Monday, February 9, 2015

Object-Centered Learning Symposium

Next Tuesday, February 17th, my department at work, Art Properties, is hosting a morning symposium at Columbia University entitled Object-Centered Learning: Experiencing the Authentic in a Digital Age. The symposium is free and open to the public. We have an excellent group of speakers. The symposium promises to be an engaging discussion of how close interactions with art works and cultural artifacts enhance classroom teaching across the disciplines, where digital presentation is now the norm. We've intentionally scheduled the symposium to come just after the College Art Association conference (which meets here in NYC this week), hoping to draw people from that. To attend, RSVP by emailing cul-events@columbia.edu.

OBJECT-CENTERED LEARNING:
EXPERIENCING THE AUTHENTIC IN A DIGITAL AGE

A morning symposium, free and open to the public, sponsored by

ART PROPERTIES
AVERY ARCHITECTURAL & FINE ARTS LIBRARY
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Butler Library, Room 523

9:00 a.m. Refreshments
9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Symposium

SPEAKERS

Deborah Cullen, Director and Chief Curator
Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University
The Object in the Gallery: Teachable Moments in and along the Way

Roberto C. Ferrari, Curator of Art Properties
Avery Library, Columbia University
Buddhas, Bronzes, Ceramics, and a Cradle Board: Columbia’s Art Collections in the Classroom

Senta German, Andrew M. Mellon Foundation Teaching Curator
Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford
Teaching and Learning at the First University Museum: The University Engagement Programme of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford

Michele D. Marincola, Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of Conservation
Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center, New York University
Partnering with Conservators for Object-Based Study and Learning

Avinoam Shalem, Riggio Professor of the History of the Arts of Islam
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University
What Do Objects Want?

(Image credit: Suzuki Harunobu, The Brine Maidens Matsukaze and Murasame on Suma Beach, from Japan, Edo period, 1769-70, woodblock print, Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Horace Stebbins, 1948)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Passing of Walter Liedtke


The horrible news of the train crash on the Metro North railroad yesterday evening was tragic unto itself. This afternoon, however, the names of some of those who died were released and, like many others active in the art and museum world, I was startled and disturbed to discover that Walter Liedtke was among the deceased. Walter (as I and many others knew him) was a curator for 35 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and an internationally renowned specialist in Dutch and Flemish paintings by famous artists such Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vermeer. I had the privilege of meeting Walter a number of times during the 7+ years I worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I actually taught him (along with my colleagues) how to use PowerPoint for his art historical presentations, and he attended a few of my instructional sessions on digital imaging. Whenever he came into the Image Library, he would ask me about how my graduate work and dissertation was coming along and encouraged my pursuit of art history as a career. I doubt he would have remembered me outside of my former role at the Met; nevertheless, the news of his death has impacted me more than I expected.

When I think back over those years when I was in graduate school and working at the Met, Walter was one of the more significant curators who inspired me. His art historical scholarship was brilliant, easy to read but always insightful. His presentations were engaging. His exhibitions were thought-provoking in the most creative ways, even when they were at the simplest. He curated, for instance, the loan of a single painting from the Rijksmuseum, Vermeer's Milkmaid, and combined with it a selection of paintings, works on paper, and decorative arts from across the Met's collections, exploring not only Vermeer's genius with this painting but the hidden symbolism behind what ordinarily would be seen otherwise as merely a genre scene. (I blogged about the show at the time.) It opened my eyes to the notion that one could successfully launch an informative show that focused on a single work of art. Similarly, his exhibition of paintings by Frans Hals from the Met's collection was fascinating because he wasn't afraid to move outside his comfort zone of the 17th century and demonstrate how Hals's brushstroke influenced modernist artists such as Manet and Sargent in the 19th and 20th centuries. His work on Rembrandt was legendary, and his Vermeer and the Delft School was always championed as a masterful exhibition and catalogue, although regretfully I never saw the show. Beyond his brilliance and creativity, there was an incredible charm and wit to him that always made one smile. Indeed, I learned from his example as a person how one could balance the international accolades of recognition for scholarship with a down-to-earth persona that could put anyone at ease. The Met has a few video segments and features in which Walter appears, but I think this one video, "Living with Vermeer," does a lot to help viewers understand not only the curator as a scholar but the curator as a man, mirroring the quotidian existence one finds in the Dutch and Flemish paintings he admired and taught so many people how to enjoy. I urge you to watch the short video by clicking here.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

MWA: 21 to 30

It was a year ago in February that I revisited the latest round of Monthly Works of Art from 11 to 20. Another ten have passed by, so here is the recap of #s 21 through 30. This MWA feature, which I've been doing for a while now, truly has been an attempt to bring a little beauty, and thoughts about that beauty, to readers out there. In this world in which we live, we are exposed every day--too much and in graphic detail--to news about horrific terrorist attacks and executions, natural disasters and health epidemics that destroy innocent lives, and too much lying and insulting and then false apologizing in politics, sports, entertainment, and the media. It may seem naive, but I hope that these posts about art help bring some beauty into the lives of those who read them, even if just for a few moments. We need more beauty in our lives, and there are so many exquisite examples of visual creativity out there that have demonstrated how unique and ingenious some men and women from all cultures around the world have been over time. Academically speaking, it is often considered a terrible thing these days to emphasize and discuss the aesthetics of art over its social politics, philosophical construct, and/or economic origins and reception. To speak about art's beauty first and foremost is seen to conjure the outdated writings of scholars such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), whose History of the Art of Antiquity and other writings raised personal aesthetic value on par with an understanding of the making, interpretation, and criticism of the work of art itself. Today Winckelmann is usually disregarded as outdated and historically inaccurate, and while some of this may be true factually, reading the writings of Winckelmann at least helps the viewer understand how important it is to trust one's feelings about art and beauty. Is not beauty really why people are drawn to art? It is the visual component, the way a work of art captures the eye of a viewer, makes him or her stop and look more closely, and wonder how and why the artist did what he or she did. I went into art history because I believe the appreciation of beauty in works of art is important, and I contend that we need to keep that in mind no matter how or what methodologies we use to interpret artists and their works. This does not mean to say that every work of art is always beautiful to all people. Indeed, everyone has opinions as to what is or is not beautiful. One person may love a Rubens, another a Rossetti, a third a Rothko, and each might criticize the other as being ugly or incomparable to their own source of beauty. Thus, difference in the interpretation of beauty is as equally important when it comes to appreciating art. A work of art has the power to appeal to individuals on many levels: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and frequently in a way that combines these levels. Art can do all that, and even more importantly, it can make you forget. For I hope this brief narrative about the power of art appealed to you, dear reader, and made you forget, for just a moment, all of the horrible things in our lives that I described in the opening of this paragraph.

