23 December 2010

"Angels In Our Countryside"

"Les anges dans nos campagnes
Ont entonné l'hymne des cieux,
Et l'écho de nos montagnes
Redit ce chant mélodieux"

There is something homely and charming in the opening of this medieval  Langeudoc carol:  "Angels in our countryside..."     Now part of southern France, the Languedoc  has been home to, or invaded by, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Vandals, Visigoths, Saracens, and others I've forgotten to mention.  However it came into being, Angels We Have Heard on High  fixed a moment of joy in time. 

Image: Jean Goodwin Ames (1903-1986) - Star Angel, c.1951, Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, Claremont, CA.

05 December 2010

Broncia Koller-Pinell

Turn of the century Vienna was hardly a hospitable place for women. They were discouraged from taking part in public life except as mothers and playthings of men, subject the inconsistencies of a double standard reinforced by untreatable venereal diseases. The obstacles must have seemed enormous but there were women who  persisted.  Although women were barred from the Viennese Academy until as late as 1920,  young women like Broncia Koller-Pinell studied art privately.

Bronislawa Pineles was born  on the 23rd of February 1863 in Sonak in Galizia, now  part of Poland.  The family moved to Vienna in 1870, changing their name to Pinell and becoming part of  a growing prosperous Jewish community.  Already artistically inclined, Broncia received  her  instruction at age seven from sculptor Robert Raab.  She studied painting  with Alois Delug in Vienna and then the Art Academy for women  in Munich  from 1885-1887. Her early paintings were well received by  Viennese critics.  After that first  successful exhibition in 1885, she would exhibit her work  at the legendary Kunsthaus  Vienna in 1908 and 1909.

She was introduced to Dr. Hugo Koller (1867–1949) a  physician and physicist,  by composer Hugo Wolf.   Before the marriage, Hugo Koller had to withdraw from the Catholic church because mixed marriages were not permitted between Jew and Catholics at the time. Holy Blood, dedicated to her mother-in-law, suggest that Koller-Pinell may have converted to Catholicism, at least formally or perhaps it is a tribute of affection. (The miniature at the top left corner of the painted frame is a portrait of Frau Koller.)
After their marriage  in 1891, Hugo Koller, who was also a collector and art patron, promoted Broncia's career.  The couple knew the Secessionists and, later, the members of the Wiener Werkstatte.  Like other artists  around Gustav Klimt, Koller-Pinell (as she now called herself) worked in the flat, decorative  manner of the Secession. The bookplate she designed for Hugo reveals the obsessive book collector who owned several thousand volumes, many of them rarities.

In 1904 the  couple inherited a house in Oberwaltersdorf and commissioned Josef Hoffmann to renovate it in the Secessioonst  style. The interior was designed jointly by Broncia Koller  and Kolo Moser. The Koller home  became a popular meeting place for artists  and intellectuals including Franz von Zulow and a young Egon Schiele.

Daringly, for her time, Koller-Pinnell painted nudes, most  memorably Mariette, sometimes  called Seated Nude (at top).  Marietta, from Trieste, may look familiar as she often posed for Gustav Klimt.  Koller’s arrangement of bold rectangles as her background includes a golden one behind the model’s head, perhaps an allusion to the golden mean of the Renaissance.  Marietta sits, relaxed yet attentive, a  model at work with an artist, not a symbol but a real woman.
In 1907, Koller-Pinell painted The Artist's Mother seated in profile, which has  been compared to James McNeill Whistler's portrait of his mother - high aesthetic praise indeed.  Koller-Pinell's nudes radiate a spirit of self-possession; they are not positioned as offerings to the viewer. In common, both portraits have the flattened backgrounds and geometric designs of Secessionist style.  Also, Koller-Pinell's woodblock prints are usually square, the shape associated with the influential Jugenstil journal Ver Sacrum.
 Frequently she painted her daughter Sylvia and also Anna Mahler, daughter of Gustav Mahler, at least twice  Yet Koller-Pinell's  name rates no mention in Henri de la Grange's monumental biography of the composer which also gives short shrift to  Anna herself.  On the pictorial evidence, both girls liked parrots. One wonders about the relationship between the painter and the young girl who went on to become a professional sculptor.
The Vienna Kunsthaus art show  of 1908 was recreated at the Galerie Belvedere in October of 2008. The original epoch making event featured Koller-Pinell's work within the circle of fellow artists: Emil Orlik, Otto Prutscher, Maximilian Kurzweil, and those already named.  So far as I can tell, her work was not given its proper place in the recreation. 
 Elena Luksch Makowska, Tina Blau, Olga Wisinger Florian,  and Marie Egner  were other successful artists but none equalled Koller's Pinell's curiosity, experimentation, and sure sense of what she could achieve with her art. 

