Monday, November 28, 2022

Art Eyewitness Book Review: William Blake vs. the World by John Higgs


   William Blake vs. the World 

By John Higgs

Pegasus Books/$38.95/400 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The title of John Higgs' new book on the poet and artist William Blake is well-chosen: William Blake vs. the World.

After studying Blake's life, it is fairly obvious that the "world" or, rather, the political and cultural establishment of Great Britain, did regard Blake in an unfavorable light. To some, Blake was a threat to society. Others wrote him off as a deranged lunatic who somehow evaded being sent to "Bedlam." 

The details of Blake's many misfortunes are well-known. With considerable difficulty, he faced-down a charge of sedition during the Napoleonic Wars. His career as an artist, after a promising start in print making, was a study in failure.

John Higgs, a talented writer on a wide-range of subjects, recounts the course of William Blake's life with verve and insight. But he does so in the context of a deep reading of religion, psychology, cognitive science and even quantum mechanics. This is an unconventional biography of a man so ahead of his time that we are still following in the footsteps of his quest to understand God, humanity and the cosmos. 

William Blake, Newton, c.1805

Born in 1757, Blake's early years marked the transition from the Enlightenment to the Age of Revolution, from sense to sensibility. By the time he was buried in a pauper's grave in 1827, Blake had witnessed the fall of the Bastille and the rise of "dark Satanic mills." Yet, his mind always reached beyond these contemporary events in the search for life's ultimate meaning. On some level, Blake's restless spirit is active still.  

How can that be? Where and how can an artist and poet who died nearly two centuries ago remain alive? 

Blake still lives in the realm of the imagination. It was a place of transcendent importance to him, as Higgs explains in considerable detail.

The "one central pillar of the Blakean worldview...," Higgs writes,"is the idea that the imagination is divine."

Blake spent a lot of time dwelling in his imagination. Higgs describes his visions of angels as a child. Blake's parents recognized that their son was exhibiting unusual behavior, but did not attempt to restrain him. Blake was not sent to school, receiving basic instruction at home, largely through Bible reading, and then allowed to roam free over the fields and heaths which still were within easy reach of London.

William Blake, Songs of ExperienceFrontispiece,1794-1825 

As a result, Blake's imaginative powers were not dragged down into the constraints of the daily "dawn-to-dusk" rut of doing prescribed tasks by prescribed methods. 

Even when he was apprenticed to a professional engraver, James Basire, Blake was given wide latitude. Basire, noticing his artistic skill and ability to work without supervision, sent Blake to Westminster Abby to sketch the royal monuments for a series of prints. While engaged in this work, Blake developed an acute sense of the myth-history of Britain which he added to his growing awareness of the infinite world.  

By the time he reached adulthood, Blake had attained a very high level of proficiency in drawing and printmaking. This skill-set enabled him to support himself with commercial commissions while launching into creative work of his own. 

William Blake, Songs of lnnocenceFrontispiece, 1789-1825

In the revolutionary year of 1789, Blake published an illustrated volume of  poems, Songs of Innocence, and The Book of Thel, the first offering of his private mythology, which would grow more complex and increasingly difficult to comprehend.

During the next few years, Blake seemed on the brink of success. He made a great technical breakthrough, developing a method of etching which combined words and images on the same printed sheet. These could be hand-tinted or left uncolored, depending on the taste and available funds of the public.

William Blake, Los with the Sun,
 Plate 97 of Jerusalem,1804-1820

This technique, which Blake called relief etching, should have brought a steady stream of publishers knocking on his door. In 1796, such a commission came his way, to illustrate a popular volume of religious poetry, Night Thoughts by Edward Young. Blake pulled out all the stops to insure success but the book was a critical and commercial disaster.

Now began in earnest the long ordeal of "William Blake vs the World." Blake struggled against poverty, critical derision and suspicions of political treason. He was not completely without support. His long-suffering wife, Catherine, stood by him, and a devoted collector, a British civil servant named Thomas Butts, commissioned a series of scenes from the Bible. These pictures have few equals in the religious art of modern times.

William Blake, The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ's Garments,1800

During these dark years, Blake came close to the breaking point. A recently identified self-portrait, dating to 1802, shows Blake with the haunted, wounded eyes of a proverbial "prophet without honor in his own country." 


William Blake, Self-Portrait, c. 1802

The vicious attacks upon him reached a crescendo in 1809 with the review by Robert Hunt of Blake's exhibition - the only one he ever mounted. Hunt dismissed the the display of art as "a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain."

Somehow, Blake struggled on. Conversing "with my friends in Eternity," Blake nurtured his thoughts and reflections into advanced interpretations of the human mind and soul. 

William Blake, Title Page of Jerusalem (Plate 2),1804-1820

Higgs' analysis of this long process is positively brilliant. He handles complex issues in an engaging, understandable manner which non-specialists in Blake studies (like myself) can readily grasp. Higgs writes of Blake:

His myth has all the trappings of gods and apocalypses, but it too is fundamentally about the struggles of a mind... Blake, from this perspective can be seen as a psychologist long before the field was founded. When his characters are understood as separate parts of his psyche, the clashes and dramas that occurs between them can be seen as Blake trying to understand his own mental landscape. When the angels and demons who appear to be without are understood to come from within, all mythical and theological sagas are revealed to be the clashing energies of the mind.