In reviewing the past MWAs, I am amazed to see that the Good Shepherd sculpture from the Vatican still ranks as among the most popular with 568 page views. Following it is Edouard Manet's Repose with 244 views, and Isamu Noguchi's Core with 180 views. Here is the list of the MWAs from 21 to 30, and I'm pleased to see a few high numbers here as well, specifically works by the 19th-century German artist Overbeck (image above) and the 20th-century American woman artist Stettheimer (image below). You can click on the title of each to see the work and read more about it.

XXI. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow, 1565 (48 views)
XXII. Sandro Botticelli, Primavera (Spring), ca. 1482 (45 views)
XXIII. John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896 (32 views)
XXIV. Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man, 1530s (43 views)
XXV. GianLorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52 (21 views)
XXVI. Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper (Il Cenacolo), 1494-98 (28 views) [This was a tribute to my father.]
XXVII. Sir Edwin Landseer, The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner, 1837 (31 views)
XXVIII. Florine Stettheimer, A Model (Nude Self-Portrait), ca. 1915-16 (88 views)
XXIX. Lucas Cranach the Elder, Salome, ca. 1530 (25 views)
XXX. Friedrich Overbeck, Italia and Germania, 1828 (95 views)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

MWA XXXII: Houdon's Winter

The great blizzard we were expecting turned out to be a bust in NYC. We got about 8 inches of snow in Central Park and a foot at LaGuardia Airport. Nevertheless, it is reportedly still windy and cold, with snow blowing everywhere. And anyone who endures this kind of winter weather knows that one of the great challenges is trying to stay warm outdoors. That challenge is, perhaps, one of the reasons why I've always admired the sculpture you see here, which I've selected as January's Monthly Work of Art. The statue is just under life size and was made by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), an artist known to this day for his ability to capture personality and psychology in his portrait busts and statues. This sculpture, Winter, was cast in bronze in 1787 and intended as an allegory, and likely may have been intended to be grouped with other figures representing the other seasons.

Whenever I see this work in the Petrie Court at the Met Museum, I'm always struck by how successfully the sculptor personified the feeling of shivering, to the point that it makes the viewer shiver with her. One could argue that the most obvious reason why is because she is essentially nude but for the shawl draped around her head and shoulders. But the real reason she shivers is because of how she holds her body. You sense a shiver not from her nudity but from her body language. The shawl is clutched around her, her arms wrap tightly together, and her legs are pressed tightly, so as to create a feeling of warmth in the cold. With a title such as Winter, one imagines she has been removed from a narrative scene where perhaps she is poverty-stricken and shivering in the cold. In a greater display of art, it is possible Houdon intended her to be dressed, but he may have reconsidered his plan when he saw the study of the nude form itself and recognized how important the body language spoke the sensation he sought to capture. The position of her leg in contrapposto also suggests motion, and I've often wondered if perhaps she has just touched her big toe into a pool of water and that is what is making her shiver. From that perspective, the title of Winter is misleading, for this is not an outdoor scene but a naturalistic scene of a woman bathing, a tradition in art that one associates more with Japanese Ukiyo-e and Impressionist paintings and prints by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. Regardless, the girl's naturalism in her body language is what makes this sculpture so fascinating. There is a frisson of sensuality in her nudity as well, for she covers herself modestly like a Venus Pudica, and hides her innocent face with the cloak. In doing so, she is stripped of her identity and she comes to represent any innocent young woman alone in the world. Indeed, the more one ponders her state of being, one cannot help but wonder if she also represents the victim of a sexual attack, something which has robbed her of her innocence and left her shivering in the coldness of society. It is this multi-layered combination of innocence and sensuality, external coldness and bodily warmth, that makes this sculpture such a fascinating work to behold. Details of the sculpture enhance aspects of its naturalism further, how the texture of the cloth differs from her glossy fingernails and supple flesh pressing into her arm. But it is the overall sensation of her body shivering that makes this a magnificent work of art.

The Met Museum recently has launched a new online media component called Viewpoints: Body Language, in which a group of figurative sculptures are given due acknowledgment through the use of video and audio clips, highlighting their power as representations of the human form. It is worth going to the page for Winter (click here) and listening to the curator, educator, and outside scholars respond to the sculpture in short videos and audio clips. There are links on the left to numerous other works in the collection. This is a fine example of how social media can enhance the learning experience of sculpture and educate people about an art form frequently misunderstood and often underappreciated.

Monday, January 26, 2015

First Snowstorm: 2014-2015 Winter

Ever since we had our first snowfall in late November, we have had a few brief spots of snow, but it always melted quickly. Today, however, is the "snowpocalypse" and "snowmageddon" event people reportedly have been waiting for (who comes up with these ridiculous terms anyway?). It was snowing already when I went to work this morning, and by the time they let us out early a few inches had fallen and it was heavy blizzard-like conditions. I took the photo you see here as I was about to walk down the stairs outside Low Library at Columbia and stopped to admire how the snow was building up on the great bronze sculpture Alma Mater. The meteorologists were calling earlier today for over 24 in. of snow in the NYC area, but that seems like an exaggeration now. I predict we will get about a foot to 18 inches tops, although I'm sure Long Island and further north of us they will get more. Nevertheless, Governor Cuomo has stopped all the public transportation (including the subways!) and no one is allowed out in their vehicles after 11pm. We are off tomorrow as a snow day, but I'll be working from home. Overall, it's a bit late in the season for our first big snowstorm (especially when compared to last fall/winter), but you can never predict how each season will go...