Broncia Koller-Pinell died on the 24th of April 1934 in Oberwaltersdorf, before the full horror of National Socialism.

Paintings by Broncia Koller-Pinell:
Mariette, 1907, Vera Eisenberger collection, Vienna.
Sylvia With Birdcage, undated, Vera Eisenberger collection, Vienna.
The Artist's Mother, 1907, Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
Anna Mahler With A Parrot, 1910s, Kunsthaus Hieke, Vienna.
View Of The Karlskirche-Vienna, undated, Dorotheum, Vienna.
Photograph of the opening of the Vienna Kunstschau, 1908, Bildarchiv, Vienna.

01 December 2010

The Owls

"Under the overhanging yews,

The dark owls sit in solemn state,
Like stranger gods; by twos and twos
Their red eyes gleam. They meditate.

Motionless thus they sit and dream
Until that melancholy hour
When, with the sun's last fading gleam,
The nightly shades assume their power.

From their still attitude the wise
Will learn with terror to despise
All tumult, movement, and unrest;

For he who follows every shade,
Carries the memory in his breast,
Of each unhappy journey made."
 - The Owls by Charles Baudelaire

1.  Utagawa Hiroshige - Smalll Horned Owl On A Maple Branch Under A Full Moon, Museumof Fine Arts, Boston.
2.  Helen Tupke-Grande (1874-1946)  - untitled/ Three Owls, c.1920.

20 November 2010

From An Old House In Cuesmes: Vincent Van Gogh

"Now, if you can forgive someone for immersing himself in pictures..."

"So please don't think I am renouncing anything, I am reasonably faithful in my unfaithfulness and although I have changed, I am still the same, and what preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject or other in depth?"
- excerpts from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, July, 1880.

"Well, even in these depths of misery I felt my energy revive & said to myself, I shall get over it somehow, I shall get to work again with my pencil, which i had cast aside in my deep dejection, & I shall draw again, & ever since I have had the feeling that everything has changed for me, & now i am in my stride & my pencil has become slightly more willing & seems to be getting more so by the day.  My over-long & over- intense misery had discouraged me so much hat i was unable to do anything."

"...I cannot tell you how happy I am that I have taken up drawing again.  I had been thinking about it for a long time, but always considered it impossible & beyond my abilities.  But now, though I continue to be conscious of my failings & of my depressing dependence on a great many things, now I have recovered my peace of mind & my energy increases by the day."

"At the same time I must tell you that I cannot remain very much longer in the little room where I live now.  It is very small indeed, and then there are the two beds as well, the children's & my own.  And now that I am working on Bargue's fairly large sheets I cannot tell you how difficult it is.  I don't want to upset these people's domestic arrangements."
- excerpts from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, Cuesmes, September 24, 1880., translated from the Dutch by Arnold Pomerans in The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, New York, Penguin Books: 1996.
Cuesmes is a small village in the Walloon region of southern  Belgium.   Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) arrived from Amsterdam in 1878, to be  a worker-priest among the coal miners of the Borinage.   Emile Zola's novel Germinal (1885) is a portrait of that difficult world. In July, 1879, Van Gogh lost that job, yet another rejection for one who yearned to give of himself to other people.  After great anguish, he found a spiritual vocation in art. "I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it — keep going, keep going come what may."
Today the old brick house gives none of that history away.
1. The Magrot House At Cuesmes - photograph by Jean-Paul Grandmont, 2006.
2. Vincent Van Gogh - Miners - September 1880, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo, Netherlands.

