Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.
As I have said before, I choose the subject for my blogs based on having sufficient information about the artist and also access to a large selection of his or her work. Without those two criteria the blog would be somewhat empty. I also prefer to feature “unknown” (at least, to me) artists. However, once in a while, there comes a time when I look at a painting and have the overwhelming desire to share it with you, even before knowing whether my two criteria could be achieved. Today’s blog is one of those occasions.
My featured artist today is the nineteenth Danish painter Hans Andersen Brendekilde although at birth his name was simply Hans Andersen but later added to his surname the name of his birth village, Brændekilde. He was born on April 7th, 1857, on the island of Funen, the third largest Danish island,which lies five miles south-west of the island’s main town, Odense. He was brought up in an impoverished household and had to try and support the family by doing jobs, which included working in the house of a farmer doing chores. His father, Anders Rasmussen, was a maker of wooden shoes and his mother was Maren Nielsdatter.
As a child, Hans was interested in carving figures of animals out of wood. When he was attending the local school one of his teachers discovered his talent as an artist and sent him to a school in Odense. Here he became a good friend of Axel Blumensaadt, and it was Axel’s mother who helped fund Hans to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where he initially studied sculpture.
He became a friend and associate of painter Laurits Andersen, and in 1881 he left behind sculpting to take up painting. Laurits Andersen and Hans Andersen held a joint exhibition, but because of the confusion of their surnames they both decided to add their birthplace to their name and so Laurits who was born in the Zeeland village of Ring became known as Laurits Andersen Ring (L.A. Ring) and Hans took the name Hans Andersen Brendekilde (H.A. Brendekilde). Their paintings at their first exhibition now had their “new” designated surnames to avoid confusion.
In the summer of 1882 Hans and some other artists were invited to stay on a farm in Rugelund by its owner and soon an artist colony was formed. For Hans it was not just a chance to paint and mix with fellow artists it was a chance to be well-fed. It was also a chance to see first-hand the harsh working environment of the rural workers which he would later depict on many of his canvases. But all was not doom and gloom in his works for often, in comparison to his gritty social realism works, other paintings by Brendekilde highlighted the pleasures of living in the countryside.
But let us have a look at probably his most famous work, the one which drew me to looking into his life. It was his social realist painting entitled Udslidt (Worn Out) which he completed in 1889.
In this heart-rending depiction we see a day-labourer lying crumpled on the rock-strewn ground of the barren field where he had been working. His onerous task, with other peasants, would have been to remove the stones from the ground, prior to ploughing and planting, and put them in piles awaiting disposal. The field although barren takes up eighty per cent of the picture. Look at the detail Brendekilde has incorporated in his depiction of the ground. However, what is more emotive is the portrayal of the two figures in the foreground. The elderly peasant worker has stumbled and fallen to the ground. He is dressed in shabby clothes which are covered in dirt. One of his wooden clogs has fallen off during his fall. The heavy stones he had been carry in his apron, lie on the ground next to him. He had finally been overcome by exhaustion or maybe he has suffered a heart attack. A woman, maybe his wife or daughter or just a co-worker, has rushed to his aid. She is kneeling next to him and cradles his head.
Her mouth is open wide as she screams for somebody to come and help. Her impassioned plea has yet to be answered and she is both overwhelmed with fear for the man and her own helplessness. The picture was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and also at The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
It received a mixed reception. Many people lavished praise on the artist for the work whilst the “monied-people” and the bourgeois press thought the painting was over-melodramatic and condemned it for its blatant political stance about the life of the poor and downtrodden which they obviously didn’t want to be reminded about.
Another of his works with a depiction in a similar vain is his 1887 painting simply entitled Fortrykt which literally translated now means “pre-printed” but it is more likely that the artist was using the word to mean “supressed” or “subdued”. The painting was completed two years before the previous work Worn Out and again dwells on the hardship suffered by the rural peasant class, who were the social losers and who were way down the social ladder. Four people dominate the foreground and we may surmise that they are a young woman and her child along with her mother or older sister and her father. The older woman and the seated father are dressed in old clothes and have been working in the fields gathering bits of grain to take home.
They are the gleaners, as depicted in Millet’s famous 1857 painting, TheGleaners. Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. It is the Biblically-derived right to glean the fields and was reserved for the poor; a right, enforceable by law, that continued in parts of Europe into modern times. The young woman is dressed in finer clothes and has not been working in the field. She is talking to her father and her mother raises her head to listen. The father sits on a bag of grain and looks exhausted and yet there seems to be an air of resignation about him. He has accepted his lowly lot in life. Has his daughter told him something he didn’t want to hear? Is it something to do with young child who, whilst amusing herself, is sitting on a pile of coats?
At the end of the nineteenth century Brendekilde painted several cutting social-realist works. At other times he depicted the everyday life of poor people without critical undertones. These were more to do with the happier memories Brendekilde had of rural life when lack of money could not detract from the pleasures of immersing oneself in nature such as his 1889 springtime painting, The First Anemones.
Again, we see a similar setting in his work A Spring Day when the villagers, dressed in their “Sunday-best” clothes take a pleasurable walk through the forest.
Another fascinating and evocative work is his 1908 oil painting, Autumn. It is a combination of a landscape and sombre realist style painting in which we see an elderly lady standing by an open grave in a cemetery. It is a dark autumn day and we see the leaves from the nearby trees lying all around. There is a gale blowing which is stripping the leaves from the trees which are leaning over due to the ferocity of the wind. In the middle ground one can see the church and the green grass of the graveyard. Two black crosses have been blown over and lie abandoned against a hillock. Some graves seem to have been tended whilst others look abandoned. The old woman through her age and the strength of the wind is bent over and she clutches at her dress whilst holding on to her walking cane. She gazes into the excavated hole in the ground. The question the artist poses is what are her thoughts. Has she lost a loved one who will be buried in this plot or is she contemplating her own end of life. Could this even be termed a vanitas painting? One of the pleasures of looking at a painting is to try and decide for ourselves what we see in a depiction and work out what the artist was trying to convey.
The autumn season often featured in Brendekilde’s painting. He enjoyed depicting this colourful time of the year. A time when the normally green leaves of many deciduous trees and shrubs slowly turn to various shades of red, yellow, purple, black, orange, pink, magenta, blue and brown, during a few weeks in the autumn season, before they fall to the ground. Brendekilde beautifully captures that moment in his 1902 painting entitled A Wooded Path in Autumn.
Elderly people often featured in Brendekilde’s paintings and another of my favourites is his painting entitled A Short Respite in which we see an old man taking a rest from his gardening chores looked on by his wife.
It was not just the elderly who featured in Brendekilde’s works of art, nor were the subjects of his painting always sombre. In later life, he would concentrate on idyllic village scenes often depicting happy children, innocent children, and these proved very popular with the public.
In many of his paintings featuring children he also included one or two elderly people. Maybe he remembered his childhood days and how elderly relatives and neighbours played a part in his life. It seems strange now that some look upon paintings depicting an older person with a child as something suspicious and unnatural. Gone are the days when we accept unconditionally that our young children and an elderly person such as a relative can form a bond and in some ways learn from each other.
Brendekilde died on 30 March 1942, aged 84, in Jyllinge, a town located on the eastern shores of Roskilde Fjord, some 40 km west of Copenhagen.
The artist I am showcasing today, Mary Adshead, was an exceptionally gifted person. She was an artist who moved seamlessly between easel painting and murals. She was a portrait painter. She painted on furniture and glass. She was a postage stamp designer. She was a book illustrator and devised and designed advertisements and stage sets but will probably be best remembered as a muralist.