William Blake, 
The Vision of God from Illustrations of the Book of Job, 1825-26

Combining art and poetry, Blake mapped-out and illustrated the emotional terrain he explored. Not until very late in life would he find like-minded souls to join him. Fortunately, in the 1820's, a group of talented young artists, including Samuel Palmer and George Richmond, acknowledged him as a prophet and a sage. For Blake, whose long ordeal certainly informed his late-career Illustrations of the Book of Job, the friendship of these idealistic artists must indeed have seemed like a providential act of God.

Even the British establishment eventually came round. The preface to Milton: a Poem in Two Books was set to music in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry, later with orchestration by Sir Edward Elgar. Today, this hymn, Jerusalem, has become the unofficial anthem of England.

Blake, though he held great hope for the spiritual redemption of the people of England, would not be pleased that his poem should now be embraced for  political reasons - or any other agenda points save leading people to God. 

In some of the most hard-hitting commentary in this outstanding book, Higgs rebukes the repeated misuse of Blake's words and images by the "powers that be."

There is now a long tradition of Blake being celebrated by authorities in ways that were, to those who understand his work, fantastically inappropriate. When the Labour and Conservative parties sing "Jerusalem" at their conferences, they are presumably unfamiliar with the context of those words in the preface to the poem "Milton"... They seem unaware that they are calling for the revolutionary overthrowing of the 'ignorant Hirelings' of 'the Camp, the Court, & the University'.

Higgs focuses on several examples of heedless misappropriation of Blake. We will look at one, involving a particularly famous Blake image, created in 1794. 

William Blake, Urizen or The Ancient of Days,
 Frontispiece to Europe A Prophecy,1794-1821

Blake's The Ancient of Days, recalls Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes.This bearded figure is frequently confused with the image of God the Father.To Blake, he was a more problematical being, capable of both good and evil: Urizen.

Urizen, leaning forward to measure the universe with his geometer's compass, is a symbol of the Age of Reason, which Blake detested. To Blake, Urizen represents aspects of human intellect which, at best, need to be controlled. In other references, Urizen is identified, as the "mistaken demon of heaven" or, quite bluntly,"Satan is Urizen."

Somehow or other, officials in London never got the memo. 

In November 2019, to highlight a very successful exhibition of Blake's art at the Tate Gallery in London, the image of Urizen was projected on to the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral. It was an astounding blunder. Higgs writes:

For those familiar with the symbolism of Blake's mythology, it was difficult to believe this was actually happening.

Higgs goes on to question the motives of the officials of St.Paul's in agreeing to project the image of Urizen/Satan on to one of the most sacred churches in the world.

Is it possible they did not understand Blake's mythology... The alternative is that they fully understood the implications of branding a cathedral with Urizen and, in a moment of clarity, agreed that it made sense.

After nearly two centuries of close examination of Blake's writings and art, there is clearly a lot more work to be done. However, mistakes, blunders and bloopers have a way of clearing the air and getting people back to the "drawing board." Perhaps the Urizen-miscue at St. Paul's will have that effect, sparking renewed interest in the prophetic genius of William Blake - and what he really believed.

John Higgs' William Blake vs. the World is a near-perfect book for getting a grasp on Blake's intellectual and artistic achievements. My only caveat - and a relatively minor one - is the disappointing selection of black and white illustrations. They are few in number and rather indifferent in quality.

To remedy that problem, I referred to one of my favorite books, William Blake by Kathleen Raine. Originally published in 1970, this World of Art title from Thames & Hudson has been reissued with an abundance of superb color pictures. It is a great read, too. Raine was a noted Blake scholar, as well as a poet. Her biography of Blake, like Higg's, is full of knowledge and great of heart.

William Blake, Jacob's Ladder, 1799-1806

It is highly enjoyable to match Raine's thoughts and reflections with those of Higgs, provided, of course, that the channels of "divine imagination" are left open for additional insights from "our friend in eternity," Mr. William Blake.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved   

Introductory Image: Cover art of William Blake vs. the World by John Higgs. Courtesy of Pegasus Books.

William Blake, (British,1757–1827) Newton, c.1805. Color print, ink, watercolor: 46 x 60 cm. (18 1/8 x 23 5/8 in.) Tate Gallery.

William Blake (British,1757–1827) Songs of Experience: Frontispiece, created 1794, printed ca. 1825. Relief etching printed in orange-brown ink and hand-colored with watercolor and shell gold: sheet: 6 3/16 x 5 9/16 in. (15.7 x 14.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund,1917.#17.10.28

William Blake (British, 1757–1827)  Songs of Innocence: Frontispiece, 1789, printed ca. 1825. Relief etching printed in orange-brown ink and hand-colored with watercolor and shell gold: sheet: 6 3/16 x 5 9/16 in. (15.7 x 14.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum. Rogers Fund, 1917 # 17.10.2

William Blake (British, 1757-1827) Los with the Sun, Plate 97 of Jerusalem, 1804 to 1820. Relief etching printed in orange with pen and black ink, watercolor, and gold on paper: 13 1/2 x 10 3/8 inches (34.3 x 26.4 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection B1992.8.1(97)

William Blake (British,1757–1827) The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ's Garments,1800. Pen, ink, gray wash, watercolor: 16 5/8 x 12 3/8 in. (42 x 31.4 cm). Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

William Blake (British,1757–1827) Self-Portrait, c.1802. Pencil with black, white and gray wash, 243 x 201 mm. Collection of Robert N. Essick. (,_Self_Portrait,_1802,_Monochrome_Wash.jpg)
William Blake (British,1757–1827) Title Page of Jerusalem (Plate 2),1804-1820. Relief etching printed in orange with pen and black ink, watercolor, and gold on paper: 13 1/2 x 10 3/8 inches (34.3 x 26.4 cm) Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection: B1992.8.1(2)

