Great Dames

Boudicca and her Daughters on the Victoria Embankment is the most famous representation of the British queen. Queen Victoria felt a resonance with Boadicea; the work was as commissioned by Prince Albert and executed by Thomas Thornycroft.
My friend K Dee recently put together a photo stream of portraits of women to “help me remember, in case I ever start to forget, which sort of female image I find reflects a healthy civil society, and which I do not.” That in turn reminded me of Lady Antonia Fraser’s wonderful Warrior Queens: The Legends and Lives of Women Who have led Their Nations in War, and I decided to focus on great queens and their artistic representation this week.

One of Fraser’s primary subjects is Britain’s Boadicea. I have a half-finished portrait of her in my studio that I will be working on next week.

Her name comes down to us as Boudica, Boudicca, Boadicea or Buddug. It derives from the Proto-Celtic feminine adjective boudÄ«ka, which translates to “victorious” in English. What we know of her comes from the writings of Tacitus and Cassius Deo.
Boadicea’s husband Prasutagus was a client-king of the Roman Empire. Although his will left his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Emperor, upon his death, his kingdom was annexed to Rome. Boadicea was beaten, their daughters were raped, and Roman financiers claimed the family assets as their own.
Boadicea Haranguing the Britons, line engraving, published 1793, by William Sharp, after John Opie. The engraving is finer than the painting.
Boadicea raised the Iceni and neighboring tribes—estimated to be 100,000 strong—in what would become the longest-lasting revolt against Roman rule by a client state.  The natives sacked Camulodunum (modern Colchester), Londinium, and Verulamium (St. Albans) before being defeated by Suetonius in the Battle of Watling Street. Boadicea committed suicide rather than be captured by the Romans.
Considering that Boadicea is one of the fundamental heroes of early Britain, she is shockingly unrepresented in art. One has to ask why the Pre-Raphaelites, with their consuming interest in British history, gave her such a cold shoulder. Her militancy, her political skill, her energy, and her mastery apparently gave them fits; they were much more interested in the wasting maiden.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

When the going got tough…

This Dardanelle, Arkansas, Post Office WPA Mural is not much different from the one in my home town, except that the crop is cotton.
The logical successors to the Ashcan school were the Federal Art Project painters. This was the visual arts part of the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. At no other time in American history has government made such an effort to support the arts in all forms. While autocrats sometimes employed art to create an ethos for their state, democracies do not, in general, use art and artists like this.
Whereas this WPA Office Mural from Arlington, Massachusetts is distinctly northern in character, and refers back to our original settlement stories.
Since non-representational artists—still considered the avante garde—were not making much of a living in the Thirties, you can imagine what a boon government support was for them. But most of the WPA art was representational, and most of it was local. We remember the WPA for the murals in our post offices, libraries, schools and hospitals, not because it supported the likes of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock before they became famous.
Could this be from anywhere else but America’s heartland, celebrating corn as it does? In this case, Mount Ayr, Iowa.
Yesterday I wrote that art is primarily a reflection of the aspirations and values of the society that created it. The WPA art is an example of art as a change agent. In the midst of the Great Depression, America needed to be reminded of her exceptionalism. In government buildings across the country, painters did just that.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Does art reflect society or society reflect art?

McSorley’s Bar, 1912, by John Sloan. McSorley’s is the oldest Irish tavern in New York City. It only admitted women after being forced to do so in 1970. I got into my last-ever bar fight there, with an undergrad from NYU who imagined I’d slighted his girlfriend. “I can take him,” I insisted to my husband. “Who expects a roundhouse from a blue-haired church lady?”
Yesterday a reader asked, “Does art reflect society or society reflect art?” It seems to me that art is primarily a reflection of the aspirations and values of the society that created it. That is not to downplay the importance of social justice in art, and it doesn’t mean that artists can’t change people’s minds. Think of the tremendous courage it took for Émile Zola to publish J’accuse, and the influence it has down to this day. But even that was responsive to a reality: the injustice of institutional anti-Semitism.
By the turn of the 19th century, America had recovered a bit from its earlier unbridled optimism. This could be seen in its literature, with writers like Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, and Frank Norris describing the dark side of the American experience. The painterly equivalent was called the Ashcan School.
Steaming Streets, 1908, by George Bellows. The Ashcan painters did not gloss over the filth and danger of our cities.
The Ashcan painters opposed both American Impressionism and the highly polished work of painters like John Singer Sargent. They were darker, rougher, and harsher. They were not just interested in light and air; they also wanted to paint the grime, the frozen manure and the poverty that were also part of our urban reality.
From the standpoint of trendiness, their moment was short-lived. The Cubists, Fauvists and Expressionists took over the avant garde high ground with the Armory Show of 1913, and suddenly the Ashcan painters were lumped in with all those boring old realists from the 19th century.
Eviction (Lower East Side), 1904, by Everett Shinn (gouache). Shinn had watched the eviction of an old musician from his apartment, which inspired this picture of misery and despair.    

