Sunday, July 21, 2019

Art Eyewitness Book Review: The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissance

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissance

Edited by Gordon Campbell

Oxford University Press/$39.95/506 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Andy Warhol and the Renaissance of the 1400's-!500's seldom occupy the same paragraph in art history books or essays. Yet as I finished reading The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissance, Warhol's famous (or infamous) prediction came to mind.

"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes."

Since the fame of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Durer has lasted a lot longer than a quarter of an hour, my reflection on Warhol's statement seemed little more than a random thought. But as I reread some of the especially cogent passages of the Oxford volume, the following statement seemed a likely candidate for having directed my thoughts in Warhol's direction.

The proliferation of images and texts brought about by the invention of printing (c.1440) confirm that the Renaissance experienced a revolution comparable in magnitude to the recent emergence of the Internet. The word 'selfie' is recent but the Renaissance brought about and developed the self-portrait and the portrait. 

This perceptive insight appears in the chapter of the Oxford book, "The Civilization of the Renaissance," written by François Quiviger. An echo of the title of the famous nineteenth century book, The Civilization of the Renaissance In Italy by Jacob Burckhardt, is detectable here. Quiviger and the other members of the team of scholars who wrote The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissance show that the impact of this cultural revolution spread far wider than Italy.

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors, 1533

The Renaissance was marked by world-changing inventions like movable-print and realistic portrait painting. These in turn facilitated the emergence of "the sense of the self in the world." During this long-ago era, the seeds of modern individualism were planted. Whether our opportunity for fame lasts fifteen minutes or five centuries, the debt we owe to the "brave new world" of the Renaissance is considerable.

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissance is the latest in an outstanding series of books dating back to the 1980's. Based on the latest historical research but aimed at the general reader, the Oxford "Illustrated's" have maintained a very high standard over the years. This volume, edited by the great Renaissance scholar, Gordon Campbell, certainly maintains the Oxford University Press reputation for excellence.

Among the historians recruited to write this authoritative book is Felipe Fernández-Armesto, who edited The Oxford Illustrated History of the World, reviewed earlier this year in Art Eyewitness. The chapter written by Fernández-Armesto deals with the global impact of the Renaissance. With his usual verve and command of the historical source material, Fernández-Armesto investigates the way that interconnected bonds were forged between far-flung nations and societies.

 The process of globalization was very slow during the 1400's and early 1500's, being contingent more on mariners' understanding of the trajectory of the "trade winds" than of strategic planning by the governments of Europe.

"The history of the world, as traditionally written," Fernández-Armesto wryly observes, "contains too much hot air and not enough wind."

Afro-Portuguese Ivory Hunting-horn, c.1490-1530

The carved ivory horn, shown above, illustrates this world-wide perspective on the Renaissance. It was made in Africa for the European market and taken back by Portuguese maritime traders. The base of the horn shows an armillary sphere, the Coat of Arms of the Portuguese royal house and the cross of Beja. Scenes of Europeans and Africans fighting and hunting animals are also featured.

If the global trade had been limited to exotic products such as this ivory horn, the world  would be a different place today. Vast hauls of treasure from the New World, chiefly silver, flowed into the Spanish treasury and flowed right out again. The "King's Fifth" was used chiefly to purchase weapons, especially gunpowder-firing cannon, state-of-the-art warships and elaborate fortifications capable of resisting the formidable armies and fleets of the rival Valois French monarchy and  the Ottoman Turks. There is an instructive chapter on the Renaissance "arms-race" written by David Parrott in the Oxford volume.

Giorgio Vasari, The Battle of Lepanto, 1572

If the Renaissance witnessed endemic warfare, the growth of a world-wide slave trade (with plenty of guilt to share among all the participants of this "trafficking of souls") and social repression in most European societies, can we really justify the claim that a "Renaissance" actually took place? Or is such a claim more of the "hot air and not enough wind" which Fernández-Armesto derides?

It is the contention of the Oxford team that the Renaissance was indeed a revolutionary epoch in every field of creative endeavor. This was especially true in the visual arts, which we will focus upon shortly. The unpleasant aspects of the Renaissance are not brushed aside and the prevailing theme of the book is best summarized by Quiviger in the concluding remarks of his chapter:

Many scholars have observed that the ideals and values of the Renaissance are merely a sugar coating concealing the darker, violent, and ever present nature of men, driven by ambition and rivalry. Sugar coating is nevertheless a first step towards sweetening. This is simply a matter of not confusing a period with its ideals… Similarly, the ideals of good manners and elegance… may not have been the norms of their time but their European diffusion suggests that they did eventually have an impact upon the world.