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Art Properties in the Times

A few months ago, my department of Art Properties at Columbia was profiled in a news article in the university press. Now, I'm delighted to share that we've made it into The New York Times. Appearing in the print and online editions yesterday, Eve M. Kahn's excellent article about how we are raising the public profile of the university art collection is already generating some great feedback. Although I am quoted and credited as leading the charge in this new mission, it is important to emphasize that my staff is essential to everything we do. Without them, nothing could be accomplished the way we are doing it. You can read the article online by clicking here. Also, this seems like a good opportunity to mention that you can also find a few works from the university art collection in digital format by going to our collection page on Artsy.net: https://www.artsy.net/avery-library.

Image credit: Florine Stettheimer, Self-Portrait with Paradise Birds (Self-Portrait in Front of Chinese Screen), no date, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 31 3/4 in., Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967 (1967.23.13).

Thursday, January 1, 2015

500 Posts and Happy 2015!


January 1, 2015...HAPPY NEW YEAR! I start off each year with the proper greeting. Sometimes I modify the layout of the blog, but I've decided to leave it as is for now. However, I have added a link to the bklynbiblio Instagram account, so check it out and follow me there, as well as on Twitter (where we now have reached 515 tweets). The big news, however, is that this New Year's Day post also coincides with the 500th post on this blog. The image above is from the Fortune 500 list from 2014; the bold, gold numbers seemed appropriate for a New Year's association. (It is strangely coincidental that two years ago we reached the 400th post on New Year's Day.)

When I first started this blog back in August 2008, I envisioned it as a space where I could write and see the results of my writing. I was still taking courses in my doctoral program, and I lamented that I could not spend more time writing my own work. A blog seemed to be the most logical way to do this. People claim that blogs today are dead, and arguably social media products like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are the preferred way of maintaining communication. But I still find this blog an effective place for me to write. It is a virtual zone where I can be creative or critical, analytical or entertaining. It is an aesthetic arena in which I can share images of works of art so they can be admired and contemplated as objects of beauty and constructs of social engagement. What I never imagined was, more than 6 years later, that I would still be writing this blog and that I would reach my 500th post. It is a milestone, and I am admittedly proud of this accomplishment.

As always, I find these centenary markers an opportunity to share some interesting statistics about bklynbiblio. Since August 2008, there have been 91,565 page views. That works out to be approximately 1189 page views per month. More than half of the traffic coming to the blog is from U.S. Internet addresses, but after that the traffic comes from, in order, the United Kingdom, France, Ukraine, and Germany. (This is an interesting contrast to the top countries when we had hit 400 posts: UK, Germany, Canada, and Russia.) About 40% of readers use Internet Explorer to read my blog posts, followed by 26% on Firefox and 19% on Chrome (note: I use Chrome for all my blogging). Most interesting, of course, are the blog posts that rank as the highest viewed. Amazingly, #s 1 and 2 have retained their top most popular posts, while #3 moves up one from its former position. The next two are new entries and I'm pleased to see at #5 one of my Monthly Works of Art. Here are the official ranks:
#1. Male Enhancement [Jul. 5, 2010; 2090 views]
#2. Review: Yinka Shonibare MBE [Sep. 6, 2009; 1038 views]
#3. Is It Baroque, and Do We Fix It? [Aug. 7, 2011; 513 views]
#4. Post-Queer Art History [Oct. 13, 2009; 445 views]
#5. MWA II: Vatican Shepherd [Apr. 7, 2012; 438 views]
Among the ranks for #6 through #10 are my obituary of art historian Lionel Lambourne and my post about the sale of Simeon Solomon's signed copy of his 1871 prose poem A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep dedicated to Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Although this blog is a way for me to express myself, my writing only has perpetual value because there are readers out there who appreciate, agree, disagree, comment, "like," and respond to these words over time, if not on this blog directly, then in emails, on social media, and in person. Thank you, readers, for helping bklynbiblio reach its 500th post. Here's to reaching 600!

Travels of 2014: From Maine to Munich


I enjoy traveling. Well...to be more accurate...I enjoy all the experiences I can gather when I visit a new city or country...but getting there isn't necessarily something enjoyable. Nevertheless, it is a necessity and worth enduring for the end result. I am about to do this yet again as I return to Munich on another work-related trip. Not all travel is a vacation, as the trip to Munich was work (although, as I will comment on below, I did have the opportunity for some site-seeing). And then there are the personal family-related trips, such as the 7 I made to Florida in 2014 that were all largely associated with my father's care. As bklynbiblio readers know, he passed away in July, and although I miss him terribly, I am fortunate that I was able to be with him for his passing. We had his services in August, and it was truly a celebration of his life. On my March visit, I was very glad that AA joined me to meet the family and my father, and a year ago on my January visit I also made a short jaunt to Jacksonville to see my dear friend SVH and meet my canine nephew Winnie, a rambunctious young greyhound. October saw me back again for the SECAC conference in Sarasota, and I took a day to see the family again, and I made another quick trip back for Christmas as well. As emotionally challenging as these visits were to endure while my father was getting worse and worse, it always has been a comfort to know I have family and friends there to help create balance and give me the opportunity to also enjoy some parts of those trips.

In May I made a 60-hour trip to Seattle for the AAMG conference, about which I blogged here. My memory of Seattle from 1997 was better than I experienced this time, but that was because my colleague DCM and I weren't in the downtown area but in the university district, which was removed from the things we would have wanted to see, like Pike Place Market. Over Memorial Day weekend, AA and I joined the FF-POs for a few days in Montreal and Quebec City, which I absolutely loved. I blogged about that trip here. I still have fond memories of Quebec City and look forward to visiting again in the near future.

Over the long 4th of July weekend, AA and I went to Chicago, one of the American cities long on my list of places to visit. I loved it! And I cannot stress to readers how difficult that is for this NYer to admit to! The one thing I did hate was the pizza. Fortunately everything else outweighed that. The city is clean. The architecture is magnificent. Lake Michigan is simply amazing. (We spent 4th of July on JK's boat on the Lake and watched the fireworks from there--just awesome!) Millennium Park is tons of fun; the image you see here shows Anish Kapour's interactive sculpture with the skyline behind it. And then there was the Art Institute of Chicago, where I finally was able to see the work you see at the top of this post: Georges Seurat's Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884-86. I think my photograph of viewers staring at the painting demonstrates well how observers inevitably become part of the melange of social classes intermingling in the park in true pointilist fashion, as Seurat likely intended. On our last day in Chicago AA and I climbed the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) and I confronted my fear of heights by climbing out onto the glass ledge. I can't say I am no longer afraid of heights...truthfully it terrified me even more...but it was important that I did it. (AA of course strolled out there like it was nothing. He is fearless. So annoying!) We also took a day trip to Milwaukee, which I wasn't so crazy about, although the Calatrava-designed wing on the art museum is spectacular, particularly overlooking Lake Michigan.

