Thursday, March 26, 2015

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Eye of the Beholder

Eye of the Beholder:
Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing  
By Laura J. Snyder
W.W. Norton/$27.95/432 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

As I finished reading Eye of the Beholder, Laura J. Snyder's compelling study of art and science during the Dutch Golden Age, I recalled the "Two Cultures" debate from the mid-twentieth century. 

In 1959, the British scientist and novelist, C.P. Snow delivered an influential speech at Cambridge University. Snow's theme dealt with the widening chasm between the realm of art and literature on one side and the domain of science on the other. Snow's multi-faceted career proved that the humanities and the sciences need not travel on separate paths. Yet, that was the direction, Snow contended, that intellectual development was taking.

Pointing to the lack of dialog between the two disciplines, Snow delivered a heavy verdict upon the literary and artistic elite:

So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.    

Their seventeenth century ancestors might have had a better grasp on reality. For this was the age of public figures steeped in the knowledge of the arts and sciences, men like Francis Bacon, Constantijn Huygens and the worthy gentlemen who founded the Royal Society in England. To be an "amateur" scientist or savant (in the parlance of the day) was no disgrace. Indeed, the Dutch had a delightful badge of honor for such high-minded dabblers: "Heeren curiuse Liefhebbers."

More to the point, the 1600's witnessed the world-changing contributions of two men from the city of Delft in Holland. Their achievements reveal the balance and interdependence of art and science during the seventeenth century. There was no "Two Cultures" divide in the Netherlands during the Golden Age.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632- 1723), the discoverer of the unseen, unsuspected realm of micro-organisms, and the enigmatic painter, Johannes Vermeer (1632- 1675), are the two protagonists of Eye of the Beholder.                                   

Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer lived very close to each, diagonally across Delft's market square. Leewenhoek certainly knew of Vermeer. In 1676, he was appointed by "Their worships the Sherriffs of the Town of Delft" to be the executor for Vermeer's widow who was entangled in the financial ruin left by Vermeer at his death, the year before.

Unfortunately, not one shred of documentary evidence survives, attesting to any form of contact between Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer. But it is highly unlikely they never met and Laura Snyder cogently explorers the possible, indeed likely, points of interaction.

What the two men from Delft shared in common was a fascination with the study of optics. This discipline was at the cutting edge of the Scientific Revolution. The telescope, first patented in Holland in 1608, had become a factor, relatively late but increasingly important, in the momentous debate over the heliocentric model of the solar system proposed by Copernicus.

It was left to the Dutch with their astonishing skill at making lenses and their practical, result-based work ethic to focus the optical tools of the Scientific Revolution on matters closer to home.                                                                                                     

Lenses, in the form of eye glasses or magnifying glasses had been in use for centuries. The 1500's had witnessed a growing interest in accurately depicting the natural world. With the aid of a magnifying glass, the Flemish painter Joris Hoefnagel (1542 - 1600) painted amazingly detailed pictures of insects like these dragonflies.

Joris Hoefnagel, Animalia Rationalia et Insecta (Ignis), c. 1575/1580

Painters of the Baroque period likewise dedicated great effort to capture the effect of light and shadow. Caravaggio's The Calling of St. Matthew is particularly notable in this respect.

In both cases, artists and scientists before 1600 had not advanced much beyond what could be seen with the naked eye. There were unseen "New Worlds" waiting to be discovered. Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer would be key players in the exploration.

Portrait of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Mezzotint by J. Verkolje  

Leeuwenhoek came from a solid, respectable, middle class background. Leeuwenhoek's father was a basket maker, an important trade for an exporting country like the Netherlands. Leeuwenhoek's stepfather, Jacob Molijn, interestingly, was a painter who specialized in heraldic coats of arms. The honorific "van" in Leeuwenhoek's name was not inherited, but was adopted by him after his election to the Royal Society in England in 1680. 

Vermeer's family history was more notorious than noteworthy. His maternal grandfather and great-grandfather had been implicated in a counter-fitting scheme. Vermeer's father, by turns a cloth maker, inn keeper and art dealer, concocted the Vermeer surname to lend the family some respectability.

In 1653, the young Vermeer registered with the Guild of St. Luke as a painter. There is some speculation that Vermeer was self-taught though Snyder believes he was trained according to the normal apprenticeship method. Significantly, he kept on with the family business as an art agent.

The key factor in both Leeuwenhoek's and Vermeer's upbringing was their training in a profession. They needed to earn their living. Leeuwenhoek started out as a draper's apprentice and became interested in magnifying lenses to help him apprise the quality of cloth. It was but a short step for Vermeer from selling paintings to creating them.

