Sunday, October 31, 2021

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Art Day by Day: 366 Brushes with History by Alex Johnson

Art Day by Day: 366 Brushes with History

Edited by Alex Johnson
Thames & Hudson/$24.95/464 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Like many art lovers, I have a daily calendar in my office which provides a full-color artwork for each day of the year. It's great way to get "going" in the morning. Flip the page and discover a new work of art or greet an old favorite.

Thames & Hudson's new book, Art Day by Day: 366 Brushes with History, seemed to be in the the same vein. Each new day brings fascinating excerpts from diaries, journals, letters, autobiographies, business contracts and other source materials. These daily helpings of art history provide insights into the lives both of great masters and forgotten artists. 

I looked forward to Art Day by Day as a likely candidate for review in Art Eyewitness. There was one problem, apparent as soon as I opened the book.

Art Day by Day: 366 Brushes with History is all text. No pictures.

Considering that Art Day by Day deals with the visual arts, the omission of illustrations was a bit of surprise, almost a shock. It is a rare art book today - as opposed to those published only a few decades ago - which does not feature high caliber color pictures. Thames and Hudson, the publisher of Art Day by Day, is one of the pioneers of juxtaposing pictures with text, notably in their World of Art series. 

Within a few minutes I had completely forgotten about the lack of pictures. This is a brilliant book, brimming with life experience, joys and sorrows, achievement and failure, visionary ideals and incredible folly. I found Art Day by Day hard to put down.

The issue of illustrations did reappear, however, as I was moved to check on works of art or artists I had not heard about. I include some of these researched images here, for the sake of creating a visually stimulating review. But it needs to be emphasized that Art Day by Day succeeds by virtue of the quality of thought and writing which went into its making. If ever there was an art book which does not need pictures, this is the one.

Art Day by Day is a brilliant compilation of stories about all aspects of the visual arts. While particular attention is given to Western art - largely because the documentation is better - numerous entries are devoted to other cultures as well.

Each daily entry in Art Day by Day begins with a direct quotation from primary source material, followed by succinct, always insightful and often-times humorous, commentary. This is provided by Alex Johnson, the British journalist who conceived the idea for this remarkable book.

There is literally something for everybody in Art Day by Day. This includes romance. 

George Frederic Watts, Ellen Terry ('Choosing'), 1864

The February 20th entry records the 1864 marriage of the "British Michelangelo" George Frederic Watts, to the sixteen year-old actress, Ellen Terry. Watts painted Terry, who was thirty years younger than he, in the act of selecting camellias or violets. Entitled Choosing, the painting evokes "a symbolic choice between worldly goods and loftier values." 

Ellen Terry certainly made her choice, but it was not the one that Watts hoped for. Johnson notes that after ten months of marriage, Terry returned to her family. She and Watts later divorced - amicably. 

One of the really notable features of Art Day by Day is Johnson's facility in selecting incidents which correspond with others appearing at earlier or later times of the year/book. Many of the art stories which Johnson features are unfamiliar but often are linked with more famous ones. In this way, a sense of communion across time and space is achieved, providing opportunities for deep-thinking without being aware you are doing it.

A especially noteworthy example occurs with the contrast in fame and fortune of the Briitish artist, William Hodges (1744-1797) with Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Perhaps it would be more accurate to say "contrast in fame and misfortune."

William Hodges, 
A View of Matavai Bay in the Island of Otaheite, Tahiti, 1776

William Hodges appears in the entry for July 13th, the date he sailed on Captain James Cook's second voyage to the Pacific Ocean in 1772. Hodges was a gifted landscape painter, creating memorable images of Tahiti and several historic "firsts." These included the first paintings of Easter Island and of Antarctica. Upon his return to Britain, however, the exhibition of his works from the voyage was largely ignored and he suffered a devastating investment disaster. Hodges died, broken and forgotten, until a 2004 exhibition revived the memory of his amazing achievements.

Gauguin, likewise, lost his money and job as a stock broker in an 1880's bank bust. Gauguin's first journey to Tahiti in 1891 is noted in the June 9th entry. The quote from his diary records his disgust at finding Polynesian culture "under the maddening grip of colonial snobbery, and the imitation, grotesque to the point of caricature, of our customs, fashions, vices and farces of civilization." 

Another impressive feature of Alex Johnson's selection process is his ability to find obscure, yet revelatory, moments in the well-studied lives of major artists. These pithy, unexpected, insights help us see the Old Masters in a new light.

Johnson highlights the famous visit of Albrecht Dürer to Brussels on August 27, 1520, when he saw gold and silver treasures seized from the Aztecs by Hernan Cortes and sent to Emperor Charles V. Five years later (August 5), Dürer, had a disturbing dream of a vast rain storm. 

