Elijah in the Desert by Washington Allston

Elijah in the Desert by Washington Allston (1818)

Today my featured artist was considered to be the first American Romantic landscape painter.  Washington Allston was born on the family plantation in Georgetown, South Carolina in 1779.    His father, William Allston, was a captain in the army and who died shortly after the Battle of Cowpens in the American Revolutionary War when Washington was only two years of age.  After his father’s death, his mother, Rachel re-married, this time to the son of a wealthy shipping merchant Doctor Henry Flag.  Washington Allston graduated from Harvard in 1800 and for a short period settled down in Charleston, South Carolina.  A year later he went to England and was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art in London.  At that time Benjamin West, the Anglo-American painter was president of the Academy and Washington learnt much from the “Master”.

He spent the next decade travelling around Europe visiting all the major art galleries and museums. He met and became great friends with the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge whose portrait he painted and now hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery.   In 1809, aged thirty, he married Ann Channing, the daughter of the great American Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing.  After further travels around Europe the couple settled down in London where his artistic career blossomed and he won many prizes for his paintings.   Besides being a great artist, Washington Allston was an accomplished writer and many of his books were published.  His first major work of art, which established him as a great artist was painted in 1814, entitled Dead Man Revived by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha.  Sadly, in 1815, after just six years of marriage, his wife Ann died.  Her death devastated Washington and he beacme homesick for his country of birth.  He moved back to America in 1818 and went to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He remained there for the rest of his life, dying in 1843 at the age of 63.  He is buried in Harvard Square, in “the Old Burying Ground” between the First Parish Church and Christ Church.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said of his friend:

“…I consider him a man of high and rare genius, whether I contemplate him in character of a Poet, a Painter or a Philosophic Analyst…”

My Daily Art Display for today is a painting which Washington Allston completed in 1818 and which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  It is entitled Elijah in the Desert.  The subject of this painting comes from the Old Testament (1Kings 17:1-7) story in which God ordered the prophet Elijah into the desert and where he managed to stay alive with the help of the ravens who fed him with bread and meat.  The painting vividly depicts the vast and unwelcoming landscape of the wilderness, using a sober palette of browns, grays and steely blues.  The prophet Elijah, dressed in rags can be seen on his hands and knees pitifully crawling to reach a piece of meat the raven has just dropped on the ground in front of him.  It is a poignant and distressing depiction.  The size of the tiny figure of the prophet against this eerie setting adds to a sense of wretchedness and rejection and the observer experiences the tragedy of Elijah’s circumstances.

The painting was owned by Mrs Samuel and Miss Alice Hooper, who donated it to the “yet to be built” Boston museum.  It was actually the first painting which was acquired for the museum and entered the collection in 1870.  Of Washington Allston and his painting, the donors said:

“..We thought we couldn’t better testify our interest in this new art movement [American Romanticism] at home than by adding a really fine Allston to our public collection..”The donors went on to suggest that the museum, when completed, should be named after the artist but in the end it was simply known as the Museum of Fine Arts but a western suburb of Boston was named Allston..

This great American artist not only gained fame with his works of art but was a much heralded poet and author.   His works were appreciated and loved by many including the great English novelist Charles Dickins, who called him “a fine specimen of old genius.  

Great praise indeed.

Kindred Spirits by Asher Brown Durand

Kindred Spirits by Asher B Durand (1849)

A few days ago (February 4th), I gave you a landscape painting by the American (although born in England) artist Thomas Cole.  Today, My Daily Art Display, relates to three men, a poet and two artists, both of the Hudson River School of painting, one of whom, Thomas Cole, was the founder.  Today’s work of art is not a painting by Thomas Cole but one in which he is depicted.