Leeuwenhoek summed up the work ethic, initially entailed in selling cloth, but later in making lenses and conducting microscope studies: 

"A man has always to be busy with his thoughts if anything is to be accomplished."

Neither Leeuwenhoek nor Vermeer had the time to bother with the "higher theories" that Rene Descartes  and other university-trained scholars proposed. The litmus test of practical experience, not preconceived ideas, was the focus of their lives.

Optical devices from the 1600's, examples of camera obscura at top

The optical studies of Leeuwenhoek with his hand-held microscopes and Vermeer with the viewing device known as a camera obscura followed the same course: look, focus, observe, record ... look, focus, observe, record. 

This of course is the scientific method in action, but Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer were doing more than following the steps of the experimental approach. Both were involved in a great perceptual leap-forward. Snyder writes brilliantly:

The work of Van Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer exemplified a particular notion of seeing, one that emerged only in this period with the birth of optical instruments and the new theories of vision. This notion accepted that seeing was a complex matter - involving much more than just rays coming either to or from the viewer's eye. Beliefs, expectations, desires and prior knowledge all play a role in how we see the world. As Galileo had said, one must use "the eyes of the mind as well as the eyes in the head" in order truly to see..."

The eyes of Leeuwenhoek's mind were certainly open. But he enhanced his vision with amazingly powerful microscopes which he made himself. These single-lens instruments had a magnifying power of 200x, compared to the more elaborate compound microscopes of the time which possessed magnification of only 20x to 30x. 

Leeuwenhoek simple microscope (copy made in early 20th century) 

In an incredibly short span of time, the former draper's apprentice from Delft used his microscopes to discover the unseen world of what he called animalcules or "little animals." Leeuwenhoek's discovery of protozoa (1674), bacteria (1676), blood corpuscles (1674) and blood capillaries (1683) totally transformed the study of biology.

Blood corpuscles depicted by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek

Leeuwenhoek also spent considerable effort helping others to see with the "eyes of the mind."  It was not always an easy process. Even Christiaan Huygens, the brilliant son of Constantijn Huygens, could not identify blood corpuscles when Leeuwenhoek sent him a sample in "small Glass-pipes." And Christiaan Huygens was one of the greatest scientists of the age!

Leeuwenhoek's discoveries were so revolutionary that it took nearly two centuries before all of the implications of this new, unsuspected realm of knowledge could be understood.

Leeuwenhoek maintained a charming, if naive, fondness for the "little animals" he studied swimming about before his microscope lenses. He never grasped that some of them were harmful to humans, indeed deadly pathogens. 

It was not until 1848, that the Hungarian scientist, Ignaz Semmelweis, deduced that puerperal or childbirth fever was caused by “cadaveric particles.” These were carried on the unclean hands of physicians who went from performing autopsies to delivering babies. It took another fifteen years before these “cadaveric particles” were identified as streptococci bacteria, easily removed by washing one's hands.

Ironically, it was at the same point that the scientific world grasped the implications of Leeuwenhoek's discovery of micro-organisms that Vermeer’s paintings were rediscovered. As I noted in a recent post, the French journalist, Theophile Thoré, chanced upon a painting by Vermeer during a visit to Holland in 1842. Vermeer had been totally forgotten by this point. Most of the few Vermeer paintings on display in museums were attributed to Pieter de Hooch or Gabriel Metsu.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Water Pitcher, c. 1662

Thoré was an astute political writer and the "eyes of the mind" in his head were very much open. He realized at once the genius of Vermeer and began a campaign to resurrect his standing in art history. By the time of Thoré’s death in 1869, Vermeer was once again a recognized master of European art.

With an impressive command of seventeenth century science and art, Snyder underscores the revolutionary impact of Vermeer's study of optics. Vermeer, she argues, did not utilize the camera obscura as a mere tracing apparatus. Snyder cogently states that:  
Vermeer used the camera obscura to develop his sense of sight, to notice natural optical effects lesser painters had missed: the color of shadows, the way an object changes color depending on the lighting, how light glances off the nails of a chair. He realized, too, that visual perception fills in missing details when the viewer has certain expectations.

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Writing, c. 1665

In short, Vermeer trained his eyes - and the eyes of his mind - to see. Galileo, and Leeuwenhoek did so as well and in due course Isaac Newton, and (eventually) Christiaan Huygens would follow. What these remarkable men of the seventeenth century did was to unite the methodologies of the arts and sciences to create the matrix of the modern world.

In the moving summation of her splendid book, Laura Snyder maintains that the perceptual revolution initiated by Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer altered the very way that human beings view their place in the world. The achievements of these optical pioneers created a "before this moment and after it."

