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The Timken Museum of Art in San Diego’s Balboa Park is a jewel box.  It is free, and I am fortunte to live nearby, which means I can drop in for 45 minutes, spend a nice amount of time with two or three paintings and then catch lunch with a friend (or do laundry).

The Cranberry Harvest

The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket, 1880
Eastman Johnson (1824-1906)
Collection of Timken Museum of Art, San Diego

Today I fell in love with Eastman Johnson’s The Cranberry Harvest.  The brilliant light is masterfully executed, and Johnson’s canvas is rich in story.  The light alone tells us season and time of day; bags of harvest are being loaded onto a wagon; a sack of cranberries is spilled in the lower right corner; an old man who can no longer get on his knees, sits in a chair determined to contribute, while speaking to a child who listens with interest; the three children in the lower left corner are supposed to be working (one carries a pail) but they are distracted; the man and woman in the foreground seem to be flirting; the woman standing at the center, waiting for a boy to bring her baby, is the painting’s focal point, her regal position visually enhanced by harvesters kneeling at her feet.  The composition is expansive and majestic, elevating the tediousness of the task.  There is a sense of festivity in the air, as if the harvest is a brief and special event, bringing the community together.

The Cranberry Harvest reminds me of the works by another 19th century genre painter, the Frenchman Jean-Francois Millet, who embodied his subjects with great dignity and heroism as they carried out their grueling labors.  (No festivity for these ladies.)

The Gleaners

The Gleaners, 1857
Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875)
Collection of Musee d’Orsay, Paris

At the museum today, I met a very sweet college student as we were standing side by side studying an Italian landscape by the American artist George Inness.  He spontaneously exclaimed, “These are so amazing!”  He then volunteered he is taking a freshman art history survey course and today is the first time he has ever been to an art museum.  We spent about 20 minutes together as I taught him how to read a painting.  (There could not have been a more perfect teaching tool than The Cranberry Harvest.)  He is now eager to make a road trip to Los Angeles to visit the Getty, which he heard about in class.  That sounds like a great idea.  I think a road trip to the Getty is in my future as well.  It has been too long.

(Fun fact:  Eastman Johnson was co- founder of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)

Ridiculed during his own lifetime, Vincent van Gogh’s paintings have added transcendant beauty to ours.

After struggling with mental illness his entire adult life, he died at the age of 37 of a gun shot wound, thought to be self-inflicted.

He is now recognized as one of the most influential artists of all time.

I put my heart and soul into my work, and have half lost my mind in the process.  Vincent van Gogh

Starry Night

The Starry Night, 1889.  Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Irises

Irises, 1889.  Collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Sower with Setting Sun

Sower with Setting Sun, 1888.  Collection of Foundation collection E.G. Buhrle, Zurich

Cafe Terrace at Night

Cafe Terrace at Night, 1888.  Collection of Rijkmuseum Kroller-Muller, Otterlo

Peasant Woman

Peasant Woman, 1885.  Collection of Foundation collection E.G. Buhrle, Zurich

The Red Vineyard

Red Vineyards at Arles, 1888.  Collection of Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow

Palpable GRIEF

Funeral

For weeks this image has haunted me.  I first saw it on the day of their funeral.  It is, in fact, a photograph of their funeral, and I can’t get it out of my mind.

On March 4th an Orthodox Jewish couple from Brooklyn was killed in a car accident on their way to the hospital.  They were both 21, and they were 7 months pregnant with their first child.  Doctors delivered the baby by Caesarean section, and he died the following day.

I weep for them.  I will remember them forever.  And I’m further saddened that absolute hearbreak can create such a beautiful image.

I write this blog, which no one reads and even fewer people follow, to connect to a passion: art history.

My system is to see which artists were born during any given month, pick one, learn about him or her, write what I have learned, and post it in my blog on their birthday.  So, each month (when I’m feeling ambitious), I scan my list of artist’s birthdates for a new subject that interests me.  Someone I know enough about to want to learn more, and someone I can still learn a lot about.  This month my subject was Rembrandt Peale, and learning more about him has been an absolute joy.

Rembrandt Peale self portrait

Rembrandt Peale, Self-portrait, 1828.  Collection of Detroit Institute of Arts

His name was familiar to me from my time as a secretary to the curator of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but I didn’t remember much about him.  I thought he was a portraitist from the colonial period, but I wouldn’t have been able to identify one of his paintings.  So, on a rainy and blustery day in early February, after a grocery run, I got back into my pajamas, lit some candles, uncorked a bottle of wine and got to know Rembrandt Peale.

