Archive for the ‘ Art ’ Category

“Do not try to paint the grandiose thing …”

William Merritt Chase: Gilded Age Rebel, Aesthete, Dandy, Conservative.
Retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

1. Ready for the Ride. Oil on canvas. 1877. Museum of Fine Art, Boston. (All illustrations in this post are of works in exhibit and can be enlarged by clicking.)

On March 1898 a New York Times writer mused about the nature of artistic cycles.1 The immediate subject was the opening of the Society of American Artists’ annual exhibition in the Fine Arts Building on West 57th Street in New York City. But he also looked back to the beginning of the Society, twenty years earlier, when a “small band” of art students returning from Europe, called the “Munich men” (because they studied in that city rather than Paris) upended the American art world (such as it then was) with their new sensibilities by revolting against the “antiquated rules” of the National Academy of Design. The Society was created to escape the doctrinaire hold on on big time arts shows and its use of its power to squeeze out any new comers. The inaugural show of the Society was designed to provide an alternate venue. The “Munich men” took over that show, and provided quality works that pointed the way to an American art more attuned to the times. The group was headed by William Merritt Chase and his associates, James Carroll Beckwith, John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, principally:

“These bold and brave young artists scarcely realized themselves at the time what their revolt and their new move meant to the cause of American art, nor how it wrote the doom of the well-termed Hudson River school of painting in this country, and the beginning of a new use of broader methods and more liberal ideas, which within a few years affected the old Academy itself.”

The Times writer proceeded to compare their debut to the then present when those very New Men had become the Academy. And in a world that moved much faster than they thought, most, including (and especially) Chase, would be left behind. But we’ll get to that later. For now let’s look at the beginning of the career of William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), a career on full display in the marvelous retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: William Merritt Chase, an exhibition running until January 16, 2017. The exhibition is a travelling show co-sponsored in addition to the MFA by the Phillips Collection of Washington, D.C., Fondazione Musei Civici Venezia and the Terra Foundation for American Art of Chicago. The exhibition opened at The Phillips Collection (June 4–September 11) before traveling to the MFA (October 9, 2016–January 16, 2017), and next year it will travel to the International Gallery of Modern Art, in Venice, Italy (February 10–May 28, 2017). The MFA show (which I will call it for ease, and because I saw it there) exhibits nearly 80 paintings, and gives justice to every aspect of Chase’s career. Indeed, nearly every one of the paintings one could hope to view is on display.2 The exhibition contains quite a few surprises, and it is a powerful proof that Chase deserves wider recognition. (This is the first major show in nearly thirty years.3) The surprises begin with his student years.

Student Works

2. Boy Smoking (The Aprrentice). Oil on canvas. 1875. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

2. Boy Smoking (The Apprentice). Oil on canvas. 1875. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

Chase made his first stir in the American art world even before he returned from studies in Munich. The entrance to the MFA gallery devoted to his student day confronts the viewer with Ready for the Ride (#1), a painting which Chase sold to New York art dealer Samuel P. Avery. Avery was well plugged into American collectors and routinely visited Europe to scout out likely works for them. He had been in Munich in 1875, and knew Karl von Piloty, a genre and historical painter who dominated the Munich art scene at the time. It was probably through Piloty, who was then teaching Chase in a master class, that Avery heard of Chase and purchased the work in 1877. (He would resell it to the Union League Club in New York City.) In 1878 Ready for the Ride was one of three works of Chase loaned to the Society of American Artists (SAA) exhibition (together with Boy Smoking (The Apprentice) (#2) and The Wounded Poacher). On the basis of this show, an art critic writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle singled Chase out as “one of the most promising of younger American artists” and used Ready for the Ride as proof:

“Ready for the Ride” is a very strongly treated picture, the coloring and drawing being remarkable. He seems to have aimed at a Rembrandt effect in this work, and the old Dutch school is plainly visible in both the figure and the dark, shadowy background. … [it] is the certainly the finest work he has yet sent home.”4

It is indeed true that the Dutch masters’ dark background makes Chase’s subject appear nearly three dimensional. The collar and “Puritan-like” hat also suggest his Dutch models. But what strikes the viewer today is how starkly “modern” the pose and attitude of the woman is. She is seen from nearly her back, and she turns to look at the artist/viewer. Her manner of putting on her glove shows complete assurance as does her confident gaze. The size of the work (53½ x 33½”) makes it more imposing and emphasizes the “equality” of the modern woman. It is a work that also underscores the elegance of the modern upper middle class at the beginning of the Gilded Age in America, a theme that Chase would perfect for his commissioned (and other) portraits. It would make him a well-to-do artist.

3. Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page). Oil on canvas. 1876. Cincinnati Art Museum.

3. Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page). Oil on canvas. 1876. Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Boy Smoking (The Apprentice) (#2) shows a path that Chase could have pursued, but ultimately did not. Together with Impudence (The Leader) (1875, now at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts), the canvas consists of a sympathetic portrayal of a young working class teenager, not very much different from Chase himself not even a decade before, when he clerked for his father at a shoe store in Indianapolis. Much like the woman in Ready for the Ride, the Boy Smoking shows a person of (perhaps misplaced) confidence, and no attempt is made to patronize him, even though it is clear that he comes from an entirely different world than the one Chase now aspired to. Of particular interest are the soiled hands of the boy, one holding a cigar, the other a clay jug. They are the hands destined for a lifetime of work, unlike the gloved hands of the woman in Ready for the Ride. But unlike the peasants in the paintings of the contemporary Barbizon school, Chase’s young worker is neither bowed over nor humble. Perhaps this is a particularly American view. But Chase was more concerned about new art for America than making any kind of political or sociological statements.

Chase never pursued portraits of commoners beyond his student days. It seems he only painted the likes of Boy Smoking because he was working with models together with fellow American student Frank Duveneck, with whom he shared a studio in Munich and who would become a noted American figure painter in his own right. The two often split the cost of a young model and his costumes and painted the same figure. The most famous of their joint sessions produced Chase’s Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page) (#3). With that painting Chase showed not only that he fully learned the lessons in technique that the Munich Royal Academy stressed but also that he was moving beyond its preferred dark palette. It captures a surprising moment when the (stuffed?) cockatoo lands on a bowl of grapes which spill onto the carpet covering the legs of the boy. The picture combines a variety of surfaces from the fabrics of the carpet and background screen, the feathers of the bird’s wings and crest, the skin of the boy (both torso and feet bottoms) and the metal neck chain on the boy and the chain binding the parrot’s feet to the metal ringed perch. Various shades of red dominate the scene from the darker red of his cap and slippers, to the lighter carpet to the pink tinge of the bird. These reds are offset by the dark bluish green of the background curtain. But what makes the picture memorable is how it seems to capture a fleeting moment, not only by the outspread wings of the cockatoo but also by the posture of the boy.

chase-keying-up

4. “Keying Up”—The Court Jester. Oil on canvas. 1875. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

 

The student picture, however, that brought Chase his first fame in America was earlier than either Ready for the Ride or Unexpected Intrusion, and like the latter traded in the exotic and even more than Unexpected Intrusion is drenched in red. The painting display a humorous sensibility that would rarely be seen after Chase’s student days. The diminutive jester pours himself a glass of spirits while his look-alike puppet watches. Both sport the telltale alcoholic red on their long noses and prominent cheeks. Both are similarly dressed, and Chase pays especial attention to the caps with their bells. The curved mustaches on both add to their humorous appearance. Like all Chase portraits, and indeed almost all Chase works, the painting elaborately renders surfaces from the polished wood of the gargoyle-like head carvings on the dark wooden cabinet behind him to the different fabrics of his costume and slippers, to the glass bottle he holds.

“Keying Up” was entered in the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and won a gold medal. In many ways it was that show that marked the turning point in American art. The celebration of the second century of the country emphasized urbanization, mechanization and technological and social change. The art show featured works from American students from Paris and Munich, and the styles of both fundamentally subverted the underlying assumptions of prevailing American art. That art was mostly expressed by the Hudson River School. (For a sample of this style, see this post on Albert Bierstadt.) The paintings were largely of outdoor scenes, usually of breathtaking scope and often of monumental landscape features (mountains, waterfalls, lakes). The works were not so subtly “patriotic,” depicting a view of America involving a destiny conjoined with the land, rural and wild. (Sometimes the works were more or less explicitly political, as in the works lending support to the Union cause.) This vision of destiny had moral undertones, and so the art dedicated to it was awe-inspiring, reverential and, frankly, static as a result. And most characteristic of all, people had very little place in these works. When they were portrayed, they appeared small, in the distance and overwhelmed by the landscape. American students educated in either Paris or Munich could not help but reject all the underlying assumptions of the Hudson River artists. This was particularly true of those who were influenced by the anti-academic movements in Paris. (Chase saw these influences indirectly through the Leibl-Kreis.) As for the American art-consuming public, located east of the Mississippi and north of the old confederacy and becoming predominantly urban and wealthier than ever before, the rural and awe-inspiring nature no longer held their attention. Money was being made in cities and in industry, and the intellectuals who thrived during the Gilded Age would emphasize individualism, secular optimism and the possibilities of change. Chase and his fellow “rebels” had the attitude and technique to replace the prevailing style whose rules had become calcified into the rules of the academy. The critics were quick to extol Chase, and the popular press echoed the encomiums.5

New York Studio Artist

10. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1880-81 and ca. 1910. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

5. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1880-81 and ca. 1910. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

When Chase burst upon the New York scene in 1878 (he was 29 at the time), he had fixed ideas of how he was to make an impact—his flamboyant art was to be part of a flamboyant life. For six years Chase had immersed himself in pure aesthetic devotion, and, cut off from America, he had become something unknown on these shores: a practicing aesthete, and an evangelical one at that. Nothing could be further from his his upbringing in a Midwestern family desperately trying to claw its way into an economically secure and respectable status. None of this would have come about but for Chase’s time abroad.

Chase ended up studying in Munich by a series of contingencies. His father wanted him to remain in Indianapolis to help him in his barely profitable shoe store.6 But to mollify a disinterested young “Will,” his father paid for lessons from a local portrait and still life painter. Chase, however, was so restless that he ran away and joined the navy. It didn’t take long for him to regret the decision, and he had his father travel to Annapolis to secure his release from service. Chase returned to Indianapolis, where he clerked and again studied, this time being given a studio to work in. Soon, however, Chase was able to persuade his father, with the help of another local artist who counseled him, that he had serious prospects as an artist if he could study in New York. In 1869 20 year-old Chase travelled to New York and enrolled in the National Academy of Design (where J. Alden Weir and Albert Pinkham Ryder would be his classmates). The following year his father’s business closed, and Chase’s funds ran out. So he returned to his family, who had then moved to St. Louis. It was there that he developed sufficiently as an artist that a group of local businessmen struck a deal to underwrite two years of study in Europe in exchange for a painting by Chase for each one and services as an agent to procure likely European art for them. This offer changed his life. He was acutely aware of how significant training in the world’s best painting centers would be to his career, and his response to the offer was “My God! I’d rather go to Europe than go to heaven!”

When Chase arrived in Europe he selected Munich rather than Paris for study, not only because he knew Americans who studied there, but also (possibly because of the Midwestern work ethic instilled in him) to avoid the distractions that Paris would offer. Germany was in the first flush of its race to European cultural legitimacy following its overwhelming defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war. In Munich Chase would room with, first, Walter Shirlaw and later with Duveneck. When the funds from his St. Louis deal ran out, Piloty commissioned him to paint his children and assisted him in selling certain canvases. With the funds he received he travelled to Venice with Duveneck and Thwachtman. It was during this time that Chase developed the habit of living beyond his means. As his funds ran out, he continued buying art and various objects that he intended to fill a studio with. He became a compulsive aesthete, convincing himself that “beauty” was the most important objective. Fortunately his friends financed his basic needs until until he was able to return to New York. He had accepted (tamping down his strong ambivalence) a teaching position in New York at the Art Students League, a decision that allowed him to set up a first class studio.

6. The Inner Studio, Tenth Street. Oil on canvas. 1882. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California.

6. The Inner Studio, Tenth Street. Oil on canvas. 1882. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California.

Back in New York Chase believed his most important task was to secure a prestigious studio. He was able to rent a small studio (15′ x 20′) in the famous Tenth Street Studio, the first commercial building designed to house artists, located between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, which housed studios of America’s most prominent artists. Chase, however, had his eyes on the large two-story studio, originally designed as an exhibition space, but recently occupied by Albert Bierstadt. To the annoyance of the more established artists, who believed their greater fame and longer residence entitled them to priority, Chase obtained the studio and symbolically replaced arguably the most famous Hudson River School painter in America.

The large studio would become the place where Chase worked, a subject of numerous paintings and the center of his self-promotional energies. During his student days Chase concentrated on works in which he could paint a model costumed elaborately and surrounded by visually interesting objects. Chase therefore filled his studio with objets d’art, bric-à-brac and other decorations. The studio itself became the background in many works. Tenth Street Studio (#5), begun in the early 1880s and completed some three decades later, not only shows how he used the studio in his paintings but also symbolically reveals his view of art itself. The painting has two visitors inspecting a painting in the middle of a long wall of the studio filled with paintings and other objects including a large stuffed swan. Two others are seated on the left looking at sketches on a table. But none of the four figures are completed, and their faces are obscure. In fact, it is only the paintings and other artistic objects that are clearly rendered in detail. Although schooled in European realism, Chase makes the point that it is art that is “real.” Indeed, in all his early studio paintings Chase drives home the idea that art is valuable in itself, and that he himself is a prophet of that belief.

The Inner Studio (#6) shows another art devotee, this one perhaps more serious than the visitors in the later Tenth Street Studio (#5). Like a temple with its inner sanctum, Chase’s studio has an Inner Studio, and here the model, back to us, closely studies a framed painting, while a matted picture lays on the floor to her left. There is a gold bowl to her right. The things surrounding her represent the tools of this priestcraft, things prepare the soul to enter the mysteries of the world of artistic beauty.

7. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. 1880. St. Louis Art Museum.

7. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. 1880. St. Louis Art Museum. St. Louis, Missouri.

The 1880 Tenth Street Studio (#7) makes a somewhat different point. Beauty and luxury and elegance are, for Chase, intimately related. This is true for the artist as well as the art patron. Chase could not fail to understand the interrelations of these qualities is what attracted the wealthy patrons that were his market. The studio itself was something of a gallery in which he could display his works to the select public (e.g., #5). The more attractive and engaging the space, the more of a luxurious atmosphere it surrounded the visitor with, the more likely it was that the visitor would wish to purchase a painting or commission a portrait. But it was probably was not entirely a marketing ploy; “art atmosphere” meant something to him. Yet his beliefs mereged with a kind branding that came natural to Chase, who was not hesitant to make decisions that might enhance his fame and marketability. He joined all the important artistic associations in New York and founded others in order to associate himself with energetic and like-minded artists. He became a friend of most of the important intermediaries in the art world, first the publishers of art journals and books and later the curators of the major galleries and museums. The studio provided space for social and cultural events he sponsored. He held open houses on Saturdays. And he frequently had his students to his studio for a variety of lessons, not the least of which was to inculcate them with his view of the place of art in society and how to approach it. The studio accommodated every part of Chase’s life, and Chase’s life was consumed by the quest for elegance, style and beauty. He became almost a caricature of the new artists, who could only exist in this new, urban and increasingly prosperous America. And while he courted the New York elite, he did so to draw them into his own world, a world where everything was involved with art, a world entirely like the old, rural, pre-industrial America.

8. May I Come In?. Pastel on canvas. 1886, Collection of W. & E. Clark.

8. May I Come In?. Pastel on canvas. 1886, Collection of W. & E. Clark.

For Chase the studio was where art was made.That statement seems unremarkable now, but in the late 1870s it marked a new kind of artist and also drastically different subjects for art. Aside from portraits (mostly uninspired likenesses designed as mere memorial keepsakes), American art American art was about Nature, often wild and untamed, but sometimes in harmony with frontier and rural folk who have barely tamed it. American artists worshipped at the altar of Nature; painters were Nature’s celebrants and painting its ritual. To properly capture the essence of Nature, artists painted outdoors. And therefore the outdoors were the painter’s studio; indoors, where paintings were finished, were simply workshops. Inspiration was obtained by personally experiencing the beauty of the natural world, and the artists’ job was to communicate that awe and wonder through representational (if overly romantic) pictures.

Unlike the artists who occupied the field of American art before those of Chase’s generation returned from Europe, Chase believed that art itself is what the painter owed his allegiance to. The previous generation worshipped Nature and believed art celebrated it: painters were Nature’s celebrants and painting its ritual. And therefore the outdoors were the painter’s studio; indoors, where paintings were finished, were simply workshops. Inspiration was obtained by personally experiencing the beauty of the natural world, and the artists’ job was to communicate that awe and wonder through realistic (if romantic) pictures.

Chase, above all his generation in America, promoted the new European view that Art existed for its own sake, not to represent a higher ideal. Nature was not the exclusive, or even primary object of Art, and artists did not have to commune with it for experience. In fact, in the early 1880s he told his fellow aesthetes at the Tile Club that even if one painted landscapes it should be done in the studio:

“The proper way to paint a landscape is in the studio, far from the thing itself. You must simply look at a scene you are going to paint, observe the detail, saturate yourself with it. Then you have the spirit within you and can paint it later under ideal conditions, taking plenty of time to work it up to perfection.”7

Indeed for Chase, the studio was the center of art-making. It not only provided the props for works and a convenient place for models to pose or patrons to be painted, it also, and more importantly, generated the inspiration for his work. And for that reason it had to be filled with beautiful objects. In a 1906 lecture at the New York School of Art Chase ascribed to their studios the inspiration that the Old Masters displayed: “the secret of the success of the old masters … was their environments—and it was this influence that helped to produce their great works. It is really that in art that counts and it was this kind of art atmosphere that was of importance.”8 This belief drove Chase’s need to acquire “beautiful things,” and that in turn drove him to live beyond his means, a habit he never really conquered even once he had a large family to support. His first biographer Katherine Roof (at 254) said, “No man ever lived more completely in the atmosphere and the idea of art than Chase did.”

9. In the Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1881 or 1882. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

9. In the Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1881 or 1882. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

That Chase justified his need for an “art atmosphere” by reference to the Old Masters was not simply rationalization. His view of beauty was deeply rooted in the tradition of Western Art that went back to the Baroque. His two points of reference throughout his career were the Northern European (particularly Dutch) art of the seventeenth century and the collection of the Prado, especially Velázquez. Chase saw his own art as part of that tradition and often harkened back to the originators in his composition, treatment of light, posing of models and so forth. Although he could not articulate it clearly, Chase’s view of “beauty,” what it constituted, what objects possessed it, how to show it, was not a mere solipsism, but rather a view supported by deep study of the past. And often in his works he made allusion to that past. The early work In the Studio (#9), for example, is another picture of a richly clad devotee of beauty studying art while surrounded by objects selected and arranged by Chase. In nearly the very center of the painting is a framed etching of “Malle Babbe” by the Dutch master (or student of) Frans Hals, one of Chase’s favorites. The reference has interest beyond the mere statement that Chase’s art is part of that traditon, for the painting by Hals is of a subject not conventionally beautiful. Its inclusion states that the beauty in art is in the technique and execution, not the subject.

By surrounding himself with his version of beauty Chase made his studio nationally famous. It became the emblem of eccentric artistic genius and regularly appeared (and sometimes was satirized) in fiction, such as Esther by Henry Adams, The Coast of Bohemia by William Dean Howells, The Third Violet by Stephen Crane, The Other Fellow and Tile Club Stories by F. Hopkinson Smith, and even after his death in The “Genius” by Theodore Dreiser. And it frequently was discussed in the art journals. It was said to be a place that aspiring artists and artists of all sorts from outside of New York City made a pilgrimage. All of this gave Chase an added layer of celebrity, and in trying to enhance it, his religion of aestheticism led him into foppery, dandyism and, frankly, embarrassing and offensive behavior. Not only did he fill his office with pottery, elaborate furniture, Japanese umbrellas, old books, fabrics, fans, tapestries, brass pots, glazed glass objects, costumes and the like, he kept a cockatoo, 10 macaws and a Russian wolfhound and another dog. He forced his African-American servant Daniel to dress in exotic outfits when serving guests, and he often would strut through Manhattan with ridiculous affectation:

“He walked down Fifth Avenue dressed as an elegant Parisian art student with his Russian wolfhound and Daniel in tow wearing his Nubian costume. Chase wore a narrow, flat-brimmed French silk hat and a soft tie, both highly unconventional, as well as several rings from his growing collection. Chase ‘the cosmopolitan’ appeared sophisticated and cultured to the rich and the well-born.” (Bryant, at 68.)9

In the end, however, the affectations did not pay for the show, or perhaps Chase’s excesses were too much for the revenue of his patrons. While he maintained the studio through 1895, when he auctioned its contents (including many of his own paintings) in January 1896 he received only a fraction of their purchase price (Bryant, at 173). Although he would maintain more modest studios thereafter for portrait commissions, he had transitioned from nineteenth century hipster to establishment academician by that point. Before then Chase would make his mark on American art in a couple of other ways.

Portrait Artist Extraordinaire

10. An Idle Moment (also At Her Ease or Study of a Young Girl.). Oil on canvas. ca. 1884. National Academy of Design, New York City.

10. An Idle Moment (also At Her Ease or Study of a Young Girl). Oil on canvas. ca. 1884. National Academy of Design, New York City.

Chase’s principal claim to early fame and his most reliable source of income from his art came by way of his portrait paintings. Not long after he returned to New York City from Munich, he was regularly given official commissions for prestige portrait projects.10 By and large Chase’s portraits of men intended to promote their official or institutional capacity (including formal family roles like pater familias) and seem stiffly formal or out-of-date today. Many of Chase’s paintings of women, by contrast, reveal personality while also conveying a sense of style and elegance. Chase’s interest in figure painting, of course, went back to his original interest in art in Indiana, and his studies in Munich concentrated on figures (as well as still lifes). Even during his first stay in New York in 1869-70, while studying at the National Academy of Design, Chase was accomplished enough to obtain commissions for portraits. But over his career his portraits of girls and women seemed to have gained strength mainly by his interest in composition and the poses of the subject in addition to his mastery of the textures of clothing and accessories.

From his student days (e.g., ##1–2) Chase had a flair for discovering poses that illustrated an attitude. That talent only improved when he began his annual trips to Europe to meet with contemporary artists and study unfamiliar old masters beginning in 1881. That particular summer proved highly influential to Chase’s career, for he met arguably Europe’s three most prominent painters of women of high society and began a close study of the golden age artist who would inform his portrait technique. During two weeks in Paris in the early summer fellow Art Students League teacher James Carroll Beckwith introduced him to his teacher Carolus-Duran and arranged a lunch with American expatriate John Singer Sargent. Returning to Paris in September he met Belgian impressionist Alfred Stevens at his studio. That meeting had a substantial effect on Chase. Stevens had seen Chase’s The Smoker (his portrait of Duvaneck, an etching of which preceded the first Van Rensselaer article [linked below]), which had received honorable mention at the Paris Salon that year. Stevens advised Chase to lighten his palette from the dark values preferred by the Munich school. He also urged Chase to strike off on his own and not attempt to recapture the forms and techniques of the old masters. Chase seems to have almost immediately followed the former advice (as can be seen by comparing #9 with #7 among the “studio” piictures). But Chase had more difficulty with the second recommendation, especially because he had spent the time between his two trips to Paris that year in Madrid and he fell under the influence of Velázquez. He would spend five weeks again in Madrid with his friend Robert Blum (producing drawings for Scribner’s) the following year, and Velázquez remained under the Spaniard’s thrall for the rest of career as a portrait painter. (In 1894 he named his fifth daughter Helen Velasquez.)

11. Portrait of Mrs. C (Alice Gerson Chase). Oil on canvas. ca. 1890-95. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

11. Portrait of Mrs. C (Alice Gerson Chase). Oil on canvas. ca. 1890-95. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Chase’s reliance on old masters, particularly in his portraits, probably served a number of purposes. In the first place, Chase undoubtedly saw it as an homage, and perhaps also a way to influence American art to incorporate and become part of the broad European art tradition. Quite frequently he would borrow poses from the masters. Chase’s intriguing picture of his wife, Portrait of Mrs. C. (#11), is an example, for it is clearly based on Van Dyck’s portrait of the one-armed Flemish artist The Painter Martin Ryckaert (ca. 1631, Prado, Madrid). Not only is the composition nearly identical in both (with the seated figure occupying nearly the entire frame), but their postures in the chair are also strikingly similar. Moreover, Chase costumed his wife in a way to recall the earlier picture, with a heavy coat amd fur lining. They both even sport unusual and colorful caps. But the uncanny treatment is how Chase had her throw the left arm of the coat over her side to mimic the empty sleeve of the one-armed artist. And finally the subjects in both portraits stare directly forward. What makes both portraits fascinating is how the ambiguous expression of both requires the viewer to ponder what the subject is thinking and to decide to what extent he will participate in that contemplation.

12. Lydia Field Emmet. Oil on cavas. ca. 1892. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

12. Lydia Field Emmet. Oil on canvas. ca. 1892. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

Chase turned to Van Dyck again for the pose of his student, who acted as model in Lydia Field Emmet (#12). Left arm akimbo, she looks over her shoulder from a reverse, three-quarter view just as does the younger brother in Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart (ca. 1638, National Gallery, London). The subdued palette of the composition probably was under the influence of Whistler, who Chase grew to greatly admire. In fact, the scheme as well as the overall composition is similar to Whistler’s Arrangement in Black & Brown: The Fur Jacket (ca. 1876, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts). It is the dress’s trimmings and the long ribbon that flows down her back onto the floor that makes Chase’s work distinct from that of Whistler, who was not aiming to achieve the effect of “eloquence” which was Chase’s main goal.

On another occasion Chase subverted one of Whistler’s experiments in An Idle Moment (#10). The work Chase played off of was Whistler’s most famous compositional  experiment, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: The Artist’s Mother (1871, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Chase starts with the basic compositional framework of Whistler, a nonsymmetrical view of a woman in a chair facing perpendicular to the viewer. He then subverts most of the other elements. In the first place Chase’s sitter is very young, whereas Whistler’s is old. Whistler’s mother sits very formally and rigidly, whereas Chase’s lounges to relax. Whistler’s mother wears an old-fashioned cap, but Chase’s model’s hair pours out in a very modern manner. It is the color scheme, however, where the greatest divergence is noticed. Whistler employs his customary and restricted palette, emphasizing darker values. Chase, by contrast, employs flamboyant reds to envelop the velvety black dress the model is wearing. The combination turns Whistler’s staid formal “arrangement” into a lively expression of youthful luxury.

13, James Abbott MacNeill Whistler. Oil on canvas. 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

13. James Abbott MacNeill Whistler. Oil on canvas. 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Whistler would remain a fascination for Chase for the rest of his life. In his last two decades Chase gave talks on Whistler, much to the latter’s annoyance. He wrote (in “The Two Whistler’s” linked below) that his fascination took hold while at the Prado: “Every Velasquez seemed to suggest Whistler … .” So he resolved to meet him, but it took several failed attempts before he gathered the nerve to introduce himself to the notoriously caustic and unpredictable egoist. To his surprise upon meeting him in the summer of 1885, Whistler was charming and solicitous of Chase’s regard. Eventually, however, Whistler became smothering and grew increasingly annoying, and Chase sought to escape his grip. So avoid losing Chase Whistler proposed that they each paint the other. Whistler painted Chase in his plodding meticulous fashion, causing Chase to stand well into the evening for many days. That painting has since disappeared. Chase’s painting of Whistler, however, is at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (but now in the Chase exhibition at the MFA).

Chase portrayed the “public” Whistler, who he characterized as “the fop, the cynic, the brilliant, flippant, vain, and careless idler …” (and this was written by a painter who had his “man” dress as a “Nubian” on Fifth Avenue). Emphasizing his proportionately too large walking stick, Chase painted him as he described him: “a dainty, sprightly little man, immaculate in spotless linen and perfect-fitting broadcloth. He wore yellow gloves and carried his wand lightly in his hand. He seemed inordinately proud of his small feet and slender waist; his slight imperial and black mustache were carefully waxed; his monocle was indispensable.” As for his personality: “He took no one and nothing seriously; he was sublimely egotistical, and seemed to delight in parading his conceit. He was trivial, careless, brilliantly and smilingly careless.” Chase even painted the small shock of white hair which Whistler carefully ironed and curled at a mirror before presenting himself to the public. Of course, Chase had a dramatically different view of the artist Whistler, who he admired and defended the rest of his life.  But the painting was of the public Whister. And Whistler saw only maliciousness in the portrait. He complained to The World (October 15, 1886): “How dared he, Chase, do this wicked thing?—and I who was charming and made him beautiful on canvas—the Masher of the Avenues.” The two never reconciled.

14. Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler. Oil on canvas. 1883. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

14. Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler. Oil on canvas. 1883. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

15. Portrait of Mrs. C. (Lady with a White Shawl). Oil on canvas. 1893. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Constraints of space (and your patience) prevent comments on the many highlights of the gallery containing the Chase portraits. I will even skip over the one that Chase himself regarded as his best portrait: Portrait of Lady C. (Lady with a White Shawl) (#15). Instead I will treat an earlier portrait, one that deserves especial note, because it marked such a turning point in Chase’s career, and it too had a connection with Whistler. The painting is Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler (#14). The work is one of his first major portraits, and one that Chase evidently designed for exhibition, for it was not commissioned nor even painted in his own studio. Dora Wheeler was Chase’s first private student in New York and a pioneer as a woman in fine art. Her mother founded Associated Artists, a firm of women who produced high quality needlework and decorative textiles for the same strata of patrons that Chase was looking to see oils. Dora’s mother realized the limitations a woman artist of the time labored under without instruction, so she sent her for instruction to Chase (who taught her along with Lydia Emmet (#12)), then to the Art Students League and finally for two years to the Académie Julian in Paris.

Chase was unusually progressive in supporting women in fine arts. He not only taught them the same way he taught men (including with nude models), but he also bought their paintings. He considered Wheeler talented enough that he made a concerted effort to support her. The portrait, painted in her own studio, is of an artist, not a mere prop in a studio full of fineries. He gives her the seriousness of a professional rather than an idealized figure, a fact that the American reviewer for Magazine of Art highly objected to: “The first necessity of a portrait from the point of view of art is, of course, not that it should be resemblance, but that it should be agreeable, and agreeable this portrait certainly is not.” But of course “agreeableness” is in the eye of the beholder, and Chase was ahead of his time in in his view of the proper role of women, at least in art. Unlike Chase’s earlier studio paintings (e.g., ##6, 7, 9), Wheeler is not a mere decoration; she is fully the center of attention and dominates the scenery. Nor is she painted as a figure of “elegance.” Her face is serious, but she makes no effort to display her hands or even slippered feet in a graceful manner:

“Miss Wheeler may be the most forceful, dispassionate study of personality Chase would ever produce; her closest affinities are with the penetrating psychology of Thomas Eakins’ female portraits of the late 1880s rather than with the fluffy inconsequence of debutantes at the 10th Street Studio. Intelligent eyes, frank in confrontation beneath vast, careless brows; a long, distinctive nose; an angular chin, wispy curls low on the forehead, refusing the discipline of elegant coiffure—these are not the attributes of conventional beauty. Even the placement of the feet and hands bespeaks a woman whose demand for recognition is premised upon individual qualities.” (Marlin, at 47.)

16. I Think I am Ready Now (The Mirror, The Pink Dress). Oil on canvas. ca. 1883. Private collection.

The rest of the composition surrounds and supports her with the kind of eloquence that Chase (and Wheeler) believed comported with Gilded Age aesthetics. Her English revival chair and the taboret to her right allow Chase to show his ability to represent carved and polished wood. Meanwhile the vase provides the reflective surface that Chase liked to depict. The color scheme of the work uses hues of the three primary colors, with the vase and her dress dominated by blue, the carpet red and the background drapery and daffodils yellow. (Oddly, Chase once admitted that he had difficulty with flowers, and in fact he rarely painted them.) It is with that background hanging that Chase lets loose his bravura brush strokes, producing swirling yellow background around the flowers and throughout. The curtain sports an oriental effect with its waterfowl, dragonflies, butterflies and the cat within a swirl of yellow. The butterfly and the cat, perhaps performing the function of a colophon, may be tributes to Whistler.

Chase entered the Wheeler painting in the Internationale Kunstaustellung in Munich, and despite the reaction of the American reviewer was awarded a gold medal by the jury. After that the work was hung in the Paris Salon, the same one that saw Whistler’s Arrangement/Portrait of his mother. William Milliken has opined that the Wheeler portrait is the principal basis for Chase’s European fame.

It was in his portraits, especially in the commissioned ones, that Chase continued to freely indulge his belief that art was, in essence, simply technique, something he already showed in his studio genre works. The portraits, however, were less populated with objects on which Chase could lavish his brushwork. Nevertheless, Chase always dressed his subjects in finely worked fabrics and furs often with other accessories. Chase could then concentrate on rendering lace, ribbons, stitching and texture with intricate care. Despite criticisms he received that his attention to surface at the expense of story or theme or concept made his art superficial, he maintained as late as an interview in 1899 that technique is the eloquence of art and that “[w]hatever success I may have attained comes from my love of art for art’s sake only” (Brant, at 126 & 128). So, to the extent that the Wheeler portrait represented a turning point, the turn came not so much in portraits (which, after all, depended on client patronage) but in his new field, impressionism-influenced outdoor paintings.

Outdoors: From Europe to New York Parks

 Chase had almost no formal training in landscapes. While studying in Munich, however, Duveneck discovered a picturesque retreat in the Bavarian Alps in a town named Polling about 25 miles to the south. In 1875 he, Shirlaw and Chase rented an abandoned monastery there, where they could paint pictures of country life. The students hired peasants to pose, and they had access to sheep and cattle for their work. Chase’s few paintings there were heavily influenced by Corot (whose work he was familiar with from his annual visits to Paris and the French art periodicals he acquired in Munich) and the atmospheric effects of Currier (the American landscape painter who was a fellow student at the time). Like all of Chase’s work at the time, the paintings were technically accomplished, but unlike his figure paintings, showed little originality.

17. Venice. Oil on canvas. 1877. Oklahoma city Art Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

17. Venice. Oil on canvas. 1877. Oklahoma City Art Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

In 1877  Chase spent nearly a year with Duveneck and Twachtman in Venice. But he doesn’t seem to have taken advantage of the light, water, buildings and subtropical effects of the city and environs to an optimum extent. Many of the works, such as Venice (#17), seem to have been painted from inside his apartment. This may have been owing to the serious illness (perhaps malaria) he contracted while there. Nevertheless, Chase began exploring outdoor subjects and effects. Venice is a careful treatment of the effect of sunlight on mineral and stone surfaces. The composition places the flower pots on the balcony at the center of our attention, and they, together with the brightness of the reflection, almost make us miss the woman leaning out of the window in the upper left corner.

Chase’s small outdoor painting In Venice (#18) is somewhat remarkable given that the composition prefigured later work by Sargent and Renoir in Venice. The painting, though relatively small (8 x 13″), allowed Chase to capture differing effects of sunlight on the two sides of buildings as well as on the water before them. The restricted and muted color palette is broken with an exclamation point of red on the hat of the gondola rider in the center. All of this is done with the same easy brushstroke that he employed in Venice and that was commonplace in his figure paintings. It was thus a step forward from his work in Polling.

18. In Venice. Oil on canvas. ca. 1877. Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, Rhode Island.

18. In Venice. Oil on canvas. ca. 1877. Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, Rhode Island.

After Chase returned to New York City in 1878, he not only neglected landscapes, he also actively promoted the idea that the artist’s proper role was in the studio, as we saw. This was all part of his effort to replace the Hudson River School with his view of Art for Art’s Sake vision of American art. But his views on outdoor painting began to change when he started his annual summer trips to Europe to inform himself of new developments. In the sumer of 1882, during his stay in Madrid he began outdoor painting again, perhaps attracted to the very bright Madrid sun. (No example of this work is in the MFA exhibition.) It was in 1883 that Chase began the transformation that turned him into a master landscape painter of the new school.