It took centuries to grasp that fact and in many ways we are still grappling with the legacy of these visionary Dutchmen. But after the age of Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer, there was no way for humanity to remain focused on received theories of information and misinformation from the hallowed past.

Following the lead of Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer, we can only look forward  - and upward, inward and all around us.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City,  the Wellcome Library, London, and W.W. Norton. 

Introductory Image                                                                                                           Cover Image Courtesy of W.W. Norton

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632 - 1675), Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, Oil on canvas painted surface, 39.7 x 35.5 cm (15 5/8 x 14 in.) stretcher size: 42.5 x 38 cm (16 3/4 x 14 15/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C  Widener Collection 1942.9.97

Joris Hoefnagel (Flemish, 1542 - 1600), Animalia Rationalia et Insecta (Ignis): Plate LIV, c. 1575/1580, Watercolor and gouache, with oval border in gold, on vellum, page size (approximate): 14.3 x 18.4 cm (5 5/8 x 7 1/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C  Gift of Mrs. Lessing J. Rosenwald 1987.20.5.55

Portrait of A. van Leeuwenhoek, three quarter length, seated. Mezzotint (by J. Verkolje) 1686 Wellcome Library, London, V0003466 (Library reference no.: Iconographic Collection 1719.1)

Jacques-Raymond Lucotte (French, active 18th century), Optics: camera obscura (top) and a Leeuwenhoek style microscope (below). Engraving by Robert Bénard  [after Lucotte]. Published: Paris, Size: image and border 30.7 x 19.8 cm.  Wellcome Library, London V0025361 (Library reference no.: ICV No 25808) 

Leeuwenhoek simple microscope (copy - unknown maker), Leyden, Netherlands, 1901-1930 . Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images L0057739 (Library reference no.: Science Museum A500644)

Blood corpuscles depicted by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, From: Arcana Natura Detecta by: Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, 1719. Plate page 220, Figure 1-7.  Wellcome Images, Photo number: M0010779 (Library reference no.: External Reference W.R.L. 42550 and Slide number 2261)

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632 - 1675), Woman with a Water Pitcher, c. 1662, Oil on canvas,18 x 16 in. (45.7 x 40.6 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889 Accession Number: 89.15.21  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632 - 1675), A Lady Writing, c. 1665, Oil on canvas, overall: 45 x 39.9 cm (17 11/16 x 15 11/16 in.) framed: 68.3 x 62.2 x 7 cm (26 7/8 x 24 1/2 x 2 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C  Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., in memory of their father, Horace Havemeyer 1962.10.1

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Plains Indians, Artists of Earth and Sky at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Plains Indians, Artists of Earth and Sky

March 9 - May 10, 2015
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The Plains Indians, Artists of Earth and Sky, now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a religious experience as well as an art exhibit. Like last year's tour de force at the Met, Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, the boundaries between art and spirituality are almost totally erased by this powerful display of Native American creativity.

The Plains Indians, Artists of Earth and Sky presents stunning examples of Native American art from the early 1700's to the twenty-first century. These singular works show how Native American art is infused by an acute sensitivity to the guiding influence of the Great Spirit or Wakan Tanka, in the language of the Lakota Sioux.

At the heart of Native American spirituality lies the vision quest. Almost all the Native  American peoples practiced some form of a "right of passage" through which an individual gains insight into the spiritual realm. This could be achieved by undergoing a solitary journey into the wilderness or taking part in a ceremonial ordeal marked by extreme physical privation or suffering.

The Lakota Sioux call their version of this sacred, sacrificial rite the Wi wanyang wacipi or "sun gazing dance."  The resulting vision or communion with Wakan Tanka brings wisdom that will enrich the life of the Sun Dancer and of his family and community.

There are a number of powerful works of art directly related to the theme of vision quest in The Plains Indians, Artists of Earth and Sky. Several decorated shirts like the one worn by the great Lakota chief, Red Cloud, are on display. These are badges of special status, conferred on the wearer in recognition of his spiritual enlightenment or prowess in hunting or warfare.

 Man’s Shirt, 1865

Only members of the Lakota elite group known as the Wicasasyatampi or "praiseworthy men" were honored with such beautiful garments. These "shirt wearers" were selected by the seven leading chiefs of the Lakota for their valor and wisdom. The shirt is ornamented with beadwork symbolizing the stars and the sun. The fringe of locks of hair were gifts from friends, though scalps of fallen enemies were sometimes used.

Red Cloud's shirt was especially elegant in design. Other honorific shirts were more roughly stitched together from the tanned hides of buffalo or antelope to "preserve the identity and some of the animals' spiritual power..."