And our meeting was fascinating.  Looking at the life of Rembrandt Peale is seeing the face of Colonial America.

R Peale Ruben Geraneum

Rembrandt Peale, Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801. (Rubens was Rembrandt’s brother.)
Collection of National Gallery of Art

I remembered correctly.  He was, indeed, a portraitist, and he painted the who’s who of our high school American history class:  George Washington, John C. Calhoun, Dolley Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson
Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Jefferson, 1800.  Collection of The White House

Rembrandt Peale was born in Philadelphia on February 22, 1778, seven months after the signing of the Declaration of Independance.  His father Charles Peale was also an acclaimed portraitist.  When Rembrandt was nine, his father painted one of his many portraits of the future president, General George Washington, and he introduced his son to Washington during the sitting.  Rembrandt would go on to paint many portraits of the man himself, the first when the artist was just 17.

Before I proceed with Rembrandt, I want to spend a moment more with his father, Charles.  As I mentioned, looking into the life of Rembrandt Peale is like seeing the face of Colonial America.  This vision begins with his father, who was born in Maryland in 1741 (121 years after the landing of the Mayflower and 34 years before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War).

As a boy, Rembrandt’s father Charles apprenticed as a saddle maker, and as a young man he opened his own saddle shop.  He fought in the War of Independence, gaining the rank of captain of the Pennsylvania militia.  As an artist, he studied under John Singleton Copley and traveled to England to study under Benjamin West.

A man of many interests, he organized the country’s first scientific expedition, leading him to found the country’s first museum.  (He drew many of the plant and animal specimens brought back by Lewis and Clark from their great trans-continental adventure.)

Rembrandt Peale Lewis and Clark

Charles Wilson Peale drawing of Lewis and Clark finding

Peale’s museum’s collection contained a diverse array of botanical, biological and archaeological specimens, including many birds he himself obtained, and those gathered by his son Raphaelle (four years younger than brother Rembrandt) on a trip to South America.  (Imagine how raw, exotic and logistically complex travel to South America would be in 1793.)

A museum highlight, which drew thousands of visitors, were the mastodon bones  Charles and his son Rembrandt excavated near Newburgh New York and painstakingly reassembled three dimensionally (at the time, an innovative display technique).  In Peale’s self portrait below, notice the mastadon skeleton behind the curtain on the right.

Peale Museum

Charles Wilson Peale self portrait, The Artist in his Museum, 1822. Collection of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Charles Peale’s son Raphaelle would die a slow, painful – and at the time mysterious – death of arsenic and mercury poisoning brought upon by his work as a taxidermist at his father’s museum.  (Raphaelle Peale, who also became a professional painter, is considered to be the first distinguished still-life specialist to emerge in the United States.)

Raphaelle Pealle Still Life

Raphaelle Peale, Still Life – Strawberries, Nuts, &c., 1822.  Collection of Art Institute of Chicago

Although respected and well attended, the museum failed to attract government funding, and after Charles’ death the museum’s collection was sold to P.T. Barnum (of the circus fame).

One of the six paintings Charles painted of the president, George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, would sell in 2005 for $21.3 million dollars.  The highest price paid for an American portrait.

CWP Washington at Princeton

Charles Wilson Peale, George Washington at the Battle of Princeton. Collection of the United States Senate

Back to the subject of this post, today’s birthday boy, Rembrandt Peale.  He began his path as an artist at an early age, completing his first self-portrait at 13, followed four years later by the portrait of George Washington I mentioned earlier.   Years later, in 1822, and after many other Washington portraits, he completed Patriae Pater, which is considered one of the best portraits ever painted of the President (behind only Gilbert Stuart’s iconic The Athenaeum which graces our one dollar bill).  Peale’s Patriae Pater was purchased by congress in 1832 for $2,000, and it currently hangs in the Oval Office.

Peale Patreae Pater

Rembrandt Peale, Patriae Pater, 1822.  Collection of the United States Senate

Despite marrying at 20 and fathering 9 children, Peale travelled extensively throughout his adult life, seeking inspiration and opportunities as an artist.  His travels included time spent in Paris, where he was greatly influenced by Jacques-Louis David and neo-classicism.

raphaelle and emma

Rembrandt Peale, Michael Angelo and Emma Clara Peale, ca. 1826
(Michael Angelo and Emma Clara were Rembrandt’s children.)  Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rembrandt not only followed his father into the profession of portraitist.  He also opened a museum, located in Baltimore Maryland, which displayed paintings and manufactured products (a novelty at the time).  The museum was elaborately illuminated by gas light (also a novelty), which made a great impression on the visitors and led Peale to acquire an important gas lighting patent.