Albrecht Dürer, Traumgesicht (Dream Vision), 1525

Whether this dream had a deep, symbolical import, related to the Reformation, is impossible to say. But Dürer's description of "wind and roaring so frightening, that when I woke up my whole body was shaking" certainly explains why he went to such extraordinary lengths to both depict and describe his "traumgesicht". 

Apart from the connections between certain artists or topics, the daily subject matter of the Art Day by Day is determined by the calendar alone. Some of the events discussed in the book are there because they simply happened. The discovery of the Hoxne Hoard in 1992 came about because a farmer in rural England, Peter Whatling, lost an old hammer in his fields. 

Peter Whatling's Lost Hammer, now in the British Museum

With the help of a friend who had metal detector, Whatling went looking for his hammer. What he found was a sensational stash of treasure, dating to the end of Roman rule in Britain. During that chaotic time, the Hoxne Hoard was buried to keep it safe but its owner never lived to retrieve it.

The Hoxne "Empress" Pepper Pot, 300-400 AD, from the Hoxne Hoard

The Hoxne Hoard has helped historians better understand one of the least documented eras in British history. Yet, its discovery was a chance occurence. Life "happened" one day in a Suffolk field in 1992. No lost hammer, no unearthed Roman treasure trove.

Random, unexpected, events like finding the Hoxne Hoard happen from time to time. But the overall tenor of the events recorded in Art Day by Day testify to the creative ordeal of Humankind over time and transcending circumstance. 

Howard Carter's 1923 discovery of Tutankhamun's burial chamber (February 16) was the result of an epic search, an archaeological campaign, years in the making. The following day's entry recounts the horrifying POW experiences of British artist Ronald Searle, captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell on February 15, 1942. Searle secretly recorded life and death during the building of the Kwai Railroad, a powerful record of the tragedy and triumph of the human spirit.

Ronald Searle, In the Jungle - Working on a Cutting.
 Rock Clearing after Blasting, 1943 © Imperial War Museum

While many of the daily entries in Art Day by Day are rooted in the personal experience of artists, Johnson also addresses major, society-wide issues. Human destructiveness, as well as creativity, is examined with several entries devoted to the periodic efforts to smash and burn the artistic legacy of the past. Some of these misdeeds are "one-off" acts of arson such as the destruction of the Temple of Artemis in 356 BC (July 21) by Herostratus, who sought fame by committing an act of infamy. 

Most of the efforts to efface art result from carefully orchestrated campaigns to achieve "noble" goals. Joseph Goebbels, who carried out the Degenerate Art purge in Nazi Germany (March 20 and June 4) did far more damage than the Vandals who stripped gold and bronze roof tiles from the temples of Rome in 455 (June 2). Compared to "civilized" men, barbarians are mere amateurs in the art of desecration.

Illustration showing Iconoclasm, from the Chludov Psalter, c. 850–875

The entry for February 19th records the chilling language of the edict of the Byzantine emperor and compliant bishops, ordering the destruction of Christian paintings and relics in 754. These misguided bureaucrats were certainly sincere, believing that the citizens of the Byzantine Empire were venerating sacred objects rather than worshiping their divine creator. Acting in the name of God, these "iconoclasts" wiped-out centuries of spiritual and artistic achievement. Iconoclasm, the name generally given to all such efforts to destroy art, was their dubious contribution to the story of civilization.

Art Day by Day is thus a record of the darker recesses of the human psyche, as well as our sublime side. But it is not just an "oh, so serious" book. The ridiculous has its place too. 

Johnson included topics which more conventional art historians might regard as frivolous or inconsequential. The entry for June 5th records the visit of Ferris Bueller to the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1985 movie, Ferris Bueller's Day Off. A few days earlier, May 27th's entry finds Charles Darwin feeling that his 1855 photographic portrait made him look "atrociously wicked." 

Maull & Polyblank Studio, Charles Darwin, c. 1855

Darwin's photo actually gives the impression that he was a banker or a lawyer, rather than a scientist. Perhaps, he was correct in his negative assessment, after all.

If life and culture often appear "grotesque to the point of caricature" as Gauguin said, the experience of art does testify to one absolute. Creative talent will find a way to express itself and be appreciated, even if it takes a long time before being recognized. That was true of William Hodges, as we saw earlier, and so too for Augusta Savage (1892-1962), the great African-American sculptor. 

It seems entirely appropriate the the entry for Augusta Savage should be the "leap year" date of February 29th. Beginning with the opposition of her father, a devout Christian whose opinion on art was much like that of the Byzantine iconoclasts, Savage had to struggle against all manner of adversities in order to create art. When she applied to study at the Fontainbleau School of Fine Arts in France, she was denied a scholarship because she was Black. Later, during the 1930's, her leadership of the Harlem Community Art Center, was undermined by behind-the-scenes intrigue. Most likely, the root cause was resentment that Savage was a woman.