19. A Bit of Holland MNeadows (A Bit of Green in Holland). Pastel on paper. 1883. Parrish Art Museum.

19. A Bit of Holland Meadows (A Bit of Green in Holland). Pastel on paper. 1883. Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York.

Chase’s work in Holland in 1883 was connected the  proposed exhibition of the Society of Painters in Pastel, an organization he founded in 1882 with Blum and Beckwith. The medium had become “legitimized” by such European artists as Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas and Whistler. Chase undoubtedly familiarized himself with their works before working with the medium in Holland. One such painting is included in the MFA exhibit, A Bit of Holland Meadows (#18). The color is remarkably bold for a Chase landscape at the time. It is as much a turning point for Chase as was the Wheeler portrait (#14) completed the same year. As with the portrait, in the pastel landscape Chase began conceiving of composition as something more than a way for him to display treatment of unusual and different surfaces. Indeed much of A Bit of Holland Meadows is occupied with relatively undifferentiated surface. This too may be traced to Chase’s principal influence in the Wheeler portrait—Whistler. Pisano (1993, at 6) notes the similarity between Chase’s Holland pastel and Whistler’s 1866 seascape Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean (Frick Collection, New York), particularly the “sparseness of detail the asymmetrical composition, and the flat decorative patterning … .” The paintings even have similar leaf designs on the right; Whistler’s comes from the bottom, presumably from a bush on the land above the shore where the viewer is standing, while Chase’s comes from the top from a tree. In Whistler’s work of the time the leafy branch acted as something of a colophon derived from Japanese prints. Both works also involve a high horizon line and vast expanses of green, although Whistler’s is much paler than Chase’s. The brushwork in Chase’s midground (where no individual clumps of grass can be seen) is very much like a watercolor, and it may have been influenced by the Hague School watercolorists, which Chase must have seen at the time. Another Whistler that may ave informed Chase’s approach, one closer in time to Chase’s composition and also in pastel, is San Biagio: Flesh Colour and Grey (1880, Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, Virginia), painted in Venice, which could have been of especial interest to Chase. I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to discover the similarities and differences.

20. At the Shore. OIL on canvas. ca. 1884. Private collection.

20. At the Shore. Oil on canvas. ca. 1884. Private collection.

By the following summer Chase’s approach to landscapes was undergoing a remarkable change. While more attention was paid to composition, at the same time, Chase was simplifying the other elements. A good starting point is At the Shore (#20), painted sometime between 1882 and 1884. The work is very bright for Chase in this period, and this perhaps is the lingering effect of his Madrid experience. The brushwork has become as assured, bordering on bravura (especially with the ocean foam, sand, flags and canvas tops), as his studio work. His rapid sketching of persons gives the impression of a casual glance, and while the work contains quite a few people, the composition does not look crowded, largely owing to how the shore divides the composition in two and the structures recede into the background (along a line perpendicular to the shoreline). What is striking about the work, however, is the large area devoted to a sky with striking blue mixed with clouds. The horizon (on which we see steam ships adding to the mix of the sky) curves upward much like the curve of the canvas atop the boat in the foreground. The composition is cleverly designed but not as simplified as it would soon become.

21. Coast of Holland. Oil on canvas. 1884. Frye Art Museum, Seattle, Washington.

When Chase painted in Holland in the summer of 1884, he produced two major works which pointed toward his future direction, both are in the exhibition. One, Sunlight and Shadow (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska), experiments with dappled sunlight and compositionally resembles the later family genre painting Open Air Breakfast (ca. 1886, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio). Both those exhibited works are fairly famous, so I will leave it to the links if you wish further comment.11

The painting that most clearly shows Chase’s future direction is Coast of Holland (#21). Like A Bit of Holland MeadowsCoast of Holland has a large expanse of “empty” space in the fore- and midground as well as a high horizon. A line of posts supporting a wire fence leads the eye in a curved fashion from the left edge towards the matter of interest in the background (in this case a sea churned by the strong winds, evidenced by the three flags along the water’s edge). Two heavily clad figures can be seen on the left, but what they are doing is not clear. In fact, their presence is somewhat superfluous. The general plan of composition as well as the green and brown color scheme of the land will be seen in the landscapes Chase would paint at Shinnecock about seven years later.

22. End of the Season. Pastel on board. ca. 1884 or 1885. Mt. Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts.

22. End of the Season. Pastel on board. ca. 1884 or 1885. Mt. Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts.

After his return to New York Chase tried a seaside picture, and once again by using pastel he created an astonishing composition, perhaps the most clever work he ever created, considered solely from that point of view, End of the Season (#22). Once again a sandy green-brown land occupies much of the bottom of the small picture (13¾ x 17¾”). The sea then makes a very high horizon. In this case, however, the expanse of sandy grass and scrub vegetation is not empty; rather, the field is filled with empty tables with their chairs turned on them. The line of tables and chairs (which form an interesting cross-hatch pattern) curve around to the place where the last vacationing visitor is looking–towards men grappling with a sailboat. The end of summer is indicated not only by the upended chairs but also by the coat worn by the visitor. A calm sense of wistfulness is conveyed by the painting at the same time that it is pleasantly (if conventionally) colorful.

It is curious that so many of Chase’s experiments, like End of the Season, took place in pastel. Perhaps the nature of the medium restricted his easy brushwork and required more concentration. Perhaps because it did not allow him to dwell on intricate surface detail, he devoted his attention to other elements. Or perhaps because the lighter palette it brought suggested to him different subjects and artistic models. The latter has some support when we look at his cityscapes with their impressionistic influence and lighter colors.

23. A City Park. Oil on canbas. ca. 1887. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

23. A City Park. Oil on canvas. ca. 1887. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

From the late eighties to the early nineties Chase embarked on a genre that was new to America: outdoor scenes of city parks. American landscapes before this time were of course mainly of rural and wild settings. Urban metropolises were just arising in America, and the public park movement was only in its infancy. Frederick Law Olmsted had only designed Prospect Park in Brooklyn in 1865, Chase began painting urban park scenes around the time of his marriage in 1886, when he stopped his summer European travels to care for his young family. Many of the scenes involved his wife and first child, Alice (“Cosy”) Dieudonnée. There was thus practical reasons for him to turn his attention to landscapes near his new home. But there was an artistic incentive as well: In April 1886 a large exhibition of French Impressionism was mounted in New York City.

The French Impressionism show at the American Art Association, which opened on April 10, 1886, was a startling event for the staid and conservative art world of New York. Some American painters had engaged for some time in an informal version of Impressionism, without the strict attention to the underlying principles of the French movement. The American Art Association exhibition, however, was the real thing, with 300 items, including numerous paintings by Monet, Degas, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro and Seurat. Those reviewers most closely connected with the conservatives of the National Academy of Design roundly condemned the foreign painters. The New York Times chose supercilious condemnation:

“The 300 oil and pastel pictures ‘by the Impressionists of Paris’ belong to the category of art for art’s sake, which rouses in the public more mirth than a desire to possess it. Coming suddenly upon the crude colors and disdain of drawing, which are traits positive and negative in the works of Renoir and Pissarro, one is likely to catch the breath with surprise. Is this art? Surely a third-rate Scotch artist far behind Faed or Cameron would be ashamed of No. 178, ‘Fisherman’s Children,’ but his style would resemble that. Helpless American painters of the old Hudson River school might blush, if they could not model human figures better than Seurat in No. 170, ‘Bathing.’ Weak imitators of Holman Hunt would be truer in color than Flameng in his clouds, No. 285, ‘Wrecks at Bordeaux.’ The first feeling about such works as these is, what extraordinary impertinence on the part of the artists! It is like turning the wrong side of the stage flies to the audience; it is offering to the public work which has been prepared up to a certain point only. No wonder that people are indignant.  No wonder that artists who are not in sympathy with the undaunted band of Impressionists affirm, sometimes not without a round expletive, that they can turn out several such canvases every day in the week!”12

24. Thompkins Park, Brooklyn. Oil on canvas. 1887. Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle simply heaped ridicule and contempt on the art: “As a mark for ridicule the impressionist display has been a conspicuous success. Few have regarded it as other than a display of monstrosities and crankisms, and one artist writes to me that he went home from the show and proceeded to have a nightmare as soon as he had fallen asleep.”13 The more forward looking artists of Chase’s circle, however, greatly admired the works. Many of them already referred to some of their work as impressionistic, but they had not seen, until the New York show, the full extent to which the underlying principles of French impressionism could be taken. American impressionists would never fully employ the advances of the French artists in the exhibition. Chase, for example, did not believe in the “scientific” approach to light that some impressionists showed. Chase felt that such an analytical violated the principle of artistic inspiration, relying instead on a set of rules. Moreover, the approach of most French impressionists to brushwork was entirely inconsistent with the broad strokes that Chase had worked more than a decade to make effortless. Nevertheless, although Chase’s reaction to the show does not seem to have been recorded, it is clear that he rejected the blanket condemnations of the conservative press. In 1883 when Chase and Beckwith organized the Barholdi “Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition” (to raise funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty), Chase was instrumental in bringing Manet and Degas painting to the event.

25. Park Bench. Oil on canvas. ca. 1890. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

25. Park Bench. Oil on canvas. ca. 1890. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

To whatever extent the Impressionism show influenced Chase, it is clear that his park paintings represented a new and separate departure for him. Just in terms of the elements of the works, a novel and fairly consistent combination had taken hold. Chase framed views of small sections of well-maintained public spaces. Lawns and ornamental plants cover most of the space with buildings, if shown at all, off in the distance.  Figures inhabit the scenes but are almost never the focus of attention. These people are well-t0-do, expensively dressed Brooklynites or New Yorkers at leisure, often with their children. The compositions frequently emphasize lines that not only lead toward a vanishing point but also divide the picture into geometrically designed segments that are dominated by a particular color. The lines direct the eye to quickly survey the scene, which adds to the effect of a fleeting impression which the brushwork aims for.

Chase began this series of paintings in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, near his then home. After several years working there, in the spring of 1890 he was barred from painting in the Park by order of the Brooklyn Parks superintendent, much to the outrage of the local press.14 Chase unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a license that summer, so he chose to paint in New York’s Central Park thereafter. Some of his paintings in the Manhattan show recognizable man-made monuments or other enhancements. Four of these paintings were featured in an article in Harper’s Weekly in 1891.15 Some focus on common features in recognizable locations, such as Park Bench (#25). This last painting emphasizes the inert bench which dominates both the young woman sitting on it and the two sparrows she is watching.

Chase did not follow the French impressionists either in their experiments with light or with their experiments with colors. Moreover, Chase did not veer at all from realistic representation of figures and things. And Chase’s impressionism-influenced park paintings did not treat any of the grittier city scenes, but instead painted the city from a distance in its semi-natural parks. Nevertheless, the paintings were still attacked by conservative critics. The reviewer for the Art Amateur of an exhibition at the American Art Galleries praised Chase’s portraits but had little regard for the parkscapes, concluding that they showed ‘no traceable intention … but that of reproducing the scene as in a looking-glass, with the least possible expenditure of work.” He conceded that revealed a “discipline of eye and hand” but in the end found them to “have no depth of meaning, and their beauty is of the every-day sort … .”16

The MFA exhibition only has a small sample of the city park paintings, and in any event they tend to have a sameness to them. While they represent a step in the direction of European advances, the subject matter, visual frame, color palette and treatment and intended effect tended to fall into a pattern. Chase would defend this fact on the ground that technique, and not subject matter, is the point of art. Right at the beginning of the period he spent making city park paintings, however, he painted a genre work titled Washing Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn (#26). Although in some ways similar to the park paintings, particularly with the clotheslines acting in the same way that lines of paths and park sections do to direct the viewers eye and create sections of the work, the painting shows a scene rarely attempted by Chase—a person at work. It is the sheets, though, that give Chae the opportunity to make light reflection into a pattern, not only on the lines but on the ground between them. Behind this work are trees that themselves provide a pattern of light  (which appears to be coming from the left of the picture). A decade and a half later John Singer Sargent would employ the same concept in a watercolor, using instead of the colored linen, pure white sheets, which produce more of a patterned effect with reflected white and shadow, in front of small leafless trees. (To see a comparison of these two works, scroll to the bottom of the post Sargent’s Watercolors.) The painting is the kind of original concept approach that Chase abandoned once he hit upon the open air paintings in city parks.

Wash Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn by William Merritt Chase. (Oil on panel. Private collection.) Not in the Brooklyn Exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)

26. Washing Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn. Oil on panel. ca. 1886. Lilly Endowment, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Shinnecock and the Summer Art School

27. My Baby Cosy. Pastel on board. 1888. Private collection.

Chase was plagued his whole life with a taste for compulsive acquisitions that exceeded his ordinary income. His need for money only increased when he married Alice Gershon in 1886 and the large family that resulted, beginning with the birth of Cosy in 1887. Chase tried to reduce his expenses by ending his summer trips to Europe after his summer with Whistler in 1885. But from time to time he also attempted to obtain large sums by selling his works (and often his collections of others’ works) at auctions. Invariably, these sales, some of which were quite large, proved bitterly disappointing to Chase and a subject of astonishment to his friends and even the art press. Chase was forced to rely more and more on income from teaching. In 1885 he again took a position at the Art Students League. In 1887 he held an auction of 98 works after his first major solo exhibition in New York, and realized less than $90 per work. In 1889, two months before the SAA show that caused the Times reviewer to muse on Chase becoming unfashionably establishment, his second daughter, Koto Robertine, was born, and in June 1890 his son, William Merritt Chase, Jr. was born. The growing family probably convinced him of the wisdom of supplementing his income with a more-or-less permanent summer school proposed by Mrs. William S. Hoyt, in the eastern end of Long Island to be called the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art.

28. The Japanese Doll. Oil on canvas. ca. 1890. Walter & Lucille Rubin collection.

The school was located in a relatively unimproved area that a few fashionable New Yorkers had begun to develop for summer retreats. Janet Hoyt, a real estate professional and investor in her own right, managed the project to create the school and design an art village that would not only attract students of plein air painting but also become the catalyst for attracting others to purchase real estate in the area. She was assisted by two Southampton friends, Annie de Camp Perrot Hegeman Porter and Samuel L. Parrish, and together they obtained support from Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Mrs. August Belmont and various Astors and Whitneys. Chase presided over the school for 12 summers, and it became the largest and best known of the plein air summer schools. It was a breeding ground for artists who would set up schools elsewhere as well a basis for Chase’s national fame as an art instructor which would later allow him to create his own full time school in New York (the Chase School of Art in 1896) and generated offers for permanent employment (such as at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where Chase began teaching in 1896) and short term courses (such as at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1894 and 1897). But for our purposes the significance of the move is how it changed his approach to outdoor landscape painting.

29. Shinnecock Studio Interior. Pastel on paper mounted on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

29. Shinnecock Studio Interior. Pastel on paper mounted on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

At the end of the 1880s Chase was beginning to look for subjects beyond his portraits, studio views and parkscapes. Chase had a brief flirtation with Japonisme in the late 1880s. One of the interesting insights the MFA show provides is through collecting the little known Japanese-influenced works with the better known portraits. The Japonisme works of Chase were created during a four year period from 1888 to 1892. None of it shows a deep sympathy for Japanese art or printmaking. Instead Japanese elements are presented as merely exotic decoration. The paintings involve models wearing kimonos and sometimes with other Japanese accessories. In one still life (#28) Chase paints a collection of crafts before a Japanese hanging. Chase even presented his wife and children, dressed in Japanese outfits (#27) or amusing themselves with Japanese crafts and prints (#29).

30. Flying Clouds. Oil on canvas. 1892. Private collection.

The departure Chase made in this period in landscapes took place in the summers at Shinnecock. Chase was required to teach plein air painting (or at least evaluate it), so he threw himself into it. And as a result he pioneered a new type of American landscape. The land here in the Hamptons probably had a particular calling to Chase because it was quite like the sand and scrub vegetation that he encountered and painted in Holland. The similarity is brought home by an odd comment by a reviewer. In March 1884, at the first Pastel Society showing in New York, Chase exhibited a work painted in Holland, presumably much like Coast of Holland (#21). The reviewer for Art Amateur, who was filled with disdain for Chase’s studio genre works, commented appreciatively on a landscape from Holland,, “the best, one from Scheveringen, showing a beach and dune the very counterpart of East Hampton, where, so far as we know, no one ever found a subject of a landscape, … . [P]robably there are twenty Americans ready to buy a bit of Scheveningen for one that will look twice at a corner of East Hampton.”17 The anonymous critic noted the similarity of the vistas that Chase would paint a decade later to those he painted in Holland. And to perhaps acknowledge that similarity himself, Chase painted an early landscape there, Flying Clouds (#30), as a tribute to the Dutch master Jacob van Ruisdael, whose pioneering Baroque landscape, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields (ca 1670, Kunsthaus Zürich), resembles the later work not only in the kind of sandy soil and grasses, the distant building, the low horizon with vast expanses of sky, but also, and mainly, in the billowy clouds that fill the sky.

31. Untitled (Shinnecock Landscape). Oil on canvas. ca. 1895. Private collection.

31. Untitled (Shinnecock Landscape). Oil on canvas. ca. 1895. Private collection.

As in the untitled canvas called Shinnecock Landscape (#31), Chase captures the characteristic view of Eastern Long Island, the ecosystem of which is based on the sandy soil which can support only the intermittent clumps of grass and scrub bush. Without trees and owing to vast expanses of flat land, a large vista of bright summer sky can be seen and it is usually filled with large clouds backed by pale blue. In many of the Shinnecock landscapes, clouds seem to be the subject of the paintings. The combination of the blue, brown and green produces a harmony redolent of summer and all it connotes. Unlike the parkscapes, there are no artificial straight lines which always signify human interference with nature. The absence of such lines also means that there is no artifice of composition to direct the eye. The art is solely in the framing of the scene; the artist does not otherwise seem to intrude. In a lecture right before he established his Shinnecock school, he told of a means to avoid the difficulty of deciding how to “cut off” a scene:

“[T]ake a little card, a visiting card if you like, and cut an oblong square hole in it … look through it occasionally. push it about until you see something you like. … In this way you will find pleasing conceptions and original compositions, things that have not been done, and not too perfectly balanced to be delightful.”

Even before the Shinnecock paintings, Chase had thus abandoned his early tenet that artists should only make a sketch of an out-of-doors scene and paint the scene later in the studio. In fact in the same lecture in Buffalo in 1890, Chase urged beginners never to “meddle” with a work in the studio, otherwise its naturalness would be disturbed and it would take on the look of “conventional picture-making.” (Pisano 1993, at 11.)

32. Seaside Flowers. Oil on canvas. ca. 1897. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

32. Seaside Flowers. Oil on canvas. ca. 1897. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

Many of the Shinnecock paintings included his favorite subjects, his wife and children. Portrayed as members of the Southampton leisure class, they are depicted gathering berries or flowers, enjoying family time or relaxing on the beach. As is usual with paintings of his family, they are adorned in expensive outfits with colorful accessories to provide color accents to the muted color palette of the landscape. In Seaside Flowers (#32) Mrs. Chase is tending to her son and four daughters, who are out collecting wildflowers. Each of the three daughters in the foreground is wearing an individually adorned hat and colorful ribbon. In the background can be seen the Chase family summer home.

33. At the Seaside. Oil on canvas. ca. 1892. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

33. At the Seaside. Oil on canvas. ca. 1892. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The Shinnecock landscapes represented the closest approach Chase ever made to French Impressionism. His color scheme and figure modeling looked vaguely like early Impressionism. But he only was interested in light as it reflected from surfaces or occasionally caused shadows. He never experimented with representation of figures or objects, instead he continued to draw with the same approach to realism that he developed in art school. For these reasons in his day Chase was not recognized as one of the core group of American Impressionists.  Art Amateur, for example, never mentioned Chase in any of its articles of the 1890s on American Impressionists, and his works were not acquired by collectors of American Impressionist paintings (Pisano 1993, at 14 & 18 n.62).

Nevertheless, the unusual views that Eastern Long Island offered (unusual in terms of American landscapes, that is) allowed for a somewhat forward looking approach to art and with the absence of recognizable figures like trees, land formations and buildings, suggested non-representational art, especially when the pictures lacked figures and clouds dominated the canvas.

34. The Lone Fisherman. Oil on mahogany panel. ca. 1895. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

34. The Lone Fisherman. Oil on mahogany panel. ca. 1895. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

Despite his role in upending a style in American art, Chase did not believe in change as an end in itself. He saw art as part of a tradition going back to the Baroque masters—a tradition to be built upon and acknowledged. Innovation, as Chase saw it, was to follow a path suggested by past masters. The innovation was to extend, not to overturn, the tradition.

The one experiment he continued to pursue even late in his career was the treatment of space on the canvas. The open vistas of Long Island allowed for such experiments. In The Lone Fisherman (#34) Chase uses the foreshortening of a canal embankment and the row of rocks behind it to create a sense of depth to the picture. Those features take up most of the canvas and dwarf the figure, Chase’s father, sitting far down the line fishing in the canal. Chase uses the space devoted to the rock to show the reflection of light on the surface. The landscape portion of the picture occupies a small line on the horizon below a sky that has a yellow coloring near the earth and becomes bluish only at the top of the picture. Unlike Flying Clouds (#30) and Untitled (#31), the sky occupies only a small portion of the picture. All three of those paintings are related to the kind of treatment of space that Chase was doing in his late studio and family genre paintings, which is the last part of the MFA show.

Before considering those works, there remains only to briefly note Chase’s final landscapes after he closed the Shinnecock school in 1902. By that time Chase had almost completely transformed from vital force in the vanguard to grand old man. In 1888 he was elected to the National Academy of Design, the conservative force that the Munich Men rebelled against. In 1895 he declined to run for President of the Society of American Artists (the organization designed to counter the Academy), a position he held for a decade. In 1898 he gave up administrative control of the Chase School (it would become the New York School of Art). Chase would spend much of the rest of his life arranging for showings at various important expositions and shows.18 He also cultivated relations with major museum curators (his work was shown at the opening of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in 1895, for example19). Many would purchase his works for reasonable prices, while other would host exhibitions at which sales could be made.20 Chase was also exhibited in large one man shows at the galleries.21 But he remained plagued by compulsive large expenses which he tried to finance with auctions of large amounts of his art. They all turned out badly. (In 1896 he sold off all the items from his 10th Street Studio as well as 66 of his own work. Flying Clouds was knocked down at $310. All 1800 lots produced slightly more than #21,000. Bryant, at 171.)

35. The Olive Grove. Oil on composition board. ca 1911. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.

35. The Olive Grove. Oil on composition board. ca 1911. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

After closing Shinnecock, Chase spent little time in outdoor painting. He organizied summer tours of Europe with students to finance trips to Holland (1903), England (1904), Spain (1905) and Florence (1908 and 1909). These trips, however, did not allow for systematic painting like he was able to do in Long Island where he had a house, permanent studio and his family. Yet he occasionally produced striking works, like The Olive Grove (#35). The problem Chase faced was that the cutting edge of art had moved well beyond him. By the time the Armory Show for Post-Impressionists was organized in New York in 1913 his work looked several decades out of date. None of his works were accepted at that show. The decision was devastating to him. And though he visited the show several times, he simply could not understand non-representational art, particularly cubism. He would spend his last several years polemicizing against it.

Chase’s Sanctuary: His Studio and His Family

As a teacher of artists, Chase was hardly doctrinaire and always urged his students to achieve their own artistic vision. But two bridges he could not cross. He could not bring himself to paint subjects he considered lacking in beauty. And he could not comprehend for what reason an artist could distort visual reality.

36. Two of My Children (At Play). Oil on canvas. ca. 1895. Private collection.

The first of these bedrock beliefs probably stemmed from the effects of his hard-scrabble upbringing in Indiana. Chase saw art as the way out of a grubby existence. Rockwell Kent remembered Chase once telling his studenta: “Look at me. Beginning as a shoe clerk trying on ladies’ shoes, I have come to be the guest of kings.” (Kent, at 76-77.) Chase probably did not even realize how much his aesthetic pose was a class attributem and he was anything but analytical in his aesthetic philosophy. When the Ashcan School attained ascendency at the New York Art School under Robert Henri, eventually forcing Chase to resign his teaching position 1907, Chase expressed his disdain dripping with class-based contempt: “A certain group of painters in New York paint the gruesome. They go to the wretched part of the city and paint the worst people.” (Bryant, at 211.) Deciding what was “beautiful” and what was base and mean was a visceral choice for Chase.

Chase’s second objection to modernism (or perhaps more fairly, to certain aspects of modernism that aroused him on an instinctual level) followed directly from the first: Why would one distort reality when what one saw to paint was beautiful? In 1899 he told a reporter for an Indianapolis newspaper that his approach to painting was through his own understanding of Nature: “Art transcends Nature. One must paint what is behind the eye of the artist.”22 Chase did not mean that an artist could refashion what is naturally true, but that an artist must conceive of what he sees in the most truthful and beautiful way and then to paint that conception. What Chase “saw” behind he eye was how what he saw with his eye should fit on a canvas. In the outdoors he could look for the right combination of elements to produce a picture behind his eye.  In the studio he could arrange objects, models and props to produce a picture. And his family played the central role in a great many of these compositions, his wife first and foremost.

37. Meditation. Pastel on canvas. ca. 1886. Private collection (W. & E. Clark.)

37. Meditation. Pastel on canvas. ca. 1886. Private collection (W. & E. Clark).

Chase met his future wife Alice Gerson shortly the year after he arrived in New York from his studies, in the summer of 1879. She was the daughter of widower Julius Gerson, who held something of a salon for artists and writers and even supported some artists. Chase was brought into this circle by Frederick S. Church, to whom he was introduced by Shirlaw. Alice was 13 at the time but Gerson encouraged her and her two older sisters to appreciate the artists and intellectuals he brought to his home, and Alice soon developed a crush on the flamboyant Chase. Chase frequented the family’s gatherings, sketching and painting the girls and guests. His affection developed into passion for Alice and he married her in 1886. She would prove to be his most reliable subject and muse.

The year of his marriage also saw Chase bask in a burst of popular and critical acclaim with his triumphant one man show in Boston’s Art Club which displayed 130 of his paintings and crammed the gallery with the bric-à-brac from his 10th Street Studio. A “sensation,” said Art Amateur, where the town

“went in full force, and repeated its visit with enthusiasm, and it is unanimously voted that nothing has been here at all like it since [William Morris] Hunt’s day. Such fertility, variety, dash, gayety, excitement! Such frank singleness of delight in in cleverness, in painting as painting; such naïve confession that the fun of doing it is the main thing; such happy unconsciousness that art has any other ulterior objects, any moral mission or historical function!”23

38. Mother and Child (First Portrait). Oil on canvas. ca. 1888. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

38. Mother and Child (First Portrait). Oil on canvas. ca. 1888. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

When Chase painted Alice he merged this same joie de l’art with joie de vie, and that can be seen in every one of the paintings he did of her for the rest of his life. He treats her not as a model but as a person whose thoughts, feelings and interior life is worth exploring. Meditation (#37), for example, sees the young Alice as wise beyond her years and suggests that she is lost in thought by enveloping her in soft blues and velvety greys which also frame her pale face, accented by dark brows and hair. It is a work that is difficult to look away from. (And doesn’t that make a masterpiece?)

With the arrival of Alice Dieudonnée (“Cosy”) in 1887 his children also became subjects of the art that most overtly showed his feelings of tenderness and devotion. The Chases would have five daughters and three sons although William Merritt Chase, Jr., died shortly after his first birthday. Chase dressed his children up in costumes and expensive clothes, presented them with costly toys and books, gave them the run of his studio and then painted them in this world that celebrated beautiful things. In Two of My Children (#36) Chase showed Cosy and Koto Robertine (his second daughter, born in 1889) captured in a “spontaneous” way just as Valázquez might have composed a picture of Philip IV’s household. Cosy looks back at us as she is tying the ribbon belt on her younger sister. The light brings the figures out of the dark background and emphasizes the beautiful salmon colored dress of Cosy and the lighter dress of the younger child, who we see only from behind. Both the Dutch masters and Velázquez made figures immanent by this trick of light to make the figures more “real” even though the light source, like Hollywood lighting, was unrealistic.

39. Hall at Shinnecock. Pastel on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

39. Hall at Shinnecock. Pastel on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

From the evidence of Chase’s portrayals of them, his family happily participated in his world of art for art’s sake. Not only do they delight in each other’s company, but they do so principally by enjoying the objects that delighted Chase and which were part of his work, as they themselves were.  Chase introduced his most playful “tricks” in these family portraits and thereby showed that he enjoyed these works the most. In Hall at Shinnecock, for example, Cosy not only views Chase as he paints the picture, but we can see Chase ourselves in the reflection in the glass of the cabinet on the other end of the hall.

40. An Artist's Wife (A Study). Oil on canvas. 1892. Private collection (Fayez Sarofim).

40. An Artist’s Wife (A Study). Oil on canvas. 1892. Private collection (Fayez Sarofim).

An Artist’s Wife (#40) is a portrait of Alice looking away toward the artist who interrupted her from viewing Chase’s The Fairy Tale, a Shinnecock work (not in the MFA show) in which Alice and Cosy sit amidst the rolling landscape of Long Island both in their summer finery. The Alice who is contemplating this picture is dressed in clothes reminiscent of the days of the Dutch masters. And this is for good reason, because the painting itself is an homage to the portrait of Issac Massa by Chase’s favorite old master Frans Hals (1626, Art Gallery of Ontario). Both the study and The Fairy Tale were highly praised by John Gilmore Speed in an article in Harper’s [linked below]. Speed saw the works in Chase’s summer studio. It occurs to me that Chase must have viewed his own life as a Northern European Baroque painter, perhaps like Rubens, who also used his wife and child as subjects and who lived the life of an aristocrat as he painted for them.

The playfulness of the picture within a picture (and subject within a picture of the subject) is similar to the punning title (and meta-comment) of the painting Reflection (ca. 1893, private collection). In that work we see Alice’s face only in the mirror (her back is to us), but we can see that she is cogitating on something, reflecting. The mirror itself is fit in a section of the wall behind a current (drawn open), just like the window next to it. The window curtain, however, is drawn shut, for all of the interest is takes place within the room and within the mind of Alice. The reviewer of the Society of American Artists show of 1894, where this picture was exhibited, acknowledged that some would object to the literary nature of the composition but dismissed it because the “picture is a good one, nevertheless … .”24

Chase’s paintings of his children also displayed playfulness but less literary and more visual, much like Velázquez did in the day of the masters and John Singer Sargent in contemporary times. Chase’s Hide and Seek (#41) is a large canvas that presents a large empty space in the middle. Much like Sargent’s Daughters of Edward D. Boit (1882, which you can see upstairs in the MFA). (Sargent’s canvas is, however, much larger than Chase’s.) Chase places children at the opposite ends of a largely empty plane. In Chase’s painting, which the title tells us is about a game, the empty space ads to the excitement one feels for the girl at the bottom who is about to escape detection as the other girl departs the room. The light that seeps in from the exit the second girl is about to use illuminates the room, where we see only a curtain, a large green chair and the bottom of a painting above it. The care with which the hair and gown of the girl at he bottom are rendered make her the one we are rooting for. Of course the painting is actually a study in space, but Chase, like the old masters and Sargent, is never one to force-feed am aesthetic lesson down the viewer’s throat. That was never how he viewed the role of the artist; it is also why he never understood the post-Impressionists.

41. Hide and Seek. Oil on canvas. 1888. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

41. Hide and Seek. Oil on canvas. 1888. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Even if we didn’t have the letters when Chase was away and pined for his family, we would know that it was his family that meant the most to him in his latter years, solely through these genre paintings. That affection is palpable in these works which occupy the final gallery of the MFA show. These works are a fitting close to the show because they represent the central thing in his life, if our reaction to them is any proof. If I were to suggest why anyone should care about Chase, I’d suggest going straight to the end of the exhibition to view these pieces. Chase’s approach to art may have outlasted the public’s taste for it, but these pictures say something more than Chase’s place in art history. They transcend it. And that is what makes a master.

Chase the teacher (a role in which he contributed at least as much to American art) produced many quotable aphorisms, most of which seem hardly able to guide a beginning artist, or even a beginning art appreciator. His biographer Katharine Metcalf Roof collected many of them. Some seem hardly to apply to his own work. For instance, “Learn to paint so well that you can conceal your own dexterity,” seems on the basis of this exhibition to be something he never attempted. But perhaps his best known quote is “Do not try to paint the grandiose thing. Paint the commonplace so that it will be distinguished” (Roof, at 319). His family paintings belie this quote, for there was nothing commonplace in his love of his own family.

In the end this exhibition gives a comprehensive look at this important nineteenth century American artist. The enormous revolution of Modernism, which began at the end of Chase’s life, cause us now to give him insufficient credit in the great scheme of things at the beginning of the twentieth century. But for a brief peiood, at an essential time, Chase turned American art outward and tried to connect it with the trends and flow of Western culture as it was boiling up in Europe. That he accomplished that goal also caused his own contributions to be overwhelmed by the flood that followed. But this retrospect proves that he is still worth a serious look, even if he did not create a school or issue a manifesto and even though he viewed change as a conservative would: good only if it added to what was valuable, not if it tore it down.

 

Notes

1“American Artists’ Annual Exhibition,” New York Times, Saturyday Review of Books and Arts, March 19, 1898, p. BR191 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

2I was (slightly) disappointed to see that neither of the two 1892 genre paintings, Afternoon by the Sea [Gravesend Bay] and The Fairy Tale (both in the same private collection, I believe), were present. The student work The Moorish Warrior, ca. 1878, which remained in a European collection until the twentieth century and now is owned by the Brooklyn Museum, also would have been nice to see. One or two of the better female portraits are not included, but all in all these are mere quibbles, given the large number of sources these works were borrowed from. [Return to text.]

3The National Gallery of Art and the Terra Foundation for American Art co-sponsored an exhibition entitled “William Merritt Chase: Summers at Shinnecock, 1891-1902” in 1987-1988. Before that a national retrospective of his entire career toured from the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983-84. It was three decades before then that the last previous major exhibition was mounted. [Return to text.]

4“The Society of American Artists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 11, 1978, p. 2 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

5Chase had not resided in New York for a year when Harper’s New Monthly Magazine included him among the most important new influences on American art, moving it away from landscapes to the portrayal of the human figure. The piece included an etching of his Boy Smoking (#2) (see S.G.W. Benjamin [cited below].) Not long after the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s own arts magazine, American Art Review, published a review of the young Chase together with detailed etchings, spread over two issues in early 1881 (see Van Rensselaer, below). That review was noted in newspapers around the nation. E.g., Detroit Free Press, February 8, 1881, p. 3 (clip online via newspapers.com); New York Times, February 16, 1881, p. 3 (clip online via newspapers.com); Chicago Tribune, February 26, 1881, p. 9 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

6Much later in life Chase claimed that he was a successful ladies’ shoes salesman. He said the trick was to always recommend a size smaller than the woman was then wearing. [Return to text.]

7Baury, Louis, “Story of the Tile Club,” Bookman, Vol. 35 (June 1912) 381-96, at 391 (online via Google Books). [Return to text.]

8“Talk on the Old Masters by Mr. Chase, New York School of Art, November 17th, 1906,” typescript from Archives of American Art, quoted in Cikovsky [cited below], at 7. [Return to text.]

9Bryant’s biography, which makes no attempt to connect Chase to his social setting, gives no reason to think that New Yorkers viewed Chase as “sophisticated” rather than simply odd or worse. Cikovsky (at 2) is more likely correct in concluding that his European styled beard, his fastidious and often outrageous dress and his exotic pets “startled still provincial New York of the late seventies, when they first made their appearance.” Later he was satirized as a pretentious fop. In Coast of Bohemia Howells has his art student Charmian model herself on Chase in designing her studio: “I must have a suit of Japanese armor for that corner, over there; and then two or three of those queer-looking, old, long, faded trunks, you know, with eastern stuffs gaping out of them, to set along the wall. I should be ashamed to have anybody see it now; but you have an eye, you can supply every thing with a glance. I’m going to have a bed made up in the alcove, over there, and sleep here, sometimes: just that broad lounge, you know, with some rugs on it—I’ve got the cushions, you see, already—and mice running over you, for the crumbs you’ve left when you’ve got hungry sitting up late.” (Chapter XVII.) [Return to text.]

