Adventures in Abstract Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art – and some other places as well

January 14, 2020 at 12:21 am (Art, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

by Jack Whitten  December 5, 1939-January 20, 2018

by Julie Mehretu


These works, and many more, are featured in an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of  Art entitled “Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art.”

What an exuberant display of talent and inventiveness! I enjoyed it so much that I went twice.

One of the explanatory signs at the beginning of the exhibit stated this:

Racism put black artists in a double bind: both under pressure to make positive representations of black people and seen by many as less creative and therefore less capable of making original abstract paintings.

It might be partly because I’m Jewish – and am currently reading an extremely depressing book about antisemitism and the notorious blood libel accusation leveled at Jews, even in this country – dismissive generalizations like the one quoted above really make me angry.

At any rate, Generations is a  wildly successful refutation of that sentiment. Here are a few more examples:

by Martin Puryear

I was powerfully drawn to this painting. This man, barely discernible, yet fully alive. He seems to struggle out of the darkness – rather not to struggle, but to emerge without effort – and with such a wonderful smile!

by Norman Lewis   July 23, 1909-August 27, 1979

Lewis’s painting is called Autumn Flight. With its stirring depiction of flight, it put me in mind of one of the first works of sculpture I came to know as a  child: Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space:

This work, entitled Eastern Star, reminded me of I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold by Charles Demuth:

I made these two visits to the BMA with my dear friend Robbie, a ‘Roberta’ like myself. Having been at Goucher College together in 1960s, we’ve know each other forever! A sweeter, more steadfast companion one could never ask for.

Robbie and I wondered why certain works appealed to us more than others. One obvious reason is the presence of a veritable explosion of color. Who doesn’t love and crave bright colors? Just about everyone, I think, from childhood on. (This is especially true of those of us who have to live through ‘the bleak midwinter’ every year.)The first painting on top is a good example of intense coloration, as is Shinique Smith’s delightful fabric creation precisely entitled Black, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red, Pink; here’s yet another, somewhat more subtle, Afternoon by Norman Lewis:

I found the following passage on the site aided my understanding of the appeal of certain works of abstract art:

The divide between abstraction and figuration is a false, but helpful, dichotomy. Painters who are primarily concerned with the interactions between color, line, and form also make marks and shapes that may suggest body parts, landscapes, and objects traditionally relegated to still lifes. Even monochrome paintings can conjure familiar settings: A gray canvas might evoke a rock face, while a blue one may suggest the sea.

The BMA made this very informative and nicely illustrated little booklet available free of charge to museum goers. I’m grateful to them for this generous act:

Once again, I can’t emphasize enough  that there are quite a few more artists represented in this exhibit than I have highlighted here. Generations runs through this Sunday the 19th. It would  be very worth your while to see it.

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Further works of beauty, for Christmas

December 25, 2019 at 1:54 pm (Art, Christmas, Music)

Little Garden of Paradise, Upper Rhenish Master

Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor, Jan Van Eyck

Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Gerard David

Virgin and Child, Stefan Lochner

Madonna of the Goldfinch, Raphaello Sanzio (Raphael)

Virgin of the Rocks,  Leonardo da Vinci

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An excellent time was had by all!

December 2, 2019 at 3:14 pm (Art, Family)

A photo essay in celebration of family.

Day One: On Opening Day!!


I went (with Etta, Welles, and their Mom and Dad and  some friends and their children). I watched (among numerous other shrieking and burbling youngsters). And I enjoyed it!!

Day Two:

Mighty Wellesy at the bat!

Day Three: Return to the Art Institute!

First: the Arthur Rubloff Collection of Paperweights. After a lifetime of collecting, Mr. Rubloff ultimately ended up donating some twelve hundred of these to the museum:

Truman Capote called these precious objects “Some fragments of a dream.”

Etta and Welles love them, and so do I.

And now, on to the Thorne Miniature Rooms, some of which have been decorated  for the holidays (but not the ones I photographed, alas):

The special exhibit featured the works of Andy Warhol:

Ah yes – the sainted Brillo boxes!