The greatest tragedy of Savage's artistic career, brilliantly summarized by Alex Johnson, was the destruction of her magnum opus, The Harp. Inspired by James Weldon Johnson's poem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, The Harp was a sixteen foot sculpture, cast in plaster with a finish resembling black basalt. It was exhibited in 1939 to wide acclaim at the New York World's Fair. Sadly, The Harp had to be demolished along with other artists' works made for the Fair. Savage could not find patronage to make a full-scale bronze cast of her masterpiece.

   Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman exhibition at the New York Historical Society

All that remains of The Harp are several small scale versions which Savage was able to cast, One of these was on view in the New York Historical Society's 2019 exhibition devote to Augusta Savage. It was a profoundly moving display and one of the high points, so far, in my Art Eyewitness reviews.

By the time the December entries appeared in Art Day by Day, I was already downcast by the thought that I was reaching the end of the book. Alex Johnson, however, was not going to let the "year" pass without a suitable finale. Like all good story tellers, he knows to "leave 'em laughing."

The December 31st entry recounts the incredible story of the banquet held in a dinosaur-shaped dining space at the Chrystal Palace in 1853. A group of Eminent Victorians, including Sir Richard Owen, the palaeontologist who coined the name for the prehistoric reptiles, "terrible lizards" or dinosaurs, met for a legendary dinner party.

The dining space was actually the mold created by sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) to make a huge, cement statue of an Iguandon, one of the first dinosaurs to be discovered. 

                                                   Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins,                                                       Invitation to the Dinner in the Dinosaur, 1853

Hawkins' version of Iguanodon looks nothing like the actual creature which lived during the early Cretaceous Period, about 125 million years ago. Iguandon was a leaf-eating contemporary and "dining companion" of T Rex. Hawkins made the head of his Iguanodon look like a turtle, albeit with a small rhinoceros-like horn, presumably to defend itself from T-Rex.

The assumed resemblance of Iguanodon to a turtle is all the more ironic since the first item on the New Year's Eve menu at the Chrystal Palace banquet was Mock Turtle Soup.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves

Introductory Image: Cover art of Art Day by Day: 366 Brushes with History by Alex Johnson. Courtesy of Thames & Hudson

George Frederic Watts (British, 1817-1904) Ellen Terry ('Choosing'),1864. Oil on strawboard mounted on Gatorfoam: 18 5/8 in. x 13 7/8 in. (472 mm x 352 mm). National Portrait Gallery, London. Accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the Gallery, 1975. Primary Collection, NPG 5048

William Hodges (British, 1744-1797) A View of Matavai Bay in the Island of Otaheite, Tahiti, 1776. Oil on Canvas: 36 inches x 54.01 inches. (91.4 × 137.2 cm) Yale Center for British Art. #B1981.25.343

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) Traumgesicht (Dream Vision), 1525. Watercolor and ink on paper:  30 x 42.5 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Hammer, associated to the Hoxne Hoard, 20th century. Iron, with wood handle: Length: 393 millimetres. British Museum. #1994,0408.410

The Hoxne 'Empress' Pepper Pot, created between 300-400 AD, buried in late Fifth century. Findspot: Hoxne, Suffolk. Silver & Gold cast, chased and gilded: Diameter: 33 millimetres; Height: 103 millimetres; Weight: 107.90 grammes; Width: 57.90 millimetres. British Museum #1994,0408.33

Ronald Searle (British, 1920-2011) In the Jungle - Working on a Cutting. Rock Clearing after Blasting, 1943. Drawing on paper with pencil and ink: 216 mm x 171 mm. Imperial War Museum, IWM # 15747 87. © Imperial War Museum

Illustration showing Iconoclasm, from the Chludov Psalter, c. 850–875. Illuminated manuscript: 19.5 x 15 cm. State Historical Museum, Moscow. MS. D.129), folio 67r.,Chludov_Psalter,_folio_67r.jpg

Maull & Polyblank Studio. Charles Darwin, c. 1855. Albumen photographic print, arched top: 7 7/8 in. x 5 3/4 in. (200 mm x 146 mm) National Portrait Gallery, London. Purchased, 1978. Primary Collection NPG P106(7)

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman exhibition at the New York Historical Society. A miniature bronze version of Savage's The Harp appears in the foreground.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (British, 1807-1894) Joseph Prestwich’s invitation to the Dinner in the Dinosaur, 1853. Lithograph with manuscript additions. Joseph Prestwich Tract series .The Archives of the Geological Society.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Art Eyewitness Review: Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution.


Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution

 Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia
October 16, 2021 - September 5, 2022

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Photos by Ed Voves of original Don Troiani paintings, © Don Troiani

The final days of the American Revolutionary War placed Benjamin Franklin in a very curious state of mind. Franklin, the leader of the American diplomats negotiating the terms of the peace treaty, had every reason to be elated. Victory was in the air. Yet, he was in a melancholy mood, ruminating on the human cost of the conflict. 