10 November 2010

The Old Tree In The Sun

 Belgian artists  responded to Impressionism by doing something rather different than their French neighbors, their brushwork more subdued, their effects more akin perhaps to photography.  It has been called Luminism, and it has its counterpart in America that goes by the same name.  One characteristic they share is the strength of their work compared to the blandness of their compatriots who tried to copy the French. 
It is the quality of the light that attracts me to these paintings by the Belgian Emile Claus (1849-1934).  In the 1880s, Claus bought a cottage  in Astene, near Ghent, where he lived for the rest of his life. He called it 'Villa Sunshine' in recognition the inspiration he took from the quality of  light there. 
The artist found something remarkable in the old tree, painting it repeatedly, even breaking the rule that he probably taught his own students: never put your subject directly at the center of the image.  Yet Claus persuades us as he makes light gather around the tree in The Artist's House at Astene, reflecting off the house, or as the tree  in The Tree In Autumn appears to draw the fading light of autumn into itself with its intense need.

1. Emile Claus - The Tree In The Sun, 1900, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.
2. Emile Claus - The Artist's House At Astene, 1906, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.
3. Emile Clause - Rayon de Soleil,  April 1899, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.

07 November 2010

A November Evening In Dordrecht

"There! See the line of lights,
A chain of stars down either side the street --" from A November Night by Sara Teasdale.

"The landscape sleeps in mist from morn till noon;
And, if the sun looks through, 'tis with a face
Beamless and pale and round, as if the moon,
When done the journey of her nightly race,
Had found him sleeping, and supplied his place." - from November by John Clare

In the month of November it is often evening, poets remind us, as the days grow shorter and the nights extend their domain.

"VICTOR GILSOUL (1869-1939 - ed.) is one of the truest living followers of the old Flemish school. One sees reflected in his work much of the rich heritage left by the masters of Flanders–a heritage priceless in its influence on the art of all time. Born in the capital of Belgium in the year 1867, Gilsoul played as a child in an environment rich in memories of Rubens and Van Dyck. His earliest inclination was towards art, and at fourteen years of age he began his studies at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp. By the time he was fifteen he had won the first landscape prize and had seen enough of the difficult side of painting to make him determined in his desire. On returning to Brussels after barely eighteen months' study in the Antwerp Academy, he came under the influence of d'Artan and Franz Courtans, the two men who gave him his first taste of open air painting, a charm which quickly enwrapped him, and which has done more, perhaps, than anything else to determine his ambition. When seventeen years old he got his first painting admitted into the Brussels Salon–a simple little study of a wind-mill, but it won the youthful painter his first taste of public distinction, and he has ever since been well represented in the Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent Exhibitions. Gilsoul's first big success was about fifteen years ago, with a picture representing a train in a cutting at night."
- from THE ART OF VICTOR GILSOUL. by Lenore Van Der Veer, from The Studio, Volume 33, issue Number 140, November 1904.
Image: November Evening In Dordrecht, c. 1896, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.

11 October 2010

Eline Vere: A Novel Of The Hague

"Every human being is a sacrifice.' - Hendrik Ibsen

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus has often been compared to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1878), as though great novels with female protagonists are so odd as to require a segregated genre.  More apt comparisons with Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), rescued from oblivion by feminist scholars or Maurice Guest (1908)  by Henry Handel Richardson another brilliant first novel of obsession that still languishes.  Both were written by women, which only highlights  Couperus's  ability to create fully realized female characters.  His understanding of the experience of emotional turmoil, often dismissed as neurasthenia in women, remains exemplary.
A capacious novel, Eline Vere is like Tolstoy's great novels in presenting a large cast of characters, each one fully developed with a place in the story that only makes Eline's tragedy the more poignant.  Frederique, also twenty-three, is able to reconcile her inner turmoil with her need to connect with others. While Eline, with a loving family, admiring friends, and numerous suitors, remains isolated within herself, unruly egotism  her only avenue of expression.   She rejects both Otto and St. Clare as alien, and mistakes Victor's similarities for genuine feeling.

