Mr. & Mrs…..

It seems when art patronage transitioned from the church it landed squarely on the laps the of the landed European gentry – who used it to make their marriages immortal – far beyond the intended “till death do us part.” While the church commissioned pictures of religious subject matter –wealthy 18th and 19th century patrons chose to memorialize themselves with portraits and paintings – through the boundless talent of Gainsborough, Copley, and Sargent.

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. & Mrs. Andrews (1750)

Gainsborough (1727-1788), a founding member of the Royal Academy, was one of the top artists working in Britain in the latter half of the 18th century. He was born in Sussex, U.K., the rich rural landscape of the region stayed within him throughout his life – he returned to it often in his paintings. He was a master at informal portrait art known as Conversation Pieces – in which the sitters appear engaged in conversation unaware of the presence of the artist. Gainsborough normally painted them in the outdoor settings of their large estates.

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. & Mrs. William Hallett (1785)

This love of husband and wife portraiture was carried to the Americas where artists like John Singleton Copley painted wealthy colonials – though the setting has moved from the informal outdoors into the opulent homes of the rich in colonial United States. While Mrs. Mifflin weaves on a tabletop loom to show her loyalties to the patriots, Mr. and Mrs. Izard chose to show themselves surrounded by fine Roman antiquities to display their fine breeding and taste.

Over a hundred years later, America’s favorite artist, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), is commissioned to paint a portrait of the fashionable Gilded Era New York couple Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes as a wedding present.  Mr. Stokes was an architect and a pioneer in social housing, while shipping heiress Edith Stokes was a philanthropist and a socialite.  She stands confidently in front with a frank gaze while he almost lingers in the background – their status and wealth emanating as much from their clothes as her confident gaze and demeanor.

John Singer Sargent, Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes (1897)

Painted only a quarter of a century later – but in what could be a parallel universe – are Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Wase, a cleaning woman and a gardener. George Bellows (1882 – 1925) known for capturing the working class of New York, shows them in gray attire that befits their status – Mrs. Wase, holding perhaps a bible, has a face that shows the hard life she has endured. Her husband gazes disinterestedly into the distance. This is a couple of substance that has not had an easy life – we can see that they have not commissioned this portrait – it is the artist who wants to capture them on canvas.

George Bellows, Mr. And Mrs. Phillip Wase (1924)

Yet another 50 years later, David Hockney, painted the memorable and somewhat enigmatic painting of Mr. and Mrs. Clark in their meagerly furnished apartment in London. While she stands and faces us, he slouches nonchalantly on the chair – these two are not on the same wavelength – the sunlit doorway behind them does as much to separate them as their attitude.  Despite the bare furnishings we know this is a well to do couple – maybe from the fabric of her dress, or maybe it’s his swagger. The more you look, the more this picture reveals about the 20th century husband and wife.

David Hockney, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy (1970)

Which brings me to the iconic painting that is the fountainhead from which all paintings of husbands and wives emerge – Jan van Eyck’s 1434 painting of Mr. and Mrs. Arnolfini. This mysterious and enigmatic painting is one of the most skillfully curated works of art – from the color of the room, to the oranges on the window ledge, to the one lit candle on the chandelier– each item is purposefully placed. There are as many analyses of this painting as there are art historians – the painting continues to dazzle, to puzzle, and to intrigue. I can’t imagine that an artist has ever painted a double portraiture of a couple without being influenced, even if subliminally, and inspired by the magnificent Arnolfini portrait.  

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

11 November 1620

After sailing for eight weeks across the Atlantic, the Mayflower reached Plymouth Harbor.

…but at night the winde being contrary, we put round againe for the Bay of Cape Cod, and vpon the 11. of Nouember, we came to an anchor in the Bay, which is a good harbour and a pleafant Bay, circled round, except in the entrance which is about foure miles ouer from land to land, compaffed about to the very Sea with Okes, Pines, Iuniper, Saffafrasm and other fweet wood; it is a harbour wherein 1000 faile of Ships may fafely ride, there we relieued our felues with wood and water, and refrefhed our people, while our fhallop was fitted to coaft the Bay, to fearch for an inhabitation ; there was the greateft fhre of fowle that euer we faw.

Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Edward Winslow
Ferris, Jean Leon Gerome, The Mayflower Compact 1620 (1899): Passengers of the Mayflower signing the “Mayflower Compact.” Seated at the head of the chest is John Carver, Edward Winslow is holding the inkpot for John Alden who is signing his name. Seated in the chair is Myles Standish. Others shown who signed the Compact are John Howland, William Bradford, Isaac Allerton, and Samuel (or Edward) Fuller. Off to one side is Mary Chilton – who, being a woman did not sign, but in a few days will be the first person to set foot on the Plymouth Rock.

This day before we came to harbour, obfeuring fome not well affected to vnitie and concord, but gaue fome appearbance of faction, it was thought good there fhould e an affociation and agreement, that we fhould combine together in one body, and to fubmit to fuch government and governors, as we fhould by common confent agree to make and chofe, and fet our hands to this that follows word for word.”

Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Edward Winslow

What followed and was signed on 11 November 1620 by 41 male passengers of the Mayflower came to be known as the The Mayflower Compact. The original version of the signed document was lost. The earliest known text of the document is found in Mourt’s Relation (1622) which provides an account of Plymouth settlement written by Mayflower passengers Edward Winslow and William Bradford.

At the threshold

Recently, I had done a series of blogs on the representation of African Americans in art. It seems incomplete without including the sensitive post-Civil War works of Winslow Homer in which he depicts African Americans standing at the threshold between slavery and freedom. Homer (1836-1910) is regarded as one of the greatest American artists of the 19th century.

Near Andersonville, 1875

Andersonville (Camp Sumter) was a brutal civil war camp where 10s of thousands of Union soldiers died. In this poetic painting a woman stands at the threshold  between slavery and freedom – darkness and light.

A Visit from the Mistress, 1876

In A Visit from the Mistress, 1876, the old mistress visits the Afrcan American women who are warmed by the glow of the fireplace, while the old mistress looks cold and angular. The body posture and the rather stiff visit all give a sense on underlying hostility, and a sense that despite the radical shift not much has changed in reality.

The Bright Side, 1865

This painting is the subject of considerable debate as to Homer’s meaning. Whatever the interpretation – the men here are taking a well-deserved break after hard work in the army and exude dignity and a sense of calm.

Weaning the Calf, 1875

What at first glance appears to be an idyllic childhood scene, is in reality a depiction of post-Civil war reality. The young boy in the front, and the one under the tree are doing all the work, while the other two boys look at the action and offer no assistance. Homer’s work here seems to be speaking volumes for the difficult future that lies ahead.

(Images courtesy MFA Boston, NC Museum, Google Arts & Culture).

African-American Art – A Pictorial Essay, (4)

I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?

The Turning Point

Trained in both Philadelphia and Paris, Henry O. Tanner’s (1859 – 1937) iconic The Banjo Lesson, 1839 became the breakthrough painting that unshackled African-American art and the representation of African-Americans in art from the ties of White America and its artists. This incredibly tender and soulful painting of a grandfather teaching his grandson to play the symbolic banjo became the “image of generational torch-passing,” (Farisa Khalid, smarthistory).

Here, finally we have agency – an African-American artist, painting something he could have seen reflected in a mirror.

Sitting in their humble abode, with the light finally focused on them, the “grandfather is the past, the old America of slavery and The Civil War, of oppression, racism, and poverty, while the boy, caught in the warm glow of the fire’s light, is the New America, of renewed opportunities, advancement, education, and new beginnings” (Farisa Khalid, smarthistory).

Other works of Henry O. Tanner.

African-American Art – A Pictorial Essay (3/4)

I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?

Images of African-Americans in Antebellum Era Art

All through the 1800s, White artists depicted African-Americans as anonymous figures in the background, as unimportant figures in a larger group – never as the main focus of the painting. They were shown as waiters or as poor rural folk who are content with their lot in life. While Joshua Johnson showed sophisticated African-Americans in portraits, White artists showed them as poor marginalized figures.

George Caleb Bingham, The County Election, 1852
Thomas Harrison Matteson, The Turkey Shoot, 1857
Eastman Johnson, Old Kentucky Home, 1859

All through the Antebellum Era, African-Americans were a side note in art – they were not given center stage until after the Civil War when pioneering artists like Henry Ossawa Tanner put them there.

African-American Art – A Pictorial Essay (2/4)

I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?