William Blake (British,1757–1827) The Vision of God from Illustrations of the Book of Job, 1825-26. Engraving: plate: 8 9/16 x 6 5/8 in. (21.7 x 16.8 cm)
sheet: 16 3/16 x 10 7/8 in. (41.1 x 27.6 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Edward Bement, 1917. #17.17.1–17

William Blake (British,1757–1827) The Ancient of Days (Urizen). Frontispiece to Europe A Prophecy, 1794-1821. Relief etching, color printing, hand coloring, watercolor, pen and red ink, touched with gold, on paper. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

William Blake (British,1757–1827) Jacobs Ladder, 1799-1806. Water color, pen:39.8 x 30.6 cm (15 3/4 x 12 1/8 in.) British Museum.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Art Eyewitness Review: Edward Hopper’s New York at the Whitney Museum


Edward Hopper’s New York 

 Whitney Museum of American Art

October 19, 2022 – March 5, 2023 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

Robert Henri (1865-1929), the dean of the Ashcan School, was a fount of encouragement to his many students at the New York School of Design.

"Paint what you feel. Paint what you see. Paint what is real to you." 

Henri's  lecture points were enthusiastically received by the likes of George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Rockwell Kent and Man Ray. Some students require additional encouragement, however, and Henri offered a well-intended suggestion to an intense, buttoned-down young man from Nyack, New York.

"Go to the theater," Henri advised Edward Hopper.

If Henri thought that Hopper would engage with the rough and tumble of life after watching it on the stage, he was mistaken. Hopper certainly took Henri's advice about going to the theater. But he remained a distant observer, focusing on ironic details of human existence which other painters scarcely noticed. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Edward Hopper's Two on the Aisle, 1927

Sitting in the mezzanine or the balcony - as he usually did - Hopper might well have condemned himself to the status of a minor genre artist. Instead, as a fabulous exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art testifies, Hopper chose as his favored subject one of the greatest themes in American culture: life in New York City.

Edward Hopper’s New York is an exhibition which only the Whitney could have mounted. After Hopper died in 1967, his widow Josephine bequeathed a vast number of sketches, prints and paintings to the Whitney. More recently, a trove of Hopper's notebooks, ledgers, letters, newspaper clippings and, incredibly, theater ticket stubs have entered the Whitney's archival collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Gallery view of Edward Hopper's New York,
 showing a selection of Hopper’s ticket stubs

Over the years, the Whitney has organized numerous exhibitions of Hopper's work, more than justifying Josephine Hopper's choice of that museum to be the steward of her husband's art. Now relocated from its former "Museum Mile" site to Gansevort Street in the Meat Packing district, the Whitney's new location is much more in keeping with the ambiance of New York City as Hopper knew it. An added bonus is the spectacular view from the terrace of the Whitney's restaurant of the Hudson River and New York harbor with Lady Liberty holding her torch aloft. I think even Hopper would have been impressed.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 View of the Hudson River & New York Harbor
 from the Whitney Museum of American Art 

Hopper was much more than a New York City artist, of course. After leaving the exhibit, a visitor to the Whitney has only to take the elevator up a floor to explore the museum's permanent collection. Here one can see Hopper paintings dealing with his Paris years, his summers in New England and travels around the U.S. 

New York was the city which Hopper knew best and, in his unsentimental way, loved. It was the center of his artistic universe. Yet, it only became so by a process of patient adaptation to the many moods of the Big City.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Detail of Edward Hopper's Blackwell's Island, 1911

In his earliest days as an art student and working illustrator, Hopper commuted to New York from Nyack. He traveled by train, ferry and elevated transit lines. It was a daily grind but it provided him with long intervals to study the real New York: gritty, crowded, hard-edged, care-worn - and proud.

Edward Hopper, Approaching a City, 1946

The Whitney exhibit recalls the the young Hopper's experience of arriving in an urban environment which was ever in flux. Hopper's 1946 masterpiece, Approaching a City, is juxtaposed with a video of a 1916 silent film, New York City (From an Elevated Railroad)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Gallery view of Edward Hopper's New York,
 showing the 1916 film, New York City (From an Elevated Railroad)

Both the painting and the film show entirely man-made environments. Neither reveal any outward sign of human life. It was Hopper's task to supply the people and, at first, he demonstrated outstanding talent in portraying the people on New York's streets. 

Mounted Cop, executed in pen and ink and graphite pencil on paper, is a marvelous  work. It is a true portrait without a hint of caricature. Every aspect of this remarkable drawing speaks to having been sketched - at least in its first stage - from life.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Edward Hopper's Mounted Cop, 1899–1906

 Determined, if disgruntled, the police officer casts a wary eye, peering out from under the peak of his cap. He sits astride his horse, brilliantly suggested by the merest outline of its flanks. A few, slanting lines capture the effect of the pelting rain which, sooner or later, will seep though his poncho.