Writing to fellow scientist, Sir Joseph Banks, in July 1783, Franklin asserted, "There never was a good war or a bad peace."

Reflecting upon the paintings of Revolutionary War battles by contemporary artist, Don Troiani, certainly helps me comprehend Franklin's less-than-exultant remarks. It has been calculated that 24,000 Patriots were killed or died of disease between 1775 to 1783. An equal number of British soldiers and 7,500 Hessian mercenaries paid the price of King George's political folly with their lives. Nobody counted civilian deaths.

Over forty original works of art by Don Troiani bring to life what Thomas Paine memorably called "the times that try men's souls." Complemented by displays of authentic weapons and uniforms, Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution is presented by the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Don Troiani and curator Matthew Skic (right) at the press preview for
  Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution

Troiani, who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, works in the great realist tradition of Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. His specialty is military art, especially of the American Revolutionary War. An excellent companion book to the exhibition presents incisive accounts of the battles and events which Troiani depicts in his paintings, along with fascinating details of his artistic technique and experiences in recreating these bygone events. 

Although narrative paintings of the kind at which Troiani excels are of vital importance to the study of history, these works rarely receive much attention in the realm of art appreciation. As I hope to show in this review, Troiani's paintings are powerful investigations of human emotions and deserve to be considered as accomplished works of art.

That Troiani's paintings are inspired is evident by the powerful effect these works have on the viewer. This is not an emotional, subjective response on my part, alone, as was confirmed during my visit to the exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Mr. Algernon Ward with Don Troiani's painting,
 As Brave Men as Ever Fought, 2020

While examining Troiani's art, I had the great honor to speak with Mr. Algernon Ward, who posed in a new painting by Troiani. Entitled As Brave Men as Ever Fought, it records the march of the 1st Rhode island Regiment, a multi-racial unit formed in 1778. Several companies of African-American recruits, including 100 slaves who were emancipated upon joining the unit, participated in military campaigns during the final years of the war, including the decisive battle of Yorktown in 1781.

At the center of the painting, a young African-American, James Forten, watches with pride as the Rhode Island troops march through Philadelphia on their way to Yorktown. Forten was so inspired that he joined the American Navy. He survived the war, including time as a prisoner of war on one of the infamous "hulks", prison ships anchored near New York. Forten went on to become one of the early leaders of the Abolitionist movement of the early 1800's.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Detail of Don Troiani's painting, As Brave Men as Ever Fought

Mr. Ward, shown in the detail, above, posed as the Rhode Island soldier nearest to Forten. Ward, a native of Trenton, New Jersey, is active in the "living history" movement. He is a member of the 6th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, a group which re-enacts the lives of African-American soldiers over the course of U.S. history.

Mr. Ward was visibly moved as he described his experience of modeling as a Rhode Island Regiment soldier for Troiani. Looking at the finished painting makes him feel like he is "floating two feet above ground."

Such moments of inspiration remind us of the great exertions made in the name of liberty. When freedom is at stake, it is not merely a matter of noble words but of blood too - suffering, wounds, death. Troiani's art helps us appreciate Franklin's war-weary reflections. But these vivid, powerful works of art also testify to the self-sacrificing resolve of the 1776 generation. 

Spanning the nearly decade-long war, Troiani's American Revolution paintings narrate the course of military campaigns and other important incidents of this pivotal era in history. Stressing absolute accuracy, both in details of uniforms, weapons and battle sites and the grim, often appalling, experience of combat, Troiani has filled a glaring hole in the American historical record. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Don Troiani's Margaret Corbin, Fort Washington (detail)

This gap in American history resulted from the almost complete absence of trained artists on the scene at Lexington and Concord, Princeton, Saratoga and Yorktown. With only a few exceptions, pictures of these historic events, dating to the actual time (or close to it), were not created.

A well-developed system of art education and patronage did not exist in the British colonies prior to 1776 - and for many years after. Yet, lack of trained talent alone does not account for the scarcity of contemporary depictions of the American Revolution. A complicated mix of psychological, political and cultural motives, related to the Age of Reason, drew a curtain over the frequent wars and the very real brutality of the era.

History painting during the eighteenth century generally dealt with the distant past, events from Biblical stories and Greek and Roman times. During the 1700's, only Antoine Watteau, among great artists, created authentic representations of recent warfare. Watteau painted several remarkable scenes of soldier life during the War of the Spanish Succession, 1702-1713.

Right from the first volley of musket fire at Lexington, the American Revolution was different. It was a "people's war" not a dynastic struggle over who would sit on the throne of Spain. It was a conflict where stirring visual depictions of the rebellion against British tyranny might have made a huge impact. Initially, that seemed to be the case.