Mary was born in Bloomsbury, London, on February 14th, 1904. She was the daughter and only child of Stanley Davenport Adshead and Annie Adshead. Her father was a well-known neo-Georgian architect and talented amateur watercolourist, who trained in Manchester and London and for four years was clerk of works for the vast mansion at Rosehaugh, Argyll, during which time he met his wife, Annie, who was the village school mistress. In 1909, Stanley became Associate Professor of Civic Design at the University of Liverpool, and in 1912 became the Lever Professor of Civic Design. He moved back to London in 1914 and became the first Professor of Town Planning at University College, London, and remained there until his retirement in 1935.
From the age of six, Mary was determined to become an artist and spent much of her time drawing and she produced many sketchbooks of cartoons and illustrations to stories. The family would spend their summer holidays in the New Forest. Her mother and father’s relationship was often stormy and Mary found herself acting as a go-between, passing messages from one parent to the other. At the age of twelve, she attended Putney High School and remained there for three years. At the age of fifteen she went to Paris with her mother and both lived in a hotel in the French capital for six months whilst Mary attended the Lycée Victor Dury.
Whilst in Paris she visited many of the famous art galleries and was greatly influenced by the murals of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. In the Autumn of 1921, when she was seventeen years old, her father took her to meet Henry Tonks the principal at the Slade School of Art, which was part of the University College, London, where Stanley Adshead was a professor. Henry Tonks, a former surgeon, had a reputation for being very harsh with his students and a fierce taskmaster. Mary brought along a portfolio of work which she had put together whilst in Paris but Tonks was not impressed. However through a lot of arm-twisting by her father Tonks agreed to allow her to enrol on his art course. This was a great relief to Mary and her father who, because he was a professor at the UCL, would not have to pay for his daughter’s tuition.
During the early phase of her course Mary did not work as hard as she should and was happy to hang out with a set of wealthy girls who looked on the art and course as simply a pleasant hobby. Soon she realised that she was wasting valuable time and began to knuckle down and Tonks began to be very impressed with her work. Mary and fellow student, Rex Whistler won the joint first prize in the Slade’s Summer painting competition in 1924 and as a result, when their time at the Slade came to an end, Henry Tonks arranged for them to undertake a joint mural commission at the Highway Boys’ Club in London’s East End.
Once she had completed that commission, more followed and her next one, in 1924, was to create a mural based on a desert island theme, which became known as A Tropical Fantasy. It was commissioned by Charles Reilly, the professor of architecture at Liverpool University, and one-time colleague of Mary’s father. It is now housed at the Liverpool University Victoria Art Gallery. It is one of just a few of her murals to survive. That same year she completed a large mural entitled The Housing of the People, which was exhibited at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.
She designed posters for the Underground Group and London Transport in the period 1927-37 and also carried out decorative works at Bank and Piccadilly Circus Underground Stations.
One of her most lauded and often considered as her finest work was a commission she received in 1928 from Lord Beaverbrook, the millionaire Canadian-British newspaper publisher and politician, for a mural to cover the walls of his dining room at his Newmarket House, Calvin Lodge. He had decided that the mural should depict scenes of Newmarket life such as the horse racing and the fair and should depict his well-known and famous friends and it was that last instruction which was to be the stumbling-block to this project.
The resultant panels, collectively titled An English Holiday, were true masterpieces combining humour with an insight into a life of privilege and elegance. They were described at the time as being in ‘the manner of English 18th-century sporting prints and acquatints. The paintings were packed with activity.
In Village Inn, a gentleman cyclist flirts with a country maid. In another one we see Arnold Bennett playing the harmonium for a crowd of gypsies. In another we see Lady Louis Mountbatten waiting by her car, the tyre of which had punctured and is being offered assistance by a swaggering, bearded character who looks very much like the painter Augustus John. More bizarrely Churchill is depicted astride an elephant. All of the characters are making their way to the Newmarket racecourse to meet Lord Beaverbrook.
However, Lady Diana Cooper, a good friend of Lord Beaverbrook and who also appeared picnicking in one of paintings persuaded him not to install the murals. Her argument being that as he was so cantankerous and quarrelsome, he was bound to, sooner or later, argue with one or more of the people depicted in the murals and then he would be forced to look at their depictions every time he dined. He listened to her advice and returned the panels to Adshead and paid the two-thirds rejection fee.
The panels were reassembled and exhibited at the large Peter Jones Department store in Central London in 1930 before being rolled up and relegated to a cupboard in the Adshead’s house where years later all but three were destroyed by fire.
In 1929 Mary Adshead married the painter Stephen Bone, the son of the artist and etcher Sir Muirhead Bone. Stephen and Mary had been students together at the Slade. The couple went on to have three children, two sons, Quentin and Sylvester and a daughter, Christina. Mary and Stephen collaborated on a couple of children’s books, namely The Little Boy and His House in 1936, The Silly Snail and Other Stories in 1942 and The Little Boys and Their Boats in 1953 in which Mary provided the illustrations.
During their early married life, the couple made many painting and sketching tours during their travels through Europe. Mary received many commissions through her architect father and also through the good auspices of her father-in-law who was always singing her praises in his circle of artist friends. Her father-in-law, Muirhead Bone was well known for helping young aspiring artists such as Stanley Spencer, Gwen John and Cristopher Nevinson.
Mary Adshead’s first solo exhibition was held in 1930 at the Goupil Gallery and included the painting The Morning after the Flood which is now part of the Tate collection. This decorative painting by Mary Adshead was characteristic of the style taught at the Slade Art School when she was a student. The tutors at the Slade had students set out figurative compositions that had connections with Biblical tales. This work was set the day after the Great Flood when Noah’s boat with his family and animals had come to rest on dry land. One art critic wrote that her figure painting combined a fashionable primitivism, loosely derived from Stanley Spencer with a fluency and humour rarely found among her contemporaries.
Her talent as a portrait artist can be seen in her 1931 self-portrait.
Other portraits she completed include one of Daphne Charlton, the painter who studied at the Slade and who was a close friend of Stanley Spencer.
One of her favourites was one she did of her three children.
There is actually connection between Mary Adshead and her father and a place near where I live. The connection is the Victoria Pier Pavilion at Colwyn Bay, North Wales. The original pier was started in 1899 and was completed two years later. A 600-seat ‘Bijou’ theatre was built at the pier head in 1917 for the purposes of light entertainment. This original pavilion was completely destroyed by fire in 1922. This disaster forced the owners, the Victoria Pier Company, into bankruptcy and the pier was taken over by Colwyn Bay Urban District Council which arranged to re-build the structure. Eleven years later this second pavilion was destroyed by fire and a second blaze a few months later destroyed the theatre.
Not to be deterred by these two disasters, the Colwyn Bay Urban District Council set about rebuilding, and the third pavilion was opened on Tuesday 8 May 1934 at a cost of £16,000. Now to the connection !
The third pavilion was designed by architect Stanley Davenport Adshead, Mary’s father, and Mary and Eric Ravilious were commissioned to paint some Art Deco murals for the interior of the pier building. The pier was badly damaged by the gales and sea in 2017 and started to collapse and it was decided to dismantle the whole structure.
The Art Deco murals created by Eric Ravilious and Mary Adshead, back in 1934, from inside the pavilion, have all been successfully removed and are currently awaiting restoration.
Stephen Bone, Mary’s husband, was a landscape painter and for a while was very successful but later the market for his work dried up and he became depressed and began to look upon himself as a failure. Stephen Bone died of bowel and liver cancer on 15 September 1958 at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. He was just fifty-three years old.
After the death of her husband, and with her children all grown up, Mary embarked on a tour of America. During the adventure she carried her sketchbook and filled it with drawings of her journey. When she returned to England she published a book about her travels entitled Travelling with a Sketchbook.