The "sugar coating" which the Renaissance applied to European society and indirectly to the world was a long and complex process. Because we still see the results in art, architecture and literature produced during 1400's and 1500's, it is easy to miss two fundamental points.

Most of the texts used by Renaissance scholars were available only because "Dark Age" scribes, many of them Irish monks, had preserved them. If a manuscript copy of a Latin text survived to the ninth century, as Peter Mack writes in his chapter on Renaissance humanism, it "was never truly lost again." Greek texts were similarly preserved in the Byzantine Empire and transmitted to Italy in the years prior to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. 

Petrarch's copy of Livy, c.1329.
 Detail of manuscript copy of the history of Rome by Livy, 22.1

The "heroic" role of the Renaissance scholar was to rigorously organize and study what had been salvaged from ancient times and to disseminate this "new" knowledge all over Europe. Humanism, as the new scholarship was called, had commenced decades before the first use of the printing press in the early 1450's. We can see Humanism in action on the manuscript pages of the Roman history of Livy, personally copied and corrected by Petrarch (1304-1374) and further annotated by Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457).

Secondly, the artistic revolution of depicting Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other saintly figures with flesh and blood naturalism was another Medieval development. The preaching of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and his followers, the Franciscans, emphasized the humanity of Jesus and the need for Christians to practice levels of devotion that reflected the sufferings of Jesus and the Christian martyrs.

The preaching of the Franciscans called for "art that bleeds" as Andrew Graham-Dixon memorably described in his wonderful book, Renaissance. Artists, both in Italy and Flanders, complied with alacrity. 

Jan van Eyck, Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, c.1435

It was the Flemish who took the key step of transferring the naturalism used in portraying Jesus, Mary and the Apostles to portraits of Christian believers. Special attention was given to those willing to pay to be included in the picture, like Chancellor Rolin of Burgundy, shown above. But the real breakthrough came about when Italian merchants working in Flanders, like Tommaso Portinari, commissioned paintings showing them and their wives praying before Jesus and his mother.

 Prior to the arrival in Italy of these oil paintings from Flanders, Italian artists had been exploring other aspects of art, such as creating a sense of visual space through the use of linear perspective. Portraits in Italy were chiefly done in profile, because of the obsession with collecting ancient Roman coins. Of deeply-probing psychological insight, there was precious little. When the portraits by Flemish masters like Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling reached Italy, the effect was dramatic.

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Man (Il Condottiere),1475

In this sensational portrait by Antonello da Messina, we can see the result. This incredible work is the perfect embodiment of the Renaissance "sense of the self in the world."

Antonello may have learned oil painting from an itinerant Flemish painter at the court of the Kingdom of Naples. However he acquired the techniques of the Flemish masters, Antonello soon matched them in the ability to probe the human soul and to portray the result on canvas or panel.

The age of Individualism had dawned.

Albrecht Dürer, The Large Piece of Turf, 1503

The techniques of close investigation of human character began to be applied to the study of nature, stunningly revealed in Durer's Large Piece of Turf. Soon the new critical thinking and observation was being trained on the stars and planets, leading to Copernicus' challenge to traditional, earth-centered astronomy. The Oxford volume includes a chapter filled with insightful analysis of the Scientific Revolution which ultimately was the most momentous result of the Renaissance.

Just about every facet of life in Europe was affected by the "new" learning and meticulous tinkering which the Renaissance engendered. This extended even to special techniques for folding napkins at banquets into the shape of animals, ships and castles! This too is described in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissance.

The Oxford volume, however, does not cover in great detail the famous incidents in the careers of the titans of Renaissance art. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Durer and Titian do make appearances in the book and their art works are considered in the broad context of Renaissance civilization. Two chapters provide a solid foundation to the study of Italian art (written by Francis Ames-Lewis) and the Northern Renaissance (Paula Nuttall and Richard Williams).

Most of the familiar and fascinating events, feuds, etc. are not featured. No mention of screaming matches between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II. Discussion of Italian art ends for the most part with the death of Raphael in 1520.

I can see the point of Gordon Campbell and his team of Renaissance scholars, given the global framework of this outstanding book. There is so much ground to cover and it makes sense to concentrate on the factors that created the Renaissance "sense of the self in the world."

Never-the-less, reading The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissance has placed me in a perplexing situation not unlike that faced by the actor, Bill Murray, in the movie Groundhog Day!