After my father's funeral, I needed to get away for a few days and have a truly relaxing trip with very little to do, so AA and I flew to Boston then drove to Maine. I had not been in Maine since about 1998 or so, and I had only visited Ogunquit at that time. We went there our first night and it was everything beautiful I remembered. Walking along the rock paths overlooking the Atlantic was just breathtaking. I love the fresh smell of sea air, the cool breeze blowing off the water, and the sound of nature's ferocity as waves crash against the rocks like the crack of a slap but with a magnificent electric sting. With each passing day we moved up the coast further and visited Portland, Cape Elizabeth with its famous lighthouse (seen here), Camden (so adorable...best clam chowder ever!), Belfast, and Lincolnville...an adorable little spot with nothing to do...exactly what I needed. I hated having to leave, because we only made it 1/3 of the way up the coast, but I do look forward to visiting again. I really loved that relaxing summer weekend in Maine.

As for Munich, I was fortunate amidst all my days of work to have some free time to hit so many of the museums. The Lenbachhaus, where the exhibition was held, is close to the Glyptothek and the Alte and Neue Pinakotheks, so I was able to see all the masterworks of ancient, Renaissance, and modern art that I was eager to see. One of the photos you see here is a zoomed-in shot of the glockenspiel, the mechanical life-sized music performers that play a few times a day in the main square, Marienplatz. Munich surprised me frequently. The old streets wind like concentric circles in a way that as soon as you assume you are walking east, suddenly you are walking southwest. I got lost so many times it was ridiculous. However, it gave me more of an opportunity to see much of the city as a result. I was also surprised at how German and Italian it was. There is Germanic architecture, but there is a surprising amount of Italianate architecture as well, and indeed I found myself able to communicate using Italian more than English with various people. The Oktoberfest was starting while I was there, so I had a chance to visit the grounds. It is basically a giant beer festival, but family friendly (and gay friendly--another surprise!). lederhosen and "beer wench" Bavarian costumes were everywhere. The pastries and pretzels were divine...(why don't we use pretzels as bread? it's ingenious!)...I devoured about 3 of these plum tarts that you see in the picture below. I definitely enjoyed Munich much more than my trip to Frankfurt last year. Rumor has it there is about a foot of snow on the ground in Munich at present, and potentially more coming this weekend....it better not ruin more chances to see the city over the weekend before work starts!

What's on the travel agenda for 2015? I have a work trip to Fort Worth coming up. I may do a pop-over to London to see a few exhibitions I'm very interested in. But the big trip I'm very much looking forward to is Italia in April. I have not been since 2009, so I am going first to visit family, and then AA is flying over with the DPG-JBs and we are going to visit Rome, Florence, and Milan. I'm even scheduled to give a talk at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome while I'm there. More details coming soon....

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Auction Sales of 2014


Last year when I wrote about the annual round-up of highest art sales at auction, I had listed what was then the top 5 highest prices ever paid at auction for works of art because some new records had been made in the ranks. Those top 5 listings have not changed this year, and Picasso, Warhol, and Bacon still dominate the art market, even if works by them did not break new records in modern and contemporary art. You can read articles about the top sales in the Huffington Post and ARTnews. But the biggest news in this world was that Christie's reached an all-time single-night sale total of $852.9m for its modern and contemporary sale in New York in November. ("The Old Masters are dead; long live the Mod/Con!"--or so it would seem!) The work of other modern artists continue to break records, including new high sales for early modernist painter/sculptor Amedeo Modigliani and, one of the surprises, Cy Twombly, whose untitled 1970 "blackboard"-like work sold for $69.6m. (I am a fan of Modigliani, but Twombly still baffles me.) Joining the top sales of the year were paintings by Ab Ex painters Newman and Rothko, which is not very surprising.

For me, however, the top sales of the year that were most interesting are the four I've listed here, in chronological order of when they were created.
1) J.M.W. Turner's Rome, from Mount Aventine, 1835, broke the record for this important British landscape painter. It was one of a dozen or so paintings by him still held in a private collection, and sold earlier this month in London for £30.3m ($47.4m). The image above shows the magnificent Italian landscape painting held by two art handlers at Sotheby's London (photo: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images).
2) Edouard Manet's Printimps (Spring), 1881 (right), broke the record for Manet's work as well, selling for $65.1m in New York. Of all the sales that took place this year, only this work was acquired by a museum rather than a private collector, with the Getty bringing another fantastic Manet into their collection.
3) Georgia O'Keeffe's Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1, 1932, sold for a record $44.4m in November, breaking the record not only for this significant American modernist painter, but setting  a a new bar as the highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art by a woman artist.
4) Alberto Giacometti's Chariot, 1950, sold for $101m. The bronze sculpture of an attenuated woman's figure attached to chariot wheels is not a record, as another work by Giacometti, about which I blogged in the past, still beats it, but this came very close.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Neville & Bagge and The Netherlands Apartments


I moved into my current studio apartment on the Upper West Side in Summer 2013. It is a condo building at present, and I rent my apartment from the owner. The picture you see here is a shot of the outside of the building, called The Netherlands. It is a lovely building with 12 floors and roof access, a beautiful marble foyer for a  rather grand entrance, and doormen, porters, and a superintendent who are all really great guys. I truly have enjoyed living here for the past year and a half. Interestingly, though, about 6 months ago, I discovered that my living in this building was, perhaps, kismet. I was having a conversation in the basement laundry room with my neighbor PC, whom I was actually just meeting at that time. He has been a resident here for a few decades, and knew much about the building's changes over time. At some point in the conversation, he mentioned that it was designed by Neville & Bagge. "Wait," I interrupted him, "did you just say Neville & Bagge?" He confirmed he had. I was dumbfounded. I knew Neville & Bagge had designed rowhouses in NYC around the turn of the 20th century, but I did not know they had designed apartment buildings. PC asked why this interested me so much, and I replied, "Because Bagge of Neville & Bagge was my great-uncle!"