The first work in the exhibition of Troiani's paintings focuses on the notorious Boston Massacre of 1770. Confronted by a swiftly-escalating riot, a platoon of British infantrymen opened fire on a crowd of brickbat-throwing Bostonians. Paul Revere's crude but effective print of the "massacre" is displayed next to Troiani's more accurate version.

Paul Revere, The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, 1770

Revere's print helped galvanize the resistance of American Patriots against British rule. However, it was years before another powerful image of the Revolutionary War was created by an American-born artist, one who had fled to England, shortly before the fighting began. 

John Singleton Copley's The Death of Major Peirson portrayed a minor incident in the American Revolution after it had become a global war. With most of the British Army fighting in America, French troops tried to seize the English Channel island of Jersey on January 6,1781. Their attempt failed thanks to the heroic defense led by Major Francis Peirson, who was killed early in the fighting.

John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 1782 

With Britain clearly losing the war in America, Copley took some of the sting out of the impending defeat with The Death of Major Peirson. He showed valiant Britons fighting to defend their home soil, just as the American Patriots were doing. The Death of Major Peirson was wildly popular when it was displayed in London, without damaging Copley's reputation in America. Even so, Copley never returned to the now independent United States. 

The dramatic years between Paul Revere's The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street and The Death of Major Peirson were left an almost blank canvas which various artists later sought to fill. Many of the paintings of the Revolutionary War were only created decades after the event. The results were often simplistic, over-romanticized and in many cases misleading. Not only do Troiani's paintings document events which had earlier been ignored, but he has been setting the record straight for incidents which had been inaccurately represented.

Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution makes several important points. Considered according to these insights, the struggle for American independence appears in a more complicated, yet, more inspiring light.

Troiani's paintings show that two "wars" occurred under the overarching title of the Revolutionary War. The first involved set-piece military campaigns, fought according to the conventional tactics of the 18th century. The British usually won these engagements, though at such a cost in blood that "victories" like the Battle of Freeman's Farm led eventually to Patriot triumphs at Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown in 1781.

Ed Voves, Photos (2021) 
Don Troiani's Freeman's Farm (above) & Victory at Yorktown (details)

The second, parallel struggle was an even more terrible conflict. It was marked by raids, ambushes, scorched-earth destruction and cruelty toward prisoners and civilians.This second war was largely an "All American" affair, pitting frontier Patriots  vs. Loyalist rangers. It was, in fact, the first American Civil War.

Several of Troiani's paintings on view at the Museum of the American Revolution deal with this brutal "second front." Of these I was particularly impressed, indeed fascinated, by The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany, August 6, 1777. This bloody, hard-fought struggle in the forests of western New York was notable for the involvement of Native Americans on both sides of the battle line.

One of the most influential factors in the successful establishment of the English-speaking colonies in America was the support of the Six Nations,  the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy. The help of the Six Nations was especially crucial in winning the French and Indian War, 1755-1763. However, the Revolution broke the unity of this impressive Native American confederation. Most of the member nations, especially the Mohawks, remained allied to the British. However, the Oneida supported the Patriot cause.

During the summer of 1777, pro-British warriors of the Six Nations, along with a small force of British troops and American Loyalists, tried to march across the wilderness of western New York to support the British army under General Burgoyne which was advancing down from Canada. Once the link-up had been achieved, the combined force aimed to cut-off New England from the rest of  Patriot-held territory.  


Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Don Troiani with his painting, The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany

The force of British, Loyalists and Native Americans, under Lt. Colonel Barry St. Leger, needed to capture Fort Stanwix (near present-day Rome, N.Y). Before they could do so, a Patriot relief column marched to support the defenders. The resulting battle is powerfully brought to life in one of Troiani's biggest paintings, 50 x 80 inches, which the Oneida Nation commissioned him to paint in 2005.

Troiani's battle scene is a very complex work, especially impressive in the brilliant effects he achieved in depicting dappled sunlight, shrouded by dense clouds of gunpowder smoke. But it is human drama that takes center-stage in this powerful representation of frontier warfare. 

Troiani's The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany is dominated by two, confronting protagonists. On the left is the Oneida warrior, Thawengarakwen, whose name means "He Who Takes Up the Snow Shoe." Wounded in the wrist, he relied on his wife, "Two Kettles Together" to load his musket for him. On the right, advancing from behind the cover of a tree, is a green-coated Loyalist ranger.

What is remarkable about these two protagonists is the expressiveness of their faces. These are individual human beings, swept-up in the terror of war. What sticks in the memory after studying this compelling work is the piercing gaze of the Oneida chief and the stunned awareness of danger of the Loyalist soldier after glimpsing three muskets being aimed at him through the smoke of battle.