I feel as though I’ve seen these images time and time again, so for me there were no surprises in this part of the exhibit. One thing I did learn was that Andy Warhol had considerable draftsman skills. He even illustrated some children’s books. This was early in his career.

Yes, different media were represented.

I thought Etta and Welles would get a kick out of these sixties artifacts, but instead they seemed bemused and genuinely puzzled by what they were seeing.

When we go to the Art Institute, we make it a policy to check in with our favorites:

Etta and Degas’s Little Dancer. She’s been photographed several times now with this sculpture, always making sure that her feel are correctly positioned.

Un dimanche apres-midi a L’isle de la Grande Jatte,  by Georges Seurat, called ‘the Dot Painting’ by Etta

Every time I go to the Art Institute, something new enchants me. This time it was Portico with a Lantern by a follower of Canaletto, 1741-1745

We had lunch at the excellent Terzo Piano Restaurant in the Museum’s Modern Wing. Ron and Ben joined us.

Erica, Welles, Etta, and Ben. Kids hard at work on their art. Menus Warhol themed

A trip to  the Museum Shop is always a highlight of these visits. One of the items on sale was a blue plush cat based on a Warhol drawing. You can just barely get a glimpse of it peaking out of the top of Welles’s shopping bag.

Once in the store, he’d fallen instantly in love with this fluffy feline! It is now safely ensconced in his bedroom and named Cutie Pie.

That afternoon, Etta and Welles attended a Gingerbread House workshop and returned home triumphantly carrying these:




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It began with the railroads: The Europeans, by Orlando Figes

November 29, 2019 at 9:25 pm (Art, Book review, books, Music)

What began was the nineteenth century culture of worldly sophistication and high art described in this incredibly wide ranging volume. Along with the new  ease of rail travel, cultural cross currents began to flow with increasing speed and receptivity, to and from numerous nations of Western Europe. The countries specifically referenced are Italy, England, Germany, Russia – to my surprise – and France, always France, the epicenter of it all.

The book’s full title is The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture. Figes chooses to tell his story through the lives of singer and composer Pauline Viardot, her husband Louis, and their friend and close associate Ivan Turgenev. (The great Russian writer was, in fact, in love with Pauline Viardot throughout his life. To an extent, she returned his affections, but would never leave Louis, with whom she had four children.)

Pauline Viardot, 1821-1910


Louis Viardot 1800-1883


Ivan Turgenev, 1818-1883

I had gotten this far in composing this post before we left town for a few days. A recent photo in the  Washington Post served as a reminder that I hadn’t yet finished it:

Putin signing visitors’ book in Turgenev’s house

Ages ago, when I was trying to get more classics under my belt, I read Fathers and Sons and First Love. I recall especially being moved by the latter. In The Europeans, Orlando Figes tells us how Turgenev’s early writings in The Sportsman’s Sketches first secured his authorial fame. As with many out-of-copyright classics, various editions of this work are available for download on Amazon. I’ve read several of the stories and very much enjoyed them.

As it happens, copyright law, both within nations and international, is an important subject covered by Figes in his book. And as happens sometimes in books like this, it slows the narrative down to a crawl. It’s a case of an important subject that needs in depth coverage and one that at the same time isn’t – well, for want of a better word, sexy.

Still, all in all, this was a fascinating book, filled with illuminating facts about the flowering of high culture – art, music, and literature – throughout nineteenth century Europe. What fabulous gifts these people bequeathed to us!



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The Astonishing Marvel that is the Frick Collection

November 14, 2019 at 8:56 pm (Art, New York City)

So, you enter the galleries and the first thing you see is this:

It is ‘Officer and Laughing Girl’ by Jan Vermeer, painted some time between 1665 and 1660.

The man beside me was also staring intently. I said to him, Isn’t it amazing to be standing here, in front of this? He smiled and nodded, unable to speak.