Between 1948 and 1963 she submitted designs for a number of Post Office stamp issues including the Universal Postal Union stamps of 1949, the Festival of Britain stamp of 1951 and four denominations of the Wilding definitive stamps of 1952, which featured the Dorothy Wilding photographic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II . Adshead’s design for the 8d, 9d, 10d and 11d were chosen.
In her latter years, lameness caused by painting off ladders hampered her work and life, but, ever purposeful, she would crawl where she could not walk with a stick, curious glances notwithstanding. Despite this affliction Mary Adshead remained an active working artist until the end of her life. She died in London on September 3rd 1995, aged 91.
For those of you who have been following my blog over the years, you will know of my love of Flemish and Dutch art. Many of you would be able to conjure up names of some of the great Netherlandish artists such as the Flemish painters Pieter Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch, Hans Memling, Quentin Massys, and David Teniers or the Dutch painters such as Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer, van Gogh and Rembrandt, to mention just a few. My other artistic love is paintings with symbolism and so in the blog today, I want to introduce you to a lesser known Dutch painter many of whose paintings were awash with a myriad of symbolic objects.
My painter I am looking at today is the seventeenth century artist, Evert Collier, who is famous for his vanitas and trompe-l’œil still life works and today I will look at his vanitas paintings. Edwaert Colyer, a Dutch painter possibly of English descent, (who later anglicised his name to Edward Collier) was born in Breda in January 1642 and baptised Evert Calier. He trained in Haarlem and eventually became a member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke.
One of the greatest influences on Collier was a fellow painter of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke, Vincent Laurensz. van der Vinne. Initially van de Vinne trained as a weaver but then decided to concentrate on painting and in his late teens. He studied under Frans Hals, who actually painted his portrait around 1660, which is now housed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
The paintings of van der Vinne which survive today are mostly still lifes and genre scenes. They often include many aspects of trompe l’oeil and, in many instances, incorporate vanitas items.
Vanitas paintings are subtle moralistic depictions which were very popular at the time and were those works of art which, through their symbols, depicted the impermanence of life, the pointlessness of pleasure and were meant to remind people that death is inevitable. In a way they were to counter the wealth and profligacy of many of the well-to-do citizens. The word vanitas comes from the Latin noun ’emptiness’, ‘futility’, or ‘worthlessness’, which was the traditional Christian view being that earthly goods and lavish pastimes are merely fleeting and worthless moments in the great scheme of life. Such prosperity was countered by the words of condemnation from the bible (Ecclesiastes 1:2):
“…Vanity of vanities”, says the Preacher, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity.…”
The first work by Collier I am showing is one simply entitled A Vanitas Still Life which was completed by him in 1689. Let us study the work and look at the amazing detail. Look at the way Collier has depicted the string of pearls and the other jewels spilling out of an open casket. Next to the casket we see a Nautilus cup, so called as it was a cup made from a carved and polished nautilus shell and then mounted by goldsmiths on a thin stem of gold or silver to add to the extravagance. In front of the Nautilus cup we see a skull, crowned with laurel. The skull lies on top of an upturned crown, below which we see closed bellows and the jewelled hilt of a sword. The hilt of the sword traps a note to the edge of the table. The Latin inscription on the note is a salutary warning:
NEMO ANTE MORTEM BEATUS DICI. POTEST
(No one can be called happy before death)
It is a warning about not calling anyone blessed or happy, beatus, before he’s experienced all that life has had to offer.
Lying on the table behind the open casket, although not very clear in the picture, is a smouldering taper, wound with ivy. To the right of the skull one can just make out an open book.
So, what does it all symbolise? In one word, our mortality. The presence of the skull is a memento mori or reminder of death and immediately defines the work as a vanitas still life. But there are more symbolism in this work other than the skull representing death.
It is the association of the skull and the items of extreme wealth, such as the gold-stemmed Nautilus cup, casket overflowing with precious jewels and the gold crown which together remind us that wealth and power are futile in the face of death, which harks back to the passage in the book of Ecclesiastes in the bible.
Look at the richness of colour in this work. The glimmering pearls, the black and red gemstones, and the pearly grey shimmer of the Nautilus cup, which is adorned by golden figures. The whites and the golds of the crown and jewelled-bedecked sword hilt glitter in the light and are picked up in the gilded tassels of the table cloth.
As one looks at the painting one is seduced by the riches before us but one cannot get over the sight of the skull, symbolising death and the expiring taper which symbolises the transience of life, all of which serve as a warning that we should not be beguiled by such earthly wealth. Even the bellows is symbolic as they are used to pump life into a dying fire but in the painting, the bellows lie closed and of no use. The down-turned crown symbolises, which once represented power and kingship, has been symbolically overturned by death and even the bejewelled sword which once was an emblem of power and earthly might is rendered ineffectual by death.
But the painting is not all symbolising doom and gloom. There are also symbols of hope. The laurel wreath atop the skull and the open book present an encouraging note that fame achieved through learning can conquer death and this is corroborated by the note on the stone pillar:
FINIS CORONAT OPUS
(the end crowns the work)
which is a variant of the well-known Vanitas maxim:
Vita Brevis, ars longa
(Life is brief but art endures)
Above is an early work by Collier, painted in 1662, during a period when he produced some of his best work. In this depiction he includes a candlestick, musical instruments, Dutch books, a writing set, an astrological and a terrestrial globe and an hourglass, all of which are on a table covered by a heavy ornate table covering. Once again these decorative and expensive objects indicate that wealth, knowledge and power are all earthly, temporary and ultimately meaningless. The tempus fugit theme is symbolised by the burning candle, pocket watch and hourglass which also represents the brevity of life; the violin with a broken string signifies the transient pleasure of music whilst the money bag denotes the worldly riches. The scholarly books and globes represent the vanity of learning, and the military flag denotes worldly power. On a piece of paper at far right one can once again read the words from Ecclesiastes:
Vanitas Vanitatu Et Omnia Vanitas
[Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity]
The Vanitas work above by Collier is housed in the Denver Art Museum. This one, although having a number of Vanitas symbols, does not have a skull. Look at how Collier has given through this work the idea of it being 3-D when we know it is simply a 2-D painting. Such “artistic trickery” is known as trompe d’oeil (trick of the eye).
Collier moved to London in 1693, where he lived almost ten years. In 1702, Collier returned to Leiden, where he worked productively for four years. However, due to circumstances, the artist was forced again to move to London. There, in September 1708, Evert Collier died, aged 66 and was buried in the cemetery of the church of St James’s Piccadilly.
The subject of my blog today reflects moments of my past life, from the days when I spent years journeying across the oceans and earlier when, at the age of sixteen, I had to sit the national exam in English Literature. The examination was based on a book, a Shakespearian play, and a poem, all of which, we had to read, over and over again and dissect each into bits of minutiae. My classmates and I were delighted to find the book we had to read and digest was a novel by H.G.Wells. We had all heard of and/or read his Time Machine and War of the Worlds so we looked forward to the book set by the exam board.
Our hopes were soon dashed as we set about reading The History of Mr Polly which I remembered to be both turgid and depressing but there again I have to admit I was never an avid reader. The Shakespearean play was the Merchant of Venice which proved a lucky choice and one which I especially enjoyed when we looked at it in depth. Then came the poem. Poetry was anathema to sixteen year old boys and “boys don’t do poetry” was our class mantra and one needs to remember that our school was an all-boys one. Add to that the feeling of gloom about embarking on reading and learning lines of the poem for furthermore this chosen poem, which we had to study was not a short one with just a few stanzas but an extremely long one. It was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which was the longest major poem by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and one he completed and had published in 1798. Unbelievably it proved to be my favourite part of the English Literature exam syllabus.