My very first exposure to Renaissance art ended - as does the corresponding chapter of the Oxford book - with Italian art in the early 1500's. Way back in the 1970's, I took an undergrad course in Renaissance art. The professor was so smitten with Brunelleschi, Donatello  and other Quattrocento masters that we ran out of time. When the course ended, Leonardo was still waiting for the paint to dry on The Last Supper.

Hopefully, Oxford University Press will publish an Illustrated History of the Later Renaissance and I will finally discover what happened to Michelangelo.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the National Gallery, London, the British Museum, Musée du Louvre, the Albertina Museum, the British Library and 

Introductory Image:
Book Cover. Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Hans Holbein (German/Swiss, 1497/8-1543) Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors'), 1533. Oil on oak: 207 x 209.5 cm. National Gallery, London: NG1314

Artist unknown ((Africa,Sierra Leone) Afro-Portuguese Ivory Hunting-horn, c.1490-1530. Carved from elephant ivory, base of horn fitted with silver-gilt rim:  48.2 centimetres. British Museum, Af1979,01.3156.

Giorgio Vasari (Italian,1511–1574) The Battle of Lepanto, 1572. Fresco in the Sala Regia of the Vatican.

Petrarch's copy of Livy. Detail of manuscript copy of the history of ancient Rome by Livy, 22.1, with corrections by Petrarch, 1304-1374, (interlinear) and Lorenzo Valla (marginalia). Italy and France (Avignon), late 12th century-c 1329. British Library, London. Harley MS 2493, f 105v.

Jan van Eyck (Flemish, c.1390-1441) Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, c. 1435. Oil on panel: 66cm x 62cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris

Antonello da Messina (italian/Sicilian, 1430-1479) Portrait of a Man (Il Condottiere), 1475. Oil on panel: 36.2 cm (14.2 ″); Width: 30 cm (11.8 ″).  Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) The Large Piece of Turf, 1503. Watercolor and body color, heightened with white body color: 40.8 cm (16 ″) x 31.5 cm (12.4″). Albertina Museum,Vienna.,_1503_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

We the People: American Prints from between the World Wars at the Philadelphia Museum of Art


We the People: American Prints from between the World Wars

Philadelphia Museum of Art
March 21 - July 24, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The 1930's in the United States were a "black and white" time. It is hard to think of this grim but fascinating decade except in terms of black and white photos, newsreels and  feature films. Almost all of the indelible images of the Thirties were in black and white, most notably the  art print culture that flourished to a remarkable degree during the Great Depression.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's exhibition, We the People: American Prints from between the World Wars, looks at printmaking during the 1930's with a wide focus. Politics and economics provided the theme of many Thirties prints - but not all. Indeed, many of the most potent social images from that decade did so from a subtle, indirect point of view.

Visitors to We the People are enabled to grasp the tremendous range of American printmaking. The works on view were collected by Fern and Hersh Cohen, who generously donated their collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Cohens really deserve great praise because they collected many lesser known print-makers who often do not make it into art exhibitions, including The Urban Scene which was shown at the National Gallery in 2017.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
      Gallery view of the We the People exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.         Samuel L. Margolies' Men of Steel, c.1939, is the print shown in the photo. 

We the People is an important, insightful survey of the Depression decade because these prints reveal how the print makers, masters of their art, yet common citizens, felt about the times in which they lived. 

Perhaps surprisingly, there is a good bit of humor in these "Depression" prints. The jaunty workman lighting his pipe in the introductory image to this essay recalls the constant stream of jokes about workers for the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) leaning on their shovels. In 1939, the same year that Abe Ajay created this lithograph, a "lean on your shovel" skit was included in the musical, Sing for your Supper.

A comparison of two of the prints in We the People highlights the wide-spectrum of artistic presentation and technique. In this case, we see the point-counter-point of the  obvious in art versus the quietly subversive.

Charles Frederick Surendorf, Eviction, around 1938–39

In this visually striking woodcut, Charles Frederick Surendorf (1906-1979) depicted an experience familiar to many American families during the Depression. He did so with a cinematic verve which could readily be appreciated by a generation which had grown-up going to the movies. Yet the very drama of the scene, with the heartless landlady towering over the now homeless family, has too much of a Grimm fairy tale aspect to really convey the grim reality of Depression-era eviction.

Jean Artman, Employment Agency, around 1940–41

By contrast, Jean Artman's Employment Agency is almost devoid of action. It has a comic element to it, like a New Yorker cartoon. There are seven men in the picture but only one is doing anything. This is the forlorn figure at the top of the staircase, fruitlessly searching his pocket for a coin or a bus token. Nobody is moving toward the front door of the "Majestic" Employment Agency. Why bother to ask about available jobs? Nobody was hiring.

