Introduction to American Art, Part One

June 29, 2021 at 9:11 pm (Art)

Did I ever get a gloriously heavy dose of American Art the week before last! Two hours on a Friday evening, followed by a 9:30 AM to 4 PM session on the following Saturday.

Art historian Bonita Billman started us off with Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. Ever heard of him? I hadn’t either.

Here’s a quick précis from the Met:

Born in Dieppe, a center for cartography and manuscript illumination, Le Moyne de Morgues emigrated to London, probably following the Huguenot massacres of 1572.

Le Moyne de Morgues accompanied a French expedition to Florida in 1564. The goal of the  expedition was to establish a colony. In this they did not succeed; however, Le Moyne de Morgue, a gifted artist, made numerous botanical paintings. This one is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it is entitled A Sheet of Studies of Flowers: A Rose, a Heartsease, a Sweet Pea, a Garden Pea, and a Lax-flowered Orchid:

Equally valuable are Le Moyne de Morgue’s sketches of Native Americans.

For more on Le Moyne de Morgue’s images of Native American, click here.

And for more images of the fruits and the botanicals, which are truly lovely, click here.
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In colonial America, portraits were in demand. Among the earliest, dated between 1671 and 1674, are these two of John Freake and his wife Elizabeth Clarke Freake, shown here holding baby Mary.

These works are both held by the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Mass. Fascinating information concerning these paintings can be found at the Worcester Art Museum’s site.

And why have I not mentioned the name of the artist? Because it is not known. He is usually referred to as the Freake Master or the Freake Limner. He dwells, seemingly forever, among the shadows of early America, a land evoked in the haunting prose of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in such stories as”The Minister’s Black Veil” and “Young Goodman Brown.”   (Some elements of this story might make for a compelling work of historical fiction, methinks.)
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The Bermuda Group (Dean Berkeley and his Entourage), begun in 1728; reworked in 1739, by John Smibert

An interesting story lies behind this painting. Here are its main points, as summarized on the site of the Yale University Art Gallery:

The Bermuda Group commemorated an ambitious venture to found a seminary in Bermuda. Frustrated with what he saw as a corrupt European civilization, the philosopher and Anglican cleric George Berkeley (far right) believed that only in the New World would a religious and cultural rebirth be possible. His patron, John Wainright (seated), commissioned the artist John Smibert (standing left), whom Berkeley had hired to teach at the new college, to create this portrait of the expeditionary party, which included two additional wealthy supporters and members of Berkeley’s family. When the seminary project failed for lack of funds, Berkeley’s entourage returned to England, but Smibert moved to Boston and established himself as America’s first professional painter. Despite Berkeley’s misfortune, his poem “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” became a touchstone for the new nation: “There shall be sung another golden age / The rise of empire and of arts / … Westward the course of empire takes its way.”

Westward the course of empire takes its way….

 

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‘With each new sick boy, she became more of a prisoner–confined by secrets, paralyzed by the power that the stigma of mental illness held over her.’ – Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

June 24, 2021 at 9:13 pm (Uncategorized)

  This was an extremely hard book to read. It contains so much tragedy, so much suffering. Every time I thought  things could not get worse, they got worse. Some rays of happiness, some relief from trauma, does occasionally break through, but not often – certainly not often enough.

Married in December of 1944, Mimi and Don Galvin were optimistic about their future. Don was doing well in the military; Mimi was the archetypal Happy Homemaker. Settled, finally, in Colorado, they shared an interest in the arts and, rather oddly, in falconry. And the babies – well, they just kept coming…

Eventually, the number topped out at twelve – ten boys and two girls, at the end of the line. There might have been even more, but Mimi’s obstetrician laid down the law: If she got pregnant again, he would refuse to treat her. (He’d been warning her that she was endangering her health.)

Donald, the oldest and the namesake, was the first to exhibit the odd behavior that gradually overtook him. He was frequently called upon to babysit his younger brothers; while so engaged, he seemed to enjoy inciting them to violence. At first, Mimi and Don chalked it up to typical, if somewhat exaggerated, sibling rivalry. Later, they learned what was really happening: Donald was presenting the early symptoms of schizophrenia.