10For example, the State Department commissioned Chase for the official portrait of Secretary of State William M. Evarts, “Notes on Art and Artists,” New York Times, March 19, 1882, p. 5 (clip online via newspapers.com), and Harvard College commissioned him to paint ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes. [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star, March 26, 1881, p. 1 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

11For a contemporary review of Sunlight and Shadow, see “Water Colors and Etchings,” New York Times, January 30, 1886, p. 5 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

12“Paintings for Amateurs,” New York Times, April 10, 1886, p. 5 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

13Untitled paragraph, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 18, 1866, p. 4 (clip online via nespapers.com). [Return to text.]

14The decision was made by Superintendant Aneurin Jones, and it was unknown even to the Parks President when asked about it. Jones had recently been dismissed as superintendent of parks in New York City and soon became a target of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for his imperiousness. The paper reported on the barring of Chase in “The New Autocrat of the Park,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 18, 1890, p. 4 (clip online via newspapers.com). Both The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and The New York Times reported on the bureaucratic intircacies that prevented Chase from paining in Brooklyn’s parks throughout the summer. [Return to text.]

15See Charles de Kay”Mr. Chase and Central Park,” Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 35, no. 1793 (May 2, 1891),, pp. 324-25, 327-28 (online via Hathi Trust). The four paintings, photographed in black and white on pp. 234-34 are: A By-Path, (ca. 1890, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection), The Nursery (1890, private collection), The Lake for Miniature Yachts (ca. 1888 or 1890, Peter G. Terian collection) and A Bit of the Terrace (1890, private collection). The second and third of these paintings are exhibited at the MFA show. [Return to text.]

16“Minor Exhibitions,” Art Amateur, Vol. 22, no. 6 (May 1890), pp. 113-14, at 114 (online via JSTOR, open access). [Return to text.]

17“The Pastel Exhibition,” Art Amateur, Vol. 10, no. 6 (March 1884), pp. 123-24, at 124 (online via JSTOR; open access). [Return to text.]

18In 1893 Chase exhibited five works at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition. World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893: Official Catalogue. Part X. Department K. Fine Arts (Chicago : W.B. Conkey, 1893), p. 15 (online via Hathi Trust). In 1894 he received first prize in the Cleveland Art Association show. (American Art Annual (Macmillan Co., 1903), Vol. 4, Part II, p. 15 [“AAA”].) The Pennsylvania Association of Fine Arts awarded him Temple gold medal at its 1895 exhibition, and the same year the Society of American Artists awarded him its Shaw prize.. (AAA.) In 1900 two paintings were shown at the Paris Salon. Roland Strong, “American Art. Pictures Shown at the Paris Salon,” New York Times, Saturday Review of Books and Art, June 2, 1900, p. BR364 (clip online via newspers.com). The same year he silver medalled in the Paris Exposition. (Gallatti 1995, p. 101.)  In 1901he received the gold medal at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and in 1902 he gold medalled at the Charleston Exposition. (AAA.) In 1904 he received a gold medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis as well as the Corcoran Prize of the Society of Washington Artists. In 1910 he received the grand prize of the International Fine Arts Exposition in Buenos Aires. And the National Academy of design awarded him its Proctor Portrait Prize in 1912. (Bryant, at 225.) In 1915 a gallery was devoted to his work at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. (Gallatti 1995, at 135.)  [Return to text.]

19“Great Collection of Paintings,” New York Times, November 5, 1895, p. 5 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

20At the end of 1897 the Art Institute of Chicago displayed 71 paintings, mostly portraits and scenes from Shinnecock at a time when Chase giving a life class at the school. [Return to text.]

21In 1903 M. Knoedler’s in New York had a one man showing of his works. In 1905 he had a solo exhibition at McClees Gallery in Philadelphia. The Herron Institute of Indianapolis organized a travelling exhibit in 1909. In 1910 the National Arts Club held a retrospective in 1910.  [Return to text.]

22Benjamin Northrop, “Great Artist’s Struggle: How Chase Painted His First Successful Pictures,” Iandianapolis News, January 14, 1899, p. 9 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

23Greta, “Art in Boston,” Art Amateur, Vol. 16, no. 2 (January 1887), p. 28 (onlline via JSTOR; open access). [Return to text.]

24“The Exhibition of the Society of American Artists,” Art Amateur, Vol. 30, no. 5 (April 1894), p. 127. [Return to text.]

Sources

Benjamin, S.G.W., “The Present Tendencies in American Art,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (March 1879), pp. 481-96 (online; subscription required).

Bolger, Doreen, In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Rizzoli, 1986).

Bryant, Keith L.,William Merritt Chase: A Genteel Bohemian (Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri Press, c1991).

Chase, William Merritt, “The Two Whistlers: Recollections of a Summer with the Great Etcher,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 80 (June 1910), pp. 219-26 (online via Hathi Trust).

Cikovsky, Jr., Nicolai, “William Merritt Chase’s Tenth Street Studio,” Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 16, no. 2 (1976), pp. 2-14.

Cox, Kenyon, “William M. Chase, Painter,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (March 1889), pp. 549-57 (online; subscription required).

Francis, Henry S., “Portraits by Whistler and Chase,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 52, no. 1 (Jan., 1965), pp. 19-23.

Frey, Elizabeth Vose, “The Renaissance of Pastel Societies,” International Association of Pastel Societies (n.p., n.d.) (PDF, open access).

Gallati, Barbara Dayer, William Merritt Chase (New York: Henry N. Abrams Inc., 1995).

Gallati, Barbara Dayer, William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890 (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with H. Abrams, c1999).

Gerdts, William H., American Impressionism (New York: Abbeville Press, c1984).

Hiesinger, Ulrich W., Impressionism in America: The Ten American Painters (Munich: Prestel, c1991).

Kent, Rockwell, It’s Me, Oh Lord: The Autobiography of Rockwell Kent (New York: Dodd, Mead, [1955]).

Larkin, Oliver W., Art and Life in America (Rev. ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964).

McSpadden, J. Walker, Famous Painters of America (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1916) (online at Archive.org).

Marling, Karal Ann, “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: Miss Dora Wheeler,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 65, no. 2 (February 1978), pp. 47-57.

Merrill, Linda (ed.), After Whistler: The Artist and his Influence on American Painting (Atlanta: High Museum of Art; Yale University Press, c2003).

Pisano, Ronald G., William Merritt Chase (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1979).

Pisano, Ronald G., Summer Afternoons: The Landscape Paintings of William Merritt Chase (Boston: Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown, c1993).

Pisano, Ronald G., The Complete Catalogue of Known and Documented Work by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) (New Haven: Yale University Press, c2006).

Roof, Katharine Metcalf, The Life and Art of William Merritt Chase (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917) (online via Archive.org).

Schaffner, Cyntia V.A. and Lori Zabar, “The Founding and Design of William Merritt Chase’s Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art and the Art Village,”  Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 44, no. 4 (December 2010), pp. 303-350.`

Speed, John Gilmer, “An Artist’s Summer Vacation,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (June 1893), pp. 3-14 (online; subscription required).

Van Rensselaer, M.G., “William Merritt Chase” [First Article], American Art Review, Vol. 2., no. 3 (January 1881), pp. 91-98 (PDF; open access via JSTOR).

Van Rensselaer, M.G., “William Merritt Chase” [Second and Concluding Part], American Art Review, Vol. 2., no. 4 (February 1881), pp. 135-42 (PDF; open access via JSTOR).

Whistler, James Abbott MacNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies ed. by Sheridan Ford (New York: Frederik Stokes & Brother, 1890) (online via Archive.org.).

The Nude among the Habsburgs in Spain

The Body as Subject in Paintings from the Prado

1. Lot and his Daughters by Francesco Furini. Oil on canvas. ca. 1634. Museo Nacional del Prado (“Prado”), Madrid. (Clicking once of the illustrations here enlarges the image and clicking again frees the image from the frame.)

This summer’s exhibition at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado (running until October 10, 2016), presents 28 paintings from the collection of the Spanish kings now in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, 24 of which are said never to have been in the United States before. The theme that organizes this event is the nude in paintings collected by Philip II (r, 1556-98) and his grandson Philip IV (r. 1621-65), whose portraits (by Titian (#2) and Velázquez (#3), respectively) greet the visitor at the entrance. Both these men were voracious collectors. Philip II inherited the art of his great-grandmother Isabella I and his father Emperor Charles V (King Charles I of Spain), but he not only enormously increased the collection but also greatly stimulated art in Spain. After the reign of his son, Charles III, who showed interest in neither governing nor art collecting, Philip IV resumed the obsession of greatly expanding the royal collection of art.  He commissioned Rubens to deliver numerous works and underwrote the purchases that Velázquez made on his behalf during tours through Europe.  Both these kings preferred Italian (especially the Venetians) and Flemish paintings, and a handful of Titian, Tintoretto and Rubens works are the heart of the Clark exhibition. Flemish cabinet landscapes with mythological figure and few other Italian and Spanish painters (including Velázquez (#3)) make up the remainder of the show.

Collecting Nudes in Royal Spain

2. Philip II by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli). Oil on canvas. 1549-50. Prado, Madrid.

2. Philip II by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli). Oil on canvas. 1549-50. Prado, Madrid.

Philip II’s father, the emperor, was a patron of Titian, from republican Venice. His son (who would achieve no imperial crown even if he had aspirations) also became a patron of Titian, who met Philip in 1548 when the latter was still a prince and touring Italy and the Netherlands to inspect the lands he would inherit. Titan painted his portrait at the time. Philip thereafter engaged him regularly until the artist’s death more than a quarter of a century later. Unlike his father, however, Philip did not confine his acquisitions to Titian’s orthodox and conventional religious subjects. In 1553 Titian offered Philip three of what he called “poetical compositions”—mythological scenes involving nudes. One of these almost surely was the famous Danaë and the Shower of Gold, one of a series on Danaë that Philip specifically requested. Similar paintings followed, including in 1562 the Rape of Europa. Philip II also purchased numerous religious paintings from Titian, as well as “historical” paintings not involving nudes (such as Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist) and commissioned portraits. He also inherited works from his father and his aunt, Mary of Hungary. Philip’s collecting was not limited to Titian, but included masterworks by Bosch, Veronese and Tintoretto. The best estimate of the collection he amassed is 1,567 paintings.1

3. Philip IV by Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas. ca. 1653–55. Prado, Madrid.

3. Philip IV by Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas. ca. 1653–55. Prado, Madrid.

Velázquez was the painter most closely associated with Philip IV. A young Velázquez on his second visit to Madrid from his native Seville, got the opportunity to paint the young king in 1623. The king was so pleased with the result that he installed Velázquez in a court position and granted him the exclusive right to paint his portraits. Velázquez spent most of the rest of his career largely concerned with portraiture. He painted so many of Philip IV that Enriqueta Harris concluded that he “probably painted more portraits of Philip than any other artist has ever painted of a single patron.”2

Philip IV became closely acquainted with Rubens in 1628 when he was acting as a diplomatic agent for Philip’s aunt, the Infanta Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, Regent of the Netherlands. Rubens had become engaged in diplomatic (and related spying) activity for the Habsburgs in efforts to establish peace between England and Spain. He impressed both courts so much that he was knighted by both Philip and Charles I. In 1628 he brought to Philip nine paintings, and during his nine months in Madrid he engaged in considerable painting, including many portraits of the King and royal family as well as several other notables. He also copied all the paintings of Titian in the royal collection. All of these paintings he he took back with him to Antwerp to use in his workshop (where copies of the royal portraits were made by Ruben and his students). Philip acquired some of the copies made by Rubens on the latter’s death. In all, Philip was so impressed with Rubens, both as an artist and a functionary, that he conferred on him and his son for their lives the office of Secretary to the Privy Council in the Brussels court. For his part Rubens found the king’s taste agreeable and he would produce a great number of paintings for Philip for the rest of his life. Philip engaged his brother, the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, who was appointed governor of the Netherlands in 1634, as his purchasing agent not only of the works of Rubens but also of other Flemish painters. In 1638 Rubens dispatched 112 pictures to Madrid including many mythological works with nudes. Other Flemish painters also supplied cabinet landscapes some of which are also found in the Clark exhibition together with a large Flemish allegory (#4) which had been sent to Philip IV before the diplomatic mission of Rubens.

4. Sight and Smell by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Frans Francken II, Hendrik van Balen, Jan Brueghel the Younger, and others. Oil on canvas. ca. 1618-23. Prado, Madrid.

4. Sight and Smell by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Frans Francken II, Hendrik van Balen, Gerard Seghers, Joost de Mompe and Jan Brueghel the Younger, and others. Oil on canvas. ca. 1620. Prado, Madrid.

Philip’s collection was increased not only by commission and purchases from living artists but also by gifts, purchases from other collections and even at auction (such as from the collection auctioned after the execution of Charles I). By Philip IV’s death the collection of paintings that had been amassed by the Spanish monarchs was immense, filling several residences, a large monastery with royal chambers attached and other buildings.  Fires, invasion, revolutions and gifts would only reduce the holdings—the normal risks of an expensive art collection. The nudes in the collection had another risk. So their most Catholic Majesties took steps to prevent the nudes from being seen by those with less catholic tastes and more Catholic piety, at the same time that they publicly conformed to the morality policed by the Church and the Inquisition. So while Philip II erected the monastery of El Escorial as a demonstration of his piety, he also built nearby a private hunting reserve, La Fresneda, where the paintings considered lascivious were kept. He also had at least another private room for paintings; Titian wrote letters to him mentioning such a room. Philip IV also had private rooms for paintings that might be considered salacious. He had a special vaults for certain Titian works at the Alcázar Palace. He also greatly expanded another hunting lodge originally commissioned by Philip II, called the Torre de la Parada and located in the mountains of El Pardo outside of Madrid. An inventory in 1700 showed that the residence held 176 paintings, mostly by .Flemish and Spanish artists. The paintings included family portraits, hunting scenes, animal paintings and religious works for the chapel. Philip IV also commissioned Rubens for a series of large mythological works. Making small sketches on panel to plan the arrangement of the series, Rubens designed fifty two paintings (including Fortuna (#5)) which were executed by Rubens alone or together with members of his workshop and other Flemish painters, the last of which was delivered in 1639.

5. Fortuna by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado.

5. Fortuna by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado.

The Williamstown show begins with Rubens’s 6 by 3-1/3 foot painting of Fortuna (#5), which the portraits of the two monarch flank. The first of these two kings never saw the painting, but it is an apt painting to apply to the reigns of both kings, who experienced the fleeting attention of fortune, although both would have been surprised to see how unfaithful a mistress Fortune could be. Philip II presided over the largest extent of the Spanish empire and with the gold and silver mined by the pueblos indígenas Spanish conquerors had subjugated amassed a luxurious court filled with, among other things, sumptuous art. That empire and the wealth it commanded would reach its tipping point when the defeat of the armada sent by Philip II to bring down Protestant England (a land he once presided over through his late wife Mary) not only checked Spain’s European ambitions but also removed the last restraint to Anglo settlement of the New World. Philip IV, who commissioned Fortuna, found himself during the Empire’s war against Protestants involving in a war with Catholic France which Spain could not win. The peace treaty handed over ascendancy in Europe from Spain to France’s Louis XIV. Fortune would rarely smile on the Spanish monarchy again.

Fortuna also illustrates another theme of the show—the paintings survived intentional destruction by censors more staunchly Catholic than the Habsburgs. Some of Rubens’s work escaped the flames twice. On the painter’s death, his wife Helena Fourment wanted to destroy the nudes. She had posed for several of Rubens’s most famous mythological paintings (as well as several more conventional, clothed, portraits) and planned to preserve her modesty by destroying the nudes. She was talked out of the decision by her confessor, Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, who seemed less interested in ministering to his penitent than saving the works for his brother Philip IV.  All of the nudes in the royal collection escaped another threat, this one from Charles III (r. 1759-88), under the influence of his confessor Joaquín de Eleta, an archbishop so fanatically reactionary that he was appointed to the Supreme Council of the Inquisition. Charles was persuaded to relent by Mengs, the neoclassical painter who was a favorite of Joaquín. His son, Charles IV (r. 1788–1808), agreed to transfer the royal nudes to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts on the condition that the paintings be kept in a sala reservada with access to this private room limited to those with prior written authorization (presumably art students or visiting dignitaries). Soon in 1792 and 1797 37 works by 15 different artists were deposited. In addition to the Titian and Rubens works, Dürer’s important Adam and Eve and others were saved from the flames and also from public view. They were briefly shown after the Napoleonic invasion, but two important Titians (a Danaë and Sleeping Venus) disappeared. It wasn’t until 1827 that the works were integrated into a collection organized by schools of art and later exhibited to the public. The works in Clark exhibition come from these one time hidden paintings.

The Nude and the Nature of Desire

Even in a day awash in pornography and the objectification of women for even trivial ends, it is surprising to see that these kings selected and secretly displayed pictures whose essential purpose is to titillate and arouse. It is not simply the hypocrisy of men who donned titles like “the pious” or “the devout” that is so unexpected. A large part of it results from the realization that in a society where political, religious and economic systems were designed to strictly enforce the most oppressive and reactionary orthodoxy (not the least of which concerned “purity” and mortification of the flesh), a society which elevated the Virgin as the paradigm for female virtue, was presided over by men who acted outside of prevailing morality.  This was at a time when the forces of reaction outside the monarchy held the upper hand. (This post tells how Philip II, for example, was unable to intervene at the behest of his friend Theresa, when the Inquisition kidnapped John of the Cross. Such was the power of fundamentalist conformity that even the absolute monarch had to defer.)

The major Titian in the exhibition, Venus with Organist and Cupid (#6) exemplifies the nature of these erotic paintings. Like Sight and Smell (#4) and Fortuna (#5), the Titian canvas is part of a popular Late-Renaissance-Baroque category, the Allegory. In the Brueghel painting the two women represent the two senses. (The painting is a companion to another in the Prado, Taste, Hearing and Touch, another painting supervised by the elder Brueghel.) “Smell” is presented with a bouquet by a Cupid, while “Sight” is shown her reflection in the mirror by another. The dog to the left represents a keen sense of smell, and the abundance of flowers is for Smell’s delight. The painting has a variety of devices, like magnifying glass, telescope and various calibers to aid Sight, and the walls are covered by an abundance of paintings, subjects for this sense. Fortuna‘s subject is the fickleness, and the far-reaching consequences, of fate. Standing on a glass globe, Fortune surrounded by a churning sea is buffeted by winds which blow the fabrics she is holding and others swirling around her. The Titian work is an allegory concerning erotic desire, but, unlike th other two works, it really has no “symbolic” meaning or message; it is purely an erotic representation for its own sake.

6. Venus with Organist and Cupid by Titian. Oil on canvas. ca. 1550-55. Prado, Madrid.

6. Venus with Organist and Cupid by Titian. Oil on canvas. ca. 1550-55. Prado, Madrid.

Aside from the nude the supposedly allegorical elements are the cupid, a deer, and the lovers to the left in the garden. On the right is a fountain with a satyr (a lustful goat-like forest creature) and a living peacock resting no the edge (because of its use of its lush ornamental display in courtship rituals?). The reclining Venus dominates the picture, and her body is turned fully toward the viewer. She is considerably larger than the organist, who twists about to leer at her genitals. Her hair is in the style of a contemporary courtesan, but unlike a courtesan, it is she who is being entertained. She dominates the color scheme of the painting as well. Her skin seems luminous and stands out against more muted colors which comprise most of the rest of the canvas. The works of both Titian and Rubens in the exhibition show remarkable treatment of the female skin, and Rubens in particular seemed to revel in the way the play of light on curves and folds created different color mixtures and tints (e.g., #5).

The Titian nude has a remarkable background. While the sofa on which Venus reclines is covered with fabrics draped in a way to suggest luxurious pleasure, the background seen through the window is a rich, formal landscape with fountain and domesticated animals and rows of harmonious, ornamental trees. The rows open up to clouds that reveal traces of a beautiful blue sky. The combination of the nude, a musician and background landscape through a window was a popular series by Titian. In fact, the Prado has another, nearly identical, except that a dog replaces the Cupid. A curious detail is that the other Prado reclining Venus has a wedding ring on her right hand. Aside from these two Titian painted three other reclining Venus with musicians: Like the two in the Prado, the one in Berlin’s Staatliche Museen has an organist. The two others (one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the other in Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge) have a lutenist as the musician. This series is the culmination of Titian paintings of reclining nudes including Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, which Titian completed by painting the background landscape, the Venus of Urbino and the Danaë and the Shower of Gold (also in the Prado). The Roman masters were not attracted to these paintings by Titian. Michelangelo saw Danaë and the Shower of Gold when Titian had a temporary studio in Rome. That painting had the advantage of depicting an established mythological story and having a color scheme that impressed Michelangelo. Nevertheless, in private Michelangelo criticized Titian’s composition for failing to adhere to classical principles of depicting the human body (involving the distances between breasts, navel and separation of legs). The same “non-classical” body proportions is seen in the painting at the Clark.

7. Lady Revealing Her Breast by Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca 1580–90. Prado, Madrid.

7. Lady Revealing Her Breast by Domenico Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca 1580–90. Prado, Madrid.

Domenico Tintoretto’s Lady Revealing Her Breast (#7) is another case of pure eroticism. The work is the portrait of a courtesan. That her head is off to the side, possibly in embarrassment, convinced some that the picture shows the woman first being introduced into her profession. Like most paintings of the younger Tintoretto, this one is characterized by subtle use of unusual colors. The pale purple background softly enhances the shade of her flesh in much the way late nineteenth century painting might attempt. Originally, the Prado attributed this work to Domenico’s father, and others believed it was painted by Jacopo’s daughter Marietta, but Domenico’s specialty was portraiture and the work lacks the energy and emotional concentration of his father’s works.

The elder Tintoretto is represented by two biblical-historical works with nudes. One is the often painted story of Susannah and the Elders (of which more below). The other is the encounter between Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife. Both of these paintings, together with four others at the Prado (Esther and AhasuerusJudith and Holofernes, The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon and Moses Rescued from the Nile), were part of a frieze decorating a dome in a Venetian palace. Velázquez purchased the paintings for Philip IV while on tour in Italy. The paintings were mounted in the dome at a 45° angle and so the paintings have an unusual perspective. Philip IV arranged the paintings in a ceiling at the Alcazar palace, arranged around a central oval painting, possibly The Purification of the Midianite Virgins. This last painting, however, seems to be later than the horizontal paintings by the elder Tintoretto and painted by another, possibly his son Domenico.

8. Joseph and Potiphar's Wife by Jacopo Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca. 1555. Prado, Madrid.

8. Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by Jacopo Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca. 1555. Prado, Madrid.

The six rectangular paintings are unlike other Tintoretto works. They are interrelated by color and pattern and appear designed primarily for decorative purposes. Five of the six paintings are about two feet tall. Three of those five (including both nudes at the Clark) are about four feet wide. The other two are 6¾ feet wide. The sixth, the painting of Judith with the body of the Assyrian general she had just decapitated, has dimensions of slightly over 6 feet by by just under 8¼ feet. This largest of the paintings thus was the central work of the paintings fixed in the frieze. Although they all portray scenes from the Old Testament, they have neither a devotional or didactic purpose. All of the paintings feature elegant costumes, opulent jewelry, stylish coiffure set against luxurious furnishings and drapery and often with background of gardens and modern buildings. The fabrics, clothing and foliage created a complex pattern with intricate design that connected the paintings around the frieze of the dome. Although all other aspects of the paintings related to modern Venice, the costumes appear Oriental and may give a clue to the dating of the paintings.3

The painting of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (#8) shows the crisis point of the story of the attempted seduction of Joseph by the wife of the Egyptian captain to whom he had been sold into slavery. The lust in this painting is not the male’s (Joseph), who is recoiling from the attempt. Rather, the (unnamed) wife, though naked and turned toward the viewer’s leering gaze, is in the midst of being rebuffed. Her face is heavily made up with black lines around her eyes. Her double chin makes her appear much older than Joseph and marks her as the predator, even though her body is rendered in a way to arouse the prurient interest of the viewer. She appears to have just thrown a robe or cloth to ensnare Joseph, but neither her body nor her overt appeal succeed. When viewed from straight on, as at the Clark, it looks like Joseph is leaning backwards. But given the angled mounting in the original dome, likely Joseph appeared upright with the captain’s wife reaching up towards him. Joseph will pay for insulting his master’s wife of course, but his innocence is demonstrated in this painting by his face, his feminine attire, posture and ornaments (including what looks like a necklace). The event takes place in the richly furnished bedroom and the characters seem swaddled in the drapery from the bed. While Tintoretto became known for his dramatic expressivity, here the moment is lost because the painting is only one of a series which highlights the ornamentation rather than the intensity of the moment. Nevertheless, despite its ornamental intent, the scene is rendered as a moment of dramatic narrative (however stylized), unlike the Titian (#6) and the one by Tintoretto’s own son (#7), whose works seem essentially about tantalizing rather than presenting a moment of drama with a delineation of character. These latter features were characteristic of both Tintoretto specifically and the Baroque in general.

9. Susannah and the Elders by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). Oil on canvas. ca. 1617. Prado, Madrid.

The apocryphal story of Susannah (a Greek addition to the Book of Daniel recognized by the Catholic, Orthodox and Syrian churches) is represented in the Clark exhibition not only by the panel by Tintoretto but also by an oil by Guercino (#9). The tale is a simple one. Two lecherous old men spy on the chaste Babylonian wife of a wealthy Israelite while she bathes in her own garden. Aroused, they confront her and threaten to testify that they witnessed her meeting a lover unless she submits to them. She refuses but unable to prove her innocence is sentenced to death. The execution is prevented by Daniel who has the men examined separately, which reveals inconsistencies, resulting in Susannah’s freedom and her accusers’ execution.

The Guercino Susannah shown at the Clark was originally purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi. This version is relatively chaste as Susannah is shown in profile and face averted. Her right arm covers much of her breasts and a cloth covers part of her right thigh. Generally among the many paintings of this scene, the choice is to show the nude Susannah directly to the viewer. That was the choice made by Tintoretto in the panel at the Clark, and in that case Tintoretto adds the titillating detail of one elder grasping Susannah’s breast. In that painting the robes of the elders and the foliage of the tree Susannah sits under provide the design details for the overall frieze pattern. (The tree is key to the inconsistencies of the elders’ testimony.) Another early painting (ca. 1555-56) on the same subject by Tintoretto, now in Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, also shows Susannah frontally, as does another by Guercino, a work in the National Gallery of Parma. The Guernico showing at the Clark is a more masterful rendering than these other three. It is formally composed with the leering elders to the left backed by the branches of the telltale tree and Susannah demurely in the right half, seated on a stone bench in front of a serene sky, her body in the pose of a classical Greek sculpture. The contrast of color makes a formal division of the painting and highlights the contrasting characters of those depicted. The chiaroscuro treatment of the men and their grotesque expressions and movements show the disturbing nature of their emotions, especially when contrasted with the innocent and calm depiction of Susannah.  One of the men points toward the viewer as though to warn us to remain silent, making the viewer complicit in their behavior. It is an odd point to be made by a painter who depends on patronage of the devout. The painting merges the emotional turbulence of the Baroque art to come with the deference to classicism of the Renaissance works of Michelangelo.

The Nude Among the Gods

9. Rape of Europa by Petter Paul Rubens (copy of †itian). Oil on canvas. ca. 1628-29. Prado, Madrid.

10. Rape of Europa by Petter Paul Rubens (copy of Titian). Oil on canvas. ca. 1628-29. Prado, Madrid.

Rubens is represented by three other large mythological paintings. One, Rape of Europa (#10), is one of the copies of Titians which Rubens made during his visit to Madrid in 1628-29. The copy is a faithful reproduction of the original (now at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston) and shows the respect Rubens had for the Venetian master. By the time Rubens made this copy he was already celebrated for his scenes of violence, mythological paintings and nudes. But the Titian is a work of intense expressivity. The story told by the painting is how Zeus, transformed into a bull, tricks the young Europa, for whom he lusts, and is now abducting her against her will. Europa’s terror of the abduction is physically palpable, as she rides precariously on his back with a foreboding sea populated by two evil looking creatures in the front (and unknown terrors below). But it is not just a representation of physical and sexual violence (although it is that indeed), because cupids fly overhead apparently benignly and one is riding one of the creatures below. In ancient Greece and Catholic Europe during the Counter-Reformation, especially Habsburg Europe and very particularly Spain, the terror of an encounter with a god is also an occasion of frightening enthusiasm (in its original, etymological sense). To be possessed by a god is beyond one’s control and if one submits, the result is ecstasy. Bernini would brilliantly express the terror of the rapture 20 some years later in his sculpture of Saint Teresa (a contemporary of Philip II). Bernini portrayed the ecstasy of the Spanish mystic, when Ruben only emphasized the devoutness of the saint (not her experiential response) in his early painting. It’s tempting to think that Rubens’s encounter with Titian with this painting added to his palette both ardent passion and emotion pressed to its human limit.

10. Rape of Hippodamia (The Lapiths and the Centaurs) by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636–38. Prado, Madrid.

11. Rape of Hippodamia (The Lapiths and the Centaurs) by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636–38. Prado, Madrid.

The Rape of Hippodamia (#11) shows another aspect of Rubens. The picture is among the last set commissioned by Ferdinand for Philip IV, intended to decorate the 25 room Torre de la Parada, Philip’s hunting lodge near Madrid. For a year and a half Rubens produced 112 oil sketches of mythological scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Rubens was suffering from gout at the time and some of the paintings were completed by painters in his school although he did finish many himself. This painting comes from Book 12 of Metamorphoses. The epic is an intricate series of stories, sometimes within other stories, all of which lead, like a river, into the next, and all describing the cause, process and result of change. The story in the Rubens painting is one of the stories within a story. It is told after the Greeks had finished their first battle upon landing to lay siege to Troy. Achilles found himself unable to kill a Trojan warrior, whose skin was impervious to spear or arrow. He was therefore forced to strangle him with his own helmet strap. After the battle, the oldest of the Greek heroes, Nestor, as he often does in the Iliad, tells the Greek lords how he knew of a more remarkable fighter in the good old days, when he was young. And he tells the story of the warrior Caeneus, who like the Greek adversary had impenetrable skin. This was part of an earlier metamorphosis granted by Neptune (detailed by Nestor). What concerns the painting took place at the wedding feast of Pirithoüs and Hippodame to which Caeneus was invited as a guest. Also invited were the centaurs, half-brothers of the bridegroom (whose father, Ixion, the king of the Lapithae, mated with a cloud in the form of Juno and fathered the half-men, half horse creatures). The most savage centaur,  Eurytus, drunk and overcome with lust, abducts the bride Hippodame, setting off a lethal brawl, which Nestor, who claimed to have attended, details at great length with the blows given in all their gruesomeness in a parody of Homer’s battle descriptions. Eurytus is killed by a wine bowl broken over his head. Caeneus comes to the aid of the bride and is protected by his skin, but the centaurs bury him under so many rocks and trees that he is sent to the underworld. On being questioned after this account, Nestor reveals that he has not told the tale quite accurately. In short, Ovid is satirizing Homer with this burlesque of a battle in the wedding hall. I think Rubens is also presenting a burlesque battle.

Beside being a diplomat and artist, Rubens was something of a classicist. Son of an Antwerp lawyer, Rubens was educated classically, learning Latin and possibly Greek, and read the classics, especially Virgil, until his early teens.4  His early “pocketbook” (a sketchbook that was largely destroyed by fire but partially reconstructed from copies and descriptions) arranged sketches of poses and emotions with appropriate quotes from Latin texts (particularly Virgil). His single-sheet annotated sketches show that he deeply contemplated classical texts (including Ovid), sometimes adding details or combining events or characters to more acutely render the underlying meaning. “Classical texts were for Rubens sources of inspiration, liberating rather than confining and restricting.”5 Surely, Rubens both consulted the text and understood the burlesque treatment Ovid gives the wedding hall battles.

The Hippodamia work is unlike his earlier battle scenes (of which Rubens was something of a master). Those scenes emphasize the contortions and agony of conflict and death. Viewed from a distance they seem a writhing mass of chaos. They seem to owe something to Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs, which Rubens made two chalk sketches of: one in the Boijmans Collection in Rotterdam and the other in Frits Lugt collection in the Institut Néerlandais, Paris. Michelangelo’s relief, though on a rectangular stone panel, is not composed as though the figures were on that single plane. Rather the characters occupy several planes, seemingly in three dimension. Rubens’s chalk sketches not only study of the bodies and their movements but also, by shadowing, the relative depths of the carvings of the high relief.

The composition of Rape of Hippodamia is quite a contrast. In fact, with the two parallel planes that the figures inhabit, it is more like a relief than a painting (just as Michelangelo’s relief is more like a painting, or sculpture, in composition). The movement is all from left to right with the Lapiths chasing the centaurs. But the chase is somewhat cartoonish, and there is something emotionally distant about the moment. The figure with the dagger on the left (Caeneus?) has both feet well off the ground, leaping far higher than seems normal in that space. The disorder of the banquet is emphasized with bowls, jars and furniture toppling over. Hippodamia herself, in the grasp of Eurytus, has a stylized expression, quite unlike the terror or agony which we would expect and which Rubens excelled at painting. And the clothing (aside from Hippodame’s which is partially ripped from her) hardly seems what wedding guests would normally be clad in.

Whether or not the intent of Rubens is what I suggest, it is clear that the painting creates a sensation of great rushing tumult partially resulting from the rhythmic placement of heads. (I simply happen to believe the tumult is over the top.) The contrast of skin colors between Hippodame and the combatants makes her the central figure. And her horizontal placement among the mostly upright men shows that she is object of the tumult. The complimentary color tones which surround her makes the painting highly decorative, and given the subject matter, appropriate for the men’s lodge for which it was intended.

12. Marriage of Peleus and Thetis by Jacob Jordaens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado, Madrid.

12. Marriage of Peleus and Thetis by Jacob Jordaens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado, Madrid.

The large painting (nearly 6 feet (h)  x nearly 9.5 feet (w)) Marriage of Thetis and Peleus (#12) by Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens was a later example of a situation (the gods coming together to feast) executed by numerous painters of the Spanish Netherlands, often several times by a single painter. The popularity of this setting arose around the turn of the seventeenth century at the height of the Mannerist movement in Northern Europe. The scene allows for bravura treatment of the human form, permitted the use of nude figures and freed the artist from the constraint of High Renaissance formalism: an assembly of Olympic gods, after all, was not the Last Supper. Jordaens himself began as a Mannerist, but by the time of this painting had fully imbibed the influence of Rubens.  The Jordaens feast is for the wedding of Thetis and Peleus arranged by Zeus. The feast would ultimately result in the Trojan War owing to the refusal to invite Discordia (Eris in Greek, the god of Discord). In pique, Discordia flies into the banquet and tosses a golden apple with the inscription “To the fairest.” Each of three goddesses immediately assume the apple belongs to her—Venus, Juno and Minerva (in their Roman names). Paris will be invited to judge the contest. When he renders judgment in favor of Venus, she (as she promised him beforehand) delivers to him Helen (wife of Greek warlord Menelaus), and the Greek fleet was soon off to retrieve her and lay waste to Troy. The marriage has another connection with the later contest: their offspring would be Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, who would himself die before the walls of Troy. (Do not concern yourself with trying to correlate the time lines of the Judgement of Paris and the birth, adolescence and eventual participation in the Trojan War by Achilles; they do not correlate well. Perhaps this is why Homer only indirectly alludes to the Judgment of Paris because the backstory is problematic.)

The painting features the three goddesses. The central nude is Venus with Cupid at her knee. Behind her is Minerva, in full battle gear. Across the table is Juno, whose hand is outstretched for the apple. Discordia flies overhead, having just dropped the apple which is visible in the middle of the table. I suppose it is Thetis and Peleus at the far right.To the right of June is Zeus, her husband, and behind him is Mercury, one of his sons. As goddess of love, Venus is is entitle to sit naked at the nuptials. The painting was used by Philip IV as part of his redecoration of the Torre de la Parada. The work is elegantly composed, competently executed, contains the requisite nude per wish of the patron and displays the requisite opulence to decorate one of the palaces a specifically redesigned palace. Yet it is neither a work of Renaissance perfection nor Baroque passion. But when a patron like Philip IV commissioned works in bulk, he probably did not expect every one to be a masterpiece.