Indeed, this is quite true. My great-uncle was George Arthur Bagge, the older brother of my great-grandmother Jessie Bagge Ambrose (whose daughter Martha was my grandmother, and whose daughter Kathleen was my mother!). I have actually blogged about my great-grandmother in a post about census records, but having now heard this news about the building in which I was living, I got very excited to learn more, knowing one day soon I would write a blog post about all this. That day has finally arrived. (This post may have a sequel, as PC has been waiting anxiously for me to write this, and I suspect he may have more information to share about our building!)

I began my research by consulting architectural historian Christopher Gray's incredibly helpful website for his Office for Metropolitan History Building Permits Database, 1900-1986. I confirmed that Neville & Bagge did indeed design this building. They applied for a new building permit from the City in 1908. The owner was Harry Schiff, who lived at 320 W. 113th St., while Neville & Bagge's office address was given as 217 W. 125th St. To give some sense of meaning to the location of their architectural office, they were in Harlem just down the street from where the famous Apollo Theater would be built. (The theater itself did not open until 1914 and it was originally a burlesque theater, not becoming the Apollo until the 1930s, when it then gave rise to famed musicians of the Harlem Renaissance; read more here.) Construction of The Netherlands began that year and was completed in 1909. One of the earliest advertisements I could find for the building was published in The New York Times on August 29, 1909. The building at that time had 36 apartments, 3 to each floor, and it was described in the advertisement as follows:
This new 12 story fireproof, sound-proof building, has one of the finest locations in Manhattan. Every apartment commands a sweeping view of the Drive [i.e. Riverside Drive], the Hudson and the Palisades on the opposite shore. . . . The apartments are desirably planned and the rooms are unusually large. Perfect light and ventilation prevail throughout. Cabinet hard woods have been used exclusively in the finish. Halls five feet wide, parquet floors; telephones, shower baths, combination wall safes, cedar lined closets, call bells and annunciators, electric wall switches, mail chute, filtering plant and vacuum cleaning apparatus, in addition to the many other improvements.
Rents started at $2,000. I pay almost that much per month for my studio now, which is not unheard of for NYC apartments today, but in 1909 that price got you an 8- or 9-room apartment. We are so accustomed to thinking about rents per month that I actually thought at first $2,000 was the monthly rental in 1909, but one of my neighbors did an historical cost analysis, and we have since determined that was the rent amount per year for an 8- or 9-room apartment. That means the monthly rate would have been on average $167! Times definitely have changed.

PC gave me the image you see here, which shows the 1909 plan for a typical floor of 3 different apartment layouts at The Netherlands. Each apartment had either 3 or 4 bedrooms--and a maid's room! My studio today has been created from one of the bedroom/bathroom/maid's quarters that once was part of the apartment next door. My studio looks out onto what was then called the "court." I confess that natural lighting in my apartment is abysmal, in part because I am on a lower floor and facing only the light shaft. But considering the quality of lighting, it is fascinating to look back at the description above and notice how they comment on the "sweeping view" and "perfect light and ventilation" that were marketing features for the property at the time (not to mention the modern amenities). Many of the larger apartments do still have windows on the outside walls, but it is worth noting that they cited views of Riverside Drive as part of the benefit of living in this building. That feature clearly was short-lived, because just a few years later, a new building went up next door, and it completely blocked views of Riverside Drive and the Hudson River from the west. (And if you want to know more about that building, just read this listing for the William Randolph Hearst penthouse...just a mere $31m.)

The continuing history of The Netherlands has other interesting tidbits that I have discovered. Owner Schiff went on to develop a number of other buildings in the area (e.g. the Cleburne Building on West End and 105th St., originally the site of the mansion owned by Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus, who perished on the Titanic). Schiff ultimately sold his interest in The Netherlands. According to a July 16, 1920 article in the Times, the building was sold to The Netherlands Holding Co., a co-operative comprised of the tenants who lived there, headed by Russell R. Kittell. But the co-op clearly didn't last and presumably reverted back to private ownership. On January 1, 1943, an article in the Times reported that the building had been sold by then-owner Frederick Brown to an undisclosed buyer, and they note that the building had 68 apartments and "was altered some time ago by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company into small suites," probably producing many of the layouts as they still exist today (such as my studio). I have not yet traced many individuals from the past who have lived here, but I am still searching. I did find through newspaper searcher that the German-born artist Anton Schutz (1894-1977) lived here around 1930. Also, in August 1921, Mrs. Mae Jordan, ex-wife of a physician named Dr. William Rosenbaum, was found dead of an apparent suicide in her apartment on the 7th floor of the building. Sadly, she appears to have been broke following her divorce, while her husband lived comfortably up the street in the still-ritzy Belnord Apartment.

Few people know much about the architects who designed The Netherlands, Neville & Bagge, in part because the majority of records and designs from their firm, sadly, no longer seem to exist. Nevertheless, we know that they designed numerous buildings in NYC, including about 15 in my neighborhood alone, as well as many others in the Morningside Heights (near Columbia University) neighborhood. Columbia architectural historian and Professor of Historic Preservation Andrew S. Dolkart has written about Neville & Bagge's work in these parts of the City, citing for instance a number of five-story rowhouses they designed along Riverside Drive, all in the neo-Renaissance style fashionable among the upper middle classes when they were built in the 1890s. In his book Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development, he writes: "Although Neville & Bagge was one of the most prolific firms active in New York at the turn of the century, almost nothing is known about either Thomas P. Neville or his partner George A. Bagge." Dolkart goes on to note that architects such as they were often criticized in professional journals at the time for their lack of education and training, but he points out that they were "proficient in producing well-planned and well-appointed dwellings at the reasonable costs expected by developers" (279), which explains their success at the time. It pleases me to know, then, that I can fill in some of the gaps and provide information, possibly for the first time, about Neville & Bagge.