The Hudson River School paintings are among America’s most admired and well-loved artworks. Such artists as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt left a powerful legacy to American art, embodying in their epic works the reverence for nature and the national idealism that prevailed during the middle of the 19th century.  The Hudson River School artists shared an awe of the magnificence of nature as well as a belief that the untamed American scenery reflected the national character. Members of the school shared their iconography and responded to one another’s paintings.  Their works of art reflected nineteenth-century American cultural, intellectual, and social backgrounds. It is interesting to study paintings by this group of artists and discover how they represented the landscape and look at their depictions of weather, light, and season.

Thomas Cole died an untimely death from pneumonia in 1848 at the age of forty-seven and the poet and his good friend William Cullen Bryant gave a eulogy of Cole which touched the hearts of many, including the wealthy New York dry-goods merchant and art collector Jonathan Sturgess.   In appreciation of Bryant’s tribute, he commissioned the painter Asher Durand to capture the friendship of Cole and Bryant and incorporate it into an America landscape, similar to one which often featured in one of Cole’s paintings.

Asher Brown Durand was also an American painter of the Hudson River School.  He was born in Jefferson Village, now known as Maplewood, New Jersey in 1796.  His father was a watchmaker and silversmith.  He came from a large family being the eighth of eleven children.  Initially he followed in his father’s footsteps and at the age of sixteen was apprenticed as an engraver.  He was very successful in his career and his reputation as an engraver was enhanced when he was commissioned to engrave John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence.

During the late 1820’s and the early 1830’s Durand’s interest moved away from engraving to oil painting.  In 1837 he and Thomas Cole went on a sketching expedition to Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks and this enforced his love of landscape art.  He spent many summers sketching in the Catskills and the White Mountains of New Hampshire during which time he drew hundreds of sketches and drawings.

The commission from Jonathan Sturgess in 1849 set the task for Durand to create a painting which would show  Cole and his poet friend Bryant as “kindred spirits” which was inspired by John Keats’ “Sonnet to Solitude” which celebrates how aspects of nature enhance our lives, and ends:

Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Those words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s a pleasure; and sure it must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

Sturgess also wanted the backdrop of this painting to be typical of Thomas Cole’s landscapes.  

My Daily Art Display today is Kindred Spirits painted in 1849 by Asher Durand and was considered to be one of the best works of the Hudson River School.  It shows Cole and Bryant engulfed by the wilderness of the Catskill Mountains of New York state.  As was the case in many of the paintings of the Hudson River school this painting was a tribute to American nature and to the two men who had celebrated its unique exquisiteness.  It was an idealized composition which brought together scenes from several sites around that area and fashioned them into one panorama.  So the scene itself was not real in itself but brought together all that was best in the Catskill Mountain area.

The painting, once completed, was given to the New York Public library by Bryant’s daughter Julie where it remained until it was sold in a blind auction at Sotheby’s  in 2005 to a private collector, Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress for $35 million, which at the time was a record amount for a painting by an American Artist.

And finally for those of you who took a look at My Daily Art Display on February 2nd when I was showcasing La Lecture by Pablo Picasso.  I mentioned it was up for sale with a guide price of between £12million and £18million pounds.  Last night at Sotheby’s, London it sold for £25,241,250.  Anybody fancy taking up art as a hobby ?

American Lake Scene by Thomas Cole

American Lake Scene by Thomas Cole (1844)

In the mid nineteenth century a group of American landscape painters got together to form a group whose inspiration was the pride they had in the beauty of their homeland.  They were influenced by the Romanticism Movement that flourished at that time in Europe and many of this newly formed group had studied there and were familiar with the plein-air Barbizon School painters who had become very popular with both American patrons and collectors.  The early leaders of this Hudson River Movement were Thomas Doughty, Asher Durand and the artist which is featured in today’s My Daily Art Display, Thomas Cole.   This group of painters concentrated their art work on the Catskill, Adirondack and White Mountains areas and all along the Hudson River valley.  These were often untouched areas of great natural beauty.  There were three main themes reflected in the Hudson River School artists.  They wanted to depict in their works of art,  the discovery, exploration and the settlement of this area of America.  For most of these artists there was a devout belief that nature in the form of the American Landscape was an indescribable expression of God.  These artists would travel extensively through the sometimes inhospitable areas surrounding the Hudson Valley with its extreme environment just to be able to sketch and memorise the wild and rugged beauty of nature and then return to the safer surroundings of home where they would transfer their memories on to canvas.  Often their works of art, although painted with realism, would be made up of a combination of the many scenes they had witnessed during their wanderings in the wilderness.

