Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fanny Eaton: The "Other" Pre-Raphaelite Model

Art historians and lovers of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and their works know well the names and lives of many of the female "stunners" (as they called them) who modeled for them. These include names like Lizzie Siddall, Jane Morris, Annie Miller, Keomi, Maria Zambaco, and so on. But another model about whom little historically has been known, yet who frequently appears in Pre-Raphaelite art from the late 1850s through the late 1860s, is Fanny Eaton (1835-1924). Born in Jamaica the daughter of a former slave, Eaton is a fascinating study in the art and social politics of Victorian Britain. Her mixed-race identity allowed her to be an exotic in the theatrical sense, enabling her to be depicted in different cultural roles in a number of their paintings. The image you see above is by Joanna M. Boyce Wells (1831-1861). It is a portrait study of Eaton dated 1861 that was meant to be a larger work of her depicted as a sibyl, had the artist not died suddenly (image: Yale Center for British Art). The image below shows Eaton as an Indian ayah in Rebecca Solomon's A Young Teacher, also 1861 (private collection), about which I have blogged before (see my post here).

I am pleased to announce that my article about Eaton, discussing her life and her role as a model, has been published in the Summer 2014 issue of the PRS Review, and the response so far from has been quite positive, leading to the discovery in private collections of a few heretofore unknown drawings depicting Eaton as a model, and a number of "retweets" and "favorites" on Twitter. I have now uploaded a PDF version in the Academic Commons of Columbia University Libraries, so it can be downloaded and read for free by all (available here). I owe Brian Eaton, great-grandson of the model, my gratitude for sharing with me his family research material and for supporting my article on his great-grandmother.

My interest in Eaton stems from her role as a model for Simeon Solomon, most notably his painting The Mother of Moses, 1860, about which I spoke at the Pre-Raphaelitism: Past, Present and Future conference at Oxford University in September 2013 (see blog posts here and here). Biographer and curator Jan Marsh previously had written about Eaton in her Black Victorians exhibition catalogue, and has added a few updates on her blog as well (here and here), the latter highlighting a newly discovered drawing of Eaton by the little-known artist Walter Fryer Stocks. I am hopeful that my article will continue to help increase the identification of Eaton in the works of these and other artists, but more importantly will add to the important dialogue about the role of blacks, slavery, and cultural diverse during the global 19th-century world.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

MWA XXX: Overbeck's Freundschaftsbildnis


There's nothing like a good German word to make you stop and gape in wonder. Freundschaftsbildnis is, literally, a friendship picture. As an artistic construct, it relates frequently to German Romantic painters of the early 19th century who made pictures of friends, or painted special works as gifts for one another that included symbols invoking each friend's presence in the painting. The work you see here, Italia and Germania, 1828, was a friendship picture painted by Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869) for his close friend Franz Pforr. Sadly, Pforr never saw this work, as it was painted 16 years after he had died at the untimely age of 24.

Pforr and Overbeck had met as students in the Vienna Academy. Disgusted with the regimented form of teaching and wanting to find their own sources of inspiration, they banded together with a group of other young men and named themselves the Lukasbund, or the Brotherhood of St. Luke. The name was a revival of the medieval guild tradition in which painters took St. Luke the evangelist as their patron saint. The group of men were dedicated to painting religious subjects, and they moved together to Rome. They were given permission to settle in the abandoned monastery of Sant'Isidoro, and they took to wearing monk's robes, growing their hair long, and, generally speaking, having the appearance of Biblical figures from the past while they lived a monastic life. Overbeck even converted to Catholicism soon after his arrival in Rome. People began to make fun of them by calling them Nazarenes (as in trying to relive the idea of Nazareth and its most famous resident Jesus), and that name has stuck with them ever since. Artistically, they painted mostly religious and medieval themes, and initially modeled themselves on art of the trecento and quattrocento, early Italian and Northern Renaissance works that inspired them with their primitive linear structures. Pforr's close friendship with Overbeck led in 1810 to the painting of the first of these two friendship pictures: Shulamit and Mary, 1810-11 (right; you can read more about this work here). Pforr died the following year in 1812, but Overbeck went on to have a long, lucrative career in Rome, painting religious subjects and other medieval-themed work in a modified artistic style that emulated the influence of the High Renaissance artist Raphael.

Italia and Germania, above, is an allegorical representation of the two nations as young women, with Italy on the left and Germany on the right. It is important to keep in mind that, at this time in European history, there were no countries with these names, but their concepts and languages certainly existed, and they came to represent the South with its Catholic/classical associations with Rome and the Vatican, and the North with its Gothic Protestant leanings. In Overbeck's painting, these two allegorical figures join hands and share a tender moment, intimating the close friendship of Overbeck and Pforr, but also their decision to support one another as German-speaking artists living in Italy with its lush art and cultural heritage to follow their dreams. Even the buildings in the background reflect the Italian and German styles of architecture for which each was famous.