Jim. the second son, soon followed suit. In all, six of the ten brothers were diagnosed with the same condition. And it’s not as though each of them exhibit the same aberrant behaviors. They were all unique in the way they were affected. They could be withdrawn, bizarre, crazed, violent. Each boy was unpredictable; in Brian’s case – he was son number four – the outcome was catastrophic.

As I was reading, I was shaking my head in disbelief. I could not imagine living through such an unrelenting nightmare.

This book is not just about the Galvin family. The author provides considerable insight into the history of the treatment of schizophrenia, as well as the pioneering research done on the causes and possible treatment of what is a fiendishly difficult, not to mention devastating, illness to deal with.

As for Mimi and Don, I kept hoping as I read to gain some insight into why they decided to have so many children. Don was born and raised Catholic; Mimi converted  after they married, but the real reason for this untrammeled fecundity seemed to lay elsewhere than in religion. And it has to be said that the burden of dealing with the nonstop crises engendered by their offspring fell on their mother.

Chapter 17 of Hidden Valley Road opens with this sentence:

Don had spent years building distance between himself and his children.

To me, Don seemed like the old fashioned kind of father that one frequently encountered in mid twentieth century America. (Mine was one.) He was out in the world working; Mimi took care of the home front. But this was not like any other home front. She desperately needed his help and support. But my take is that he was somewat of a narcissist . On top of his military duties he was intent on pursuing a PhD in political science. The required a fairly large additional commitment of his time. I couldn’t help it; it made me angry.

I have to admit, I was glad when this book finally ended. It put me though an emotional wringer. But as an exercise in sheer survival, it was incredible story. And though at times I also felt frustrated with Mimi, I ended by feeling a huge amount of compassion and admiration for her.

Author Robert Kolker is from Columbia, Maryland. Like Laura Lippman, he graduated from Wilde Lake High School. He currently lives in Brooklyn, where every other resident seems to be a writer. In my view, he is greatly to be congratulated on producing this outstanding work of narrative nonfiction.

Robert Kolker

 

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‘An Indian chieftain jingled along beside her as she made her way to the butcher’s shop; a stick of rhubarb perched on her dog; a mouse issued from her arm; a soap dish chased her down the stairs.’ – The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

June 21, 2021 at 3:52 pm (Book review, books)

  What? thought I. A book about seances,  ghosts, spirits, poltergeists, etc. etc. Who would want to read about such silly stuff? What serious author would even write about it?

Kate Summerscale would. And in fact, she’s the reason I obtained this book in the first place. Summerscale’s nonfiction is excellent; I’ve read Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, The Wicked Boy, and most especially her true crime masterpiece, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

Kate Summerscale

So, on the strength of  my great liking for this author’s previous work, I determined to give The Haunting of Alma Fielding a try. I picked it up…

And of course, I couldn’t put it down.

The year was 1938. The place was Croydon, a borough in South London. Alma Fielding lived there with her husband, son, and a lodger. Alma was a thoroughly unremarkable young woman who was, apparently, tired of being unremarkable. Suddenly, in her house, all sorts of bizarre things began to happen, along the lines of what I quoted in the title of this post.

An article about these strange occurrences appeared in a local paper; this brought the situation to the attention  of a striving psychical researcher, a refugee from Hungary named Nandor Fodor. Fodor worked for the International Institute for Psychical Research, an organization whose specialty was researching reports of supernatural phenomena. Fodor, a true believer, prevailed on Alma to become a subject for his research under the auspices of the Institute. She assented.

And so the strange tale began.

Alma and her family were not the only Londoners having these disquieting experiences. Similar instances were being reported by a number of other people, including one who claimed he was being bedeviled by a talking mongoose. Summerscale illuminates the zeitgeist that informs the background of all this:

Many Britons had turned to spiritualism in the 1920s because of the losses of war, and many were turning to it now for fear of a conflict to come. Spiritualist seances offered a sense of wonder and intimacy rarely found in the Church of England, where attendances were falling so fast that the Archbishop of Canterbury had appointed  a committee to investigate the allure of the rival faith.

Naturally the times were rife  with charlatans looking for ways to fleece the gullible. As a news organ of the time reported,

‘Never have fortune-tellers, horoscope-casters, crystal ball gazers, teacup-twisters and fakers had so many mugs or made so much money.’

If this sounds as though it would make a lively retelling, it does.