The Nude as Decoration

13. Abundance with the Four Elements by Jan Brueghel the Elder. Oil on panel. 1615. Prado, Madrid.

13. Abundance with the Four Elements by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hendrick van Balen. Oil on panel. 1615. Prado, Madrid.

In the Flemish cabinet landscapes, represented in the exhibition by four works, the nudes are ornamental features among lush scenery. While each of the four works are interesting in their own right, my favorite is Abundance with the Four Elements (#13). This is another of the allegory class of paintings. The four elements are represented here by female nudes: earth, fire and water on in the midground with air flying above to the left. When this canvas was painted, the elder Brueghel was the most important painter in northern Europe. His fame allowed him to run a studio on something of an industrial model. The master would design the work but his students and other Flemish collaborators (including the young Rubens) would assist. In this genre the landscape was the essential design element, and the nudes were the feature desired by the clientele. This particular allegory was used over and over, both the elder Brueghel and his son painted more than one. The general pattern of landscape with nudes seems to have been immensely popular among Brueghel’s clients and it influenced many Flemish painters. Today we think of Brueghel as the painter of radical works of peasant life. But what funded the art was the studio which catered to patrons with specific tastes, and the Flemish cabinet landscapes with nudes was a popular decorative item that funded the art that lasted. Philip IV and his grandfather may have been shrewd  connoisseurs and patrons, but it is the artist, not the buyer or the broker, who changes the way we see things. And that was as true 400 years ago as it is now. And today, Brueghel’s peasant paintings are probably more indelibly imprinted in the modern mind than anything that the Habsburg collectors most treasured.

Nakedness as the Mystery of the Human Condition

Perhaps it’s an unreasonable idea that we, in our age, should expect “meaning” in our terms from artists 400 years ago. And of course Titian, Rubens and Tintoretto did not expect to be judged on the basis of a handful of nude paintings they made at the request of (or second-hand purchase) of a couple of immensely wealthy collectors. But that was the premise of the Clark exhibition, and so let us see if we can glean meaning from the selection. Notwithstanding their superiority as the front rank of the post-Renaissance painters, it is not Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens or Brueghel that suggests an underlying drama and mystery to human nakedness. It is true that they, particularly Titian and Rubens, were unmatched in creating luminous flesh, mixing pigments in such a way that the color itself is more real than all the surroundings, and indeed more “real” than actual flesh. Moreover the texture and movement of this color expresses a surface not seen since, not even by Renoir.6 These masters achieved (or nearly so) for the surface of the body what the ancient and Hellenistic Greeks achieved for its form, and they did it by a similar technique—by idealizing and slightly exaggerating certain components to trick the viewer into thinking he has seen a naturalistic representation.

But this breakthrough by these masters was used largely for ornamentation and for the kind of eroticized remake of traditional subjects that they believed the patron class demanded. It would be the lesser Baroque artists who used the nude to attempt to achieve effects beyond mere titillation. Furini’s Lot and his Daughters is perhaps the best example in this exhibition.

14. Detail of Furini's Lot and his Daughters (#1 above).

14. Detail of Furini’s Lot and his Daughters (#1 above).

Genesis 19 tells the disturbing story of the last day of Sodom. Lot, sitting at the city gate, meets two angels (מלאכים) arriving to retire for the night in the center of the city. Lot urgently prevails on them to stay at his house, but shortly, the men of the city, young and old, arrive and demand that Lot turn over the strangers so that they can rape them. Lot begs with them to desist and offers his two virgin daughters instead. They refuse and try to force entry, but the angels blind them. The next day the angels instruct Lot to gather his kin to leave the city to escape the destruction that god intends to deliver. Lot attempts to persuade his sons-in-law to accompany him, but they think he is joking. On their exit the angels tell Lot, his wife and daughters not to look back on Sodom, an injunction Lot’s wife disobeys, and she is turned into salt as a result. When Lot and his daughters reach the mountain cave which is their sanctuary the daughters realize that they will remain barren unless they seduce their own father. They twice intoxicate him so that each can couple with him, unions that will impregnate both, and allow the seed of their father to live on.

The painting is the first seduction of their father. It is profoundly unsettling. The figures are in an uncomfortable mass, standing in front of a dark bluish void, a color that dominates the composition (including Lot’s face) and contrasts with the green drapery which cover the lap of the daughter on the right. The daughter on the left, whose buttocks is covered by a diaphanous robe, holds a wine jug in her left hand. Both daughters are naked as they face their father. Most of the intimate details are shown in the section contained in figure #14. We see the hair of both daughters, each with a jeweled headband of sorts. The daughter on the left also has a red ribbon which accents her own red hair. The daughter on the left (the elder one, whose idea it was) is pulling down her father’s robe with her left hand. A tress of her hair falls on her left cheek, a detail that makes the scene even more intimate. Lot tentatively touches both daughters on the shoulder. The scene is entirely non-judgmental, as is the ancient text it is based on. And yet, it also allows the viewer to contemplate the incest taboo which makes the story noteworthy in the first place. Naked flesh is unsettling, the source of moral corruption, but also what is responsible for the race surviving.

The treatment of the figures, which does not exalt in the flesh that made Rubens famous, is nonetheless more “modern” to viewers of today. The composition is designed to convey a moment not a bravura technique nor sensuality. It is perhaps that choice that makes it more memorable than the works of Furini’s betters.

15. Hercules Defeats King Geryon by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

15. Hercules Defeats King Geryon by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

Francisco de Zurbarán, the Spanish master of chiaroscuro who mainly confined himself to religious paintings and still lifes, is represented by two works from a series of 10 paintings illustrating the labors and death of Hercules. Zubarán was not a natural to portray the demigod, and it seems that attribution to him was not certain until the mid-twentieth century when the record for payment for the works was discovered. The commission was for Zurbarán to supply 12 such paintings (later reduced to 10) to decorate the newly built Hall of Realms at another of Philip IV’s pleasure houses, Buen Retire Palace outside Madrid. The identification of the works remains somewhat clouded. The work called Hercules Defeats King Geryon (#15) in the Clark Exhibition was entitled Hercules Kills Eryx when the attribution to Zubarán was first made.7 Indeed, two things compound that confusion. First, the online Prado collection does not contain or identify the work. But more importantly, the defeated figure does not resemble Geryon or Geryones, who is consistently referred to in ancient sources as “three-bodied” and depicted in ancient iconography with three heads (and other features). Whether the slain figure represents Eryx or Geryon is probably of little importance since both are figures in the tenth labor of Hercules and both are slain by him (see Apollodorus, Library, ii.5, for the story). The painting does not rely much on the narrative of that tale, instead showing Hercules from behind standing over a corpse. We would perhaps not call this painting a “nude,” showing only the buttocks of Hercules (and, unusually the anus of the corpse, which can be seen more clearly in the painting than the reproduction here). This is true also of the other painting from this series shown at the Clark, Hercules and the Hydra (#16). (The latter however may have show frontal nudity, with a loin cloth painted later, since the stance of Hercules is quite odd, unless it was intended solely to display his genitals.)

The treatment of Hercules in this series is quite different from that of Hellenistic artists. The Hellenistic kings identified with Hercules, just as the Habsburg rulers did, but the former emphasized his youth and beauty (unabashedly showing full frontal nudity and the body in three dimensions in action). The depiction of Hercules by Zubarán, however, is not one of idealized beauty. Hercules is both stolid and largely static. His body does not show sleekly rippled muscles but rather unusual muscular architecture, with tube-like features that don’t look anything like classical depictions. Nor are the scenes done with the wit and flair of Rubens, who was much more comfortable with mythological scenes than probably any other Baroque artist.

16. Hercules and the Hydra by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

16. Hercules and the Hydra by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

But the paintings seem to serve their purpose. They were hung above the ten large windows in the very long Hall of Realms with their bottoms more than 10 feet off the ground. Between those windows and below the scenes of Hercules were battle scenes. The room (which was the ceremonial throne room of the palace) was designed to show the virtues, accomplishments and duties of the Catholic King.8 The martial aspects went back to Charles V; the allegorical representations were more recent. In addition to the other reasons why kings identified with Hercules, Philip IV’s image handlers wanted him associated with an ineluctable force that defeats Discord. The goddess Discordia (who we encountered in the Jordaens painting in her traditional setting, above, #12) was a topic on the mind of politicians, writers and artists in Habsburg Europe at least from the beginning of the 17th century.9 A few years before the commission to Zurbarán, Rubens himself had completed the dramatic ceiling of the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall in London under commission of Charles I. One of the corner ovals consisted of a painting, Hercules as Heroic Virtue Overcoming Discord, an oil planning sketch of which can be seen at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Like Zurbarán’s depiction, Hecules is excessively muscled, and Discordia, like Eryx/Geryon, is defeated in a grotesque position. Years later an elderly Calderón del la Barca tackled Discordia in a nuanced way (after Philip and his efforts against the goddess were over) in his comedia famosa entitled La estatua de Prometeo (Prometheus’s Statue) (written in 1669; first published, posthumously, in 1715), but a discussion of that treatment must await a future post. The Habsburgs, however, saw no nuance behind Discord, only Lutheranism (or other heterodoxy), rebellion or succession dipsutes. The latter two would come later. Now Philip IV was assisting the empire in defeating Discord by setting Europe on fire and waging a war that already lasted a generation and that would devastate and depopulate Germany. Zurbarán was not asked to create visually interesting work or works filled with devotional or spiritual meaning, both of which Zurbarán specialized in. He was only asked to create a mythology to justify the monarchy in its brutal and grim work, and Zurbarán complied. From the floor, where the dignitaries had audiences with the king or viewed the many productions that were staged in the room, the unrealistic musculature and postures of the figures were not apparent. Only the atmosphere, which the dark palette also contributed to, was necessary to communicated the implacable force meted out to those who defied Habsburg Order and their inevitable destruction. The final picture in the Hercules series, which showed a dying hero wearing the poisoned robe of Nessus seeking the pyre that would end his torment, showed the reward at the end of the King’s labors—apotheosis.

17. Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni. Oil on canvas. 1617-19. Prado, Madrid.

17. Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni. Oil on canvas. 1617-19. Prado, Madrid.

The final three paintings in the Clark exhibition are works that would customarily (or perhaps better, a priori) be considered as filling the role that certain nudes did in Hellenistic art: depictions of intense human suffering. We saw this in the Dying Persian in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition earlier this year (fig. #14 in that post). Other examples form the Hellenistic age include the flaying of Marsyas, such as the 2nd century B.C.E. version now at the Musee Capitole Palazzo Conservatori in Rome. The representation of Marsyas would foreshadow all later representations of the Passion of Christ. The most famous and influential Hellenistic work in this genre, however, is the Laocoön Group, now in the Vatican. This sculpture profoundly influenced Italian artists from the time it was excavated in Rome in 1506. Renaissance and Baroque painters applied the conceptual framework to four more familiar mythological figures, who were repeatedly drawn on to signify suffering: Tityos, Sisyphus, Tantalus and Ixion. (The later was the father of the centaurs in Rubens work above, #11). These (nude) figures could be painted in the throes of agony because they were condemned to Hades by the gods. Early on the Habsburgs endowed them with political meaning. Mary of Hungary commissioned Titian to paint these tormented figures as a symbol of the punishment inflicted on the German rebels by Emperor Charles V. See, for example, Titian’s treatment of Sisyphus. Of course the figures were seen as deserving to suffer, but some of the renderings were quite gruesome (even according to Habsburg taste for vengeance). See, for example, Titian’s Tityos. By politicizing the stories (and casting the Habsburgs in the role of Olympian deities), the symbols became unmoored from their ancient meanings, and in the Baroque these stories became excuses for something close to sadism. We would expect depictions of saints, on the other hand, to be handled with pathos of the Hellenistic originals (which the Hellenistic kings, unlike the Habsburgs, even accorded to their political opponents).

18. Saint Sebastian by Jusepe de Ribera. Oill on canvas. 1636. Prado, Madrid.

18. Saint Sebastian by Jusepe de Ribera. Oill on canvas. 1636. Prado, Madrid.

The three works that end the Clark show are treatments, with the usual iconography, of the first martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, done by by Guido Reni (ca. 1617-19) (#17), Jusepe de Ribera (1636) (#18) and Juan Carreño de Miranda (1656).  Sebastian, according to legend, was a captain in Emperor Diocletian’s Praetorian Guards. When it was discovered that he was a Christian, Diocletian (who was in the midst of a campaign to exterminate Christians) ordered that he be executed by being tied to a tree and having archers fill him with arrows. Although he was left for dead, Irene of Rome collected his body, nursed him back to life and healed his wounds. Sebastian, once recovered, proceeded to denounce Diocletian in person, who had him seized and clubbed to death. It is the scene of an arrow-punctured Sebastian that was routinely rendered.

Despite what we might expect, in contrast to the Baroque treatment of tormented mythological beings, none of the three renderings of the saint seem to attempt to elicit feelings of pathos or express the agony of the torture. Indeed, although each has received multiple arrow punctures, they all seem unnaturally tranquil. This is not how El Greco treated his subject, in a painting in the Prado collection. The earlier work, like all of Greco, is an intellectualized, expressionistic treatment of suffering and shows the saint yearning for release. The three in the Clark exhibition seem, by contrast, highly stylized, more a reason to show the male body than a contemplation of the suffering, or indeed the devotion, of Sebastian. A Prado curator, Pablo Pérez d’Ors, who helped organized a Masterpiece showing of Prado works in Puerto Rico in 2012, even suggested that the Ribera painting disproved criticism’s of Spanish art as reflective of inherent cruelty in Spanish culture.10 But it was only three years later that Ribera showed that he could paint a scene of a saint tortured before an uncaring audience with his Martyrdom of Saint Philip, which seems an eminently more sensible way of portraying a martyrdom, however much it also reminds one of the practices of the Inquisition in Spain.

19. Saint Sebastian by Juan Carreño. Oil on canvas. 1656. Prado, Madrid.

19. Saint Sebastian by Juan Carreño. Oil on canvas. 1656. Prado, Madrid.

If one puts aside the purported setting of the pieces and treats each work not as a depiction of a martyrdom or an object to be venerated, then they can be seen as studies of the male body in two dimensions, much as the ancients treated the male nude in three dimensions. All three show the careful study Italian artists had made of classical models for nearly a century, not only in terms of proportion but more importantly how the male torso was designed (both geometrically and in terms of muscular architecture). But the Reni (#17) and the Carreño (#19), which show the orientation of the pelvis, also display the counterpose posture (contrapposto) which was the first great classical innovation in the portrayal of the human body. Reni especially is able to give his subject’s body a rhythm that suggests discomfort and perhaps yearning to be released. (Reni’s attempt to relate his subject’s body language to his predicament in this case seems not to have been attempted in another of his paintings in the exhibition, Cleopatra, who appears to be eating figs as she exposes her breast to the viewer and the small serpent who will kill her.) Carreño’s subject has the most individualized physiognomy, perhaps based on a real person. His painting is the one with the most non-Italian influence—the sky and landscape seem to owe more to Rubens and other Flemish painters than to Roman ones. In short, all three portraits contain the key features of classic Greek and Italian Renaissance art, but Carreño also has more contemporary coloring.

Yet both classical Greece and Renaissance Italy celebrated the male nude as part of a philosophy that exalted in the belief that man was the center of all thought and the measure of all things. This was decidedly not the philosophy of Habsburg Europe. While the Habsburgs themselves, and their courtiers, were not constrained by the oppressive morality they imposed on their subjects, they required the illusion that they, like their subjects, served higher powers. So the celebration of the male body had to be packaged into a context where it clearly did not belong and which diminishes it as a work of imagination.

Final Thoughts

The nude was an integral part of Greek culture. It was not just art. Spectators watched naked athletes compete. Philosophers celebrated the beauty of the human body. In fact, gods were made in the image of man because there could be no higher beauty. Over several hundred years classical artists explored the body and created rules for representation that to this day seem to define human beauty, at least in representational art.

No Western culture since then celebrated nakedness as much as the Greeks. The Romans were shocked by the rampant nakedness of the Greeks and their art, but they recognized how the Greeks had discovered a beauty that they could only copy, not invent. For nearly a millennium Western art hid the body. (Greek respect for the body may have been exported to Buddhist lands, where it thrived while Europe rejected it.) When the Italians rediscovered the classical reverence for the body, it was part of  the general acceptance by Italian intellectuals of most of the “new” ideas they were learning form the ancients. The Spanish Monarchy never fully accepted the humanism of the ancients and certainly not the concept that a human, qua human, was the highest good.

On the basis of this (admittedly small) sample, it appears that Philip II and Philip IV understood that the nude provided a delight to those who could afford them. Women of course provided carnal delight, so they could populate expressly erotic works and populate “poetical” compositions in which they played figures subject to or fleeing from sexual assault. In any event, the female nude was mainly an object of lust or given over to it.

The male nude was not an object of lust so he is seen only in exceptional circumstances. Oddly those circumstances were either to delight in physical torment (something near bloodlust) or to display religious devotion. By far the most frequent male nude in the royal collections was the Savior. Next his most devoted followers, suffering torments for their devotion.

It is difficult to leave this exhibition without meditating more on the collectors than the artists. This is in part due to the fact that the artists the Spanish kings patronized (with few exceptions) worked in narrow, often trod, paths acceptable to their clients. The power of the artistic imagination, his ability to shock, the primacy of his vision, concepts that existed earlier and later than this period, were unknown. But the impression is mainly due to the particular subject of the exhibition, which only was a small part of the collecting activities of these two kings. If the exhibition were of royal family portraits, scenes of the life of Christ or other biblical narratives, ancient persons, historical works, still lifes, etc., all of which are much more amply represented in their collections, the viewers’ rumination would be on the works and not the society that consumed them. But the curators chose to examine the nude in the collection of rulers who enforced a highly conservative and religiously dominated social order.  That fact cannot be separated from the works themselves, even if some would be considered masterworks in other contexts.

Notes

1Sanchez Canton, F.J., The Prado trans. by James Cleugh (New York: Harry M. Abrams, Inc., c1959), p. 21. [Return to text.]

2Harris, Enriqueta, The Prado: Treasure House of the Spanish Royal Collections (London, New York: The Studio publication, [1940]), p. 29. [Return to text.]

3Based on stylistic evidence Renaissance art historian Mary Pittaluga (Il Tintoretto (Bologna, N. Zanichelli [1925]) assigned the panels to ca. 1655, while Rodolfo Pallucchini (La Giovinezza del Tintoretto (Milano: D. Guarnati, [1950]) thought they were painted ca. 1544. They attributed the costumes to the influence of the Mannerist painting of Parmigianino. Stella Mary Pearce has argued, however, based on a fashion book published in 1590 that the costumes reflect the dress of peoples from Rhodes and Persia, who were not uncommon in Venice, given its status as a maritime trading center. She concludes that the paintings were painted around 1588 but certainly within the last 10 years of Tintoretto’s life (1584-94). For a discussion, see Stella Mary Pearce, “Dating on the Evidence of Costume and Hairdressing” in Newton, Eric, Tintoretto (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1952), pp. 228-31. [Return to text.]

4Jaffé, David and Elizabeth McGrath, Rubens: A Master in the Making (London: National Gallery Co., 2006) (“Jaffé & McGrath”), p. 11. [Return to text.]

5McGrath, Elizabeth, “Words and Thoughts in Ruben’s Early Drawings” in Jaffé & McGrath pp.29-37, at 35. [Return to text.]

6You can evaluate this assertion yourself at the Clark, which has more than 30 Renoirs on permanent display, including an early and late self portrait. [Return to text.]

7Caturla, Maria Luisa, “Zurbaran at the ‘Hall of Realms’ at Buen Retiro,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 89, no. 527 (February 1947), pp. 42-45. [Return to text.]

8For a reconstruction of the Hall of Realms as it existed when redesigned for Philip IV, see Brown, Jonathan and J.H. Elliott, A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV (New Haven [Connecticut]: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 141-92. A drawing of the placement of the paintings on the long walls is found at p. 144-45. A discussion of “Hercules Hispanicus,” the authors’ construct for how the monarchy in 17th century Spain viewed Hercules, is found at pp. 156-61. [Return to text.]

9See, e.g., DiPuccio, Denise M., Communicating Myths of the Golden Age Comedia (Lewisburg [Pennsylvania]: Bucknell University Press, 1998), pp. 175-76. [Return to text.]

10See the description of Ribera’s Saint Sebastian in the Museo de Arte de Ponce’s catalogue, Hartup, Cheryl and Pablo Pérez d’Ors (eds.), Del Greco a Goya: Obras Maestras del Museo del Prado ([n.p.:] Museo de Arte de Ponce, [2012]), p. 116 (English version) (PDF file). The defense of Spanish culture is odd for two reasons. First, Ribera’s treatment owes more to the influences of Italy (where he studied and was then livving) than his original Spanish roots. And second, a single painting is hardly evidence to contradiction the religio-political institutionalized intolerance, repression and cruelty evidenced by such things as the 1492 Alhambra Decree, Spanish treatment of native Americans, the Inquisition, the auto-da-fé, the Habsburg war policy during the Thirty Years War and such bizarre symptoms as the Hermanos Penitentes. This religious-tinged dalliance with reacton was not eliminated with the Habsburgs but remained only slightly below the surface of Spanish society until the explosion of the 20th century. [Return to text.]

American Illustration as Art

The Best of the Illustrations
in the Collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art

1. Emily supplemented her husband's meager income by getting herself modeling jobs by Austin Briggs. Oil on board. 1948. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut. Illustration to Nancy Rutledge, "Murder for Millions," Saturday Evening Post (November 20, 1848), p. 17.

1. Emily supplemented her husband’s meager income by getting herself modeling jobs by Austin Briggs. Oil on board. 1948. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut “NBMAA”). Illustration to Nancy Rutledge, “Murder for Millions,” Saturday Evening Post (November 20, 1948), p. 17.

The New Britain Museum of American Art, the first museum dedicated exclusively to American art and owner of a significant and comprehensive collection from early New England through post-contemporary, also was the first museum to begin collecting (in 1964) the work of American illustrators. Taking advantage of the large number of magazine, book and advertising illustrators who lived in Westport, Connecticut and the surrounding areas  accessible by train to New York City and using the expertise of a committee of prominent illustrators and art teachers, which has since met semi-annually to formulate the museum’s acquisition policies, the museum has amassed (mainly through gifts) a collection of over 1,800 works from the mid-nineteenth century onward, possibly the largest and most significant collection of American illustrations in existence. Last month the museum opened a “best of” exhibition, Masterpieces of The Sanford B.D. Low 
Illustration Collection which runs through October 2, 2016. The event gives us a chance to see some of the best examples of American illustration over the course of its history and also to see how we can react to examples of illustration art standing on their own.

2. Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Wood engraving by Edward LaGarde. Print at NBMAA. Illustration for Harper’s Weekly, September 20, 1873, pp. 824-25.

Just to start with a working definition (there is no agreed on one) illustration as used here means visual works intended for reproduction (usually in large numbers) and specifically conceived to comment on, explain or attract attention to a text or group of texts. This highlights the two features that differentiate illustration from other art forms. First, illustrators must concern themselves with the technology of reproduction. (This consideration was more important when means of reproduction were less sophisticated than today but it still prevails.) Second, the illustrator must take into consideration the demands of the author (usually) and the publisher (almost always). This second consideration makes illustration more “commercial” than, say, fine arts painting. A painter who disregards the market will simply not make money; an illustrator who does the same does not get work. With regard to advertisement illustrations the second consideratin is paramount, but the New Britain show only has one example of an illustration intended for advertisement, and that is a 1920s study by Joseph Christian Layendecker for a male clothing line by the House of Kuppenheimer, and is mainly an example of how illustrators mock up their pictures.

3. Two versions of Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. Both were painted in 1872. The top painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the bottom work is owned by the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (Neither of these canvases is part of the New Britain exhibition.)

3. Two versions of Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. Both were painted in 1872. The top painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the bottom work is owned by the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (Neither of these canvases is part of the New Britain exhibition.)

Illustration, unlike other forms of the visual arts, is tied to a text. Stand-alone art (for lack of a better descriptor) can tell a story or a scene, even one contained in a specific text. But illustrations are intended to be subordinate to the text and indeed produced with it. Moreover, the object that the artist produces is usually not what the consumer sees; the artist usually makes a master in some medium and then it is mechanically or photographically reproduced (usually by someone else) for printing together with the text. The “originals” from which the illustrations are produced until recently were not valued by their publishers (which generally owned them) and were often stored under suboptimal conditions. The New Britain Museum (under director, painter and illustrator Sanford B.D. Low) saw the opportunity to acquire work while simultaneously raising awareness and appreciation of illustrations. Many publishers saw this as a way to relieve themselves of storage problems. Prominent illustrators, grateful of the museum’s effort, assisted in selecting and recommending works and donated pieces from their own collections. We’ll return to how the “market” influenced American illustration outside of advertising illustrations.

The Beginning of American Illustration

4. Scene by Felix O.C. Darley. Wood cut. 1948. From Illustrations of Rip Van Winkle Designed and Etched By Felix O C Darley for the Members of the American Art-Union (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Company and George P. Putnam, 1848).

4. Scene by Felix O.C. Darley. Wood cut. 1948. From Illustrations of Rip Van Winkle Designed and Etched By Felix O C Darley for the Members of the American Art-Union (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Company and George P. Putnam, 1848).

At first American illustration was done exclusively by woodcuts.1 By this process an artist would draw lines on a wood block, and either he or (more usually) an engraver would cut away the area between the lines leaving only the raised lines to apply ink. Needless to say this was a tedious process and required the skills both in drawing and carving. Competence in these skills did not appear in America until the mid-nineteenth century, when illustrators began providing visual journalism as well as editorial comment in the form of caricatures and cartoons. Winslow Homer, for example, began his art career as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. That magazine also contained the political cartoons of Thomas Nash (three of his anti-Lincoln caricatures are at the bottom of this post). Homer covered the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, and his drawing printed in Harper’s Weekly became the visual record of the event seen by the vast majority, even though there was a photograph of the event. (Both Homer’s print and the photograph are shown in this post.) When the war commenced Homer became a visual journalist by means of his drawings. In fact, as he moved towards oils, he occasionally painted versions of drawings he made for the magazine. (See, for example, the Sharpshooter that was printed in the November 15, 1862 issue and only later turned into the painting shown in this post.) When Homer turned to painting full time, he often had his pictures engraved by others for printing. The sensibilities and compositional techniques he acquired as a magazine illustrator seemed to inform his early paintings. His work Snap the Whip, which he painted in two versions (#3) and had engraved for Harper’s Weekly (#4), is an example. Sensing a national mood (at least in the North which wished to put behind the violence and destruction of the war) yearning for peaceful domestic scenes, ones emphasizing cooperation and nostalgic depictions of the serene joy of childhood, Homer created Snap the Whip, which captured all three of these sentiments.

5. Two woodcut illustrations from 1870. Top: Illustration to "The Cave of Bellmar" by F.F. Cavada, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1870, p. 826. Bottom: Illustration to "Jeremy Train--His Drive" by An Old Fellow, Scribner's Monthly, November 1870, p. 4. (Neither item in NBMAA show.)

5. Two woodcut illustrations from 1870. Top: Illustration to “The Cave of Bellmar” by F.F. Cavada, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1870, p. 826. Bottom: Illustration to “Jeremy Train—His Drive” by An Old Fellow, Scribner’s Monthly, November 1870, p. 4. (Neither item in NBMAA show.)

Well conceived, technically competent illustrations had began appearing in American books in the 1840s. Before then, according to nineteenth century art critic Frank L. White (p. 33), the few decorations and “vignettes” in books “were, as a rule, wretchedly drawn and engraved.” It was in the mid-1840s that 21 year old Felix O.C. Darley first showed illustrations which were warmly received. In 1847 he presented to the New York Art Union his outline drawings for “Rip Van Winkle” (see #4). The performance would launch his career as an illustrator and also significantly influence the course of the field by showing the possibility for wood engraving and by elevating the standards that the public would expect. He would go on to illustrate other Irving works (including, famously, Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New-York), Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, the works of Cooper, Dickens, Longfellow, among other books. The iconography that Darley is best known for today is his visualization of Santa Claus from his illustrations of A Visit from Saint Nicholas (New York: J. G. Gregory, c1862), a work that would prove wildly popular. Illustrated books published in America were few and far between, however, because production was expensive and also American booksellers believed that American consumers preferred illustrated books from abroad, where there was a longer history. As one sellers said: “what smells of English ink sells best to American tastes” (“American Proficiency,” p. 155).

Illustrations for periodicals began in the 1850s, and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine had competent illustrations from the beginning. Its first issue (June 1850) not only contained illustrations of pieces on three contemporary intellectuals (Archibald Alison, Thomas Babington Macaulay and William H. Prescott), it also had an illustrated section on women’s fashions, something that would be repeated in following issues and would eventually lead to America’s first fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazar, a weekly first published on November 2, 1867 (without the later affectation of spelling its title “Bazaar”). The Harper brothers also launched a weekly political journal, Harper’s Weekly, the first issue of which (January 3, 1857) illustrated a first person story of a police officer’s cross-country search to arrest a bank forger. The Harper brothers had also published an extensively illustrated biography of Napoleon in 1855 with illustrations by Carl Emil Doepler, whose cartoons ran several times in the mid-1850s in Harper’s Monthly.

6. New-York—Bird's Eye View from Union Square." Woodcut. Illustration for "New-York Daguerreotped," Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 1853), between pp. 122-123. (not in NBMAA show.)

6. New-York–Bird’s Eye View from Union Square Woodcut. Illustration for “New-York Daguerreotped,” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 1853), between pp. 122-123. (Not in NBMAA show.)

George Palmer Putnam competed with the Harpers’ firm for America’s best engravers. Although Harpers had been publishing books longer, it was the Putnam firm that published Darley’s Rip Van Winkle drawings and in the 1850s bought five other works of Irving illustrations by Darley and employed America’s best engravers on them, including Henry W. Herrick, J.W. Orr (and his firm), J.S. Harley, J.H. Richardson and others. Putnam began its own periodical two and a half years after the Harpers began theirs, but by the second issue (February 1853) it was illustrating Putnam’s Magazine with a series intending to show the architecture and cityscapes of major American cities beginning with New York (see #6). Putnam’s Monthly suspended publication in 1858 but resumed in 1868. Until the Gilded Age, the Harper brothers and Putnam published the only national general interest magazines that promoted illustrations.2

7. Group of Gods from the East Frieze of the Parthenon. Illustration to Lucy M. Mitchell, "The Phidian Age of Sculpture," The Century Vol. 23, No. 4 (February 1882), pp. 542-59 at 554. (This low resolution scan of the image does not do justice to the quality of the image.)

7. Group of Gods from the East Frieze of the Parthenon. Illustration to Lucy M. Mitchell, “The Phidian Age of Sculpture,” The Century Vol. 23, No. 4 (February 1882), pp. 542-59 at 554. (Not in the NBMAA show.)

The 1870s saw the beginnings of a number of national journals which attempted to capitalize on the greater wealth and leisure time of the upper middle class.3 The periodicals aimed at a decidedly more middle brow taste and while they tried to attract subscribers with illustrations, the new ventures could not compete with Harpers’ publications or Putnam’s book business for competent illustrators or engravers. Perhaps the new journals did not pay enough or established illustrators and engravers were under contract to other firms. Whatever the reason, the quality of illustrations in the new magazines were markedly inferior. (Compare the illustration from Scribner’s Monthly‘s inaugural issue with one from Harper’s Montly of the same month, #5). The situation improved as technological innovations in engraving (graphotype, zincography, etc.) leading to the photoengraving process made possible more detailed reproductions. The Century, for example, was able in 1881-82 to publish a series of essays on ancient sculpture (Central American, Mesopotamian, archaic and classical Greek) with good illustrations of the works discussed (e.g., #7). The introduction of the halftone reproduction technique allowed for the simulation of a smooth gradient of tints (by using dots instead of lines), which became commonplace in magazines in the 1890s, when the first flowering of American illustration took place. Later, using four halftone plates (one for black, the other three for the primary colors), which applied ink successively, color illustrations became possible.

The “Golden Age” of American Illustration: 1890-1920.

8. Hosea and the Parson by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. 1904. New Britain Museum of American Art. Illustration for the story “The Biglow Papers” in The Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell Vol. 11 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Riverside Press, 1904).

Howard Pyle was the first to take advantage of the possibilities that the new technologies offered. Pyle used a variety of styles from pen and ink to oil on canvas (as in #8). But what made him in demand was his ability to distill down a narrative scene to a visually interesting essence, true to the story and at the same time adding scenic and psychological details that enhance it. The muted tones of Hosea and the Parson, surprisingly, are not off-putting, but rather they invite the viewer into the scene. On the museum wall, one among many works hanging at the same height, it was the one I gravitated toward. It is clear from the rendering that the visitor (Hosea) is acting deferentially to the Parson, who is reviewing documents of some importance to Hosea. The latter waits expectantly, erect, not sitting back in his chair, and holding his hat somewhat awkwardly. The composition creates the sense of tension but to understand the relation of the characters and the meaning of the scene, one must go to the text.

9. “… Tom heard the sound of another blow, and then a groan …” by Howard Pyle. Ink on paper. ca. 1891. NBMAA. Illustration for Howard Pyle, “Tom Chist and the Treasure Box,” Harper’s Round Table, March 24, 1896. Reprinted in the anthology Merle Johnson (comp.), Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (New York: Harper Brothers, 1821), p. 111.

Pyle’s sense for the essence of a drama came from a life-long interest in the theater, which began as a child. Pyle also wrote his own adventure stories and had a specialty illustrating stories for boys. As an author and an illustrator Pyle so absorbed the elements of the story that it seems he not only is watching first hand but is seeing it with the eyes of his audience. The line drawing for “Tom Chist and the Treasure Box” where Tom secretly watches a murder take place (in the illustration, #9, he hides behind a sand dune) has a fully composed construction with the four characters arranged in an undulating line (from front to back) which mirrors the undulating beach line and the tops of the dunes (as well as the blood from the chest of the dead man). And the scene captures the breathless, adolescent sense of seeing a murder, almost antiseptic except for the thrill (one wonders if the fact the victim was black contributed to this sense at the time). The scene expresses exactly what the prose (written by Pyle himself for an adolescent boys’ magazine) delivers.4

9. Abraham Lincoln's Last Day by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. ca. 1907. Present location unknown. (Not part of NBMAA show.)

9. Abraham Lincoln’s Last Day by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. ca. 1907. Present location unknown. Illustration to William H. Crook, “The Last Day of Abraham Lincoln,” Harper’s Monthly, September 1907, p. 496 (Not part of NBMAA show.)

Pyle’s pirate illustrations demonstrate another of Pyle’s characteristics—his authenticity. Pyle believed that historical accuracy was essential to the visual sense of immediacy and therefore spent considerable time and effort researching the costumes (down to the buttons), equipment and behavior of historical pirates. As a result his portrayals (especially the monochrome and full color paintings of his Book of Pirates) became the emblematic version of pirates in the public mind. Likewise, his interest in American history and Americana generally was deeply researched in order to portray authenticity in the service of the dramatic moment. His illustrations of the American Revolution and Civil War are found in a number of books, including Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1902) and History of the United States by James Truslow Adams (New York: Scribner’s, 1933).

Perhaps more important than his example (and popularity) to the course of Aermican illustration was his role as teacher and mentor. Unlike other artists who became illustrators in the early years, Pyle did not go to Europe for his education (he studied in Philadelphia and then the Art Students League in New York City), and after his success, he aimed to establish American instruction opportunities for would-be American illustrators. In 1894 he joined the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia to teach the first course for illustrators in America. He lectured at the Art Students League and eventually set up master classes in his home town of Wilmington, Delaware and in the summers at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. He built studios at his own expense, did not charge for his instruction and used his own contacts to introduce his gifted students to publishers. A generation of illustrators learned from Pyle.