What is also remarkable to me about this painting is that within a few short years after it had been painted, it was purchased by King Ludwig I of Bavaria and installed in his newly constructed art museum in Munich for contemporary art. This painting was one of the great highlights of my trip to Munich in September. I had studied it in graduate school and appreciated its great beauty and symbolic message, but seeing it in person was an amazing experience, as only then could I appreciate the beautiful colors and Overbeck's exquisite handling. The caressing of their hands in one another's, complemented by the way they lean their heads together, exemplifies the emotional sentiment of Romantic painting, the goal of which was evoke emotions on the part of the viewer. This painting is, undoubtedly, an important highlight for anyone who visits the Neue Pinakothek to this day.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Portal 6

Portal 6: New Haven (20 November 2011)
(For other works in my Portals series, click here.)

A doorway is more than merely a hole in a wall through which we get from outside to inside or from one room into the next. A doorway is more than a practical necessity brought about by our predilection for dividing up the space of the world by building walls. A doorway is an instrument for the management and nuancing of space; it is also a punctuation in our experience of the world, and has psychological effects on how we see the world and how we behave. . . . A doorway is a locus of opposites and contradiction. It links spaces on either side of a barrier but it also divides those spaces. It creates a sense of otherness in places and between the occupants of those places. A doorway discriminates between those who may pass through and those whom are excluded. Often they are guarded and kept under surveillance. Usually they can be locked shut. A doorway hides more than it reveals, and controls what may be seen. Passing through a doorway may be a challenge but it is also often a reassurance, the attainment of a place of safety and privacy. . . . As in-between places, doorways are where we can be in a state of being neither here nor there, in limbo, a transitional state of becoming rather than being.

-- from Simon Unwin, Doorway (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 205

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Follow-up to the Walk...

I posted a couple of weeks ago about participating in the 2014 NYC Walk to End Alzheimer's. The photo you see here is "Team Ferrari and Friends"--AA, PO, bklynbiblio, and JG! We had more people, but a few had to drop out last-minute for personal reasons. It was a brisk morning in Riverside Park overlooking the Hudson, and unfortunately I woke up with a sore throat, but I'm thrilled to say that we accomplished an amazing feat. Our team raised $1,815 in donations to help fight the battle against Alzheimer's disease! I'm very proud of what we've done, and I'm hopeful that all of the donations brought in that day will continue to support more research to eventually find a cure or better way of surviving this disease with dignity, and supporting the caregivers who must suffer through the ordeal with their loved ones. Here's to ending Alzheimer's! Thank you, everyone, who supported our team.

MWA XXIX: Cranach's Salome

Northern Renaissance art is one of those areas in art history where, one day, I will give myself a crash course (recommendations on survey texts greatly appreciated!). Whenever I see works by masters such as Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, Gerard David, Lucas Cranach the Elder (ca.1472-1553), and others, I am astounded at their talent, their handling of oil paint, particularly on wood panels, and the often haunting beauty evident in their figures. But I always feel as if I'm missing something, as if there is more going on, beyond what you see, and I struggle to know what it is. I believe part of the challenge in understanding most Renaissance art from the German states has to do with the rise of Protestantism under Martin Luther and how that change altered the development of painting itself. Exquisite Madonnas and Nativities gradually gave way to peasant scenes and still life subjects, more acceptable forms of art that focused less on religious ritual and more on word and action. Cranach was one of those artists who successfully bridged the transition between the Catholic and the Protestant in art.

I've chosen for this Monthly Work of Art Cranach's painting of Salome, ca. 1530, oil on panel (Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest; image: Web Gallery of Art), in part because it's an eye-catching painting, but also because the rather disturbing image seemed appropriate for the upcoming Halloween season. The subject is from the New Testament (Mark 6:21-29 and Matthew 14:6-11). It is the story of Salome, the daughter of Herodias and step-daughter of Herod, who performed the so-called Dance of the Seven Veils and so entranced her step-father that he promised to give her anything she wanted. Her mother, angry at the accusations weighed against her by John the Baptist, made her ask for the prophet's head on a silver platter. Herod was forced to comply, and the cousin of Jesus was beheaded. The legend of Salome of course developed over time. In fact, she is not named in the Bible, but only given her name by Josephus, the first-century historian, decades later. Salome herself evolved over time in cultural history. Early references make her a naive child, but over time she became a femme fatale, a creature whose beauty is so powerful she destroys men. You can see that effect taking place in this painting. Cranach depicts with gore the decapitated head oozing blood while blank, dead eyes stare at the viewer. Salome seems almost devilish, grinning in delight at what she has accomplished. She has long golden braids and wears Renaissance finery (that feathered hat is incredible!), and she clutches with ease the heavy silver platter with the decapitated head as if it weighed nothing. For a Renaissance audience, this type of Salome was a daughter of Eve, a temptress and destroyer of man's innocence from the time of the Garden of Eden. But not every artist over time depicted Salome in this way. If you just do a Google Image search, you can quickly see the varying ways artists have depicted her holding the head of John the Baptist. In some, she looks away in horror (humility?), in others she seems to be in a daze (entranced?). But there are many others where Salome is depicted as in Cranach's painting, an active participant, one who kills, using her dancing and beauty to entrance mankind to her will, and to his demise.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Art Properties in the News