Summerscale makes note of the number of literary works that, in subsequent years, took up the theme of ghostly goings-on, sometimes to great effect. Among them were The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Carrie by Stephen King, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, and Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier. (That last one was particularly scary; it was made into a movie with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, that intermixed sex and death in a way that made me want to run screaming from the premises.)

My recommendation? Read it, but during the daytime, in a well lit room.

Alma Fielding

 

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Latest entries in three long running mystery series of which I am inordinately fond (good grief…)

June 13, 2021 at 8:39 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

Well, gosh, I can hardly believe that we’re already up to Number 27 in the Inspector Banks series. It seems like only yesterday when the first in the series, Gallows View (1987), came out. My library buddy Marge and I scarfed it up at once, and have remained more or less faithful throughout. A glance at the listing on the StopYoureKillingMe site shows the accolades this series has deservedly garnered.

So – What about this one? The dual plots involve the shady dealings of a developer and the disappearance of Ray Cabbot’s lover Zelda. (Ray is the father of Banks’s colleague Annie Cabbot.) Of the two, the latter is the more compelling. It’s overall a reliably good yarn, especially for those of us who have been hanging out with Banks and his circle for over  two decades. We’re updated on his family news, and as usual, his amazingly wide ranging musical tastes are precisely noted, as in this sentence:

The Bach finished, and Banks switched to Xuefei Yang playing music by Debussy, Satie, and others arranged for guitar.

This latter is of particular interest, as he’s trying to learn to play that instrument, with a little help from his rock musician son Brian.

Not spectacular, but enjoyable and involving nonetheless.
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Reading the Guido Brunetti novels is, for me, a situation similar to what I described above regarding the Alan Banks books. And this is an even longer running series: Transient Desires is number 30!

I recall how back in the 1990s, we had difficulty getting these books. They were coming to us from overseas – Donna Leon was at the time living in Venice – and they arrived here erratically and in no particular order. U.S. publishers didn’t think they’d be of interest to American readers. A police procedural set in Venice? A detective who’s a totally straight arrow and a devoted family man to boot? Who wants to read that?

We do. Especially when the novels are so beautifully written and so artfully conceived.

Anyway, I thought this entry was an especially good one. One night, two young men in a motorboat leave two even younger American tourists, who have been badly injured, at the docking area of a hospital. The men then flee before anyone can note their identity. It’s a good example of a case that seems to be about one thing, but turns out to be about something else entirely.

Meanwhile, we get lovely scenes of the Brunetti family dining together and having lively discussions on a variety of subjects. Guido and Paola’s offspring, Chiara and Raffi, are approaching adulthood, seemingly with the same effortless grace and integrity they’ve observed over the years in their parents.

And Venice, that troubled and glorious place, is, as always, like a character in the narrative, in and of itself – a marvelous and mysterious entity. (I highly recommend the Smithsonian Associates webinar Venice: 1000 Years of History.)
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What great TV the Bill Slider series would make. They could lift the dialog right from the books themselves.

Some examples:

Slider and his partner Atherton are searching the house of a murder victim. Eric Lingoss, a personal trainer, was a health nut as well as a fitness fanatic. At one point, while rummaging through rummaging through Lingoss’s cabinets, a container of Omega Three supplement falls out and lands on Atherton’s head. This exchange follows, initiated by Slider’s inquiry:

“Are you hurt?”

“Super fish oil injuries. The man’s a health nut.”

“The body is a temple,” Slider reminded him.

“Up to a point. Let he who is without sin bore the pants off everyone else.”

And later, this:

“Did you know,” said Atherton, as they turned into Lime Grove, “that A Tale of Two Cities was first serialized in two English newspapers?”

“Really? Which ones?”

It was the Bicester Times, it was the Worcester Times.”

This exchange prompts an inquiry about Atherton’s Significant Other, who’s currently out of town:

Slider looked at him. “When is Emily coming back?”

“Sunday. Why?”

“You need  someone to take the edge off you.”

You don’t understand what it’s like, having curatorship of a magnificent brain,” Atherton complained.

Well, none of this is very serious, but it is fun to  read. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is famously fond of puns and other forms of humor. Though every shot doesn’t hit the mark, enough off them do so that the reader is given plenty to smile about.