The cult of courage and vision quest wisdom was universally esteemed among the tribes of the Great Plains. Magnificent garments like Red Cloud's shirt were presented in expectation of future deeds as well as past achievements. The companion volume to the exhibit notes that the burden of leadership was something that Native Americans felt all too keenly:

Many men declined to make use of their rights to such a prestigious shirt, as they were afraid of ridicule if they did not live up to the expectations of great courage and generosity that came with such an honor.

The great warriors, "Patriot Chiefs" as the noted historian Alvin Josephy called them, suffered a high casualty rate in the frontier wars with the U.S. Army - and afterward. Crazy Horse, "bravest of the brave" Lakota, was brutally bayoneted to death shortly after surrendering to the U.S. military in 1877. In 1890, Sitting Bull - who had had a visionary dream shortly before the Battle of the Little Big Horn - was shot and killed by members of a police unit recruited from other Native Americans.

This tragic legacy is exemplified by the "ledger" drawing made by a young Kiowa named Wohaw, who was imprisoned in Fort Marion, Florida, from 1875 to 1878.  Ledger art, made on common stationary, is a primary record of Native American history.

Wohaw fought under the leadership of White Horse, a Kiowa chief who was also sent to Fort Marion for leading raids on settlements and cattle ranches in Texas. The Kiowas, along with many other incarcerated Native Americans, illustrated tribal history to occupy their time. In an unexpected turn-of-events, Indian ledger art became popular with White collectors, among the first wave of tourists to Florida. Wohaw and his fellow prisoners began selling their art to raise funds to support families now living on U.S. Government reservations, two dollars a drawing.

Wohaw, A Man Receiving Power from Two Spirit Animals, 1877
Wohaw's drawing shows a warrior, stripped to his loin cloth, offering gift pipes to guides from the Spirit world. They appear in the shape of a buffalo and a longhorn bull, both powerful animals on the Southern Plains, where the Kiowa and their Comanche allies had been the dominant tribes since the introduction of the horse in the early 1700's. The two spirit animals breathe their "medicine" onto the young warrior while the moon, sun and a comet appear in the sky overhead.

At the young mans' feet are representations of an Indian tipi and a ranch house.  Wohaw's drawing shows the Kiowa warrior poised between two worlds, the nomadic, buffalo hunting past and the "white man's way." But the Great Spirit has insured the survival of Wohaw and his people.

The presence of the gift pipes in Wohaw’s drawing hearkens to the first work of art displayed in the Metropolitan exhibit. This is a human effigy pipe, dating from 100 B.C. to 100 A.D. Created during the extraordinary “Mound Builder” epoch, this carved stone pipe from the Ohio River valley testifies to the ancient roots of Native American culture. Essential rites such as peace offerings of tobacco pipes transcended vast stretches of time and space long before the arrival of European intruders.

Human Effigy Pipe, 100 B.C. – A.D. 100

Many of the famous tribes of the Great Plains, the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne for instance, originally lived in a woodland environment like the ancient Mound Builders.  The Lakota and the Cheyenne migrated from the Great Lakes region on to the Great Plains during the early 1700’s, thanks to the mobility conferred by another newcomer, the horse.

Horses galloped on to the Great Plains as a result of the 1680 overthrow of the Spanish colony of New Mexico by the Pueblo people. Horses brought by the Spanish escaped or were seized by the Pueblos. By trade, capture or the spread of wild pony herds, the horse moved onto the Southern Plains and then northward. The nomadic, buffalo-hunting culture of the Plains tribes took hold of the vast region’s economy – and the world’s imagination.

The original inhabitants of the Great Plains had hunted buffalo on foot, a dangerous and exhausting endeavor. These tribes, the Mandan, Arikara and Pawnees were primarily agricultural societies, living along the Missouri and Platte Rivers. They too seized the opportunity of enhanced hunting thanks to the horse. But arriving around the same time were other exports from Europe – guns, trade beads, iron axes and knives and small pox.

The diseases unknowingly introduced by the Europeans hit the Mandan and Arikara villages with devastating effect. The more nomadic tribes were initially spared, so that the Lakota were able to gain dominance over the Northern Plains. Warfare to control the buffalo hunting grounds became an endemic feature of life on the Great Plains during the 1700’s and early 1800’s.

Native American art and artifacts from the Great Plains during the 1700’s are rare items in U.S. museum collections. By a fortunate turn of events, a significant number of precious examples of Plains Indian art were sent back to Europe by the early explorers.