My department of Art Properties has been profiled in an excellent write-up in the Columbia University news by Eve Glasberg. You can read the article and see a slideshow of a few highlights from the collection by clicking here. The image above is a Buddhist sculpture from the collection: Head of a Disciple, 550-577, from China, Northern Qi dynasty, limestone with traces of pigment (S1135). The article gives a good overview of the University's art collections, and how my team and I have been changing the mission to one based more on curricular integration, educational programs, and international exhibition loans. They also filmed us reinstalling art works from the Sackler Collections in the Faculty Room of Low Library, in which I narrate a little bit about these works and the recent graduate seminar in Chinese art in which students researched and studied works from this collection.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Top 10 Read Novels: 2010-2013

Regular readers of bklynbiblio know that near the end of each calendar year, I do a "Books of" post highlighting some of my favorite reads of the year. In addition to those posts, just over 3 years ago, I blogged about my Top 10 Read Novels that I had read between the years 2005 and 2009. (Yes, I am actually that neurotic, in that I not only keep track of every book I've read, but I also rate and rank them!) Since posting that in 2011, I have been gathering a few more favorites, so I thought I would write an update, highlighting my Top 10 Read Novels from 2010 to 2013. As with the last list, it's important to realize that I'm not claiming this is my list of all-time-favorite novels, or that the books on this list were published between these years. This is my 5-star ranked list of novels I read between these years. Counting down from 10 to 1...

10. Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym (1953). Pym was my great author discovery, thanks to TC in TN, although I read this book in 2012 after having read Excellent Women (see below) in 2011. Yes, I have enjoyed Pym's books so much her name appears twice on this list. Few authors have been able to make me laugh aloud with their sardonic observations of everyday life. Here, friends Jane and Prudence, in post-WWII Britain, try to figure out what they truly want out of life and men, living between town and country, all leading to a charming ending.
9. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson (2009, English ed.). This third book in the trilogy that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo brings it all home in a way that not only resolves a lot of loose ends, but restored this reader's faith in what seemed to be the author's/narrator's blatant misogyny. The women rule the show in this book.
8. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002). This is the story of young Susie Salmon, who has been murdered. She narrates her story from the afterlife, struggling to let her family know she's still watching over them, but also trying to help them realize who it is that killed her. There is a spiritual message here, but it's not traditionally religious, and it's surprisingly very human in the end. A touching, beautifully-composed book.
7. A Russian Affair by Anton Chekhov (1896-99). This little book is a collection of a few of the Russian author's short stories, all focusing on love, grouped together by Penguin Books as part of its "Great Loves" series. These stories amazed me with their near-perfection in short form. I'm intentionally waiting a while so I can read them and relish them again, as if it were the first time. "The Lady with the Dog" in particular will leave you swooning as much as the characters do.
6. The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt (2009). Byatt still holds a special place for me as the author of my all-time favorite novel, Possession. Here she tackles twenty+ years in the lives of a group children who grow up from the 1890s to World War I. You can read my review of the book here.
5. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952). This was the first Pym novel I read, and it is (so far) the best. She will have you chuckling aloud as you pour out another cup of tea, and join thirtysomething Mildred Lathbury through another seemingly boring day with her fellow church ladies and her high-strung neighbors. You will be amazed at how much adventure can come from doing nothing. I can see Pym's influence on some of my other favorite British authors, including Byatt and Ruth Rendell.
4. Howards End by E. M. Forster (1910). Of course, I saw the Merchant-Ivory film with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins a long time ago. But having read almost all of Forster's other novels, I finally settled down for what is considered one of his best, and it did not disappoint. The Schlegel sisters are divine characters, but what amazed me most was how the individual houses all were anthropomorphized and became characters as well.
3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2008, English ed.). My thanks to PR for giving me this book. It is one of the smartest and wittiest (and tragic) books I've ever read. The dowdy, provincial concierge Renee, who works for a grand Parisian apartment building, is secretly a genius, but keeping to herself becomes more and more difficult when she inadvertently befriends both the quirky young Paloma from upstairs, who films her family because they are stupid, and a new resident in the building who sees through her disguise. My friend Shermania has blogged about the book as well and has some interesting observations.
2. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1874). I struggled as to whether this book should be number 1 on the list, and in some ways perhaps it is. The books is, truly, a masterpiece, and I think I will struggle to ever find another novel as incredibly well-written. Eliot's genius as a woman writer (using a man's name) was to make her readers realize that everyone has the capacity to think, including women (a rather new idea for Victorian men). The heroine Dorothea Brooke is so well-rounded and complex, struggling as she does to be both an intelligent and a passionate woman. But, honestly, what got to me most was the ending. I sobbed during the last few paragraphs, understanding the story's underlying message: awareness of what one's true gift to the world can and should be.
1. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875). It is rather surprising to think that Trollope's social commentary novel was published in book form just a year after Eliot's masterpiece. They are such different books, it is worth reading both of them to understand that "Victorian fiction" is most definitely not one mode of writing. Middlemarch is certainly a better-written novel and arguably a greater work of literature. But Trollope's novel is timeless in that the plot speaks as much of today's society as it did in the 1870s. Social climbing, greed, corruption, and embezzlement have not changed at all. This book can teach you a great deal about the world we live in today. It's also rather hilarious, which makes for an enjoyable read, and probably the one reason why I made it #1. You can read my pre-review I blogged about here.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Walk to End Alzheimer's 2014

