‘The world holds its breath in this painting:’ The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca

May 27, 2017 at 2:21 pm (Art)

The Baptism of Christ,by
Piero della Francesca
Date made: 1450s
 The National Gallery, London

The world holds its breath in this painting; as hushed and still, ordered, cool and clear as a crystal. This is the moment when Christ, being baptised by Saint John in the River Jordan, is revealed as the Son of God. The Holy Spirit descends on him ‘like a dove’ (Mark 1:10) and his hands are closed in prayer to his Heavenly Father. It is unique moment in history, and is also timeless. The original viewers would once have recognised Christ’s divinity anew every time they worshipped beneath this altarpiece. Now in the National Gallery many still do, but for others  today this lonely, pale figure at the centre of things is just a human being like ourselves. Stripped bare, he looks deeply into his own heart, reflecting on his destiny. We have all known decisive moments like this, when nothing will ever be the same again, and we ourselves will be changed. Soon the dove must fold its wings, the river flow again, and the baptismal water will trickle down over Christ’s head; and he will step forward to confront and embrace his future. Another man behind Christ readies himself for baptism. Because this picture shows a universal experience, Piero della Francesca has relocated Palestine to the familiar countryside of Tuscany, near his native town of Borgo San Sepolcro.

This description appears in Masterpieces from the National Gallery. First published in 2000, a revised edition came out in 2003; it was reprinted in 2004. The author is Erika Langmuir.

Stunned by the beauty and depth of insight reflected in this commentary, I resolved to find out more about this writer. She held a Masters in Art History from Stanford and earned a doctorate from London’s Warburg Institute, where she studied under the renowned art historian Professor Sir Ernst Gombrich. Having  led an extraordinarily eventful and fascinating life, Ms Langmuir passed away in December of 2015 at  the age of 84. An affectionate an illuminating  tribute by her daughter is well worth reading.

Erika Langmuir receiving an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1995. Daughter Val is at the far left.

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Things of Beauty, for Joan

May 14, 2017 at 8:26 pm (Art, Family, Music)

For my entire adult life, Joan has been more sister than sister-in-law: an exemplar of quiet strength, generosity, and compassion, sustained at all times by her unwavering Jewish faith.

Like me, Joan has always loved the Impressionists. For Hanukah last December, I sent her Norbert Wolf’s magnificent new volume:

She was thrilled to receive it, filled  as it is with images we both love. (I also own this book.) Here are some of those images, with accompanying music by the great Impressionist composer, Claude Debussy:

View from Artist’s Window at Eragny, by Camille Pissarro

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, by John Singer Sargent

For the Little One, by William Merritt Chase

Ballet Class, by Edgar Degas

Woman with Parasol (Madame Monet and Her Son), by Claude Monet

In a Park, by Berthe Morisot

La Loge, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir


Femmes au Jardin, par Claude Monet

Mother and Child Against a Green Background, by Mary Cassatt

The Pergola, by Sylvestro Lega

Irises in Monet’s Garden, by Claude Monet

Poppy Field in Argenteuil, by Claude Monet

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London art museums: the National Gallery and the Tate Britain: Two

May 12, 2017 at 11:18 am (Art, Smithsonian Associates World Art History Certificate Program)

[Click here for One in this series]

Last Saturday, Professor Bonita Billman regaled us with numerous fascinating stories to go along with the spectacular art works on display. For instance:

The Origin of the Milky Way, by Jacopo Tintoretto – ca. 1575-1580

According to myth, the Milky Way was formed by the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, in a fit of pique. (If my recollection of the field of mythology is correct, she was prone to these.) It seems that her half-sister Athena brought the infant Heracles to Hera so that she could nurse him. Hera was initially willing to perform this task – never mind that Heracles (Hercules) was the offspring of one of Zeus’s innumerable illicit love affairs – but Heracles suckled with such vigor that she cast him off. In the process of doing this, she scattered her mother’s milk over a wide area. So wide, in fact, that it coalesced into the galaxy we now call the Milky Way.

How to respond to such a tale except by exclaiming: Who knew??

There’s more on this in the Wikipedia entry on Heracles, along with wonderful additional illustrations.

 

 

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London art museums: the National Gallery and the Tate Britain: One

May 11, 2017 at 2:23 pm (Art, Smithsonian Associates World Art History Certificate Program)

The Ambassadors, By Hans Holbein the Younger – 1533

[Click twice to enlarge.]

This extraordinary painting is one of many discussed last Saturday by our presenter Bonita Billman at our day long lecture on London’s National Gallery and the Tate Britain.  This was the second such outing for my fellow art lover and friend Jean and myself. It was just as enjoyable as Seductive Paris from last November, with the added attraction of the trains having run on time.

That strange object at the bottom of the canvas is what is called an animorphosis.  Wikipedia enlarges on its use here and also provides this normalized version of the image:

I read somewhere that if you hold the back of a highly polished spoon up to the image in the painting, you can resolve it into the image shown directly above. I tried it, and after much contorting and head twisting, had to admit defeat. Try it yourself, if you like, and let me know if you can make it work.

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Etta and Grandma ‘Berta visit the Art Institute of Chicago

April 28, 2017 at 4:06 pm (Art, Family)

My granddaughter Etta loves to make art:

So I thought she might enjoy a visit to one of our country’s premier Art Museums:

Art Institute of Chicago, founded in 1879: Michigan Avenue Entrance

This visit being for Etta, I let her set the agenda. First, we worked on a craft together at the Ryan Education Center. Then we proceeded to wander the galleries. First stop: Asian art, where we encountered many strange and beautiful objects.

Suspension Bell (Bo), Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–256 B.C.), first half of 5th century BC China

 

Bodhisattva, Tang dynasty, China (AD 618–907), 725-50

 

Seated Bodhisattva, c 775 AD Japan

 

Bird Shaped Ewer with Crowned Rider Holding a Bowl, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), 12th century Korea

(What is it about that celadon green….I can envision an entire room filled with that dreamy color.)

Then, on to European painting and sculpture.  As we came through the doors to these galleries, Etta was quite literally stopped in her tracks. “It’s the Little Dancer!” she exclaimed. Her eyes grew round and saucer-wide. “There’s a story about this,” she continued excitedly, “and it’s true! I have a book about it.”

Little Dancer, Age Fourteen, ca 1881, Edgar Degas

 

Little Dancer and her Little Admirer!

Other attractions in this room:

Renoir’s Two Sisters (On the Terrace), 1881:

Gustave Caillbotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877.

(O painting, so beloved of tote bag makers, there you actually are! You can get this one from CafePress, last I checked.)

And of course, the unutterably wonderful “Sunday Afternoon on la Grande Jatte” (Le Dimanche Après-midi à L’ÎIe de La Grande Jatte”), 1884, by Georges Seurat:

By happenstance, we stumbled into a room full of gorgeous paperweights. This was the Arthur Rubloff Collection:

From time to time we found ourselves wandering through the museum’s modern wing, a structure designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano and opened in 2009. It is wonderfully light and spacious.

Then it was time for the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Etta was enchanted by these, and so was I.

(This  was Etta’s day to be pretty in pink. She received several compliments on her outfit from museum staff!)

Of course, no trip to an art museum is complete without a visit to  the shop. Etta selected several small decorated boxes. I threw in a book of postcards depicting the Thorne Miniatures. Etta also picked out a gift for her little brother Welles, another budding artist, as can be seen here: 

The Art Institute of Chicago is the second largest art museum in the U.S. (New York City’s fabled “Met” is the largest.) What a gorgeous place it is, filled with countless treasures beautifully and accessibly displayed. And to be in such a place with my lovely Etta – well, it was a very special day!

 

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A Centennial Album: Drawing, Prints and Photos at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

March 9, 2017 at 4:24 pm (Art, Photography)

magic-flute

Gazing at this beautiful graphic on the cover of the Met’s Winter 2017 Bulletin, I thought to myself: Why, that looks like Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s backdrop for Mozart’s Magic Flute. More precisely, it’s identified as being by Karl Friedrich Thiele, “after” Schinkel’s design for The Hall of Stars in the Palace of the Queen of the Night. Here is the original by Schinkel:

Here is Diana Damrau, singing the Queen of the night’s famous – and famously challenging – aria, Der Hölle Rache:

Born in Prussia in 1781, Karl Friedrich Schinkel was a man of extraordinary gifts. He was not only a set designer but a painter and architect as well.

