The Greatest Painter Who Never Lived

The Facts of Life, Norman Rockwell

It’s a sad fact that in the United States one can defame the reputation of a dead person with impunity and his or her loved ones and heirs can do nothing to stop it. Such is the case with Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror: the Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, which characterizes Rockwell as a complex, depressed, repressed gay man whose repression led to pedophiliac urges expressed in his paintings.

A Scout is Helpful, 1941, Norman Rockwell
A nice person—one not looking for duplicity everywhere—would agree with Rockwell’s granddaughter’s assessment: “My grandfather was a charming, kind, generous man; his models, without exception, say that posing for him was one of the highlights of their lives. He had a marvelous sense of humor, was a remarkable observer of people and human behavior…” 
Rockwell was a fantastically successful illustrator because his ear was perfectly tuned to the 20th century zeitgeist, which celebrated work, home, family and children. Of course, Deborah Solomon is in perfect tune with the zeitgeist of our times, which holds that there is nothing good in this world. Nor is there any privacy, apparently. 
The Babysitter, 1927, Norman Rockwell
Abigail Rockwell has done an excellent job of debunking Solomon’s sources, but she gets little traction in modern media, because she—unfortunately—is working at cross-purposes to our modern world. We like knowing that others are ‘no better than they should be.’
Rosie the Riveter, 1943, by Norman Rockwell. Of this iconic painting, Solomon said, “You know who else is masturbating? Rosie the Riveter. Women to him [Rockwell] were sexual demons. Over here, the riveting-gun penis on her lap, and in the background these pulsating red waves. Even though she’s a worker she’s not working, she’s just eating and satisfying her desires.”
But why is it being gay is so frequently the ‘secret sin’ of which artists are accused? (For a start, see Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Leonardo Da Vinci; never mind that their culture cannot be transcribed literally into our culture.) And why did a publisher like Farrar, Straus and Giroux publish an outrageous, unsubstantiated claim of a putative link between homosexuality and pedophilia? If that had come from the Right, the howling would have been deafening.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here. 

Frozen beauty

Thin sheet ice at the harbor in Baltimore, MD. (Photo courtesy of Emerson Champion.)
The Great Lakes are a continuous channel of fat parts (the lakes) and straits (the Niagara, St. Lawrence and St. Mary’s Rivers and the Straits of Mackinac). A sort of inland sea, they contain 21% of the world’s surface fresh water by volume. Because they are huge and deep, they never fully freeze, and they even have small tides.
We all know that lake water starts to freeze at 32° F. The salty ocean’s freezing point is more like 28° F., but of course the ocean is vast (even vaster than Lake Ontario) so at our latitude it only freezes around the edges.
Orange peel ice developing on the Patapsco River shipping channel in Baltimore, MD. This is brackish water in a shallow cove. (Photo courtesy of Emerson Champion)
Still, the Great Lakes form some features usually associated with sea ice. Ice hummocks and pressure ridges, pancake ice, grease ice (which is basically ice soup), and ice stuck fast along the shores with open channels, or leads, are all features of both sea and Great Lakes ice. As long as the lakes don’t freeze, they also have the same drift ice that one sees on the ocean.
Ice balls on the shore of Lake Michigan. These are caused by rolling surf.
Ice coverage on the Great Lakes reached 85.4% on Feb. 18, making this the second winter in a row that it has exceeded 80%. That’s the first time that’s happened since the 1970s. As usual, Lake Ontario is the slowest to freeze; as of yesterday, it was at near-record levels, being 82.6% covered.
Pancake ice looks like blood platelets and is a common enough formation on Lake Ontario. Sometimes the edges build up enough that the pieces look like kettles.
This much ice is highly unusual. But this is the second cold winter in a row, and the lake never fully warmed up last summer.
Flow ice near Brooksville, ME.
In terms of comfort, it’s difficult: Buffalo is recording its coldest February in the 145 years in which records have been kept, and the whole northeast has been buried in snow. Ice is, of course, beautiful, but we’re all starting to look forward to the grey, rotten ice that heralds Spring.
Fast ice is ice that’s stuck on the edges of open water.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here. 