Back in 2008, two years after my mother passed away, I decided to participate in the Alzheimer's Association's annual memory walk. You can read about that special day by going here. Having now lost my father to the effects to Alzheimer's as well, I decided to participate in the walk once again. 

Team "Ferrari & Friends" will be doing the 2014 NYC Walk to End Alzheimer's on Sunday, October 19th. Although we are doing this in memory of my mother and father, we are also walking in support of all those who suffer from this horrible disease and their caretakers & families who must endure the pain of this disease with them. My team currently consists of me, AA, MS, JG, and the FF-POs, but we are looking for more people to join us. Our team goal is $2500 and so far we've already raised $375. Will you help us work toward eradicating Alzheimer's disease and make a donation? You can visit our team page and make a donation online by going to http://act.alz.org/site/TR/Walk2014/NY-NewYorkCity?pg=team&fr_id=5304&team_id=231105. Thanks in advance for your help and generosity.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Munich-bound


Tomorrow I depart for Munich on a work-related trip associated with the afore-blogged story about Florine Stettheimer, for the exhibition at the Lenbachhaus. This summer got away from me and I never had a chance to blog about my trip with AA to Chicago, or even my recent get-away weekend to Maine. But hopefully I will have a chance to write about Munich. I am actually intrigued to be going here. The sculptor John Gibson visited Munich rather frequently from the 1840s on, and always seemed to enjoy it. Much of the city was destroyed during World War II, so I have been told that the architecture today has a tendency to look as if "something isn't right," to quote my former dissertation adviser PM (who kindly loaned me a little travel guide on the city). This will be a week filled with work-related tasks, but I am hopeful I will get to see many of the important art museums and collections there, most notably the Glyptothek (seen above), which houses some of the more important sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome. It's also Oktoberfest, so I suspect it will be important to drink some beer...to fit in with the locals, of course...

Sunday, September 7, 2014

MWA XXVIII: Stettheimer's Model


One of the more interesting aspects of my job at Columbia University as Curator of Art Properties has been researching the art work of Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944). Columbia holds the largest collection of her art work anywhere in the world, so it has been an insightful journey to learn more about her life and art work crafted in and among NYC's artistic elite. She and her fellow "spinster" sisters Ettie and Carrie held a regular salon in their home on the Upper West Side of NYC (not too far from where I live), and Florine had a painting studio in the Beaux-Arts building overlooking Bryant Park. They befriended and hosted some of the leading artists, writers, and theater performers of the day, including Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz, and Georgia O'Keeffe. The first international exhibition of Stettheimer's work opens later this month at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, Germany. Columbia is a major lender to this exhibition; you can read the official press release here. As a tribute, I've made September's Monthly Work of Art one of Stettheimer's most famous paintings from the Columbia collection: A Model (Nude Self-Portrait). The following is adapted from my own essay on this painting, which will be published in the catalogue for this exhibition.