Numerous examples of Hopper's skill in depicting New Yorkers, native and newcomers, are on view in the opening galleries of the exhibit.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
  Edward Hopper's New York and Its Houses, 1906-1910

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Detail of Edward Hopper's The Balcony, 1928

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Detail of Edward Hopper's In a Restaurant, c. 1916–1925

These include an elderly chap battling a headwind as he trudges up the steps of a brownstone, playgoers absorbed in one of the dramas Hopper attended and a "slice-of-life" scene of two "gents" sealing a deal over a coffee and brandy.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
  Edward Hopper's Self-Portrait, 1903-1906

Hopper's early self-portrait, dating to some point during the years 1903-06, likewise, demonstrates a high level of accomplishment. A skillful handling of skin tones and unblinking insight into his own rather forbidding persona shows that Hopper could have secured a place near the top rank of American portrait painters, had he wanted to take that career path.

Hopper's choice lay elsewhere, as we know. But one of the many strengths of the Whitney exhibit is the way that it allows us to follow Hopper's dwindling interest in the unique likenesses of the people around him. Following this, we are enabled to trace his deepening engagement with the human dilemma on a wider, more cosmic level.

Hopper's initial steps in that direction began when he devoted himself to etching around 1915. His sensational skill in printmaking resulted in such masterpieces as the haunting Night Shadows created in 1921. The 1920's and 1930's would prove to be the golden age of American printmaking, with Hopper setting a standard of excellence which others, notably Louis Lozowick and Martin Lewis, would rival but not surpass.

Edward Hopper, Night Shadows, 1921

These brilliant etchings are also significant in showing the path which Hopper's oil painting was taking him, deeper and deeper into uncharted realms of emotional isolation and unspoken desire.

The 1920's were the brash years of American exuberance. Hopper, however, caught a counter-veiling note to the Jazz Age. In Automat, the frantic pace and chronic loneliness of life in the 20th century is indelibly expressed.  Hopper definitively portrays the modern condition where individualism translates into being "a face in the crowd."

Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927

Automat was painted in 1927, the year of Charles Lindbergh's one-man flight across the Atlantic Ocean. While newspaper headlines exulted over the Lone Eagle's heroics, this stylish young "flapper" looks less-than-pleased about "flying solo" through life.

Some clues to her discontent are obvious, the empty chair, the receding  reflections of the overhead lights. But the most telling detail is the fact that she has removed only one glove. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Detail of Edward Hopper's Automat, 1927

In modern day America, you can get a cup of coffee anytime your want. But don't bother to take both gloves off. Drink-up and keep moving. There is no place of rest on the daily treadmill of existence.

Hopper's switch from magazine illustration to painting was well-timed. As the 1920's progressed, photography increasingly gained the upper-hand in the publishing world and commercial opportunities for artists began to decline. 

By the late 1920's, Hopper's emphasis on realism and figurative painting had secured the interest of wealthy patrons like Stephen Clark. A signal event was the donation by Clark in 1930 of Hopper's House by the Railroad to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, which had opened its doors the year before.

The House by the Railroad (which reputedly served as the model for the Bates Hotel in the Hitchcock film, Psycho) is not included in the Whitney exhibition. But another mysterious dwelling is prominently displayed, House at Dusk (1935), from the collection of the Virginia Museum of Art. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Detail of Edward Hopper's House at Dusk, 1935

I had never previously seen House at Dusk and was really intrigued by this haunting work of art. Hopper contrasted the setting sun with the lights shinning forth from some of the apartment windows, while others remained darkened or dimly lit. A pavement stairway extends off into the menacing darkness of the nearby park. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
Detail of Edward Hopper's House at Dusk, 1935

With these brilliant effects, Hopper created a setting that is both reassuring - the beckoning glow of house lights - and unsettling.

House at Dusk evidently struck a chord with the visitors to the exhibit. There always seemed to be a big crowd in front of it. At one point, a father was showing the painting to his toddler in the stroller. I was both charmed and bemused. How do you explain a picture of mystery to a child - or to anyone? 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Gallery view of Edward Hopper's New York, 
showing House at Dusk, 1935 

Every person will have there on theories about a Hopper painting. That explains his continuing popularity. Which brings up another salient point about the Whitney's exhibition. Edward Hopper’s New York was mobbed on the day Anne and I visited. 

nne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Gallery view of Edward Hopper's New York at the Whitney Museum 

Hopper's works clearly strike a chord with museum visitors. Part of the reason is that Hopper composed many of his paintings with a stage-like setting. Works like Automat and others which followed during the 1930's might well have illustrating scenes from a play by Eugene O'Neil. Hopper's visual narrative, however, is never resolved. It's left for you, the viewer, to decide the plot and outcome of the drama of paintings like Room in New York.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Edward Hopper's Room in New York, 1932

In what may be his greatest painting, New York Movie, Hopper focused his probing vision on to the motion picture industry. Here, during the 1930's, happy endings were the order of the day. Maybe on the "silver screen", but not for Hopper.

New York Movie was painted in 1939, the peak year of America cinema. Hopper based the setting of the theater on a series of meticulous studies of several Manhattan movie "palaces." Hopper also carefully studied the patrons staring at the black-and-white film. These preparatory works are on view in the exhibition, along with the masterpiece itself, from the MOMA collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Detail of Edward Hopper's New York Movie, 1939

The "star" of New York Movie is, of course, the youthful usherette, standing in listless isolation. She is having a "Hamlet moment." Instead of looking at the film, she is lost in melancholy. It is surely one of Hopper's ironic - almost perverse - touches that the young woman has movie star looks. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Study for Edward Hopper's New York Movie, 1939

As with the other elements in this painting, Hopper carefully sketched the facial features of the usherette. This represented a change of approach from his usual handling of the people in his pictures. Increasingly, as noted above, Hopper devoted less-and-less effort to the faces and figures of his protagonists. The human dilemma was what mattered, individual human beings not so much.