10. This Maid of Forty Years Ago by Anna Whelan Betts. Oil on canvas. ca 1903. NBMAA. Illustration for poem "The Maiden with the Valentine" by Katharine Young Glen in The Century Illustrated Monthly (February 1903), p. 592.

10. This Maid of Forty Years Ago by Anna Whelan Betts. Oil on canvas. ca 1903. NBMAA. Illustration for poem “The Maiden with the Valentine” by Katharine Young Glen in The Century Illustrated Monthly (February 1903), p. 592.

Anna Whelan Betts was a student of Pyle’s, one who took to heart his concern with period accuracy and one whom Pyle promoted. The illustration for the poem “The Maiden with the Valentine” (#10) shows everything she learned from Pyle. The picture captures a moment of quiet drama (which brought, in the words of the poem, “the dream-light to her face”). There is meticulous attention to costume and surroundings (the poem lists “the paneled-wall / The picture and the silhouette, / The whispering roses and the shawl”). Every part of the canvas is used to tell the story, including the bottom where we see the envelope, suggesting it was dropped by the maiden in her excitement to read the valentine. The color palette is only white, black and red, and the red is used sparingly to highlight her lips, the letter, the seal on the envelop and the trimming of her hooped skirt. Unfortunately, the print as seen in the magazine (which is hosted by Hathi Trust; scrolling to the next page shows the full poem) is only monochrome so the red cannot be seen by the readers. The illustration of Betts for upscale magazines (and Century had become the most important of illustrated magazines, seeking out the best illustrators and engravers and experimenting with reproduction techniques) generally documented the lives of well-to-do ladies in elegant dresses and sumptuous surroundings for magazines like Ladies Home JournalMcClure’s and Collier’s. But she was not entirely pigeon-holed. Together with Pyle and others of his students, she was chosen to illustrate the twenty-two volumes of The Complete Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1900). (She illustrated Twice Told Tales.)

11. “One More Step, Mr. Hands, ” said I, “and I’ll Blow Your Brains Out.” by N.C. Wyeth. Oil on canvas. 1911. NBMAA. Book (and jacket) illustration for Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (New York: Scribner’s Classics, 1911).

The New Britain exhibition contains works of other students of Pyle, but none were more important than N.C. Wyeth. Wyeth’s illustrations for Scribner’s reprint of Treasure Island clearly bear the influence of Pyle. The jacket illustration (#11), which is the one owned by the New Britain Museum (most of the rest are owned by the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania) captures a moment of high tension as the mutineer and the captain face down each other. The point of view, from the level of the mutineer looking up to the captain higher up in the rigging heightens the drama. As in both the first Pyle and the Betts paintings above, the entire canvas is filled with information to describe the scene. But the staging is the most important. He completely absorbed Pyle’s sense of dramatic timing which Pyle once explained: “The moment of violent action is not so good a point to be chosen as the preceding or following instant.” (Quoted in Barr, p. 176.) And Wyeth also embraced Pyle’s themes and subject matter; he would paint pirates and Americana (and knights, another favorite of Pyle’s) throughout his career. Wyeth was so devoted to Pyle that he used the payment from his Treasure Island series to purchase a place in Chadds Ford on the Bradywine River, from which the style created by Pyle and his students would take its name, the Brandywine School of American Illustration, a style that would long influence mainstream American illustration.

12. The lady of his heart was his partner in the dance by Arthur Ignatius Keller. Ink, watercolor and graphite on paper. ca. 1906. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut. Illustration for Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1906), p. 63.

Arthur Ignatius Keller represented a contemporary style outside the Brandywine School. Son of an engraver, he was steeped in the tradition that emphasized the line, yet he developed into a skilled painter in demand by both the illustrated magazines but also by book publishers. The 1906 publication of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was one of several books he illustrated of the works of Irving, Longfellow, Doyle, Lowell, Harte and others. The drawing of Icabod Crane dancing (#12) focuses on a moment in the story when the odd, awkward and delusional school teacher achieves his goal—dancing with the girl of his dreams, Katrina van Tassel. Icabod Crane is not only out of his league as a matter of social class, but also his self-conception is completely at odds with what people around him see. Keller shows Crane dancing in a totally inappropriate way but lost in his self-absorption; Crane is completely unaware. The beautiful daughter of the local patroon is bemused but not unkind, yet clearly she does not see herself matched with the story’s hero. All of this is captured by the composition, mostly by means of the by-then old fashioned method of line drawing as a template for the engraver. But the scene has a more modern touch with the spotlighted couple as one of a roomful of couples each engrossed in their own stories and concerns.

Keller’s ability to home in on the emotional center of a scene can be seen in another work in the exhibition, a charcoal drawing which was one of a dozen illustrations for a serialized novel publsihed by Century in 1909-10. The picutre shows a man watching his wife sleep, while contemplating the state of their marriage, as she has been separating from him and their infant in order to meet the demands of her writing career. All aspects of the composition, including the grey charcoal gulf between the two figures, contribute to the sense of separation which registers on teh husband’s concerned face.

Among the others from the “golden age” included in the show are James Montgomery Flagg, Harvey Thomas Dunn, Mary Hollock Foote,  Frederick Remington, Louis Loeb, Arthur William Brown, Walter Appleton Clark and Maxfield Parrish.

The Mainstreaming of American Illustraiton: 1920-1945.

After the War, continued technological progress made color illustrations easier and cheaper, and illustrated magazines grew their audiences. But the primacy of the illustrator declined in two ways. First, before the rise of movies the illustrator provided the only visual medium for the masses and often achieved a celebrity status in his own right, sometimes greater than the author whose work he ws illustrating. That status declined with the rise of film and with the appearance of the new art editors who no longer deferred to illustrators in matters of composition (see Arthur William Brown’s take in Reed, p. 43).  The post-war era saw the rise of another major influence on American illustration, this one also reduced the independence  and individuality of the artist—advertising. Norman Rockwell, no less, testified to the pernicious effect of the large budget advertising agencies: “Its influence was a mixed blessing. To many illustrators, including myself, I feel that it was a corrupting one. The temptation of their big budgets took away the kind of integrity that earlier artists like Howard Pyle brought to their work.” Rockwell, however, thought that advertising agencies provided a “school” for young illustrators. Of course a school whose mission was to create illustrators who could sell products is not quite the same as the Art Students League.

12. Clancy made her way south across Washington Square by Dean Cornwell. Oil on canvas. 1920. NBMAA. Illustration for Arthur Somers Roche, “Find the Woman: A Novel of Youth and Mystery,” Cosmopolitan (December 1920), pp. 58-59.

The economic influences did not make themselves felt at first. In fact, Howard Pyle’s influence was still predominant in the 1920, even though he had died in 1911. Dean Cornwell, who was president of the Society of Illustrators from 1922 to 1926 and teacher at Pratt Instituted and then the Art Students League, absorbed the Pyle tradition from his own teacher, Harvey Dunn, a student of Pyle’s. Cornwell’s work was more modern, not just in moving away from adventure stories and Americana, but also in his more sophisticate color palette, a more subtle compositional sense and his attention to atmospheric perspective. His 1920 illustrations for Cosmopolitan (e.g., #12) strikes one as more painterly than the work of Pyle and Wyeth, more concerned with visual rather than narrative impact. Rockwell considered Cornwell’s addition to the tradition a “monumental style almost rococco in manner” (Reed, p. 82), but there is no unnecessary decoration or complicated design (perhaps Rockwell meant baroque). In fact, Cornwell’s work seems to me to be firmly rooted in American romanticism with occasional techniques borrowed from American Impressionism and Tonalism. After his success as an illustrator, Cornwell would study mural painting in England and go on the paint murals for the Los Angeles Public Library, the Lincoln Memorial in Redlands, California, the Tennessee State Office Building, the Warwick Hotel and Rockefeller Center in New York City.

13. Of the two, it was he who clung, she who sustained by Walter Biggs. Watercolor and gouache on illustration board. 1932. NBMAA. Illustration for DuBose Heyward, "Peter Ashley," Woman's Home Companion (December 1932), p. 26.

13. Of the two, it was he who clung, she who sustained by Walter Biggs. Watercolor and gouache on illustration board. 1932. NBMAA. Illustration for DuBose Heyward, “Peter Ashley,” Woman’s Home Companion (December 1932), p. 26.

Two pictures from the exhibition showed that the 1920 and 30s were not entirely devoid of individual approaches. An ink and gouache drawing by John Held, Jr.  is one of his Arch and Magy cartoons depicting the exuberance of the Jazz Age. It is mostly outline drawngs with occasional solid fills of alternating foreground and background objects. An ink and wash painting by Henry Beckhoff, The Hillbillies (1934) for Collier’s, portrays the confrontation between backwoods farmers, fearful that their moonshining operation had been discovered, and a professor who was attempting to assist the government to bring them a more secure water source and better land. The elongated forms and the exaggerated expressions emphasize the humor in the situation.

In the 1920s and 30s American illustration in general, and illustration for the popular magazines in particular, gravitated to the then staple of popular culture (especially in magazines aimed at women), the melodramatic romance story. The illustration of Walter Biggs (#13) in the exhibition is a typical early example, Biggs was a successful illustrator but seemed more interested in his fine arts career for which he was elected to the National Academy of Design but obtained no lasting fame. As an illustrator Biggs often painted scenes of Southern romantic myth (the unreality of which is revealed by Ernest Watson’s statement (p. 37), evidently delivered without irony,  that “[n]o one, of course, can portray the colored folk with greater understanding.” Perhaps because his version of the Southern myth involved chivalry and ardent courtships, he was in great demand at Woman’s Home Companion (whose stories often told of strong-minded women and their passionate suitors). In any event, he sold almost all his illustrations to that magazine, and he always painted from models, never from photographs (Watson, p. 37).

14. [Love Scene] by Pruett Alexander Carter. Oil on canvas. ca. early 1940s. NBMAA. Unknown purpose.

By the 1940s more and more illustrators were being influenced by not only still photographs but also, and more importantly, motion pictures, which would become the the essential medium of popular culture.5 Carter’s unnamed love scene (#14) is composed much like what might be called a low angle two shot in movies. Carter’s first break was in New York where he illustrated Hearst papers. He returned to Los Angeles, where he was raised, around 1930 when he was nearly 40, although his chief occupation was still to provide illustrations for family and women’s magazines based on the East. The influence of Hollywood movies can be observed not only in the point of view but also in the lighting (which is #14 is vaguely from below the characters) and dramatic poses. Over time, however, his pictures became more more simplified, flat and often superficial, a characteristic he blamed on the inferior paper used by magazines in the 1940s (Hoppin, p. 41).

The influence of movies was felt in another way as well—the scenes were less “innocent” and less concerned with the well-to-do. Of course this had to do with the nature of stories that were selected for illustration, but the effect on illustration is noticeable. By 1942, however, the war would dominate all forms of popular culture.

15. The worst part was telling her father. "Who is the Man?" he asked. "I don't know," Lily said. by Ray Prohaska. Ink and oil on canvas. 1942. NBMAA. Illustration for Viña Delmar, "Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.," Good Housekeeping (April 1942), pp. 32-33.

15. The worst part was telling her father. “Who is the Man?” he asked. “I don’t know,” Lily said. by Ray Prohaska. Ink and oil on canvas. 1942. NBMAA. Illustration for Viña Delmar, “Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.,” Good Housekeeping (April 1942), pp. 32-33.

The Prohaska illustration above (#15) is from a story written by novelist Viña Delmar, a writer who specialized in shocking or scandalous stories of women, one of which Bad Girl (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, c1928), became an immense best-seller and opened a career as a screenwriter in Hollywood for her. The story “Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.” begins with her heroine’s reflection on her own son, conceived out of wedlock during the last war by a soldier she met on Coney Island, a man she never saw again once he was mobilized. Her son is now a soldier in this second world war, and the story proceeds through her reflections and teaches her (and the readers) that the country, U.S.A., is in fact the father and husband of all women. Prohaska’s illustration is of the moment she tells her father of her pregnancy. He is tracing the troop movements on a map on the table, when she tells him she does not know who the father is. In the story there follows tense moments of silence. The scene, in which the father and daughter are separated by a table  on which the affairs of the world are traced, matters of little concern to Lily then, is explained with dialog selected to grab the reader’s attention and is spread across two pages at the beginning of the story.

16. One of the photos taken by Prohaska to use as a basis for painting #15. (Watson, p. 234.)

Prohaska had developed many of the skills used in movie-making to make such illustrations. He himself was adept at costume design (especially for women) and even could style hair. In this case he purchased vintage furniture dated in the 1910s from second hand stores and personally arranged the woman model’s hair. He staged the scene in a theatrical manner and then took 30 to 40 photos with his Contax or Rolleiflex cameras. Using the photographs he outlined his composition in ink, then laid in the light and dark areas with white and brown tempura, then painted the rest in transparent glazes and impasto colors. The technique was designed to give as the illustration as close to a cinematic feel as possible. It was precisely the opposite intention of a Golden Age illustrator like Walter Biggs who shunned photographs and insisted that only by painting from models could an illustrator fully translate his own art to the canvas. The economic and competitive pressures, as well as the branding of magazines, however, would put ever more pressure on the illustrator to see his job as part of an enterprise rather than an individualistic artistic endeavor.

One work on display at the New Britain exhibition, Smitty’s Diner by Warren W. Baumgartner (1943) struck me as to how interrelated cinema had become to all arts in America by the 1940s. In Baumgartner’s watercolor two men are seated at a diner counter, while the cook operating the grill is turned listening to one of the men. The painting evoked in me memories of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, painted the year before. Although the mood is different and the characters are not seen from the outside of the diner, the subject matter and the manner of illustrating them seems to owe a debt to Hopper, especially because it seems to give off a hardboiled feel to it. What makes this an interesting example of the intersection of cinema with American arts is that Hopper’s oil was based on Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” which itself was turned into a movie directed by Robert Siodmak, which in turn relied on the sensibilities of the Hopper painting in several of the scenes in the diner.

Conformity and Departures: 1945-1960s and beyond

If illustrations are any evidence, then after the second global war America (at least the broad middle that consumed national magazines and print advertisements) was ready to inward and concern itself with mass entertainment and private concerns. Illustrated stories for women remained a mainstay for magazines, but women had gone through four years of dramatic change of circumstances and their status in society changed accordingly. Women were no longer characters who the fates acted on but became actors in their own right. Marriages were no longer seen as inviolable, even in Middle America. the excitement of such new freedom was reflected in the stories and illustrations found in even such conservative magazines as Saturday Evening Post. Austin Briggs plays with the sense of a woman’s new found freedom with his relatively emotionally static picture (#1), which depicts a model being posed for a photo shoot. The picture only becomes suggestive when paired with the title of Nancy Rutledge’s serialized novel, Murder for Millions. With the title and caption to the picture in mind, there are elements of the composition that become suggestive. Everywhere there are legs: on the camera, the tripod holding the fan, the ladder, the stepladder, and the legs of both figures. All, except the model’s, are splayed into a V pointing upward toward the model. What all this signifies can only be learned by reading the story, because, as Henry Pitz wrote (p. 24)the purpose of illustration is that customers are “stopping, reading, examining—buying.”

17. "Restrain," Regan cried. "I'm tired of restraint. There's more to love than waiting, Bill." by M Coburn Whitmore. Tempera on canvas. 1946. NBMAA. Illustration Christine Weston, "The Dark Wood," Ladies' Home Journal (April 1946), pp. 46-47.

17. “Restrain,” Regan cried. “I’m tired of restraint. There’s more to love than waiting, Bill.” by M. Coburn Whitmore. Tempera on canvas. 1946. NBMAA. Illustration to Christine Weston, “The Dark Wood,” Ladies’ Home Journal (April 1946), pp. 46-47.

Whitmore’s illustration for Christine Weston’s serialized novel concentrates on a woman, Regan, who has much more assurance and considerably more willingness to act on it than any of the women in the other illustrations we have encountered. Regan is married to an army veteran who has returned from the war wounded. While he was away, Regan fell in love with Bill, and in the picture, the two are consulting a lawyer (out of sight, to whom Regan is looking at) and Regan is pushing for decisive action. Bill, however, is embarrassed by Regan’s directness and possibly also her loudness (we can barely see on the right another restaurant patron listening in). Bill is covering his face with his hand while he is listening to his lover. He holds her hand (although her’s is on top) to signify his support, but she is making her case to the lawyer not to Bill. The illustration thus provides the information necessary to attract the kind of reader who might read the novel. It was this talent, rather than any desire to forward the art of visual representation, that earned Whitmore repeated opportunities at the highest paying magazines and a five-year contract to do covers for Cosmopolitan.

By the 1950s a new phenomenon arose in the field of magazine illustration—an immediatel;y recognizable visual style associated with one publication. The magazine of course was Saturday Evening Post, and the illustrator who created the look was of course Norman Rockwell. The magazine and the illustrator were a perfect fit. The magazine had a long history dating to the nineteenth century but it was only in the mid twentieth century that it hit upon its formula for success: combine illustrated serialized stories that did not threaten middle class tastes with non-satirical single frame cartoons, add a political content that was decidedly conservative but not particularly analytical and package it all with comforting, nostalgia-laden pictures of pretty much the same sort (white children found in “cute” activities or poses, non-urban white adults, usually from the heartland, engaged in activities that hearkened to longstanding traditions or habits). Norman Rockwell came aboard in 1916 and was the pioneer of the Saturday Evening Post‘s style, which in its full-blown  manifestation in the 1950s might be called “American Sur-romanticism,” a capitalist counterpart to Soviet Realism. In Rockwell’s works, figures are infantilized, juvenile features emphasized and retained long into adulthood. For example, noses are generally shorter, snub, unless a figure is portrayed as quirky or humorous. (See for example the painting Rockwell made, entitled Weighing In, for the June 28, 1958 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, which is part of the New Britain exhibition.) Figures often seem excessively rounded compared to a relatively flat background. But most important the scenes depicted are ones designed to elicit a warm feeling of nostalgia and comfort.

Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations are so familiar that it’s not necessary to discuss those shown in the New Britain museum.  In any event, just over 60 miles from the New Britain Museum is the largest collection of Rockwell work, in a museum dedicated to his work. But Rockwell’s pieces are quintessential illustrations, designed to prompt impulse buys, not study, because they are, quite frankly, eminently cloying. What is interesting, however, is how this style of illustration was taken up by others who provided covers for the magazine. It became an officially endorsed style, policed by the promise of future commissions. John Philip Falter became acquainted with Rockwell when he opened a studio in New Rochelle, New York, where Rockwell himself worked. Falter painted his first cover for Saturday Evening Post during World War II and he became a staple of the magazine after the war. His Boys and Kites, possibly his most famous cover (published in March 18, 1960 issue), the original of which is in the New Britain show, has all the hallmarks of Rockwell, except that it adds a midwestern background to it. Stevan Dohanos is the illustrator most represented in the New Britain exhibition, and he also followed the general Post style closely. His Fourth of July, Bridgeport (1947: cover illustration, July 5, 1947) shows an elderly wife fixing the color of the dress uniform of her World War I veteran husband (who is carrying a rolled flag and baton) while a World War II veteran waits indulgently; both are about to participate in a patriot parade. His Rained in Vacationers (1948: cover illustration, July 31, 1948) shows an extended family trying to amuse themselves on the porch of an old building (with an upstairs rental for vacationers?) while heavy rain falls around them. Like many of the Post covers, this one contains the ever reliable family pet. And yet there is one canvas of Dohanos which uses many of the visual tropes of the Post style to create the exact opposite message: Sometimes childhood is not a time of joyous exploration and some things learned were best not learned.

18. Everything that was good and safe and beautiful quit the earth and left him with nothing to hold onto (Heart Broken) by Stevan Dohanos. Tempera on board. ca. 1944. NBMAA. Illustration for Beatrice J. Chute, "Come of Age," Saturday Evening Post (September 30, 1944), pp. 12-13.

18. Everything that was good and safe and beautiful quit the earth and left him with nothing to hold onto (Heart Broken) by Stevan Dohanos. Tempera on board. ca. 1944. NBMAA. Illustration for Beatrice J. Chute, “Come of Age,” Saturday Evening Post (September 30, 1944), pp. 12-13.

As with the others of the Post-style illustration, Dohanos’s Heart Broken treats the non-human elements with a practiced simplicity, almost as if the grains of the wood and the blades of grass were design elements. The boy is dressed as one would expect a middle American middle class child to be and carries a large pen in his side pocket, a handkerchief half out of his back pocket and a death’s head amulet on a keychain. His left stocking has a hole just below h is knee pants. He is face down. We do not see his face, and as far as we can tell he might be playing hide-and-seek. But when we read the caption, we realize he is grieving. His arms cradle his head so that he can weep with abandon and block out all the world. The incongruity of the scene with the manner of illustrating it is the hook to lure the reader into the story, where we find that he has just learned on his way home that his brother has died in the war. This is perhaps the darkest use ever made of the Post style, and it is noteworthy that it was used for a story illustration and not a cover, because the subject violates all the marketing principles used by the Saturday Evening Post. Nevertheless, old fashioned as the technique is and related to a conservative philosophy that wasn’t even true when it was being extolled, the painting draws in the viewer, which is the purpose of illustration and even has elements that are worth considering, which is not often the case with illustration.*

19. Rules kept her from her husband. They couldn't keep her visitor out. (Two Girls with Still Life.) by Joe De Mers. Oil, crayon and graphite on board. ca. 1963. Illustration for Dorothy Baker, "No Visitors Till Noon," Saturday Evening Post (March 9, 1963), pp. 46-47.

19. Rules kept her from her husband. They couldn’t keep her visitor out. (Two Girls with Still Life.) by Joe De Mers. Oil, crayon and graphite on board. ca. 1963. Illustration for Dorothy Baker, “No Visitors Till Noon,” Saturday Evening Post (March 9, 1963), pp. 46-47.

The 1960s (which may have begun before that decade officially began) would do in the Saturday Evening Post, not because of the libel suit it lost, but because its view of American life was no longer interested in the sugar-coated conservatism of the early 1950s. De Mers’s illustration (#19) shows as well as any how illustration entered the Mad Man eara. Even before we consider the relation of the women, we see a scene where everything is up-to-date, “modern” according to the taste-makers of the day—advertisers. In the foreground is a table with sixties-style decanter and glasses as well as the ornaments of upper middle class ostentation. These items almost squeeze out the two figures of the story. The more central character wears capri pants and a yellow blouse with a collar that covers her neck. Her blonde hair completes the amber look of the woman who is backed by the yellowish wall. The other woman, who we see against the other, brownish wall is dressed in a short one-piece all black dress. with elbow length gloves, a black hat and dark glasses. The two women represented two poles in what passed for sixties chic. And that piece of information is enough to introduce us to the story in which the women become adversaries. All of this can be absorbed in a quick glance.

Of course the sixties would begin a process of experimentation that has not yet ended. Illustration, as much as most other art forms, became intertwined with domestic decoration, product design, technological necessity and consumer demand. Some arts were able to retreat into academic protection to maintain a freedom from commerce. Illustration, which depends on commerce, could not. So, at least based on the evidence from the New Britain exhibition, illustration remained representational, even though it borrowed techniques from contemporary fine arts. But all of that is beyond this post. You can judge for yourself at the exhibition.

So based on all of the foregoing, is there a way to evaluate illustration in a formal manner? Try as I might, I personally could not draw any larger conclusions except that each piece was subservient to the text or product it was promoting. Of course some art forms can support others: poetry, for example, can provide the basis of oratorios or lieder. On the other hand nothing associated with advertisement, whether music, illustration or film, really can rise above the product. But the New Britain exhibition demonstrates that several generations of very talented American artists lent their talents to lesser forms of creativity. The masterworks selected by the staff are each arresting in themselves. And when considered chronologically may in fact be genuine artifacts describing American cultural mores of a particular time. Is this art? Only the consumer can tell, now that we have become solipsists. The New Britain show at very least allows viewers to make up their own minds.

And there is an added benefit. The museum itself is a remarkable tour of American art. There is no place like it for a concentrated dose of the history of American visual art. And with that background, one is better equipped to decide how to appreciate American illustration.

Notes

1Steel engraving had existed since 1792 but was never used in printmaking, although it had specialized uses, such as for reproductions of art work or to produce illustrations on bank notes and securities. [Return to text.]

2In addition to Harper’s Monthly and Putnam’s Monthly, there existed another national arts and culture journal The Atlantic Monthly. The Boston brahmins affirmatively declined illustrating their articles and held out throughout the nineteenth century, although they printed illustrated advertisements after the Civil War. The illustrations for advertisements became so lavish by the early twentieth century that the policy against even tasteful illustration of the reading material seemed perverse. [Return to text.]

3Scribner’s Monthly launched its inaugural November 1870 issue calling itself “an illustrated magazine for the people.” A series of ownership changes and management crises after the death of Charles Scribner in 1871 eventually led to the sale of the magazine (and its publishing company) to new owners whose editorial direction was more upscale and cultural. The new magazine was called The Century Magazine. A 5-year non-compete agreement as part of the sale prevented the Scribner heirs from founding a magazine until 2886, when they commenced a monthly journal called Scribner’s Magazine. Collier’s Once a Week began in 1888 and by 1895 called itself Collier’s Weekly: An Illustrated Journal. McClure’s Magazine, an illustrated political and literary monthly began in 1893. The Gilded Age also saw the appearance of national magazines directly aimed at women. Women’s Home Companion started in 1873 and began including illustrations in the 1880s. Ladies Home Journal started in 1883. The two competed for what turned out to be a very large market through the mid twentieth century. [Return to text.]

4This is how the scene reads:

Suddenly, almost unexpectedly, the three figures reappeared from behind the sand hill, the pirate captain leading the way, and the negro and white man following close behind him. They had gone about halfway across the white, sandy level between the hill and the hummock behind which Tom Chist lay, when the white man stopped and bent over as though to tie his shoe.

This brought the negro a few steps in front of his companion.

That which then followed happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly, so swiftly, that Tom Chist had hardly time to realize what it all meant before it was over. As the negro passed him the white man arose suddenly and silently erect, and Tom Chist saw the white moonlight glint upon the blade of a great dirk knife which he now held in his hand. He took one, two silent, catlike steps behind the unsuspecting negro. Then there was a sweeping flash of the blade in the pallid light, and a blow, the thump of which Tom could distinctly hear even from where he lay stretched out upon the sand. There was an instant echoing yell from the black man, who ran stumbling forward, who stopped, who regained his footing, and then stood for an instant as though rooted to the spot.

Tom had distinctly seen the knife enter his back, and even thought that he had seen the glint of the point as it came out from the breast.

Meantime the pirate captain had stopped, and now stood with his hand resting upon his cane looking impassively on.

It continues in this manner. Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, pp. 110-11. [Return to text.]

5While the influence of motion pictures on illustration was first shown in illustrations such as Carter’s (#14) it was not long before reference to the framing by movies was explicitly recommended to illustrators. Henry Pitz’s 1947 primer for aspiring illustrators makes this point of movie techniques:

[The] ability to swing the camera (which is the beholder’s viewpoint) through every possible arc of vision, has opened up a whole new world of pictorial possibilities. It has released picture-making frm the normal eye-level viewpoint and stimulated the search for newer rhythms. Best of all, the American public, insatiable consumer of the films that it is, has become accustomed to the new viewpoints and craves the same things in its magazines. So diagonal thrusts, angular and eccentric rhythms, and bird’s-ey viewpoints have become commonplace in the new compositional vocabulary.

[Return to text.]

Sources

Anthony, A.V.S., Timothy Cole and Elbridge Kingsley, Wood Engraving: Three Essays with a List of American Books Illustrated with Woodcuts (New York: The Grolier Club, 1916).

Barr, Pamela (ed.), New Britain Museum of American Art: Highlights of the Collection, Vol. III: The Sanford B.D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection (New Britain, Connecticut: New Britain Museum of American Art, c2016).

Congton, Charles T., “Over-Illustration,”  The North American Review, Vol. 139, No. 336 (Nov., 1884), pp. 480-491.

Goodman, Helen, “Women Illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring—Summer, 1987), pp. 13-22

Hoppin, Martha J., Love Story: Selections from the Sanford B.D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection, New Britain Museum of American Art, February 14-March 31, 2002 (New Britain, Connecticut: New Britain Museum of American Art, 2002).

Pitz, Henry C., The Practice of Illustration (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, Inc., 1947).

Reed, Walt (ed,), The Illustrator in America: 1900-196o (New York: Reinhold Publishing Co., c1966).

Watson. Ernest W., Forty Illustrators and How They Work (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, Inc., c1946).

White, Frank L., “American Book-Illustration,” The Connoisseur, Vol. 2, No. 1 (October 1887), pp. 33-35.

“American Proficiency in Illustration,” Cosmopolitan Art Journal, Vol. 3, No. 4 (September, 1859), pp. 154-157.

In addition I browsed through files of the following magazines: Atlantic Monthly, Century Illustrated MonthlyCollier’s WeeklyHarper’s New Monthly Magazine, Harper’s WeeklyLadies Home Journal, Liberty, McClure’s MagazinePictorial ReviewPutnam’s Monthly, Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s Monthly and Woman’s Home Companion.

Why Amor is a Little Boy (as explained by Propertius)

Eros evolved over time (much like humans themselves) by a process of neoteny (whereby juvenile features are retained into adulthood). The early Iron Age and presumably earlier (see Hesiod (Theogony, 120) had him as the fourth of the original, primal beings (after Chaos, Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus (whence Light and the Cosmos)), “fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them.” Both Phaedrus and Acusilaus in Plato’s Symposium (178b) say that Eros was third, but agree with Hesiod that he had no parent. As an ancient deity he was involved in uniting the unruly forces of the primeval universe as well as inventing procreation, both essential for our production. He was, in short, a formidable Agency.

By Classical times poets had reduced Eros to a minor deity, but youthful and handsome, either bearing a bow with arrows (e.g., Theocritus, Idylls 23 [in English]) or with wings (Nonnus, Dionysiaca V:88ff [in English]). He no longer was the product of spontaneous generation, but his parents were not clear. Usually his mother was said to be Aphrodite by Ares (the same book by Nonnus), although fragments (including of Sappho) have him as the son of Iris, Gaia or Aphrodite by Ouranos. He is capable of inflicting desire on both humans and gods and he occasionally is mentioned in this connection, but it is not until Imperial Roman times that his own story with Psyche is recounted in Apuleius’s Golden Ass (Book iv, Chapter 22 [in English]).

Statuette of Eros Wearing Lion Skin of Herakles. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Discovered in Myrina, Asia Minor.

Statuette of Eros Wearing Lion Skin of Herakles. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Discovered in Myrina, Asia Minor.

It was in the Hellenized world after Alexander, however, that Eros became the chubby child Cupid represented in many works of art in various Hellenistic kingdoms, where children were a much more common subject than in Classical times. The small (15 ½”) terracotta statuette from Myrina shown in the recent Pergamon exhibition at the Met (which we reviewed) and seen at the right, is a particularly famous example, given its impish charm. The child god is hiding something behind his back with his left hand (the object has since disappeared), and he cautions someone with his left hand. He has a disrespectful or smirking expression on his face. Such insolence is never found on Classical representations of children, and the pose is certainly one that Classical artists would not try to reproduce. But Hellenistic artists were more interested in sui generis portraits representing intimate rather than abstract situations. The infantilization of Eros is an interesting example of how the Hellenistic world personalized and in some ways domesticated not only art, but also religion and common culture. It was a world not looking for Truth but rather diversion. Hellenistic poets did the same in literature.

Sextus Propertius (? ca. 50 B.C.E.–before 1 B.C.E.) wrote in Latin rather than Greek, and while he lived at the end of the Hellenistic period, he resided as an adult in Rome, not a Hellenized kingdom. But he modeled himself after the most important of Hellenistic poets, Callimachus, once a scholar at the Library of Alexandria.1 Propertius wrote four books of elegies. The first (published around 26 B.C.E. and titled in some manuscripts as Cynthia Monobiblos) mostly contained poems detailing his erotic obsession with a woman he calls Cynthia. Apparently that book made him immensely popular in Rome. The second book (published in 24 or 23 B.C.E.) describes his agony in Cynthia’s unfaithfulness and rejection. The third book (published in 22 or 21 B.C.E.) treats poetic topics other than just his love and by the end he finally breaks with her. The fourth (which is half the size of the other three, perhaps because he died before it was completed; it was published in 16 B.C.E. or later) shows that he outlived Cynthia but never really resolved the affair.2

Propertius was born in Assisi, in the modern Perugia of Umbria. (Assisi was later also the birthplace of the friar Francis, who venerated animals.) In his major autobiographical poem, what the ancients called a sphragis, the “signet” by which a poet gives his name and provenance (IV:i), Propertius implies that his wealthy father died when he was young, around the time that Octavian ordered the redistribution of land for his soldiers in 41 B.C.E. Propertius’s circumstances was thus diminished but he was not reduced to abject poverty as was Horace when his own father’s estate was seized. Perhaps his estate was treated more leniently because the Propertii were of equestrian rank (IV:i:131-34), whereas Horace’s father was a newly freed slave. Propertius says that he gave up study of law for poetry. He soon fell in love with Cynthia who dominated the rest of what we know of his life. By law, Propertius was unable to marry her because she was a prostitute (II:vii:7) and so chose to remain a bachelor.

When in Rome Propertius was part of the circle of Maecenas, the wealthy minister of Augustus. But he was not economically dependent, as were Horace and Virgil. (The first book was dedicated not to Maecenas but to Volcacius Tullus, nephew of the proconsul of Asia, and he treats him as an equal (I:i:9).) Yet Maecenas was a literary taste-maker so it was useful to curry his interest and even recite poetry in his great estate house. Whether it was envy of his wealth or independence or his middlebrow popularity, Horace took a dislike to Propertius, telling a correspondent that he had to stop up his ears to avoid hearing the second Callimachus (Epistles II:ii:87-104 [in English]). But it could simply be that Horace could not make the break from Classicism that the new Hellenistically-inspired taste demanded. In any event, Propertius’s poetic description of Cupid is a good example of how lightly tripped the lyrics of this new school and how easily the gods were treated, both things strange to those who studied to imitate the more austere masters.

Incidentally, the term “elegy” in Greek and Latin poetry is not the same as in English, where it describes a plaintive poem lamenting a death. In classical times an elegy was simply a poem written in elegiac couplets. In such a couplet the first line is written in dactylic hexameter (the epic meter used by Homer and everyone else describing monumental themes). The second line is in dactylic pentameter. The rules of prosody are a bit arcane and in any event can’t be reproduced in English. The basic idea is that the first line is made up of six feet and the second five. (The number of syllables in a foot, however, depended on the vowel quality of each syllable.) The effect is supposed to be of a rising cadence in the first line and a falling one in the second (something I tried to recreate using a simpler English meter). Propertius’s “domestic” poetry uses the form rather than the spirit of the elegy, as we can see in his Elegy to Cupid’s Image.

Elegia XII
from Elegiarum, Liber Secundus
by Sextus Propertius
(edition of H.E. Butler, Propertius, Loeb Classical Library
(Cambridge, Massachusettes: Harvard University Pres, 1912))

Quicumque ille fuit, puerum qui pinxit Amorem,
nonne putas miras hunc habuisse manus?
is primum vidit sine sensu vivere amantes,
et levibus curis magna perire bona.
idem non frustra ventosas addidit alas,
fecit et humano corde volare deum:
scilicet alterna quoniam iactamur in unda,
nostraque non ullis permanet aura locis.
et merito hamatis manus est armata sagittis,
et pharetra ex umero Gnosia utroque iacet:
ante ferit quoniam, tuti quam cernimus hostem,
nec quisquam ex illo vulnere sanus abit.
in me tela manent, manet et puerilis imago:
sed certe pennas perdidit ille suas;
evolat ei nostro quoniam de pectore nusquam,
assiduusque meo sanguine bella gerit.
quid tibi iucundum est siccis habitare medullis?
si pudor est, alio traice duella tua!
intactos isto satius temptare veneno:
non ego, sed tenuis vapulat umbra mea.
quam si perdideris, quis erit qui talia cantet,
(haec mea Musa levis gloria magna tua est),
qui caput et digitos et lumina nigra puellae,
et canat ut soleant molliter ire pedes?