In  the late 19th century northwestern Europe enjoyed a balance of prosperity and stability by comparison with  more volative neighbors France and Great Britiain.  Yet this equilibrium often felt like stasis to those who lived it.  What could be more suggestive then, than the novel's first chapter that introduces the cast of main characters as they prepare to present  tableaux vivant at a party?  This theatrical entertainment, gone like the parlor piano,  was once a popular excuse to get into costume and get up make believe scenes from history, mythology, or imitate famous paintings.  Significantly, Eline Vere is absent from the festivities.

Eline Vere's imaginative capabilities are alive to the darker dimensions of life, alienating her from her enviably comfortable existence. After an argument with her sister Betsey and beloved brother-in-law Henk with whom she lives, Eline find refuge with a former schoolmate, Jeanne, who lives with husband and children in more precarious circumstances. Eline and Freddie, by contrast, lead such circumscribed lives that, in their twenties they remain trapped in adolescence like insects in amber.  A paradox, still timely, is that creature comforts make freedom of action possible, but attenuated hunger and self-wasting are just as possible outcomes.
The novel feels much less dated than you might imagine.  Theories of hereditary influence have been drastically overhauled from those Couperus drew on, but we still recognize its formative influence on temperament.  In the relationship  between Eline and her cousin Vincent, Couperus prefigures Carl Jung's theory of personality.  When Vincent  suggests that one can easily live a life based on one's own free will, Eline responds with passion: "But being independent, doing eaxctly as you please...that takes more moral courage than most of us possess."
Eline's capabilities count for so little that the reader could easily miss them.  She is fluent in French and English,  her musicality, playing piano and singing,  brings great pleasure to those around her but ends in an obsession with a second rate opera singer.   Her avid interest in the  workings of the mind brings her no peace or resolution.   She breaks off her engagement to Otto van Erlsvooert, a kind, loving man because she cannot imagine the emotional equilibrium needed to sustain love. 
One of the great Dutch writers, Louis Couperus (1863-1923) was the youngest of  eleven children of  a councilor to the Netherlands High Courts.  When Louis was nine, the family was posted to the Dutch East Indies for six years. Back in The Hague, his first poem was published in 1883, and in January of 1887, Couperus's first novel Eline Verve began a year long serialization in the newspaper.  After it was published in book form to immediate acclaim, Couperus spent a year in Paris (1890), returning to marry his childhood sweetheart, Elisabeth Baud, in September, 1891.
 Couperus's versatility is  impressive, ranging from psychological, mythological and historical novels to fairy-tales and journalism. An admirer of Hendrik Ibsen's plays, Couperus was ffundamentally pessimistic, his themes work themselves out fictionally on many levels, individual, cultural, political. The internal workings of individual temperament struggle wirh  mysterious and incomprehensible forces of fate.  In counterpoint, a strong
aesthetic sense asserts itself in the consoling power of beauty. 

The Couperus revival in English comes by way of Pushkin Press, U.K., which publishes Eline Vere along with Inevitable and Psyche.  In the United States, Archipelago Press of Brooklyn is the publisher of Eline Vere, translated impressively by Ina Rilke, also known for her translation of Sijie Dai's Balzac And the Little Chinese Seamstress.

1. Georg Hendrik Breitner - Meisij In A Red Kimono, private collection, Amsterdam.
2. Unindentified photographer - Street Scene. The Hague, c.1890s, .Adje van Daalen Collection, Netherlands.
3. Jan Toorop - Despair, 1890, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague.
4. Unidentified photogrpaher - The Couperus Home at Mauritskade 43 The Hague, Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren.
5. L. A.  Haye - The New Uitleg In The Hague, c.1890, Library Of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Visit the Louis Couperus website (in Dutch).

26 September 2010

The Dogs Of Pierre Bonnard

"...Proust might not have had
a pet, no self-respecting animal would have let him linger that
long with a madeleine half-eaten  in his fingers." - from Compendium Dachsundium by Matthea Harvey, Everyman's Library, 2003.

Lovable and slightly disreputable, even when domesticated, the Nabi dogs of Pierre Bonnard are irresistible scene stealers.
 Bonnard himself did not have an “irresistible passion for painting”, according to his friend Annette Vaillant, but  after failing to pass his civil service examination and his failure to win the Prix de Rome, his  success with his poster for France-Champagne in 1891 was especially sweet.   And influential - it inspired Toulouuse-Lautrec to give the popular new medium a go. 