"Odalisque: A Model (Nude Self-Portrait) by Florine Stettheimer"
Roberto C. Ferrari

By the time Florine Stettheimer returned to America in 1914, after spending more than fifteen years living abroad, the subject of the female nude in European art was not only a standard part of academic study, but also a means by which to experiment with Modernist practices. Stettheimer had studied at the Art Students League of New York during the 1890s, and she learned the academic practice of drawing and painting the nude female model. It is hardly surprising, then, that around 1915-16 she painted a large-scale reclining nude entitled A Model. Striking, however, is that the figure probably is a self-portrait, albeit a younger, idealized vision of herself, as she was in her mid-forties when she painted this work.(fn.1) In presenting herself as a nude, she offered the viewer a popular artistic subject, but in being painted by a woman the picture challenged its own historic origins. Stettheimer’s European contemporaries Paula Modersohn-Becker and Suzanne Valadon also painted nude self-portraits at this time. It is unknown if Stettheimer ever saw works by these women, but together they collectively introduced a modern image of how women artists could control representations of the female body.

Stettheimer’s choice of Chinese white paint makes the skin of her model modulate in tones from ivory to icy blue, and applications of palette-scraped excess over visible underpainting give texture to the curves of the model’s body. Her orange hair is short, and the playful grin on her face is held up by fragile Botticellian fingers. Her torso is frontal, showing level nipples on small breasts. She lies on an ornamental shawl with a necklace strewn nearby. Surrounded by a fringed canopy, she presents her body as if on stage. She is an odalisque, a reclining nude associated with the harem, intended for voyeuristic display.

The reclining nude has origins in Renaissance paintings like Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538; image here), a work Stettheimer greatly admired, describing it in her 1906 diary as “as beautiful as ever” after visiting the Uffizi.(fn.2) Stettheimer’s Model, however, is not a classical goddess; she shares more compositionally with the modernism of Edouard Manet’s Olympia (image right, Musee d'Orsay). Although Manet’s painting caused a sensation in Paris at the 1865 Salon for featuring a modern-day courtesan, Stettheimer’s painting shows us not a prostitute, but a modern-day woman. Both paintings show the flattening of the perspectival plane and the thrust of the nude into the viewer’s space.(fn.3) The black servant is missing from Stettheimer’s work, but the flowers remain a focal point. For Manet, these were a symbol of sexual commerce, but for Stettheimer the bouquet serves as a distraction. Stettheimer adored flowers, painting throughout her career bouquets that she called “eyegays,” instead of nosegays, because they delighted the eye.(fn.4) Stettheimer’s model holds an ornate “eyegay” in the center of the painting, intentionally distracting the viewer from the triangle of pubic hair below it, the private place that both Titian and Manet drew attention to by placing the woman’s hand directly on it.

Stettheimer’s contemporary Henri Matisse also painted reclining females such as The Blue Nude (1907; image here), which some may consider another source of inspiration. But, in fact, Matisse’s odalisques from the 1920s (e.g. image here) have more in common with Stettheimer’s painting in their depiction of the nude in an exotic setting.(fn.5) And both Matisse and Stettheimer arguably were inspired by another famous nude: J.-A.-D. Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1814; image here), painted a century before Stettheimer’s work. The manneristic body for which Ingres is famous can be seen in Stettheimer’s model, who seems to lack a skeletal structure. Under ultraviolet light, one can see that Stettheimer overpainted the attenuated legs, which bear a striking resemble to those of Ingres’s odalisque. Thus, inspired by Titian, Ingres, and Manet, Stettheimer shared with Matisse the aesthetic experiment of using shocking colors and elongated forms to modernize the academic nude.

Although A Model is seen today as an important work in Stettheimer’s oeuvre, her contemporaries never acknowledged this painting in articles published during her lifetime.(fn.6) The painting was not shown at her 1916 exhibition at Knoedler, and it was excluded from her posthumous exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946. Yet the painting clearly was important to her, for it is the only picture she proudly presented in its entirety when she painted Soirée (StudioParty) a few years later. This work shows the artist, her sister Ettie, and friends such as Leo Stein and the Hindu poet Sankar (seated beneath the model’s pudenda) in her studio. Juliette Gleizes, seated on the couch and gazing at A Model, is the only one who seems to wonder if the figure is Stettheimer herself, a comment perhaps on women’s intuition. It is this reimagining of the woman’s body, painted by a woman artist, that makes Stettheimer’s odalisque a significant contribution to the early history of modern art.