Today’s artist Thomas Cole, although now looked upon as an American artist, was actually born in 1801 in Bolton in Lancashire, England.   He is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School.  His family emigrated to America when he was seventeen and settled down in Steubenville, Ohio.  Cole started his artistic career, studying portraiture but achieved little success with his finished works.  It was then that he turned to landscape painting.  In his early twenties he moved around a great deal, living in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia before rejoining his parents in New York.  Whilst in New York he made an artistic breakthrough when he sold some of his landscape paintings to George Bruen, a prominent figure in the business and financial circles of New York.  So impressed was he by Cole’s work he funded the artist,  so that he could travel to the Hudson Valley and carry out some more paintings of that area.  On his return Cole displayed some of his art work, which he had completed, in a bookstore window.  The artist John Trumbull saw the paintings, bought one and put Cole in contact with some of his wealthy friends who became his most important patrons. 

The Thomas Cole House in Catskill

After this Thomas Cole never looked back and his reputation as a landscape artist grew.  He had a studio on the Cedar Grove farmstead in the town of Catskill, New York at which he completed most of his works of art.  In 1836, aged thirty five, he married Maria Bartow, who was the niece of the farmstead owner and they had five children.  Thomas Cole died in 1848, aged forty seven, at Catskill and the fourth highest peak in the Catskill Range mountain range was named Thomas Cole Mountain in his honour and his studio at the Cedar Grove farm became known as the Thomas Cole House and was declared a National Historic Site in 1999 which has been opened up to the public.

My Daily Art Display offering today is Thomas Cole’s oil on canvas painting entitled American Lake Scene which he completed in 1844, four years before his premature death, and which can be seen in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  If you look closely you will be able to make out a lone Native American sitting under the tree contemplating the tranquillity of the lake.  In this painting the clever use of colour and the natural setting adds to the atmospheric calmness and beauty of the scene.  Of this painting one art critic of the time said that the painting “looks like the earth before God breathed on it

This painting and many of his others was how Thomas Cole would have liked those pioneering days to have been as he was a great opponent of the railroad’s push into the heart of America destroying God’s beautiful landscape.  I believe, like Thomas Cole, we should try and appreciate and preserve more of the natural beauty of our countryside and fervently hope that the march to industrialism does not destroy all that we love.

Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife by John Singer Sargent

Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife by John Singer Sargent (1894)

My Daily Art Display today is a tale of two artists who were very close friends.  One is the great American Impressionist John Singer Sargent, the other is the French painter Paul César Helleu.  Today’s work of art is a picture by the American artist Sargent of the French painter Paul César Helleu and his wife Alice Guérin.

John Singer Sargent was to become a leading portrait painter of his era.  His family were extremely wealthy, his father, Fitz William, being an eye surgeon in Philadelphia.  Sadly Sargent’s mother, Mary (née Singer) suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of her daughter and to aid her recovery her husband decided that his wife and their family should go to Europe to allow Mary to convalesce. 

Whilst in Europe, they travelled extensively.  John Singer Sargent was born in 1856 whilst his parents lived in Florence and his sister Mary was born there a year later.  After much discussion and to please his wife John’s father reluctantly relinquished his post at the Philadelphia hospital and remained in Italy were they led an unassuming lifestyle relying on a small inheritance and what savings they had managed to accrue. 

John Singer Sargent proved to be a rebellious child who would not take to formal schooling and so was taught by his parents.  His mother was a good amateur artist and she soon got John interested in that subject.  His parents must have provided him with a good education as by his late teens he was fluent in French, Italian and German and accomplished in art, music and literature.  No doubt the extensive travelling of European countries by the family improved his education.