Whether pampered pets of the bourgeoisie or scraggly privateers, dogs in Bonnard's work are equally personable.  If these pictures were plays, the dogs would get the best lines.  In Bonnard's affectionate depiction of his sister Andree and her adored dog Ravageau, Andree and Ravageau form a tightly knit group between themselves.  We see Andree again in The Game Of Croquet, dog at her side, part of a tableau where the composer Claude Terrasse is upstaged by the happy pair. The pattern of the leaves looks like paper cut-outs; the flatttened colors and diffuse perspectives are evidence of  the artist's interest in ukiyo-e prints.
On the streets of Paris in the late 19th century fully a quarter of working people labored at the endless making and maintaining of clothing.  In The Little Laundress (1895) the girl carrying a heavy load of clean laundry and the spotted dog are fellows.  Interestingly, a preliminary sketch placed a trio of people standing on the sidewalk, but their removal serves to suggest a correspondence between the two characters.  Painted during the same year Place Clichy could be the little laundress's employer taking her dogs for a walk.  Something about her extravagantly ruffled collar connects this woman and these capering dogs.
Although carefully plotted, Bonnard's street scenes are casual affairs, anecdotes of urban life, ofetn likened to the prints of Ando Hiroshige for the way his characters are flattened on the surface of the picture.  Sometimes the dogs are mere silhouettes but, even so, they exude a liveliness that suggests Bonnard was as captivated by them as we are.
1. The Women And The Dog, 1891, Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.
2. The Game Of Croquet - or -Crepuscule, 1892, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
3. Andree and Ravageau, c. 1891, Galerie Vollard, Paris.
4. Woman With Dog, 1897, Courthauld Institute, London.
5. The Little Laundress, 1895, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris.
6. Street Scene, Place Clichy, 1895, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
7. Two Dogs On A Deserted Street, 1894, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
7. Street Corner, from the series Quelques aspects de la vie de Paris, 1899, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

30 August 2010

"Make Every Line Count" - Pedro de Lemos

Another student of Arthur Wesley Dow's at Pratt Institute in New York, Pedro de Lemos (1882-1945) is known as an artist of the west coast, particularly the Monterey Peninsula, on view in these woodblock prints, made the 1920s. 

What gives the cypress trees of Monterey their sublime aspect is the way that they make visible the sculpting power of the wind that bends the trees and erodes the soil, making them cling to the cliff sides. There is drama in these images and a sense of impermanence in this large, rocky landscape, suggested by the artist's rather romantic titles.

Pedro de Lemos was instrumental in organizing the graphic arts at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. He taught design and architecture at Stanford University and was the first director of the Carmel Art Association in 1927. He also founded the Allied Artists Guild in Menlo Park. The stucco home he designed for himself at Palo Alto, Hacienda de Lemos, has been lovingly restored to his original intentions.

1. Old Pines At Monterey, c. 1915, American Federation of the Arts, NYC.
2. The Golden Hours,  1920, from, Applied Art, Pacific Press Publishing Association.
3. Top Of The Hill, no date, American Federation of the Arts, NYC.
4.Sleepy Heads - undated, Trotter Galleries, Carmel, CA>

28 August 2010

All The Planets In Heaven, All The StarsIn The Sky: Gaspara Stampa

"All the planets in heaven, all the stars,
gave my lord their graces at his conception;
all gave him their special gifts,
to make one perfect mortals man.
Saturn gave loftiness of understanding,
Jove the desire for noble deeds,
Mars more skill in war than any other,
Phoebus Apollo elegance and wit.
Venus gave him beauty and gentle ways,
Mercury eloquence; but the moon alone
made him too freezing cold for me.
Every one of those rare graces
makes me burn for his brilliant flame,
and one alone has turned him into ice."
- Gaspara Stampa, from Gaspara Stampa, translated from the Italian by Sally Purcell, Greville Press: 1984.