There was a tremendous range of theme and topical handling in Depression-era American prints. The level of mastery of the several techniques of printmaking - woodcut, etching and lithography - was little short of amazing.

Santos Zingale, On Relief, around 1937

Santos Zingale, despite his "foreign" sounding name, was "as American as apple pie." Born in Milwaukee, Zingale spent his whole life working and teaching in Wisconsin, except for World War II service in the Navy. Regionalism, a "return" to the authentic America was another defining attribute of "The Thirties." Zingale was a leading exponent.

On Relief, a haunting woodcut Zingale created  around 1937, has a title drenched in irony. The homeless couple, staggered under the load of their meager possessions, are strangers to "relief," whether it was a government subsidy or the feeling of hope that the Depression was ending. In fact, the  U.S. economy took a nosedive in 1937-38 as the global political situation worsened with the approach of World War II.

Almost all the themes of We the People can be seen in Zingale's woodcut. From the skyscrapers looming over the tumbledown wooden dwellings to the nightmare reflections of many that the American Dream was dead or dying, On Relief is a visceral summation of of American art of the 1930's.

Zingale fought with skill and courage to prove that the American Dream was alive. So too, did Surendorf, Artman and other Regionalist artists whose works are included in the exhibition.  All owed a debt of inspiration to the champion of American regionalism, Thomas Hart Benton.

In his 1937 book, An Artist in America (revised in 1951), Benton wrote:

We were all in revolt against the unhappy effects which the Armory Show of 1913 had had on American painting. We objected to the new Parisian aesthetics which was more and more turning away from the living world of active men and women into an academic world of empty pattern. We wanted an American art which was not empty, and we believed that only by turning the formative process of art back again to meaningful subject matter, in our cases specifically American subject matter, could we expect to get one.

Pele DeLappe, Popular Song, 1937

Popular Song by Phyllis (Pele) DeLappe (1916-2007) is a fine example of how an artist  could endorse Benton's call to return American art to "the living world of active men and women." 

In this lithograph, DeLappe presented an endearing and ennobling portrait of a young couple dancing to a tune on their record player. There is no revolutionary agenda here, despite DeLappe's left-wing political views. There are just two tired people trying to be happy. DeLappe balances the stoic, far-away expression on the man's face with the closed-eyes and tilted head of the woman. He gazes on the uncertain, unknowable future; she shuts it out, trying to enjoy the precious moment they are sharing.

“The living world of active men and women” was marked by uncertainty and tribulation as evoked in DeLappe’s print. So too was the Regionalist art movement as a whole.

Many leading American scholars like Vernon Parrington and Lewis Mumford championed the concept of American Regionalism. The quality of the prints which attempted to establish a visual identity for Regionalism was often of the highest merit. But Regionalism struggled with the widespread belief that it was a backward looking, nostalgia-driven movement.

Jackson Lee Nesbitt’s career is indicative of the eventual eclipse of Regionalism. Born in Oklahoma in 1913, Nesbitt was a protégé and close friend of Thomas Hart Benton. Nesbitt succeeded in creating prints which showed the modern realities, as well as the local distinctiveness, of Midwest America. Yet, after many years of trying, Nesbitt gave-up his career in the arts to establish an advertising firm in Atlanta. After retiring in the late 1980’s, Nesbitt returned to printmaking with the same sensational results.

Nesbitt’s 1941 etching, Goin to Town, showcases his skill – and his vision - at the high point of his career. 

Jackson Lee Nesbitt, Goin to Town, 1941

At first glance, one might wonder why Nesbitt would  have gone to the trouble of creating an etching of streetcar riders in Kansas City when Walker Evans was using a hidden 35 mm camera to do essentially the same thing on New York City subways. Keep studying Goin to Town, however, and you will realize that Nesbitt created a sense of community with this print in contrast to Evan’s isolated subway riders, alone in a crowd.

Nesbitt portrayed modern-day citizens of Kansas City, not “hayseeds” or “hillbillies.”  They are real “honest to goodness” city dwellers, wearing rumpled suits and weather-beaten hats. Nesbitt’s streetcar riders make their way to work or market with the same kind of resolve that would be seen on the faces of American GIs on landing craft headed to the shores of Omaha Beach.

Sadly, the sale of Nesbitt’s superb works of art declined and he opted for a career-change more in tune with the post-war economic boom: advertising. 