FOOTNOTES
1. Barbara J. Bloemink first argued this painting was a self-portrait, based largely on Stettheimer’s other self-representations with similar orange-colored hair, most notably Self-Portrait with Palette (Painter and Faun). The Life and Art of Florine Stettheimer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 66–68. Parker Tyler dated A Model and Self-Portrait with Palette to the same period, ca. 1915–16, also drawing attention to the similar hair color and style in each figure. However, he did not suggest that they are both Stettheimer. Florine Stettheimer: A Life in Art (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Co., 1963), p. 22.
2. Florine Stettheimer, diary entry, May 30, 1906, Stettheimer Papers, YCAL MSS 20, Beinecke Library, Yale University.
3. For a more extensive comparison between Stettheimer’s and Manet’s paintings, see Bloemink, pp. 63–67.
4. Henry McBride astutely compared Stettheimer’s paintings of flowers to those of Odilon Redon for their mysticism, and to the biomorphic forms of Joan Miró for their abstraction: “The flowers in her flower pieces were . . . mere points of departure. They are, I believe, sufficiently botanical, but they are also unearthly. I never heard her speak of Redon, and she would not have thought herself related to him, yet there is a kinship between their flowers. Both imbued them with the occult, something reaching out of this world to that other; and of the two, Florine granted them more actual freedom, and the blossoms in her vases wriggled upward with a whimsicality in the stems that is not to be outmatched for waywardness in the ‘automatic’ paintings of Miro.” Florine Stettheimer (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1946), pp. 15, 18.
5. After viewing Florine Stettheimer: An Exhibition of Paintings, Watercolors & Drawings, held at Columbia University in 1973, the composer Virgil Thomson wrote to the curator: “[Stettheimer] may be a better fauve than Matisse. Certainly she was a better painter.” Virgil Thompson to Jane Sabersky, February 24, 1973, Florine Stettheimer Papers, Box 1, Folder 6, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries.
6. Tyler, in his 1963 biography, is the first author to reference the painting. It was only with renewed interest in Stettheimer in the 1980s that art historians began to discuss this picture. Controlling her sister’s image, Ettie Stettheimer may have intentionally kept this painting away from public view because of its provocative nature.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Happy 6th Birthday!

Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday, dear bklynbiblio!
Happy Birthday to you!
Can you believe our little blog is 6 years old this coming Friday, August 29th? Wow, we really have grown. This current post is #482, and our most popular tags have surprisingly changed very little. Topping the chart is "New York" (124) and "19th-century art" (84), which retain the top spots. "England" (75) has surpassed "photography" (74), but only by a hair, and jumping up the list is "art exhibitions" (69) followed by "gay" (64). It's interesting to assess these numbers in that it shows the blog has had a consistent focus over the years. My thanks to all my readers for staying in touch with this blog for 6 spectacular years!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

MWA XXVII: Landseer's Dog


This morning, I discovered on Twitter that it was #WorldDogDay (aka #NationalDogDay). I always wonder who comes up with these official declarations, especially considering I don't recall ever having celebrated this day before (and who wouldn't want to celebrate Dog Day!?). So this morning I celebrated by tweeting a few dog-themed paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chatsworth in Derbyshire, England (home of the Duke of Devonshire--and they tweeted back), and the work you see here from the Victoria and Albert Museum: The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner, 1837, by Sir Edwin Landseer. A herding dog rests his head on the coffin of the shepherd who was his master, his empty chair in the background echoing the loss. You can almost hear the dog whimper in sadness from his expression and bodily position. The Romanticized rustic setting of the farmhouse or stable where the casket is set adds to the overall sadness of the painting. By today's standards, however, the sentimentality exuded by this painting is scoffed at by most who find the scene ridiculously saccharine, particularly because this was once accepted as a form of high art. When one thinks of dogs in art, what is the one picture everyone thinks of and laughs about as the height of bad taste? The infamous picture of dogs playing poker, of course. Admittedly, scenes such as that take anthropomorphism to a new extreme, but one shouldn't be so quick to dismiss all animal paintings because of that kitsch scene (which, perhaps important to note, was part of an advertisement scheme to sell cigars to men).

In the 19th century, the painter Landseeer was tremendously popular. His animal scenes were made into prints and distributed worldwide. He was the only British artist to win the Grand Medal of Honor at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and this was in recognition of his contributions to animal painting. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were great patrons of Landseer, in part because Albert loved greyhounds and other dogs, and Landseer was able to paint them so realistically, giving them personalities that Albert-the-dog-lover saw in the dogs himself. This idea that animals had emotions and should be treated with respect as living creatures also began in the 19th century under the influence of William Wilberforce, who eventually founded the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, of which the American version, the ASPCA, was an unofficial off-shoot). But in the art world itself, the role of animal painting was nothing new. It was recognized by the Academy as a form of genre painting, and animals for centuries had been used as subjects in paintings to convey iconographical representations of pride, sin, sexual prowess, and so on. Grand Manner portraits by Veronese, Van Dyck, Reynolds, and so on, often include dogs or other animals, the visual image telling the viewer that the subject has a sense of refinement and/or is a powerful landowner. And although I am focusing exclusively on dogs for this post, horses were another popular animal that appeared in these same portraits, signifying to viewers the wealth and power of the men depicted by these artists.