Photo of Rembrandt Peale

Rembrandt Peale

This photograph of Rembrandt Peale was taken by Mathew Brady, a celebrated nineteenth century photographer who took many photographic portraits of celebrities, including Abraham Lincoln.  (His Lincoln photos are used on the five dollar bill and penny).  Because of his extensive documentation of the Civil War, Brady is considered to be the father of photo-journalism.  He titled this photograph of Rembrandt Peale, “The Oldest Living American Artist.”  Imagining this undated portrait was taken in 1860 (the year Peale died at the age of 82), it was taken only 22 years after the first photograph containing people.

Building upon the Colonial/Early America theme, Rembrandt’s brother Titian was also a pioneer in photography, and his other brother Franklin was the Chief Coiner at the Philadelphia Mint.  (The nation’s first mint located in the then capital city of Philadelphia.)

Rembrandt Peale died in 1860, on the cusp of the 1861 outbreak of the Civil War.  His life spanned the time between the war that birthed the nation and the war that forced it into maturity.

Full disclosure:   The day is, as I said, rainy and blustery.  My jammies are feeling really good, and I’m enjoying my wine.  So getting into my car and driving to the fabulous UCSD library to conduct my research is out of the question.  My trusty, encyclopedic Gardner’s Art Through the Ages has no mention of the Peales, and although I have lots of art books, none of them focus on the Colonial Era.  Enter Wikipedia.  Thank you, Wikipedia!  I know you have your flaws, and your detractors.  But for someone who went to college before the advent of the internet, you are a marvel.  I promise to contribute next time you have a fundraising campaign.

Fayum Woman

If you have an interest in antiquities and ancient art, you will be fascinated to learn of these splendid 2,000 year old portraits that were discovered in 1887 in a vast cemetery 150 miles south of Alexandria, Egypt.  Over 1,000 portraits from the region have now been excavated, and they are astoundingly lifelike.

But more than being lifelike, the portraits span time.  Their subjects lived 2 millenia ago, but they look like they could have passed us on the street just yesterday.

Fayum man

I find this ancient to be a curious cross between Mel Gibson and Prince Charles.  Not to say those two look anything alike, but this gentleman somehow seems to embody both.

Click on either of the two images in this post to read the Smithsonian Magazine article and see more marvelous portraits.

American copyright law prohibits the reproduction of images created after 1923 without the consent of the artist.

In creating my jewelry, I have been very careful to follow this law. But if I decided to break it, I would be all over Robert Motherwell.

Robert Motherwell, American Abstract Expressionist painter, January 24, 1915 – July 16, 1991.

Motherwell Western Air

Western Air, 1946-47.  Collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York

Motherwell Personage MOMA

Personage, with Yellow Ochre and White, 1947.  Collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York

Motherwell Elegy MOMA

Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 54, 1957-61.  Collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York

Our 21st century eyes don’t appreciate Wassily Kandinsky’s radical artistic leap into total abstraction.  (Russian.  December 16, 1866 – December 13, 1944.)

Kandinsky Black Lines

Improvisation No. 29, 1912.  Collection of Solomon R. Guggenheum Museum

My favorite art history professor projected an image of a Kandinsky painting onto the screen and said, “This is considered to be the first completely abstract painting created in the history of western art.  Painted by Wassily Kandinsky in 1910.”  The piece looked utterly current, absolutely new — modern.  “Visualize the methods of transportation in 1910,” she said.  “Imagine how people washed their clothes in 1910.  How did people communicate in 1910?  What  did women wear?  They weren’t allowed to vote.”  And then she swept her arm toward the screen.  “THIS was painted in 1910!”

Kandinsky’s paintings were experiments, testing his complex theories about line, shape and color, and our psychological reactions to them.  He believed that color, shape and line — in and of themselves, devoid of all representation — created emotional reactions.  Eliminate all subject matter from a painting and, simple line, shape and color will create psychological reactions within their viewers.  We experience blue one way, red another; straight line one way, curved another — as purely abstract elements.

In 1912, Kandinsky published his treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which was widely embraced by his contemporaries and future generations of artists.  It radically altered the trajectory of art as we know it.

Kandinsky Composition VII

Compositon VII, 1913.  Collection of The State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia

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