This trade-off resulted in Hopper's tremendous visual statement on life and  society in modern America. But there was a price to be paid for Hopper's choice and it came due in two ways.

The first was exacted in the strained, ultimately tragic, nature of his marriage.  This is not the place to go into great detail about the relationship of Edward and Josephine Hopper. A recent book which I intend to review in coming weeks, Last Light by Richard Lacayo, treats this topic in great detail and I will discuss it there.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Edward Hopper's Intermission, 1963

For the present, it is enough to note that though Hopper used his wife repeatedly for a model, he never painted a full, "human-scale" portrait of her. Repeatedly, Jo Hopper shows-up, as in the lonely theater-goer in Intermission, as a stock character, never herself.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Detail of Edward Hopper's Intermission, 1963

This failure on Hopper's part to acknowledge his wife was part of the greater trend in his art. As the years passed, individuals, with all their quirks and eccentricities, were erased from his paintings. As a result, part of Hopper's own individuality withered and his art suffered too.

It is only in the early galleries of the wonderful Whitney exhibition, Edward Hopper's New York, that we see Edward Hopper "New Yorkers." After that, there are plenty of paintings of rooftops but no more rain-spattered cops, no more wind-blown, top-hatted gents, no more soulful flappers. It was a great loss to American art.

When Robert Henri advised Hopper to open his heart to humanity by going to the theater, Hopper should have bought himself a front-row seat, instead of watching from the balcony.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd, All rights reserved 

Images of Edward Hopper's paintings, drawings and prints from the Whitney Museum of American Art and other U.S. museums are © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York                                                                                                                              

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Edward Hopper's Self-Portrait, 1925–30. Oil on canvas: 25 3/8 × 20 3/8 in. (64.5 × 51.8 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art,New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1165.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Edward Hopper's Two on the Aisle, 1927. Oil on canvas: 40 1/8 x 48 1/4 in. (101.9 x 122.5 cm). Toledo Museum of Art, OH; purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment; gift of Edward Drummond Libbey

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of Edward Hopper's New York, showing a selection of Hopper’s ticket stubs. The Sanborn Hopper Archive at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Frances Mulhall Achilles Library and Archives, New York; gift of the Arthayer R. Sanborn Hopper Collection Trust 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) View of the Hudson River and New York Harbor from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of Edward Hopper's Blackwell's Island, 1911. Oil on canvas, 24 3/8 × 29 5/16 in. (61.9 × 74.5 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1188

Edward Hopper (American, 1882-1967) Approaching a City, 1946. Oil on canvas: 27 1/18 x 36 in. (68.9 x 91.4 cm) The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; acquired 1947. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of Edward Hopper's New York, showing the silent film, New York City (From an Elevated Railroad), c. 1916, 4:37 min. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.; Ford Motor Company Collection

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Edward Hopper's Mounted Cop, 1899–1906. Pen & ink and graphite pencil on paper: 10 5/8 x 8 5/16 in. (27 x 21.1 cm) Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.630 a-b

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Edward Hopper's New York and Its Houses, c.1906–10. Brush and ink, transparent and opaque watercolor, and graphite pencil on paper: 21 13/16 x 14 13/16 in. (55.4 x 37.6 cm)  Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1347

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of Edward Hopper's The Balcony, 1928. Drypoint:Sheet: 13 x 16 15/16 in. (33 x 43 cm); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1058 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of Edward Hopper's In a Restaurant, c. 1916–25. Charcoal on paper: 26 11/16 x 21 5/8 in. (67.8 x 54.9 cm) Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1449 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Edward Hopper's Self-Portrait, 1903-06. Oil on canvas: 25 15/16 x 22 1/8 in. (65.9 x 56.2 cm) Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1253 

Edward Hopper (American, 1882-1967) Night Shadows, 1921. Etching: Sheet: 12 x 15 15/16 in. (30.5 x 40.5 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1047

Edward Hopper (American, 1882-1967) Automat, 1927. Oil on canvas, 28 1/8 × 35 in. (71.4 × 88.9 cm). Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa; purchased with funds from the Edmundson Art Foundation, Inc. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Rich Sanders, Des Moines, Iowa

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of Edward Hopper's Automat, 1927. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Details of Edward Hopper's House at Dusk, 1935. Oil on canvas: 36 1/4 x 50 in. (92.1 x 127 cm) Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; John Barton Payne Fund 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of Edward Hopper's New York, showing House at Dusk. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of Edward Hopper's New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Edward Hopper's Room in New York, 1932. Oil on canvas, 29 × 36 in. (73.7 × 91.4 cm). Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska—Lincoln; Anna R. and Frank M. Hall Charitable Trust.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of Edward Hopper's New York Movie, 1939. Oil on canvas: 32 1/4 x 40 1/8 in. (81.9 x 101.9 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York; given anonymously 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Edward Hopper's Study for New York Movie, 1939. Fabricated chalk and charcoal on paper:15 x 11 1/8in. (38.1 x 28.3 cm) Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.455

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Edward Hopper's Intermission, 1963. Oil on canvas: 40 x 60 in. (101.6 cm x 152.4 cm) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; purchase in memory of Elaine McKeon,with funds provided in part by the Fisher and Schwab Families, and an anonymous donor.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Art Eyewitness Review: Matisse in the 1930's at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

 Matisse in the 1930's

Philadelphia Museum of Art

October 20, 2022 - January 29, 2023

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Original photography by Anne Lloyd

The "grizzle-chinned, wrinkle-browed" face of Henri Matisse appeared on the cover of Time Magazine on October 20, 1930. It was a notable honor in            what should have been a very good year for Matisse. He had vacationed in Tahiti and traveled to the United States where he served on a prestigious art award jury. His own paintings were selling well and his son, Pierre, was setting up a gallery in New York City.