One of the great poets of the Italian Renaissance and, I think, the equal of Petrarch, Gaspara Stampa (1523-1554) was born in Padua and grew up in Venice, where the Stampa family home became a salon where Gaspara and her sister gave musical performances together. During her short life only a few poems were published; most circulated in manuscript form. It was Gaspara's sister who arranged for the publication of Rime, a collection more than 300 poems, after Gaspara died.
Giuliano d'Arrigo (1367-1446) created this fresco for the Sacristy of San Lorenzo at Florence. It shows the night sky over Florence as it looked on 4 July 1442. Visit Museo Galilio here.

30 July 2010

Hector Guimard: The Curve Bends That Toward Abstraction

"Line in Guimard, just as in the Japanese guides, is a living incarnation of natural laws. Thus, in an old Japanese manual, there is a catalogue of eighteen different types of line, with such descriptions as ‘floating silk threads’ ropes’ water lines’ or ‘bent metal wire.’ This latter was particularly subtly used by Guimard, who had an inborn sense of the inner tension of line.” - Dore Ashton in Le Monde, 22 May 1970:

French architect Hector Guimard (1867-1942) realized the decorative possibilities of glazed lava, a substance made from mixing pulverized lava with clay when he built a villa for Louis Coillot, (1898-1900) a ceramics manufacturer in Lille who monopolised the distribution of the material. Guimard sided the entire facade of Maison Coilliot in lava stone.
Guimard also used glazed lava to great effect in the nameplate for Castel Henriette (built 1899 - demolished 1969), as well as for his famous signs for the Paris Metro. He designed the graphics for his signs, and here we can see him introduce geometric elements that tend toward asbtraction. The outline of the letters and their rhythm give added emphasis and harmonize the pinks and yellows he used.
In a twist of fate, a largely forgotten Guimard died in New York City in 1942, after fleeing Paris to ensure the safety of his Jewish wife.
Images: Musee d'Orsay, Paris, photographer: Rene-Gabriel Ojeda.

29 July 2010

Meander: Arthur Wesley Dow

Nowhere is there greater beauty of line than in their curving creeks and irregular pools.” - Charles Downing Lay, Tidal Marshes, 1911, Landscape Architecture.

It seems to me that a meandering stream is an objective correlative to the feelings we associate with summer. A meandering walk on a warm day is fine match for body and soul. Marsh creeks meander through the works of Massachusetts native Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922). One of Dow's favorite spots along the Ipswich River was nicknamed 'The Dragon'. You can see one version of it in the background of the woodcut Rain In May and it is the subject of Study Of A Marsh (above).

Nature is often the starting point for design and the meander is a fine example. Rhythmic, ornamental patterns used in art and architecture are known as the Meander, named after the Meander River in southwestern Turkey. Its twists and turns include U-shaped oxbow lakes formed where the river changes doubles back on itself. The first mention that I know of for the Meander River occurs in Homer's Iliad, circa 8th century BCE.  And what defines Homeric style if not the long-drawn, winding simile? In the 8th book of Metamorphoses (circa 8 CE), Ovid compares the labyrinth on the island of Crete to the Meander River in Asia Minor.  The Greek Fret, a series of square protrusions resembling the notches of a key, originated as an architectural element, and is an early instance of the meander in art. Later the design was adapted by the Romans, along with other plunder, for use in mosaic tiles. A Medieval version of the meander was the Twisted Ribbon pattern, the rectilinear elements softened with curves. A few years ago, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design in New York hosted The Continuing Curve, an exhibition that looked for the roots of Art Nouveau and its current revivals in the Roccoco period. I enjoyed it, but the seduction of meandering has a much longer history.

1. Arthur Wesley Dow - Bend Of A River, 1898, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
2. Arthur Wesley Dow - Study Of A Marsh In A Color Scheme From Hiroshige, undated, Historic New England.org
3. Arthur Wesley Dow - cover for Modern Art, 1895, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
4. Arthur Wesley Dow - Rain In May, 1907, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NYC.

12 July 2010

Plum Island

Dear Readers - Originally, I intended this website to be a place to try out ideas that I might use in my freelance writing. I was surprised when the site began to attract attention - quite the opposite sequence of events that most of us who sell our work encounter. As some of you may have noticed, I am a relentless reviser/editor and  the Internet gives free rein to these tendencies. So, to mark this anniversary, I revisit the first post, Plum Island, a magical place from my childhood. And thanks to you who have shared your thoughts here. - JAL.

