25 June 2016

Winslow Homer at the Arkell: Intertidal Life

"Spare me any more small museums,"  said the critic.

"No one ever tells you how many bad pictures there are in the Uffizi,"  said the painter.

What Winslow Homer would make of the recent renovation and resulting rehang of his seascapes at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts is just speculation but the cramped quarters and low ceilings, the placement of the paintings just inside the new museum entrance where visitors almost fall over them and each other could hardly come close to what Homer would have wished.
Winslow Homer had a lot to say about the how his paintings should be presented. To look at his landscapes from too close up or in too small a space would be "brutal."  To his dealer Knoedler & Company, Homer wrote in 1904 that the proper vantage point for viewing his seascapes was "to look at and not to smell of."  What these comments point to is the artist's vantage point when he  painted these pictures - a perch at least fifty feet away from the shore line.  At the level of a brushstroke all art dissolves into abstraction; that is one of the wondrous characteristics of verisimilitude.  Homer's comments signaled that he understood this principle and his paintings are the demonstration of an artist who has been decribed as having one foot in 19th century romanticism. and the other in 20th century modernism.   Kenyon Cox, Homer's contemporary and an art critic for the New York Evening Post, recognized that what others saw as a "lack of refinement in the treatment of details" was Homer's way of getting the viewer to back away from the canvas.

Any attempt to understand what, exactly,  Homer was up to when he painted his landscapes - I'm thinking particularly of his seascapes  - might be  called After the Fox.  Homer's 1893 painting Fox Hunt struck both his contemporaries and later critics as the artist's personal avatar, a small, shrewd creature searching for nourishment while predators circle, a great deal of symbolism to heap on a small animal searching for food beneath the snow as hungry crows hover overhead.
Winslow Homer (1836-1912) spent his early working years during the Civil War as a lithographer for the commercial press in Boston and New York; his etching A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, published in Harper's Weekly in 1862, was a compelling image that sparked a debate about a new gun technology in terms that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the current debate about the uses of drones in warfare.
When Homer turned to paining turned to painting his early successes like The Life Line (1884) and Undertow (1886) subordinated landscape to human drama as their titles imply.  But the idea that only his  late paintings show humans as spectators to the drama of the ever moving seas is not the last word and is nicely complemented by the Winslow Homer paintings at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, a village on the Erie Canal west of Albany, New York.
On the Beach, the earliest of these works was probably painted somewhere on the north shore of Massachusetts, where Homer had migrated after his first trip abroad (to Paris) in 1866.  Children, wading along the edge of the ocean, always brought out the artist's fellow-feeling; we sense their individual personalities ever at a distance.  In Moonlight, one of Homer's most tranquil seascapes, the waves break gently, registering as background to the dramatic scudding of clouds backlit in the nigth sky.  It seems to me that Watching the Breakers. A High Seas distills Homer's evolving vision of the human relationship to the sea:  we stand still, captured in the moment, regarding the ceaseless movement of forces that awe us with their intimations of the ultimate unknowable.nature of existemce.
The museum, although not large by some standards, is home to an extraordinary collection of American paintings by the likes of  William Merritt Chase, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam,  Robert Henri, Maurice Prendergast, and a painter rather similar to Homer, George Inness, whose pictures are also seen at their best from a certain distance.  In turn, the collection owes its existence to an extraordinary person, Bartlett Arkell (1862-1946) who made a fortune through his food packing company, and particularly his patent for  a vacuum  jar that made possible Beech-Nut Baby Food.

Revised: 06/27/2016

For further reading:
Winslow Homer   by Lloyd Goodrich,  Macmillan Publishers for Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC: 1036.
Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine, Paul Denenberg, editor, Yale University Press, New Haven: 2012.
1. Winslow Homer - On the Beach, c.1869, Arkell Museum, Canajoharie.
2. Winslow Homer - Moonlight, 1874, Arkell Museum, Canajoharie.
3. Winslow Homer - Watching the Breakers. A High Sea, 1896, Arkell Museum, Canajoharie.

21 June 2016

Intertidal Life: Guzzle in Sight

I don't know what was uppermost in the mind of Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts  when she painted A Beach Afternoon, whether it was the tide going out on a summer day or the people breathing in the briny air.  But I know what I thought when I first discovered it: "Aha!   There's a guzzle."

The linguistic origins of the word guzzle are still in dispute but Massachusetts owns the word now.    In Cape Cod (1865), Henry David Thoreau described seeing a whale on the beach  "dragging in over the bars and guzzles."  Historian John R. Stilgoe includes guzzle in a category that he calls "topographical localisms," meaning a word that comes into being because it fills a need to name something that local people recognize.  Low spots on the beach, caused by the movement of wind and water,  sometimes capture enough  water that it too courses as large ocean waves do.  Sometimes a guzzle breaks through a sandbar at low tide to become a  tidal channel.

 "I can paint as well as any man." -  Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts

That confidence was hard won.   Although born into a prosperous family who could easily pay for her tuition at Academie Julian, Roberts's desire to become a p[painter was opposed by her mother.  Roberts persevered and one of her paintings  was accepted by the Paris Salon in 1892.  She became estranged from her father following his interference in her career.   Following a serious illness and an operation in1926,  Roberts was hospitalized for depression at Massachusetts General Hospital.  It was there that she hung herself on March 12, 1927.