All was not well for Matisse, however, in 1930.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Henri Matisse, Self-Portrait, 1937

Matisse's critical reputation was in marked decline. Many of his fellow artists from the pioneering days of modern art looked askance at his recent paintings. Hostile art critics and the radicals of the Surrealist Movement openly scorned and derided him.

The decade of the 1930's would turn the tables on Matisse's detractors and opponents. Beginning with a commission to paint a large mural, which he boldly accepted during his visit to the United States, Matisse reinvigorated his oeuvre - and his life. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
  Matisse in the 1930's at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Large Seated Nude (bronze) at center.

A magnificent exhibition has just opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, detailing this crucial decade during which Henri Matisse (1869-1954) created some of his greatest works of art. Two French museums are participating in this extraordinary effort, the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and the Musée Matisse Nice, where the exhibition will be displayed in 2023, following its initial presentation in Philadelphia. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Curators of Matisse in the 1930's: Mathew Affron, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Claudine Grammont, Musée Matisse Nice

Approximately 140 works of art are on view in the special exhibit galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including major paintings and a selection of sculptures. Additional insight is provided by a wide-range of drawings, prints and deluxe art books for which Matisse prepared special illustrations.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Henri Matisse, Interior with an Etruscan Vase, 1940

The defining work of art created by Matisse during the "30's", however, could not be transported to the walls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But this work, a mighty mural, is close-at-hand, just a few blocks away at the Barnes Foundation. This stroke of good fortune - and savvy planning - makes for a unique opportunity to appreciate Matisse's art not likely to occur again for a long time to come.

The pivot of Matisse in the 1930's is the "back-story" of the Barnes mural, The Dance. Matisse created this sensational work of art for Dr. Albert Barnes, the most brilliant, opinionated and controversial art collector of the era. Few episodes in the history of modern art are more fascinating or influential than this improbable partnership.

Matisse in the 1930's then proceeds to examine Matisse's paintings - drenched with color and quiet passion - which followed in the wake of this celebrated masterpiece. Matisse's collaboration with the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo rounds-off a decade of achievement which was little short of a resurrection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
  Gallery view of Matisse in the 1930's 

Matisse during the 1930's can only be understood by first studying his works from the 1920's. Indeed, it is important to try and appreciate the cultural current of France during the years following the First World War. The dramatic "call to order" in 1918 by the French poet and filmmaker, Jean Cocteau, asserted the need for artists to reassert civilized values and traditional artistic themes after four years of insane slaughter.

Cocteau first sounded Le Rappel a l’ordre in 1918, but Matisse had already steared his own course in that direction in December 1917. Travelling to Nice, in the south of France, Matisse tried to shake-off the stress and strain of the war, both of his sons having been called to serve in the French Army. He focused his art on themes far from the unquiet Western Front.

The dominant motif in the opening gallery of Matisse in the 1930's is the odalisque. Dressed in the exotic garb of the women of Algeria and Morocco - often very scanty clothing - the odalisque was a figure of mystery and sensuality. Delacroix and Ingres had painted notable examples of this genre during the early 1800's, so when Matisse adopted the odalisque as his subject of choice, he was following in the footsteps of giants of classical French art.

Matisse loved the tactile texture of colorful fabric and the beauty of young women. Painting odalisques enabled him to indulge his enthusiasm for both. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Henri Matisse, The Moorish Screen, 1921

The Moorish Screen, painted in 1921, presents an enclosed world of ease and beauty. The intricate screen, with its pattern of arabesque designs, shields the two women from even a hint of unpleasantness, noise and squalor from the outside world. 

Here, in this elegantly furnished room, order has been restored. But such a relaxed atmosphere, especially given the sultry climate of North Africa, allowed repressed Europeans to engage in fantasies with overtones of sexual indulgence and exploitation.  

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Henri Matisse, Large Odalisque in Striped Pantaloons, 1925

Large Odalisque in Striped Pantaloons is a striking example of Matisse's skill in drawing and printmaking. This lithograph, created in 1925, is very much in the tradition of Ingres, one of the greatest masters of drawing in European art. On its own, individual, merits, Large Odalisque is a very impressive work, devoid of any hint of exploitation. Matisse here presents an image of a sensitive, intelligent woman at peace with her body and her personal identity.        


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Detail of Large Odalisque in Striped Pantaloons, 1925

When Large Odalisque in Striped Pantaloons is viewed along with the other depictions of nude or semi-clad women in the exhibition's opening gallery, there is a definite shift in feeling. The effect is unsettling, to say the least, putting the viewer in the role of a voyeur. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Henri Matisse, Odalisque with Grey Trousers, 1926-1927

Was this true of Matisse, as well? Had the revolutionary leader of the Fauves become an artistic hedonist, content to boost his profits with sales of socially-acceptable erotica?

A very different perspective of this great French artist emerges in the pages of Hilary Spurling's brilliant biography. Matisse's painting sessions were marked by intense, often "unbearable" concentration, as the exacting painter wrestled with problems of color, design and theme. 

For Matisse - and his models - there was remarkably little of Luxe, calme et volupté (Luxury, peace, and pleasure), the title of his famous 1904 painting, in the daily ordeals in his studio. 