“Eastward, the ocean spreads inimitably. At a small distance from the shore, Plumb-island, a wild and fantastical sand-beach, reaching quite to Ipswich, ten or twelve miles, is thrown up by the joint power of winds and waves into the thousand wanton figures of a snowdrift.” - Timothy Dwight
Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) was a Congregationalist theologian and the President of Yale from 1795 until the year of his death. His most famous, however, accomplishment was literary; his Travels in New England and New York were published posthumously in four volumes and Dwight is credited as the first first to use the term Cape Cod.

I do not know of any country which is wild and so diverse within so small a compass. This little piece of land, small when you measure it in square miles, is unlike any other place; nor have I found anyone who has seen anything like it.” – Arthur Wesley Dow

"The sea was meant to be looked at from the shore as the mountains from the plain." - James Russell Lowell, c. 1850.
James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was a Harvard man,  both a graduate and then a professor, although his boss, Charles Eliot Norton, noted that the fine poet and critic showed little interest in teaching.  Lowell was interested in Spanish literature and happily accepted an appointment from U.S. Presiudent Rutherford b> Hayes as Minister (as ambassadors were then called) to the Court of Spain in 1877.

"The impression made by this landscape cannot be realized without the experience. It was a compound of wildness, gloom and solitude. I feel myself transported to the borders of Nubia." - Timothy Dwight, President of Yale and inveterate traveler of New England back roads, in 1802.

"Salt marshes set about with round-topped hills, barberry hedges along old shore walls that climb over the upland pastures, grassy spaces patterned with salvia and bayberry, wild apple trees in the thickets, wide fields of daisies and frost flowers, shore lines of goldenrod and scarlet lilies, dark marsh islands, far and near, reflected in the creek and salt pond, haystacks crowding into the horizon's perspective, a blue line of sea beyond the distant sand hills, such is the familiar (Ipswich) landscape, varied by season and sky and tide." - Arthur Wesley Dow, introduction to a book of poems that he illustrated, By Salt Marshes, written by Everett Stanley Hubbard, 1908.

Arthur Wesley Dow was a native of Ipswich, where  his summer art school (1891-1906) attracted dozens of students each year; many  undoubtedly found their way to Plum Island, a place of recreation  and inspiration. B. J. O. Nordfeldt (1878-1955) was one such student, a Swedish-born printer/painter who joined Dow for summers at the shore. Nordfeldt's woodcut The Long Wave (c.1903-1907) may seem an idealized image of morning on the island, but it conveys accurately the unceasing energy of the ocean, just as surely as the works Dow, Heade, and others convey the quiet, meandering atmosphere of the nearby marshes.

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) an inlander from Pennsylvania visited Newburyport for the first time in 1862, thereupon becoming a marsh convert for life. Heade arrived just as salt water farming, as practiced by thrifty Yankees, was on the wane. Heade's paintings capture the passing, never to be forgotten, chartreuse of spartina grass in spring as it nods in time with the breeze as clouds scud overhead, casting their own waves of shadow. 
"In spring they lie one broad expanse of green,/ O'er which the light winds run with glimmering feet./Here, yellower stripes track out the creek unseen,/ There, darker growths o'er hidden ditches meet." - James Russell Lowell
In Indian-Summer Reverie, Lowell wrote pityingly “who sees in them but levels brown and bare” is “Vain to him the gift of sight/ Who cannot in their various incomes share.” New Englanders reserve the word creek for the meandering waters of the salt marshes; all other small bodies of moving water are brooks. Every April, just as the townspeople had to repair the highways, they had to set out beach grass, planted in rows three feet apart.
Agawam, as the Indians called the lowland marshes, formed the back-story of the daily Atlantic tides. For a child, Agawam issues a siren call to enter its hidden byways, yet it is rather safe as wild nature goes.