Ed Voves, Photos (2021) 
Details of Don Troiani's The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany

After spending quite a long time analyzing Troiani's The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany, I went and re-examined paintings I had studied earlier. Over and over again, I found that Troiani had invested the characters in these works with the same individualism and psychological depth that made Thawengarakwen, Two Kettles Together and the Loyalist soldier such compelling figures in the Oriskany battle scene. To say that I was impressed is an understatement.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Don Troiani's Morgan's Rifles (detail)

Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution is the first retrospective of Troiani's visual narratives of the events of 1775-1783. It is the third major exhibition mounted by the Museum of the American Revolution, brilliantly complementing the permanent exhibits. Troiani and the staff of the Museum of the American Revolution, especially Matthew Skic, Curator of Exhibitions, have indeed filled in the "blank canvas" of these war-torn years in a way that contemporary artists were unable to do. 

By capturing the emotional torment, the terrible stress and the personal sacrifice of the Revolutionary War generation, Don Troiani has primed the canvases of his remarkable paintings with the Spirit of Liberty, for which so many fought and for which so many died.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Several photos by Ed Voves are of paintings by Don Troiani © Don Troiani. 

Introductory photo: Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Detail of Don Troiani's Artillery of Independence, Siege of Yorktown, Virginia, October 9, 1781. Painted 2013. Oil on Canvas, Private Collection.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Don Troiani and curator Matthew Skic (right) at the press preview for Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the American Revolution at the Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia. PA.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Mr. Algernon Ward with Don Troiani's painting,
As Brave Men as Ever Fought, 2020. Painted 2020. Oil on Canvas, Museum of the American Revolution, funded by the National Park Service Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Don Troiani's Margaret Corbin, Fort Washington (detail). Painted, 2011. Oil on canvas: 30.24 x 44.02 inches.

Paul Revere (1734-1818) The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, 1770. Hand-colored engraving and etching: 10 1/4 x 9 1/8 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1910, # 10.125.103

John Singleton Copley (American, 1738-1815. The Death of Major Peirson, 1783. Oil on canvas: 8' 1'' x 12'. Tate Britain. N00733

Ed Voves, Photos (2021) Details of Don Troiani's paintings, Freeman's Farm (Painted 2015)  & Victory at Yorktown (Painted 2020). Both works, Oil on Canvas, are in Private Collections.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Don Troiani with his painting, The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany, August 6, 1777. Painted 2005. Oil on Canvas: 50 x 80 inches, Collection of the Oneida Indian Nation.

Ed Voves, Photos (2021) Details of Don Troiani's The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Detail of Don Troiani's Morgan's Rifles. Painted 2015. Oil on Canvas, Private Collection.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel at the Barnes Foundation


Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel

Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
September 26, 2021 - January 9, 2022

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia recently opened an exhibition devoted to the art of Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938). This is the museum's third survey of a French woman artist, active during the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel follows in the footsteps of Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist (2018) and Marie Cuttoli, the Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray (1920).
The three exhibits, if considered together, trace a cultural continuum during the revolution of Modern Art. Morisot, Cuttoli and Valadon, respectively, were women of the affluent, middle and working classes. Each proved capable of creating or commissioning inspired works of art which graced the walls of their exhibitions at the Barnes. 

Of these three trend-setting women, Suzanne Valadon's life journey from artist's model to professional artist was perhaps the most extraordinary. Forging a path through the obstacle course of poverty and social class, Valadon lived and loved and painted on her own terms. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Nancy Ireson of the Barnes Foundation
Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel is, surprisingly, the first exhibition of Valadon's art works in the U.S. For that, we have to thank Nancy Ireson of the Barnes Foundation for planning and organizing this brilliant survey of all aspects of Valadon's life and work.

Scholars and enthusiasts of Impressionism will immediately recognize Valadon's name - and more to the point, her face and figure. Valadon was the model for many key Impressionist works, including two of Renoir's 1880's dance paintings. Dance at Bougival and Dance in the City were "show-stoppers" at the landmark 2015 Discovering the Impressionists exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2015)
 Gallery view of the Discovering the Impressionists exhibition
 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Before the opening of Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel, I wondered if Ireson and ther colleagues at the Barnes could entice the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to send Dance at Bougival down to Philly for another visit. But instead of such a well-known favorite to open the exhibition, another, lesser-known, painting featuring Valadon was selected. The choice, unexpected and unsettling, sets a provocative tone for the whole exhibition.