Landseer may have painted a few pictures of animals that can be read today as silly or sentimental, but the power of an image such as The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner resonated so greatly his contemporaries that when Landseer himself died in 1873 his bronze tombstone at St. Paul's Cathedral was engraved with the same work of art. It was an appropriate acknowledgment of Landseer's popularity and his significant contribution to British art and animal painting.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Restoration of Simeon Solomon's Grave

Just over a month ago, a number of friends and colleagues associated with the artist Simeon Solomon attended the rededication ceremony of his grave at Willesden Jewish Cemetery in London. I was unable to attend, in part because of the exorbitant prices to fly to London, but also because I was in Chicago at the time. As I had noted previously on this blog, Solomon's grave site long had fallen to ruin, a testament to his own reputation declining after his arrest for homosexual crimes and his subsequent death as an impoverished artist. Mr. Frank Vigon receives all the credit for taking the lead in the restoration of Solomon's grave site. My friend and colleague (and fellow Solomaniac!) Carolyn Conroy has written a short report about the ceremony and provided a number of photos, which you can read and see here on her Simeon Solomon Research Archive (which she has just this weekend updated with a new look). The photo you see here shows sculptor Joss Nankoo working on the new stone, which includes a replica of Solomon's painting The Sleepers and the One who Watcheth. It is our hope that this rededication will be another step forward in reclaiming Solomon's reputation as an important painter among the Pre-Raphaelites and in Jewish and gay/lesbian art history. I look forward to seeing his grave site on my next visit to London.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Off the Grid: Nick Arcidy

It seems incredible to me, following my father's passing, that just 5 weeks ago I was excited about the opening of my guest-curated exhibition "Off the Grid: Beyond the Noise" at the Atlantic Gallery, about which I last posted here. I never did have a chance to announce on this blog best in show. It was a difficult choice, as there were a number of excellent works in the exhibition. I had narrowed the pool down to 5 finalists, and in the end I selected as the winner Nick Arcidy for the work you see here, Ethernet Exhaltation, 2014, gouache on wood, 11 x 11 in.

I was impressed how Arcidy managed in such a small work to capture so much imagery that aptly responded to the theme of the show. He considers the technological grid that we seem unable to escape from in our world these days, and inverts it into a monastic experience, leaving the viewer uncertain if the figure seen here is praising the grid or praying to be released from it. The cathedral-like space behind the figure reverberates with icons of technology, creating a strange noise/silence that is charming and yet full of despair. Arcidy's painting made me think of The Jetsons and pseudo-science, as well as Japanese anime and advertising art. I see echoes of Kenny Scharf's work here too.

Arcidy's prize is a one-person show at the Atlantic Gallery in the spring. I look forward to seeing it in person and more from this young artist in the future. If you would like to see/hear me say a bit more about this work, here's a link to a short video clip someone at the gallery took of me having just announced Arcidy's work as best in show.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Lessons from Papà

Today was my father's memorial service in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was a beautiful service. Numerous people from the Italian-American Society of St. Petersburg were there, as were members of my family, all in celebration of my father's life. The minister, Tom Lentz, knew my father from the Society, so it was a joy to have someone lead the service who actually knew my father. My "right-hand person," Rose Marcelin, gave a lovely talk remembering the positive and fun parts of my father's life that touched so many people. We played the "Ave Maria" (Bach/Gounod, sung by Andrea Bocelli), as we had at my mother's service eight years ago, and we also played "Miserere" sung by Russell Watson and Zucchero, a song that my father used to sing and loved not only because of its beautiful harmony but because my mother loved the song so much. The message in that song is clear and appropriate for today: although sometimes we go through terrible things, we salute life for all the beauty it holds. We ended with a small group of dancers from the Society performing "La Molisana," a lovely slow dance that was one of my father's favorites when he performed with the group.

The DVD of images from my father's life included many touching moments, but also a few funny ones. I acknowledged the important role that the Society played in my father's life, and the Fountains of Boca Ciega Bay where they helped make his last few years so rewarding and respectful. I also tribute to his dear friend Karin Cline, who was his constant companion the past few years, and to Rose and my cousin Denise for their support and help through the years and at the very end. I've given my memorial talk the title "Lessons from Papà," and I have transcribed the text below. I wasn't sure I would be able to make it through the entire talk, but I'm glad that I did, as I wanted to convey to those present these memories and celebrate my special moments of his life.

