euergetes, who was a very capable ruler himself, with many of his grandfather's talents - though not a hooked nose.

However, this genetic quirk was bequeathed to a number of the other descendants of Ptolemy I, most famously to Cleopatra VII. Some coins and portraits of Cleopatra tried to minimize this unseemly blemish. The truth, however, cannot be disguised. Cleopatra VII was no Vivian Leigh or Elizabeth Taylor!

Cleopatra, however, inherited more than a hooked nose. From the gutsy Arsinoë II and the other remarkable women of the Hellenistic era, Cleopatra shared a tigress temperament to defend her own. Everyone knows about the feminine "wiles" of Cleopatra, which she used to entice Mark Antony. But Cleopatra was a savvy diplomat and a true Egyptian patriot. Despite the embrace of Egyptian customs by the earlier Ptolemies, Cleopatra was the first member of the dynasty to learn to speak the native Egyptian language. 

In the end, the juggernaut of Octavian Caesar's legions crushed Cleopatra's bid to keep Egypt independent. One thinks that had Arsinoë II lived in 31 B.C. rather than two and a half centuries earlier, she would have fared no better against ruthless Rome.

The ISAW exhibit is brilliantly curated and, given its free admission, is one of the best buys in New York City. Located two short blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this insightful look at Egypt under the Ptolemaic dynasty can easily be combined with visits to the Met's Egyptian and Greek and Roman galleries. The exhibit is entering its final weeks.

When the Greeks ruled Egypt reminds us that conquerors may come to Egypt, but they always go. The Ptolemies were more sensible and adaptable to native custom than most, which was one reason they lasted as long as they did. But this wonderful exhibit has one undeniable lesson to teach. Eternal Egypt always outlasts the revolving door despots who would rule it, in ancient times or modern.  


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images Courtesy of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World of New York University and the  Metropolitan Museum of Art

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Tetradrachm. Obverse: Head of Alexander the Great. Reverse: Athena Alkidemos, Eagle on Fulmen. Silver, Diam. 2.9 cm; 15.58 g. Minted in Alexandria, 310 B.C. American Numismatic Society: 1974.26.5294

Block Statue of Shebenhor, Basalt; H. 28 cm; W. 13 cm; D. 16.2 cm, XXVI Dynasty (664–525 B.C.) Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mrs. George L. Otis;  (1924.754)© Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Fragment of Vase Depicting Berenice II, Faience, H. 15 cm (5 7/8 in.); W. 7 cm (2 3/4 in.); D. 3.7 cm (1 7/16 in.), Ptolemaic Dynasty, 246–221 B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926, (26.7.1016) Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Head of Wesirwer, Priest of Montu, Schist, 6 x 3 1/2 x 4 1/2 in. (15.2 x 8.9 x 11.4 cm), XXX  Dynasty, ca. 380-342 B.C. Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, (55.175) © Brooklyn Museum Photograph 

Marble head of a Ptolemaic Queen,  Marble, H. 15 in. (38.1 cm), Hellenistic, ca. 270–250 B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, The Bothmer Purchase Fund, Malcolm Hewitt Wiener, The Concordia Foundation and Christos G. Bastis Gifts and Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, 2002, (2002.66)  Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

Fragment of a Vase Depicting Arsinoe II, Faience, H. 3.8 cm (1 1/2 in.); W. 2 cm (13/16 in.); D. 3 cm (1 3/16 in.), Ptolemaic Period, ca. 275–270 B.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Purchase, Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926, (26.7.1017) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York   

Octadrachm of Ptolemy III Euergetes. Reverse: Conjoined Busts of Ptolemy I and Berenice I. Gold, Diam.: 1 in. (2.5 cm).  Minted in Alexandria, ca. 246–221 B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Theodore M. Davis Collection, Bequest of Theodore M. Davis, 1915, (30.115.22)  Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Art Eyewitness Review: Why Homer Matters

Why Homer Matters
By Adam Nicolson
Henry Holt/320 Pages/$30

Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (September 22, 2014–January 4, 2015)    

Homer and the Epics Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Never underestimate Homer. The Iliad and The Odyssey have a curious habit of surprising us, taking us to places and thoughts we never imagined we would go. These epic poems possess a relevance to both contemporary events and the timeless challenges of life that is often uncanny. If a blind poet named Homer never existed, then somebody in antiquity possessed a degree of human empathy that has never been surpassed - and rarely equaled. 
Adam Nicolson's new book, Why Homer Matters, directly addresses these issues. Nicolson cautions against definite claims that Homer lived. It is better, he maintains to think of Homer as a poetic tradition rather than as an inspired individual.