The architect George Arthur Bagge was born in Manchester, England, on October 16, 1867, and died in the Bronx, New York on January 20, 1958. He was one of 8 children born to George Bagge (1836-ca.1910) and Mary Smith (1842-ca.1910). His father was a joiner and bricklayer from Norfolk who gradually made his way north for work and ended up in Lancashire where he married and had his family. (In a strange twist, however, my great-grandmother Jessie was the only one of their children to be born in Chiswick, near London, during a brief residential stay there.) The family all appear in the 1881 census living in Levenshulme, Lancashire, but later that year and into 1882 they made their way in groups across the Atlantic to settle in the United States. Surprisingly, George Arthur Bagge traveled alone at the age of 11 on the Arizona, arriving in NYC on the June 5, 1882. His father and sister Jessie already were established there, and his mother and siblings would arrive later that year. By 1883 the Bagge family was living at 228 E. 110th St. and father George was working as a carpenter. On October 28, 1892, father George was naturalized with his family, but his son George Arthur contended in a later passport application that he had been naturalized on October 17, 1890.


The image you see here is a detail from the 1900 census showing Bagge's family. On November 16, 1887, George Arthur Bagge married Mary E. C. Willoughby (1869-1954), the daughter of Jeremiah and Margaret Wood Willoughby, and they had three children: Frank (1889-?), George Arthur (1892-1976), and Edward Jared (1894-1977). It is uncertain where or when Bagge received his architectural training, but it is likely that he moved into this profession through his family connections (note: his brother-in-law, my great-grandfather Thomas Ambrose, was a mason). I have found evidence of a few Atlantic crossings for Bagge, in the mid-1890s, 1900, and 1920, and we know he did visit various European countries where, presumably, he advanced his study from direct observation of Beaux-Arts architectural designs. Dolkart claims that Neville & Bagge was established in 1892, and this is supported by the fact that this is the earliest this name appears in the New York City Directory, with their office listed as being on W. 125th St. From 1892 until at least through the 1900 census, Bagge and his family lived on what was then 2187 Seventh Ave., now known as Adam Clayton Powell Blvd., the extension of Seventh Ave. north of Central Park. This address was just a few blocks away from his architectural firm. (As an aside, Bagge's nephew John Edwin Eaton, the son of his oldest sister who remained in England, emigrated in 1905 to the United States to work in the firm as well, clearly a sign of Neville & Bagge's growing success. You can read more about J. E. Eaton in a this earlier blog post.)

Bagge's partner, Thomas P. Neville, was born in 1874 in New York, the son of Irish immigrants Thomas and Ann Neville. The 1900 census shows Neville living with his parents and his occupation is listed as an architect. Hence, this clearly is the man who was Bagge's partner. However, considering that Neville would have been only 18 years old when Neville & Bagge began, it seems very strange that the younger partner would be the primary feature in the firm's name. Upon closer examination of the 1900 census, however, one discovers that Thomas Neville, Sr. listed his occupation as a builder. Hence, the partnership between Bagge and Neville was, then, based not just on architectural design but construction as well. Thomas P. Neville and George Arthur Bagge may have been the architects, but Thomas Neville Sr. presumably built their rowhouses and apartment buildings.

According to Gray's online database for new permits issued after 1900, Neville & Bagge requested permits for 401 house and building projects between the years 1900 and 1917 (note: that doesn't necessarily mean that they built that many, but received permits to do so). After 1917, there are no more permits under that company name, and little is known about what became of the Nevilles. One does find after 1921, however, 29 building permits issued in Manhattan to "Geo. A. Bagge & Sons," and indeed his sons joined their father as architects too. Bagge and his family had moved to the Bronx by 1905, and by 1920 he and his wife were living in Mt. Vernon, NY. After that, we know when and where Bagge and his wife died, but I have yet to trace where they were buried. I also have not had success tracing his descendants. It is hoped that one day perhaps someone will read this post and know who and where those descendants might be. Perhaps then we will discover an archive of architectural drawings and records for Neville & Bagge, including much more information about The Netherlands apartment building, which opened 105 years ago.

Works Cited:
Andrew S. Dolkart, Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development (New York: Columbia UP, 1998).
Christopher Gray, Office for Metropolitan History, "Manhattan NB Database 1900-1986," accessed May 11, 2014, http://www.MetroHistory.com.
Census data from the National Archives, provided by Ancestry.com.
Articles cited from issues of The New York Times.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Art Exhibitions of 2014

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a few hours so I could finally see a number of exhibitions they have on at present. I confess I felt rather nostalgic walking through the galleries, remembering fondly my 7 years of having worked there, reinforced by lunch with my curatorial friend JD and coffee with my former library colleagues and friends CD & SP. The current exhibitions are all excellent. The Renaissance tapestry show of the work of Flemish artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst will blow your mind when you turn the corner and see all the gorgeous tapestries installed down a long corridor. Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire is luxurious and fascinating for what could be a morbid topic. The room-installation of Thomas Hart Benton's 1930-31 mural America Today is amazing--you can almost hear jazz playing as the characters sway from one American scene to another. But the greatest part of my day was the exhibition on the Venetian sculptor Tullio Lombardo's Adam, seen here, fully restored. In 2002 the pedestal for the sculpture collapsed and, horrifyingly, the ca.1490-95 sculpture shattered. After 12 painstaking years of intensive study, and utilizing new technologies, the object conservators were able to restore this life-sized statue to near-perfect condition. The sculpture is an exquisite piece, clearly an influence on Michelangelo's David, and important as an early idealized male nude sculpture in Renaissance art. The videos on the website and in the gallery amaze you to see how they successfully conserved and restored the sculpture.

This year the best exhibitions for me were all on sculpture. In addition to the Adam just mentioned, the Met put on two excellent sculpture exhibitions. One was on the works of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875), who reinvigorated French sculpture during the Second Empire with a Baroque-style energy that excited and scandalized people of the day. Running earlier in the year at the Met was another sculpture exhibition, The American West in Bronze, 1850-1925, an excellent show that aesthetically changed one's mind about works you once might have considered to be little more than living room kitsch. At Columbia's Wallach Art Gallery, a great sculpture show was put on about Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973), about which I blogged here. Finally, at the Yale Center for British Art, the long-awaited Victorian sculpture exhibition there brought together about 130 works that changed one's mindset about what defines sculpture and how it can be made. The show also demonstrated the power of the curatorial eye with a fine selection of finely-crafted statues, reliefs, and decorative objects in an array of media. The first work one encountered in the exhibition, as seen in my photo here, exemplifies the surprises of the show. This is a Minton ceramic elephant measuring 84 inches in height, part of a pair, that was first exhibited at the 1889 Exposition Universelle. I have a review of this exhibition being published in the spring, so I will share more when it comes out, but for now, here is what I wrote about this gorgeous majolica elephant: "The elephant reveals a high degree of craftsmanship that demonstrates the successful union of man and industry, but it also has a deeper meaning. Displayed as part of a cultural parade, its empty howdah decorated in Mughal textile designs and awaiting a royal occupant, the tamed elephant represents the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown: India and all its riches. This work in the foyer thus foreshadowed others in the galleries of Sculpture Victorious: masterpieces of human and industrial design, and socio-political symbols of the British Empire."