Before the memorial service started, I’m sure many of you were watching the DVD of my father’s life. The images tell us a clear story—he truly lived a full life and he took pride in his family, his friends, and things that gave him great joy, like playing the drums and dancing. He also enjoyed himself on stage and performed in drag. I'm proud to say my father did drag! And he was good! For a number of years, my father taught Italian language classes for the Italian-American Society, and although we have no images of him teaching in that DVD, many of us know first-hand how much he enjoyed doing this. He did not have a degree to teach.  In fact, my father’s official education ended during World War II when the Americans bombed his high school in Milan. But even without an official education, his exuberance made him a natural in leading a classroom. Thinking about his role as a teacher, I realized that as my life has unfolded it is my father who was one of my great teachers. So I thought I would share with you some lessons in life I learned from Papà.

When I was 8 years old, I remember struggling to understand why the seasons changed. My father picked up a red apple, removed the stem, and reinserted it at a slight angle. He then began to rotate the apple along the stem’s angle, and moved his hand in a circle in the air. That was how I came to understand how the earth rotates on its axis and how the planet moves around the sun. It was also the first time it ever occurred to me that this man, my father, was rather clever.

When I used to practice the piano, he would teach me about rhythm and tempo, acting as my own personal metronome by clapping his hands to a consistent beat. It used to drive me crazy! But over time I realized how playing his drums wasn't just about making sounds. By playing the drums, he was the foundation of rhythm that made every song sound great.

My father taught me that history was not just facts about the past. He did this by telling stories. He would recount strange tales of growing up under Mussolini, of avoiding bombings, of eating marble dust in bread or marmalade again and again, and of watching Mussolini hung upside-down with his girlfriend after the War. He taught me that history is about an experienced life.

My father taught me about determination and working toward one’s goals. He emigrated to a new country without speaking the language and forged a better life for himself and for his family, in pursuit of the American dream. And he always encouraged me to find my own path and to live my own life, but to always know that he was there for me when I needed him.

One day my father told me about his life before my mother, Chris, and me, that he had been married before and had two daughters. I learned that day about honesty and integrity, but also about fallibility, watching in my father’s eyes a hidden awareness that even though he had tried to do the best he could for his daughters in Italy, he knew he had let them down by not being in their lives the same way he was in ours.

But he also showed me the power of true, unconditional parental love when, during my own personal identity crisis 21 years ago, a time when I even contemplated suicide rather than disappoint him, my father came to me and said, quite simply, “We love you, no matter what, and we are here for you. We will always love you.”

My father showed me through his relationship with my mother the power of passionate love, how it can be romantic, combustible, thrilling, violent, exciting, and extremely painful. But then he showed me the true essence of love when my mother’s sickness got worse and worse. He fed her, he carried her, he cleaned her, he held her. And toward the end, when he could do no more physically, he visited her every single day just to say hello and to hold her hand. After she died, he told me that he had loved her in those last few years more then all the intensely passionate years beforehand.

Everyone here will likely agree that my father was a happy man, someone who always wanted to throw another party, to play music, and to dance. He was not perfect, but he was a decent, hard-working man who wanted only the best in life for everyone. 

My father understood that life is a journey, an opportunity to contribute to the universe with all the gifts, talents, and love that we possess. It is that personal sense of enjoyment and experience, that thing that is not just life but living, that is the greatest lesson from my father that I will keep in my heart above all others. I salute you, Papà, and I say "Mille grazie!"

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

MWA XXVI: Leonardo's Supper


Despite everything that has been happening in my life these days, I didn't want to forgo the Monthly Work of Art, in part because it seemed rather appropriate to share as this month's subject an Italian Renaissance masterpiece that was arguably my father's favorite work of art: Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper (Il Cenacolo). Because Leonardo experimented with different media in the fresh plaster when he painted this work from about 1494 to 1498, it has suffered and degraded over time. Continuous restorations have attempted to preserve it as much as possible, so it hasn't always been available for public viewing. I saw it once with my father and Zia Marisa, and I remember more the experience of how the spotlight shines briefly then dims, so as not to expose the work to light for too long. It is beautiful in a subdued, peaceful way. It is a testament to Renaissance geometric and spatial practices in art, to create a more humanistic approach to the human form and to fool the eye into thinking a flat wall is a three-dimensional space. (So much has been written about this painting, I won't even bother commenting further. Readers are invited to post comments about their favorite texts that discuss this work though.)

When I think about why my father loved this work of art, I suspect it had less to do with all of that, however, and more to do with the fact that it is located in Milan, his hometown, at Santa Maria delle Grazie. With so many famous Renaissance and Baroque masterworks found in cities like Florence, Venice, and Rome, the placement of one of the greatest of these in Milan is rather unique. For my father I'm sure his love of this work of art was about civic pride, a constant reminder of the beauty of life, particularly during the dark days of World War II when his family struggled to find food and avoid bombings throughout the city. I choose Leonardo's Last Supper for this MWA, as a tribute to my father and to his Milanese cultural heritage.