This series features a long story arc involving Slider’s personal life, so it’s advisable to being at the beginning. (Orchestrated Death is the first.) Current wife Joanna, an orchestral violinist, is in the final stages of pregnancy. Inevitably, the novel concludes with the birth of their second child, a daughter. Slider has two older children from his first marriage, so it’s all very modern, and a lot of fun to follow.

Oh, and the investigation is interesting, too, tougher than usual and all the more satisfying when it’s successfully resolved.

Peter Robinson

Donna Leon

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

 

 

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The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B. Hughes

June 9, 2021 at 2:19 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Published in 1963, this is a strange, most intriguing little book. The time is the early 1960s. The place is the Desert Southwest, more specifically the border between California and Arizona. Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, is traveling this route home to his family in Phoenix. The occasion is the upcoming wedding of his niece.

When he sees a young girl by the side of the road, he stops for her. She is desperate  for a ride to Phoenix. Feeling that her situation is deeply unsafe, he agrees to let her come with him.

The heavy hand of fate is poised above this irrevocable  act…

The background to this story consists of escalating social and political turmoil of the 1960s. Hughes describes this strife as the eyewitness that she was. Her depiction of the desperation of a pregnant teenager is especially vivid. It occurred to me while reading this compelling novel  that I didn’t recall ever reading about this explosive issue in a work of fiction actually written during that time.

In these pages you will find a word that I for one had never before encountered: ‘aborticide.’

And yet…there is grace in Hughes’s writing, especially when she is describing the desert landscape:

This was the desert as it should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaro standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and the brushy mesquite. Because there had  been some winter rain, the desert was in bloom.The saguaro wore creamy crowns on their tall heads, the ocotillo spikes were tipped with vermilion, and the brush bloomed yellow  as forsythia.

No one who has seen the bleak desert terrain suddenly burst into wild color will ever forget the sight.

Dorothy B. Hughes’s best known work of fiction is probably In a Lonely Place. This is no doubt because of the fact that it was made into a great film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

I tried to read that book but couldn’t – I don’t remember why. But The Expendable Man was an entirely different story. I couldn’t put it down. There are many twists and turns in this story; possibly the most surprising one concerns Hugh himself. However, some things about him remain constant throughout: his courage, and his integrity.

This was Hughes’s final work of fiction.

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Art Certificate Earned!! :))

June 5, 2021 at 8:39 pm (Art, Italy)

I got it! And I’d like to share with you just a small fragment of my delightful experience in getting there.

Art historian Rocky Ruggiero presented two four session courses this Spring for the Smithsonian: Italian Renaissance Art and Drama Most Splendid: The Art and Architecture of the Baroque and Rococo. I want to briefly talk about the Italian Renaissance course  first.

Professor Ruggiero gave us a quick survey of late Medieval Art, after which we slid easily into the early Renaissance. First, Cimabue (c. 1240 – 1302), whose famous Crucifix was so badly damaged in the 1966 flood in Florence. It took them eleven years to restore it.

The Crucifix, right after the flood

 

Cimabue Crucifix, restored

Today in Florence, priceless artworks or manuscripts are not kept at street level or underground. Higher flood barriers are in place near the Uffizi Gallery; new reservoirs and another dam were built. Regular flood drills are conducted in the city, and advance warning systems are in place, yet some experts question whether enough has been done to prevent disaster next time the Arno bursts its banks.

Cimabue’s Crucifix is now fixed on a high wall in the Museum of Santa Croce, with an electrical pulley designed to haul it up to safety in the event of another deluge.

[From “The Great Flood of Florence, 50 Years On,” by Eileen Horne, in The Guardian, November 5, 2016]

There’s a terrific book on this subject by Robert Clark: Dark Water: Art, Disaster, and Redemption in Florence.

Anyhow, after a necessarily brief stop in Siena, highlighting the work of two of its great masters, Giovanni di Paolo and Duccio di Buoninsegna,

Adoration of the Magi, by Gentile da Fabriano

Detail of the above:

Duccio’s spectacular Maesta. I love the story of how the people carried this masterpiece through the streets of the city before placing it on the altar of Siena Cathedral. I can almost see the procession, in my mind’s eye…

it was back to Florence, Cradle of the Renaissance. But wait – There’s still Pisa, a place which as lots more to see than this:

Nicola Pisano and Giovanni Pisano, equally gifted father and son, created these beautiful sculptural works:

 

Decoration of Siena Cathedral, by Nicola Pisano (c. 1220/1225 – c. 1284)

 

Pulpit – Baptistery of Pisa

So when we finally get back to Florence, we must immediately salute the mighty triumvirate of the Italian High Renaissance: Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo.

Of the three, Raphael is my personal favorite. I love his portrait pf Baldassare Castiglione:

Also I like this video, with its dramatic re-enactments and its appealing actor, Joe McFadden, in the role of Raphael:

I can never forget standing, alongside my sister-in-law Donna, before Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks in London’s National Gallery:

Finally, Michelangelo. Professor Ruggiero waxed rhapsodic over this genius, of course with good reason:

Pieta

Section of the Sistine Chapel

Professor Ruggiero stated most emphatically that Michelangelo did NOT assume a prone position while painting the Sistine ceiling. He painted standing up, on the scaffolding.

This is such a quick run-though, with so much left out – sorry!  Also, I hope I haven’t made any errors – let me know if you spot any.

And I didn’t even get to “Drama Most Splendid.” Next time, then.

 

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‘The Missionary doctor not only became a champion of Manifest Destiny but did so with his eyes open to the potentially catastrophic consequences–for the Cayuses and for himself.’ — Murder at the Mission by Blaine Harden

June 1, 2021 at 4:51 pm (History)

For a book that purports to belong in the True Crime genre, Murder at the Mission is unusual. To begin with, the murders happen very early on in the narrative; from the outset, there is no doubt as to the perpetrators. The remainder of the story concerns the use and abuse of an historical incident, providing a vivid illustration of the ease with which disinformation could be spread across a vast distance, way before the advent of social media.

The chief dramatic personae:

Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Dr. Marcus Whitman

 

Henry Spalding

All three were missionaries, come to Oregon in 1836 to convert the Native Americans, specifically those of two tribes:

Nez Perce

 

The Cayuse, astride their famous ponies

Before too much time went by, Marcus Whitman’s work devolved from Christianizing the Indians to facilitating the settlement of Oregon by Easterners and immigrants. As their rightful claim to the land was subverted over and over again, the Cayuse people became increasingly angry and resentful. Then a measles epidemic ravaged the area, often proving fatal to Native Americans and White settlers alike.

The Cayuse held the missionaries responsible for all of these evils. They had, finally, had enough.

This is not to say that their slaughter of the Whitmans was in any way justified. But they considered themselves to have been provoked beyond reason and thus impelled to act.

(It is worth remembering that Oregon was not even a Territory in the 1830s – it was a settlement, and one both jointly owned and disputed with the British, at that.  It became a U.S. Territory in 1848, and finally a State in 1859.)

As I stated at the outset, the tragic story of the killings is told very soon after the book commences, The mystery is not about who was responsible for the carnage. That was known almost immediately afterwards. Rather, the remainder of the narrative concerns a rather amazing journey undertaken by Marcus Whitman not long before his demise. The purpose of the journey…well, let’s say  that the purpose of the journey was vigorously disputed.

Meanwhile, Blaine Harden gives us a deep, hard look into the hearts and minds of the missionaries. It is a fascinating depiction. And at times an enraging one. And as I headed toward the fraught conclusion of this tale, I could not help pondering the central question…What on Earth were they thinking??

The American missionaries demanded more than just religious conversion. Assuming that their way of life was superior in every way to the centuries-old spiritual beliefs and cultural practices of Indians, they sought to transform the “copies of their white neighbors.”
To that end, the missionaries insisted that the Indians learn English, cut their hair, wear white people’s clothes, forsake collective ownership of land, accept private property, settle down as  farmers, embrace “hard work,” learn to plow, and raise row crops–all the while obeying the Ten Commandments, and renouncing polygamy, drinking, gambling, dancing, and horse racing.

Don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people who could live like that, whatever their ethnicity.

And what, pray tell, were they supposed to do for fun?

There is plenty of material in Murder at the Mission concerning the treatment of Native Americans that was meted out by their White counterparts. It is an appalling record of deliberate injustice – ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.’

Blaine Harden demystifies these matters with a sense of quiet outrage. He is a native of Washington State, so truth telling in this aspect obviously carries great weight with him.

This is an amazing, illuminating, and ultimately heartbreaking story.

 

 

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