If I had to choose my favorite exhibition of the year, however, it would be, without a doubt, Kara Walker's sugar-sculpture installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: A Subtlety: or, the Marvelous Sugar Baby. Walker is one of my favorite contemporary artists, and in this work she went beyond anything she had done before. Commissioned by Creative Time as a temporary installation, before the building was scheduled to be demolished, Walker designed a massive, sugar-coated, sphinx-like creature with the body and facial features of an "Aunt Jemima" type, to remind visitors of the intricate ties between the West's love of sugar and its intertwined history of slavery. The work was powerful and had lines of people waiting to get in. A group of friends of mine all went together to see it in June, and we were mesmerized. There are numerous images online that people took, so I'm only sharing here one I took to show the scale of the sculpture in the warehouse and the diminutive nature of the people around it. As time passed, the sugar gradually changed color, and the surrounding molasses "little black Sambo" boys melted and fell apart. After you were in the warehouse a while, the smell of the sugar and molasses became so sickeningly sweet you had to leave and get fresh air. This was all part of the artist's intent, to create a temporal, multi-sensory sculptural environment. When the show closed, most of the sculpture was destroyed (what had not disintegrated on its own already), although there is at present at Sikkema Jenkins an after-show that exhibits her sketches and designs, and an arm Walker kept as her own personal souvenir. This sculptural installation was truly a tour de force of artistic achievement, for the artist and the audience.

Aside from sculpture exhibitions, one major art exhibition highlight for me was Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery at the Asia Society. This historical monastery and its Buddhist treasures was constructed in the 12th century but destroyed during China's Cultural Revolution. The installation included discovered and recovered treasures alongside historical photos, but the most amazing part of this exhibition was having the opportunity to witness the monks make a sand mandala. This was an ongoing event for 5 days with 5 monks. You would expect it to be solemn, quiet, and peaceful. On the contrary, the monks were very engaging with visitors, including taking photos with them. They often laughed too, but then quickly would return to their back-breaking, eye-straining work of constructing this mandala. The most amazing moments were when they would help one another, knowing that one had more expertise than another, and they could share in the responsibility of building this sand mandala together. Their humanity made this a very spiritual experience. You can watch a great time-lapse video of them making the sand mandala here.

Other exhibitions from this year worth noting included:
** Pre-Raphaelite Legacy at the Met Museum, a small but groundbreaking show for them to finally acknowledge the accomplishments of these Victorian artists;
** Beauty's Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America at The New-York Historical Society, about which I blogged here;
** At the Guggenheim Museum, the fantastic multi-media exhibition on Futurism, Italy's modernist art movement, and the riveting photographs of African-American feminist artist Carrie Mae Weems;
** Florine Stettheimer at the Lenbachhaus in Munich (although I guess technically I have only seen it "in process" and will have to wait until early January to see the final, full exhibition!);
** And my dear friend and colleague Meera Thompson at Atlantic Gallery.

I would be remiss if I forget to mention my own two small, curated exhibitions--15 Minutes: Andy Warhol's Photographic Legacy and Off the Grid: Beyond the Noise--both of which I thought were rather well done...if I may say so myself.

UPDATE (12/14/14): One of the blockbuster exhibitions of the year, that previously had opened in London and is now on here in NYC is Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. Everyone I know who has seen it loves the show, and it has been on my "must see" list, but I dread going to MOMA because of the crowds so I wasn't sure what to expect. Fortunately, AA and I decided to make the trek there today and it actually wasn't as bad of a crowd as I anticipated. The exhibition is very good, demonstrating well how Matisse used paper cut-outs and collage as a form of painting unto itself. It is a smart show about materiality, color, composition, and artistic technique. We also had a chance to pop into the Robert Gober exhibition. He is one of those contemporary artists I typically don't appreciate much, but this retrospective helped change my mind a bit with his theme-and-variation sculptural objects and large-scale installation spaces. It was all rather tongue-in-cheek and clever, I must say, so I do have a better appreciation for Gober now.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Books of 2014

Once Thanksgiving rolls around, I find myself anxiously awaiting the latest "100 Notable Books of" article from the editors of The New York Times Book Review, and the 2014 edition was released online yesterday. I find it interesting to compare it to similar lists, such as those issued by Amazon and the Huffington Post. Two interesting fiction titles stand out and they have now gone on my "to read" list: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the latter of these two also appearing in the NYT's list for the top 5 novels of the year. As I've noted in my recurring posts on this topic, I rarely have read anything on the list once it's published, but I'm pleasantly surprised to say that I did read as soon as it came out Sarah Waters's new novel The Paying Guests, which made it on the list for this year. Taking place in early 1920s suburban London, it is a lesbian love story, but packed with fascinating social history and a surprising twist involving murder. There are a few things on the non-fiction side of the NYT list that intrigue me, but nothing I feel the need to run out and purchase. Hermione Lee's biography of the novelist/biographer Penelope Fitzgerald, however, has me wondering why I have never read anything by her before (her meaning Fitzgerald).