Elegy II:xii
[translated by D.K. Fennell]

Whoever first painted Amor as a child
Had marvelous touch, don’t you think?
He saw just how childishly lovers behave
Forfeiting the great for the small.

He usefully added two fluttering wings
Divinely convulsing their hearts.
Indeed we are tossed on buffeted waves
Our wind never blowing one way.

And apt is he armed with aquiline shafts
A quiver from Crete on each arm,
Because we are struck without seeing our foe
A wounding from which one can’t flee.

Transfixed as I am with his darts and his form
But surely his wings have been lost.
Alas! from my breast he never takes flight
Instead he makes war in my blood.

What joy is there living within my dried heart?
Know shame; throw your darts somewhere else!
Much better to poison the ones still unscathed;
Not me, it’s my shadow that’s drubbed.

For if you shall waste me, then how shall I sing
(Though slight is my Muse, your glory is great)
Her head and her fingers, my lady’s dark eyes,
The delicate sound of her feet?

Text note: In line 18, other (better?) manuscripts have “puella” for “duella” and “tuo” for “tua.” A modern emendation is simply to replace them with “tela una.” In other poems Propertius plays fast and loose with diction and syntax so it is difficult to know precisely what he originally intended, although the general sense is discernible. In this sense his poetry contrasts with that of other Augustan poets, particularly Virgil.

Notes

1In III:i:1-2 Propertius writes: Callimachi Manes et Coi sacra Philitae, /  in vestrum, quaeso, me sinite ire nemus. (“Ghost of Callimachus and rites of Coan Philitas, / permit me, I pray, to enter into your grove.”) In IV:1:62-64 he writes: mi folia ex hedera porrige, Bacche, tua, / ut nostris tumefacta superbiat Umbria libris, / Umbria Romani patria Callimachi! (“Hold out for me your ivy leaves, O Bacchus, / So that my books may make Umbria swell with pride / Umbria, country of Rome’s Callimachus!”) [Return to text.]

2In IV:7:1 Propertius recounts the visitation of her ghost: Sunt aliquid Manes: letum non omnia finit. “Spirits are real: death is not everything.”) [Return to text.]

The Seductive Elegance and Startling Cruelty of Greece’s Baroque Age

Power, Pathos and Prestige in Pergamon
and Other Hellenistic Kingdoms

1. Head of Woman (the “Beautiful Head”). Marble. ca 200-175 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Discovered at Pergamon (Terrace of the Great Altar) in 1879. As with all illustrations in this post, clicking on it will produce a larger version, and clicking on that version will produce a still larger one. (All illustrations in this post are of items displayed in the Met show unless indicated by an asterisk (*) before the illustration number.

The current show of Hellenistic Art at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World,” an exhibition that will run until July 17, left me, the first time through, with an unsettled feeling. (I emphasize “first time” because, if you have time and energy, you will be compelled to view it again, the second time lingering over particularly haunting pieces.) On the one hand there is no doubt that the peoples who created and patronized this art were sophisticated humanists; they were in many ways (though not all) the inheritors of the intellectual and aesthetic tradition of Athens at the time of Pericles, as sterling a pedigree as any intellectual or art pedigree in all of history. It is also true any time a Hellenistic artist deviated from the principles of symmetry and compositional balanced developed by the classical Greeks, the sacrifice was a purposeful choice intended to draw the viewer into the work, often evoking a personal, emotion response of recognition, or empathy or identification. In addition, after seeing the nearly 200 items on display, it is difficult not to be convinced that the societies that produced these works were full of energy, confidence, belief in their own values and a marked fearlessness in the face of uncertainty that makes them entirely unlike ourselves, unlike what we have been for half a century at least.

However admirable the last point may be, it makes them alien to us, however appealing the art is. And there is another point of difference. Their sense of self-assurance seems to manifest itself in a kind of cruelty we recoil from. Not satire or demonization of overbearing superiors, but a kind of mean taunt or smug satisfaction in the fate of social subordinates, it is hard to to dismiss. It is as though the baroque aspect of the art indulged in excess exceeding the bounds of decency. It is a characteristic not at all common in classical Greek art, and while not characteristic of most Hellenistic works, it is common enough to influence how we understand their self-expressions. But more on that later. First an overview of the exhibition.

Pergamon and Hellenistic Kingdoms

2. Scale model of the Great Altar (from Pergamon Museum) showing the Gigantomachy frieze on bottom level and continuing up the stairs, the stoa with statues on three sides of the altar plaza and statues on the roof of the stoa.

2. Scale model of the Great Altar (from Pergamon Museum) showing the Gigantomachy frieze on bottom level and continuing up the stairs, the stoa with statues on three sides of the altar plaza and statues on the roof of the stoa.

The remodeling of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin gave the Met the opportunity to display nearly 90 of its items from the ancient site of Pergamon, which has been excavated by German archaeologists since the 1870s. The Berlin Museum was founded in the midst of the period of increasing European Great Power competition, which had already involved war between France and Prussia and would play itself out in a scramble for colonial possessions around the world as well as for allies to bank on in the event of a Great Power confrontation (which, to the great surprise of all the participants, actually did happen with catastrophic consequences). The Pergamon excavations were a chance to enhance German cultural prestige with a collection that could rival the ancient cultural treasures looted by the British Museum and the Louvre. In the Ottoman Empire, Germany found a willing partner. The Sick Man of Europe desperately needed a Great Power patron, and the two came to an arrangement allowing Germany to take away a large haul of stunningly beautiful artistic creations by a short-lived kingdom, that in its day devoted as much of its resources to artistic and scholarly collections as any state ever. The Germans took individual statues, statuettes, and large monuments. The most spectacular item of the haul, which exists now largely built into the walls of the Berlin museum, consists of architectural elements and friezes from the Great Altar of Pergamon, a structure so famous in the ancient world that centuries later the Christian Apocalypse referred to it as Satan’s seat (Revelations 2:12-13). Sculpture from that altar complex and one of the friezes (as well as oversized photos the spectacular Gigantomachy relief which followed the celebrant up the altar’s stairway) give the Met visitor a glimpse of what the acropolis of Pergamon must have looked like at its height.

3. Gallery of the Great Altar in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition.

4. Statuette of Demosthenes. Leaded Bronze. 1st century B.C.E. to 2nd century C.E. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Roman copy of Greek bronze statue, ca. 280-279 B.c.E by Polyeuktos.

4. Statuette of Demosthenes. Leaded Bronze. 1st century B.C.E. to 2nd century C.E. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Roman copy of Greek bronze statue, ca. 280-279 B.c.E by Polyeuktos.

In addition to materials from Pergamon, the Met assembled about 180 more items from almost four dozen other institutions. The show is a spectacular display of the best Greek art of the kingdoms that succeeded Alexander’s empire and includes statues, reliefs, figurines, jewelry, luxury goods and historically important coins from the time of Alexander’s death in 323 B.C.E to the suicide of Cleopatra (the Ptolemaic Queen Kleopatra IV) in 30 B.C.E. (It also displays field notes and artwork of the German archaeologists who excavated Pergamon beginning in the 1880s). The collection shows just how exhilarating is the art that is now called “Hellenistic.” The items breathe not only life, but also the ambitions and despairs of a people who were heirs to, but fundamentally different from, their classical Greek forebears. Macedonian King Philip II and his son Alexander had ended permanently Greek self rule and set up in its place a form of eastern monarchy, which Philip justified as the way to save the Greeks from the Persians. Not all submitted willingly. The Athenians, who suffered a catastrophic loss to Philip, and still used every opportunity to revolt, honored Demosthenes [see #4], even after it was clear that he had led them to a bloody and bitter defeat, because the Athenians prized liberty over life, as Demosthenes unapologetically proclaimed in his Funeral Oration.

5. Head of Alexander I (the Great). The “Alexander Schwarzenberg.” Marble. ca. 20 B.C.E.-20 C.E. Glyptothek, Munich. One of several Roman copies of Greek original by Lysippos (?), ca. 330 B.C.E.

Perhaps it was the irrevocable shift from self-determination to monarchy that subtly permeated all Greek art from Alexander on. Charismatic, self-assured, decisive, Alexander held in thrall the most ambitious military leaders of his time, as the wars of his Successors (the Diadochi) would prove after his death. And yet he himself proved to be intellectually inclined and cosmopolitan. Was it his teacher Aristotle who instilled in him the confidence to trust his own counsel not only in matters of war and politics, but also in matters of art? Or was it simply his own self regard? In any event, Plutarch tells the story of how when Lysippos first carved Alexander’s likeness, it so impressed viewers (who saw it express a defiance of Zeus to keep to heaven because Alexander had claimed Earth) that Alexander decreed that only Lysippos was authorized to make statues of him because only he could “preserve his virile and leonine expression.” (De Alexandri magni fortuna aut virtute, 2.2.) For hundreds of years statues and statuettes of Alexander filled his former empire and Rome; for the Kings it was used to show their legitimacy, how their authority flowed from him. For others, his image probably represented the Fortune that never forsook his purpose. And perhaps in uncertain times (as was all Hellenistic times), Fortune would “rub off” from his likeness (Pollitt, p. 3). The likenesses deviated ever so slightly in intent from that of classical Greek art. Beauty was not the sole object, nor was emphasizing some abstract Platonic ideal, but rather self-expression was the goal.

6. Metope with Battle Scene. Limestone. late 3rd-mid 2nd century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Taranto, Italy. Found in tomb at Via Unbria, Taranto.

6. Metope with Battle Scene. Limestone. late 3rd-mid 2nd century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Taranto, Italy. Found in tomb at Via Unbria, Taranto.

The art of Alexander and his immediate Successors was not only about self-expression. It was also, and mainly, about action. Military action was of course central to the art of the conquerors, and in those pieces physical movement, how the body functions, what it looks like in victory and subjugation, provides the fascination. While classical Greek statues portrayed bodies in motion, usually involving athletes or mythological figures, it was in the age of Alexander and afterwords that contortions, bodies pushed to the limits of endurance and even in the throes of death, became common.

7. Statuette of Resting Herakles (Anticiter-Sulmona). Bronze and sliver. 3rd century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Villa Frigerj, Chieti. Copy of work by Lysippos (?).

Alexander supplied the Hellenistic age with artistic tropes and tokens other than military ones. There are numerous statuettes of Alexander hunting or riding, usually with animal skins. Inasmuch as Alexander associated himself with Herakles, Alexander is frequently seen hunting lions or with lion skin. (The first labor of Herakles was to slay the Namean lion, and Herakles himself is often seen carrying a lion skin [e.g., #7].) The Diadochi (the Successors of Alexander) followed Alexander’s model. Unlike the classical Greek portrayal of philosophers and statesmen as old and wise [e.g., #4], the Kings of the Hellenistic Kingdoms showed themselves as young, virile and clean-shaven. As for Herakles, he will show up again in Pergamon, not because the dynasts of that city were Diadochi, or even because they saw themselves as warriors in the mode of Alexander. If anything, they saw themselves as philosopher-kings or at least patrons. Herakles, however, was the father of the traditional founder of Pergamon, who we will see is celebrated in a famous frieze in the altar complex which was Pergamon’s principal monumental achievement. First it’s useful to put its achievements in historical context.

A Brief History of the Pergamon Kingdom

*8. The Aegean World in Early Hellenistic Times.

Pergamon is located at a site that would be improbable for a good sized-habitation, let alone a cultural center of historic importance. It was within the province of Mysia, the region west of the Troad (the province in which Troy was located), bordering on the Sea of Mamara to the north and the Aeolian province (with Greek settlements) to the southwest. Pergamon is about 24 km from the Aegean Sea and not on any trade route. It sits atop an extremely high promontory that is inaccessible on three sides and rises about 1000 feet above the surrounding plains (1100 feet above sea level). Its chief virtue was that it was easily defensible; it was a natural fortress (the meaning of its name). Its major disadvantage was that it required extensive terracing on its accessible southern side to accommodate a sizable population. The upper part was eventually formed (by years of building activity) into four terraces. On the highest was the living quarters of the rulers (and in imperial Roman times a temple dedicated to Trajan). The second level, about 30 feet lower, contained the temple and precinct for Athena, Pergamon’s patron. The third level, about 80 feet lower, became the site for the Great Altar. The fourth level, still 45 feet lower, became the upper agora. [See model, #22, below.] None of that work took place until after the death of Alexander, however.

There are no historical records describing the settlement or early history of Pergamon, or indeed the settlement of Mysia. Homer said that the “lordly” and “stalwart” people of Mysia were allies of Troy (Iliad2.858, 10.430, 14.512). There was also Greek classical lyric poetry concerning the legendary founder of Pergamon.1 As for historical records, Pergamon is first mentioned by Xenophon as his last stopping point in the retreat of the remnant of his mercenary Ten Thousand in 399 B.C.E.2

Pergamon fell from Persian control early in Alexander’s campaign, shortly after his victory in the Battle of Granikos River in May 334 B.C.E. He there installed Barsine, a Persian noble woman who became war booty and may have been his mistress and mother of his child.

9. Bust of Antiochus I Soter (?). Bronze. ca. 50-25 B.C.E. Meseo Archicologico Nazionale, Naples. This piece is a copy of a statue from the Hellenistic period and was excavated in 1755 from the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum. Antiochus I was the son of Seleukos I Nicator.

After Alexander’s death, war broke out among the Diadochi (the Greek military notables who vied to be Successors to Alexander). Lysimachos, the Macedonian commanders who was appointed King of Thrace in 306 B.C.E., crossed into Asia in 302 to gain possession of certain Greek cities on the Hellespont. All of “Hither Asia” had been ceded to Antigonas in the Peace of 311, but when he died in battle in 301, the territories in Asia Minor (except Bithynia and Pontos) rapidly fell into the hands of Lysimachos. One of the early defectors to Lysimachos, Docimus, had in his employ one Philetairos, whom he evidently recommended to Lysimachos, because the latter appointed Philetairos commander at Pergamon. (See Strabo, Geography, XIII.4.1. In that passage Strabo notes that at the time the inhabitants of Pergamon were still living only on the very top part of the “cone” of the hill.) Lysimachos entrusted Philetairos with war booty in the form of silver coins, which were deposited in the fortress atop the Pergamon hill. (Lysimachos had at least three other hidden treasures of war booty, but this was probably the largest. Hansen, p. 14 n.5.) Philetairos served Lysimachos loyally for nearly twenty years. But then a series of court intrigues revolving around Lychimachos’s third wife, Arsinoë, resulted in Lysimachos executing his son by his first wife. This behavior (among other signs of irregular rule), of course, unsettled his subjects and allies and gave his opponents room to maneuver. Seleukos I Nicator (the Conquerer), Lysimachos’s Diadochi rival, seized the occasion, and Philetairos offered his services to him when the former went to war. Lysimachos fell to Seleukos’s forces at the Battle of Koroupedion [see Map, #8] in 281 B.C.E. With this Seleukos became the last living of the original Diadochi, but he was shortly thereafter betrayed and assassinated by Ptolemy Keraunos (the Thunderbolt), who had been under Seleukos’s protection. Ptolemy Keraunos then seized the Macedon throne. Philetairos thus found himself ruler of Pergamon, though nominally under Seleukid rule, and Philetairos, quite fortunately, had Lysimachos’s large war booty at his disposal.

10. Herma of Philetairos of Pergamon. Pentalic marble. ca. late 1st century B.C.E. Museo Acheologico Nazionale, Naples. Roman copy (from Herculaneum) of Greek original ca. 250 B.C.E.

Using the silver Lysimachos entrusted with him (which amounted to 9,000 thalers of silver, an immense fortune), Philetairos began forging strategic alliances. Strabo (XIII.4.1) said that he opted “to manage things through promises and courtesies in general, always catering to any man who was powerful or near at hand.”3 Philetairos also used the funds to engage in significant urban improvement. The settlement was expanded, and the streets and roads were regularized. The temple and precinct of Athena in the upper acropolis was erected. Thirteen hundred feet south of that temple, Philetairos built another temple, this one to Demeter with its adjacent altar [see Plan #11 below]. With building on the lower acropolis, Philetairos had to expand the city walls and provide for defensive structures on the perimeters. Finally, and significantly, Pergamon added a large theater. The natural shape of the terraces in the area next to the plateau which would become the Great Alar (and raising above and descending below it) made for a natural seating area in something like a semi-circle. At first wooden chairs were placed on the existing levels, but during Philetairos’s reign stone seating was provided and a foundation supplied to make the seating area regular all around. On the stage a provision was made for a removable 122′ x 21′ scene building. The stage area was on a level 150 feet below the Athena precinct and on the same level as the stage was an altar and other structures. This building programme would be only the barest beginning of what was to come in the succeeding reigns, but the first ruler pointed the way and showed the ruler’s obligation to spend for public benefit.

11. Plan of Acropolis of Pergamon (Upper and Lower) before Imperial Roman times). From Hansen, between pp. 249-50. This plan includes all building through the end of the Attalid dynasty.

Philetairos was childless (possibly because, according to Pausanias (I:8.1), he was a “Paphlagonian eunuch”) and rule passed to his nephew Eumenes I (r. 263-41 B.C.E.), who set about heroizing his predecessor by putting his likeness on coins and having a heroic sculpture made of him [#10]. (By designating a successor Philetaros founded a dynasty, which was called, even by contemporaries, Attalid, after his own father, Attalos). These acts of sovereignty by Eumenes constituted a revolt against Seleukids’ dominion over Pergamon. The revolt was made good in 261 B.C.E. when Eumenes defeated Antiochus I near Sardis [see #8], and in the process expanded the state’s territory. His reign, however, was plagued from a different source—by plunder and marauding raids by the Galatians. Rather than fight them too, Eumenes used the same expedient as his neighbors; namely, to pay tribute to induce them to stop.

12. Galatian Warrior Crushed by an Elephant. Painted terracotta group. First half of 2nd century B.C.E. Louvre, Paris. Found at the Necropolis of Myrina.

The Galatians (or Gauls) (Γαλάται) were a group of nomadic, warring Celtic peoples from central Europe who having been repulsed in an attempt to invade Italy (around 390 B.C.E.), travelled through the Balkans and settled in Thrace around 280 B.C.E. The next year they drove through Macedonia killing its principal military leader and headed towards Thessaly. They were checked by a combined Greek force at Thermopylae. The invaders then marched toward Delphi and the Greek version has it that an assembly of Aetolian and allied forces only reached Delphi in time to prevent the invading Gauls from sacking the temple of Apollo. The Greeks repelled the nomadic warriors, who regrouped in Thrace. In 277 B.C.E. after sacking the territory of Byzantium, they crossed over to Asia Minor with the help of the Bithynians, who planned to use them as mercenaries. Once in Anatolia they wreaked havoc on their neighbors. It was Eumenes I’s successor who would deal the Galatians a crippling blow.

*13. Ludovisi Gaul. Asiatic marble. Late 1st century-early 2nd century C.E. Museo Nazionale--Palazzo Altemps, Rome. Copy of Hellenistic bronze statue, ca. 230=220 B.C.E.

*13. Ludovisi Gaul. Asiatic marble. Late 1st century-early 2nd century C.E. Museo Nazionale–Palazzo Altemps, Rome. Copy of Hellenistic bronze statue, ca. 230=220 B.C.E.

Attalos I (r. 241-197 B.C.E.), according to Pausanias (I:8.1), “received the kingdom from his cousin [first cousin once removed] Eumenes, who handed it over.” According to Livy (XXXVIII.16.12-13), Attalos took a decidedly different approach to the Gaulic threat than Eumenes and others in the region (including the Seleukids)—he refused to pay tribute and instead engaged the Galatians several times and finally met them in force at the headwaters of the Kaikos River [#8], where he won a decisive victory. As a result, grateful coastal cities gave him the title “Soter” (Savior) to append to his name. More significantly, he took for himself on monuments the title Basileus (βασιλεύς), a Persian title for “King” used exclusively by Alexander during his life and only by the Diadochi right after his death. Even in Attica, however, the title could not be disputed, for the Gauls were deemed as insidious as the Persians, perhaps more so since they were, after all, barbarians. Attalos celebrated his victory with a spate of public building. Outside the city he built a temple to Athena, the “Victory Carrier” (Athena Nikephoros). In the central plaza of Pergamon, the Athena precinct on the top level [Plan #11], he set up a monument to the Battle of Kaikos River. And he made a sacred walk space from the gate toward the city center, which contained larger than life-sized statues of the defeated and dying invaders, including the Dying Galatian (the “Trumpeter”) [#14], and the stunning “Ludovisi Gaul,” showing a warrior, having just killed his wife, in the act of killing himself. That piece [#13], unfortunately, is not part of the Met show.   If the evidence of Roman copies of two of the figures are a fair indication, it must have been a spectacular promenade.

14. Dying Gaul. Marble from Dokimeion, Turkey. First century B.C.E. or C.E. Musei Capitolini, Rome. Roman copy (excavated from Vila Ludovisi, Rome) based on original Greek bronze statue of late 3rd century B.C.E.

15. Head of a Dying Woman. Marble from Asia Minor. First half of 2nd century C.E. Museo Palatino, Rome. Found on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Copy of Greek bronze, late 3rd century B.C.E. probably part of the “large barbarians” dedicaton by Attalos I at Delphi ca. 220 B.C.E.

The Kaikos battle was not the end of the Gauls or their threat to Pergamon. In fact an alliance of sorts took place between the Gauls and one faction of the Seleukids which formed after the death of Antiochos II under his younger son Antiochus Hierax. The combined armies of the Gauls and rebel Seleukids apparently chased Attalos to the gates of Pergamon, where he defeated them in the battle of Aphrodisium (Hansen, pp. 24-35). Attalos pursued and then defeated the Gauls further to the east, then followed the Seleukids, defeating them as they fled northward toward Bithynia, and then southward in Caria. Finally, in 228 B.C.E. Attalos drove Antiochus Hierax from Anatolia in a battle in Eastern Anatolia on the banks of Harpassus near Cappadocia, leaving him, Attalos, with most of Anatolia. Attalos celebrated this second defeat of the Galatians with monuments in Athens, Delos and Delphi. Between 226 and 223 a monument was erected in the Pergamon acropolis in Athens recording all the victories of Attalos, including the victory at Kaikos, the later ones over the Gauls and Antiochus Hierax and others. Some time later, perhaps when Attalos visited Athens in 200 B.C.E., the so-called Lesser Attalid Dedication was made. Pausanias (I.25.2) described the monument as consisting of four sculptural groups depicting: battles by Athens against the Giants and then against the Amazons, the Greek battle against Persia at Marathon and the Pergamon battles against the Galatians. Romans made marble copies of dead and dying Amazons, giants [#16] and Persians. The dedications at the other sacred sites in mainland Greece (such as the large head (9″) of the dying woman [#15]) probably took place in Delphi in 210 B.C.E. ten years after the large monuments of the Galatians were dedicated in Pergamon). Significantly, all the sculpture which has survived involve dead or defeated enemies and not any of the victorious fighters or commanders. Is this a quirk of preservation or was the enemy the sole subject of the monumental displays? If so, what does that show?

16. Dead Giant. Marble from Asia Minor. Early 2nd century C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Copy of Greek bronze of early 2nd century B.C.E. Part of the Lesser Attalid Dedication in Athens.

16. Dead Giant. Marble from Asia Minor. Early 2nd century C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Copy of Greek bronze of early 2nd century B.C.E. Part of the Lesser Attalid Dedication in Athens.

17. Kneelling Persian. Marble from Asia Minor. ca. Early 2nd century C.E. Musei Vaticani, Vatican City. Roman copy of bronze statue of early 2nd century B.C.E. Possibly part of the Lesser Attalid Dedication in Athens.

The fighting was not finished in Anatolia. Achaeus, a general loyal to the legitimate line of kings, was able to retake Seleukid dominions in Hither Asia. Achaeus not only drove Attalos out former Seleukid holdings but also took lands long belonging to the Attalids like Aigai and Myrina [#8]. Pinned up behind Pergamon city walls, Attalos only could count on the loyalties of Smyrna and a couple cities in the Troad. Achaeus then took a step too far: he turned on Antiochus III. Attalos and Antiochos made common cause until Achaeus was captured (and viciously executed and mutilated4). In the end, Attalos regained more or less his original dominions and subject states, and with Attiochus busy with troubles to his east Attalos looked westward and inserted himself into Greek affairs, began creating a naval fleet and allied Pergamon with Rome.

*18. The Political States in the Aegean ca. 200 B.C.E. before the Peace of Apamea. (Modified from Wikipedia.)

Rome became interested in Greece when Philip V of Macedon entered into an alliance with Hannibal (whom Rome was fighting in the Second Punic War). Rome offered its assistance to the Aetolian League (which Philip was also threatening), and the latter reached out to Attalos. Pergamon’s fleet probably engaged Philip in the battle for Aegina, for when Philip was driven out, the League offered the island [see Map #8] to Pergamon for 30 thalers of silver. The island was useful as a naval station, but Attalos probably also was interested in its antiquities. The war ended in a stalemate (except Rome prevailed on Philip to break the treaty with Hannibal). Further adventures by Philip in the Aegean brought Pergamon back into the fight, this time with Rhodes as ally. When Rome finally defeated Carthage, it returned against Philip, this time defeating the Macedonians conclusively at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly [Map #18]. Attalos did not live long enough to see the allied victory. At a war counsil he suffered a stroke while addressing the Boeotian negotiators in Thebes. Taken back to Pergamon, he died shortly before the decisive battle in 197 B.C.E. Just three years before, the Athenians made him one of the eponymoi and in 200 B.C.E. named the twelfth “tribe” (phyle: φυλή) of Athens, Attalis, after him, and included his portrait in the statues of phylai heroes in the agora.

Tetradrachms of Pergamon

19. Silver tetradrachms minted in Pergamon. a. 263-41 B.C.E.; b. 241-197 B.C.E.; c. 197-159 B.C.E. Numismatic Museum, Athens. All these coins portray Philetairos on obverse and his name (ΦΙΛΕΤΑΙΡΟΥ) with seated Athena (identified by “A” under throne), armed with bow, spear and shield with Gorgon’s head on reverse.

Under Attalos’s successors, his sons Eumenes II (r. 197-159 B.C.E.) and Attalos II (r. 159-138 B.C.E.), Pergamon reached the zenith of its political power. Philip V, of all people, explained the success of the Attalid brothers as an example for his own sons: “though [Eumenes II and Attalos II] succeeded to but a small and insignificant realm, they have raised it to a level with the best, simply by the harmony and unity of sentiment, and mutual respect which they maintained towards each other” (Polybius, Histories, XXIII.11.7).  The brothers, in fact, were remarkably devoted to one another (Attalos II even refused Rome’s suggestion to depose his brother with Roman help). Eumenes at first continued their father’s strategic alliance with Rome, Eumenes acting as head of state and military commander, Attalos as subordinate military commander and chief diplomat. Pergamon supplied Rome and the Achaean League with both soldiers and ships for their War against Nabis of Sparta in 195 B.C.E. In return Rome sided with Pergamon in its war against the Seleukids, who became quite aggressive almost immediately after the death of Attalos I. (Antiochus III had aligned himself with Philip V after the first Macedonian War and goaded Philip into adventures in the Aegean which so alarmed Pergamon and Rhodes that they prevailed upon Rome  to intervene against Macedonia again. This was the Second Macedonian War which ended in 197 B.C.E.) The Romans inflicted a devastating defeat on the Seleukids in the Battle of Magnesia in eastern Anatolia [see #18] in 190 B.C.E., and the resulting Peace of Apamea in 188 B.C.E. gave all the Anatolian lands of the Seleukids north of the Taurus mountains to Pergamon (and the rest to Rhodes). Eumenes would soon enough fall out of favor with Rome, but since Rome did not rule its clients in Anatolia with an iron fist (as it would elsewhere), this meant for the time being that Rome would simply deny assistance or engage is diplomatic intrigue. When it was time to put down a Galatian revolt, Pergamon defeated them without Roman help much to the gratitude of coastal states, which in turn conferred the title of Soler (Savior) on Eumenes. Acting without Rome’s active approval complicated the life of any subordinate power but there was no rupture in their relations (Rome’s attempt to suborn Attalos II notwithstanding).

*20. From Perkins, p. 145.

*20. From Perkins, p. 145.

When Attalos II, at age 61, succeeded his brother (the son of Eumenes being a minor at the time), he was able to repair relations with Rome. He restored his brother-in-law Ariarathes V to the throne of Cappadocia. Attalos II added territory to his kingdom, and Ariarathes in turn came to Attallos’s aid in 156 B.C.E. when he was attacked by the Bithynians, who came dangerously close to storming Pergamon and desecrated the temple of Athena Nikephoros; they were successful in stealing the statue of Asklepios outside the walls. Attalos completed the building projects of his brother and added a few of his own, including a temple to Hera above the gymnasium [see Plan #12]. He probably also was responsible for the Little Donation of the Attalids [##16 & 17] in Athens, where he also build stoas as well as in the Anatolian city of Termessos.

Attalos II was seceded by his brother’s son, Attalos III (r. 138-33 B.C.E), who the ancient historians did not treat kindly. Justinus (XXXVI.4), for example, has him engaging in murderous rage against those he thought had harmed his mother and fiancée and then becoming a recluse. Many ancients record that he devoted himself to the study of natural history and medicinal plants, which he tested on prisoners (see Hansen, pp. 144-45). In any event, being without heir, he bequeathed the kingdom to Rome on his death.  The Republic made the kingdom its Province of Asia. Pergamon itself lost its central importance when the seat of government was transferred to Ephesos. It remained a health resort of sorts because of the cult of Asklepios, which had established a center for treatment (including the famous serpent therapy) outside the city walls as early as the reign of Eumenes I. Later, a temple was built for the emperor Trajan, but in the end, the inaccessibility and fortress-like remoteness of the elevated city, the thing that caused Lysimachos to select it for his fortune, the thing that made Pergamon important in the first place, was what caused its eventual decline.

21. Acropolis of Pergamon by Friedrich von Thiersch. Pen and ink with watercolor on canvas. 1882. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Pergamon as Cultural Center

*22. Model of Pergamon Acropolis from Burn, p. 83 (“showing how the various buildings, complexes and levels are grouped and linked one with the next.”) labelled by dkf.

The brief golden age of Pergamon took place during the reigns of Attalos I, Eumenes II and Attalos II. Impressive as their adroit expansion of territory was, it would remain a footnote to an age where econoies were largely based on conquest and tribute. But the Attalid kings were renown in ancient times for their dedication to Greek culture not only in Pergamon itself but also in Athens and elsewhere in Greece. A 2nd century B.C.E. poet hailed their fame: “The glory of the Kings of Pergamon, even though they are dead, shall remain ever living among us.”5

The glory of Pergamon is evident in the art on display at the Met. But before returning to it, two other aspects ought to be noted. First, the city itself was something of a marvel of urban design. Alexandria was praised in ancient times (see, e.g., Strabo, XVII.1). But Alexandria’s prestige largely came from Alexander having founded it and from its becoming the resting place for Alexander’s body. And it is of course easier to design a city on a flat ocean port. Pergamon was built on an uneven height, but the builders took advantage of the challenges and made, over time, a striking design. Burn (p. 82) describes it:

23. Statue of Athena Parthenos. Marble. ca. 170 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Discovered in Sanctuary of Athena in Pergamon. Copy of mid-5th century B.C.E. chryselephantine sculpture by Pheidias in the Parthenon.

“As the city lies on a steep hill that rises suddenly from the surrounding plain, terracing was needed to accommodate the monumental new buildings and enclosures, and here it was employed to astonishingly brilliant effect. The main view of the city is from the west, dominated by the huge theatre sunk into the side of the hill. The arc of the theatre seems to rest upon the giant stoa set below it that both served the practical function of a retaining balustrade and provided a panoramic walkway for strolling theatre goers. The main terraces on which lay the other main public buildings of the city—the temples, the library and the altar of Zeus—radiated outwards from the theatre, and many of these structures too are defined and linked by stoas.”

Moreover, the building complexes were oriented in such a way to give optimal views of each other. All of them were decorated by marble-columned stoas, many of which hosted exquisite statuary. The nature of the public art was more like Athens than like Alexandria or Macedon. The Pergamon dynasts did not exhibit themselves as masterful warriors or oriental gods. Unlike the Ptolemaic pharaohs, the Seleukids and the Macedonians, the Attalids celebrated the Olympian gods, especially Athena, who was not only a warrior but also the deity of wisdom. The city was thus seemingly a living entity, a body unto itself. And the residents were part of that living polis, not subjects of military masters.

Second, the Attalids, during Pergamon’s golden age, were  ardently pro-Athenian. Their aesthetics were principally influenced by that of Athens in the time of Pericles. In the Met show, the 2/3 size copy (over 10 foot without the base) of the famous Pheidias Athena from the Parthenon (created three hundred years before the marble copy) greets the visitor entering the gallery of Pergamon and its arts. Eumenes II probably commissioned the work, which was placed in the precinct of the temple of Athena in the upper plaza of the acropolis of Pergamon. What remains of the statue corresponds closely with the Athenian original, including the birth of Pandora relief on the base. Only the helmet is slightly simplified. It is impossible to tell if all the accessories were originally similar. Perhaps, some (like the serpent signifying Athena’s status as protector of Athens) were omitted, in which case the image may have been repurposed to emphasize her function as goddess of wisdom and learning. This would have been logical given the the famous Library of Pergamon was connected to the Athena precinct.

*24. Map of the Upper Acropolis of Pergamon (with building through Imperial Roman times). From Hansen.

25. Triton (Acroterion from Great Altar’s roof). Marble. ca. 160 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin,

It was during Eumenes’s reign (according to Strabo, XIII.4.2) that Pergamon founded its great Library. Accounts of it suggest it may have been the largest library in the Greek world, with more manuscripts than the Library of Alexandria and a better cataloguing system. Unlike Alexandria, Pergamon used parchment, rather than papyrus, for its manuscripts. (The term “parchment” derives from “Pergamon” because it was such a large producer of the skin-based books.) The collection must have been a source of great pride, but it was not collected simply for vanity. The Attalids actively sought scholars and intended the library for research. Attalos I made an unsuccessful attempt to lure Lakydes, head of Plato’s famous Academy and a philosopher whom Attalos had laid out a special garden for in Athens, the Lacydeum, but Lakydes declined, saying “statues are best seen from a distance.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, IV.8.60.) Attalos, however, was successful in recruiting the historian Neanthes (the Younger) and the famous mathematician Apollonius of Perga, who produced a significant work on conic sections (Sandys, p. 151). Eumenes II also aimed for one of Athens’s pre-eminent philosophers and tried to entice the Peripatetic philosopher Lykon, but he also declined. He then offered the position to Krates of Mallos, who accepted. Nagy (p. 214) quotes a witticism that “[t]he Stoics came, and so the Stoa accepted what the Academy and Lyceum had declined.” The ancients tended to deprecate the scholarship of Krates, the Stoic, especially when compared to Aristarchos of Alexandria. Aristarchos devoted full time to editing Homer. As a Stoic Krates was especially interested in Hesiod, but work on Homer was considered the more prestigious. In fact, he was considered the font of all wisdom. Varro (De lingua latina, 8.23 and 9.1) is responsible for the conventional view that Krates used the critical tool of “anomaly” in teasing out the “correct” Greek of Homer, while Aristarchos applied the opposite principle of analogy. A belief also arose that as a “good Stoic” Krates sought an allegorical interpretation of Homer. Nagy argues that their approaches were more nuanced. Krates, however, inclined to retain the text of lines he believed spurious (with appropriate marginalia annotations), while Aristarchos often simply excised them. Krates’s Homer therefore tends to be more inclusive and larger than that of Aristarchos. Nagy argues that as an editor and critic of Homer, Krates at least rivaled Aristarchos.

*26. Scene of Athena subduing two giants; part of Frieze of the Great Altar. Installed in Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

However that rivalry may be, the arrival of Krates came around the same time that the Great Altar [#2] was being built (Kastner, p. 140). The altar itself was the kind of monumental architecture that Pericles would have approved. Its immense stairway was surrounded on three sides by a base which contained a very high relief of the Gigantomachy—the story of how the gods of Olympus defeated the Giants and saved our world from chaos. The stairway led to a flood on which the altar proper surrounded on three sides by porticos containing statues. The roof of the porticos also supported statues of  deities, horses in quadrigas and mythical creatures. On the courtyard wall were reliefs of scenes from the infancy of Telephos, legendary king of Mysia.

