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,
Census data from the National Archives, provided by
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.

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 Thanks in advance for your help and generosity.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


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 fit in with the locals, of course...

Monday, September 1, 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.

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.