Saturday, February 6, 2016

"Like Some Billowing Crazy Quilt"

Chadds Ford Hills by N. C. Wyeth

I posted this painting first in 2010, noting that it was by N. C. Wyeth "of his beloved Chadd Ford Hills, for which I have no words at all."

But N. C. Wyeth had words, which he put down in a letter written on July 19, 1907, about Chadds Ford:

"From the hill...the country rolls back like some great billowing crazy quilt: patches of tender green corn interspersed with squares of ripe yellow wheat and the rich succulent greens of the woods. Great voluminous clouds boil up from hot, quivering horizons, blossoming in great bunches of ominous rain clouds."

N. C. Wyeth's letters are filled with beautiful passages like this. He was a great writer with the gift and willingness to lyrically pay homage to the people and land he loved. Note the gorgeous shimmering blue of the Brandywine River in the lower-center. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Fine Arts Friday: Paintings of Family Life by Horace Pippin

Giving Thanks by Horace Pippin, 1942

Horace Pippin was an African-American painter, born in West Chester, Pennsylvania,  in 1888, 10 miles from the Brandywine River. When he was a small child, his family moved to Goshen, New York, but he returned to West Chester in 1920 and lived there with his wife until his death in 1946.

Pippin was an artist who proved what courage and perseverance can achieve. He was forced by the illness of his mother to leave school as a young teen and work to help support the family. When World War I came, he joined the renowned African-American 369th infantry, called Harlem's Hell Fighters, all of whom received France's Croix de Guerre honor. Pippin returned from the war with wounds that rendered his right arm useless. This did not stop him from becoming an artist. To paint, he learned to use his left arm to prop up and guide his right hand.

Horace Pippin marker outside 327 West Gay Street in West Chester, where Pippin and his wife lived. The marker says notes: "A self-taught black artist, he painted while living here such notable works as 'Domino Players,' 'John Brown Going to His Hanging,' and the 'Holy Mountain' series."

In 1937 at the behest of a local school principal, Pippin's work was shown in the Chester County Art Association show. N. C. Wyeth, a judge of the show, found his paintings impressive and began to open doors to Pippin. Wyeth introduced his work to the art historian, Christian Brinton, and from there Pippin's work began to be collected, including by Albert Barnes. His work also came to the attention of the pioneering New York City art dealer Edith Halpert. One year later, his work was being shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  In 1994, a retrospective of his work, with more than 100 paintings, was shown at the Metropolitan Art Museum, and in 2015, the Brandywine River Museum had a major exhibition of his work.

Pippin painted many kinds of subjects--historical, allegorical, religious, and scenes from life in the Brandywine River Valley. Here is a small selection from among his scenes of domestic life. All of these paintings were done in the last few years of his life. Some of them have quilts, and in Domino Players, a woman is sewing one! Pippin may have been thought of as a folk artist, but I find in his work a sophistication of color and composition that goes beyond folk art, and an emotional intensity with an economy of line that folk art often lacks.

Christmas Morning Breakfast, 1945

Domino Players, 1943

Sunday Morning Breakfast, 1943

Supper Time, 1940

Interior, 1944

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Art Lessons: Wyeth to Wyeth

Anthony Adverse as a Boy, by N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945), with his son Andrew as the model

"My father was a terrific technician. He could take any medium and make the most of it. Once I was making a watercolor of some trees. I had made a very careful drawing and I was just filling in the lines. He came along and looked at it and said, 'Andy you've got to free yourself.' Then he took a brush and filled it with paint and made this sweeping brushstroke. I learned more then from a few minutes of watching what he did than I've ever learned since."

        Andrew Wyeth, as quoted in "Wyeth's World,"
        by Henry Adams, Smithsonian Magazine, June 2006

The Road to Friendship by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), 1941

"Close to the holidays, my father painted by 4x5-inch Christmas cards. We'd stretch out in front of the  fireplace with the watercolors. He'd work in quick washes, not starting anyplace in particular. It was like whoosh, and out of that would come a leaf or an animal. His technique taught me to embrace accidents."

Jamie Wyeth, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2014

Christmas card, 1954, by Andrew Wyeth

                                                   The Sea Watched by Jamie Wyeth (1946-), 2009

Of course, that's only part of the story.  

Friday, January 29, 2016

Fine Arts Friday: City Snow by George Luks

Children Throwing Snowballs by George Luks, 1906

Taking a welcome break not from winter but from the Wyeths, here are paintings of snow in New York City, by George Luks (1867-1933), a painter of the Ashcan School. I don't think anyone captures as well the contrasting qualities of snow in the city and the moods it engenders. 