*27. Okeanos driving Giants up the stairs of the Great Altar. Pergamon Museum.

The Gigantomachy frieze around the Great Altar is a masterpiece of Hellenistic relief. The planners of the altar undoubtedly knew that the work would be significant, because they not only inscribed the names of the gods (above) and giants (below) in each scene of the work, but also the name of the sculptor who produced the scene. Each scene is firmly rooted in Greek classical principles of composition. Take, for example the scene involving Athena [#*25]. The arrangement of figures follows the geometric form of a triangle and reminds one of Hestia, Dione and Aphrodite from the East Pediment of the Parthenon, now at the British Museum. But while the statues from the Parthenon give a sense of order and calm (no matter what is being depicted), the Pergamon frieze is one of continual action. The frame seems to be moving in a clockwise manner as Athena pulls the hair up of one giant with her right hand and the other giant is being forced down. The faces and bodily contortions of the giants show their agony, the one on our right is shown trying to hold the goddess’s arm to prevent further harm. The serpent legs of the giants are writhing uselessly while on our right the eagles of Zeus are coming to further torment the enemies of order. The frieze has over a hundred figures, each larger than life, and each one participating in a ferocious hand-to-hand combat rendered with the highest technique. The scenes are so engaging that it is impossible to resist the elegant design and the dramatic narrative. But the artists took the effect one step further. In places the figures come so far out of the block that they appear to be entering “our” world. On the stairway for example, as Oceanus is forcing two giants forward, one has a knee resting on the step [#*27].

28. Relief of Herakles finding his son Telephos nursed by a Lioness. Proconessian marble. ca. 160 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. From courtyard of Great Altar, Pergamon.

Unlike the art which sought to duplicate Athenian classicism [such as #23], the art of the Great Altar explores new manners of expression, emphasizing movement, promoting surprise and attempting to make the viewer experience a connection with the characters or respond to the drama or theatricality of the scene. Even when the subject is not frenzied activity, the bodies are often shown in positions unlike the formal posture of the classical figure [see, e.g., #22, above]. For example, the relief of Herakles discovering his son Telephos [#28] is one several scenes of the birth and childhood of Telephos. In this one block, Herakles rests on his club with one leg crossed in front of him. The posture shows how the muscles throughout his body are either tensed or relaxed. Telephos is being suckled by a lionness when Herakles finds him. The usual story has the infant being nursed by a hind, but evidently the artist here thought that the juxtaposition of the nursing lioness with the skin of the Namean lion Herakles killed [see also #7] created a contrast that provoked thought (a characteristic of the Baroque stage of Hellenistic art). The viewer has been promoted by this art from a mere spectator, an admirer, to a participant, one whose attention must be engaged.

29. Head of Karneades. Marble. Late first century B.C.E. Antiknmuseum Basel und Sammlung, Ludwig. Roman copy of Greek bronze ca. 120 B.C.E. The Greek original stood in the Agora of Athens near the Stoa of Attalos.

But engaged for what? Is there a lesson in the frieze of the Great Altar, and, if so, what? Pollitt (pp. 81-82) says that it sets Pergamon up as the Athens of the East, as the force to quell the chaos of barbarian Asia. Erika Simon sees it as a philosophical allegory influenced by Krates’s Stoicism. Krates, for example, allegorized Zeus as Ouranos and Helios. This would explain why the Titans were fighting on the side of the Olympian gods. Kleanthes in his Hymn to Zeus makes Zeus the enforcer of rational order. And on the frieze, Zeus is seen on each side, except the one representing Hades where order is abandoned. The deformity of the giants (with snakes for legs, for example) is consistent with the Stoics’ belief that passion (the cause of chaos) is a deforming disease. I am not sure a close allegorical correspondence is necessary, however. The art is on such a high level that the viewer can supply his own context, based on his own belief system. The ability to engage the viewer as a participant makes narrative explanation unnecessary.

Theatricality, Novelty  and Shock in the Baroque

Once you see the theatricality of the Baroque aspect of Hellenistic art, you notice it in all the work of Pergamon which is not a strict copy of a classical original. The Beautiful Head [#1], for instance, tilts her head and opens her lips slightly, as though she is about to speak to us. The fleshy cheeks of the Dying Woman [#15] are contorted by her curled lip to create an impression of immense despair. The head of the philosopher Karneades [#29] is slightly titled and his arched eyebrow, wide open eyes and parted lips give the impression of someone in rapt attention.

30. Small Heads with Theater Masks. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

31. Head of Menander. Marble. First century C.E. Dunbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Roman copy of Greek statue probably set up in Athens, 3rd century B.C.E. From Tarquinia.

31. Head of Menander. Marble. First century C.E. Dunbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Roman copy of Greek statue probably set up in Athens, 3rd century B.C.E. From Tarquinia.

The theatricality of the art should not be surprising given how central (and long standing) the theater of Pergamon was to city life. And theater was widespread throughout the Hellenistic world.. The fact that small (3″ high) terracotta heads wearing masks [#30] were found in a tomb in northwest Asia Minor suggests that theater was a personal and important experience for the public. Hellenistic theater, like Hellenistic poetry, was far more intimate than classical theater. Tragedies were largely declamations and dance illustrating a myth presented abstractly to teach a philosophical or religious point. Classical comedy was satirical and topical, mostly related to the politics of the time. With Menander (ca. 342/41–ca. 290 B.C.E.) comedy became situational and centered on commoners. The plots were often formulaic and pandered to middlebrow tastes. But unlike classical comedy, emphasis was placed on characterization (albeit stereotypical) so that the audience could respond directly to the predicaments the characters found themselves in rather than as mere spectators to events beyond their control. The copy of the Athenian statue of the playwright [#31] was one of seventy found throughout the Hellenized word, and they testify to the popularity of the writer. His epigrammatic sayings were so widely disseminated that one ends up in a Pauline Epistle (1 Corinthians 15:33).

32. Emblema of SItinerant Musicians dress in New Comedy masks. Stone mosaic. 2nd-1st century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. From Pompeii.

Lyrical poetry also became more personal, more concerned with temporal rather than rather than moral or metaphysical questions. Lovesick shepherds prevailed. Kallimachos (Callimachus), a scholar at the Library of Alexandria and influential lyricist of the era, actively advocated for poets to move from the epic and political to the small and personal. From his fragment Aetia:

“[T]he Telchines, who are ignorant and no friends of the Muse, grumble at my poetry, because I did not accomplish one continuous poem of many thousands of lines on … kings or… heroes, but like a child I roll forth a short tale, though the decades of my years are not few. … Begone, you baneful race of Jealousy! hereafter judge poetry by [the canons] of art, and not by the Persian chain, nor look to me for a song loudly resounding. It is not mine to thunder; that belongs to Zeus. For, when I first placed a tablet on my knees, Lycian Apollo said to me: ‘… poet, feed the victim to be as fat as possible but, my friend, keep the Muse slender. …”

33. Cameo of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II. Indian sardonyx om hp;f dryyomh. 278-270 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

33. Cameo of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II. Indian sardonyx in gold bail. 278-270 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

The celebration of the personal (they might have said: the personal is poetical!) is seen especially in the luxury art. There are the usual items of ostentatious jewelry, necklaces, hair pins, diadems, pendants and one spectacular pair of gold serpentine arm bands that terminating in the bottom (the distal end?) with a sea monster and at the top in a male and a female triton. But two items especially struck me. The first was a royal (Ptolemaic) cameo from the early third century B.C.E. [#33]. The piece is an extraordinarily rendered portrait of the royal couple in dazzling onyx. But more interesting is how the composition portrays a perfectly serene and nearly matched couple, Ptolemy II Philadelphos and Arsinoe II, who were brother and sister before they were husband and wife. Their family relationship gives them nearly identical appearances. Although Ptolemy is fitted out as a warrior general, with a helmet sporting a serpent  and a portrait of Ammon on his neck guard, the portrayal resembles nothing like the heroic portrayals of any of the original Diadochi, of which his father was one, and perhaps the half-brother of Alexander himself). Arsinoe II wears the head covering of a bride, and this stone might have been carved to celebrate the couple’s wedding. Whatever the occasion, this piece is unmistakably “heterodox” in terms of classical aesthetics only one generation removed from Alexander.

34. Head of Man Wearing a Kausia. Bronze with copper and alabaster (?) inlays. 3rd century B.C.E. Archaeological Museum, Kalymnos.

34. Head of Man Wearing a Kausia. Bronze with copper and alabaster (?) inlays. 3rd century B.C.E. Archaeological Museum, Kalymnos.

The second particularly striking piece of personal/luxury art in the Metropolitan show is a head of a mature man in a kausia [#34]. Of course the inlaid metal/mineral eyes immediately attracts attention, but a close inspection of the man’s face shows a spare beard of a few days’ growth. Although the kausia, a headwear designed to protect against cold, is sometimes seen in Hellenistic coins, it is unique among statues of warriors or rulers. A number of features point toward the conclusion that the man is Macedonian, and some have speculated that it might be of Philip V. If so, this item shows how far the Greek Baroque had by that time affected portraiture of men presumably interested in projecting power and authority. The gaze is fixed, and this possibly is designed to substitute for the youthfulness and vigor of earlier portrayals of Hellenistic kings. The figure conveys a sense of realistism, at least one step away from the idealized versions of Alexander and the Diadochi.

35. Emaciated Youth. Bronze. 1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Copy of Late Hellenistic original found near Soissons, France.

35. Emaciated Youth. Bronze. 1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Copy of Late Hellenistic original found near Soissons, France.

The luxury items of the rich and powerful tended towards ostentation, on the one hand, and self memorial, on the other. For the less well off statuettes were available that veered into the grotesque. The Met show has two: one is a statuette of an old woman, the other is one of an emaciated youth [#35]. As for the latter, a recent medical opinion is that the young man is suffering from chronic lead poisoning. These two figurines belong to a subset of late Hellenistic art which Zanker (p. 125) lists as “boy-jockeys, old boxers, poor fishermen, drunken old women, dwarves, cripples and grotesques.” What could these images have meant to their owners? Did they provide humor (as Zanker suggests)? It is hard to imagine however, how having a severely diseased image could provide entertainment, no matter how decadent one imagines the society that produced them. Some new concept was aimed at, since such figures lay outside the boundaries of classical Greek art. According to Dasen (pp. 165-66):

“Greek artists, like Egyptians, had little interest in showing human physical anomalies. Monsters are usually composed of human and animal elements, otherwise normal when looked at separately. … [O]nly satyrs may have slightly unusual bodies, obese, acromegelic or hunchbacked. … [O]rdinary humans are very rarely individualized by physical deformities, apart from marginal figures, such as highwaymen or foreigners.”

36. Statuette of a Dwarf Dancing. Bronze. Early 1st century B.C.E. Musée National du Bardo, Tunis. Part of cargo of a shipwreck off Mardi, Tunisia possibly in the late 70s B.C.E.

36. Statuette of a Dwarf Dancing. Bronze. Early 1st century B.C.E. Musée National du Bardo, Tunis. Part of cargo of a shipwreck off Mardi, Tunisia possibly in the late 70s B.C.E.

The Met exhibition also has three renderings of dwarves. One, a late Hellenistic statuette now in the Louvre, probably was an object of merriment and ridicule, because it shows the man carrying a rooster which has planted one claw into his groin and had clamped its beak on the man’s lip. Another, a late Hellenistic or early Imperial Rome bronze statuette now in the Princeton University Art Museum, shows a dwarf jauntily carrying a small antelope across his back, his tunic failing to cover his disproportionately large penis. The third [#36] appears to me a representation of a dwarf as entertainer dancing. Dasen (p. 247) explains the difference between classical Greek and Late Hellenistic and Roman treatment of dwarfs:

The acceptance of dwarfs in Egypt and classical Greece contrasts with the centuries of exclusion which followed in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when attitudes to physical malformation changed drastically. … The uneasiness created by their appearance still provoked rejection, but it was counterbalanced by laughter. All kinds of deformities, including cretinism and severe disorders, appear in a wide range of works, from small terra cotta and bronze statuettes to wall paintings and mosaics. … Dwarfs are shown with an exaggerated realism, often with additionally grotesque features, such as overlarge genitals, and grimacing faces. Many dwarfs earned a living by exhibiting themselves as entertainers in shows which staged, for example, fights between pygmies and cranes [see Iliad III:1-9]. Western Romans and emperors delighted in them, as later Europeans did.”

Levi gives another example of the use of dwarf iconography in late Hellenistic times. In a building at Jekmejeh near Antioch the second story contained an emblema of an evil eye being attacked by a number of weapons and animals. As a dwarf is walking away from it, his overly large penis, wraps between his legs and faces the evil eye. Levi (p. 225) speculates that this is an example of ἄτοπία, the principle of “unbecomingness.”

“Beings with a funny appearance or in which some obscene details are accented are good apotropia, as well as normal beings represented in indecent attitudes, making vulgar gestures or noises. Behind this magic conception, perhaps, lies something more than what is generally explained; more than a simple popular trick in order to avert the demons’ attention from their evil purposes: laughter is the opposite pole of the anguish produced by the dark forces of evil; where there is laughter, it scatters the shades and the phantasms. The magic papyrus of Paris … expresses this idea in the most expressive terms, by saying when the Creator laughed, for the first time, light was created. … Dwarfs and pygmies are especially fit to be used as ἄτοπία because of certain shocking disproportions in their bodies, appearing also in other representations beside the magic ones.” [Footnotes omitted.]

The superstitious use of dwarf images for magical and prophylactic purposes has the hallmarks of sources which the Greeks would call “barbarian.” But where did the revulsion and the ridicule come from? Did the baroque nature of the art, constantly pushing for more discordant contrasts, force wider the bounds of acceptable depiction? (Is this what we have seen in the twentieth–twenty-first century C.E.?) Or did the mixing of cultures that began with Alexander’s conquests inevitably lead to the need to create “others” to remind the “us” of our status especially in times of distress? (Is this another phenomenon we have seen?)

37. Hermaphrodite and Satyr. Marble. 1st century C.E. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia. Roman copy of Greek bronze (?) original in 2nd century B.C.E. Discovered at villa at Oplontuis at the foot of Vesuvius.

Whatever the explanation, we can see the the boundaries of decency pushed to their ancient limits in the final gallery where we see Rome as a Hellenistic-influenced city. There we find the nude female body (first introduced in post-classical times), in the form of a marble Aphrodite from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection, not simply an object of beauty, but also an object of erotic desire. It is not far from there to the depiction of the sleeping hermaphrodite from the Met’s own collection—an object initially of erotic attractive from  behind, but one of surprise and possibly mirthful shock when viewed from the other side. The final step in this process of decadent eroticization is seen in the statue of the hermaphrodite fending off the attempted rape by a satyr [#37]. Here a deformed creature is portrayed as lustfully and violently pressing himself on a human that belongs to no “natural” sex. Not only does the work violate several of the “rules” that governed classical art, it seems also to show that art could be appreciated not only by how it conforms to “rules” but also by how it breaks them.

Regardless of one’s feelings about what the subject matter says about the patrons of such art, it is impossible to fail to be amazed at how the three dimensional composition of this work as well as the technical mastery required to produce two figures in such physical contortions. Both of these considerations are considerably beyond the conceptions of Athens during the classical period. And neither would be seen again for nearly a millennia and a half.  Whatever combination of Greek seed and foreign soil that Alexander and his followers sowed, the result was three centuries of art of imagination and quality at least equal to any other period of history. And the Metropolitan Museum’s presentation is a superb introduction, not to be missed if at all possible.

Notes

1According to Pindar, Telephus was king of Mysia when the Achaeans landed there mistaking it for Troy. Because he was most like his father Herakles, he was able to repel them. (Olympia, ix.12; Isthmian v.12.) Dionysus, however, caused him to trip over a vine, allowing Achilles to wound him. (Isthmian, viii.109: “Achilles, who stained the vine-covered plain of Mysia, spattering it with the dark blood of Telephus … .”) Telephus died from the wound. [Return to text.]

2Xenophon had gone to Pergamon to meet up with the Greek mercenaries who had assisted Cyrus in his expedition against his brother, the Persian King, and were now intending to join Thibron, a Spartan who had come to Asia Minor in force to free the Greek cities.
At Pergamon Xenophon met the the widow (Hellas) of a Greek defector, who was sympathetic to the Greek cause, and she suggested that Xenophon raid the estate of a wealthy Persian neighbor. The sons of Hellas came to Xenophon’s aid when surrounding areas came out against him, and eventually Xenophon obtained the treasures he was after along with the Persian family as his prisoners. Xenophon’s forces and Hellas’s sons then joined Thibron. (Anabasis, VII 7.57 & VII 8.7-23Hellenica, iii.1.6). After the end of Greek-Persian hostilities in 386 B.C.E., the Persians regained control and punished those dynasts and cities that aided Xenophon and Thibron (Hansen, p. 10). [Return to text.]

3Indeed his monetary “courtesies” were widely bestowed, such as to such far flung cities as Greek Pitane (he paid part of the debt owed to Antiochus), Aeolian Aigai (his contribution was reflected in a dedication to the Apollo Chresterios) and Kyzikos on the Sea of Marmara [#8] (over a five year period he gave significant sums to pay for such things as games, horses for defense, troops to protect against the Galatians, etc.). Inscriptions in mainland Greece also give evidence of substantial contributions by Philetairos to various temples (Hansen, p. 19). [Return to text.]

4Polybius, Histories VIII:23: “… the council met, and a long debate ensued as to what punishment they were to inflict upon Achaeus. Finally, it was resolved that his extremities should be cut off, his head severed from his body and sewn up in the skin of an ass, and his body impaled.” [Return to text.]

5Pseudo Scymnus in [Heinrich Theodor Dittrich (ed.)], Scymni Chii Periegesis quae supersunt. Recensuit et annotatione critica instruxit B. Fabricius (Lipsiae [Leipzig]: B.G. Teubneri, 1846), p2, lines 16-18, which can be viewed at Hathi Trust. There is, unfortunately, no English translation of this poet who seems to have flourished around 150 B.C.E. [Return to text.]

Sources

Burn, Lucilla, Hellenistic Art from Alexander the Great to Augustus (Los Angeles, California: J. Paul Getty Museum, c2004).

Chamoux, François, Hellenistic Civilization trans. by Michel Roussel (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, c2003).

Dasen, Véronique, Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Dreyfus, Renée  and Schraudolph, Ellen (eds.), Pergamon: The Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar (San Francisco, California: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, c1996).

Fowler, Barbara Hughes, The Hellenistic Aesthetic (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, c1989).

Hansen, Esther V., The Attalids of Pergamon (2nd ed.: Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, c1971).

Holm, Adolph, The History of Greece from its Commencement to the Close of the Independence of the Greek Nation trans. Frederick Clarke, vol. 4 (London: Macmillen and Co., 1902) (at Google Books).

Kastner, Volker, “The Architecture of the Great Altar of Pergamon,” Pergamon, Citadel of the Gods: Archaelogical Record, Literary Description, and Religious Development edited by Helmut Koester (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998).

Kuttner, Ann, “Republican Rome Looks at Pergamon,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 97, pp. 157-78 (1995).

Levi, Doro, “The Evil Eye and the Lucky Hunchback,” Antioch on-the-Orantes vol. III: Excavations 1937-1939 ed. by Richard Stillwell (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1941).

Nagy, Gregory, “The Library of Pergamon as a Classical Model,” Pergamon, Citadel of the Gods: Archaelogical Record, Literary Description, and Religious Development edited by Helmut Koester (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998).

Perkins, Charles C., “The Pergamon Marbles. I. Pergamon: Its History and Its Buildings,” The American Art Review, vol. 2, no. 4 (February 1881), pp. 145-150 (at JStor).

Picón, Carlos A. and Hemingway, Seán (eds.), Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, c2016).

Pollitt, J.J.,  Art in the Hellenistic Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, c1986).

Sandys, John Edwin, A Short History of Classical Scholarship from the Sixth Century B.C. to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915) (at Google Books).

Simon, Erika, Pergamon und Hesiod (Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 1975).

Stewart, Andrew “Narration and Allusion in the Hellenistic Baroque,” Narrative and Event in Ancient Art  edited by Peter J. Holliday (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Thomas, Christine M., “The Sanctuary of Demeter at Pergamon: Cultic Space for Women and Its Eclipse,”Pergamon, Citadel of the Gods: Archaelogical Record, Literary Description, and Religious Development edited by Helmut Koester (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998).

Zanker, Graham, Modes of Viewing in Hellenistic Poetry and Art (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, c2004).

Turner’s Whaling Canvases (and a little Melville)

A small exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan (through August 7, 2016) shows that in the late 1840s it was not just Herman Melville who was thinking about the business of whaling as a subject fit to expand an art form. The Met has re-assembled the four oils that Turner painted around 1845 that treat the dangerous, bloody and seemingly existential business of whaling by putting together in the same room for the first time since they were in Turner’s studio its own Whalers together with the related ones now owned by the Tate. While these few paintings might seem a thin reed to base a Melville-Turner connection, if you read to the end, you might find some interesting points of connection (and some wild conjectures).

Turner and the Sea

1. Fishermen at Sea by J.M.W. Turner. ca. 1792. Oil on canvas. Tate. London. (BJ 1.) (As with all the illustration in this post, click to enlarge and click again to enlarge further.)

For some, Turner was principally, if not exclusively, a landscape painter. At the Met last week, I was surprised when a woman remarked to me (out of nowhere), “I thought Turner was a landscape painter.” John Ruskin, Turner’s early and greatest champion, also saw him as principally a landscape painter, and that’s how he’s treated in Modern Paintings.1 But maritime works were a core part of his output. The first painting the 21 year old Turner exhibited, his Fishermen at Sea, [#1] was a maritime picture but also a breathtaking production that made the familiar dramatic with bold lighting from the moon illuminating a boat atop an undulating sea defined by dark water and white crests, white reflections and white birds. The chiaroscuro effect emphasizes the power of the sea and also implies that the water nests the fishermen who appear serene in the midst of the surges. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1802. when he was 27, owing in large part to his Dutch Boats in a Gail [the “Bridgewater Seapiece”] (1801; BJ 14), which was a popular success when exhibited to the Royal Academy in 1801 and was considered by Henry Fuseli and Benjamin West to surpass the Dutch models and even Rembrandt! From then on maritime subjects became a staple for Turner. A maritime painting was the first of Turner’s paintings to be engraved. (The painting The Shipwreck (BJ 54), exhibited in 1805, was engraved by J. Burnet in 1853.) Hermann (p. 1) found that 150 of the 541 oils catalogued Butlin and Joll have the sea as its central feature, and this doesn’t count historical/mythological pictures or views of harbors or Venice.

2. The Wreck of a Transport Ship by J.M.W. Turner. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1810. Fundaçao Calouste Gulbendikan, Lisbon.) (BJ 210.)

The sea with the men and vessels on it was a subject that was not only dramatic in itself, but also one central to the psyche of the island nation who allowed its rulers to impress foreign seamen so that its own navy and merchant marine could continue to supply the “nation of shopkeepers” with its economic vitals. Britannia took pride in ruling the oceans, and Turner was more than willing to become its visual chronicler, booster and sometime critic. Between Dutch Boats in a Gale and Wreck of a Transport Ship [#2] Turner had a “decade of painting grand seapieces” which he would no return to until the late 1820s (BJ 210). When Turner took up seascapes again, this time more or less regularly, with Port Ruysdael, exhibited in 1827 (BJ 237), he would concern himself with churning seas, which Ruskin described as the “white, wild, cold, comfortless waves of the north sea” which in the composition are “almost subordinate to the awful rolling clouds.” (Modern Painters I:379.)  To Ruskin Turner was the undisputed master of both the sky and the sea:

3. Margate from the Sea: Whiting Fishing by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper. 1822. Private collection.

“it may be generally stated that Turner is the only painter, so far as I know, who has ever drawn the sky, (not the clear sky, which we before saw belonged exclusively to the religious schools, but the various forms and phenomena of the cloudy heavens,) all previous artists having only represented it typically or partially; but he absolutely and universally … He is the only painter who has ever represented the surface of calm, or the force of agitated water; who has represented the effects of space on distant objects, or who has rendered the abstract beauty of natural color. These assertions I make deliberately, after careful weighing and consideration, in no spirit of dispute, or momentary zeal; but from strong and convinced feeling, and with the consciousness of being able to prove them.” (MP  I:138-39).

4. Regulus by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1828, reworked 1837. Tate, London. (BJ 294.)

To achieve mastery of skies and seas, particularly turbulent ones, the treatment of light (including reflection, chiaroscuro and diffusion) as well as color (although the more experimental approaches to color came later) needed to be subordinated to his overall approach. Like many romantic painters (including those of the more-or-less contemporary American Hudson River School) Turner began with a fondness for lighting the picture from a central source in the background. As time went on, Turner used sunlight in both seascapes and landscapes that approached closer to the horizon (see Margate from the Sea [#3]). As he increased the intensity of the light, it threw the forms on both sides into something like relief. In Regulus (rev. 1837) [#4] the viewer sees sunlight so intense that it obscures the objects on either side of its direct rays. The effect was one that Turner vigorously applied himself to create. John Gilbert, whose own exhibit was on the opposite wall to Turner’s at the British Institution exhibition, saw Turner rework the piece in 1837:

5. Ancient Italy—Ovid Banished from Rome by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1838. Private Collection. (BJ 375.)

“The picture was a mass of red and yellow of all varieties. Every object was in this fiery state. He had a large palette, nothing in it but a huge lump of flake-white; he had two or three biggish hog tools to work with, and with these he was driving the white into all the hollows, and every part of the surface. This was the only work he did, and it was the finishing stroke. The sun, as I have said, was in the centre; from it were drawn—ruled—lines to mark the rays; these lines were rather strongly marked, I suppose to guide his eye. The picture became wonderfully effective, just the effect of brilliant sunlight absorbing everything and throwing a misty haze over every object.” (BJ 294.)

6. Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1842. Tate, London. (BJ 398.)

A similar concept (also of an ancient historical setting) was used the following year in Turner’s Ancient Italy—Ovid Banished from Rome [#5]. The critics were not charitable to these experiments. Ruskin, after Turner’s death (in his 1857 Notes) found Regulus to be “very disgraceful to Turner,” and the Anthenaeum (May 12, 1838) concluded on the basis of Ancient Italy that it was “grievous to think of talent, so mighty and so poetical, running riot into such frenzies; the more grievous, as we fear, it is now past recall.”

7. Peace—Burial at Sea by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1842. Tate, London. (BJ 399.)

Storms at sea as well as night on the ocean required Turner to understand how to express the absence of light, and he engaged in a similar path of experimentation. In Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead [#6], he painted a swirl of light and dark encircling a craft listing in mortal danger. Turner added a subtitle: “The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich.” It is less important that the documentary evidence does not support this claim than the fact that Turner called himself an “Author” not “Artist.” The painting was intended to be journalistic; that is, recorded by an observer. And to our eyes the painting has real authenticity. But the contemporary critics found the work insufficiently representational. Punch and other satirists routinely compared Turner’s work of this period to various salads and the Anthenaeum (May 14, 1842) condemns Turner for using “his whole array of kitchen stuff. Where the steam-boat iswhere the harbour begins, or where it ends—which are the signals, and which the author in the Ariel … are matters past our finding out.” The idea that the piece should be criticized for expressing the emotional intensity of experiencing the storm’s ferocity instead of subordinating it to a “literal” depiction of physical forms and relationships (one that could not be seen under the circumstances portrayed) seems odd to us who have absorbed a century and a half of developments in painting and other pictorial technology. But the radicalness of the approach, pre-Impressionism and before the New was celebrated, can be perhaps best understood by considering that Ruskin himself expressed (privately) his view that the was nothing more than “whitewash and soapsuds.”2 When Turner combined his mastery of intense light, pure blackness and his experiments with reds and yellows of early 1840s, he produced Peace [#7], a visual threnody of surprising power. What did the most informed art writers of his time think of it? Clarkson Stanfield of the Royal Academy thought the sails were too black. The newspaper critics were uniformly hostile, with the Spectator (May 7, 1842), insinuating its lack a patriotism (or its radicalness) by dubbing it “rouge et noir.” Other newspaper commentators competed to make even less witty disparaging remarks. But even Ruskin (in his 1857 Notes) criticized the “unnatural blackness of the sails.

8. Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1840. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (BJ 385.)

The most effective of Turner’s black-red-yellow experiments was Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1840; BJ 385) [#8]. Turner here subordinates composition to the interplay of colors. The most clearly defined object is a human leg surrounded by fish in the right foreground. Hands appear to be sticking up from the sea further back. We see a ship somewhat obscured by the mist or fog. What the painting essentially consists of is the layering of black, yellow, red and white (with a few other colors for details). The interplay of the colors makes up the sea, which imperceptibly becomes the sky, which takes up half the canvas. Turner regarded it as the noblest sea Turner ever created, and, therefore, “the noblest ever painted by man.” The ship is forcing its way through uneasy surf, moving away from the central light (lightning?) but framed in an ominously red sky. The production heaves with moral revulsion.

9. Van Tromp’s Shallop at the Entrance of the Scheldt by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1832. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut . (BJ 344.)

The newspapers once again objected to the lack of sharp definition of objects. And it is certainly true that the works of the 1840s were considerably less “representational” than those of the 1830s, such as the Von Tromp’s Shallop [#9]. The earlier paintings followed the approach that had come to be accepted among Dutch painters earlier in the century. The Dutch painters attempted a sort of “verisimilitude” that made the objects throughout the painting distinct, even though a person viewing the scene in nature could not see the actual scene in that way, most of the scene being confined to peripheral vision. But in the 1830s Turner had departed from the Dutch models by adding atmospheric perspective so that German art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen considered Turner’s approach as “a crude painted medley with a general foggy appearance” constituting a “total want of truth.”3 Ruskin expends a great deal of effort in defending Turner from this kind of criticism by way of a minute explanation of the nature of atmospheric perspective (the effect of air, depending on its moisture content, to make more obscure and paler distant objects, to the extent of their distance), although he had no term for it, simply calling it one of the intentional “mysteries” of Turner’s painting. (MP, IV:68-79.) It is in the context of Ruskin’s defense of Turner’s renderings of skies and clouds (and by extension distant objects) that Ruskin makes his provocative statement: “We never see anything clearly.” (MP IV:58.) That defense, however, depended upon rendering the forms “definite”: “You can only show how the light affects the object, by knowing thoroughly what the object is; and noble mystery differs from ignoble, in being a veil thrown between us and something definite, known, and substantial; but the ignoble mystery is a veil cast before chaos, the studious concealment of Nothing.” (MP IV:73.)  But this is where Turner and Ruskin (at least the younger Ruskin) parted ways. And it is why Ruskin denigrated the first of the whaling canvases at the Met exhibit.4

Turner, Whales and Whalers

*10. The Whale on Shore by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper. ca. 1837. Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio. (The asterisk—*—indicates the piece is shown as part of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition.)

It was during his new, more expressionistic, departure in the 1840s that the whaling projects were conceived. Turner had only once before taken any interest in whales and that was a watercolor [#10] designed to be engraved for an illustration to a multivolume collection of Walter Scott works (specifically to an abridgment of The Pirate). The work is strikingly busy. The scene represents an important plot point in the novel. During an attempt to kill a whale the pirate of the title (who had earlier been saved by the hero) rescues the hero from drowning. Their obligations now cancelled out, they may begin their rivalry for the same love interest. Even given the elaborate and fully populated scene by Scott, it is remarkable how many things are going on in Turner’s picture. The whale is near shore in the midground right. The rescue takes place in the foreground. A thunderstorm is off shore to the left. And the whale is being harassed by boats and attacked with all sorts of weapons including muskets. The picture is filled with scores of people. The composition was perhaps designed to give a flavor of the fanciful nature of the novel. In the midst of the chaos, the whale itself is quite odd. Hamilton (p. 94) says that it has the look of a “post-medieval bestiary woodcut illustration.” It is interesting to note, however, that the whale is clearly a right whale, the kind of whale most common in the North Atlantic, and not a sperm whale, which Turner would paint in his canvases.5 Neither the style nor the content of the painting, however, prefigures the whale canvases.

11. Peche de la Balein by Frederic Martens. Uncolored acquatint after a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray, published by Rittner & Goupil, Paris, 1834-35.

11. Peche de la Balein by Frederic Martens. Uncolored aquatint after a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray, published by Rittner & Goupil, Paris, 1834-35.

Hamilton (p. 92) suggests as a possible guiding influence on Turner’s mid-1840 departure in maritime works Captain Elisha Ely Morgan, an affable old Yankee mariner, who regularly appeared in London, owing to his packet service between New York and London and Liverpool. While in London Morgan cultivated the foremost literary and artistic lights, including Dickens and Thackeray. Turner became such an enthusiast of Morgan’s tales of the open sea (Turner himself never made an ocean voyage) that the two became so close that Morgan added Turner to the list of his intimates who were sent a box of American cigars when Morgan returned to New York. Hamilton speculates that Morgan’s stories may have influenced Turner’s evolution in sea painting from the academically-based paintings of the 1830s to the dramatic and emotion-filled pictures of the 1840s. (It may not be a coincident that Morgan was an abolitionist, and Turner painted the Slavers in 1840.) Morgan had also spent a year whaling in Greenland, so that might have been an impetus to the specific project. But Turner had other sources of inspiration.

12. Boats Attacking Whales by William James Linton. Engraving published as frontispiece to Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839).

Natural history, and the order of the living world, was a component of English cultural conversations in the 1840s and for many years before that. The five volumes written by various naturalists under the supervision of Charles Darwin describing the specimens he collected during the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle were published from February 1838 to October 1843 (under the general title Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle). Darwin’s own Journal and Remarks on the voyage (which contains references to whales and whaling throughout) was published in 1840.6 The Beagle was only one of a number of government sponsored expeditions, designed to explore sea routes but also to report on and collect new or little known organisms as a matter for scientific research. Specifically with respect to whales, although the British whaling industry was at depression levels owing to foreign (mainly Yankee) competition, whaling still captured the public’s attention. There was a fair amount of conventional art, including popular engravings [e.g., #11], as well as travelogues, histories of voyages and even literature. (Melville’s Typee, which was first published in London in 1846 and well received, portrayed sailors from the whaler The Dolly). Perhaps most important of the authentic descriptions of whaling was Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), which both Turner and Melville consulted.7 While the illustrations were fanciful [e.g., #12 with sperm whales frolicking and leaping wholly out of the water in the manner of dolphins], the text, written by a British surgeon, strove for accuracy not only about whales but also about a whaling voyage that Beale himself undertook.

13. Wreckers–Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore b y J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1834. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.

Financially Turner’s biggest inspiration probably was the rich spermaceti magnate Elhanan Bicknell, who had long been in the whaling business but had liquidated his investments before the bust. He was now a wealthy connoisseur of British painting, including Gainsborough, Landseer, Stanfield, Etty and others,  and had previously patronized Turner. According to Sutton, he became a champion (or at least a purchaser) of Turner before even his friend John Ruskin did. In the year before Turner painted the first two whaling oils, Bicknell purchased eight canvases by Turner.8 (The year 1844, however, was the year after the first volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters was first published, and it caused something of a bull market in Turner works.) Among the works of Turner he bought was Wreckers, a work that received universal praise on its exhibitions at the Royal Academy in 1834 and the British Institution in 1836. Turner’s attempt to reel in Bicknell was not only unsuccessful, however, it also resulted in a permanent breach in their relationship.

*14. Whalers by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1845. Tate, London. (BJ 414.)

In 1845 the 70 year old Turner was interim president of the Royal Academy. For his contribution to that summer’s annual exhibition (he was a member of the hanging committee) he selected his two whaling paintings [##14 & 15] together with four Venetian scenes. The whaling canvases both involve what whalers called the “chase,” and in the 1845 catalogue both refer to chapter XIII of “Beale’s Voyage” (i.e., Beale, Natural History of the Sperm Whale) for a description of the action. Beale describes the chase and capture as follows:

*15. Whalers (The Whale Ship) by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1845. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (BJ 415.)