In 1876, at the age of eighteen, Sargent passed the entrance exam to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  Here he studied anatomy and perspective and spent time in the Paris museums copying the works of art of the masters.  It was whilst studying at the Art Academy that he met and became close friends with a young French artist, four years his junior, Paul César Helleu.  Whereas Sargent was having success with the sale of his paintings and was having no trouble in securing commissions, Helleu was becoming very despondent and disheartened, finding sales of his works difficult to come by and he was struggling to make needs meet.  Sargent, on hearing that Helleu was at the point of giving up his career as an artist, visited his friend on the pretext of looking at the young Frenchman’s work.  He congratulated his friend on the standard of his work and asked to buy one.  Helleu was delighted but told Sargent he must have the painting of his choice as a gift as it was not right to charge his friend.  Sargent replied to this offer saying:

 “I shall gladly accept, Helleu, but not as a gift. I sell my own pictures, and I know what they cost me by the time they are out of my hand. I should never enjoy this pastel if I hadn’t paid you a fair and honest price for it.”

He gave his friend a thousand-franc note for the painting.  Can you imagine how Helleu felt on receiving such a large sum of money for one of his paintings ?

In 1884 Sargent painted the portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, entitled Madame X, wearing a very risqué off the shoulder gown.  It was also shockingly low-cut.  Her mother asked him to withdraw the painting but he refused.  Although, now it is acclaimed as his best work of art, it scandalised Paris society and he was widely criticised in Paris art circles for being improper.  Sargent found the criticism unjustified and at the age of 28 he left Paris disillusioned by the incident and the fall off of sales of his paintings and moved to London where he remained for the rest of his life England.  He died there in 1925, aged 71.

My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife which he completed in 1889 and is in the Brooklyn Museum, New York.  It is difficult to put a name on Sargent’s genre of painting.   He was a prolific painter, painting over 2000 watercolours.  He was a very successful portraitist but labelled portraiture as “a pimp’s profession” and in 1907 he announced that he would paint “no more mugs” and with a few exceptions kept to his word.   He loved to paint landscape watercolours.  Today’s painting of his is very much in the characteristic style of Impressionism.

Child in a Straw Hat by Mary Cassatt

Child in a Straw Hat by Mary Cassatt (1886)

Today my painting for My Daily Art Display is a work of art by the American artist Mary Cassatt.   She was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, which is now part of Pittsburgh, in 1844 and was the fourth of seven children, two of whom died in infancy.  She came from a wealthy family.  Her father, Robert, was a wealthy stockbroker and land speculator and her mother, Katherine, came from a banking family.   She and her family moved from America to Europe when she was seven years of age, where they travelled from country to country before returning back to America.  This European “adventure” was looked upon, by the affluent, as an aid to a good education and offered an understanding of different cultures

Mary decided that a life as an artist was for her but her parents disapproved.  However she was, even at this young age, very headstrong and wasn’t to be discouraged and at the  age of fifteen studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  She became disillusioned with the Academy and the way budding female artists were treated and despite her father’s disapproval and his many objections, which she finally overcame, in 1866 she travelled to Paris, initially chaperoned by her mother and some family friends.  Whilst in Paris she met and was taught by Camille Pissarro, the great French Impressionist painter.  She was a great admirer of the works of Edgar Degas whom she met and became great friends with.  He was to have considerable influence on her life and her art work.  As time went on the Impressionist movement in Paris benefited greatly from Cassatt who helped them both financially and by facilitating them getting their works of art recognised and accepted in American museums and galleries.

Cassatt’s family never believed that their daughter would stay long in Paris and were surprised by her determination to succeed in the French capital.  Her sister Lydia, who Mary said was not just a sister but her best friend, joined her in France in 1874, so as to be company for her.   Three years later her parents moved to Paris.   Lydia Cassatt, as well as being very close to Mary, was also the model for many of Mary Cassatt’s most famous paintings.  Sadly after long bouts of illness Lydia died in 1882.  This had a devastating effect on Mary who for a time stopped painting. 