"I have always thought," Matisse wrote "that a large part of a painting's beauty derives from the artist's combat with his own limited means of expression."

Painting odalisques for Matisse was a form of expression - rigorous, challenging and artistically rewarding. Yet, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Matisse's critics were correct to question his emphasis on painting odalisques over the course of the 1920's. 

Moreover, Matisse had to be aware of the dangers of devoting himself to "classical" art. 

"A young painter who cannot liberate himself from the influence of past generations," Matisse had famously declared, "is digging his own grave."

Now, the middle-aged Matisse needed a new challenge to keep from "digging his own grave." 

Matisse got exactly that in the autumn of 1930. He took a day-off from his duties as an art jury member for the Carnegie Commission to visit the Barnes Foundation, located in Merion, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia.

The visit to the Barnes Foundation went well. Matisse was able to see many of his own early masterpieces. No less than twenty-five works by Matisse were part of the Barnes' collection when it opened in 1925 to a select audience.

Astutely noting the wide-range of Barnes' collecting interests, Matisse declared approvingly that "the old masters are put beside the modern ones, Rousseau next to a Primitive, and this juxtaposition helps students to understand a lot of things that the academies don't teach."

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020)
  Gallery view of Room 15 at the Barnes Foundation.   
Matisse's Red Madras Headress, 1907, appears at right

Dr. Barnes could not have expressed that better himself. He was impressed with Matisse and offered him a commission to paint a sprawling three-piece mural spanning the central hall of his private museum. Matisse agreed, the choice of topic being reserved to him rather than Barnes. This was a major concession from Barnes, but his side of the bargain was reflected in the modest $30,000 commission to be paid in three installments. 

For the theme of the Barnes mural, Matisse reached back to an earlier commission. This was the creation in 1910 of two decorative panels, Dance and Music, for Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936), a Moscow industrialist with a visionary interest in modern art. 

Matisse's paintings for Shchukin were huge wall-sized works. The Dance for Dr. Barnes would be vaster still, the three panels measuring fifteen feet high by forty-five feet. The central panel (slightly bigger than its companions) dwarfed the entire Russian Dance painting in size.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Henri Matisse's The Dance Mural, 1932-33, at the Barnes Foundation

The epic campaign to create The Dance for the Barnes Foundation extended from the summer of 1932 to April 1933. The prolonged effort is brilliantly chronicled in the exhibition - even if the "star" of the show is off-stage at the Barnes. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Gallery view showing preparatory studies for The Dance Mural

Henri Matisse, Gray Harmony, Oil Study for The Dance Mural, 1930–31

An impressive array of the preparatory sketches and studies are on view, which deserve detailed study. The temptation to hurry past these "prep" works to view the huge "sketch at scale" of the central dancer's legs is hard to resist.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Matisse's Drawing at the Scale of the Central Figure
 of the Barnes Mural, "The Dance", 1931-32 

Equally addictive is the wonderful documentary film of Matisse at work on the mural. We see him wielding his long bamboo stick, tipped with a piece of charcoal, then carefully positioning the wheeled step-ladder, ably assisted by his faithful dog, Raudi. The film was shot by Mrs. Robert Sattler and later transferred to video.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Scene from the 1932 film by Mrs. Robert Sattler,
 Matisse Working on "The Dance" in the rue Desire Niel Studio

To paint this massive work in France, rather than on site in America, invited difficulties. Matisse made a "huge mistake" in the initial measurements, according to the tactless Dr. Barnes. But he rallied quickly and carried the project through to a successful conclusion. Travelling with the completed mural to the United States in May 1932, Matisse installed The Dance in the central hall of the Barnes Foundation.

It was a moment of triumph, disappointment and the discovery of a "silver lining." Matisse's jubilation was dashed when Dr. Barnes closed the doors of his museum, soon after the mural was installed. Except for selected students and a few honored guests, hardly anyone was permitted to see The Dance. This woeful state of affairs continued for decades. Matisse fumed at Barnes, calling him "a monster of egotism."

The "silver lining" was soon discovered. Creating The Dance inspired Matisse to an extraordinary degree. The experience of painting a figurative work of this type, where the dancers represented pure movement unencumbered by any cultural or social attributes, unleashed the talents of Matisse, which had been held in check during the odalisque years of the 1920's.

The Dance was a catalyst for a sustained burst of creative genius, lasting from 1933 to 1940. For Matisse, these years were a second-lease on artistic life, a return to the vigorous use of color of the pre-World War I era, tempered and enhanced by a celebration of the human body. 

The galleries devoted to Matisse's easel paintings, post-The Dance, exude a life-affirming spirit which is simply astonishing. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
  Gallery view of Matisse in the 1930's, showing two versions of 
 Henri Matisse's Window at Tahiti, 1935

I sensed a real excitement and pleasure among my fellow art lovers as we beheld one "mid-Matisse" masterpiece after another: Dancer Resting,1940, from the Toledo Museum of Art and Large Reclining Nude (1935) from the Cone Collection of the Baltimore Art Museum. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Henri Matisse, Dancer Resting, 1940

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Henri Matisse, Large Reclining Nude, 1935

And from the Philadelphia Museum of Art there was the "home team's" own Matisse icon, Women in  Blue (1937).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Henri Matisse, Woman in Blue, 1937

There is a naturalness and modern-day sophistication to these 1930's paintings strikingly at odds with the 1920's odalisques. And when Matisse did hearken back to the odalisque theme, as with his 1937 Yellow Odalisque, the chic modernity of its protagonist makes the title seem like an ironic play on words.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Henri Matisse, Yellow Odalisque, 1937

As the decade of the 1930's progressed, Matisse continued working with unremitting energy and audacity. He collaborated on projects for ballet props and costumes, which the exhibition illustrates with a 1939 film of a dance troupe performing on a set influenced by the design of the Barnes mural. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
A video at Matisse in the 1930's, showing the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo performing Red and Black in Chicago in 1939.