Morning (Der Morgen)

 

Medieval Town by Water

 

Castle by the River

 

Konzerthaus, Berlin

Altes Museum und Lustgarten, Berlin

 

Stolzenfels Castle, Koblenz

 

Karl Friedrich Schinkel 1781-1841

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Back to the Met Bulletin: For two hours I’ve been lost in image searches prompted by this slender, unpretentious little volume. Here are some of the results:

Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait, black chalk and graphite, 1857

 

Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait, gelatin silver print, 1985

 

St. Jerome in His Study, Albrecht Durer, engraving, 1514

 

The Salon of Baron Gros, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gros, Daguerrotype, 1850s

 

Louis-Remy Robert, by Alfred Thompson Gobert, salted paper print from paper negative, ca. 1850

If ever it could be said that a person’s very soul has been captured in an image, then surely it was done in this portrait of Louis-Remy Robert by his friend Alfred Thompson Gobert. The two were colleagues at the Royal Porcelain Factory at Sèvres.  Commentary provided on the Met’s site explains how technical necessity resulted in a striking work of art:

Robert’s colleague Alfred Gobert, head of the Enameling Workshop at Sèvres, is shown here with his head slightly bowed and his eyes half closed (in part to help maintain his pose during a long exposure in bright sunlight), as if lost in thought. The shallow depth of field—only Gobert’s face is in focus—and the flecks of light and soft massing of shadows so characteristic of prints from paper negatives heighten the sense that this portrait is a privileged meditation by Robert on the interior world of his friend.

 

The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, by Julia Margaret Cameron, Albumen silver print from glass negative, 1866

We know of this model nothing but her last name, Miss Keene.

Students from the Emerson School for Girls, byAlbert Sands Southworth, Daguerrotype, ca. 1820

I confess I exclaimed with delight upon seeing this photo! This school was founded in 1823 by George Barrell Emerson, second cousin to Ralph waldo Emerson. It is described in the Bulletin as “the most prominent school for young women in Boston.”

 

Spiraea aruncus, by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype, early 1850s

Described in the Bulletin as “a superb example of  Atkins’s cameraless photograms of algae and plant specimens,” these and similar images were created by placing “plant samples directly on light-sensitized paper. The resulting cyanotypes, or blueprints, appear as negative images against a sea of Prussian blue.”

 

Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, London 1775–1851 London) The Lake of Zug, 1843 British, Watercolor over graphite

Ah, J.M.W. Turner, master of light….If you haven’t seen the film Mr Turner, featuring Timothy Spall’s brilliant and memorable portrayal of this genius of British painting, I recommend it very, very highly.

Just viewing this trailer made me yearn to see it again, in its entirety. Why aren’t there more movies like this?

 

St. George and the Dragon, Lewis Carroll, Albumen silver print from glass negative, 1875

 

Frontispiece design for “Peter Poodle, Toymaker to the King,” by William Henry Bradley, Graphite, black ink, watercolor and gouache, 1906

 

Sumner Healey Antique Shop, 942 Third Avenue Near 57th Street, Manhattan, 1936. Gelatin silver print, by Berenice Abbott

 

As usual, this intensive period of image searching took me far afield, in this case somewhat outside the province of the Met Bulletin:

Baron Antoine Jean Gros Rushing into Eternity, by Jacques Charles Bordier du Bignon

Date unknown, but probably not long after 1835, when Baron Gros committed suicide.

Study of cats, Eugene Delacroix

(Nine months later, our own Miss Marple, we still miss her so much.)

Eugene Delacroix, by Nadar, ca. 1855

 

 

 

 

 

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The Gift of Art

February 26, 2017 at 5:49 am (Art)

foa-exhibit-catalog_002_1024x1024  In 1916 John L. Porter, a Pittsburgh businessman, established a fund whose purpose was to purchase works of art to be given as a gift to the public schools of his city. This philanthropic initiative was to be called The 100 Friends of Pittsburgh Art. In 1922 Porter wrote:

‘Can art appreciation be taught at any better period in life than when the youthful eyes and mind are in their most impressionable and temperamental years? Can squalor exist in the surroundings of the children brought into daily contact with beauty?’

In celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Mr Porter’s farsighted and generous conception, Pittsburgh’s Senator John Heinz Center  mounted an exhibit of some eighty works of art. In addition, they assembled a catalog, whose cover you see above.

Here are some of the featured paintings:

American Slovak Church by Dorothy Lauer Davids

American Slovak Church by Dorothy Lauer Davids

 

Assurbhannipul's Ark by Edward M Kosewics

Assurbhannipul’s Ark by Edward M Kosewics

 

Louine by Malcolm Stephen Parcell

Louine by Malcolm Stephen Parcell

 

Boy on a Bike by Charles "Bud" Gibbons

Boy on a Bike by Charles “Bud” Gibbons

 

After the Chores by Dorothy Lauer Davids

After the Chores by Dorothy Lauer Davids

 

Gibsonia woodland by Will J Hyett

Gibsonia woodland by Will J Hyett

 

The Princess and the Unicorn by Lee F McQuaide

The Princess and the Unicorn by Lee F McQuaide

 

Circe by Norwood Hodge MacGilvary

Circe by Norwood Hodge MacGilvary

 

Chinese Vase by Sister Mary Clare Besterman

Chinese Vase by Sister Mary Clare Besterman

 

The Immigrants by Gregory Kavalec

The Immigrants by Gregory Kavalec

 

1948, Pittsburgh Phenomena by John D Clarkson

Pittsburgh Phenomena by John D Clarkson

 

Our Little Flowers by Salvatore Madia

Our Little Flowers by Salvatore Madia

 

I was made aware of this exceptional exhibit by the American Art Review, a wonderful magazine for art lovers.

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Last Entry for Best Books of 2016: Two Titles

January 22, 2017 at 2:55 pm (Art, Best of 2016, Book review, books)

I’ve been very late getting this done, I know. This is mainly due to my work on what was the most challenging book discussion preparation I’ve ever undertaken. The book was Paul Theroux’s Deep South. The discussion took place on this Thursday past, and I’m glad to report that it went quite well, mainly due to the lively and insightful comments of my colleagues in AAUW Readers.

Mostly it’s done. And what a sweet relief!
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Audiobooks are very vital to me. I only listen to them in my car, and I want to feel  a sense of happy anticipation when, belted in and ready to roll, I fire up my current choice. I knew I’d get that good feeling from a work by Alexander McCall Smith, and so I am now listening to the 44 Scotland street series.  238543

Love Over Scotland, the third entry, features a prose passage so moving – at least it was to me – that as soon as I got back home, I downloaded the novel in its entirety.

The excerpt I refer to consists of a letter being written by the artist Angus Lordie to his friend , the beautifully named Domenica Macdonald. Domenica, described as a “freelance anthropologist,” is at that time halfway around the world studying the mores and folkways of a community of pirates inhabiting the Malacca Straits. (McCall Smith’s imagination as usual, ranges freely from the domestic to the remote to the downright bizarre.)

In this missive, Angus gives voice to his feelings upon the loss of a friend in strange and sad circumstances. I’m going to quote the whole thing here:

“My dear Domenica,” he began. “I write this letter seated at the kitchen table. It is one of those cold, bright winter mornings that I know you love so much, and which make this city sparkle so. But the letter I write you will be a sad one, and I am sorry for that. When one is alone and far from home, as you are, then one longs for light-hearted, gossipy letters. This is not one of those.
“Yesterday, as I was painting his portrait, Ramsey Dunbarton, a person I have known for a good many years, died in my studio. He was seated in my portrait chair, talking to me, when he suddenly stopped, mid-anecdote. I thought nothing of it and continued to paint, but when I glanced from behind my canvas I saw him sitting there, absolutely still. I thought that he had gone to sleep and went back to my painting, but then, when I looked again, he was still motionless. I realised that something was wrong, and indeed it was. Ramsey had died. It was very peaceful, almost as if somebody had silently gone away, somewhere else, had left the room. How strange is the human body in death–so still, and so vacated. That vitality, that spark, which makes for life, is simply not there. The tiny movements of the muscles, the sense of there being somebody keeping the whole physical entity orchestrated in space–that goes so utterly and completely. It is no longer there.
“You did not know Ramsey. I thought that you might perhaps have met him at one of my drinks parties, but then, on reflection, I decided that you had not. I do not think that you and he would necessarily have got along. I would never accuse you of lacking charity, dear one, but I suspect that you might have thought that Ramsey was a little stuffy for you; a little bit old-fashioned, perhaps.
“And indeed he was. Many people thought of him as an old bore, always going on about having played the part of the Duke of Plaza-Toro at the Church Hill Theatre. Well, so he did, and he mentioned it yesterday afternoon, which was his last afternoon as himself, as Auden puts it in his poem about the death of Yeats. But don’t we all have our little triumphs, which we remember and which we like to talk about? And if Ramsey was unduly proud of having been the Duke of Plaza-Toro, then should we begrudge him that highlight in what must have been a fairly uneventful life? I don’t think we should.
“He was a kind man, and a good one too. He loved his wife. He loved his country–he was a Scottish patriot at heart, but proud of being British too. He said that we should not be ashamed of these things, however much fashionable people decry love of one’s country and one’s people. And in that he was right.
“He only wanted to do good. He was not a selfish man. He did not set out to make a lot of money or get ahead at the expense of others. He was not like that. He would have loved to have had public office, but it never came his way. So he served in a quiet, rather bumbling way on all sorts of committees. He was conservative in his views and instincts. He believed in an ordered society in which people would help and respect one another, but he also believed in the responsibility of each of us to make the most of our lives. He called that ‘duty’, not a word we hear much of today.
“There is a thoughtless tendency in Scotland to denigrate those who have conservative views. I have never subscribed to that, and I hope that as a nation we get beyond such a limited vision of the world. It is possible to love one’s fellow man in a number of ways, and socialism does not have the monopoly on justice and concern. Far from it. There are good men and women who believe passionately in the public good perspectives. Ramsey was as much concerned with the welfare and good of his fellow man as anybody I know.
“People said that he had a tendency to go on and on, and I suppose he did. But those long stories of his, sometimes without any apparent point to them, were stories that were filled, yes filled, with enthusiasm for life. Ramsey found things fascinating, even when others found them dull. In his own peculiar way, he celebrated the life of ordinary people, ordinary places, ordinary things.
“I suspect that Scotland is full of people like Ramsey Dunbarton. They are people whose lives never amount to very much in terms of achievement. They are not celebrated or fêted in any way. But there they are, doing their best, showing goodwill to others, paying their taxes scrupulously, not cheating in any way, supporting the public good. These people are the backbone of the country and we should never forget that.
“His death leaves me feeling empty. I feel guilty, too, at the thought of the occasions when I have seen him heaving into sight and I have scuttled off, unable to face another long-winded story. I feel that I should have done more to reciprocate the feelings of friendship he undoubtedly had for me. I never asked him to lunch with me; the invitations always came from him. I never even acknowledged him as a friend. I never told him that I enjoyed his company. I never told him that I thought he was a good man. I gave him no sign of appreciation.
“But we make such mistakes all the time, all through our lives. Wisdom, I suppose, is seeing this and acting upon it before it is too late. But it is often too late, isn’t it?–and those things that we should have said are unsaid, and remain unsaid for ever.
“I am heart-sore, Domenica. I am heart-sore. I shall get over it, I know,  but that is how I feel now. Heart-sore.”
He finished, read it through, and then very slowly tore it up. He would not send it to Domenica, even if he meant every word, every single word of it.

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fullsizender  I’d never heard of Cesar Aira until I encountered him in a review in the Wall Street Journal written by Nathaniel Popkin. Popkiin was actually reviewing a novel called Zama by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto. In the concluding paragraph, reference was made to Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira, Di Benedetto’s fellow Argentinian.

Two things about Episode immediately piqued my interest. First, there was the fact that the protagonist was a painter; his name is Johann Moritz Rugendas. Secondly, Rugendas had been encouraged to travel to South America in order  to find new and exotic subjects with which to fuel his artistic impulses. The individual urging him on this course of action was none other than the great explorer and natural scientist Alexander Von Humboldt. Early last year I read The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Von Humboldt’s “New World” became my new world – what an absolutely terrific read this was! Had it been up to me, Andrea Wulf would have won every existing literary award and then some.