Luks hailed from Pennsylvania coal country, studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and had a personality brimming with vitality and orneriness. Although he exhibited beginning in 1908 as a member of The Eight--the Robert Henri Ashcan School--he rejected any school label and said he had no mentors, including Henri.  

His painting--fresh and direct--bespeaks his view on life. Take it head on, without hemming and hawing; he reportedly died from injuries suffered in a barroom brawl. 

In his scenes of New Yorkers in the snow, he manages to capture the beauty of snowfall but also its devolution on the city streets to piles of wet grime surviving only because the air is harshly cold. To me, his paintings exhibit great economy--every brushstroke counts and is filled with energy. So vibrant is his painting of people, that we know exactly the mood of his subjects and can easily imagine being right there with them. Watch for his miniature cityscapes in the far left corner of some of these paintings. 

The Butcher Cart, 1901

Winter Night, 1930

The North River, 1910

Winter, High Bridge Park, 1910

Hitch Team, 1916

Brooklyn Bridge, 1916

These and many others of his paintings can be found here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Exploring: Art or Illustration?

Groundhog Day by Andrew Wyeth, 1959

Andrew Wyeth was on the outs with the New York art world through most of his career and at the point of his death in 2009. As related in the 2014 book Rethinking Andrew Wyeth, edited by David Cateforis, Wyeth came under harsh attack for being a mere illustrator, rather than a serious painter. The opening chapter of the book cites art critic Jay Jacobs, who wrote in Art in America that Wyeth primarily used “not pictorial but literary” devices. He cited Groundhog Day, in which “a knife, plate and cup await the arrival of some unseen personage.” He declared that Wyeth has a “linear and literary style” and castigated his vocabulary as that of “commercial illustration, not serious painting.” Another critic, Eugene M. Leake, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, found Wyeth’s portraits to be “characters in a friendly novel or … sentimental illustrations in an attic album.” 

It is not known if the insult of “illustrator” would have been used if Andrew Wyeth’s father had not been Newell Convers Wyeth, one of America's most famous illustrators and if it were not also known that the only formal art training Andrew Wyeth received was from this man.

Nevertheless, these critics raise an interesting question: what is art and what is mere illustration?

No one felt this dichotomy more keenly than N. C. Wyeth himself. The elder Wyeth was always seeking to find the money that would enable him to paint for art's sake, but his responsibilities tied him to his lucrative art for books, magazines, and commissions. 

In a painful letter written on July 16, 1911, the elder Wyeth derided his work: “The fact is that in every case we have been more or less journalists—news reporters—taught to grasp the unique, the obviously picturesque, the essentially dramatic, sifting out here and there striking and novel situations, queer and tragic events. We were taught to shut our eyes to the simple and glorious beauties about us, to seek the strange and unusual. My Oh! My!! What a distant call to the true realms of painting! The eternal sunlight is discarded for plunging bronco-busters; the glint of the brooks is passed by for raring and tearing automobiles; the wind in the trees gives way to the driving airship! To conclude, we were taught essentially the art of journalism, to be rendered in the manner of painting….”

N. C. Wyeth struggled with this frustration all of his painting life til his tragic death at the age of 63. He was a meticulous illustrator who thoroughly researched all the details of the period he was portraying in a book, traveling to libraries and museums to render dress, weapons, and ships with precise accuracy. 

And yet. In an earlier letter (March 10, 1910), he explains his commitment to imbue any illustration with the spirit of art:

“And out of doors it is so beautiful!  It’s a pity to pry into ancient graves and let their sinister secrets blind one to the pure, wholesome beauty that lies about us. And still, if these pictures I am to paint were to be done as they should be, that very spirit which lies about us in such profusion should be their main interest and soul—they should not be historical, damn the word, but should symbolize humanity and the world, allowing the details to sift in as only ordinary and commonplace garb, to designate the season of man’s development even as the changes in the trees denote the development of Nature’s seasons.

“My solitary interest (I mean my soul interest) is in trying to do just this. If I fail in this particular—I fail altogether. If I succeed I will feel a better illustrator for it.”

In this I believe Wyeth succeeded and this is the reason why he remains a beloved illustrator today. Here are two examples of his spirit of painting in his illustrations. 

From The Black Arrow, by N. C. Wyeth. It is not just actions of the two men, but the monumental tree and the snow that makes this picture greater than the scene it depicts. 

From Kidnapped by N. C. Wyeth. 

His illustrations bring to the reader a new apprehension of what is at stake, because the particular experience has been universalized such that we recognize in it our own deepest struggles. 