The Kiss of the Siren was painted in 1882 by Gustav Wertheimer (1847-1902), an Austrian artist active in Paris. It is a very pre-Impressionist painting, though it dates to only a year before Dance at Bougival

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Gustav Wertheimer's The Kiss of the Siren, 1882 

With its morbid mix of mythology, misogyny and erotica, The Kiss of the Sirenwould seem to be more relevant to the theories of Sigmund Freud than the life of an artist's model who yearned to draw and paint. Yet this weird painting yields revealing insights into the society in which Valedon lived and labored.                                                                                                                                                    

   Gallery view of the Suzanne Valadon exhibiton at the Barnes Foundation.
 A display of paintings for which Valadon modeled appears at right.   
Modeling was hard work. Holding a pose for fifty minutes at a time, often in contorted body postures, was exhausting labor. And since modeling involved sessions of posing nude, the potential damage to a young woman's reputation was considerable. Modeling like acting was regarded by many people in the late 1800's as a step above prostitution.
Modeling was not the first career choice of Suzanne Valadon. Born in 1865, Marie-Clémentine Valadon was the daughter of an unwed mother who cleaned homes and worked as a laundress. Valadon tried to escape such toil and drudgery by performing as a circus acrobat.
After being injured in a fall from a trapeze, the sixteen year-old Valadon began modeling for some of the most dynamic painters in France, including  Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The Impressionists were, for their era, remarkably free of gender bias as testified by their respect for Morisot whom they regarded as a colleague rather than a "woman artist."

It was Toulouse-Lautrec who wittily compared Valadon to Suzanna, the Old Testament heroine who had been spied upon in her bath by the wicked elders.  Valadon, whose attitude to sexuality was frank and independent, evidently enjoyed the joke. She began signing her works of art with the Hebrew woman's name.

While posing, Valadon also observed the artists sketching and painting her. She had nursed a love of art from childhood and began to draw in her spare time. When Toulose-Lautrec saw her early efforts, he was much impressed. But it was Edgar Degas who paid Valadon the supreme compliment. He purchased one of her drawings - and then urged her on to further efforts, including print-making.

“From time to time in my dining room,” Degas wrote to Valadon, “I look at your drawing in red pencil, still hanging, and I always say to myself: ‘This devil … had the genius of drawing.' Why don’t you show me something else?” 

With the support and assistance of Degas, Valadon became quite expert in printing techniques, especially drypoint etching. In 1894, Valadon's skill and dedication was recognized by the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She became the first woman artist to be admitted to the ranks of this important exhibition group.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021)
 Suzanne Valadon's Nude with Striped Blanket, 1922

The naturalness of the people Valadon depicted in her early drawings and prints, relaxed and at peace with their bodies, is key to understanding her as a person and as an artist. This naturalness was carried over to Valadon's later paintings, particularly her nudes.
The Barnes exhibition devotes much attention to Valadon's nudes. Valadon staked her claim to paint them from her own viewpoint as a woman and as a professional artist. That she did so, was based on personal choice but also on the artistic regard with which nudes were held - and their high-selling prices on the art market. 

Overwhelmingly - but not exclusively - Valadon's nudes are female. How different these are from the femme fatale in Gustav Wertheimer's neurotic Kiss of the Siren! The young women Valadon painted "in the state of nature" are healthy and comfortable with themselves, as unburdened from anxiety and embarrassment as they are from corsets and shirtwaistes.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's Black Venus, 1919

This includes the striking and forthright Black Venus, painted in 1919. Unlike other nudes showing African women from this era, Valadon's model is free of all manner of social commentary, political symbolism and agenda. She stands an independent person, free to be herself.

Valadon remained a figurative, realist painter for her entire life. However, living and working in Montmartre, Valadon was aware of the radical developments and evolving currents of Modernism. There are certainly allusions to the work of her contemporaries in her paintings. But for the most part, these references serve as a way to assert her own unique viewpoint, what we would call today her "take" on the world.
Valadon was familiar with the Symbolist movement which dominated much of French art in the 1890's and early twentieth century. Valadon had modeled for the premier Symbolist painter, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), so it is not surprising that she should have taken up the theme of Arcadia, as can be in her Joy of Life, painted in 1911.

Suzanne Valadon, Joy of Life, 1911

Another painter, Henri Matisse, painted a pastoral landscape, or perhaps "dreamscape" is more appropriate, entitled Joy of Life (1905) now in the collection of the Barnes foundation. There are certainly allusions to this icon of Modernism in Valadon's 1911 painting. But for the most part, these references serve as a way for her to assert her own unique viewpoint of such an idyllic world. It is myth setting, to be sure, but inhabited by flesh-and-blood people.

The difference between Valadon's handling of great themes of art and Matisse's interpretation is best appreciated by comparing one of her key paintings, The Blue Room, with Matisse's odalisque paintings.
Shortly before World War I, Matisse visited Algeria and Morocco in order to explore the culture of these countries. The influence of his visits affected Matisse's art in numerous ways. One was his series of paintings of scantily-clad young women, posing in submissive postures. Matisse's odalisques recalled Ingres' Grand Odalisque (1814), the signature work of exotic sensuality, Orientalism.
Valadon's The Blue Room resoundingly rejects the whole Orientalist genre, whether Matisse's paintings or Ingres'. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's The Blue Room, 1923

In The Blue Room, Valadon decorates the setting with many of the hallmarks of Matisse, particularly the colorful and richly-textured fabrics he so loved, as can be seen in the flower-printed bedspread and stripped pantaloons. Valadon's protagonist, however, is anything but a docile odalisque. Instead, she is a sturdy, self-assured, working-class woman, smoking a cigarette. She is her own woman.