The following is from Aira’s novel:

Rugendas was a genre painter. His genre was the physiognomy of nature, based on a procedure invented by Humboldt. The great naturalist was the father of a discipline that virtually died with him: Erdtheorie or La Physique du monde, a kind of artistic geography, an aesthetic understanding of the world, a science of landscape. Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an all-embracing scholar, perhaps the last of his kind: his aim was to apprehend the world in its totality; and the way to do this, he believed, in conformity with a long tradition, was through vision.

And so I read Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Though slight in length – more a novella than a novel – it is one of the most unusual and powerful works of fiction I have ever encountered.  Johann Moritz Rugendas was an actual historical personage, a German artist of the early nineteenth century who traveled to South America in search of new vistas to paint. But although this novel takes Rugendas’s life as its starting point, it diverges significantly from his actual biography. This is nowhere more true than in regard to the episode in the title. Actually, ‘episode’ is a misleadingly innocuous term to describe what actually happens to Rugendas shortly before the novel’s midpoint. I don’t want to say anything more about it except this: it haunts me.

I do think I can say that for me, this novel is about two things: the courage that individuals are capable of in extreme circumstances, and the sustaining devotion that one friend freely gives to another.

The writing is extraordinary. Kudos to Cesar Aira for his intense lyricism and meticulous descriptions, and to Chris Andrews, the translator.

At a recent book club discussion I attended, some readers expressed impatience with descriptive passages that impede the pace of a book’s plot. While I have encountered this from time to time in my own reading, the sheer beauty of the prose in Episode was one of the main things that kept me riveted to the narrative.

 It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away . . . and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alternations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness. Each day was larger and more distant. As the mountains took on weight, the air became lighter and more changeable in its meteoric content, a sheer optics of superposed heights and depths.

I hope to read more of the works of Cesar Aira; I’d like to read Zama as well.

 César Aira

César Aira

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Sounds and images of the season

December 25, 2016 at 8:38 pm (Art, Christmas, Music)

Christmas music to accompany your viewing:

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domenico_beccafumi_-_the_annunciation_-_wga01551

Annnunciation, Domenico Beccafumi

 

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Ecce Ancilla Domini, Dante Gabriel Rosetti

 

bartolome_esteban_perez_murillo_023

Annunciation, Bartolome Esteban Perez Murillo

 

Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli

Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli

 

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner

 

Madonna of the Magnificat, Botticelli

Madonna of the Magnificat, Botticelli

 

Adoration of the Shepherds, Giorgione

Adoration of the Shepherds, Giorgione

 

St. Joseph and the Christ Child, by Guido Reni

St. Joseph and the Christ Child, by Guido Reni

 

The Alba Madonna, Raphael

The Alba Madonna, Raphael

 

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa

 

 

People Celebrating Kwanzaa

People Celebrating Kwanzaa

 

Child Lighting Hanukkah candles

Child Lighting Hanukkah candles

 

 

Rabbi with a Torah, Marc Chagall

Rabbi with a Torah, Marc Chagall

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa – Happy Everything, and Everyone.

 

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‘Come to us and we will comfort you…’ – Sarah Goodridge and Daniel Webster

November 25, 2016 at 11:23 pm (Art, History)

So there I was, perusing my newly acquired art book from the Metropolitan Museum, when I came across a startling image that seemed totally out of keeping with the book’s general content. But let’s back up for a minute – or several minutes.

The book is called American Portrait Miniatures. img-news-met-mini-1_162030661934 The Met has a wonderful collection of these gem-like masterworks. (They usually  measure about two by three inches.) Here are some examples:

Portrait of a Lady byby Thomas Seir Cummings, ca. 1827

Portrait of a Lady by Thomas Seir Cummings, ca. 1827

Portrait of a Gentleman and His Daughter by Francois M Guyal de Guiron, ca 1805

Portrait of a Gentleman and His Daughter by Francois M Guyal de Guiron, ca 1805

Mrs William Gordon Ver Planck and Her Son Samuel Hopkins Ver Planck, ca 1828

Mrs William Gordon Ver Planck and Her Son Samuel Hopkins Ver Planck, ca 1828

Kate Roselie Dodge by John Wood Dodge (the artist's daughter), ca 1854

Kate Roselie Dodge by John Wood Dodge (the artist’s daughter), ca 1854

The making of portrait miniatures was one area of art in which women were able, as it were, to make their mark early in the world of art history. One of the first was the Venetian painter Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757).