That should not minimize their artistic and social importance. Painters like Robert Henri, George Bellows, George Luks, John Sloan, and William Glackens cast a long shadow. They were the first painters to admit that America was not Elysium, and the flaws they painted have only gotten more noticeable with time. 
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

American naturalism

High-Jake Game, c. 1861, by Thomas LeClear. Before official colored regiments were formed in 1863, several volunteer regiments were raised from free black men, including freedmen in the South. The Confederacy had passed a law stating that blacks captured in uniform would be tried as slave insurrectionists in civil courts—a capital offense with automatic sentence of death. Many captured black soldiers were summarily executed without even the pretense of a trial. For this young man, this is a high-stakes game indeed.
Before there was an Ashcan School, there were genre painters. Thomas LeClear’s most famous painting, Buffalo Newsboy, is dear to all who grew up visiting the Albright-Knox Art Museum. LeClear was contemporary with Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet but the difference between their worldviews is striking.
This difference derives not from talent or temperament, but from place. The French naturalists described a society where there was limited social mobility. The working poor expected to remain poor forever. LeClear, on the other hand, described the boundless optimism of a people who believed poverty was a transitory state and that anyone could go from rags to riches. LeClear’s newsboy is saucy, healthy, energetic, and not the least bit fazed by his low beginnings.
Buffalo Newsboy, c. 1853, by Thomas LeClear, is a favorite of Buffalonians. It harks back to when Buffalo was a boomtown. 
LeClear painted some of his most famous canvases during the Civil War. By concentrating on children, he could obliquely point to difficult issues of democracy and emancipation. That he was able to retain his optimism during this cataclysm speaks volumes about his, and the nation’s, character.
Thomas LeClear was born in the village of Candor, Tioga County, New York. In 1832 his family moved to Ontario. A few years later LeClear became an itinerant portrait artist and decorative painter traveling in a range across New York and as far west as Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Young America, c. 1863, by Thomas LeClear.  â€śThe locality is a street in Buffalo, and the man on the sidewalk evidently engaged in counting up his gains is a portrait of a well-known operator in stocks, who goes by the name of “three cents a month,” a contemporary, Henry T. Tuckerman, wrote. 
In 1839 he moved to New York City, where he studied with Henry Inman. By 1847 he had begun to win substantial recognition for his work. That year, he moved to Buffalo in a calculated move to increase his income. At the time, Buffalo was a boom-town and LeClear quickly acquired many wealthy patrons
In the early 1860s LeClear moved back to New York City. He was elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design in 1863. He became a prominent portrait painter as well as a genre painter.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

The poorest of the poor

The Laundress (La Blanchisseuse), c. 1863, by Honoré Daumier. This painting exists in another two versions, one of which is owned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
In the context of art, naturalism is a kind of painting that attempts to look reality square in the face. It seeks to depict people and their transactions with as much honesty as is possible. Since naturalism arose in tandem with the Industrial Revolution, it frequently investigated the changes which the Industrial Revolution wrought.
The Third-Class Carriage, 1863-65, by HonorĂ© Daumier.  While Daumier has us focus on one family—a mother with her infant child, a tired grandmother and a sleeping boy—they represent all of the working class, with their solid bodies and weary stoicism.

Mid-19th century French painters were particularly good at this, and nobody was more incisive than Honoré Daumier. Daumier was a bit of an artistic polymath, excelling at printmaking, caricature, painting and sculpture. He was tremendously prolific, producing more than 6000 pieces of work in his lifetime.

The Uprising, c. 1860, by HonorĂ© Daumier. Daumier was unique in seeing the nascent labor movement as a fitting subject for art. Daumier is very spare with the details here, driving our attention inexorably to the figure in the center. In this, he suggests the coming Impressionist movement.
In Daumier’s era, washerwomen did their work at lavoirs, which were public places set aside for clothes washing.  It was dismal and hard work. Duamier lived on the Quai d’Anjou on the ĂŽle Saint-Louis. This afforded him many opportunities to see the washerwomen at their work along the Seine.  His washerwomen, would have been amused by the modern conceit of “Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work Day” since it was a fact of life for the 19th century poor. They are tired, but they are strong, and they exhibit the same monumentality as Millet’s gleaners.
The Burden (The Laundress) c. 1850-53, is another look at the same subject. Again, the figure is monumental and impressionistic, but here she and her child are both driven. The paint handling clearly suggests the next generation of French painters, particularly Van Gogh.

Having grown up in a working class household himself, Daumier was uniquely sensitive to working class life. However, he did not just paint the poor; he depicted (and caricaturized) the whole gamut of French society.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!