This blog is on a two-hour snow delay

Shadow on Frankfort Barren, 1982, Neil Welliver

Last week was historically the coldest week of the year. That should be a relief, but we’ve got at least another week of subzero weather on the forecast. The whole northeast has struggled with snow and extreme cold this winter. Anyone who watches the weather recognizes this as a reprise of last year, and wonders if we’re entering an extreme cold cycle.
Unyarded Deer, Neil Welliver.
Nevertheless I generally like winter, and I particularly like the paintings of Neil Welliver.
Welliver studied at Yale with abstract painters Burgoyne Diller and Josef Albers. He went on to teach at Cooper Union, Yale, and Penn.
Cold Claudia, 1969, Neil Welliver. Too often the figures in his mid-period paintings look like empty spaces around which the landscape crowds. To me that’s an unconscious attempt to get past the academic idea that the figure is the highest representation of painting.
While teaching at Yale, Welliver dropped abstraction in favor of realistic landscape painting. In the early 1960s he began vacationing in Maine, where he began integrating figure in the landscape. In 1970 he moved permanently to Lincolnville, ME. Shortly thereafter, his mature style was born.
Welliver based his huge finished works on plein air sketches done in the wood and coastline near his home.
Study for Allagash Ice Flow, 1997, Neil Welliver.
“Painting outside in winter is not a macho thing to do. It’s more difficult than that. To paint outside in the winter is painful. It hurts your hands, it hurts your feet, it hurts your ears. Painting is difficult. The paint is rigid, it’s stiff, it doesn’t move easily. But sometimes there are things you want and that’s the only way you get them,” he said.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here. 

Decentralization

No museum keeps its whole collection on display. Meeting between Emperor Wen and Fisherman Lü Shang, 16th century, attributed to Kano Takanobu, is only available via the internet or if the Metropolitan will opens their vaults to us.
Yesterday I wrote about an articulated doll found in an ancient sarcophagus in 1964. This story recently made the rounds of the blogosphere, even though it is 40-year-old news. Some unknown blogger—an aficionado rather than an intellectual—recognized the spark of genius in that ivory doll and shared it with the world, where it caught the imagination.
In the 20th century, museums and galleries were able to tightly control their collections. Distribution of their slides was limited to ‘serious’ students: other museums, colleges, and professionals. If you were outside academic life, you learned about art and history through books and museum visits.
If the Roman occupation of Britain is your passion, you can browse the British Museum’s Mildenhall Treasure from your living room. You probably don’t need a lecturer to tell you that’s a spoon.
In 2000, sisters-in-law Olga and Helen Mataev started an online gallery of paintings by great artists. It was the first comprehensive online gallery and has since grown to 15,000 images. Nothing like it had been available before.
Wikipedia, launched in 2001, was a major engine for decentralizing art images. Today Wikiart(75,000 images) and online collections of major museums like the Metropolitan (400,000 images), are following suit.
Interested in the Great Chicago Fire? You can browse the Chicago History Museum’s collection of ephemera and find things like this leather fire marshal’s helmet, circa 1870.
This decentralization of information is the most important movement of our time. 

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here. 

Oh, baby

No neck, no breasts, long limbs and very wide hips. How could a little Roman girl hope to live up to this?
A photo of an articulated ivory doll found in 1964 in Rome has recently made the rounds on the internet. The doll is part of the funeral dowry of a little girl laid in a marbled carved sarcophagus. It is now in the National Roman Museum at Palazzo Massimo.
  
Let’s call her Liviafor fun. Livia is preternaturally tall and thin, neckless, with pubescent breasts, wide hips, and a prominent belly. She has a long Roman nose.
Livia has a classic Roman profile.
Every female person alive knows this doll is incomplete. The girl’s mother would have made little tunica intima and stola for Livia. In fact, by age eight, Livia’s owner would probably have been doing needlework for her precious doll herself.
Barbie and I are the same age, but she’s had more plastic surgery than me.
I like to imagine a certain kind of Roman matron, gossiping with her friends behind a fan about how Livia will undermine the confidence of her young owner. “If she were real, she’d be built like a broomstick, with arms that could reach from the Tiber to the Aqua Claudia,” she would say. “And no woman could hope to keep breasts that small.”
I wasn’t permitted to play with Barbie dolls as a child, and I didn’t let my own girls have them—until I realized that my ban was fueling their interest. After that, our household became like any other home with girls: seemingly thousands of impossibly small shoes hiding on the floor, waiting to stab the unsuspecting foot.
Dashing Daisy was a fashion doll designed by Mary Quant and distributed in the UK in the 1970s. She made Barbie seem dowdy.
The impossibly leggy and busty Barbie has had a pretty good run, at age 56. But she wasn’t the first fashion doll, and she won’t be the last. After watching three girls with dolls, I’ve realized the point isn’t to make little girls feel bad about themselves; the point is to give them something to play dress-up with.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Changing visions