With The Blue Room, Valadon effectively turned the tables on the whole tradition of male-painted portraits of women as "objects" of desire. When Valadon painted women - with or without garments - she never portrayed them as objects. She treated them the way she wished to be treated herself - as an individual.

Suzanne Valadon. Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte, 1913

Valadon's Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte is a fine example of her ability to create a sensitive, fully-realized portrait. The sitters was her niece and her daughter. Painted in 1913, it is a striking examination of the stresses and cares of life - of a mature woman and of a child. As with most high-caliber portraits, we are enabled to appreciate this work on the level of the individuals it portrays and also to reflect upon the timeless, universal questions it poses. 

What fears and anxieties lie behind the haunted eyes of Valadon's niece? Why does her little daughter, gazing at us with a blank, listless expression, clamp down so firmly on the head of her doll? We will never know, but this "gray area" of uncertainty is fertile ground for speculation and reflection upon the human condition.

Following World War I, Valadon continued to experiment in new genres, landscape and still life, always with notable skill and success, but always as a Realist painter. 

Suzanne Valadon, The Violin Case, 1923

Valadon's undeviating realism was an aspect of her "naturalness" and it certainly brought her financial success and popular acclaim. The 1920's and early 1930's were a time when many people, including in France, regarded Abstraction and Surrealism with suspicion, even hostility. There was a call "for a return to order" and, on the surface, Valadon's paintings went with the flow, rather than against the current.

Lack of talent or awareness of the trends in art had little to do, I think, with Valadon's decision to continue painting in a traditional, figurative style. This manner of painting testified to her basic beliefs - as an artist and as a human being.

"In what I've painted, there's not a stroke, not a line, that isn't based on nature. Nature brings me the discipline of a robust truth for the construction of my canvases, designed by me but driven always by the emotion of life."

The "emotions of life" for Valadon were frequently unhappy during the last two decades of her life. Her marriage to a much younger man, initially contented, soured and she experienced much heartache over the troubles and travail of her son, Maurice Utrillo. An artist of promise, alcoholism blighted Utrillo's career and disappointed his mother's belief in his "genius."

As the years passed, Valadon recorded her own image in several self-portraits. The Barnes exhibition displays one, painted in 1927, which is, beyond doubt, a masterpiece. Sophisticated in its composition, it is even more remarkable for its honesty. 

Suzanne Valadon, Self-Portrait, 1927

Here is the face of a person without illusions but one who refuses to look away or ignore reality. It is the face of a person who has witnessed much pain but remains capable and determined to continue seeking beauty.

Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel at the Barnes succeeds on every level by which an artist's retrospective can be judged. Valadon's reputation suffered somewhat over the years, as Abstract art crowded depictions of "naturalness" off the center stage of the art scene. Happily, that is no longer the case. The exhibit will later travel to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.  

Ed Voves, Photo (2021)
 Gallery view of the Suzanne Valadon exhibit at the Barnes Foundation

Most importantly, the Barnes exhibition shows that Valadon lived and worked by a creed that we would all do well to emulate. Suzanne Valadon was not merely a successful or "professional" painter. As an artist, she created works of art which reflected her personal code of life.

"You have to be hard on yourself, be honest, and look yourself in the face."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. 

Introductory Image: Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's Family Portrait (Detail), 1912.  Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, Gift of M. Cahen-Salvador in memory of Madame Fontenelle-Pomaret, 1976.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Nancy Ireson of the Barnes Foundation at the press preview for the Suzanne Valadon exhibition, September 23, 2021.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2015) Gallery view of the Discovering the Impressionists exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gustav Wertheimer's The Kiss of the Siren, Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Barnes Foundation Photo (2021) Gallery display of paintings for which Suzanne Valadon modeled. On display at the exhibit, Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's Nude with Striped Blanket, 1922. Musée d' Art Moderne de Paris. Museum Purchase, 1937.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's Black Venus, 1919. Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Menton, Gift of M. Charles Wakefield-Mori, 1939

Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) Joy of Life, 1911. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's The Blue Room, 1923.  Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Limoges. State purchase, 1924.

Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte, 1913. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, purchased from the artist, 1937. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / Image © DeA Picture Library / Art Resource, NY

Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) The Violin Case, 1923. Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, Museum Purchase, 1937. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / Image © Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, France/ HIP / Art Resource, NY 

Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) Self-Portrait, 1927. Collection of the City of Sannois, Val d’Oise, France, on temporary loan to the Musée de Montmartre, Paris. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York Image by Stéphane Pons

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.