“When in pursuit of the whale with the boats, it occasionally happens that just at the moment the harpoon is about to be plunged into its body, the whale suddenly descends, leaving nothing but a vortex to mark the spot where but a moment before it was seen floating; but its course, however, has been observed, and the boats are placed in a position to be as near as possible to it when it again rises to breathe; the time, as has been before stated, when he will do this is known to a minute. If they should be more fortunate in the next rising of the whale, and they succeed in darting the harpoon into its body, then immediately after the first struggles of the wounded animal and when he is lying exhausted from his enormous exertions to escape, or free himself from the harpoon, the boat’s head is placed close to its side, and the headsman begins to destroy it by thrusting his lance into its most vital parts, which lie near the fin, or darting at it from a distance; at the moment of lancing, he cries ‘stern all’; the oars are then immediately backed and the boat’s stern becoming its cutwater, it is thus removed from danger without the loss of time and trouble in turning. Again, when feeling the lance, the whale plunges and throws itself in all directions, lashing the water with its tail, or rearing its enormous head, and threatening destruction with its formidable jaw, (see cut, p. 154).” (pp. 159-60).

16. South Sea Whale Fishery by William Huggins. Engraving on p. 154 of T. Beale (1839).

The two paintings represent sequential events. The first (BJ 414) [#14] shows the whale boats in the process of harpooning the whale. The harpooner in the stern of the boat (the foremost of the human figures) is about to throw. The one slightly behind has no harpoon in hand and is perhaps cheering a hit. The whale, which is seen as only a brown mound to the right. His spout is slightly pink, showing that it has been injured enough to be exhaling blood. The men are pulling back the oars, the very thing Beale describes they do after the headsman cries, “stern all.” What is most remarkable about the painting, however, is the whiteness of the spray which obscures the scene and blends into the sky and sails of the distant ship. The oval effect created by the spray and clouds curving over the heads of the whalers creates a sense of urgency to the action. But it is the color that Turner uses to create the bright pacific sun over the sea that is most noticeable. The Spectator (May 10, 1845) remarked on the “prismatic brilliancy” of the “hues of light.” The Literary Gazette (May 17, 1845) concluded that Turner’s “scale of color has never … been approached by any other man;  … it is a development of elements essential in nature, carried far above her usual aspects.” The color must have faded over time, because the Morning Chronicle (May 7, 1845) praises the effect of the “red clothing of the sailors in the boat” which now appear brown. This may be an example of Turner’s point that owing to the materials used, Turner’s colors are not permanent.9 But even with the fading, the sense is one of blinding white sunlight in the mist.

Anonymous engraving at T. Beale, p. 173 (1839).

17. Anonymous engraving at T. Beale, p. 173 (1839).

The second painting (BJ 415) [#15], which shows the whale’s breach which followed its sounding on being harpooned, is at initial glance a more iconic composition. The head of the whale is seen in the foreground with the ship seemingly chasing it. To the right there is a large splash, possibly caused by the whale’s fluke. On closer inspection, between the whale and the ship are the boats stuggling against the waves caused by the whale’s actions. One boat seems ot have capsized, another is in the process of being upended with whalers holding the sides, and the third seems just beginning to feel the effects of the upheaval of the ocean. The story from Beale (pp. 173-76) is of an operation off Japan in June 1832. It was late afternoon when the whale was harpooned and successfully lanced, but it sounded deep and when it breached it hit one boat with its head upending it. It circled the men in the water, but did not harm them. When the whale was again lanced, it died and sunk, never to be seen again. The men, however, were all rescued. The culmination of the two scenes then is a near death experience ending in ultimate futility, a conclusion that Turner often urges for all manner of human endeavor, especially by quoting from his (never found) poem “Fallacies of Hope.”

Like its companion piece, in the second Whalers the atmospheric perspective is made through a brilliant foreground lighting effect rather than solely through darker tinted backgrounds. And unlike Regulus [#4] and its “huge lump of flake white forced into all the crevices of the canvas,” the brilliance of the surface was made up of different hues and tints. While Punch (January-June 1845, p. 233)  compared its effects to that of “lobster salads,” the critic for the Literary Gazette (May 17, 1845), while preferring Turner’s earlier work (because it did not “sublimate truth” to imagination) saw that the “handling of the tints, and their harmony, allowing for the exalted pitch of prismatic brightness, are astonishing. Splintered rainbows thrown against the canvas is a better comparison than … lobster sauce … .”

Bicknell took home the second of the Whalers but discovered that it was finished in part with water color, and he took that as a sign that Turner had not given enough time or care to finish the work properly. He attempted to remove the watercolor himself and damaged the work. A confrontation with Turner arose when he returned it for Turner to re-finish. Turner dug in his heels, and the dispute soon merged with another one,10 the combination of which seems to have ended their personal relationship.

*18. Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!’ by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1846. Tate, London. (BJ 423.)

Nothing discouraged, Turner undertook to paint two more whaling paintings for the next year’s Royal Academy show. The first, Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish! [#18], depicts the “cutting in” process for a whale that has been hauled in (see chapter 67 of Moby Dick for a description) and the “baling of the case” (Moby Dick, chapters 77 and 78). The second, Whalers (boiling Blubber) entangled in Flaw Ice, endeavouring to extricate themselves [#19], shows the final stage of the process of rendering fat into commercial oil. But like the first pair, this pair begins with a euphoric moment (a catch that fills the hold?) and ends with a potential disaster—the ship trapped in packed (flaw [sic]) ice. In fact, if you look at the four paintings in order, you can discern the sequence of the business of obtaining spermaceti and other oils from the sperm whale: first the chase, then the (unsuccessful) kill, then the cutting in and retrieving the spermaceti from the head and finally boiling the blubber for residual oil. But the two sets are also distinct. Not only do the 1845 paintings and the 1846 ones take place in different seas (a point I will discuss below), but their focus is also different. The first set observes men confronting nature, and they do it with sheer brute manpower. There is no sign of machines or technology (beyond simple Iron Age tools). In the 1846 set the focus is on the manufacturing aspect of whaling: retrieving the spermaceti, cutting in and rendering the blubber. The last painting shows how industrial methods have been brought to this far-away sea by means of the try-works (see Moby Dick, chapter 96). It is true that disaster faces this crew too (in the form of the ice pack), but that is simply part of the order of things: the fallacy of hope; it is not a condemnation of industry itself.

*19. Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1846. Tate, London. (BJ 426.)

For a long time art historians had seen this second pair as depictions of whaling in the Arctic, and then criticized Turner for details that were unrealistic. There was no commercial whaler known as Erebus, sperm whales are rare in the Arctic, Arctic whalers did not boil blubber and so forth. Wallace (1988), however, persuasively showed that the painting were of Antarctic waters and that Erebus was not a commercial whaler but rather a former bomb ketch refitted as a research vessel, sent (with another converted bomb ketch, the Terror, which had seen service in the War of 1812 against the United States) to explore southern sea lanes, to investigate the magnetism of the earth and also to “use every exertion to collect the various objects of Natural History which the many heretofore unexplored countries about to visited would afford.” (Richardson & Grey, p. v.) The youngest member of the expedition (which took place from 1839 to 1843) was the 22 year old Joseph Dalton Hooker, who would become one of the eminent botanists (specializing in geographical botany) and evolutionists in England and Darwin’s closest friend, defender and confidant. (He wrote the “Summary of the Voyage” which introduced Richardson & Grey’s first volume of the zoology of the voyage.)  As a member of the Anthenæum Club, Turner would have known a number of persons familiar with the voyage, including Hooker’s respected father, William Jackson Hooker.11 Wallace speculates that Turner might have even talked with expedition commander Captain James Clark Ross when he returned to London in 1843.

20. Cartoon published by Almanack of the Month (June 1846), p. 350.

The relevance of the location depicted may have to do (as Wallace argues with the nature of the illumination of the objects in the two pictures. Unlike the bright light of the first set of whalers which runs towards a warm color temperature, the color temperature of the second set is decidedly cooler, more bluish, even though the intensity seems the same. Wallace (1988, p. 27) says that the 1846 paintings give off “a wondrous radiance that is almost benedictory in its quality”; the first one having a “copper calm” and the second a “shimmering azure transparency.” Sympathetic contemporary critics struggled to explain what Turner was trying to achieve but they nonetheless remarked on the handling of color. About the first painting [#18] the Literary Gazette (May 9, 1846) said: “So entirely is the eye carried away by a sort of indistinct and harmonious magic, that we seem to consent to the abandonment of solid truth and real nature altogether, and allow dark ships to be chrome yellow, whales glittering pink, human beings sun or moon beams, and little thick dabs of paint ethereal clouds.” The Anthenaeum (May 9, 1846) praised the Boiling Blubber picture for allowing the viewer to make out forms, although color still predominates: “one can make forms out of those beautiful, though almost chaotic colours. The sea-green hue of the ice, the flicker of the sunbeam on the waves, the boiling of the blubber, and the tall forms of the ice-bound vessels, make up an interesting picture.” Given the Ruskin’s remark about the impermanence of Turner’s colors and the inference that the color of the sailors’ outfits in #14 faded considerably, it is probable that we do not today see the intended brilliance of the hues. Nevertheless, they are still striking. Those who denied any merit to the works simply ignored what Turner was attempting because they had long ago given up on Turner altogether. Instead of analysis they reverted back to the by-now-hackneyed lobster salad quip. The Almanack of the Month (June 1846) extended the quip beyond its already thin breaking point and added a caricature of Turner [#20] for those who failed to get the point.

What was Turner intending? Wallace argues (1988, p. 28), plausibly I think, that Turner intended to portray the unique atmospheric effects of the Antarctic region, which he learned of through reading Hooker’s journal (in December 1840-January 1841) or possibly through the impressions Hooker conveyed to his father, relayed to Turner at the Anthenæum Club. Hooker made the point that the meteorology and light of the Antarctic was distinct from that of the Arctic. And then he writes a passage that could describe the light effects of the second set of whalers:

“The water and the sky were both as blue, or rather more intensely blue than I have ever seen them in the tropics, and all the coast one mass of dazzlingly beautiful peaks of snow, which, when the sun approaches the horizon, reflected the most brilliant tints of golden, yellow and scarlet; and then to see the dark cloud of smoke, tinged with flame, rising from the volcano in a perfect unbroken column; one side jet black, the other giving back the colours of the sun, sometimes turning off at a right angle by some current of wind, and stretching many miles to leeward!”

The blubber rendering operation with its resulting plume replaces in the Boiling Blubber canvas the volcano in Hooker’s journal, and with this change the description of atmospheric effects seems to match.

21. The Hero of a Hundred Fights by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. ca. 1800-10, reworked 1847. Tate, London. (BJ 427.)

21. The Hero of a Hundred Fights by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. ca. 1800-10, reworked 1847. Tate, London. (BJ 427.)

The final two whaling canvases, however, are about more than lighting effects; they also have a narrative component. The Hurrah! painting (as we noted above) describes the processes of cutting in and baling the case. The painting shows the decapitated head of the sperm whale hoisted above the deck by a kind of windlass. (And it is distinctly a sperm whale as opposed to the right whale in #10.) The body of the whale lays on the side of the boat while the sailors cut at the layers of fat in order to unspool the blubber in one piece as the body rotates in the water (while sharks nip at the bleeding mass, according to Melville).  None of this requires any of the tools developed by the Industrial Revolution that began only a quarter of a century before Turner was born. No did the rendering of the fat in the Boiling Blubber painting. In fact, the entire Ross expedition of 1839-43 was somewhat pre-industrial—it was the last major British exploratory expedition undertaken wholly without steam power. But the second painting fits within Turner’s late depiction of technology, which as Turner saw it late in life involved dangerous blinding fire in the midst of darkness. This is how Turner depicted the casting of the bronze monument to the Duke of Wellington in The Hero of a Hundred Fights [#21], the only painting Turner exhibited in the Royal Academy’s show the following year. He would not submit any work thereafter. But that blasting light was also used by Turner in a series of religious and mythological paintings over the course of the next several years. The most striking of these, perhaps, is Angel Standing in the Sun [#22], which was exhibited at the same Royal Academy show as the second set of whaling pictures. The Angel of the Apocalypse in that painting (Revelations xix:17-18 is noted in the original catalogue) invites the fowl of the air to feast on the great men of earth.  The blinding light has come to signify the Fallacy of Hope itself. Was this perhaps the terror of a man facing his mortality? This peculiar form of Turner chiaroscuro appears around the time of Peace [#7], which commemorated the death of his friend, David Wilkie, an event that profoundly affected Turner.  However that might be, the Boiling Blubber painting is part of this group, pregnant, as it is, with incipient terror, for the ice-pack that is surrounding the ships could easily present mortal danger. Hooker explained how difficult it was to extricate from an ice pack which stranded the expedition from December 1841 to February 1842 (Richardson & Grey, pp. vii-vii). Captain Ross described the immense peril they were in when a storm struck while in the ice-pack in January 1842:

22, Angel standing in the Sun by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1846. Tate, London. (BJ 425.)

“The storm reached its height at two p.m., when the barometer stood at 28-40 inches, and after that time began to rise. Although we had been forced many miles deeper into the pack, we could not perceive that the swell had at all subsided, our ships still rolling and groaning amidst the heavy fragments of crushing bergs, over which the ocean rolled its mountainous waves, throwing huge masses one upon another, and then again burying them deep beneath its foaming waters, dashing and grinding them together with fearful violence. The awful grandeur of such a scene can neither be imagined nor described, far less can the feelings of those who witnessed it be understood. Each of us secured our hold, waiting the issue with resignation to the will of Him who alone could preserve us, and bring us safely through this extreme danger; watching with breathless anxiety the effect of each succeeding collision, and the vibrations of the tottering masts, expecting every moment to see them give way without our having the power to make an effort to save them.”  (Ross, pp. 169-70.)

As it turned out, both Erebus and Terror had or were experiencing this very event at the time the second set of paintings were being exhibited at the Royal Academy, this time in the Arctic and this time with more formidable technology at their disposal. Both vessels had been refitted with steam engines to search for the illusive northwest passage. They were last seen entering Baffin Bay in August 1845. It was later learned (in 1853, after Turner’s death, and confirmed in 1866) that the vessels were trapped by pack ice and abandoned by the crews, all members of which perished. All reprieve from the Fallacy of Hope is merely temporary.

A Melville Connection?

23. Title page of Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale with note in Melville’s handwriting. volume from Houghton Library, Harvard College. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Image from Melville’s Marginalia.

It is natural nowadays to associate Moby Dick with any reference to whales, sperm whales in particular. Given that Turner’s whaling paintings were shown in 1845 and 1846, and remained in his collection until his death in 1851 shortly after Moby Dick was published in London) and given that Melville visited London in 1849, the question is natural whether Melville ever saw the whaling paintings or any other oil by Turner, and if so, did it affect his writing?

There is the very slightest of documentary evidence. The only reference to Turner in Melville’s hand is a notation on the cover page of his copy of Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, which he bought in New York on July 10, 1850, on which he wrote: “Turner’s pictures of Whalers were suggested by this book.” [#23.] So before Melville finished the book, or even a substantial portion of the work, he knew of Turner’s Whalers. Did he see them? On that there is no direct evidence. His journal of his 1849 trip to England and Europe makes no mention of Turner, although he did visit many art collections. So how did he know about Turner? Well, we know (Sealts, p. 80) that his father-in-law had borrowed the second volume of Modern Painters from the Boston Anthenaeum and it was still outstanding when Melville visited him in July 1848. His friend and literary “agent” Evert Duyckinck had a complete set, and while there is written evidence that Melville freely borrowed books from Duyckinck, there is no evidence that Melville borrowed Ruskin from him.

But he had to know of Turner from somewhere, the marginalia on his Beale book shows that. So what did he know and what influence did it have on him? If you read Moby Dick with Turner’s works in mind, you find all sorts of parallels. I pointed out one a few days back. Harold Beaver in his notes to Penguin’s 1972 edition of Moby Dick identified Whalers (The Whale Ship) [#15] as the painting hanging in Spouter-Inn on which Ishmael expends much energy contemplating in chapter 3. Here is the passage:

Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

Ishmael’s impression of the painting is much like contemporary critics’ reaction to the late Turner work, including the whaling pictures. What is particularly striking is the phrase “nameless yeast,” so similar it is unlikely to be a coincident that Ruskin uses the phrase “masses of accumulated yeast” to describe the “creamy foam” in Turner’s Snow Storm [#6], which is another plausible inspiration for the Spouter-Inn painting. (MP I:380-81.) But the problem comes when Ishmael finally resolves (at least for hiself) the import of the painting:

In fact, the artist’s design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

The image, therefore, is more like the frontispiece of Beale’s book [#12] than any of Turner’s work. Moreover, what made the painting obscure, or indistinct and mysterious (as Ruskin refers to Turner’s work), is the accumulated smoke and grease of the inn, the effort of the artist. Finally, although Melville visited the National Gallery while in London in 1849, Snow Storm and the whaling paintings were in Turner’s gallery, which Melville makes no mention of in his journal, as Wallace points out (1991, p. 57).  On the other hand, Ruskin’s own writing provides more than enough basis for Turner’s imagined painting (which after all is not described with any degree of detail or analysis), and Ruskin’s footnote’s reference to Shakespeare’s “yesty waves” was itself enough to catch Melville’s attention, given his then current obsession with Shakespeare.

Still if you trace Melville’s work from Typee onward, you get the sense of a writer whose visual sense has greatly improved. So could any conclusions be drawn if someone systematically compared the writer and artist over time? Would any connections turn up?

24. Dark Clouds over the Sea, possibly near Boulogne by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper. 1845. Tate, London. From the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbooks. (Turner Bequest CCCLVII 12.)

Fortunately Robert K. Wallace made the attempt, and he did so meticulously in Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (1992). Wallace is perhaps uniquely able to ferret out relations between art forms, having previously written studies on the relations between Jane Austen and Mozart and Emily Brontë. (I have read neither of these books; I merely note their existence and Wallace’s previous attempts to relate literature to other art forms.) He also, as demonstrated by his 1988 article  on the Antarctic source for Turner’s latter two whaling pictures showed that he has a talent for teasing out sources by mapping out possible relationships, both historical and literary. If anything, however, that piece also showed that he sometimes built possibility upon possibility to draw conclusions that go well beyond what the evidence supported and often what seemed plausible. His suggestions of the many layers of meaning to “Fish” in the title to the third whaler [#18], for example, seemed literary sleight of hand. It is too convoluted to repeat here, but suffice it to say: If Turner’s layered his title with so many different and interlocking meanings, he was a greater literary punster than James Joyce, nearly a century before Finnegans Wake. Another example from the article involves his “reading” of a watercolor sketch given the name Dark Clouds over the Sea, possibly near Boulogne [#24]. Is the dark mass on the horizon a whale, rather than a vessel’s bow? If so, Wallace speculates that Turner saw a whale, and it stimulated his interest in painting the whaling pictures. But the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbooks probably date from after the 1845 Royal Academy show (Hokanson, p. 46 n.23), and so could not have been one of the inspirations. That speculation might have been enough for most scholars but Wallace sees a whale’s skeleton in the clouds and a weasel’s skull (!) attached to it. Why so? Well, it comports with the following exchange between Hamlet and Polonius in Hamlet III:ii:368-73:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

What this speculation suggests is that Wallace is less interested in sources as bases for inspiration for a particular artist than sources as inspiration for critical comparisons. In other words, Wallace is seeking not what influenced an artist but rather what might have influenced him, evidently believing that the possibility is enough to enhance our understanding of the artist’s work. And that is how he proceeds in his very large (664 page) book.

On page 575 Wallace sets out the conclusion that Turner play the role of “Melville’s spiritual father” and that Moby Dick could not have been written “without England’s greatest modern painter in his mind’s eye.” This is a breathtaking conclusion, and unless the terms “spiritual” and “mind’s” mean to contradict what they modify (much like the legal term “constructive” does), there is simply nothing offeried in the way of proof for those propositions. After an introductory tour of Turner’s life and aesthetics, which he reduces to the term “indistinct,” relying heavily on Ruskin’s quote—”We never see anything clearly,” he proceeds to give a biography and then chronological tour of Melville’s work, closely keyed to Turner’s works that Melville had engravings of. These mainly come from the collection of the Berkshire Anthenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and all but one or two are known to have been acquired by Melville well after he wrote Moby Dick. Wallace scrutinizes the first five novels with an eye to anything Turnerian, and compares passages of Melville to work of Turner’s that Melville could not have seen at the time he wrote them. Before getting to Moby Dick, Wallace retraces Melville’s 1849 stay in London, and piles up the possibilities of what he could have discussed with those he met. He comes to the conclusion that Melville may have seen engravings of Turner and might have had in-depth conversations about Turner with others. But the fact is, there is no proof of any of this. When he delves into Moby Dick there is much imaginative legerdemain drawing connections between passages and plot points and Turner paintings. It is the kind of writing that would merit extreme praise in a freshman humanities seminar (“Gogol’s treatment of the father-son relationship is much like Homer’s in the Iliad …”). It is mostly interesting because it reveals how Wallace processed the two artists whom he clearly admires. It reminded me of the works of Peter Conrad. In other words, it is neither scholarship in any traditional sense nor literary-artistic criticism. Maybe it is postmodern criticism, a form in which the works are only useful in showing the connections which a particular reader-viewer can make in his mind.

25. Figures on a Beach by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on millboard. ca. 1840-45. Tate, London. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Turner Bequest M 1974 .

25. Figures on a Beach by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on millboard. ca. 1840-45. Tate, London. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Turner Bequest M 1974 .

After this detailed tour of fanciful connections, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Wallace makes too much of Turner’s influence, which could only have been indirect in any case. He oversells the premise by looking to Turner to the exclusion of other, more direct influences on Melville. But more importantly, I think he proceeds on incorrect assumption about the nature of Melville’s aesthetic in Moby Dick. Wallace, as I said, makes the case that Turner’s approach was to render the visual world “indistinct” in order to emphasize the sublime and possibly metaphysical realms. He relies on Ruskin for this, but Ruskin does not go as far as Wallace does. His discussion of “mystery” is really only about atmospheric perspective, in the paintings up to the mid-1830s. And Ruskin’s point is that Turner is rendering physical reality true to how we actually see it (because the atmosphere, depending on moisture content, makes distant objects more or less distinct compared to closer objects). His discussion on this point had nothing to do with the more abstracting effects of light and atmosphere and darkness that Turner explored in the last decade of his life. In fact, Ruskin expressly dismisses these later Turner works, including the whaling paintings. But whatever one makes of the merits of describing Turner’s artistic view as intended obscurity, that is decidedly not the approach of Melville in Moby Dick.

The narrator, Ishmael, tries in every way he can to explain everything. From his reasons for undertaking the voyage, appealing to the reader’s knowledge of psychology (chapter 1), to the variety of whales and how they relate to each other (chapter 32), the nature (including financing) of the industry, the obtaining and processing of the oil from chase to cleanup, to the anatomy of whales and to the extent known their behavior, social and otherwise. Ishmael goes to great length to explain things in meticulous detail and with precise language. His description of the whales’ heads (chapters 74 and 75), their skeleton (chapter 103) and fossils (chapter 104) owe considerably more to the style of Charles Darwin than to anything Turner ever painted. When he gives a list of the pictorial representations of whales that he has seen, he gives a comprehensive list (and Turner is not among them) and he then discusses their accuracy (chapters 56 and 57). Even when he tells a story, a fish story so to speak, for example the “Town-Ho’s Story” (chapter 54), he offers to swear an affidavit before a priest to its veracity. There is no attempt to pare down, to reduce to the minimum (as in Turner’s late oils on paper, e.g.Figures on a Beach, [#25]). Even as Ishmael grows to comprehend that physical reality seems to suggest metaphysical truths, Ishmael tries to explain each phenomenon as he understands it. There is no attempt to obscure anything. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions about the ultimate question: Is the universe run randomly or is there a malicious order behind it all? There may be no answer, but the question could not be clearer, and the evidence is laid before the reader much as a lawyer would before a jury.

Even with the laser-like focus on Turner that Wallace seems to have, it is nonetheless peculiar to suggest that Turner supplied Melville with the moral/metaphysical quest that is the heart of the story; Melville’s Calvinist mother was vastly more influential, let alone philosophers (like Schopenhauer) and anti-philosophers (like Carlyle). And what could Turner teach about the sea, about how it looked and the existential dread it represented? Turner never was on the deep ocean, even overnight. Could Turner’s canvases given any insight into the terror of Pip or even the visual aspect of the South Seas or night on the forecastle? Melville had experienced those things, and Turner had not. At best Turner learned of such things second hand, and yet, according to Wallace, he was supposed to have be “indispensable” to Melville, who actually experienced those things but only knew of Turner by repute or interpretation of others (who probably had only conventional opinions). And finally, the character of Ahab, and especially his final diatribe (chapter 132: “The Symphony”), are both clearly Shakespearian, and Melville in his correspondence was clear on how fundamental he saw Shakespeare’s works, and yet said nothing about Turner. The fact is that if Turner contributed to Melville’s thought process at all, it was not in essential ways.

So why do so many scholars and others (even casual viewers of Turner and museum curators) link the too? The answer is that maritime drama must draw on the same elements, whether in a story or a picture (and music too probably). When the two draw on these elements in their own way, we connect them, especially because they were contemporaries and their wolrd view was necessarily similar, even though they were innovative in their own fields. Turner would be the artist you would use to illustrate Moby Dick because he was attempting to break out of the confinement of Romanticism much as Melville was. If we were to listen carefuly to Berlioz or Wagner in connection with Moby Dick we would likely find similarities there as well, but less so since neither wrote expressly “maritime” dramatic music (except for Wagner’s Flying Dutchman). We are constitutionally designed to see patterns and trace connections; it’s part of our social equipment. Scholars develop these innate skills in peculiar ways and sometimes beyond what is useful, especially in these days when “inter-disciplinary” generates cachet in a way that analysis of the text itself does not.

None of this, however, should discourage you from seeing the canvases at the Met, before three of them are returned to the Tate and the story told by Turner (not an imagined one by Melville), in the manner of his groundbreaking final phase (which needs no connection with others, even one as significant as Melville), can not longer be seen in the way Turner originally conceived it.

Notes

1Ruskin tells the story of being startled on coming across a reference to Turner as a sea painter as early as 1832. (Dialecta, pp. 1-2. See n.* on p. 1). [Return to text.]

2Ruskin revised his opinion in Modern Paintings, describing the “most hopeless, desolate, uncontrasted greys …” as “of the very finest pieces of colour that have come from his hand.” And extolling the work as “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion,  mist and light, that has ever been put on canvas, even by Turner. Of course it was not understood; his finest works never are …” (MP I:381-82). [Return to text.]

3G.F. Waagen, Works of Art and Artists in England. vol 2 (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 151, quoted by Ruskin in MP IV: 68. [Return to text.]

4Ruskin’s only reaction to the first two whaling paintings was: “Of the [Royal Academy] exhibition of 1845, I have only seen a small Venice, (still I believe in the artist’s possession,) and the two whaling subjects. … The Venice is a second-rate work, and the two others altogether unworthy of him.” (MP I:138.) [Return to text.]

5If you forgot the difference between the two types of whales, Melville meticulously explains the anatomy of both in Chapters 74 (“The Sperm Whale’s Head”) and 75 (“The Right Whale’s Head”) of Moby Dick. Throughout the novel, Ishmael shows some disdain for the fishing of right whales. [Return to text.]

6The full title of what is now commonly referred to as The Voyage of the Beagle was Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, under the Command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836 (London: Henry Colburn, 1840). [Return to text.]

7Turner provided page citations to Beale for the source of the two paintings exhibited in 1845, as we will see below. Melville purchased Beale on July 10, 1850 (Sealts, p. 40), a year and a half before Moby Dick was published. [Return to text.]

8In addition to Wreckers Bicknell bought five other paintings from Turner in one transaction in March 1844: Calder Bridge, Cumberland (1810) (BJ 106); Port Ruysdael (1827) (BJ 237), Palestrina—Composition (1828) (BJ 295), The Bright Stone of Honour (Ehrenbreitstein) and Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’ (1835) (BJ 361) (although Turner did not allow delivery until 1845), and probably Ivy Bridge Mill, Devonshire (1812) (JB 122). Bicknell bought two others in 1844: Helvoetslus—the City of Utrecht, 64, going to Sea (1832) (JB 345); Van Goyen looking out for a Subject (1833) (BJ 350). Before 1844 Bicknell purchased Giudecca, la Donna della Salute and San Giorgio (1841) (BJ 391) at the Royal Academy show in 1841, and Campo Santo, Venice (1842) (BJ 397) at the Royal Academy show in 1842. After their estrangement in 1845, Bicknell continued to purchase Turner works but not directly from Turner: In 1851 he bought two paintings at a Christies sale: Grand Junction Canal at Southall Mall (1810) (BJ 101) and Saltash with Water Ferry (1812) (BJ 121). In 1865 Bicknell probably bought Off the Nore: Wind and Water (BJ 476) from a lot at a Christie’s sale. [Return to text.]

9“One point … it is incumbent upon me to notice, being no question of art but of material. … No picture of Turner’s is seen in perfection a month after it is painted. The Walhalla cracked before it had been eight days in the Academy rooms; the vermilions frequently lose lustre long before the exhibition is over; and when all the colors begin to get hard a year or two after the picture is painted, a painful deadness and opacity comes over them, the whites especially becoming lifeless, and many of the warmer passages settling into a hard valueless brown, even if the paint remains perfectly firm, which is far from being always the case. … It is true that the damage makes no further progress after the first year or two, and that even in its altered state the picture is always valuable and records its intention; but it is bitterly to be regretted that so great a painter should not leave a single work by which in succeeding ages he might be estimated. The fact of his using means so imperfect, together with that of his utter neglect of the pictures in his own gallery, are a phenomenon in human mind which appears to me utterly inexplicable; and both are without excuse.” (MP I:136 n.*.)  [Return to text.]

10According to Ruskin’s father (in a letter to Ruskin in September 1845) the other factor leading to the estrangement involved the engraving of The Fighting ‘Temeraire’: “[Bicknell] gave [Turner] 120 Gs for loan of Tameraire to engrave & Turner beside demands 50 proof. Bicknell resists and sends 8.” (JB 377.) [Return to text.]

11That William Jackson Hooker was a member of the Anthenæum Club, see Joseph Dalton Hooker, A Sketch of the Life and Labours of Sir William Jackson Hooker, K.H., D.C.L. Oxon., F.R.S., F.L.S., Etc.: Late Director of the Royal Gardens of Kew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010 [digital reproduction of original 1903 text]), p. lxxxvi. [Return to text.]

Sources

Beale, Thomas, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. To which is Added a Sketch of a South-Sea Whaling Voyage (London: John van Voorst, 1839) (online at Google Books and Archive.org).

Brown, David Blayney, Turner in the Tate Collection (London: Tate Publishing, 2002).

Butlin, Martin and Joll, Evelyn, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, vol . 1 (2d ed. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1984). [“BJ ___” refer to the catalogue number of the work in Butlin and Joll’s first volume, not the page number or the plate number of the work in volume 2.]

Gowing, Lawrence, Turner: Imagination and Reality (New York: Museum of Modern Art [1968]).

Grigsby, “Patina, Painting and Portentous Somethings,” Representations vol. 78, no. 1, pp. 140-44 (Spring 2002).

Hamilton, James, Turner: The Late Seascapes (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, c2003).

Hermann, Luke, “Turner and the Sea,” Turner Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-18 (Summer 1981).

Hokanson, Alison, “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 73, no. 4 (Spring 2016).

Joll, Evelyn, Butlin, Martin and Hermann, Luke (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) (specifically the articles on “Bicknell, Elhanan,” “Ruskin, John,” “Shakespeare, William,” and “Whaling”).

Mazis, Glen A., “‘Modern Depths,’ Painting, and the Novel: Turner, Melville, and the Interstices,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 70, no. 1/2, pp. 121-44 (Spring/Summer 1987).

Reynolds, Graham, “Turner”s Late Sky Studies,” Exploring Late Turner, pp. 17-21 (New ork: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, c1999).

Richardson, John and Gray, John Edward, The Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Erebus & Terror, under the Command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross, during the years 1839 to 1843. By authority of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, vol. I: Mammalia, Birds (London: E.W. Janson, 1844) (with “Summary of the Voyage” by Joseph Dalton Hooker (pp. iii-vii) (online at Archive.org).

Riding, Christine, Turner & the Sea (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013).

Ross, James Clark, A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, During the Years 1839-43, vol. 2 (London: John Murray, 1847) (online at Archive.org).

Ruskin, John, Dilecta: Correspondence, Diary Notes, and Extracts from Books Illustrating Præterita. (Orpington, Kent: G. Allen, 1886) (online at Hathi Trust).

Ruskin, John, Modern Painters, vols. I & IV (New York: John Wiley & Sons: 1886) (from Works of John Ruskin, “Popular Edition”) (a similar (unattributed) version, with the same pagination, is online at Project Gutenberg: References here are to  Volume 1 and Volume 4).  

Salander, Lawrence B., “Turner’s Necessity,” Exploring Late Turner, pp. 13-15 (New York: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, c1999).

Sealts, Merton M., Jr., Melville’s Reading: A Checklist of Books Owned and Borrowed (Madison: Universioty of Wisconsin Press, 1966).

Sutton, C.W., “Bicknell, Elhanan,” Dictionary of National  Biography ed. Leslie Stephen, vol. 5, pp. 9-10 (New York: Macmillen & Co., 1886) (online at Google Books).

Wallace, Robert K., “The Antarctic Sources for Turner’s 1846 Whaling Oils,” Turner Studies, Vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 20-31 (Summer 1988).

Wallace, Robert K., “Bulkington, J.M.W. Turner and ‘The Lee Shore,'” Savage Eye: Melville and the Visual Arts ed. Christopher Sten (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1991), pp. 55-76.

Wallace, Robert K., Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, c1992).

Warrell, Ian, Turner’s Sketchbooks (London: Tate Publishing, 2014).

Wilton, Andrew, Turner and the Sublime (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

Ziff, Jerrold, “John Langhorne and Turner’s ‘Fallacies of Hope,'” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 27 (1964), pp. 340-342.

The Lee Shore

A technique that Melville uses throughout Moby Dick takes a truism, examines it analytically but logically, and in the process burdens it with qualifications until the exact opposite appears to be undeniably true. The most extended version, and the most centrally important to the novel, is the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” (Chapter 42). But the technique is used throughout. In fact, it is one of the keys to the metaphysics and aesthetics of the work, it’s w-+

.hat impels Ahab, it embodies the logic of the apocalypse of the Pequod, and turns out to be what Ishmael has been searching for (without knowing it): In the dimension beyond the material world, things are different from what physical reality suggests, perhaps the exact opposite.

Earlier in the novel is a very short (four paragraph) chapter, “a six-inch chapter” as Melville puts it, called “The Lee Shore” (Chapter 23). It takes place just as the Pequod enters the open sea on that frigid Christmas night. Ishmael recognizes a sailor, Bulkington, who he had encountered in the Spouter Inn in New Bedford. Bulkington had just returned from a long whaling voyage; now, to Ishmael’s amazement, he was embarked on another, having forsaken the chance to rest ashore in the hospitality of the port. But without any caesura Ishmael  contemplates what the “port” and “shore” means and also what the the shoreless deep signifies.

The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights ‘gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

And so, in that gale, what is the ocean, the unknown deep?

Know ye now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God–so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing–straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!

 So shore is where danger is in a storm. And in fact the “landless” is where the highest truth can be found. (This realization becomes, as Melville says his chapter is: “the stoneless grave of Bulkington.)

I bring this up merely to show a painting by J.M.W. Turner that perfectly illustrates what Ishmael says.

Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. ca.1840. Tate, London. (BJ 458.)

This is simply evidence of something I’ve been trying to work out: How could Turner and Melville have been so sympathetic when they had no essential direct influence on each other? This problem suggested itself to me while viewing a recent Turner exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. I will attempt something of an answer shortly.