I was in London last week and visited Camden Lock which has a great market and a plethora of “arty” shops including an excellent second-hand book shop where I found a number of books to buy, one of which was The Rime of The Ancient Mariner with forty-two illustrations by Gustave Doré. My blog today looks at Gustave Doré and some of the illustrations used in the book.
Paul-Gustave Doré was an Alsatian, born on January 6th, 1832, in Strasbourg. He became known as one of the most prolific and successful book illustrators of the late 19th century, whose high-spirited and somewhat strange fantasy-fashioned sizeable dreamlike scenes were widely loved during the Victorian period.
Doré was considered by many as a child genius when it came to his artistic ability. By age five, he was creating drawings that were mature beyond his years. In his late teenage years, he created several text comics, like his 1847 “comic” Les Travaux d’Hercule. Others followed and so well-liked were his works that he won a commission to illustrate books by Cervantes, Milton, and Dante.
Honoré de Balzac’s Les Contes drolatiques (Droll Stories) were illustrated by Gustave Doré
In 1848, when he was fifteen years old, Doré, went to Paris and began working as a caricaturist for the French paper Le Journal pour rire (Journal for laughs) as well as producing, over the next six years, several albums containing his lithographs.
His most accomplished work could be seen in his illustrations in such books as the 1854 edition of the Oeuvres de Rabelais, the 1855 edition of Honoré de Balzac’s Les Contes drolatiques (Droll Stories), and the 1861 edition of Inferno of Dante.
He also painted many large compositions of a religious, mythological, or historical character such as his 1869 work, Andromeda. The painting depicts Andromeda, the daughter of the Aethiopian king Cepheus and his wife Cassiopeia. When Cassiopeia’s boasts that Andromeda is more beautiful than the Nereids, the sea nymphs, Poseidon sends the sea monster Cetus to ravage Andromeda as divine punishment. Andromeda is stripped and chained naked to a rock as a sacrifice to sate the monster but is saved from death by Perseus.
One of my favourite paintings by Doré was his spectacular landscape scene entitled Glen Massan. Doré first visited the Scottish Highlands in 1873 on a salmon fishing trip with his good friend Colonel Teesdale. However, it turned out that Doré preferred to paint rather than fish and was inspired by the beauty of the Highland landscape, so much so, he returned to northern Scotland the following year. This painting, of Glen Massan near Dunoon, is a large canvas painted in a romantic Victorian style. I like the way Doré has depicted shafts of light penetrating the billowing clouds and lighting up parts of the valley.
And so to the Samuel Coleridge Taylor poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Doré was excited about illustrating the poem, so much so he had completed the designs for the illustrations before a deal had been struck with the publisher. The wooden blocks he used for the illustrations were very large and cost Doré a lot of money and unlike previous engravings he took control of the supervision of them. Doré believed that this was his greatest work but unfortunately for him, its sales recouped him only slowly for his large initial outlay. It was first published in England and soon editions appeared in France, Germany and America.
Samuel Coleridge Taylor did not set his poem in any one period but as an illustrator, Doré had to be more precise and he chose a medieval setting for the wedding feast at the start of the poem.
The opening setting for the poem is a path leading to a church where three of wedding party are heading. An elderly man with a grey beard, the Ancient Mariner, halts them to tell his tale. Two escape his clutches but the third is trapped and made to listen. It is an ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three. “By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, Now wherefore stopp’st thou me? “The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide, And I am next of kin; The guests are met, the feast is set: May’st hear the merry din.”
The old sailor recounts how the sea voyage had started well but soon the ship was being drawn southward by a storm and the men had lost control of the vessel.
With sloping masts and dipping prow, As who pursued with yell and blow Still treads the shadow of his foe And forward bends his head, The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast, And southward aye we fled.
Soon the Ancient Mariner’s ship was trapped in the Antarctic ice with no hope for survival.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts Did send a dismal sheen: Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken — The ice was all between. The ice was here, the ice was there, The ice was all around: It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, Like noises in a swound!
The Ancient Mariner recalls how the sailors believed they were doomed and all hope had gone – until the arrival of an albatross, which came each day and was fed by the sailors. The bird then led the ship and the sailors away from their icy prison and all aboard celebrated their good fortune.
At length did cross an Albatross: Thorough the fog it came; As if it had been a Christian soul, We hailed it in God’s name. It ate the food it ne’er had eat, And round and round it flew. The ice did split with a thunder-fit; The helmsman steered us through! And a good south wind sprung up behind; The Albatross did follow, And every day, for food or play, Came to the mariners’ hollo!
However for some unknown reason the Ancient Mariner shot the albatross with his crossbow.
“God save thee, ancient Mariner! From the fiends, that plague thee thus! — Why look’st thou so?”— With my cross-bow I shot the ALBATROSS.
At first the sailors, despite condemning the old mariner for his action, seemed to be pleased that the south wind which had been mustered up by the albatross was still with them and they had left the cold waters of Antarctica and approached the warm waters of the Equator. All was good with the crew and their ship, but then the wind dropped and the ship was becalmed.
Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down, ’Twas sad as sad could be; And we did speak only to break The silence of the sea! All in a hot and copper sky, The bloody Sun, at noon, Right up above the mast did stand, No bigger than the Moon. Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink. The very deep did rot: O Christ! That ever this should be! Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs Upon the slimy sea.
The becalmed ship was surrounded by evil creatures of the sea and soon the blame for their misfortune fell on the Ancient Mariner for killing the albatross. Close to death they suddenly spot a shape on the horizon – could it have come to their rescue?
There passed a weary time. Each throat Was parched, and glazed each eye. A weary time! a weary time! How glazed each weary eye, When looking westward, I beheld A something in the sky. At first it seemed a little speck, And then it seemed a mist: It moved and moved, and took at last A certain shape, I wist.
The ghostly hulk approaches their ship and on board are two figures, a skeletal Death and a deathly pale female, Night-mare Life-in-Death and the two are playing dice for the souls of the crew members. Death wins the lives of all the crew members, all except for the Ancient Mariner, whose life is won by Night-mare Life-in-Death. It is the name of this character that allows us to know the fate of the Ancient Mariner – a fate worse than death, a living death, was to be his punishment for killing the albatross.
The Ancient Mariner is the sole survivor of the ill-fated crew. The bodies of the dead crew members lay around the deck with their eyes staring at the Ancient Mariner. The Ancient Mariner recounts how he felt, how he wanted to die but was not allowed that luxury.
I looked to Heaven, and tried to pray: But or ever a prayer had gusht, A wicked whisper came, and made my heart as dry as dust. I closed my lids, and kept them close, And the balls like pulses beat; For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky Lay like a load on my weary eye, And the dead were at my feet. But the curse liveth for him in the eye of the dead men. The cold sweat melted from their limbs, Nor rot nor reek did they: The look with which they looked on me Had never passed away. An orphan’s curse would drag to Hell A spirit from on high; But oh! more horrible than that Is a curse in a dead man’s eye! Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse, And yet I could not die.
I suppose you may curse me, like the curse put on the Ancient Mariner, but I am not going to tell you the end of the story in the hope that you will go out and get yourself a copy of the epic poem, and if possible, a copy with the Gustave Doré’s woodblock illustrations. You won’t regret it.
In my last blog I looked at the beginnings of the Philadelphia Ten and how it was made possible for women to seriously study art at an all-women art establishment. Once there, they received the highest quality of training and in order to get more of their work exhibited they decided to set up their group and put on individual shows. So, who were the Philadelphia Ten?