The aerial photograph of Plum Island (at top) looks north toward the mouth of the Merrimack River. Out of range of this picture just southeast is the Plum Island Airfield, one of the oldest in continuous operation in the United States, the location of the first experimental flights in the northeastern states in 1910. On the north side of the river is Salisbury Beach, one of many in Essex County.
Functionally, Plum Island is a barrier island on the Atlantic coast in northern Massachusetts; it stretches eleven miles south from Newburyport to the mouth of the Parker River, and is bounded on the west by a tidal estuary, Plum Island Sound.
Newburyport, where I lived for a few years as a child, was incorporated in 1634, Ipswich at about the same time. The northern part of Plum Island has been a popular vacation spot since the 19th century; one of the first summer hotels in the country opened there in 1807. Numerous small cottages with salt-scored clapboards sit in rows along the beach. In this summer place where the rules of decorum are relaxed, sand is casually tracked inside on the feet of children and adults alike and even the admonition to eat all vegetables before anything else can be waived here. In my photo, you can see a line of birds perched on the roof-peak, sentinels on the flyway. To their east is the long shore; to their west the dunes and bogs sloping to the inland marsh.

Residents and settlers found the shore offered an abundant harvest. The littoral, that now-you-see-it, now-you-don't area between high and low tides, is home to bogs where cvranberries root in the peat layer below the water, their deep red berries visible to  alert berry pickers. Hay grows in salt marshes,  harvested by the plucky in low-riding boats, called gundalows, made for towing the harvest to the nearest solid ground. (Notice how the haystack in the picture at right sits on stilts. These are staddles, used to elevate the hay for drying.)

Marsh-haying has a long history in the area, beginning at Plymouth Settlement. Hay fed the livestock and made a good roofing material, so collecting it was vital work for the community.  Even today, if you look carefully, you can still see traces on the ground of long-abandoned farm fields, visible at low tide. Around 1900, saltwater farming became a casualty of real estate speculation  but images of the muffin-shaped haystacks live on in the works of artists and early photographers.
Beach cottages sprouted on the north end of Plum Island, close to Newburyport. Even though it was only a couple of miles from home, I remember the excitement of packing up to go stay in this foreign place.   Contained there, the larger part of the island remains as nature remakes it, year by year, refuge for wildlife and a welcome rest stop for birds on the Great Atlantic Flyway. 
The island is named for the sturdy blue beach plum (Prunus maritima) that roots in the rills incised in the sand by the wind. Those who have tasted beach plum jam may have savored the sweetest plums in the world. Visitors still bear away jars of homemade beach plum jam in triumph.  While cranberry production has been largely commercialized, Cornell University is currently working with beach plum growers through its sustainable agriculture program.
Larger than the rills are guzzles, low spots on the beach where the sea flows into the marshes when the tide is high or during a storm. These shallow channels that cut through the sandbar are only visible at low tide.
Most of Plum Island's 4,600 acres remain undisturbed, preserved as the Parker National Wildlife Refuge. A resting place for sea and shore birds on the Great Atlantic Flyway that stretches from the Canadian Maritime to the eastern Caribbean, more than 270 species stop here and 25,000 ducks have been counted here at one time at the height of the migration season. What they make of human beach-goers, with their paraphernalia of chairs, umbrellas, and coolers, has yet to be revealed.
1. Daniel Reinhardt - aerial photograph of Plum Island, 2006.

2. Arthur Wesley Dow - Moonrise , c. 1895-1898, Terra Museum of Art.
3. B. J. O. Nordfeldt - The Long Wave, 19096, New York Public Library.4. Arthur Wesley Dow - In The Salt Marshes, woodcut, c.1895-1898, Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco.
5. Arthur Wesley Dow - The Dragon, cyanotope, c. 1904, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

6. Martin Johnson Heade - Newbury Marshes At Sunset, 1862, Memorial Gallery of Art, Rochester, NY.
7. Early 20th century postcard of Plum Island Lighthouse. c. 1911.
8. Jane Librizzi - photograph of cottage on Plum Island, July, 1980.
9. Circa 1910 postcard - General Store Of Geo. S. Houghton & Bird's Eye View of Plum Island.

10. Early 20th century postcard - Staddles of Hay, Newburyport Marshes.
11. Early 20th century postcard - Ye Olden Times, Salisbury, Mass.