Archive for the ‘Art History Lessons’ Category

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.)


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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.

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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.

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Paul Gauguin Self Portrait with Yellow Christ

Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ, 1889.  Collection of Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Paul Gauguin was a leading French Post-Impressionist artist whose talent was not recognized until after his death.

He artistically rejected objective representation in favor of subjective expression, and he broke with the Impressionists’ studies of minutely contrasted hues, believing that color must be expressive.  His work was influential to the French avant-garde and many modern artists, including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Three Tahitian Women, 1896.  Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Arlésiennes (Mistral), 1888.  Collection of The Art Institute of Chicago

Pastorales Tahitiennes, 1892.  Collection of The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

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My friend Erin has a very prestigious leaf on her family tree.  Her grandfather is Domingo Ulloa, a master painter considered to be the father of Chicano Art.  His paintings are included in an extraordinary cultural project taking place across Southern California, Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA. 1945-1980.

Domingo Ulloa, Short Handled Hoe, 1975, private collection
With over 60 participating cultural institutions, Pacific Standard Time is the largest arts project ever organized in Southern California.  Showcasing a wide range of disciplines, including painting, ceramics, architecture, performance art, photography and conceptual art, the project celebrates the birth of the distinctive and globally influential LA art scene.  If you live in Southern California, attend an event or exhibition or two.  The project runs through April 2012.
Domingo Ulloa, Braceros, 1960, Private Collection
Back to Erin’s grandfather.  Domingo Ulloa (1919-1997) studied art at the Acadamia de San Carlos in Mexico City and the Jepson Art Institute in Los Angeles.  His paintings captured the struggle and inhumanity experienced by the everyday field worker, and he assisted in forming the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) after befriending Cesar Chavez.  In 1993 the State of California created a resolution formally declaring him “The Father of Chicano Art.”
As part of the Pacific Standard Time cultural project, his paintings are included in Art Along the Hyphen:  The Mexican-American Generation at the Autrey National Center in Los Angeles.

And a very dear endnote to this post.  A portrait of my friend Erin Hay, at the age of 2 or 3, by her grandfather, Domingo Ulloa.  How special is that?!

Domingo Ulloa, Sweet Erin, c. 1988, private collection

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Over the course of his career, renowned Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi developed a sensuous, curving, almost surreal design style which established him as the innovative leader of the Spanish Art Nouveau movement. With little regard for formal order, he juxtaposed unrelated systems and altered established visual order. Gaudi’s characteristically warped form of Gothic architecture drew admiration from other avant-garde artists. Although categorized with the Art Nouveau, Gaudi created an entirely original style.

At the age of 31, Gaudi began work on his masterpiece, the Roman Catholic cathedral, Sagrada Familia.  Although still incomplete, the church is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it was consecrated and proclaimed a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XV.  85 years after Gaudi’s death at the age of 73, construction on the structure continues with an anticipated completion date of 2026. 

Exterior of Antoni Gaudi's Sagrada Familia

Ceiling of Barcelona Cathedral

Sagrada Familia Main Alter

Sagrada Familia interior with spiral staircase

Click this image to enlarge it so you can see the magnificent spiral staircase.

Have you been to Barcelona and seen the cathedral?  If so, please, please tell us about it.  (I’ve never been and would love to read your account.)

By the way, if you are at all interested in Gothic cathedrals, their history and construction, I highly, highly recommend Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  (I have read it 3 — count ’em 3 — times.)  It is the fictionalized, but dazzlingly researched account of an English village, the centuries-long construction of it’s cathedral, the men who built it and the drama surrounding them.

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After taking painting lessons from the master Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin resigned from his prosperous brokerage businsss to devote his life to painting.  His work did not sell and he and his family were reduced to poverty, but Gauguin felt called to be a great artist, and he never abandoned his painting.   During his lifetime he realized no artistic success or recognition.

Spending much of his adult life painting in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, Gauguin developed a deeply personal style that was a complex combination of Eastern and Western themes, primitive life and brilliant color.

His massive masterpiece Where Do We Come From?  What are We?  Where Are We Going? is now considered to be one of the greatest artistic and philosphical statements in Western history.

Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where Are We Going?  1879-98
Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892
Collection of Albright -Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
The Vision of the Sermon (Jacob and the Angel), 1888
Collection of National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Ia Orana Maria, 1891
Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Paul Gauguin is classified as a post-Impressionist, but what exactly is post-Impressionism?  It is not an artistic style, but a term applied to a group of painters who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

These artists retained the shimmering light effects and outdoor palette of the Impressionists (Monet, Renoir, Pissarro), but they preferred more formal compositions, believing the Impressionists neglected too many of the traditional elements of picture-making in their focused recording of the fleeting impressions of light and color. 

Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise, 1872
Collection of Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris

Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise (above) gave name to the experimental group of Impressionist artists who chose color and light as the subjects of their paintings.  Their singular goal of studying and recording plein air atmospheric changes was too simplistic for the following generation of post-Impressionists .

Eventually the achievements of the post-Impressionists would give birth to modern abstraction.  Thomas Hoving, former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art writes:

To me it’s more accurate to call the [post-Impressionist] period pre-Modern.  The last quarter of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th was a time when artistic experimentation was rampant, and a bewildering number of styles were invented.  In that sense, the period is a mirror of contemporary times.

In addition to Paul Gauguin, other post-Impressionist artists include Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat and Paul Cezanne (who is considered to be the father of Modern Art).

Vincent van Gogh, The Night Cafe, 1888
Collection of Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-86
Collection of Art Institute of Chicago

Paul Cezanne, The Peppermint Bottle, c. 1893
Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Art in Our Times: A Pictorial History 1890-1980, Peter Selz, 1981.
Mainstreams of Modern Art, John Canaday, 1981.
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Seventh Edition, Louise Gardner, 1980.
Art for Dummies: A Reference for the Rest of Us!, Thomas Hoving, 1999.
(Hey, don't diss the Dummies series.)

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