Homer, imagined likeness, late 1st century B.C. or 1st century A.D.

If there was a Homer, Nicolson reflects, then it was likely that he was "the man who joined, in the way of the poet, things that might otherwise have lived apart ..." These were the vast oral traditions of legends and stories about a great war in the Greek past and a terror-fraught voyage home afterward.

Nicolson's views demand respect. His grasp of Homer is based upon profound insight and an impressive command of academic scholarship. But it is Nicolson's life as a seafarer and globe traveler that gives his voice a commanding authority.

Two current art exhibitions impart a visual context to Why Homer Matters, thus reinforcing the impact of this fine book. Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (September 22, 2014–January 4, 2015) charts the age of "orientalization" that took place in Greece around the time that  Homer's epics were composed in written form, around 700 BC. Likewise, the newly opened Homer and the Epics Gallery at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts brilliantly complements Nicolson's book by showing how the later Greeks came to depict the Homeric tales in Classical art.

In the opening pages of Why Homer Matters, Nicolson looks at an amazing work of art from antiquity that is the closest "portrait" of Homer that we are likely to ever have.

In 1939, the great American archaeologist, Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati, began excavating Pylos in southern Greece. Pylos was the site of the palace of one of the Greek leaders in the Iliad, Nestor, and Blegen was not disappointed. Blegen's team discovered the first examples of Linear B, the earliest form of Greek script, found in Europe, and the remains of a stunning painting, The Lyre Player, amid the wreckage of Nestor's palace.                                                                                                                          
The Lyre Player, Late Bronze Age, from Pylos

The Lyre Player fresco was found shattered in pieces and later reconstructed by the artist Piet de Jong. This image of a Bronze Age poet with a bird taking wing is one of the most extraordinary representations of poetic expression in the history of art. As a symbol of the imagination in action, this scene, which decorated the throne room or megaron at Pylos, has few equals.

Pylos was one of the great palace-states of Mycenaean Greece. Around 1200 B.C., Pylos, Tiryns and Mycenae all were sacked and burned. The massive fortifications of these early Greek states collapsed before waves of attackers once identified as "Dorian" invaders. The conquering hordes may actually have included insurgent peasants and slaves once held in subjection by the Mycenaean warlords. These armor-clad nobles - Nestor, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Diomedes and the incomparable Achilles - were the protagonists of Homer's Iliad and other tales of the Trojan War which have not survived in written form.

According to tradition - which the Greek historian Thucydides accepted - the Mycenaean strongholds fell to assault eighty years after Troy was put to the sword. It was a well-deserved payback for the swaggering, blood-thirsty Greeks who had torched Troy.

That scenario may be a little too neat. Nicolson has an alternative theory that the Iliad may be traced to stories handed down from perhaps a thousand years earlier. Instead of one war against Troy, Nicolson maintains that the Iliad recalls adventures of the Indo-European ancestors of the Greeks as they migrated over the vast steppe lands of southern Russia and the Ukraine on the journey to their eventual homeland.

Nicolson brilliantly probes the origins of words used by Homer and the ancient Greeks. Thalassa, the word for sea in the Iliad and the Odyssey, is not of Indo-European origin. It is a loan word, possibly from Minoan Crete, whose script, Linear A still has not been deciphered.

The Greeks took verbal control of thalassa as they gained political dominion over the Aegean Sea and surrounding territories. But even after they became master mariners, the Greeks often used words or phrases in seafaring that referred to horses and wandering over the land. Poseidon, the god of the sea, was also the horse god who "climbed into his chariot and drove it across the waves."

Terracotta Chariot Kraterca. 1375–1350 B.C.

A number of assaults or raids on Troy, between 1800 to 1200 B.C., may have been 
conflated in Greek memory to create the legend of a great Trojan War. Troy, the northernmost outpost of the great belt of civilized cities extending from Babylon and Assyria, was an inviting target for the Achaeans. But war begat war and the traditional date of Troy's fall, 1200 B.C., corresponds to the widespread collapse of Bronze Age centers such as Pylos.

When Greek art revived, it was very different from the elegance and beauty of Mycenaean palace art. The Lyre Player lay buried in the rubble of Pylos and a new artistic revolution was in the making.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art displays several monumental terracotta vases or kraters, used to hold the ashes of fallen warriors. These date to the 8th century B.C., from around the time that the text of the Iliad was being composed and the Greek city-states were being formed. 

Terracotta Krater, late 1st quarter of the 8th century B.C.