Mary Cassatt was an outspoken individual who was never backward in coming forward with her opinions.  Some say she was too outspoken.  However, being wealthy allowed her to be independent and she did not need to suffer fools.  Her independent attitude and her frankness, which on occasions was considered insulting, became more noticeable as she grew older.   She was highly critical of the modern artists such as Picasso and Matisse and even some of her Impressionist colleagues received her unbridled censure.  

Mary was a prolific and a well respected artist on both sides of the Atlantic and her works of art when they come up for sale now realise millions of dollars.  Like her friend and mentor Edgar Degas she suffered with failing eyesight and when she died in 1926, aged 82 she was blind.

Mary Cassatt’s place in the history of American art is unique, not only because she was one of the few woman artists of any nationality to succeed professionally in her time, but also because she was the only American artist to exhibit with the French Impressionists.

My Daily Art Display today is a painting completed in 1886 by Mary Cassatt entitled Child in a Straw Hat.  Mary Cassatt’s favourite subjects became children and women with children in ordinary scenes. Her paintings express a deep tenderness and her own love for children. But she never had children of her own.  Cassatt was fond of painting young girls in large elaborate hats and bonnets wearing frilly dresses.  However in this painting the girl wears a simple plain gray pinafore and her hat, albeit very large, is a simple straw one.  The child, with a furrowed brow, doesn’t look too pleased and has a sullen and slightly glum look on her face.  There is an air of impatience in her expression and maybe this is due to having to pose for the artist when she would rather have been out playing.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (1942)

My Daily Art Display’s offering today is in complete contrast to Raphael’s Madonna which I gave you two days ago.  Today I have skipped almost four hundred and fifty years to look at a work of modern art by the American artist Edward Hooper.  It is entitled Nighthawks and portrays three people sitting in a downtown diner.  For Hopper it was to be his most famous painting and one of the most recognisable in American art.

Edward Hopper was born in Nyack, on the Hudson River, in the state of New York in 1882.  He was an outstanding American Realist and American Scene painter as well as a  printmaker.  He came from a middle-class background and was an able student at school where he developed a love of art from an early age.  His parents encouraged this love and helped him develop his talent for drawing.  At the age of seventeen he attended the New York Institute of Art and Design and remained there for six years.  In 1905 he went to work at an advertising agency where he was employed to design covers for trade magazines but he did not like this type of illustration work but like all of us, needed the money.   He managed to visit Europe on three occasions during which time he discovered and fell in love with works of Rembrandt and some of his contemporaries.  Whilst in Paris he spent a lot of his time painting café and street scenes, a hobby he carried on with when he returned to New York.  He became very interested in the Realist art genre.

It was in 1942, at the age of sixty that Hopper painted today’s work of art, Nighthawks.  The expression “nighthawk” is a word used to describe somebody who stays up late, often also termed a “night owl”.  The scene of his painting was inspired by one in Greenwich Village, Manhattan where Hopper lived for fifty four years.  There is a mood of despondency about this painting and this may be in part due to the fact that Hopper started this painting soon after Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese and the whole of America, after the initial shock, was in a mood of hopelessness and misery after such a loss of American lives.

The diner is probably not an up-market establishment due to the fact that the advertisement above the window is for “Phillies” which is a brand of popular but cheap cigars, which were usually on sale at gas stations and convenience stores.  The three “nighthawks” are bathed in a swathe of fluorescent light which also lights up the corner of the deserted street.  There is an Art Deco feel to the diner.  As is the case in this work, Hopper often painted pictures which illustrated the loneliness of life with motel rooms and gas stations being the setting for some of his works.  Here we see a couple at the bar with their hands almost, but not quite, touching.   They remind me of Bogart and Bacall.  The third diner sits alone around the corner of the bar.  There is a definite sense of isolation and loneliness about the people in the picture.  Instead of sitting comfortably at home with their families they are in an impersonal friendless late-night diner.  It is interesting to note that the picture does not show any obvious entrance to the diner and thus it gives a feel of entrapment as if the people are prisoners of their loneliness.  Hopper himself disagreed with the idea that he had made the diner a lonely-looking venue stating:

“…I didn’t see it as particularly lonely…….Unconsciously, probably; I was painting the loneliness of a big city…”

Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Gottfried Helnwein (1984)

Hopper’s iconic painting was reproduced many times.  One of the most famous is probably Gottfried Helnwein’s painting entitled Boulevard of Broken Dreams in which the bar tender is Elvis, the couple Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Munroe and the solitary figure, with his back to us, James Dean.  This was sold extensively as a poster.  I suppose that because we know the characters in this picture and we know of their lives, maybe the feeling of loneliness of these “nighthawks” is not so obvious at first glance but maybe their tragic fates were meant to add to the mood of their diner.

I will leave you with a poem, written by Wolf Wondratscheck, based on Hopper’s painting Nighthawks in which he reasons as to why the customers came to the diner and what will happen next

 It is night
and the city is deserted.
The lucky ones are at home,
or more likely
there are none left.

 In Hopper’s painting, four people remain
the usual cast, so-to-speak:
the man behind the counter, two men and a woman.
Art lovers, you can stone me
but I know this situation pretty well.

 Two men and one woman
as if this were mere chance.
You admire the painting’s composition
but what grabs me is the erotic pleasure
of complete emptiness.

 They don’t say a word, and why should they?
Both of them smoking, but there is no smoke.
I bet she wrote him a letter.
Whatever it said, he’s no longer the man
who’d read her letters twice.

 The radio is broken.
The air conditioner hums.
I hear a police siren wail.
Two blocks away in a doorway, a junkie groans
and sticks a needle in his vein.
That’s how the part you don’t see looks.

 The other man is by himself
remembering a woman;
she wore a red dress, too.
That was ages ago.
He likes knowing women like this still exist
but he’s no longer interested.

 What might have been
between them, back then?
I bet he wanted her.
I bet she said no.

 No wonder, art lovers,
that this man is turning his back on you.

American Gothic by Grant Wood

American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930)

My Daily Art Display offering today is the oil on beaverboard painting by American artist Grant Wood entitled American Gothic which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.  This is said to be one of the most famous paintings in the history of American art.

Grant Wood was born in small town America, in Anamosa, Iowa in 1892.  During his early artistic life his works of art showed no one distinguishable style but he enjoyed painting the “niceties” of American Midwestern life with all its small villages and their white-painted churches.  That all changed in 1927 after he spent some time in Munich on a commission supervising the putting together of stained glass windows for the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building.  Whilst in Munich he visited the large art gallery, Alte Pinakothek and was introduced to the Early Netherlandish works of art and witnessed first hand the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement in German paintings which reflected the resignation and cynicism of the post-war period.  In all he made four trips to Europe and after each journey he returned home with a much greater appreciation of the Midwest lifestyle, culture and its traditions and this love of Midwest America was transformed into his paintings.

On his return home his painting style changed and his paintings took on a more painstaking and sharply detailed style.  As is the case in today’s painting Wood liked to paint ordinary every day people and their commonplace lifestyle in the Midwest of America.  His style of painting was often termed Regionalism and exuded a sense of patriotism and nostalgia and in some ways was an artistic record of the history of small town America.  He hoped that this style of his art and the subjects he displayed would, in some way, act as  a boost to the morale of people who were suffering badly during the Great Depression, reminding them that they should retain their self belief and steadfast American pioneer spirit.  American Regionalism opposed the European abstract art and the art which was very popular at the time on the East Coast of America and California and preferred depictions of homely rural America and its people