French missionaries and traders were particularly attentive to documenting their travels through the Great Plains with souvenir artifacts. Many of these are now in the collection of the Musée du quai Branly, the great anthropological museum in Paris. It was the Musée du quai Branly which originally proposed the idea for this great exhibition, collaborating with the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Among the most outstanding art works from the Musée du quai Branly are several tanned leather buffalo hides or "robes" which Native American artists utilized to paint their masterpieces. The Robe with Mythic Bird, dating 1700 to1740, is the greatest of these, though it raises a number of interpretive questions. Artifacts decorated with abstract designs were usually created by Native American women, so this outstanding piece may have been the work of a woman artist.

The Grand Robe, c. 1800 – 1830

Pictograph paintings of warriors locked in combat were an important theme of Plains Indian art. Male artists were almost always the creators of these works. Like European naval and military painters of the same period, details of guns, weapons and warlike regalia were always scrupulously depicted. Though hardly inspiring in the same way as The Robe with Mythic Bird, the battle painting shown here vividly illustrates the "arms race" that accompanied the arrival of the horse on the Great Plains during the 1700's.

During the late eighteenth century, it must have seemed that the hard-riding, buffalo hunting lifestyle of the Plains tribes would endure forever. Objects of everyday use, like Cheyenne pouch or parfleche envelope, for carrying dried food, were designed and decorated with great artistry.

Parfleche Envelope, c. 1865

The "golden age" of the Plains Indians was destined to be brief. In 1803, the United States purchased Louisiana from France. This real estate deal brought the windfall of the Great Plains region under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Government. Nobody in Paris or Washington consulted the Native American tribes who actually lived on the Great Plains. The downfall of the Plains tribes, symbolized by the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, was sealed by an act of geopolitical duplicity against which they struggled for nearly a century with tragic, unavailing courage.

There are a number of artifacts which illustrate the eventual loss of Native American independence. Ledger art, like Wohaw's drawing, is an important part of this part of the exhibition. So too are battle shields made from buffalo hide. Tough enough to deflect an arrow, shields like this one made by an Arikara warrior around 1850 offered no protection against the bullets of a Sharps Rifle.

Arikara Shield, c. 1850

One of the most beautiful art works on view in the Metropolitan exhibit cannot be displayed here. This is woman's dress from the Arapaho tribe, made from tanned hide and painted red with cosmic symbols such as the Thunderbird, magpie and the turtle who supports the earth on its shell.

This dress was used in the Ghost Dance religious revival of 1890 and is truly a sacred object, worthy of reverence by people of all religious beliefs and convictions. I spent several moments of reflection standing in the presence of this Ghost Dance dress and was deeply moved.

Woman’s Dress, c. 1865
Some idea of the power of the Ghost Dance dress can be gained by studying a Lakota woman's dress from 1865 and contrasting it with the modern-day version worn by the note Native American dancer and political activist, Jodi Archambault Gillette We can see Gillette's dress as an evolution from the simplicity and strength of the earlier Lakota dress, incorporating symbols and motifs of all the Native American peoples of the Great Plains.

Jodi Gillette, Woman’s Dress and Accessories, 2005

The concluding galleries of The Plains Indians, Artists of Earth and Sky display many other modern works of art like Gillette’s dress. These works are examples of a living tradition, which grows in strength, confounding earlier expectations that American Indians could only survive through assimilation.

Oscar Howe, Calling on Wakan Tanka, 1962

The powerful  1962 painting, Calling on Wakan Tanka, by Oscar Howe testifies to the unconquerable spirit of Native American artists. Howe (1915-1983), a member of the Yanktoni Dakota tribe, worked as an artist in the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. Howe rebelled against the stereotypes and expectations assigned to Native Americans. He embraced elements of Modernism, combining motifs from Christianity and Native American culture, to show that the Wi wanyang wacipi , the "sun gazing dance, " is part of the global vision of humankind.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Introductory Image:                                                                                                                                    
Robe with Mythic Bird, c. 1700 – 1740, Eastern Plains artist, probably Illinois, Mid-Mississippi River basin. Native tanned leather, pigment, 42 3/8 x 47 7/8 in. (107.7 x 121.4 cm) , Musée du quai Branly, Paris. Photo: Musée du quai Branly/Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado
Man’s Shirt, 1865, Oglala Lakota (Teton Sioux) artists, South Dakota. Native tanned leather, pigment, human hair, horsehair, glass beads, porcupine quills, 58 x 42 ½ in. (147.3 x 108 cm), Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming. Collection Adolf Spohr, gift of Larry Sheerin, Photo: Buffalo Bill Center of the West
Wohaw (Kiowa, 1855-1924), A Man Receiving Power from Two Spirit Animals, Paper, colored pencil and crayon, 8 ¼ x 11 3/8 in. (21 x 28.9 cm), 1877. St. Louis (Missouri), Missouri History Museum. Photo: Missouri History Museum, Saint Louis                                                                   