The crude, if vigorous, Geometric style of these kraters raises the fundamental question of how Greek art was able in a few short centuries to evolve the polished Classical elegance on display further on in the Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum and in the Boston Museum's Homer and the Epics Gallery.

An answer may be found in the link between an amazing work in the Homer and the Epics Gallery and a rather inconspicuous piece on loan from the British Museum to the Assyria to Iberia exhibit at the Met.

Two-handled Jar (amphora) with Achilles and Ajaxabout 525–520 B.C.

The Two-handled Amphora from Boston shows Ajax and Achilles taking a break from fighting the Trojans. They are playing a board game, which were hugely popular in the Greek, Egyptian and Near-Eastern societies of the Bronze Age and later. This stunning work, dated to 525-520 B.C., shows the same scene on both sides, in Red Figure style by the Andokides Painter, in Black Figure by the Lysippides Painter. This type of transitional work is referred to as "bilingual” vase painting.

Game Box with Chariot Hunt,  Late Bronze Age, 1250–1100 B.C.

The game that Ajax and Achilles are playing likely came in an elaborately carved ivory container. Phoenician merchants exported luxury goods like this all over the Mediterranean basin. The hunting scene on the  ivory box reworks the vast bas reliefs from Nineveh of Assyrian kings slaughtering prey animals of all descriptions. This brought new levels of realism to Greek art as it turned from the Geometric style to representational art.

Elaborate pieces of metalwork also provided imagery for the growing Homeric cult. Supplied by the Phoenicians, these were often presented to religious shrines like Olympia and Delphi. This gilded silver bowl, found in an Etruscan tomb in Italy, is an example of such a presentation piece. It is decorated in a way that recalls Homer's description of the Shield of Achilles which was emblazoned with scenes of peace and war.

Bowl with Egyptianizing motifsearly 7th century B.C.

The splendid objects on display in the Assyria to Iberia exhibit show how artistic elements from foreign cultures, particularly from the Middle East, influenced the Greek view of their heroic, Homeric past. But for the Greeks at the turn of the 6th to the 5th centuries B.C., the dawn of the Classical Age, the scenes of peace and war that Homer placed on the shield of Achilles were far more than artistic motifs.

With the Persian Empire threatening Greece in 480 B.C., peace and war were issues of sheer survival. Homer's role in the Greek response to the looming Persian invasion raises perplexing questions. Why did the Iliad and the Odyssey assume a paramount status in Greek culture when these tales confirm almost all of the bad habits that bedeviled the Greeks as they tried to unify to resist Persian aggression?

Nicolson writes insightfully that the Homeric poems were a means to regard and understand the world, not serve as a code for ethical behavior like the Ten Commandments. Nicolson writes:

The Homeric view of the world is essentially traumatic and multiple...The claims of individual triumph can never be reconciled with the claims of communal love and society. We live in the great and eternal war between those principles, Timē and Aretē, honor and virtue, self and other.

Homer, Nicolson concludes "is the great voice of understanding, regarding us all, refusing to decide."

To a very significant degree, Homer's insights for the Greeks were like the Judeo-Christian code of free will. Right and wrong are clearly obvious in the Iliad. The heroes, Greek and Trojan, despite the occasional intervention of the gods, have the power to choose and they usually make very bad choices.

A particularly vivid illustration is on view at the Boston Homer and the Epics Gallery. A mixing bowl or calyx krater made in Athens about 470–460 B.C. shows scenes from the fall of Troy. When stretched out, the dramatic Red Figure depictions by the Altamura Painter represent a virtual panorama of human virtue and vice, heroism and depravity. 

Mixing bowl (calyx krater) with scenes from the fall of Troyabout 470–460 B.C.

Here we see the tragic King Priam watching as his daughter Cassandra is dragged naked to the Greek ships. Priam is about to be killed as his tiny grandson is bludgeoned to death. On the other side of the krater, a heroic Trojan warrior unsheathes his sword to fight a rear-guard action enabling Aeneas to carry his aged father to safety.

The Altamura krater was made in Athens ten years after the Persian invasion was repulsed. The poignancy of the scenes may reflect the suffering to which the Greek people were briefly exposed before the victories of Salamis and Plataea prevented a repetition of such horrors on a wide scale. Yet, the Athenians themselves were to visit this terrible fate on fellow Greeks on the island of Melos in 415 B.C. because they favored Athens' enemy, Sparta.

Everyone involved in this infamous episode was well-acquainted with Homer. Yet the men and boys of Melos were slaughtered and the women and girls were enslaved. This deed was committed by the troops of democratic, enlightened Athens.

If Homer's influence was unavailing on Melos in 415 B.C., can we really concur with Nicolson that the Iliad and Odyssey still matter today?

Today, as the nations of the world still plot and maneuver for dominance, these questions are pressing ones. Seen in this light, we cannot but agree with Adam Nicolson that properly understood, Homer imparts "the ability to regard all aspects of life with clarity, equanimity and sympathy, with a loving heart and an unclouded eye."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Special thanks to:

Ms. Carol Hershenson, Curator, Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati
Dr. Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, Archivist, American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Images Courtesy of the Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA.

Introductory Image: Why Homer Matters, 2014 (cover) Image credit: Henry Holt and Co.

Homer, Marble (probably from Mt. Pentelikon near Athens) Height: 41cm (16 1/8 in.); length (of face): 21 cm ( 8 1/4 in.), late 1st century B.C. or 1st century A.D.  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (04.13)  Image: © The  Museum of Arts, Boston

The Lyre Player, Fresco from Late Bronze Age, excavated by Dr. Carl Blegen and recreated in watercolor by Piet de Jong.  Presented as Plate 126 43H6 in The Palace of Nestor at Pylos in Western Messenia II: The Frescoes by Mabel L. Lang, 1969. Courtesy of The Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati.

Terracotta Chariot Krater, Terracotta, H. 14 7/16 in. (36.7 cm) diameter 10 11/16 in. (27.2 cm), Late Helladic IIIA:1, ca. 1375–1350 B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,  The Cesnola Collection, Purchased by subscription, 1874–76, (74.51.964) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Terracotta Krater, attributed to the Workshop of New York MMA 34.11.2, Terracotta,  H. 39 in. (99.1 cm) diameter 37 in. (94 cm), Geometric, late 1st quarter of the 8th century B.C., Attic, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Fletcher Fund, 1934 (34.11.2) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Two-handled Jar (amphora) with Achilles and Ajax, attributed to the the Andokides Painter, the Lysippides Painter, Ceramic, Height: 55.5 cm (21 7/8 in.); diameter: 34 cm (13 3/8 in.) Archaic- Red and Black Figure (Bilingual), about 525–520 B.C. The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, (01.8037)  Image: © The  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Game Box with Chariot Hunt, Ivory, Enkomi, Chamber Tomb 58, Late Bronze Age, 1250–1100 B.C., The Trustees of the British Museum, London, Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Bowl with Egyptianizing motifs,  Gilded silver, Praeneste, Colombella necropolis, Bernardini Tomb Phoenician or Orientalizing, early 7th century B.C. Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome Image: Bruce White

Mixing bowl (calyx krater) with scenes from the fall of Troy, attributed to the Altamura Painter, Ceramic, Red Figure, Height: 48 cm (18 7/8 in.); diameter: 49 cm (19 5/16 in.) from Athens, about 470–460 B.C. Museum of Arts, Boston (59.178)  Image: © The  Museum of Arts, Boston

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Art Eyewitness Book Review: John Singer Sargent and His Muse, Picturing Love and Loss

John Singer Sargent and His Muse 

By Karen Corsano and Daniel Williman
Rowman & Littlefield/340 pages/$38

Reviewed by Ed Voves

A century ago, officers in the German army and navy regularly raised their glasses of brandy with the toast, "Der Tag."

 Der Tag: "The Day." The day that war would begin.

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of "Der Tag," the outbreak of World War I. Several shelves of new books on the events of 1914-1918 have appeared recently, with more no doubt on the way. Of particular note is John Singer Sargent and His Muse by a husband-wife team of historians, Daniel Williman and Karen Corsano. This powerful book describes the tragic result of the rush to Armageddon in August 1914 in a way that is not easily forgotten.

The subtitle of this evocative book leaves no doubts about the human cost of the war: Picturing Love and Loss.

In the case of John Singer Sargent, the loss involved the death in 1918 of his beloved niece, Rose-Marie Michel, killed by a shell fired by long-range German cannons. 

John Singer Sargent, Rose-Marie Ormond, 1912

This beautiful, vivacious young woman had posed as Sargent's model in several of his greatest paintings, including The Black Brook. After Rose-Marie's crushed body was recovered from the rubble of a Paris church in March 1918, Sargent set to work on a painting that evoked the futile horrors of the Great War.

The authors relate this story of wartime sacrifice and artistic redemption in a carefully constructed, tension building manner. Set-piece chapters deal with the early life of Rose-Marie Michel and her experience of World War I. The surreal moment of horror when Rose-Marie was killed during the bombardment of Paris is described in an understated, almost clinical fashion. This sets the stage for the poignant account of the way that her family, including her French in-laws, grappled with overwhelming  loss. 

John Singer Sargent responded to the death of Rose-Marie Michel by painting the final masterpiece of his career. But the picture that emerged from this shattering incident was not a memorial painting of his niece. Instead, it was the vast, heart-searing Gassed, now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919

Gassed, like the famous scene in the film Gone with the Wind which shows row upon row of wounded Confederate soldiers, depicts war solely in terms of suffering. There is not a hint of glory or world-changing consequence in this painting. There is only pain. And thanks to details of deadly irony so subtle that it is easy to miss them, there is yet more pain.

Gassed shows a casualty-clearing station where lines of British troops, blinded by an insidious form of poison gas, nicknamed "mustard" gas, are awaiting treatment. Sargent had witnessed such an appalling scene during a tour of the Western Front shortly after the death of his niece.

Some of the men with bandaged eyes regained their eye sight, or at least partial use of their eyes. But there are many forms of blindness and Sargent's Gassed addresses the most acute form of crippled vision - moral blindness.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, detail

If you look closely, off in the distant background of Sargent's painting, other soldiers are playing rugby football. They are "killing" time while awaiting their turn to be sent to the trenches. Sargent underscores the insanity of war by pointing to ways that people respond to and normalize it – reacting with complacency or helpless indifference, averting their gaze elsewhere or shutting their eyes altogether to the evil around them.

The result, magnified by tens of millions, is the death of innocent persons like Rose-Marie Michel.

Corsano and Williman wisely refrain from making cosmic interpretations of human conflict. Instead, they focus on the case history of a victim of war and the response of her bereaved family. In the tragedy of the one is the tragedy of the many.

Rose-Marie Michel (1893–1918) was the daughter of Sargent's sister, Frances Ormond. Sargent and his sisters - to whom he was deeply devoted - were born in Europe of American parents. Sargent spent his whole life traveling throughout Europe, with England as his base following the Madame X scandal of 1884. By the time Rose-Marie reached adolescence, Sargent was fed-up with painting the portraits of the "high and mighty." Portraiture was “a pimp’s profession” Sargent declared and he yearned to paint pictures of natural beauty.

Rose-Marie became Sargent's model and his muse. She posed for several achingly beautiful works such as Nonchaloir (Repose), now in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington, Two Girls Fishing at the Cincinnati Art Museum and The Black Brook, one of the most celebrated paintings at the Tate Gallery in London not painted by J.M.W. Turner. 

John Singer Sargent  Nonchaloir (Repose), 1911

This fairy tale story reached a particularly happy conclusion when Rose-Marie Ormond married a brilliant French scholar, Robert Michel. He was the son of France's leading cultural critic, who had defended Sargent's art when others in the French art establishment had ridiculed him.  

The "stars" seemed to be wholly in favor of Rose-Marie and Robert Michel. Theirs was a love match and a marriage of equals, with each totally devoted to the other.

Tragically, the champagne salutations to the bride and groom in 1913 came at a time when the "Der Tag" toasts of the German officer corps were building in fervor. "Der Tag" came in August 1914 and in October Robert Michel was killed in action, making him one of the first of Europe's "Lost Generation" that was to include Franz Marc and Wilfred Owen.

The widowed Rose-Marie Michel  chose to remain with her French in-laws and served throughout the war in a hospital in Paris, caring for blinded soldiers.

In late March 1918, the Germans prepared Operation Michael to breakthrough Allied lines and seize Paris. Having helped Vladimir Lenin travel from Switzerland to foment revolution in Russia, the Germans were able to bring vast numbers of troops from the Eastern Front to attack France. In a crude rehearsal for the Blitzkrieg of World War II, the Germans also unveiled a terror weapon aimed at civilians: the Paris Gun.

These cannons were fitted with long barrels enabling the shells they fired to reach the thin air of the stratosphere.  The German guns began to bombard Paris at the extraordinary range of seventy miles. The same, though much more sophisticated, ballistics formula was incorporated in the design of the V2 rockets launched against London in 1944-45.

As the authors relate, on March 29, 1918, Rose-Marie Michel took some time from her nursing duties to attend a performance of classical music at the church of St. Gervais. It was Good Friday.

Shortly before the recital began, a shell fired by one of the Paris Guns hit the roof of St. Gervais. Huge blocks of shattered masonry crushed the congregation gathered below, including Rose-Marie Michel. 

St. Gervais Church, after the German bombardment, March 29th, 1918

In losing her life, Rose-Marie Michel helped her uncle find - or at least rediscover - himself as an artist. After the United States joined the Allied war-effort in 1917, Sargent became a war artist. But John Singer Sargent, urbane man of the world, was not psychologically prepared.    

 Alvin Langdon Coburn  John Singer Sargent, 1907

The death of his beloved Rose-Marie changed that. Sargent found his subject. The lines of blinded soldiers in Gassed are an indirect tribute to the brave young woman who, having lost her husband, devoted herself to nursing other soldiers, robbed of their sight by the war.

I saw Sargent's Gassed in 1999 at an exhibit of Sargent's work at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. I must admit that I was not overly impressed with this painting, because I thought that actual photos from World War I were more authentic and therefore more hard-hitting.

British 55th Division gas casualties, 10 April 1918

I no longer feel that way, thanks in large measure to Corsano and Williman's splendid book. In many ways, Sargent's Gassed is the last great narrative painting of the nineteenth century, though completed in 1919. For all that, Gassed is an essential work in the canon of Western art.

Reading John Singer Sargent and his Muse and writing about it have posed a real challenge to me. Thinking about the circumstances of Rose-Marie Michel's death caused me to confront an unpleasant fact. The moral blindness that blights our contemporary world is a living legacy of the War to End All Wars.  

Reflecting on the tragedy of Rose-Marie Michel and John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, I am reminded of the wise words of Oscar Wilde:

There is the same world for all of us, and good and evil, sin and innocence, go through it hand in hand. To shut one’s eyes to half of life that one may live securely is as though one blinded oneself that one might walk with more safety in a land of pit and precipice.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., the Imperial War Museum, London, and Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Introductory image: John Singer Sargent and His Muse 2014 (cover) Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Rose-Marie Ormond, 1912 Oil on canvas 80 cm (31.5 in.)x 54.5 cm (22.99 in.) Private Collection, Public Domain photo from

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Gassed, 1919 Oil on canvas  231 x 611.1 cm (91 x 240 1/2 in.)Imperial War Museum, London  Art.IWM ART 1460

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Nonchaloir (Repose), 1911 Oil on canvas 63.8 x 76.2 cm (25 1/8 x 30 in.) Gift of Curt H. Reisinger 1948.16.1 National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Agence Rol. St. Gervais church, Paris, after the German Paris Gun bombing, March 29th, 1918  (1918) Bibliothèque Nationale de France
                                                                                                                                      Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966)  John Singer Sargent, 1907  Photogravure
20.1cm x 15.6cm (7 15/16" x 6 1/8") National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution 1987-10 NPG.87.288.L

Thomas Keith Aitken, British 55th Division gas casualties, 10 April 1918              photograph Q 11586 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 1900-22) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 7, 2014

Art Eyewitness Essay: Turner, Constable and a Sojourn in Brontë Country

Turner, Constable & a Sojourn in Bronte Country

By Ed Voves   
In 1810, J.M.W. Turner observed a thunderstorm rolling over the hills of Yorkshire. He quickly began to jot-down notes about the cloud masses, lightning flashes and sky tones of the storm.  When he had finished, Turner remarked to a companion, Hawkesworth Fawkes, about his observations.

"There," Turner said, "Hawkey, in two years you will see this again, and call it Hannibal crossing the Alps.”

Two years later, Turner did indeed exhibit a monumental painting based on his notes, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. The timing of the exhibition coincided with the first reports of the winter blizzard that had engulfed Napoleon's army retreating from Moscow in 1812, just as the storm strikes Hannibal's troops in Turner's painting. 

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps is actually a very English painting. In fact, it is a very Yorkshire painting, as my wife and I discovered recently. This, in turn, is deeply significant for understanding the role of British artists like Turner and John Constable, in the rise of landscape painting during the nineteenth century.  

In October 2014, my wife, Anne, and I spent five days in Haworth, Yorkshire. This remarkable village is the site of the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the moor country which figures so prominently in the novels of three literary sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.  

Thanks to the location of our B&B, we were able to look directly from our room onto St Michael's Church, were Rev. Patrick Brontë, father of the Brontë sisters, was the Church of England minister from 1820 to 1861. 

From our window, too, we had a front-row seat of the amazing skyscape over the West Riding countryside of Yorkshire, leading to Penistone Hill and Top Withins. This, of course, is Brontë country, par excellence, but the spectacle of nature that we observed applies equally to the visionary art of Turner and Constable, Romantic-era contemporaries of the Brontës.

Anne Lloyd, Sunset over Haworth, Yorkshire

Over the course of our visit, Anne, who is a gifted photographer, documented the ever-changing sky above Haworth. Sunsets, misty mornings, rainbows, passing rain squalls, a full moon - it was truly amazing to witness the variability of nature. We even managed to dodge heavy rain showers which took place at night.

Our extraordinary weather "karma" recalled a famous remark by Turner around the time that he painted Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps: 

In our variable climate where the seasons are recognizable in one day ... where nature seems to sport in all her dignity and dispensing incidents for the artist's study ... how happily is the landscape painter situated, how roused by every change of nature in every moment, that allows no langour even in her effects which she places before him...

Anne and Turner were in agreement. Recording the changes in English weather permits no "langour." The restless, threatening skies that Anne photographed from the narrow path to Oxenhope, often used by Charlotte Brontë, brightened a few moments later with almost summer-like sunshine.

When we wistfully concluded our stay in Haworth, we journeyed to London for a few days of museum visits. There we saw the Late Turner – Painting Set Free exhibition, which appears at the Tate Britain Museum, September 10, 2014 – January 25, 2015, and Constable: The Making of a Master, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, September 20, 2014 to January 11, 2015.

Both exhibits are magnificent, with many of the greatest paintings of the two artists on display. The exhibition at the V&A presents works by artists who influenced Constable's development like Peter Paul Rubens. Also on view are Constable’s most famous work, The Hay Wain (1824), and the full-scale preparatory painting that some art scholars now regard as a superior work of art to the finished version.

John Constable The Hay Wain

It is fitting, in an ironical way, that the Turner and Constable exhibits should appear at the same time. It takes years to organize and mount art exhibitions. The timing of the two shows was probably - in the first stages of planning, at least - coincidental. 

Yet here they are again, Turner and Constable, teamed together as they appear in most introductory surveys of art history. Turner and Constable. Turner and Constable. You would think that the two painters functioned as a unit like Monet and Renoir, painting together at La Grenouillère - or like Gilbert and George.

The reality was very different. Turner never met a landscape painter who was anything but a rival. In 1832, at the Royal Academy exhibition, he retouched a quiet Dutch-style seascape of his, Helvoetsluys, with a red buoy to steal some of the thunder from one of Constable's "six-footers, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, hanging next to it in the gallery.
Constable noticed the effect immediately, commenting ruefully about Turner, "He has been here and has fired a gun."

Constable was not merely a competitor to Turner, however. Constable was also the protégé of Sir George Beaumont, co-founder of the National Gallery in London and a resolute foe of Turner. Beaumont maintained that Turner treated oil painting as an extension of water colors. Totally misunderstanding Turner’s brilliant grasp of light, Beaumont disparaged Turner’s art as the work of an "Old man," who "no longer saw or felt colour properly..."

Turner, who regarded himself as “the great lion of the day,” responded to Beaumont’s remarks with paintings ever more daring, ever more radiating light.

One could go on comparing and contrasting these two British painters, but there is one unifying theme to their respective careers: the centrality of observing the natural world. This was true of Turner and Constable throughout their lives, as the two exhibitions make clear. But I think that the experiences of "early" Turner and "early" Constable, as they developed their art in their English homeland, need to be appreciated.

That would appear to go against the claims that the decisive moment in Turner's career came at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, when he and other British artists could travel to the continent of Europe. The "light of Italy" flooded onto Turner's canvases and his painting, tinged with hues of yellow, amber and gold, changed forever.

Turner's sojourns in Italy certainly had a major impact on his color palate.  Late Turner at Tate Britain presents two companion paintings, exhibited in 1839, that clearly manifest "the light of Italy." 

J. M.W. Turner Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus 

J. M.W. Turner Modern Rome-Campo Vaccino 

Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus and Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino are displayed side-by-side in the Tate exhibit, providing insight into Turner's view of history and color theory. These were among the paintings which the cartoonist for the Almanack of the Month (June 1846) likely had in mind when he lampooned Turner confronting a canvas with a large mop for a paintbrush and a bucket of yellow paint.

Was this late-career change in color preference also reflected in the greatest of Turner's final paintings, Rain, Steam and Speed? This iconic work, painted in tones of burnished gold, ochre and misty gray, was the type of painting that Turner’s critics regarded as evidence that he had contracted “yellow fever.”

J. M.W. Turner  Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway

If so, Turner contracted the “disease” in England. An early work,  the hard-hitting Frosty Morning (1813) showing starving farm families, was painted with a gold and brown color scheme that had nothing to do with the “light of Italy.”

Ed Voves, Haworth Moor from Penistone Hill, Yorkshire

I saw the same colors while gazing at Haworth Moor from Penistone Hill – albeit in much more congenial circumstances than the hungry farm folk encountered in 1813. Frosty Morning was painted from a scene that Turner had witnessed in Yorkshire and when Claude Monet saw the painting decades later, he declared that Turner had painted it with “wide-open eyes.”

Constable painted with “wide-open eyes” too, but he focused his vision on the green fields of his boyhood home, the Stour River Valley in the county of Suffolk. Constable, unlike Turner, never traveled to the continent of Europe, even when The Hay Wain won a gold medal at the 1824 Paris Salon. 

Constable was far from being a timid, unadventurous soul. He showed how artists can create universes of their own devising. These realms might be small in geographical scale, perhaps reduced to a single tree. But they could be limitless in an emotional, psychological sense. It was an artistic revolution as profound in its way as Turner's explorations of light.

John Constable Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree  

“But I should paint my own places best," Constable affirmed, "painting is but another word for feeling.”

One of the most productive of Constable's "own places" was Hampstead Heath, where he relocated his family in 1819 in a brave, doomed effort to preserve the life of his beloved wife, Maria. She was stricken with tuberculosis as Emily and Anne Brontë were to be in the 1840's. 

While at Hampstead, Constable did  "a good deal of skying," painting the ever-changing skies above the Heath. Constable's cloud studies, generally oil sketches on paper, painted directly from nature, are among his greatest works, valued by some scholars today even more than his grand "six-footers."

John Constable Study of Cirrus Clouds 

Turner painted in the open air too, using his facility with water colors to make rapid color sketches the way other artists might use a pencil.  But Turner and Constable, despite later claims were  not "Impressionists," as neither painted full-scale finished works out-of-doors. Nor were they seeking to make factual recordings of nature or daily life, merely for the sake of doing so.

Turner and Constable both observed and studied nature in close detail but - like true Romantics - sought to make a moral statement by their work, a gesture or "feeling" through the medium of painting. 

During our visit to Haworth, Anne and I gained an appreciation for the kind of world in which the people of the Regency and early Victorian eras lived. Viewing the ever-changing skies above the Brontë Parsonage and wandering through the densely packed graveyard of St. Michaels Church  was both an inspiring and a sobering experience. Over 40,000 people were buried in that cemetery over the course of the 1800's, victims of cholera, typhus, tuberculosis and other Industrial Age killer diseases. Death was the constant companion of life. 

Anne Lloyd,  Graveyard of St. Michaels Church, Haworth, Yorkshire 

Constable, who was haunted by the death of his wife in 1828, dressed in mourning for the rest of his life. Yet the creative impulse that impelled him to become one of Britain's greatest artists, also enabled Constable to find solace and inspiration in the beauty of nature. 

In 1836, a year before he died, Constable wrote that man's "nature is congenial with the elements of the planet itself, and he cannot but sympathize with its features, its various aspects and its phenomena in all situations. We are no doubt placed in a paradise here if we choose to make it such …"

The Romantic era, the age of Turner, Constable and the Brontës, had precious little romance to it. But the eyes and minds of these remarkable individuals were able to look beyond the filth and death around them, to see or at least to hope for a better, more beautiful world.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and Tate Britain, London.
Introductory image:     
                                                                                                                                        Anne Lloyd,  Afternoon Sky over Haworth, Yorkshire digital photograph, 2014

Anne Lloyd,  Sunset over Haworth, Yorkshire digital photograph, 2014

John Constable (1776-1837) The Hay Wain 1821  Oil on canvas 130.2 x 185.4 cm  The National Gallery, London Presented by Henry Vaughan, 1886  NG1207  © The National Gallery, London

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851)  Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus 1839 Oil on canvas   91 x 121.8 cm  Tate Britain, London  Turner Bequest, 1856   N0052

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851)  Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino 1839 Oil on canvas   36 1/8 x 48 1/4 in.  J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles    2011.6

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851)  Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway  1844 Oil on canvas   91 x 121.8 cm  Turner Bequest, 1856  NG538 © The National Gallery, London

Ed Voves, Haworth Moor from Penistone Hill, Yorkshire  digital photograph, 2014

John Constable (1776-1837)  Study of the trunk of an elm tree  about 1821     Oil on canvas  30.6 x 24.8 cm   The  Victoria and Albert Museum, London Given by Isabel Constable  Museum number: 786-1888                                                                                                                                                                                                  
John Constable (1776-1837) Study of Cirrus Clouds ca. 1822 Oil on paper, 11.4 x 17.8 cm The  Victoria and Albert Museum, London Given by Isabel Constable  Museum number: 784-1888

Anne Lloyd,  Graveyard of St. Michaels Church, Haworth, Yorkshire digital photograph, 2014