In American Gothic we see a farmer and his spinster daughter standing in front of their late nineteenth century Gothic Revival styled house with its distinctive upper window.  The actual building in Eldon, Iowa, is still standing and is a popular tourist attraction.  The figures were modelled by the artist’s dentist, Doctor Byron McKeeby and Wood’s sister, Nan.  They are both dressed in clothes dating from the 1890’s.  The man, because of the way he is dressed, and the fact he is holding a three-pronged pitchfork , one believes him to be a farmer but he also has the studious look of a banker’s clerk.  Maybe the pitchfork is there to signify man’s traditional role as hard working but it also gives him a slight air of hostility and someone who has a bad temper.   There is something puritanical in his look.  In contrast, the woman exhibiting a side-long glance seems more prim and dowdy with her colonial-print apron with its white collar.  She conveys an air of domesticity.   The precise realism of the rigid frontal arrangement of the man and woman was probably inspired by the Northern Renaissance Art Wood saw when he was in Europe.  There is a definite similarity with van Eyck’s double portrait, The Arnolfini Portrait, (see Nov 27th) and also the way mystery surrounds the symbolic meaning and interpretation of both works.

However with regards symbolism and interpretation maybe we should leave the last word to the artist for when asked about the satirical nature of his painting and the two characters he merely replied that “they were the kind of people I fancied should live in that house”.

Wood entered the painting in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago and although it was not liked by all the judges, it achieved a bronze medal and the Institute bought the work of art.  Copies of the painting were published nationwide in many newspapers and all was well until the local newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa published it.   The locals were up in arms at the depiction of the couple as “pinched, grim-faced Bible-thumpers”.   Woods’ sister was embarrassed and horrified as being portrayed as the wife of somebody old enough to be her father and was quick to state that the couple were indeed father and daughter.

It is a strange painting but one, like the Arnolfini Portrait, which may hold symbolic messages and is open to many interpretations despite the artist himself denying any hidden meaning to his famous work of art.

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth (1948)

The other day I came across what I thought was a simple landscape painting, which at first glance was a simple rural scene with a solitary figure, seemingly resting, in the foreground.  I had guessed it was an American landscape.  My mind went back to the photographs of the Mid-West plains.  I was half right in as much as it was an American landscape but not of the Mid West but of Maine. The female figure in the foreground was of a young woman, and my perception was that she was just raising herself from the ground after a pleasant lie in the meadow-like surroundings.  Maybe I should be forgiven for jumping to conclusions from just a fleeting glance but it was simply my first impression.  Look and see what you make of it after you have taken that first momentary look.

In fact this is not as simple a painting as one might have first believed.  Christina’s World was painted in 1948 by the American artist Andrew Wyeth and despite me having never seen it before, it is said to be one of the best known American paintings of the mid twentieth century and is presently hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The girl whom I took to be just simply raising herself from the ground after a period of relaxation is in fact a young woman afflicted with polio from early childhood which had paralysed her lower body and is actually crawling across a field to her home which can be seen in the distance.

The artist was inspired to create this painting when looking through a window of his summer house in Cushing Maine and he saw his young neighbour, Anna Christina Olson, who suffered from infantile paralysis, which resulted in her inability to walk, gazing up at her house from the large tree-less field in front of it.  The model he used for the picture of the girl was not Christina herself, who was in her mid-fifties at the time of the painting, but Andrew Wyeth’s young wife Betsy who was in her mid-twenties.  The painting of the young woman in a pink dress with wasted limbs has a haunting quality to it.   The landscape and the rural house are all painted in great detail.  Wyeth’s attention to detail is amazing.  Each blade of grass and each strand of the woman’s hair is painted individually. The style of the painting has been termed “magic realism”which is defined as an artistic genre in which meticulously realistic painting is combined with surreal elements of fantasy or dreams.  Wyeth commenting on his artistic style said:

“I search for the realness, the real feeling of a subject, all the texture around it…I always want to see the third dimension of something…I want to come alive with the object.”

Of the picture in general, Wyeth commented:

“The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.”

Have you a favourite painting which you would like to see on My Daily Art Display?  

If so, let me know and tell me why it is a favourite of yours and I will include it in a future offering.