Human Effigy Pipe, 100 B.C. – A.D. 100, Adena or Hopewell artist, Adena Mound, Ross County, Ohio. Pipestone, 7 7/8 in. (20 cm). Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, Ohio. Photo: Ohio Historical Society
The Grand Robe, c. 1800 – 1830, Central Plains artists. Native tanned leather, pigment, porcupine quills, 58 3/8 x 88 ¼ in. (148.3 x 224.2 cm), Musée du quai Branly, Paris, gift of Chaplain-Duparc. Photo: Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
Saddle Blanket, c. 1840, Lakota (Teton Sioux) artist, North or South Dakota. Native tanned leather, glass beads, wool cloth, 64x 26 1/2 in. (162.6 x 67.3 cm), State Historical Museum of Iowa, Des Moines. Photo: The State Historical Museum of Iowa/Joshua Ferdinand
 Parfleche Envelope, c. 1865, Southern Cheyenne artist, Colorado. Buffalo rawhide, pigment, native tanned leather, 29 x 16 1/2 in. (73.7 x 41.9 cm),The Field Museum of Natural History,Chicago. 67468
Shield, c. 1850, Arikara artist, North Dakota. Buffalo rawhide, native tanned leather, pigment
Diameter: 20 in. (50.8 cm), The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (Missouri), Purchase: the Donald D. Jones Fund for American Indian Art. Photo: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art/Jamison Miller
Woman’s Dress, c. 1865, Lakota (Teton Sioux) artist, probably South Dakota. Native tanned leather, glass beads, tin cones, 61 ½ x 53 ¾ in. (156.2 x 136.5 cm), Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian. Photo: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution/photo by NMAI photo services
Jodi Gillette (Hunkpapa Lakota, 1959-), Woman’s Dress and Accessories, Native tanned and commercial leather, glass and metal beads, cotton cloth, silk, dentalium shell, metal cones, horsehair, plastic, hair pipes, brass bells, porcupine quills, brass tacks, brass and metal studs, silver cones, 54 × 60 in. (137.2 × 152.4 cm), 2005. Courtesy of Jodi Gillette, U.S.A. Photo: Joshua Ferdinand

Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota, 1915-1983), Calling on Wakan Tanka, Paper, 22 3/8 x 31 ¼ in. (56.8 x 79.4 cm), 1962. The University of South Dakota, Vermillion, donation from the artist Photo: The University of South Dakota/John Lamberton


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Artist's Garden at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

The Artist's Garden: 
American Impressionism and The Garden Movement, 1887—1920

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA)
February 13, 2015 - May 24, 2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The Artist's Garden: American Impressionism and The Garden Movement, 1887—1920, takes a fresh look at the landscape tradition from the standpoint of our own backyard. The new exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art presents dazzling art and vintage "green thumb" gardening books from the late-Victorian era through the end of the First World War.

Cecilia Beaux, Landscape with Farm Building, Concarneau, France, 1888

The PAFA exhibit is certainly a feast for the eyes. It is an expansive exhibition with art work by virtually every American artist of the period, including Cecilia Beaux (1855- 1942) and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). 

Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955), Water Lilies Fountain, 1913

The ideals of beauty and innocence from the years before the First World War are evoked by two exquisite garden statues by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth  (1880-1980) and Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955).

An additional feature of the PAFA display is a companion exhibit, Gardens on Paper. Along with rare prints, this exhibit presents an array of early color photographs, discovered in the Pennsylvania Academy’s archives.  These Autochromes, the earliest method of color photography, show the garden of artist Thomas Shields Clarke at his home in Lenox, Massachusetts.  I hope to do a separate post on these incredible images.

Thomas Shields Clarke,  Photographic Autochrome, ca. 1910

The Artist's Garden is not just an occasion for displaying paintings of verdant fields or striking works of stained glass.  There is a subtext to the exhibition, the lurking presence of daunting social problems besetting American culture at the turn of the twentieth century.

American Impressionism began when young artists from the U.S. traveled to France to study and paint with Claude Monet at his idyllic retreat, Giverny. The Americans produced works of beauty that matched some of the best work done by the great Impressionist master and his colleagues, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro. 

John Leslie Breck (1860-1899) was one of the first American painters - with the obvious exception of Mary Cassatt - to embrace Impressionism. There is no sign of humanity in his landscape, Garden in Giverny, just dense masses of flowers, seemingly untended, and an empty path. But there is such a powerful sense of being in this work that one senses the presence of the natural world in a direct, almost personal manner.

John Leslie Breck, Garden at Giverny, between 1887-91

Many of the American Impressionists followed in Breck’s footsteps, painting works of nature with little sign of human mediation. Color, itself, in the dazzling garden and flowering field, was an invitation to the Impressionist style as the artist Charles Curran noted in a 1909 article discussing the work of his colleague, Willard Metcalf.

In looking at such a gorgeous mass of flowers in nature the eye would be so filled with the richness and profusion of forms that the precise form of no one particular flower would be noticed. It would detract greatly from the charm of such a picture if each flower were sharply drawn in detail…

Impressionism then was suited to the vision of American painters who embraced it so readily. The world of art, however, had already moved on by the time that they began painting en plein air in France. The joint Impressionist exhibitions in Paris ceased after 1886. Symbolism, with its powerful explorations of the human psyche, was gaining in notoriety. The brilliant landscapes painted by the American Impressionists could thus be seen as the final flourish of an avant-garde art movement that was soon to be overshadowed by more radical artistic oeuvres.

American Impressionism and the Garden Movement can be interpreted in another light, however. They were vigorous responses to the changing circumstances of life in the United States following the Civil War. These post-war decades were dubbed the "Gilded Age" by Mark Twain. But "Iron Age" is a more accurate title.

As the U.S. economy surged past Great Britain and Germany, the environmental and social costs of breakneck industrialism could not be disregarded for long. The vast slag heaps of the coal industry and the polluted rivers threatened the image of America the Beautiful. The shocking disparity between the standard of living of the "Social Register" few and that of the impoverished “Masses” threatened the ideals of America the Just.

Nostalgia, combined with concern for the future, nurtured the Colonial Garden Movement. Beginning with displays at the Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876, theories about the "simplicity" of life during the eighteenth century exerted a widespread appeal. From the design of gardens and the emphasis on planting native or vintage flowers to the decoration of summer homes, a popular, romantic image of Early America took hold, countering the crass, "shoddy" reality of the late 1800's.

As the PAFA exhibit details, the Garden Movement was influenced by the cultural background of Philadelphia and the New Hope art colony in nearby Bucks County. Philadelphia was a city with a deep-rooted "club" tradition reaching back to Benjamin Franklin's Junto. In 1913, the Garden Club of America was founded in Philadelphia. The city was also the home of the Burpee Seed Company, founded in 1876. The world's largest mail order seed company, Burpee’s Seeds enabled a new generation of plant and flower enthusiasts to swell the Garden Movement.

All these disparate factors combined to promote the Garden Movement as an ideal for America. Philip Leslie Hale's 1908 painting, The Crimson Rambler captured the mood to perfection. The vibrant young woman in the picture sits astride the porch fence, poised for growth and movement, just as the climbing rose bush - a variety only introduced in the U.S. during the 1890's - soars upward.

Hale (1865–1931) was a New Englander, a descendant of the Revolutionary War hero, Nathan Hale. If Philadelphia provided inspiration for the Garden Movement, many of the leading American Impressionist painters were from New England. 

Of these, Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935) was the most commanding figure. Prodigiously talented and prolific in the number and variety of his paintings, Hassam was also a contradictory figure. Self-taught, he was a consummate professional. Hassam loved the quietude of New England seacoast refuges like Appledore Island, Maine, where he befriended the poet and gardener, Celia Thaxter. Yet he never tired of observing people in the supercharged atmosphere of the big cities.

"Humanity in motion,” Hassam declared, “is a continual study to me.” 

Hassam's art was not without  points of contradiction, too, and the influence of the Garden Movement, perhaps surprisingly, brought them to the surface.

Childe Hassam,The Goldfish Window, 1916

In The Gold Fish Window, 1916, Hassam painted a work of great beauty. Every detail of the scene, natural or man-made, is bathed in golden, luminous light. Yet there is total absence of the spontaneity and mobility that Hassam professed to find intriguing.

The Gold Fish Window is a disturbing picture. Its unsettling effect is compounded by the fact that Hassam painted many variations on the theme of a solitary young woman, meditating or melancholy. Like the goldfish swimming in their light-drenched bowl, the young woman is seemingly a hostage of her environment. The window frames, the bordering curtains, the polished table act as barriers to her interaction with the outside world. Even the garden, sun-dappled and flower strewn, is less of a sanctuary than a prison cell.

The young woman in The Gold Fish Window may be compared to the protagonists of Johannes Vermeer's works. Vermeer’s young women occupy a serene moment in time. Yet they are all absorbed in a task, making lace, reading or playing music. Hassam's young woman, by contrast, clutches a flower to her breast in an almost funereal gesture.

The Gold Fish Window was painted in 1916 while the Women's Suffrage Movement vigorously campaigned for the rights of women in the United States. You would never know it from The Gold Fish Window that Hassam had declared that a true artist is "one who paints the life he sees about him, and so makes a record of his own epoch.”

As we can see in the array of paintings in the PAFA exhibit, other painters of the era also placed pensive young women in their works. In 1918, Daniel Garber (1880–1958), the leader of the second generation of the New Hope Impressionists, countered this view of passive femininity. Garber’s The Orchard Window is a brilliant evocation of a young woman in harmony with nature and society.

Daniel Garber, The Orchard Window, 1918

By the 1920’s, however, American Impressionists like Garber were unable to maintain their place in the front ranks of Modernism. For all the revolutionary technique that Hassam, Garber and others brought to their work, American Impressionism was increasingly perceived as the art of the past. 

These reflections deal with only one of the themes of PAFA exhibit, the Lady in the Garden.  The Artist's Garden is wide-ranging and extremely perceptive in its presentation of vital developments in American life and culture. Additional themes treat the Urban Garden, Leisure and Labor in the American Garden and the Garden in Winter. 

The idea of including winter scenes in the exhibit, the Garden at Rest, is particularly significant because it shows the sensitivity of these American artists to the cycles of nature, to the fundamental structure and the regenerative power of the natural world.

Of all the American Impressionists, none made a better case for the importance of the natural world than John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902). Born in Ohio, but a New Englander by choice, Twachtman infused the subtle tonalities of James McNeill Whistler into his seasonal landscapes, especially those depicting winter.

"I can see now how necessary it is to live always in the country—at all seasons of the year. We must have snow and lots of it. Never is nature more lovely than when it is snowing," Twachtman wrote, ". . . . That feeling of quiet and all nature is hushed to silence."

Abbott Handerson Thayer,  Blue Jays in Winter, c. 1905-09

Abbott Handerson Thayer's Blue Jays in Winter is another testament to the rediscovery of the natural environment. Thayer (1849-1921), more famous for his paintings of angels and childhood innocence, produced this remarkable work for his book, Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom. 

Thayer's ideas on animal camouflage were disputed by no less a figure than Theodore Roosevelt. But the important point is that Thayer - and the rest of the American Impressionists - focused on nature as a living entity, a vital component of our daily lives.
Ultimately, the role of the artist as a vital interpreter of nature is the essential theme of this thoughtful exhibit. The Artist's Garden: American Impressionism and The Garden Movement, 1887—1920 will be on display at PAFA, February 13, 2015 - May 24, 2015. Following its presentation at PAFA, this wonderful exhibition will be shown at a number of other U.S. museums during 2015-2016.

And of course, the natural wonders depicted by Breck, Hassam, Garber, Twachtman and the other American Impressionists are also on view each time you look out the window on to your own garden or green space nearby.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images Courtesy of the  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

Introductory Image                                                                                                           Philip Leslie Hale (1865–1931), The Crimson Rambler, ca. 1908 Oil on canvas 25 1/4 x 30 3/16 in. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Joseph E. Temple Fund, 1909.12 

Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), Landscape with Farm Building, Concarneau, France, 1888, Oil on canvas, 11 1/16 x 14 3/16 in. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Gift of Henry Sandwith Drinker, 1950.17.31

Thomas Shields Clarke, Series of approximately 100 photographic autochromes, ca. 1910 PAFA Archives 

Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955), Water Lilies Fountain, 1913, Bronze, 28 ¾ x 15 ¼ x 7 ¼ in. Conner Rosenkranz, LLC Photo: Mark Ostrander, courtesy of Conner Rosenkranz, New York

John Leslie Breck (1860-1899), Garden at Giverny (In Monet’s Garden), between 1887-91 Oil on canvas, 18 x 21 7/8 in. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.18. Photo: © Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago 

Childe Hassam (1859-1935),The Goldfish Window, 1916, Oil on canvas, 34 3/8 x 50 5/8 in. Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, Museum Purchase: Currier Funds, 1937.2

Daniel Garber (1880-1958), The Orchard Window, 1918, Oil on canvas, 56 7/16 x 52 ¼ in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA, Centennial gift of the family of Daniel Garber, 1976-216-1

Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921), Blue Jays in Winter, study for book, Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, c. 1905-09, Oil on canvas, 22 1/8 x 18 1/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, Gift of the heirs of Abbott Handerson Thayer 1950.2.12/Art Resource, NY