And yet, N. C. Wyeth himself went into a deep depression upon reading a biography of his favorite painter, Rembrandt van Rijn, because it made him feel so sharply his own inadequacies as an artist.  Of course, if we were to apply the criteria of those who scorned Andrew Wyeth as an illustrator, we would have to throw out most of Rembrandt’s body of work. In fact, entire museums filled with what is reverenced today as great art would have to be tossed out as mere illustration. To indicate just a few:

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1669. This post traced how Rembrandt worked through earlier versions of the Prodigal Son story to arrive at this painting, whose subject is the unseen: mercy itself. 

Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, 1475, which exquisitely captures the miracle and the humility of the birth of Christ. 

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio, 1601. It is hard to resist the beauty of this painting. 

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, 1511. I never met anyone of any religious or non-religious background who was not awed by seeing the Sistine Chapel. 

These four paintings all depict scenes from well-known stories. What makes them great art?  What do you think?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Fine Arts Friday: It's the Bowl

I Say Goodbye to Mother and the Cove or Jim Hawkins Leaves Home,  from Treasure Island illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, 1907

When I saw this painting by N. C. Wyeth in the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, I looked at it for a long time. We see in the center foreground the young Jim Hawkins carrying his small bag of clothes and setting out, just at the point that he has overcome his hesitancy over his mother's tears and now, more determined than fearful, is ready to step away from his home into the big world to find he knows not what.

Jim stands in the forefront of the painting, his body in strong relief against a shaft of light slanting across the house he is leaving. His mother is behind him facing toward the house, her head in her apron as she weeps. When will she hear from again? When or will she ever see him again?

The composition shows N. C. Wyeth's years of training under the illustrator Howard Pyle, as all the elements on the right side of the painting lead our eyes to the path Jim is now set upon. His mother stands against the brighter side of the house and the sky--separate from the darker shades in which her boy now steps.

But what transfixed me was the bowl. Why did Wyeth put the bowl in the window? It sits in alignment with both Mrs. Hawkins' buried head and Jim's face. It seems to symbolize the tie between them.  Perhaps more than any other object, crockery can be imbued with memories and meaning. "This was my father's cup."  "My mother always used this bowl in the morning." The bowl seems like a small detail, but when I imagine the painting without it, I find that the emotional impact is diminished.

N. C. Wyeth believed an artist has to pour his entire self into a subject to paint it. Only one year before he completed Jim Hawkins Leaving Home, he had started his own home after marrying Miss  Caroline Bockius of Wilmington, Delaware. In 1908 he bought land in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, with the proceeds from his Treasure Island illustrations and built his brick house for his young family. He wrote his mother in 1911, "How I look forward to our life in this snug little house.... Home spirit is the most religious thing I possess." And in another letter, as in 1905, he writes of how a box in which his mother had mailed a cake to him had made him homesick, as "it reeked of odors that told inexhaustible stories."

Jim's departure was not the only time Wyeth pointedly placed crockery in a work. In Mowing, he paints a young girl taking water out to a mower. The beautiful pitcher she holds glistens in the sunshine like a jewel. We can contrast this pitcher with the wooden bucket in Winslow Homer's painting of a similar scene (see below). It seems more appropriate to take water out to the fields in a bucket than in good dishware, so we can only guess that the pitcher had significance for N. C. Wyeth. In both Jim Hawkins Leaving Home and Mowing, the kitchen objects lend a grace note of "home" to the image.

Mowing by N. C. Wyeth, 1911

Temperance Meeting (Noontime) by Winslow Homer, 1874. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Saint Sebastian and a First Responder

January 20 is the feast day of Saint Sebastian, who died in 288 at the hands of the anti-Christian Roman emperor, Diocletian. Saint Sebastian was a member of the Roman emperor's Praetorian Guard, but when it was discovered that he was a Christian, he was delivered for persecution to archers from Mauritania and was riddled with arrows, as shown in this painting by the great Italian Renaissance painter, Andrea Mantegna.

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna, 1480

When we see this painting of Saint Sebastian we assume that this is how he became a Christian martyr. But in fact he survived this torture, because Saint Irene, the widow of the Christian martyr Saint Castulus, rushed to his aid. 

Saint Irene Coming to the Aid of Saint Sebastian by Trophime Bigot (1579-1650)

Saint Sebastian Aided by Saint Irene by Georges de la Tour, 1650

Saint Sebastian did not die of the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," because Saint Irene removed the arrows, took him home, and nursed him back to health. After he had recovered, Saint Sebastian openly confronted the Emperor Diocletian, calling upon him to stop his persecution of Christians. The emperor responded by ordering that Saint Sebastian be placed under immediate arrest and be bludgeoned to death. This time Diocletian succeeded. 

It is believed that Saint Sebastian is a protector against the plague, and he is the patron saint of athletes and soldiers. Saint Irene's feast day is March 30.