At the Milliner’s Shop, Edgar Degas, between 1905 and 1910.
Stanford opthamologist Michael Marmor has written two books on eye disease and famous artists. He focuses on Edgar Degas and Claude Monet and raises the question of whether their declining eyesight materially changed their painting.
Degas suffered retinal disease as he aged and Monet had cataracts. (While cataracts are easily repaired in the 21st century, retinal disease is a trickier process.)
Woman with Loose Red Hair, Edgar Degas, undated
Marmor used Photoshop to blur and reduce saturation in some of the artists’ later work to give some sense of what they might have seen.
“These simulations may lead one to question whether the artists intended these late works to look exactly as they do,” said Marmor, who concluded that “these artists weren’t painting in this manner totally for artistic reasons.”
Water Lilies, Claude Monet, painted between 1917-19, when his cataract process was well underway.
No artists achieve exactlywhat their mind’s eye lays out for them. The difference between intention and execution is the artifact the world understands as “style.” And no artist paints as he or she does totally for artistic reasons. The Impressionists, in particular, were painting in a period of rapid technological change. New pigments, the invention of the paint tube (leading to plein air painting), gaslight, chemical dyes which literally changed the way the world looked, industrial air pollution and a host of other innovations affected their painting.
“Contemporaries of both have noted that their late works were strangely coarse or garish and seemed out of character to the finer works that these artists had produced over the years,” Marmor wrote.
The Rose Walk, Giverny, Claude Monet, painted from 1920–22, when his cataracts were overripe.
Of course many artists throw over the traces in their old age. It’s the “I don’t give a #$%” phase, where all the aspirations and conventions which have guided one’s work over decades suddenly become tiresome and one just sublimates oneself in the paint. May I live long enough to experience it myself.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

You should see the other guy

Yesterday I had surgery to correct ptosis of the eyelids, an inherited trait that impinges on my vision. Being terminally optimistic, I’ve underestimated the down time. “Two days of assiduous icing and I’ll be right as rain. In the meantime, I’ll stay in bed and read,” I thought. I didn’t count on my eyes being swollen shut. Don’t send me anything with fine print today; I can only see vague shapes.
Like most people, I’ve speculated on the impact of being suddenly disabled, losing either the use of a limb or a sense. I have a deaf friend who negotiates the world wonderfully; he even swing dances. I think it would be more difficult to get around without one’s vision. Today, I’m awfully grateful for the gift of sight.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Gone shopping

A good studio-center location should have rocks and sea and sunsets…
Yesterday I wrote about my property search this week in Maine. What does this mean for my painting and my students?
I’ve worked with some fine properties over the years. Unfortunately, some have gone out of business and some have changed their business structure. Furthermore, it’s unfair to expect hotels to welcome paint and turps slopped on their meeting-room carpeting. A studio is a godsend in inclement weather and for critique or instruction. That is easy enough in Rochester, but has been difficult in Maine.
It should have lighthouses, like this one painted by Nancy Woogen at Marshall’s Point in 2013.
I’m not interested in running my own inn, so there has to be ample housing at all price points. It must be a short drive to great painting sites, because nobody wants to spend all day in the car. And the studio needs to be light, bright, and large enough to accommodate 12-14 students.
It should have quiet, wooded places.
Whether I’ve found that property remains to be seen. In the meantime, I’m having surgery on my eyes today, so all real estate transactions are on temporary hiatus.
And it should have boats in all states. These are by me.
An aside: my 18-year-old son toured properties with me, patiently analyzing and considering them. On the way home I attempted to stop at LL Bean’s outlet in Freeport, but five minutes in a clothing store and he was done. Men!
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Driving, me crazy!

Rainy Day on Penobscot Bay, oil on canvas, 10X8.
Yesterday morning was so cold that the electronics in my Prius failed. My husband, a computer programmer, held down the power button for fifteen seconds and it rebooted. What motivates a person to be in Maine in these conditions?
I am in search of real estate. I have delightful friends who have hosted me when I’ve taught and worked here, but the time has come to acquire my painting studio in Maine.
That same scene this morning. No way am I walking down to the water.
Most people start at the kitchen when touring a property. I start with the outbuildings, because the studio is what’s important. I’ve found a great agent here who understands this—Jackie Wheelwright of Legacy Properties Sotheby’s International Realty in Camden.
Together we’ve floundered around in a lot of snow. February is a tough time to buy property in the northeast, and this February has been particularly bad. I can’t see the roofs and I can’t get to the outbuildings without my ski poles and a good deal of swearing.
I may not care about cooking but I’m always a sucker for a good little woodstove.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Just this

The Sea of Ice (Das Eismeer), 1823-24, Casper David Friedrich. Imagine that’s the MassPike, and my wee little Prius on the right…
This weekend I drove to Maine in a blizzard. No, it wasn’t the Snowpocalypse that had been predicted by breathless news readers, but it was a nice New England ripper of a snowstorm.
I love the fantastical twisted ice of springs along the road in winter. If I can ever get a good photo, I will paint them.
After the snow stopped falling, my trusty Prius was raked by cross winds that carved and winnowed the snow into fantastical shapes. It reminded me strongly of Casper David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice.
Note to self: it’s never a good sign when you’re traveling in the same direction as the convoys of power trucks.
Almost unbelievably, I made it to Damariscotta in time for my appointment Sunday afternoon. When I parked for the night, the temperature was 5° with 40 mph gusts. But, Mother Nature, you are a crank indeed! That was warmer than it was at home in Rochester.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.