It was some time before I was able to move. But move one must; there is ever so much more to see….

For one thing, two more Vermeers:

Girl Interrupted at Her Music, c.1658-1659


Mistress and Maid, c. 1667

The light falls on her dress;
Words cannot express what this color means.
It seems as though the rays of the sun have settled on the fabric,
And are blazing forth anew.

Yet she is oblivious of her own beauty,
Focused instead on this conundrum brought to her by a maid.
A moment of profound import?
A matter of some urgency, or a botched laundry order?

We cannot know; will never know,
Can only wait, and stare, and wonder, at this moment in time
Captured forever by a genius artist.

A mystery within a mystery.

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The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent

October 30, 2019 at 5:59 pm (Art)

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882 (Click to enlarge)

His presentation of the girls seems calculated not to invite empathetic engagement, but rather to frustrate and deflect it. The children pose before us, the three youngest more respectfully than the eldest, awaiting judgment or dismissal. Ambiguity, mystery, and an undefined yet pervasive unease disrupt ready sentimental responses. One French critic wrote of the painting: “The portraits…have something about about them that is…cold and cruel. They disturb me.”


Currents of feeling, dislocated from the children, suffuse the scene. They rise, in part, from the jarring unexpectedness of Sargent’s compositional choices: the small size of the girls in relation to the lowering space; their scattered, asymmetrical placement; the strange dark void at the center disgorging shadows that lurk behind the screen and eddy about the two older girls; and the sharp-angled thrust of rug and screen and pinafores that instead of directing attention to the girls as often as not point away from them and even out of the frame. These forms provoke feelings of instability, disquiet, and unease. While nothing in the girls’ facial expressions or postures suggests that  they share these feelings, the emotions reside within them, heightening impressions of their vulnerability.

From Moved To Tears: Rethinking the Art of the Sentimental in the United States,
by Rebecca Bedell
Both this painting and the Japanese vases depicted in it were donated to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1919 by the Boit daughters, in honor of their father.


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A Sultry Month by Alethea Hayter

August 12, 2019 at 7:48 pm (Anglophilia, Art, London, Poetry)

  One of my favorite books from the past few years is a nonfiction work entitled: A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846.

To begin with, Alethea Hayter’s powers of description are  formidable. They are shown in full spate in this passage, in which she brings the Duke of Wellington’s annual Waterloo Banquet to vivid life:

The low sunset light of that fiercely hot day came in through the six westward-facing windows of the Waterloo Gallery, competing with the light of the serried candles in the candelabra of the huge silver-gilt Portuguese Service, crowded with dancing nymphs, allegorical  figures of the Continents, camels, horses, scorpions, which stretched the whole length of the table. The colors were all fierce and bright–scarlet uniforms, shining white tablecloth, harsh yellow damask on the walls staring out between the crowded frames of the pictures captured in Joseph Bonaparte’s carriage at the Battle of Vittoria.

There was gold and sheen everywhere–gilding on the doors and ceiling, shutters lines with looking-glass, epaulettes, decanters, medals, picture frames, chandeliers, everything glared and glittered….

A Sultry Month has a wonderful cast of characters: Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, poets who against all odds made their love triumphant; John Keats, whose brief stay on Earth left us with much memorable verse; the Carlyles, Jane and Thomas, William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb – the list goes on. But perhaps the most memorable among them is a painter of whom I had not previously heard. His name is Benjamin Robert Haydon.

There is a genre of painting  called history painting. The term refers not only to depictions of historical events but also to scenes from mythology and religion.  The works were usually large, colorful, and action-packed. The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1635-1640) by Peter Paul Rubens is a good example:

By the nineteenth century, this type of subject matter was increasingly deemed outmoded, especially in England, where it had never really taken hold to begin with. But Benjamin Robert Haydon believed passionately in its relevance and its rightness. He worked steadily and, some would say, stubbornly to embody the best aspects of history painting in his own art.