The Philadelphia Ten group was made up of young female painters who had attended art school in Philadelphia, either at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women or the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Originally ten in number but soon the number of them who participated in the Philadelphia Ten group exhibitions eventually increased to thirty, seven of whom were sculptors. The main characters who are now looked upon as the driving force of the group were Isabel Branson Cartwright, Constance Cochrane and Edith Lucile Howard, all of who participated in all of the group’s sixty-five exhibitions held between 1917 and 1945. The other stalwart of the group was Mary Russell Ferrell Colton. In this blog I take a look at some of the “leading lights” of this group.
Isabel Parke Branson was born in Coatesville, Pennsylvania on September 4th 1885. In 1902, at the age of seventeen, she entered the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and was taught by Elliott Daingerfield and Henry B. Snell. She won the School’s travelling scholarship in 1906 which paid for one year’s study in a European city. Her choice of destination was London where she studied under the Anglo-Welsh artist, painter, water colourist, engraver, illustrator and progressive designer Frank Brangwyn. Whilst in Europe she took the opportunity to visit Holland, France and Italy.
In November 1911, at the age of twenty-six, she married the Texan, John Reagan Cartwright, and the couple went to live in Terrell, Texas, and whilst there she held a couple of solo exhibitions in the Texas cities of Fort Worth and San Antonio.
John Cartwright died in 1917 and Isabel Branson Cartwright returned to Philadelphia and joined the Philadelphia Ten group of female artists and took part in their exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design. She favoured en plein air painting and soon discovered many ideal painting spots including Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine. The island was one of her favourite places and in the 1940’s she acquired a house on it. In 1953, Cartwright moved to California, to live with her sister Laura and was involved in the artists’ colony at Carmel. She died in Ross, California in June 1966, aged 80.
Another of the most influential members of the Philadelphia Ten from the very beginning was the very talented painter, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton. She was born on March 25th, 1889 in Louisville, Kentucky.
In 1904, at age of fifteen, Mary-Russell Ferrell enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, and after studying there for four years, graduated with honours in 1909. Having left the school with honours, she opened her own studio in Philadelphia and spent her time in art restoration commissions and commercial art projects. In 1912 she married Harold Sellers Colton, a University of Pennsylvania zoologist and the couple took their honeymoon in the wilds of Arizona. Colton and her husband fell in love with the rugged beauties of this American state, and fourteen years later, in 1926, they made their home in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Colton was a gifted landscape painter and was inspired by the Colorado Plateau and during her time in Northern Arizona she painted in and around that area, a vibrant mix of high deserts and forests, over a mile above sea level. She completed many colourful works which gave a sense of both the beauty of the region and her deep emotional bond with the place that had become her home.
Colton and her husband established the Museum of Northern Arizona in 1928 and were committed to sustaining the history and cultures of northern Arizona and the Colorado Plateau. Colton wrote many books about the Hopi, a Native American tribe, who primarily live on the Hopi Reservation in north-eastern Arizona. Through her writing, painting and work as an advocate of Native American peoples and Native American arts, she made contributions to progressive education, the Indian arts and crafts movement and archaeology. As curator of art and ethnology at the Museum of Northern Arizona, she established annual exhibitions of Hopi and Navajo art that continue to this day.
Museum of Northern Arizona Fine Arts Curator Alan Petersen said of Colton:
“…Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton’s life and artwork echoed the optimism and modernity of the early twentieth century. Like many other artists and writers during this period, her work reflected the popular romantic perspective of the Southwest. That, and her sense of wonder at the natural world, defined her as an individual and as an artist…”
She was a member of the Philadelphia Ten, exhibiting at the group’s annual shows from 1926 to 1940. She was also a member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, the American Watercolour Society, and the American Federation of Arts
Colton died on July 26th, 1971, aged 82.
Constance Cochrane was born in 1888 at the U.S. Navy Yard at Pensacola, Florida, where both her father and grandfather were stationed. Constance Cochrane joined a family of career Marine Corps and Navy officers. Constance Cochrane, another of the original artists of the Philadelphia Ten, began to paint at the early age of six and during her passage through high school she always showed a considerable talent as a young artist. She graduated from Chester High School, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women where she was an illustration major. She, like many of the other Philadelphia Ten artists, was taught and influenced by her teacher, the painter Elliot Dangerfield. Cochrane studied with Dangerfield at his summer studio in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, as did many other future members of the Philadelphia Ten.
Constance Cochrane devoted her artistic career to painting images of the sea and landscapes showing the nearby shore and its rocks. For a brief time, she even joined the Navy during periods of the First and Second World Wars and was tasked with designing camouflage for ships.
Between 1921 and 1927 Cochrane lectured at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and was the art chair for the Delaware County Federation. It was whilst in this role that she organised an exhibition of women artist works. The exhibition proved a great success and was so popular that it led to the Philadelphia Ten circulation of exhibits in the Pennsylvania State Federation. She held many positions in art societies, such as being chair of the Circulating Picture Club of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and she also sat on the executive committee of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and was one of their selection jurists for their 1935 exhibition.
As a painter Cochrane used the mediums of both oil and watercolour. Her work varied extensively from tiny thumbnail sketches to very large murals. Most of her work was done on Monhegan Island, Maine. In 1921 she visited the area and in 1930 made it her summer home.
Constance Cochrane died in 1962, aged 74.
Edith Lucile Howard was one of the early members of the Philadelphia Ten and showed her work at their exhibitions between 1917 and 1945. She was born in Bellow Falls , Vermont in 1885, the daughter of prominent businessman Daniel DeWitt Howard, a descendent of Henry Howard, one of the founders of Hartford, Connecticut. Her mother, Abigail Adams, was a descendent of a famous Massachusetts family. The family moved to Wilmington, Delaware when Edith was a teenager and at the age of nineteen Edith enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women where her teachers were Henry Bayley Snell and Elliot Dangerfield and she would attend the latter’s summer courses in North Carolina at which time she became very interested in landscape painting. She graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1908.
She attained two travelling postgraduate fellowships which allowed her to journey to Europe for the first time. She became an inveterate traveller both within America and abroad and it is said that during her life, she crossed the Atlantic more than thirty times. One of her favourite destinations was Ireland.
She had a studio in Carnegie Hall, New York but besides being an artist she was also an educator. She taught at the Grand Central Art Galleries and School of Art in New York and taught art history and fashion at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. On weekends she would return to Wilmington where she acted as administrator of the Wilmington Academy of Art. She was also one of the directors of the Delaware Art Centre.
In 1938, aged 53 she married Herbert Roberts and the couple went to live in Moorestown, New Jersey. She retired from teaching in 1949 and the last time she exhibited her work was in 1959.
Edith Lucile Howard died in 1960, aged 75.
Another founding member of the Philadelphia Ten art group was Helen Kiner McCarthy, who was best known for her painted landscapes. She was born in Poland, Ohio on September 6th 1888. At the age of twenty she enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, graduating in 1909. Like many others from the Philadelphia Ten group of female artists she was taught by Henry Bayley Snell and Elliot Dangerfield.
After finishing her art course, she remained in Philadelphia where she shared a studio, first with another Philadelphia Ten artist, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton and later with Lucille Howard. Helen also spent some time teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women before becoming one of the founder members of the Philadelphia Ten in 1917.
In 1920, McCarthy moved to New York City and established a studio at East 40th St. in Greenwich Village. It was around this time that her signature on her paintings changed. She began signing her paintings with her mother’s surname “Kiner” as her middle name becoming Helen K. (Kiner) McCarthy.
Helen also became a member of Philadelphia’s Plastic Club, an all-female organisation founded by art educator Emily Sartain. Her aim was to form a society which would allow women to promote their work, partly in response to the Philadelphia Sketch Club, which was an exclusively male arts club. The Plastic Club provided a social and professional network for women artists as well as exhibition opportunities at the club’s gallery on South Camac Street. Helen received a number of awards for her paintings from the Plastic Club and the National Association of Women Artists.