Self-Portrait as Winter by Rosalba Carriera 1731

Self-Portrait as Winter by Rosalba Carriera 1731

Antoine Watteau [1684-1721] by Rosalba Carriera 1721. One of my favorite painters, looking so melancholy and no wonder; his life, so brief yet full of brilliance.

Antoine Watteau [1684-1721] by Rosalba Carriera 1721. One of my favorite painters, looking so melancholy and no wonder; his life, so brief yet full of brilliance.

L'Embarquemtn pour Cythere (Embarkation for Cythera) by Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717

L’Embarquement pour Cythere (Embarkation for Cythera) by Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717

From the essay “The Revealed and the Concealed,” by John Updike:

The painting of miniature portraits, to be kept in lockets and leather cases, had become, in the decades before the daguerreotype n the 1840s, a thriving artistic industry, and one of the few in which women could succeed. The delicacy of the work–laying fine strokes or stipples of transparent watercolor upon small squares or ovals of ivory–was thought especially suited for feminine talents.

And this brings us to Sarah Goodridge. Born in Templeton, Massachusetts in 1788, Goodridge showed artistic ability early and was encouraged by her parents to develop her talent.  At that time, however, educational opportunities for women were severely limited. She took instruction where and when she could, and was to a large degree self-taught. Here is some of her work:

gilbertstuart-1825by-sg

Gilbert Stuart, ca 1825-1827

Daniel Webster 1825

Daniel Webster, 1825

Self-Portrait

Self-Portrait, 1830

Sarah Goodridge painted several likenesses of Daniel Webster. They were friends – possibly more than friends. In 1828, shortly after the death of his wife Grace, Goodridge sent him a miniature that was – well, rather unique, at least for the times and  the country in which they were living.

Updike again:

Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s display of American portrait miniatures from the Manney Collection in the winter of 1990-1991 were startled to encounter, amid the staid Victorian visages in their tight bonnets and stocks, these luminous bare breasts.  Beautifully palpable and framed by a continuous swathe of gauze, they float ownerless and glow like ghosts, or angels, in some transcendental realm whose dark atmosphere lurks in the corners.

He continues:

There is a certain confrontations; severity about the precisely frontal presentation. The exquisitely tinted and shaded white skin and lipoid softness have the symmetry of armor. And a suggestion of challenge balances that of invitation. Do we imagine  plea, a silent chastisement, emanating from these so vivid but ethereally disembodied breasts?

This daring and unprecedented work of art is called Beauty Revealed.

In his magisterial biography of Daniel Webster, Robert V Remini informs us that “…Daniel Webster was a passionate, romantic man all his life, however much he hid his feelings from public view.”

He needed female society and contact, and in this period of  bereavement he appears to have developed a strong emotional bond with Sarah Goodridge….

If Goodridge was cherishing hopes of a marriage proposal, she was doomed to disappointment. No matter how intense their relationship may have been, Webster needed to marry money. Goodridge, living by her wits  and her talent, was comfortable but not wealthy. Webster proceeded to wed Catherine LeRoy, a New York merchant’s daughter, in 1829.

As for Sarah Goodridge, she remained single for the rest of her life. Following Webster’s death, Beauty Revealed remained in the possession of  his heirs and descendants, along with the artist’s easel and paintbox. (The family maintained that Sarah Goodridge had been Daniel Webster’s fiancée.) The painting was eventually given to Christie’s to be auctioned, purchased  by a  gallery, and  acquired from thence by collectors Gloria and Richard Manney. The Manneys utlimately donated their collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As to Sarah Goodridge’s intent on gifting Daniel Webster with Beauty Revealed, Updike has a pretty good idea of what it was:

Come to us and we will comfort you, the breasts of her self-portrait seem to say. We are yours for the taking, in all our ivory loveliness, with our tenderly stippled nipples.

(And who else could have said it quite this way but the inimitable, not to say irreverent, John Updike?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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