In 1817, Haydon gave a dinner party which, over the years has achieved a unique sort of fame. In attendance at this gathering were all of the luminaries mentioned above: Keats, Wordsworth, the Lambs brother and sister, the Carlyles, and others. Haydon had two purposes in presenting this entertainment. He wanted to introduce young Keats to the venerable Wordsworth, and he wanted all the guests to see his rather fabulous, if somewhat bizarre, canvas entitled Christ Entering Jerusalem.

The bizarre aspect stems from the fact that Haydon has included small portraits of his present day friends in this work. If you look closely at the three men at the extreme right, you can see Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and Keats. (I’m pretty sure that the figure with the slightly bowed head is Wordsworth.) Apparently other of Haydon’s friends and acquaintances are also represented therein. Few of these individuals were particularly religious.

The occasion was a great success, at least in the eyes of the host. This is what he wrote about it later in his autobiography:

It was indeed an immortal evening. Wordsworth’s fine intonation as he quoted Milton and Virgil, Keats’ eager inspired look, Lamb’s quaint sparkle of lambent humour, so speeded the stream of conversation, that in my life I never passed a more delightful time. All our fun was within bounds. Not a word passed that an apostle might not have listened to. It was a night worthy of the Elizabethan age, and my solemn Jerusalem flashing up by the flame of the fire, with Christ hanging over us like a vision, all made up a picture which will long glow upon

“that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude.”

Haydon began writing his autobiography in 1839. He was still working on it at the time of his death in 1846. I think it quite marvelous that he quotes from “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” also known as “Daffodils,” a poem written by his  friend Wordsworth in 1804.

Portrait of Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1842


Manuscript copy of “Daffodils,” held at the British Museum

There are at least two other books about Haydon’s “Immortal Dinner:” The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb by Stanley Plumly (2014), and The Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817, by Penelope Hughes-Hallett (2002).

[A footnote, but an interesting one: Charles Lamb was a distinguished essayist. He is probably best remembered today for Tales of Shakespeare, on which he collaborated with his sister Mary. Mary was mentally unstable; in 1796, while experiencing a severe breakdown – what today we would probably call a psychotic break – she stabbed her mother to death with a kitchen knife. Charles remained devoted to his sister until his death in 1834. Peter Ackroyd’s novel The Lambs of London vividly recreates the turbulent events surrounding this calamity.]

I was completely spellbound by A Sultry Month; I look forward to reading it again.

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Renaissance, by Andrew Graham-Dixon

July 31, 2019 at 8:26 pm (Art, books)

I have just finished reading Renaissance by Andrew Graham-Dixon. This is a companion volume to his six part television series. Both date from about 1999-2000.

I want to let Graham-Dixon speak for himself. So let’s begin with Giotto‘s Lamentation (1303-6}:

The grief of his figures seems inextricably bound up with a quality of spiritual contemplation. By giving them this quality, making them at once actors in a scene and meditators upon it, Giotto has bridged the gap between and the world. We too, the congregation before the picture, are invited to become witnesses to Christ’s death, to see and feel its dreadfulness. It is as if his figures are responding to the scene on our behalf – are showing us the way to respond to the death of Christ….Because Giotto’s art insists on including us it is still as harrowing as when it was first painted.

[Click twice to enlarge]


The sense of the real in fifteenth century Northern European painting that it becomes uncanny. The liquidity and brilliance of colors suspended in oil lends a particular lustre to details such as the copper ewer and the lights reflected in it. A dappled patch of light conveys the passage of sunshine on to on to a wall though the small panes of a thickly glazed window with astonishing virtuosity….No wonder, perhaps, that the early Netherlandish artists should have acquired a reputation as necromancers and alchemists. Their illusions are enchantments.

Virgin and Child in an Interior, by Jacques Daret (or so it is thought) c.1435


Masaccio was the shooting star in the Florentine firmament, gone almost as soon as his brilliance had been seen.

Expulsion from Paradise, mid 1420s, by Masaccio. ‘A strong emotion had been made visible in a way that is unforgettable. There is no more wrenching image of human sorrow.’

