Picture of the Month

While I was looking up info for the wartime evacuation of paintings, I came across the really fascinating start to the Picture of the Month concept that was initiated by the National Gallery in London during wartime. The Gallery had just purchased and exhibited a Rembrandt painting in an otherwise empty museum. Following this exhibition, on January 3, 1942, a Mr. Charles Wheeler wrote a letter to the editor of the Times newspaper.

“because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days we need more than ever to see beautiful things. Like many another one hungry for aesthetic refreshment, I would welcome the opportunity of seeing a few of the hundreds of the nation’s masterpieces now stored in a safe place. Would the trustees of the National Gallery consider whether it were not wise and well to risk one picture for exhibition each week? Arrangements could be made to transfer it quickly to a strong room in case of an alert. Music-lovers are not denied their Beethoven, but picture-lovers are denied their Rembrandts just at a time when such beauty is most potent for good.”

In response, the trustees decided to show one picture every three weeks instead of one a week because they, “felt that many people could not spare time to visit the gallery so often and might be disappointed at missing a favorite  picture.”

The first painting selected by the museum was Titian’s Nole me tangere. The picture with its biblical subject matter that invited contemplation and its themes of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity, seemed like a perfect choice for a nation at war. The picture was selected on March 11, 1942 and was on display for three weeks.

Notice in the Times
Titian’s Noli me tangere (1514)
The next Picture was an El Greco which is now called Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple
El Greco, Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple (1600)

I looked through many months of archives of the Times and could only find three more such notices.

Pieter de Hooch, Courtyard of a House in Delft
JMW Turner’s Frosty Morning: Sunrise was exhibited from August 5, 1942 for one month (source: Tate Gallery, maybe the painting moved there at some point in time)
John Constable, The Hay Wain (1821) was the picture of the month from Jan 15 to Feb 14, 1943

What fun I’ve had with the research for this blog!! As always, I am amazed at the power of art to bring joy and to heal.

(Sources: Times archives and the National Gallery, London).

Flotsam and Jetsam

While most of us may relate to them as the twin eels in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, these two very interesting words originate from marine debris and are related to the items that were once on a ship but are now in the ocean.

Flotsam and Jetsam, 1908, John Singer Sargent, watercolor on paper

Flotsam is debris or rubbish that is found floating around in the ocean that got there because of a ship accident or wreck. It was never deliberately thrown into the ocean from the ship. The word flotsam comes from the French word floter which simply means to float. The rule of finder’s keepers does not apply to flotsam found by a passerby – the debris still belongs to the owners of the ship that met with the unfortunate accident that cause the flotsam.

Jetsam on the other hand is debris that was deliberately thrown from the ship into the ocean – either to lighten the ship before an accident or for some other reason. The important distinction is that it was deliberately thrown. The word is derived from the word jettison which means to throw something from a plane or a ship. Since they chose to throw the jetsam, the rule of finders keepers does apply in this case – and a passerby that comes across the jetsam can keep it.

The Shipwreck, 1772 Claude-Joseph Vernet, (1714-1780)

The two words are most often used together and have metaphorically come to mean odds and ends, or miscellaneous items –  as in –“the war refugees carried the flotsam and jetsam of their life on their backs as they walked across the continent searching for a safe haven.”

(Images courtesy, NGA DC, Portland Museum of Art, National Museuem of Norway, & Tate Gallery UK).

JMW Turner and the Sublime

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon's coming
Before it seeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying - ne'er heed their chains
Hope, hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?
             JMW Turner (1812)

The master of sublime was born on this day in 1775. Joseph Mallord William Turner was an English painter of the Romantic style, and is well known for his landscape paintings in which he captures the sublime.

Sublime, according to Irish philosopher Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) is a concept which instills fascination mixed with fear when one is in the presence of something larger than oneself. Sublime evokes the power of God and of nature. Turner was a master of instilling his paintings with this concept of sublime – reflecting the British Romantic interest in the awe-inspiring power of nature.

In The Slave Ship (1840), one of his most celebrated paintings, Turner evokes sublime both through the power of nature as seen in the powerful and turbulent ocean and the impending typhoon, and the power of God who is all powerful and sees all of man’s deeds. The shipowner has just emptied a number of sick and old slaves into the ocean for the purpose of collecting insurance for lost cargo, but as the ship moves further into the ocean the typhoon may drown the ship – such is the indiscriminate power of nature that renders all men helpless in its wake.

Here, we are in the presence of an all-powerful, angry, and disapproving God, the bright and fierce sunshine is symbolic of an angry God who will dole out justice to the slave owner when he sails his ship into a typhoon. As a viewer we are left in awe – fearful and inspired in equal measure by the emotions Turner evokes in this painting.