Regular bklynbiblio readers know that I use this annual list to recount my own reading over the course of the year. (See, randomly, posts for 2013 and 2009, or even my recent post on "Top 10 Read Novels: 2010-2013.") This year I've read to date 19 books. One of the strange events in my reading life this year was purchasing a Kindle, so I've embarked on reading a couple of books that way. I'm not sold on it yet, though. I like holding books, and find that tangibility helps make reading for me something active rather than passive. Art books are also still nowhere in the realm of easy reading on electronic devices because of the legal and technical limitations in reproducing works of art in color. I was pleased to have read a few good art books this year, however. I loved Edmund de Waal's Hare with Amber Eyes about his family's netsuke collection (see my review here), and my recent visit to Munich inspired me to buy and read the book you see here, about one of my favorite modernists, Franz Marc, who found the spiritual in painting animals, was a founder of the Blaue Reiter group, and died tragically at a young age fighting for Germany during World War I. Currently I am reading two art books, both part of the Oxford art history series. One is Portraiture by Shearer West, an overview on the history and different ways of looking at portraiture, with the chapter I am in now on gender and portraiture promising to be one of the more interesting. The second is Matthew Craske's Art in Europe 1700-1830, a socio-economic history of art at the time, which I am slowly moving through. 

One year ago, when I posted about the 2013 list, I was reading Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement, which had been on the NYT list that year. It was quite a heart-wrenching tale and definitely among her better books. I had the opportunity to hear her speak and meet her at a book signing at the Asia Society, which was a treat. I told her that her book The Hundred Secret Senses was among my favorites, and she said, "Oh, I guess I should reread that!" Also from the NYT 2013 list, I read this year David Leavitt's The Two Hotel Francforts, which was interesting but not great, and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, which was an incredibly clever book that I truly enjoyed. Atkinson's story is about an Englishwoman named Ursula who is born in 1911 and proceeds to die as an infant, then is reborn in a new version of that same life. She continues to be reborn and make decisions that alter things for her and others around her as the chapters unfold. It was a fascinating take on the idea of whether one would choose the same paths in life if given the opportunity to do it all over again. Elsewhere in fiction, I continued my discovery of Barbara Pym by reading her novel A Quartet in Autumn, about the invisibility of seniors in the modern world. I also read Jane Austen's Emma this year, which I have to confess was not as engaging as I had hoped, possibly because I'm still blindsided by George Eliot's Middlemarch read last year. Another favorite novel I read this year was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Although written for young adults, it was a profound take on loss and grief, and hatred and love. The narrator is Death, and it tells the story of a young girl who endures much during Germany in World War II, but also discovers the power of reading and writing as a way of helping herself and others. The film version is well-done too, but the book has greater pathos. Of course I sneak in during the year a couple of mysteries by Ruth Rendell, and I am currently reading, in addition to the two art history books above, Agatha Christie's final Hercule Poirot murder mystery Curtain. This is the end of a long saga for me in which I have been reading all of Christie's mysteries in the order they were published, so perhaps I will say more about that in another post.

Monday, December 1, 2014

MWA XXXI: Duccio's Madonna

Duccio di Buoninsegna (died 1318) is one of those significant artists about whom we know very little, but whose artistic sensibility changed the development of Western art. He lived and worked during a time when named individuality in the creation and attribution of Christian art was only just coming into acceptance. He lived at the dawn of what we now think of as the Renaissance, a time when ideas of humanism and the rediscovery of classicism challenged the stylistic representations crafted previously by medieval artisans. His contemporaries included the writers Boccaccio and Dante, and in painting he was rivaled only by Giotto. While Duccio was from Siena, Giotto was from Florence, and although tourists today think of these two cities as must-see sights when visiting Tuscany, at the time they were rival city-states. Art historians today name these two men as the "grandfathers" of Renaissance art. Giotto's art is typically more linear and narrative, but Duccio's paintings are characterized by more humanistic emotion. This is evident in the work you see here by Duccio, Madonna and Child, which has been dated to ca. 1290-1300 with scientific analysis and stylistic comparisons against other works attributed to him.

This work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is rather diminutive in size, measuring about the size of a sheet of paper, and painted in tempera and gold on a wood panel. Unlike related works at this time, suggesting it should be part of an altarpiece, this panel in fact was intended to be an individual devotional piece. There is in fact evidence of candles burning the bottom edge, reinforcing its ecclesiastical intent. The gold surface and the subject of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child suggest the influence of Byzantine art and religious icons on Duccio. Gold, then as now, was not cheap, so the use of it suggests it likely was a commission from a wealthy, private donor. The gold would have reflected candlelight and made for a serene object for personal devotion. This emphasis on gold is, perhaps, appropriate considering the painting's afterlife. This small work cost the Met a reported $45 million when they purchased it in a private sale in 2004. It was (and still is) the most money that museum ever spent on an acquisition. When one considers other works of art in recent years that have sold for record high prices, such as $135m for a Klimt and $250m for a Cézannethe Met's purchase seems rather minimal, but at the time it was shocking news. It was quickly reported on in the press, The New York Times breaking the news in a November 2004 article by Carol Vogel, followed by Michael Kimmelman's assessment of its worth as a work of art the day, appearing the day before it was first shown to the public on December 21, 2004. Perhaps not surprisingly, the painting was declared a fake in 2006 by Columbia Professor James Beck, who said the museum should get its money back. Few, however, believed his assertions, and this masterpiece is still recognized as one of the Met's most important acquisitions.

Ultimately, it is irrelevant what the painting is worth, or even if it is genuinely by a specific man named Duccio. What is most beautiful about the painting is how it transcends its religious context and shows a very human scene. The infant Jesus reaches up toward his mother's face and moves aside her veil to gaze into her eyes, a sign of recognition and awareness that arguably only an infant and his/her mother can understand. Rather than smile, however, Mary is sad, symbolically aware of the suffering her son will endure when he is crucified at a later age. But her sadness transcends the Biblical story. Her face reveals a sense of sadness that every mother understands, the awareness that this innocence of childhood is the beginning of an adult experience. The innocence she holds in her arms is, indeed, very, very brief. That humanistic touch and that existential awareness make this painting a profound work of art.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

First Snowfall: 2014-2015 Fall/Winter

We're a little late in the season, based on the last couple of years in comparison, but today in NYC we had our first snowfall of the season. It was rainy this morning, turned to sleet by 10am, and then was coming down as snow at lunch time. It stopped and reverted to rain by 2:30pm or so, but it still fell down enough to stick on the bushes, as you can see here in this picture taken by my Columbia colleague TG. I always like seeing snow fall, but today was a bit nasty with the rain and wind. My umbrella even went kaput on me! Will we get a real snowstorm soon? We shall see...last year was crazy with all the snow we got, but I'm not anticipating we will have a repeat of that this season.

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.