Born in December 1401, Masaccio died in the summer of 1428 at the age of twenty-six. Twenty-six! Filippo Brunelleschi said, with heartbreaking simplicity: ‘We have suffered a great loss.’



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Art, in history and literature

July 7, 2019 at 9:10 pm (Art)

For quite a while now, I’ve been seeking out art history written with an eye toward beautiful prose as well as enlightening insights.

Vermeer, View of Delft 1660-1661

It is as though the town has not yet emerged from slumber or from a trance. The painting is not a record of busy Delft but a symbol of historic Delft….

Light in perfect accord with composition is perhaps the key, but how so? The light toned near shore, almost flesh colored is at the bottom of the canvas while the dark water-filled clouds are at the top. And between these is the softly emanating light from the massed white cumulus clouds – superbly composed, accented silhouette of the town and  the waterway, half filled with dark reflections of the buildings….

If the magic of this painting is ultimately beyond words, it still behooves us to try. We stand on this near shore, and we gaze at something real yet absolutely beyond our reach – beyond our physical reach, I mean. Our eyes, our gaze reveals Vermeer’s Delft as a magical island, one artist’s ideal of civilized perfection: his home, his nation.

Professor William Kloss

In The Captive, fifth volume of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Marcel Proust’s masterwork, a writer names Bergotte is in an art gallery viewing an exhibition of Dutch paintings. Having just read an article about Vermeer’s View of Delft, he finds himself standing before it, transfixed :

“At last he came to the Vermeer, which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. ‘That’s how I ought to have written,’ he said. ‘My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall…’ He repeated to himself: ‘Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall…'”

“Le petit pan de mur jaune…”

There is seating nearby. He sinks down onto it, then rolls off onto the floor, insensate, and dies.

From Proust: the Death of the Writer Bergotte



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‘Rousseau had no theory of color, but fully understood its possibilities and became an absolute master of its effects.’ – Recollections of Henri Rousseau by Wilhelm Uhde

May 29, 2019 at 11:22 am (Art)

When I was a child, eight years old or thereabouts, my mother took me to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I recall walking up some steps, arriving in a small room, and finding myself face to face with this:

I stood for a long time, just gazing. I was transfixed. Not only was the image enchanting, but I remember that to my young mind, the painting made perfect sense. Peace, tranquility and beauty – they all dwelt there.

This is how Henri Rousseau describes The Sleeping Gypsy(1897):

“A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her (a vase with drinking water), overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chances to pass by, picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic.”

When I was able to tear my gaze away from this vision, I beheld this, on a nearby wall:

The Dream, 1910

Also enchanting, but not quite in the same way, or to quite the same degree – at least, to my young eyes.

I am currently reading Recollections of Henri Rousseau by Wilhelm Uhde (with an introduction by Nancy Ireson). Uhde, whose dates are 1874 to 1947, was a German art collector particularly interested in modern art. He moved to Paris at the age of 30, becoming an admirer and ultimately a friend of the painter Rousseau. Uhde later observed:

There are people who go through life as though they were special guests on earth; and then there are those whose joy is to give, rather than receive. These latter are few and far between. One of them was Henri Rousseau.

This little book is one in a series published by Getty. Their dimensions are roughly 4 & 1/2 by 6 inches; the thickness varies from one quarter to half an inch. The quality of the  reproductions is stunning. Each one opens with an introduction by a contemporary writer. There follows the writings of those who were the artist’s contemporaries, or nearly so. It is inspired idea, beautifully carried out.

The series, called Lives of the Artists, is available from the Getty Museum Gift Shop, and, in certain cases, from Amazon. Thus far, in addition to the above, I am the happy possessor of these:

Meanwhile, back to Rousseau, here are some more favorites:

Carnival Evening, 1885-86

Self-portrait from Isle Saint Louis, 1890

Tiger in a Tropical storm, 1891

The Football Players, 1908



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