Perhaps most significantly, Matisse returned to creating book illustrations which he had done earlier in his career. Towards the end of the 1930's, he began to focus on drawings for special edition books of a type known as livre d'artiste.  

What was a sideline to his productivity during the 1930's became a vital facet of his career, following his near-death in 1941 from abdominal cancer. Matisse painted only sporadically thereafter. 

Unable to stand before his easel, Matisse drew simple, yet elegant, pictures and "painted with scissors", making cut-outs. Both were used to illustrate exquisite volumes of the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, Charles Baudelaire and the medieval poet, Charles d’Orleans. 

The Matisse in the 1930's exhibit ends with an examination of the 1943 book of illustrations, Drawings:Themes and Variations. This volume contains seventeen sets of drawings, each representing a letter of the the alphabet, with a total of 158 drawings. Two sets are on view in the exhibition. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Title page of Henri Matisse's Drawings: Themes and Variations,1943

Given the spectacular nature of the art works in the earlier galleries, this might appear to be a quiet "fade-out" to conclude Matisse in the 1930's. 

In reality, this final gallery is a summation of Matisse's 1930's work and a forecast of what was to come. Working under the shadow of Nazi tyranny and the specter of his own mortality, Matisse devoted himself to a series of drawing projects which culminated in his designs for the Roman Catholic Chapel of Vence, consecrated in June 1951.

Henri Matisse died on November 3, 1954. His heart finally gave out. The stream of creative energy, rejuvenated by his acceptance of a mural commission from Dr. Albert Barnes in the autumn of 1930, was still flowing.


Original photos, Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved

Introductory Image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of Henri Matisse's The Conversation, 1938. Oil on canvas: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Bequest of Mr. James D. Zellerbach, # 93.149

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Henri Matisse's Self-Portrait, 1937. Charcoal with stumping on laid paper: 13 3/8 x 11 1/4 inches (34 x 28.5 cm.) National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. #1985.64.104

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of the Matisse in the 1930's exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Large Seated Nude (bronze) at center.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Curators of the Matisse in the 1930's exhibition. From left: Mathew Affron, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Claudine Grammont of the Musée Matisse Nice

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Henri Matisse's Interior with an Etruscan Vase, 1940. Oil on canvas: 29  x 42 1/4 inches. Cleveland Museum of Art. Gift of the Hanna Fund. 1952.153

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Henri Matisse's The Moorish Screen, 1921. Oil on canvas: 36 3/16 x 29 1/4 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Henri Matisse's Large Odalisque in Striped Pantaloons, 1925. Lithograph (sheet): 26 1/8  x 22 5/8 inches Philadelphia Museum of Art. 1950-129-118.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Henri Matisse's Odalisque with Grey Trousers, 1926-1927. 21 1/4 × 25 9/16 inches, Oil on canvas. Musée de l'Orangerie 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Henri Matisse's The Dance Mural, 1932-33, at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia PA. Oil on canvas; three panels: (left): 133 3/4 x 173 3/4 in. (339.7 x 441.3 cm) (center): 140.2 x 198.2 in. (355.9 x 503.2 cm)  (right): 133 3/8 x 173 in. (338.8 x 439.4 cm) Barnes Foundation. # 2001.25.50 a,b,c

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of Matisse in the 1930's, showing Matisse's preparatory studies for The Dance mural at the Barnes Foundation. The studies in pencil, gouache, and oil are from the Musée Matisse Nice.

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Gray Harmony, Oil Study for Barnes Mural, 1930–31. Oil on canvas: 13 inches × 34 9/16 inches. Musée Matisse Nice, France. © 2022 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022), Henri Matisse's Drawing at the Scale of the Central Figure of Barnes Mural, "The Dance". First Version, 1930–31. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Scene from the 1932 film by Mrs. Robert Sattler, Matisse Working on "The Dance" in the rue Desire Niel Studio.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of the Matisse in the 1930's exhibition showing two versions of Matisse's Window in Tahiti, 1935.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Henri Matisse's Dancer Resting, 1940. Oil on canvas: 32 × 25 1/2 in. (81.3 × 64.8 cm). Toledo Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. C. Lockhart McKelvy 1947.54

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Henri Matisse's Large Reclining Nude 1935. Oil on canvas: 26 1/8 × 36 3/4 inches (66.4 × 93.3 cm). Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, 1950.258. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Henri Matisse's Woman in Blue, 1937. Oil on canvas.: 36 1/2 x 29 inches (92.7 x 73.7 cm).  Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Mrs. John Wintersteen, 1956-23-1

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Henri Matisse's Yellow Odalisque, 1937. Oil on canvas: 21 3/4 x 18 1/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Samuel and Vera White collection. #1967-30-57

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of Matisse in the 1930's, showing a video of a film the Ballets Russe de Monte-Carlo, performing Red and Black (Strange Farandole) in Chicago in 1939. Original film was shot by Anna Barzel.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) The title page of Henri Matisse's Drawings: Themes and Variations, 1943.