Robert S. Duncanson (1822 – 1871)

After Joshua Johnson, the next known Antebellum Era African-American artist is the exceptionally talented landscape artist Robert Seldon Duncanson (1822 – 1871). Born biracial and free in New York, Duncanson painted literary inspired landscapes in the Hudson River School style of American art.

Racial overtones are found in two of his paintings: View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky and Uncle Tom and Little Eva, 1853 painted a year after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the View he depicted two white children standing next to a Black man with scythe and a Black woman in the background hanging clothes to dry. He also showed a white family out on a leisurely picnic while the two African-Americans worked.  Kentucky had still not abolished slavery, and rural Kentucky contrasts sharply with the bustling city across the river. Through this painting Duncanson gives a visual of his outlook on slavery and the dependence of the bustling city on slave laborers. Cincinnati was a hotbed of anti-slavery movement, and Duncanson not only participated in abolitionist activities, he also sold paintings and donated money to the cause.

Duncanson took inspiration from literary classics when he painted – he based his famous painting Land of the Lotus Eaters on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem and presented it to him when he went to study art in Europe.

Land of the Lotus Eaters, 1861
Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine 1871 -inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake.”

Duncanson was the first truly successful African-American artist, not only in the US but also in Europe.

African-American Art – A Pictorial Essay (1/4)

I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?  

Joshusa Johnson (1763 – after 1826), Earliest Known African-American Artist.

The earliest known African-American artist is antebellum era artist Joshua Johnson who painted in the early 1800s. He lived in Baltimore and advertised himself as a self-taught portrait artist. He may have been biracial and earned his freedom which allowed him to become a financially successful professional artist. He painted local resident – sea captains, merchants, shopkeepers and their families.

Of the about 80 paintings attributed to Johnson only one is signed, and only two are of African-Americans. His portraits are formal mostly with plain backgrounds, though some have tiled floors and windows with distant landscapes. If he included other objects, they were letter, books, gloves, parasols, riding crops dogs, flowers and fruit.

Very little is known about Joshua Johnson – interestingly his paintings are dated because of the ages of the known sitters not because of when he might have painted them. Only two of his paintings were of African-Americans – of Daniel Coker (1780 – 1846), a biracial African-American who gained his freedom and became a Methodist minister. Coker moved to Sierra Leone with his family and started the West Africa Methodist Church. The second was of an unknown cleric.

(Images courtesy NGA & Smithsonian).

Two Great Americans – and Four Great Freedoms

On January 6, 1941, with an eye towards the London blitz and German air raids, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a powerful speech in which he articulated his vision for a postwar world founded on four basic human freedoms. The speech was to encourage America to end its isolationism policy and join World War II. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was inspired by these words and visualized these freedoms in his own unique small-town neighborly way.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. “

“The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, 1943.

“The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Worship, 1943

“The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want, 1943

“The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943.

Two much loved, admired, and respected Americans – what an enduring legacy they have left for us to reflect upon.

Florida Highwaymen

In segregated 1950 and 60s, African-American artists were few and far between – they had very little chance of getting a formal art education, and an even lesser chance of being shown in a gallery. It was this very lack of opportunity which gave rise to a unique painting style and an art collective which came to be known as the Florida Highwaymen.

The self-taught Highwaymen worked in the Fort Pierce and Vero Beach regions of Florida and painted the diverse and vibrant ecology of the region in their own distinct style. They painted fiery red sunsets, banyan trees laden with Spanish moss, beaches, marshes, aquamarine waters, stunning palms and poinciana tress, birds in flight– all in dazzling colors, and got their name by selling these works to tourists driving along Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

Harold Newton, Poinciana

The Highwaymen had 26 artists, with the two leaders being Alfred Hair and Harold Newton. They produced large quantities of art which they sold inexpensively to day trippers and tourists. Producing large quantities of art using an assembly line method led to a distinct painting style which included quick impressionistic style brushstrokes. Despite the assembly style method of painting the same subject, the artists added unique details to each work.

In all the Highwaymen made over 200,000 paintings which show an older Florida – the pre-Disney and Universal Florida of citrus groves and farms. At the same time they show the Florida of the Jim Crow era – when a group of defiant and talented artists worked outside the system and found independence and agency through art.