Unlike many of the other Philadelphia Ten’s group who lived into their sixties and seventies, Helen Kiner McCarthy died young. She passed away in 1927, just forty-three years of age.
This concludes the story of the Philadelphia Ten. This group of female artists came into being through the auspices of a wealthy patron and through the tuition of talented painters and educators.
A month ago, I looked at the life of English artist Louise Swinnerton and told of her struggle to be accepted into the male-dominated art establishment. It was the time of the suffragettes and their struggle for women’s rights. A similar struggle was taking place across the Atlantic in America where, like the female artists of Britain, the American female artists were struggling to get a foothold in their own art establishments.
All artists need to be able to exhibit their work so that they can enhance their reputation and be recognised as talented painters but also they need to be able to sell their paintings. Too often, females who wanted to learn to paint were dismissed as people who just wanted to paint as a hobby. Why should they earn money from their paintings? Surely the female just needs to marry a wealthy man and let him provide for her. Wouldn’t it be much better if she stayed at home and looked after her husband and their children? A simple male philosophy of the time but of course women were determined to strike out on their own.
In my next two blogs I am looking at the birth of the Philadelphia Ten, often simply referred to as The Ten, an embryonic group of female artists and sculptors that went on to exhibit their work together for nearly thirty years. In the second part of the blog I will look at some of these aspiring artists, based in Philadelphia, who were members of the collective and who, through this group, fought their way to success in the world of American art. The Philadelphia Ten existed between 1917 and 1945 and, during this twenty-eight-year period, regularly exhibited their work together in large annual group shows at the National Academy of Design, the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors’ the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Club of Philadelphia. Although having their work accepted by the various exhibition jurists at these annual events was a great achievement there were still hurdles to overcome, such as the number of paintings each of the women was allowed to submit and, after having their paintings accepted, the whereabouts of the hanging position of their works within the exhibition, as this was left to the hanging jurists. For young aspiring female artists, it was a long struggle to have all their work displayed and their aspiration of having more paintings exhibited led to the formation of the Philadelphia Ten.
Before the “formation” of The Ten could take place there had to be an establishment for them to learn their trade and somebody to support their desire to become painters. Enter onto the scene Sarah Worthington, who would later become a renowned nineteenth-century American philanthropist and patron of the arts. She was born into a powerful political family on May 10th, 1800, at Chillicothe, Ohio, the daughter of an Ohio senator. She led a charmed life, going to private schools in Kentucky and later Washington D.C. At the age of sixteen, she married her first husband, Edward King, the son of a renowned New York politician, Rufus King. The couple, who lived in Cincinnati, went on to have five children. Her husband died in 1836 and she moved to Cambridge Massachusetts to be close to two of her sons who were attending Harvard University.
In 1844, she married William Peter, who, at the time, was the British consul to Philadelphia. The couple lived in Philadelphia and it was here that Sarah Worthington King Peter began her philanthropic career. Knowing the difficulties women had in progressing with their art, she founded the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1848. It was the first American art school devoted exclusively to the training of women. It originally was not simply a fine arts college but one which was set up to teach a trade to women, who struggled to support themselves. They were taught all about lithography, wood carving, and design, which could then be used during the making of household items such as carpets and wallpaper. The institution was renamed Moore College of Art & Design in 1932 after Joseph Moore, Jr. set up a $3 Million-dollar endowment in memory of his parents. Sarah Worthington Peter’s original vision continues to drive the College’s mission to educate women for careers in the visual arts. Sarah’s second husband died in 1853 and she returned to Cincinnati where she would stay for the rest of her life. She continued with her philanthropy and established the Ladies’ Academy of Fine Arts.
Having established the Philadelphia School of Design for Women it was important to staff it with the best teachers. Two of the best and most influential teachers, during the days when the Philadelphia Ten were learning about art, were Henry Bayley Snell and Elliot Dangerfield, both talented landscape artists.
Henry Bayley Snell, an Englishman, was born in Richmond in September 1858 where he remained until, at the age of seventeen, he emigrated to New York where he attended the Art Students League. In his twenties, to eke out a meagre living, Snell supported himself by working in the blueprint department of an engineering firm, and by producing marine scenes for a Photoengraving Company. In 1888, thirty-year-old Snell married artist Florence Francis. It was in 1899 that Snell was given the post of art teacher at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. That same year the couple travelled to visit a fellow painter, William Lathrop in his hometown of New Hope, Maine. Liking the town so much the couple moved there in 1900.
In 1921, along with Frank Leonard Allen, Snell founded the Boothbay Studios in Boothbay Harbour, Maine, which operated as a summer school. Henry B Snell remained as a teacher at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women until his death in 1943 and during his early days there, he taught many artists who became part of the Philadelphia Ten. During his teaching years, he travelled abroad extensively, frequently accompanied by his students. It was his reputation both as a teacher and a painter that lured many artists to the New Hope Area.
The other lecturer who greatly influenced the women was the watercolourist, John Elliott Parker Daingerfield. Dangerfield was born in March 1859 at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the son of Captain John Elliott Daingerfield, commander of a Confederate arsenal, and Matilda Wickham DeBrau Daingerfield. However, from a young age he was raised nearby in Fayetteville, North Carolina and he is looked upon as one of the most important artists to come from this area. From a young age, Daingerfield’s dream was to become an artist and early on in life he learned some basics of drawing and painting from a sign painter in Fayetteville as well as assisting a commercial photographer and a china painter. In 1880, at the age of twenty-one, he decided to pursue a formal art education and went to New York where he enrolled at the National Academy of Design. During his first year there he produced his painting entitled, The Monk Smelling a Bottle of Wine, which was exhibited at the Academy in 1880.
In New York, Daingerfield worked as an apprentice in the studio of William Satterle. So impressed by his student that he offered him a job as an instructor in his still life class. To progress further in the world of art, Dangerfield attended classes at the Art Students League. Daingerfield’s most influential mentor was George Inness, whom he met in 1884 when he rented studio space at Holbein Studios on Fifty-fifth street. “Master and pupil” would often study each other’s work. Innes taught Dangerfield the technique of how to get the atmospheric effects of light by mixing layers of paint with thin layers of varnish and it was this procedure that brought about a wonderful sense of mood and tone.
In 1886, Dangerfield’s health began to deteriorate and he decided to leave New York and return to North Carolina and the town of Blowing Rock where he hoped to recuperate. He fell in love with the area and decided to make his home amongst the peace and tranquillity of the Blue Ridge Mountains
Daingerfield spent the rest of his life travelling between his studios in Blowing Rock and New York City and taught out of his studio in North Carolina in the summers and at the Philadelphia School of Design and the Art Students League in the winters. Dangerfield was a very spiritual man and sensed the connection between art and spirituality. He once said:
“…Art is the principle flowing out of God through certain men and women by which they perceive and understand the beautiful. The office of the Artist is to express the beautiful…”
The Philadelphia Ten’s first joint exhibition was held on February 17th 1917 at the Art Club of Philadelphia at 235 South Carmac Street. In all, 245 paintings were on display and this exhibition was looked upon as the birth of the Philadelphia Ten. Following the great success of the event, the group’s exhibitions became an annual event and art critics and collectors always looked upon them as exhibitions of the highest quality, embracing a wide selection of subject matter and a variety of styles. The fact that the artists were able to exhibit a large number of their paintings at each exhibition soon allowed the observers to be able to easily recognise their individual styles, something that had not happened before due to the small number of paintings large exhibitions would allow each artist to show.