The landscape of America's hinterland was not the only region menaced by the Depression. The urban environment of Victorian America came under the shadow of ominous forces, symbolized by "skyscrapers." These towering structures seemed to have personalities all their own, even as they blotted out the familiar landmarks of the great American cities.

Grace Albee, Contrasts—Rockefeller Center, 1934

Grace Albee's woodcut, Contrasts, lived up to its name. St. Nicholas Collegiate Church appears in the foreground. This was the Dutch-Reformed Church which Theodore Roosevelt attended. Built in 1872, at Fifth Ave and 48th Street, it was one of New York's oldest and most beautiful churches, with a spire which was the tallest edifice in its vicinity. By the 1930's, St. Nicholas was surrounded by nondescript offices and shops, its spire now over-matched by the colossus of 30 Rockefeller Center looming behind it.

Albee, a prodigiously talented New England-born artist, was a master of both woodcuts and lithographs. Here she expertly used the former technique, emphasizing the shadowy recesses of the Gothic Revival architecture to accentuate the gloom of St. Nicholas' displacement by the Babel-like tower of Rockefeller Center.

 And slowly answer'd Arthur from the barge:                                                                 "The old order changeth, yielding place to new,                                                           And God fulfils Himself in many ways,                                                                           Lest one good custom should corrupt the world..."

These memorable lines from Tennyson's Idylls of the King were familiar to many Americans during the 1930's. Children were still taught to memorize and recite poetry in the early decades of the twentieth century. Certainly, the words "The old order changeth" captured the troubled, yet courageous, spirit of the American people during the Depression.

The Old Order in the U.S. did change. The New Deal did deliver on its promises to the American people, if not always as efficiently as was hoped.

The remarkable display of "Thirties" prints in We the People at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a powerful reminder that hard times can bring out the best in people - and inspire great art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. All rights reserved.                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Introductory Image:
Abraham (Abe) Ajay (American, 1919–1998) Workman Lighting His Pipe, around 1939. Lithograph, published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Federal Art Project, New York City. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, 2015-197-2

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Gallery view of the We the People exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Samuel L. Margolies' Men of Steel, c.1939, is the print shown in the photo.

Charles Frederick Surendorf (American, 1906–1979)  Eviction,  around 1938–39. Woodcut.  Philadelphia Museum of Art,Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, 2015-197-121

Jean Artman (American, 1887–1953) Employment Agency, around 1940–41. Published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Federal Art Project, New York City. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, 2015-197-7

Santos Zingale (American, 1908–1999) On Relief, around 1937. Woodcut. Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015-197-126

Pele DeLappe (American, 1916–2007) Popular Song, 1937. Lithograph. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, 2017-219-37

Jackson Lee Nesbitt (American, 1913–2008) Goin’ to Town, 1941. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Etching  Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, 2017-219-11

Grace Albee (American, 1890–1985) Contrasts—Rockefeller Center, 1934. Wood engraving.  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, 2017-219-32

Monday, July 8, 2019

From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art

 From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
June 28–December 29, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original photos by Anne Lloyd

'"Thus in the beginning all the World was America."

This often-quoted statement by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government (published in 1689) is acutely relevant to an outstanding exhibition on the birth of landscape art in the United States. This splendid, beautifully-mounted exhibit recently opened at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (PAFA).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Gallery views of the From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 

Locke commented on the way that human beings originally lived in a state of nature.  He contrasted this primal life-style with habitation in a civil society based on legal codes enforced by the rule of political authority.

"America" for Locke was the great example of the state of nature. God, Locke wrote. "who hath given the World to Men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of Life, and convenience. The Earth, and all that is therein, is given to Men for the Support and Comfort of their being."

A century later, after the English-speaking colonists had asserted political independence from Britain, their relationship to the natural world became a matter of great importance. The Patriots having won the War of Independence, "America" was now theirs to "make use of it to the best advantage of Life, and convenience."

Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, proposed in 1782 that a quote from the Roman poet Virgil be modified to appear on the Great Seal of the United States, Novus Ordo Seclorum. The motion passed but the idea of "a New Order of the Ages" no longer corresponded to Locke's conception of "America" as a virgin wilderness. After a century of using the lands along the Atlantic seaboard for "the Support and Comfort of their being," few Americans now lived in a "state" of nature.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Joshua Shaw’s Landscape with Farmhouse and Castle, 1818

In 1790, George Washington and the freshly-minted United States Government launched into the serious business of nation-building. The U.S. capital was the most-populous and centrally-located of America's cities, Philadelphia. As Washington's administration and the First Congress wrestled with the many problems facing the fledgling nation, Philadelphia-based artists addressed the challenges of visually representing "a New Order of the Ages" for their country.

This crucial moment in the history of the United States is where the PAFA exhibition comes in. The exhibit has a rather unusual name (which we will discuss) but it really is vital to think of it in terms of the birth of landscape art in the U.S and of the cultural identity crisis which occurred during the 1820's and 1830's.

The PAFA exhibition is entitled From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic. The Hudson River, because of its relation to New York City, is well-known, but what or where is the Schuylkill?

Pierre Varlé, Plan of the City and Its Environs, 1798

This map of Philadelphia shows the grid of the city between the shallow, meandering Schuylkill River on the left and the deep-water Delaware on the right.

The Schuylkill is one of two rivers which flow around the central and oldest part of Philadelphia. Schuylkill means "hidden creek," a name conferred on it by Dutch explorers in the 1600's. Unlike the much larger Delaware River, the Schuylkill is a shallow stream, limiting its use by ocean-going ships. To make the Schuylkill more usable for "the Support and Comfort of their being," Philadelphians tried a number of economic strategies like the use of steamboats and the digging of one of the first canals in the U.S., opened in 1825.

Philadelphia's claim to greatness during the early 1800's, once the political capital had moved to Washington D.C., was the Fairmount Water Works.

Designed in 1812, the Fairmount Water Works consisted of a pumping station and reservoir to supply the city with fresh water from the Schuylkill. Ironically, this impressive facility was conceived and approved on the mistaken assumption that the devastating 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic, which killed half of Philadelphia's population, had been caused by polluted water. Mosquitoes were the real culprit, but the "Watering Committee" had indeed acted wisely. Even Charles Dickens, no great admirer of Americans, was impressed with the Fairmount Water Works when he visited the United States in 1842.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Detail of Thomas Birch's Fairmount Water Works, 1821

The stately, neoclassical  edifice of the Fairmount Water Works became so famous that the image was used to decorate Chinese export porcelain, made for the U.S. market.

Unknown artist (China), Cup and Saucer showing the Philadelphia Water Works, 1825

The image of "American" nature which the early Philadelphia artists used time-and-again was one of "progress" and utility, as well as charm and beauty. Philadelphia's merchant elite built country homes on the banks of the Schuylkill and the Delaware where they could watch the movement of their steamboats and coal-laden canal barges.

To give them credit, Philadelphia's "movers and shakers" devoted a considerable amount of effort and money on the arts. The redoubtable Peale brothers, Charles and James, played a dual role as major portrait painters and civic leaders. Not only did the Peales paint the proud "face" of America's prominent leaders and citizens, they also depicted the countryside of the new American nation as we can see in the setting of this family portrait by James Peale.

James Peale, The Artist and His Family, 1795

The Peale brothers were leaders in the founding in 1805 of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The first art school in the U.S., PAFA provided budding artists with the skills to paint or sculpt images of "progress" for the new Republic.

What should have been a straightforward American success story quickly became rather complicated. For one thing,  most of the painters involved  in the Philadelphia-based landscape movement were named Thomas: Thomas Birch, Thomas Doughty, Thomas Cole and Thomas Moran.

The real wrinkle in this story is the fact that three of these artists named "Thomas" were born in England. A number of early America's leading artists like Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley had traveled to Britain around the time of the Revolution, never to return. These young British-born artists looked to the New World to make their fortune.

Thomas Birch's panoramic view of the Fairmount Water Works and the Schuylkill River is perhaps the greatest of the "landscapes of progress" which preoccupied American artists during the early 1800's. Birch painted this exceptional landscape in 1821, epitomizing the virtue and hard work needed to create the Novus Ordo Seclorum in America.

Thomas Birch, Fairmount Water Works, 1821

Birch, however, had achieved success painting naval battles featuring U.S.S. Constitution, "Old Ironsides," during the War of 1812. Increasingly, Birch favored maritime drama over the domestic harmony of the Fairmount Water Works and country homes. This yearning for adventure was the American equivalent of the celebration of the "sublime" in nature taking place in British art at the same time.

America had plenty of "sublime" of its own. Upstream of the Fairmount Water Works was the "Falls of the Schuylkill" and for those willing to venture into the frontier region of the U.S. there was the breath-taking Niagara Falls. Already famous from drawings made by British military engineers during the 1700's, Niagara with its awesome, cascading streams of water began nudging the Fairmount Water Works off the sketch-books and easels of American artists. 

William Russell Birch, Falls of Niagara, 1827

Thomas Birch's father, mercifully name William, caught a case of "Niagara" fever. Highly regarded for a series of urban views of Philadelphia which he created shortly after arriving in the U.S., Birch, Senior, plunged headlong into the wilderness with this 1827 enamel on copper view of  Niagara Falls. Interestingly, he chose a close-cropped focus for this miniature scene, with an Iroquois warrior to give a sense of scale. This was an appreciation of "America" worthy of John Locke - and of a rising generation of Americans whose gaze was increasingly directed westwards. 

"Stay-at-homes" could also savor the sublime with views of Niagara Falls on their dinnerware as with this magnificent lead-glazed earthenware serving dish. It was made by the British firm, William Adams and Sons, at some point between 1834 to 1850. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
William Adams & Sons Factory & Thomas Cole, The Falls of Niagara, U.S., 1834-1850

The image on the Adams and Sons serving dish was based on a painting by Thomas Cole (1801-1848).  Born in Lancashire, Cole came to America in 1817. His family's fortune had been ruined in an economic downturn in England. Though largely self-taught, Cole did study for a time at PAFA from 1823 to 1825. He then departed for an extensive sketching and painting tour of New York state, at that time still heavily-forested and sparsely populated. It was Cole who made the definitive turn in U.S. art from "Arcadia" inspired landscapes to the rugged, authentic American scene of the Hudson River School.

That is the canonical version of U.S. art history. A major exhibition in 2018, presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in London, examined Cole's decisive contributions to American culture. Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings also investigated the influence of J.M.W. Turner, John Constable and other leading British artists upon Cole when he returned to Britain for a study-visit in 1827. Atlantic Crossings was a wonderful exhibit - but did not address in any detail the early formative contributions of the Philadelphia art scene to Cole's success.

That the "Schuylkill River School" laid the foundation of the more famous Hudson River School is the theme of the PAFA exhibition. It would be incorrect, however, to assume that PAFA's From the Schuylkill to the Hudson was planned as a rebuttal to Atlantic Crossings at the Met. Exhibitions take many years to plan. For over a decade, Dr. Anna O. Marley, PAFA's Curator of Historical American Art, has been studying the origins of American landscape art, dating back well before 1800.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Dr. Anna O. Marley, PAFA's Curator of Historical American Art. Dr. Marley stands next to Thomas Birch’s The Residence of James Craig, Bristol, Pennsylvania, ca.1820-21

No less an authority than Thomas Cole would have agreed with Dr. Marley on the accomplishments and example of the Philadelphia-based landscape artists. Speaking later in his life to the art historian, William Dunlap, Cole said as a young artist that "his heart sunk as he felt his deficiencies in art when standing before the landscapes of Birch."

Cole more than made-up for his "deficiencies." He became a national cultural figure and that is how we should view the rise of landscape painting in the early Republic. This was not an either/or process, Philadelphia vs. New York. The artists involved, whether the many "Thomases" or John Lewis Krimmel, Joshua Shaw, Russell Smith  and Asher Durand, all had one objective. It was to discover and accurately depict the authentic American landscape.

The key discovery was the need to go back to primal nature, Locke's "America," or as close as the artists could reach. It did not matter whether they were members of a Schuylkill River School or a Hudson River School. Their paintings played a leading role in a national trend. Beginning In the 1820's, Americans began to search for their identity in art, literature, religion and philosophy. James Fenimore Cooper, after writing dull English-style novels, dropped this derivative format, selecting American frontier history as the subject for his immortal "Leatherstocking" tales.

Jacob Eichholtz, Conestoga Creek and Lancaster, 1833

Albert Bierstadt, Niagara, 1869

Cooper was writing The Last of the Mohicans in 1825, the year that Cole first traveled up the Hudson. The Pennsylvania-born Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842) and the German-born Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) followed Cooper and Cole to the "backcountry" for the same purpose. All sought to discover the real America and the true meaning of American life.

It is delightful to be able to report that this journey of discovery continues with From the Schuylkill to the Hudson at PAFA.

Most of the works of art on view in the exhibition come from PAFA's extensive collection. Dr. Marley conducted a thorough audit of PAFA's paintings from the 1800's and came across a magnificent mid-nineteenth century landscape which had been forgotten or overlooked for decades. Research showed that the painting had quite a tale to tell, directly relevant to the theme of From the Schuylkill to the Hudson.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Paul Weber’s Landscape: Evening, 1856

The huge oil-on-canvas was entitled Landscape: Evening. A now obscure German artist, Paul Weber (1823-1916), had created this masterpiece in 1856. It is a tour-de-force depiction of the American wilderness and was so-regarded during the 1850's. A subscription was taken among Philadelphia's art lovers to purchase the painting for PAFA.

Who was this virtually unknown painter? Gottlieb Daniel Paul Weber had fled Germany after the 1848 democratic revolutions in Western Europe had been crushed by military  forces. He emigrated to the U.S., settling in Philadelphia. He  exhibited widely throughout the U.S. and won the Silver Medal from PAFA in 1858.

Weber was also an influential teacher. Two of the greatest American landscape painters of the 1800's, William Trost Richards and William Stanley Haseltine, studied with Weber. Both are now relatively forgotten, as is Weber. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail of Paul Weber’s Landscape: Evening

Landscape: Evening is a revelation. This is not only a technical marvel, as can be seen in the incredible way that Weber handled the golden glow of the setting sun on the topmost branches of the trees. More significantly, Weber transformed a relatively undistinguished patch of woodland into a setting for profound meditation on the mysteries of creation, the cosmos, the passage of time.

 There are no landmark features of nature here or man-made monuments, no Niagara Falls or Fairmount Water Works, to distract your attention. It's just you and God. 

 With this rediscovered masterpiece, Paul Weber places each of us in that much-discussed realm, the state of nature, where "in the beginning all the World was America."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd. All rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA

Introductory Image:

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail of Thomas Birch's Fairmount Water Works, 1821. Oil on canvas:  20 1/8 x 30 1/16 in. (51.1175 x 76.35875 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection. #: 1845.1. Bequest of Charles Graff.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery views of the From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Joshua Shaw’s Landscape with Farmhouse and Castle, 1818. Oil on canvas: 15 1/4 x 21 1/2 in. (38.7 x 54.6 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1879.8.21. Bequest of Henry C. Carey (The Carey Collection).

Pierre Varlé. Plan of the City and Its Environs, 1798. Watercolor on paper: 18 x 20 in. (45.72 x 50.8 cm.) Private collection, Chestnut Hill

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail of Thomas Birch's Fairmount Water Works, 1821.

Artist/maker unknown, Chinese, for export to the American market. Cup and Saucer showing the Philadelphia Waterworks,1825. Hard-paste porcelain with cobalt underglaze decoration and gilt cup: 2 5/8 x 4 3/8 x 3 5/8 in. (6.6675 x 11.1125 x 9.2075 cm.); saucer: 1 1/8 x 5 1/2 in. (2.8575 x 13.97 cm.) Philadelphia Museum of Art

James Peale, (1749 -1831) The Artist and His Family, 1795.Oil on canvas: 31 1/4 x 32 3/4 in. (79.4 x 83.2 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1922.1.1. Gift of John Frederick Lewis, 1922.1.1.

Thomas Birch, (1779-1851) Fairmount Water Works, 1821. Oil on canvas: 20 1/8 x 30 1/16 in. (51.1175 x 76.35875 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1845.1. Bequest of Charles Graff.

William Russell Birch, (1755-1834) Falls of Niagara, 1827. Enamel on copper: 2 1/2 x 2 1/4 in. (6.4 x 5.7 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1860.1. Bequest of Eliza Howard Burd.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) William Adams and Sons Factory & Thomas Cole, The Falls of Niagara, U.S., 1834-1850. Earthenware (white) and lead glaze 1 11/16 x 19 7/8 x 16 3/8 in. (4.318 x 50.546 x 41.656 cm.) Winterthur Museum, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Dr. Anna O. Marley, Curator of Historical American Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Dr. Marley stands next to Thomas Birch’s The Residence of James Craig, Bristol, Pennsylvania, as seen from the Delaware River, ca. 1820-21, PAFA collection.

Albert Bierstadt, (1830-1902) Niagara, 1869.Oil on paper laid down on canvas: 19 x 27 in. (48.26 x 68.58 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #2015.18. Joseph E. Temple Fund.

Jacob Eichholtz, (1776-1842) Conestoga Creek and Lancaster, 1833. Oil on canvas: 20 1/4 x 30 1/4 in. (51.4 x 76.8 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1961.8.10. Gift of Mrs. James H. Beal.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Paul Weber’s Landscape: Evening, 1856. Oil on canvas: 60 1/4 x 86 in. (153.0 x 218.4 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy purchase, by subscription, #1857.1.