I know I keep repeating this but -  little has been written about the work and life of Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts (1871-1927).   Some information is contained in the Archives of the Concord Art Association and in files of the Boston Public Library.  I only know this after reading "Elizabeth Roberts and the Concord Art Association" from the Massachusetts Painters Projects (Boston, Vose Archives: 1993.)

Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts  - A Beach Afternoon, c.1910, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

15 June 2016

Summertime, and the Living is Easy

"I loaf and invite my soul," Walt Whitman proclaimed in Leaves of Grass.  
As a picture of relaxed ratiocination Young Girl Stretched Out On A Bench is difficult to beat but I would not have given it a second look had I not read  "The Guardian Angel" written by Neil Philip at Adventures In The Print Trade. Carl Larsson was a purveyor of sentimentality I would have said.   Until recently,  the equal contribution in every way to the Larsson enterprise of the artist - and Carl's wife - Karin Bergoo Larsson barely registered on many of us either.
The deliciousness of the scene is the first thing that suggests summer to me. The utter relaxation of the little dachshund lying along her side as the young woman reads the paper and cradles the cat, seems so unguarded and comfortable that it appears unposed.   The suggestion of a tree frames  the image, leading the viewer's eye toward the red pillow that has been upended into its most comfortable position.
The feast of diagonals on display here is organized in a harmonious hierarchy and that, I think, was deliberate.  The green slatted  bench is multi-colored within its narrow range while, on the other side of the white swath of the blanket,  the irregularly striped cushion underneath her, complete with candy-striped fringe. The color red of the stripes near the top of the blanket join with the red printed cushion to outline the young woman in the green and white striped dress. To put all this into words makes it sound busy and stiff, which it is not. This may be Carl Larsson's masterpiece, I think.
Carl Olaf Larsson - Young Woman Stretched Out On A Bench, 1913, Louvre Museum, Paris.

08 June 2016

Joy in Our Cause

"Women's rights are human rights; human rights are women's rights." - Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Like the fabulous globes created for King Louis XIV of France, moments in the history of the world cascade around us all the time; sometimes we mark them and sometimes they are lost on us as our attention is turned elsewhere.  From my mother I learned something about the date August 26, 1920 that her mother passed on to her: how, after women won the right to vote in the U.S., while some women formed the League of Women Voters, other women took oaths promising never to exercise the franchise.
I think of those women every time I cast a ballot, and I always do.   I think of them when I  remember the day my mother took me to a demonstration at the local newspaper plant where women were protesting employment ads that were segregated by sex and the press-men stood at the second floor windows and spat on us.  And I also remember a day when I was one of hundreds of women who returned to Seneca Falls in search of our history, only to find that the site of the convention of 1848 was  unmarked, a laundromat in fact!
This is a moment of paradox: as measurable levels of violence  are declining worldwide, violence against women is on the rise and, for the first time in my lifetime, there are more men in the world than women.
Frederick Douglas was right: "Power never concedes anything without a struggle.  It never has.  It never will."  
Today is also a moment of joy in our cause.  Savor it.

To read: Claiming An Identity They Taught Me To Despise by Michelle Cliff, Watertown, MA, Persephone Press: 1980.

Image Jean-Louis Aubert - photograph of Vincenzo Coronelli's Globes for the Sun King, Louis XIV, (c. 1681-83) 2005, Grand Palais, Paris.

06 June 2016

Intertidal Life. Part One

You may call it the English Channel but the French don't.  And contrary to common impression, the Channel Islands are not part of Great Britain nor are they part of the European Union.  Neither here nor there, this is a telltale sign of intertidal life.  The islands were created during the last period of rising sea levels, circa 6000 BCE.  Land passage between Celtic Britain and what is now Normandy washed away, leaving an archipelago along the Norman coast where the population sorted out their their changed circumstances in the usual ways, through mayhem and marauding.  Continually shifting, intertidal life is a geographical limbo, indeterminate yet confining, a place where landscape peters out but a recognizable seascape is constantly encroaching or receding.

Separated by water as they were, the islands' language has never been a stable version of English or French but rather a mixture of dialects containing remnants of Old Norse and Old Frisian tongues. Linguists trace the -ey suffix in the names Guernsey and Jersey back to the Norse word for island and, in particular, Mari C. Jones speculates that the the name Guernsey may be in part the Frisian word gers, an adjective meaning grassy, for this the largest and the grassiest of the Channel Islands. Norman roots for some words are easy to figure: caoste for coast, couture for fields reclaimed (designed)  from the sea.  Others come from a little farther afield: bequet for  a finger of land,  friquet for wasteland.

Victor Hugo set his novel Les Travailleurs de la mer (Toilers of the Sea, 1866) on Guernsey, a place he got to know well during a fifteen year exile.  Hugo had been forced to flee France after denouncing the emperor Louis Napoleon as a traitor.  Before settling on Guernsey, Hugo had tried Jersey but he was expelled from that island after criticizing Queen Victoria.  The great novelist apparently believed that everyone was entitled to his opinion, a view the authorities did not share.

The French, known for their hegemonic and abstract tendencies, went so far as to name uninhabitable islands and  even rocky outcroppings.  Known collectively as Les Diroiulles, they were christened with descriptive monikers as Les Ecrehous (The Eskers), Les Minquiers (The Minkies) and Les Pierres de Lecq (The Paternosters), their names hint at delicious, hidden wonders.  And even from away, on the beach, the mystery and wonder beckon.

1. Henry de Waroquier - Ile aux Moines, 1906, private collection, France.
2. Henry Edmond Cross - Le Naufrage (Sinking), c.1906, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.