In my next blog I will look at the life and works of some of the artists who formed the Philadelphia Ten.
For many people the name Grant Wood is synonymous with the painting American Gothic but in fact he completed many more superb works of art and in this blog I will look at some of my favourites.
In 1930, the same year he painted American Gothic, he entered two of his works in to the Iowa State Fair Art Exhibition and was awarded first prize for the best picture of the exhibition and first prize in the oil portrait category for his Portrait of Arnold Pyle (see Grant Wood, Part 2) and first prize in the oil landscape category for his painting entitled Stone City. Stone City was Grant Wood’s first major landscape painting. It is a tranquil, idealized scene of life in harmony with nature. Stone City which is located on the Wapsipinicon River, twenty-six miles from Cedar Rapids, was once a boomtown but it went bust. The boomtown came to fruition because of its limestone quarries and laid to rest by the development of Portland cement. Wood, through his painting, would like us to believe that the town has since reverted to a purer purpose of grazing animals and growing crops. In his 1995 book Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed, James Homs wrote about this painting:
“…Although Stone City, Iowa was based on a direct study of a place with which he was thoroughly acquainted, he turned this village and its river valley site into a fantasy of curving contours, ornamental trees and brightly patterned surfaces. Wood considered the “decorative adventures” of his commonplace rural surroundings – their inherent elements of abstraction – as the true origin of the most lasting qualities in his work…”
In 1931, a year after American Gothic, Wood finished another of his well-loved paintings entitled The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Wanda Corn, a biographer of Wood, wrote that as a child, Wood had been captivated by the tale of Revere’s journey through the night from Boston to Lexington to warn the patriots of the British advance. Like most Americans of his day, Wood would have learned about the American legend from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which was published in 1863:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five; Hardly a man is now alive Who remembers that famous day and year.
Like many young boys, Wood was captivated by the idea of a local hero carrying vital news, raising the alarm, and through this brave deed, achieving immortality. Wood probably liked to imagine himself on just such an assignment galloping from farm to farm to warn his neighbours of an approaching tornado and then being held aloft as the local hero having saved so many lives.
Grant Wood’s depiction is viewed from above. We see a vast sweep of countryside and a village with houses depicted as simple geometric shapes, which resembles a “toy town” where the houses are made with wooden blocks. The painting portrays the hero on horseback as he gallops through a small village which is nestled among the trees which are painted in Wood’s favoured “sponge-like” representation. Ahead of this American hero, as he rides out of town, is darkness, behind the horse and rider are houses with lights on and some of the occupants, woken by Revere’s warning calls, stand in their night clothes on their front steps and in the street. Woods intention in depicting this piece of American folklore was, as he put it, to save those bits of American folklore that are too good to lose. His intention was, during the Great Depression, to remind people of historic times of the past, to remind people of the greatness of their country. However, his work had many detractors who said that his child-like depiction made fun of this American legend.
By 1932, Wood’s reputation as an artist had risen significantly and he became co-founder of the Stone City Colony and Art School in Iowa. along with Edward Rowan, the director of the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids, Adrian Dornbush, the former director of the Flint Institute of Art who was an art instructor at the Little Gallery. The Stone City Art Colony was a home and a place to paint for artists in the Midwest. As a teacher at the colony Grant Wood was able to spread the message of Regionalism to aspiring artists. Unfortunately, the art colony was always plagued by financial difficulties and closed in the autumn of 1933.
In 1934 Grant took on a position with the art department at the University of Iowa, and also in that year, he was named director of the Public Works of Art Project in Iowa. Grant Wood later took on many of the artists at the artist colony in that project, a programme which employed artists, as part of the New Deal, during the Great Depression, and which he administered for the state of Iowa. The programme produced a large number of Depression Era murals that can still be viewed on the walls of rural post offices and public buildings in Iowa. In her book Wall To Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression by Professor Karal Ann Marling, she explains that the concept for nine years, from 1934 to 1943 She said that the Federal Government, under the Public Buildings Administration, commissioned murals for a variety of newly constructed post-offices around the United States. Life magazine, named it “Mural America for Rural America.” It was a programme designed to get starving artists out of the garrets and into suitable work that would decorate bare walls, edify the public, and put some spare change in their pockets.
In 1935 Grant Wood published the essay “Revolt Against the City,” in which he laid out the tenets of the Regionalism movement. For him Regionalism was a movement to which artists all over the United States must dedicate themselves in order to avoid a colonial dependency on European tradition. He felt that the rural Midwest, (the farmer’s life, dress and setting) would provide the richest kind of material for a truly indigenous regionalist style.
Joseph Chamberlain Furnas was an American freelance writer. He is best known for his article, commissioned for the Reader’s Digest, “—And Sudden Death!” This article brought national attention to the problem of automobile safety and is the most-reprinted article in the Digest’s history. In it he wrote:
“…An enterprising judge now and again sentences reckless drivers to tour the accident end of a city morgue. But even a mangled body on a slab, waxily portraying the consequences of bad motoring judgment, isn’t a patch on the scene of the accident itself. No artist working on a safety poster would dare depict that in full detail…”
It could be that Grant Wood read the whole article in the August 1935 edition of the Reader’s Digest and it was that, that made him paint Death on the Ridge Road in 1935. It is a painting all about movement but with a bleak message about death on the roads. The painting vividly depicts the bends of the road, the shapes and positions on the road of the vehicles careering towards one another. It is a bleak and stormy night. Even the telegraph pole at the top of the hill seems to be bending over due to the ferocity of the wind and, in the background, we sense that the storm clouds are scuttling across the sky depositing rain which will moisten the road surface. The tarmacked road bends are bordered by barbed-wire fences as it cuts through green hills. The large red truck rushes headlong over the crest of the hill towards an on-coming black car which has skidded across the road into its oncoming path. We know what is going to happen next. We know there will be deaths and the arms of the telegraph poles now seem to symbolise crosses on a grave. Maybe Wood was warning us about the dangers of technological progress.
Grant Wood painted a very hypnotic work in 1936 entitled Spring Turning. This type of work by Wood is often referred to as Magic Realism. The term magical realism, was first expressed in a discussion of the visual arts. The German art critic Franz Roh, in his 1925 book, Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei (After expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the newest European painting). In it he described a group of painters whom we now categorize generally as Post-Expressionists, and he used the term Magischer Realismus to both highlight and rejoice at their return to figural representation after a decade or more of abstract art.
With its bird’s-eye view of smooth, swelling hills and nearly abstract banded squares of green grass and ploughed earth, Wood’s depiction is probably from his own memory as a child on the family farm in Anamosa. There is no evidence in the depiction of cars, farm machinery, paved roads, or electric wires. Wanda Corn in her 1983 book, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision, describes the work as a tale about:
“…man living in complete harmony with nature; he is the earth’s caretaker, coaxing her into abundance, bringing coherence and beauty to her surfaces…”
Despite the successes Wood achieved with his paintings in the 1930’s his life was becoming stressful with the IRS chasing him for unpaid taxes and he began finding some solace in liquor. To add to his problems, on March 2nd, 1935, he, without warning, married a divorced woman, Sara Sherman Maxon, the former head of Michigan City’s School of Fine Arts and a former light opera singer The marriage took place in a small ceremony in Minneapolis, the town in which Sara was living, far from Grant’s home, and with none of his friends or family in attendance, as one report put it:
“…Wood’s neighbours read with astonishment that he was to be married that night in a small ceremony in Minneapolis. The fact that Cedar Rapids’ “bachelor artist” had a secret fiancée was nearly as dumbfounding as the circumstances of the wedding itself – a ceremony conducted with little warning, far from home, and with no friends or family in attendance…”
It was not a “marriage made in heaven” and many of Grant’s friends thought they were ill-matched, as Sara seemed flamboyant and overpowering whilst Grant was a socially awkward and reticent bachelor. Shortly after the couple were married, they moved to Iowa City where Grant was teaching at the University of Iowa.
Wood bought an eighty-year-old house for $3,500 and spent almost $35,000 renovating and refurbishing it, which financially crippled him. The pair found it difficult to survive as a happily married couple. The marriage was a platonic affair and never consummated. Did Sara know that her husband was homosexual? It seemed to have been common knowledge of his friends and some of his students.
In the same year Grant and Sara married, Wood hired a handsome, athletic, young man, Park Rinard, as his personal secretary. Rinard, who lived in Falls Church, was born in Montana and grew up in Iowa. He graduated from the University of Iowa, where he also received a master’s degree in creative writing. It was while he was in graduate school that he became secretary to Grant Wood. Although not a homosexual himself, Rinard clearly understood Wood’s attraction to him. Rinard was the ghost writer for Grant Wood’s unfinished autobiography, Return from Bohemia. But Rinard’s presence only further pushed Sara to the side, which made her woefully unhappy.
The relationship between Wood and his wife was so bad at the end that, according to one account, he enlisted his housekeeper as proxy to deliver his desire for a divorce to Sara. Another account tells of Sara going to hospital because of a suspected heart attack (she was a notorious hypochondriac) and Grant sent a note to her telling her not to bother to return! The inevitable divorce came in September 1939.
Another American folktale was the subject for a satirical work depicted in Grant Wood’s 1939 painting Parson Weems Fable. Mason Locke Weems usually referred to as Parson Weems, was an American book agent and author who wrote the first biography of George Washington, entitled The Life of Washington in 1800, immediately after the first President’s death in December 1799 . The tale of the cherry tree and Washington appeared in the fifth imprint of this bestseller book in 1805. The tale of the cherry tree (I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet) was to highlight George Washington’s virtues, even as a six-year-old child, and was intended to provide a morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation. Grant Wood created his work in celebration of historian Parson Weems and the first President George Washington. Weems’ anecdote told the story of the six-year-old future President chopping down his father’s favourite cherry tree and then owning up to it. Grant Wood’s regionalism style painting, this satirical work predicts the revolutionary spirit coming to colonial America. His contrast of colours conjures up a sense of impending change, particularly in the storm clouds we see gathering on the horizon.
Washington’s father Augustine is depicted as a red coat holding the fallen cherry tree with an outreached hand, while the unruly youth, painted with the adult head and face of Washington, as it appears on the $1 bill, on a child’s body, The child points at the offending hatchet. In the right-hand foreground, we see Weems, with a wry smile on his face, pulling a drape aside to reveal this iconic encounter. In the background we catch sight of two slaves picking cherries from another tree, and this could be a reference to another historic and revolution that was to come.
Grant Wood in his studio in1931
Grant Wood was a complex character. He constantly wanted to be known a “farmer-painter” and in many of the photographs of him we see him dressed in overalls which was bizarre as he hated farming. It is more than likely that his showy rural character was part of the style that he, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry promoted in the 1930’s as champions of American Regionalist painting. There is no doubt that they were nostalgic about the past and believed that the healthy values of the Midwest should be maintained as an antidote to their perceived view of the decadence and degenerate European lifestyle and the corruption which they believed sullied life in the American East Coast cities.
Unfortunately for Grant Wood, his artistic legacy, which only lasted eleven years, was damaged, firstly by critics’ ridiculing his work, saying it was merely “regionalistic” and light-weight and secondly by wide spread rumours about his sexuality. The final part of the title of this blog mentioned “rumours” and I thought long and hard whether to even include the rumours about Grant Wood’s life. The rumours were about Grant Wood’s sexuality and I was not sure whether it had any bearings on his ability as a painter. A 1944 biography hinted at Wood’s homosexuality, as did the catalogue written by Wanda Corn that accompanied the travelling exhibition of Grant Wood’s work. However, she and other art historians had to be very careful what they wrote about Wood as his sister, Nan, was quick to litigate against any slurs about her brother. There were rumours of an attachment Wood had with his wife’s son, Sherman, from her first marriage who occasionally lived with them. Lester Longman, a modernist-minded colleague in the University of Iowa art department, where Wood had taught since 1935, tried to have him fired, in part on explicit moral grounds. However, the university ignored the charge and retained Wood. It was only after his sister’s death in 1990 that historians could write with more openness and impunity. In a 2010 biography, by R Tripp Evans, Grant Wood: A Life, he unequivocally states that Wood was a closeted gay man and someone who was terrified of having his sexual orientation uncovered.
Probably another work by Wood which made people question his sexuality came about in 1939 when he produced a controversial lithograph, entitled Sultry Night. In it he depicts the farmhand pouring a pail of bathwater over his head in the empty dark of a field. We see water dripping from his mouth, along his chest, and down to his penis. The problem for Wood was that the depiction of the naked man is not posed in the academic postures of the classical nude, which may have made it more acceptable, but instead we see this splay-footed individual with his face upturned to receive the stream of water. Wood created the lithograph for Associated American Artists, a distributor of low-cost reproductions for the masses, but the print was quickly banned by the US Postal Service. Wood maintained that the depiction of the naked man was just a normal scene from his childhood memories of farm life, but despite his protestations that the image was not pornographic, the Postal Service upheld the ban.
Wood’s Regionalism was falling out of favour and that put him at variance with many of the university faculties and he became so frustrated that, in 1940, Grant Wood took a leave of absence from academia although he carried on with his paintings, which continued to show his faithful adherence to American Regionalism, the American art movement he was primarily responsible for founding. During his sabbatical period from lecturing and teaching he still carried on painting. His last works were a pendant pair entitled Spring in Town and Spring in the Country which he completed in 1941. They both illustrate his steadfast devotion to American Regionalism.
In his sister’s 1993 autobiography, My Brother, Grant Wood, written by her with John Zug and Julie Jensen McDonald. Grant’s thoughts about the paintings are quoted:
“…In making these paintings, I had in mind something which I hope to convey to a fairly wide audience in America—the picture of a country rich in the arts of peace; a homely, lovable nation, infinitely worthy of any sacrifice necessary to its preservation…”
In 1941, shortly after taking his sabbatical, Grant Wood was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the doctors told him that he was terminally ill. On February 12th, 1942, just a day before his 51st birthday, he died. Park Rinard was at his bedside. Grant Wood was buried on his family’s plot in Anamosa. Reportedly, on his deathbed, he repeated over and over again that he wanted to paint his dead father, whom he had “lost” at the age of ten. Thomas Hart Benton, a fellow Regionalist, who visited Wood before his death, later remarked:
“…It was if he wanted to destroy what was in him, and become an empty soul before he went into the emptiness of death…”
He died in debt and his contribution to American art was mostly forgotten by the late 1930’s with international political concerns overshadowing domestic ones. His beloved Regionalist art was condemned for being too parochial, too much of Midwestern chauvinism and a genre which failed to change despite the onset of American Abstract Expressionism which was about to dominate in the post-war years. If remembered at all, it was for one work which has always been judged, as not his finest or most interesting, but one which has now become an iconic work, famous all around the world.
After Wood’s death in 1942, Nan inherited his estate and devoted the rest of her life to maintaining and promoting his legacy. Nan, who had married a real estate investor, Edward Graham, died in 1990, aged 91.
I could have attached many more of Grant Wood’s paintings but I am sure if you like what you have seen in these three blogs about his life you will search out more of his work.
Most of the information I gleaned for these three blogs on Grant Wood came from the usual sources such as Wikipedia and the following websites: