Monday Morning Art School: why study art history?

Understanding the major movements in western art will make you a better painter.

Yo Yos, 1963, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy Albright-Knox Art Museum. This, I think, is the first Thiebaud canvas I ever saw.

Wayne Thiebaud passed away on Christmas Day at the age of 101. Thiebaud is best known for his pop-art still lives of everyday objects, but should be equally remembered for his superlatively-drawn landscapes. He worked right into his centenary year, and that in itself should be a lesson to us all.

I regularly haul him out in class as an example of paint application, controlling edges, simplification and draftsmanship. Now he has crossed over from being a working artist to being an Old Dead Master, but his voice as a painter and teacher is not stilled.

Girl with the red hat, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665-7, courtesy National Gallery of Art. No painting better demonstrates how to intentionally control the viewer’s eyeballs.

I had the fortune of growing up near a good art gallery which, moreover, was free. There were gaps in its collection, of course, because Seymour Knox was monomaniacal about abstract-expressionism. However, Paul Gauguin’s Yellow Christ, James Tissot’s trophy wife, the Buffalo newsboy, the little Charles Burchfield watercolors and huge Clyfford Stillabstractions are all imprinted in my memory, stroke by stroke. I’m sure they’ve influenced my painting.

There is no substitute for time spent in art galleries, but there is—equally—no substitute for time spent understanding the major movements in western art. It will make you a better painter.

I think of this every time I meet a new student stuck in indirect painting. It’s how I learned, since a small mania for Rembrandt had blossomed in mid-century (and continues to throw up shoots here and there).

Portrait of George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait), 1796, Gilbert Stuart, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with indirect painting, but in 2021, it’s a nod to the past. Perhaps some great genius will come along and divert the course of art history back to glazing (as, in a way, Andrew Wyeth did for realism). Or, more plausibly, an advance will be made in paint technology that drives a style change.

But right now, you may as well lecture in Attic Greek for all the influence you’ll have if you pursue indirect technique. We’re in an age of alla prima, bravura brushwork and brilliant color. One may be contrarian and reject that, but it’s at least helpful to know where you stand.

I vividly remember my first class with Cornelia Foss. She set me the task of drawing and painting an orange. When I was finished, she said, “If this was 1950, I’d say, ‘brava’, but it’s not,” the implication being that I needed to get with the times.

Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne, 1806, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, courtesy Musée de l’Armée

There’s probably not a lot that hasn’t been tried with oil paint. Tonalism involved a lot of dabbling, including glazing with experimental substances. Many canvases by Albert Pinkham Ryderand Ralph Blakelock have deteriorated beyond recognition. Knowing this would save a lot of anguish going forward.

Equally, there are brilliant technical skills that can be best mastered from looking at Old Masters. Nothing demonstrates edge control better than Vermeer’s Girl with a Red Hat, for example. Some of my students are currently on an Edgar Payne journey. They’ll learn more from studying his canvases than I can teach with all my bloviating.

But, beyond that, art can teach social history as well as any lecture. Think of Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished portrait of George Washington, the one which became our one-dollar bill. Compare its austerity with its contemporary, IngresNapoleon I on his Imperial Throne and you have all the difference between the French and American Revolutions in a nutshell. I don’t know what any teacher could say that would improve on that.

What’s an artist to do?

There’s no ‘there’ there to rebel against anymore.

Winter Lambing, 48X36, available, Carol L. Douglas

My goddaughter Sandy is the child of immigrants. Her family escaped China at the conclusion of the Civil War, when it was clear the communists had won. They went to Vietnam, which has an active community of Chinese emigres. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, they became Vietnamese boat people, ultimately ending up in the US. (For many reasons, let us hope that this time their refuge is secure.)

“Americans are in a constant state of rebellion against their parents,” Sandy observed as we did our daily constitutional up Beech Hill yesterday. “Why is that?” For Asians, filial piety is a virtue.

Wreck of the S.S. Ethie, 24X18, Carol L. Douglas

I’m familiar with some of the roots of that rebellion, being a product of the Swinging Sixties myself.  But it goes farther back, to the Roaring Twenties. Both the 1920s and the 1960s are thought by historians to be periods of nihilism in response to the cataclysm of world war, but that’s an incomplete explanation. The American Civil War was the greatest cataclysm in American history, and no such period followed it. The closest we came was the anarcho-communism of the turn of the century.

In art, we’ve been at this business of rebellion ever since the Impressionists showed in the first Salon des Refusésin 1863. We’re now in a position where vast sums of money are exchanged for intangible art. If there’s anything left to rebel against, I can’t see it.

Deadwood, 48X36, Carol L. Douglas

“Where is art going?” is a question every thinking artist should constantly ask himself. For our predecessors there were clear trends (although I’m sure they are clearer in retrospect). The past filled the galleries, and the bright young things were all in the coffee house complaining about it.

It’s harder for today’s young artist. The most obvious means to success is to make a spectacle of oneself, but that’s a different artform altogether. There are digital art and electronic installations, but for a painter, it’s difficult to see a direction in the current maelstrom. When plein air shows happily embrace abstraction and great galleries laud incompetence, there’s nothing left to push against.

All flesh is as grass, 36X48, Carol L. Douglas

One answer is to become more international in our viewpoint, to import other cultures’ attitudes about art. After all, we live in a global world. That’s a mixed bag, of course. Asian artists honor technique, but their governments don’t necessarily honor intellectual property rights.

I see certain trends in my little niche of landscape painting. As the digital world shapes our seeing, chroma (intensity) in painting increases. Detail decreases. But these are merely stylistic flutters. We’ve seen them come and go before. They’re meaningless in the bigger scheme of things.

Of course, I don’t have an answer to this question, or I’d already be doing it.

The first hundred years

I plan to bump up against the century mark with my brushes firmly in my fist.

Boston Creams, 1962, oil on canvas, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy Crocker MuseumHe painted these cakes and pies from imagination, rather than live models. Maybe that’s how he’s lived so long.
Preparing a lesson on abstraction and simplification, I looked up Wayne Thiebaud’s Boston Creams, above. It’s a painting one can learn a great deal from. The color is in the blue shadows and red cherry filling, set against luscious creams and tans. There’s nothing static about it; the rotation of the slices makes a light pattern that swirls with energy. It’s reminiscent of nothing so much as an American flag.

I was amazed to realize that Thiebaud is still with us—he turns 100 this November. Even more amazing, he’s been painting all along. At age 98, he curated a show for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, viewing thousands of images to select work to hang alongside his own.

Three Donuts, 1994, oil on canvas, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy Sothebys.

Thiebaud is a son of the Great Depression. He was raised in Southern California, where his father was a mechanic and local Mormon bishop. Thiebaud worked his way through high school at a restaurant in Long Beach. The pies and doughnuts in their glass cases must have etched themselves on his teenaged brain, because they became the cornerstone of his ouevre.

He apprenticed at Walt Disney Studios while still in high school. After graduation, he enrolled at the Frank Wiggins Trade School in Los Angeles, intending to be a sign painter. He worked as an artist for the United States Army Air Forces during WWII.

After the war, Thiebaud returned to commercial art. His friend and co-worker at Rexall Drugs, Robert Mallary, encouraged him to take advantage of the GI Bill. Thiebaud started college at almost thirty years of age. He earned his MA in 1952.

River Bend Farms, 1996, oil on canvas, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy Christies. Thiebaud’s impeccable draftsmanship translates to great landscape paintings.

That took him to a faculty position at Sacramento City College and University of California, Davis, where he taught until 1991. For most of his career as a painter and teacher, he was out of sync with his time. He was more interested in traditional painting and realism than conceptual art.

Commercial art may be thought lowbrow, but it develops impressive technical chops. Thiebaud drew on them when he started to paint his pies, cakes, candy and ice cream cones. He arranged them just as they would be displayed on restaurant counters or in bakeries. He used the multicolored outlines and extreme shadows of contemporary commercial art. Take away the luscious impasto in Boston Creams, and you could have an advertisement from Better Homes and Gardens.

Two Meringues, 2002, Lithograph on Arches paper, Wayne Thiebaud, private collection. Thiebaud is an accomplished printmaker.

California had no real art scene at the time, so Thiebaud’s paintings were displayed rather haphazardly, in restaurants, studios, or wherever he could find viewers. It was not until he went to New York and met the dealer Allan Stone that he found his national audience. His first show in New York, in 1962, sold out.

Why did his work resonate so well? Although very much a traditional painter, he was mining the same mass culture as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.  However, Thiebaud never embraced the cynicism of Pop Art. He thought of himself as a traditional painter, and he viewed the American scene with affection and respect.

Artists frequently refuse to retire in old age. Sometimes, they meet their greatest success just when they’re expected to find a bed in a senior living facility. Let Wayne Thiebaud be your role model. I’m already planning my show for 2059, Carol Douglas: the first hundred years.

Beautiful glimpses of the past

Today dories are an historical relic. When the Wyeths painted them, they were part of the saga of man and the sea.
Deep Cove Lobster Man, c 1938, N.C. Wyeth, oil, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Sometimes great emails get directed to my spam folder, particularly when they contain a dollar sign in the text. Thus it was when I saw Bruce McMillan’s note about seeing N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives, which started at Brandywine River Museum and then moved to the Portland Museum of Art. It’s on its way to the Taft Museum of Art, opening on February 8.
What Bruce said that tripped my server was that the catalogue, $45 from the museum gift store, was available for $24.50 from Amazon, including shipping. Even with his member discount, he saved $17, or 42%. I immediately ordered the same book and paid $28.49, because books aren’t always the same price on Amazon.
Untitled, 1938, watercolor, Andrew Wyeth, sold at auction in 2017
That price difference is particularly noticeable in museum catalogues and fancy art books. I recently ordered an art text for my brother-in-law that was listed at over $200; he paid $24 for it. Because of this, I’ve learned to check my phone as I exit a show. Feel free to support an institution by paying a higher price in the gift shop, just be aware that you’re doing so.
The Lobsterman (The Doryman), 1944, N.C. Wyeth, egg tempera, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bruce noted that the painting above, The Lobsterman (The Doryman), is “where people stopped and gazed longer than almost any other painting. There’s so much to see in its simplicity; it keeps people looking.”

This is one of five Maine dories I’m looking at today. All are by the first two Wyeths, père et fils, and all of the boats are occupied by people. The last image, Adrift, is almost funerary, and that points to the particular storytelling genius of the Wyeth clan. Was Andrew painting about the model or the working boat?
Adrift, 1982, Andrew Wyeth, egg tempera, private collection
“This is Walter Anderson, Andrew’s devilish friend since childhood, who his parents didn’t like Andrew associating with, who Ed Deci, former curator of the Monhegan Museum, considered a despicable crook, and who I knew when living on McGee Island, off Port Clyde for two years,” Bruce wrote.
Andrew Wyeth was a young boy when he and his family first began summering in Maine. Andrew became friends with Walter and Douglas Anderson, son of a local hotel cook. Walt and Andrew became inseparable, and spent their days in a dory, exploring the coast and islands where locals fished. The two men remained friends for life. While Walt was clamming or otherwise ramshackling around, Andrew was painting.
Dark Harbor Fishermen, 1943, N.C. Wyeth, egg tempera, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
That’s the biggest difference between contemporary dory paintings and the Wyeths’ of nearly a century ago. They knew the boats and the men and boys who used them, intimately.
Before there were decent roads, working dories were the best way to move around coastal Maine. They were easily hauled up onto the beach. They could carry a few hundred pounds of fish or freight. From early settlement until mid-century, they were used as working boats, casually rowed (often standing) by working fishermen.
The Drowning, 1936, N.C. Wyeth, oil, courtesy Brandywine River Museum. This painting is in response to the drowning death of sixteen-year-old Douglas Anderson, who disappeared while lobstering. His body was found by his father and his younger brother, Walt.
Today they’re an historical relic, whereas to the Wyeths, they were part of the story of man and the sea. Dories today are divorced from their close association with working people. We paint them at their moorings, shimmering in the light, with no sense of the thin skin they once provided between the working fisherman and the cold, cold North Atlantic.

Art history can make you a better painter

We are affected by what has happened before us, and we have the power to influence those who follow. 
Blueberry Barrens, Clary Hill, will be at Camden Falls Gallery’s Autumn Hues show, opening this Thursday.

I know a painter whose flawless technique is hitched to 19thcentury luminism. Another excellent painter watched him one day and sighed, “if he knew any art history, he’d be brilliant.” It was a sage comment. With a little understanding of modern art movements, my friend’s ability could be updated into something powerful, something that resonated with today’s viewers.

I’m not talking about putting on a new style like a shirt you bought at FatFace. That never works. Style is something that integrates one’s training, technique, emotional state, and personality. It’s what’s left when you’ve eliminated everything but inner truth. Done right, the artist has no more control over his or her style than he does over his autonomic nervous system. Try to put on an acquired style, and you’ll immediately be recognized as a poseur.
Downdraft snow in the Pecos, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas
But note that I included training in that equation. To paint like a 19th century luminist today means ignoring the impact of a century and a half of war, the horrors of government-sponsored genocide, and the relentless push-pull of modern urban living. It means ignoring abstract-expressionism, magical realism, the invention of movies, color photography, and the entire digital age. There’s a reason modern painting has an edge that 19thcentury painting didn’t.
Beach Erosion, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.
With rare exceptions, my art-history posts are the least-read of anything on this blog. (I moved to this platform in 2007 and have my stats since then, with the exception of the period I was writing for the Bangor Daily News.) It’s always disappointing to write about a great artist of the past and realize nobody cares to read about him or her. But, like cod liver oil, I know art history is good for you, so I’m going to continue to offer it regularly.
None of us stand alone in the great continuum of history. We are affected by what has happened before us, and we have the power to influence those who follow. But to do that, to take our rightful places as painters or teachers, we need to be part of our epoch. To do that, we must understand where we are and where we came from.
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard
That’s not limiting; it’s liberating. For example, observing how Bronzino painted energy into apparently-static portraits can make us better landscape or still-life painters. Our predecessors have experimented in color and composition in ways that can give us a firm foundation for our own exploration.
Understanding the goals of Rogier van der Weyden or Kazimir Malevich doesn’t make us paint like them. But understanding their place in the great sweep of time helps us to position ourselves in our place. Ultimately, that is the most important thing we learn through art history. It is the difference between a pretty painting and one that will have meaning to future generations.

Global art

Trade has been with us for longer than we have written records. We trace it through art and craft.

The Meagre Company, 1633-37, Frans Hals and Pieter Codde. Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. One of the most important Asian imports to Europe was silk.
We think of global trade as a modern phenomenon, but trade has been part of human civilization since long before there were written records. Artwork is a primary tool for tracking that.
Glass beads were a high-status item in the late Bronze Age. Their manufacture was restricted to Egypt and Mesopotamia and traded as finished goods. By 1300 BC, raw glass itself was in international trade. The oldest glass ingots on trade routes were found in a 1300 BC shipwreck off the coast of Turkey.
The Riace Warriors, Greek, c. 460-50 BC, discovered in the sea off Calabria, Italy
Egypt didn’t invent this process, but it controlled it. All three ancient-world glass furnaces for raw ingot manufacture were in Egypt. This is where cobalt Egyptian blue glass and copper-based red glasses were first made. The Amarna Letters (c. 1350 BC) detail the military and other relationships between Egypt and its vassal states in Syro-Palestine; they contain frequent requests for glass. Glass beads were nearly as precious as gold and silver.
13th Century Statue of Saint Maurice, Magdeburg Cathedral. Maurice was the leader of a legion of “six thousand six hundred and sixty-six men” who converted en masse to Christianity and were martyred together. By the time this was made, there was enough European trade with Africa that the unknown artisan could represent African features.
By the eighth century BC, the Greeks and Etruscans were part of an active trade network around the Aegean and Mediterranean. One side effect was the Orientalizing of Greek art. Massive imports of raw materials and an influx of foreign craftsmen introduced new skills into Greece. Its influence was felt in Italy, Sardinia and the Iberian Peninsula. This trade network expanded to include the entire Mediterranean. Greek pottery has been found in Marseilles and Carthage to the west, Crete to the south and Sardis to the East.
Saint Jerome in his Study, 1480, fresco, Domenico Ghirlandaio, courtesy chiesa di Ognissanti, Florence.
The Roman Empire was built upon trade. No tariffs, a common currency, and secured trade routes led to world domination. They imported raw materials from as far as Britain to the west, Asia (along the Silk Road) to the east, and from Germanic and Slavic tribes far outside the empire. In return they exported Roman culture. Today we find Roman ruins, roads, coins, and mosaics across Europe.
When the Roman Empire was snuffed out, so were their trade networks. Trade was controlled by the Caliphates until the Renaissance. This brought middle eastern art into Iberia, but cut Europeans off from Asia and Africa. These networks weren’t restored until the Age of Sail.
A fifteenth-century painting by Domenico Ghirlandaioof St. Jerome is a map of contemporary global trade. The oriental carpet, glazed albarelli (drug jars) and crystal vases were all trade goods at the time. Note his spectacles, invented in Florence in the 13th century.
Adoration of the Magi, c. 1495–1505, distemper on linen, Andrea Mantegna, courtesy of the Getty.
In Giovanni Bellini’s The Feast of the Gods, there is blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, painted from the family collection of the patron, the Duke of Ferrara. Porcelain from the same collection is visible in Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi, c 1500. The reservation of porcelain to gods and princes tells us just how precious it was.

In 1603, the Dutch seized a Portuguese carrack off the coast of Singapore. Its manifest is a record of the goods then being traded with Asia: 1,200 bales of raw silk, many chests of damasks and embroideries, innumerable sacks of spices and sugar, and 60 tons of porcelain.
The Return to Amsterdam of the Second Expedition to the East Indies, 1599, oil on canvas, Hendrik Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
By the 16th century, the Netherlands was the center of free trade, which now ranged across the world. This can be seen in images of the boats they used, and the goods they brought home, including silk, spices, sugar and fruits.

Coming to terms

It’s the season when we’re trapped at parties by slightly squiffy people pontificating about art. Here’s a handy glossary of terms to help you hold your own.

The Waterseller of Seville, 1618, was Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece, meaning the painting that gave him the rights and privileges of a master under the guild system. It established him in the canon of western art. Courtesy the Uffizi Gallery.
Bravura means a spirited, florid passage of music requiring great skill from the performer. The word came to English in the eighteenth century from the spirited, florid Italians. There’s a sense of dash and brilliance in there, too. Today, we talk about the performer as much as the piece.
How to use this in a sentence: “After years of using a roller, I was inspired by his bravura brushwork.”
Canon originally meant a rule or decree of the Church, the books of the Bible that were accepted as legitimate, and the list of proven saints.
From this, canon came to mean the masters, masterworks, rules, and principles in any field of study, including art. Canonized artworks are the ones we venerate like saints, but canon also includes the people who made them and the theories that drove them.
How to use this in a sentence: “But of course, darling, the canon is absolutely dripping with Dead White Males.”
The Scream, 1893, Edvard Munch, courtesy of the National Gallery of Norway
Expressionism was all the rage in the first half of the twentieth century, when there really was something to scream about. It is subjective, distorting reality for emotional effect.
How to use this in a sentence: “Expressionism was a reaction to the bleak outlook of the time. For some reason I always think of it at these openings.”
Figurative doesn’t mean artwork with human figures in it. It just means the painting includes something you can actually recognize. This isn’t limited to realism, since there are plenty of people drawing recognizable things out of their own heads.
How to use this in a sentence: “My move to figurative painting was a purely mercenary decision.”
Untitled, c. 1943-44, screen print, Jackson Pollack. His work is all gesture. Courtesy MoMA
Gestural artwork includes dynamic, sweeping marks. It’s informal, spontaneous, and abandoned. In the twentieth century, it meant Action Painting. This was a branch of Abstract-Expressionism centered on the subconscious and the act of creation itself.
How to use this in a sentence: “I wish he’d kept his gestural work on the canvas. This stuff will never come out.”
Masterpiece originally meant the piece that a journeyman submitted to his guild to become a master of his craft. Today there’s no guild system, and the word is now invested with all kinds of fawning and awe. It really needs to be cut down to size.
How to use this in a sentence: Look suitably stunned and exclaim, “A masterpiece!” Repeat indefinitely.
Modeling is the rendering that defines the volume of the subject. Modeling takes a back seat to brushwork in much modern painting, but it was a prized skill before the Impressionists.
How to use this in a sentence: “The tender, delicate modeling focuses our attention on the truck bumper.”
A Motif is a theme or image in a painting or icon. It is often repeated, but may stand alone. It’s identifiable and has meaning within the piece. It comes from the Latin motivus, which means “moving, impelling.” That tells us a lot about the role of motifs in painting.
How to use this in a sentence: “That motif makes him look like a third-rate Chagall.”
The Red Vineyard, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh, epitomizes painterliness. Courtesy Pushkin Museum.
Painterly: This means a surface where the brushstrokes aren’t hidden and blended. It’s less-controlled, unpolished, and fiery. Since it’s all the rage in actual painting, surprise people and apply it to another medium.
How to use this in a sentence: “He’s the most painterly of bartenders, with his playful focus and texture.”
Participatory:That’s interactive art where you, the viewer, get suckered into playing. In the worst examples, the artist will expound on your sensory experiences and responses in a most embarrassing way.
How to use this in a sentence: “No way.”
Perspective: This is the drawing system where an artist tricks you, the viewer, into seeing a scene or object receding in space. It can take the form of graphical perspective, where things get smaller as they go back, or atmospheric perspective, where the light and clarity change over distance. It’s still in use today, at least by people who can draw.
How to use this in a sentence: “His experiments with perspective are always a bit wonky.”
Virtuoso: Since the eighteenth century, this has meant a person with great skill, a master of his art form. The real question is how virtuosityderived from the same root word as virtuousdid.
How to use this in a sentence: “She’s a virtuoso with her brush cleaner.”

The light in the Dark Ages

While Europe floundered, the British Isles continued to create great art.
The Chi-Rho monogram from the Book of Kells, courtesy of Trinity College Library, Dublin
If you went to school back in the last millennium, you learned that western civilization fell off a precipice with the Sack of Rome. What followed were centuries of Germanic tribes overrunning, displacing and reshaping the former Roman Empire. This was the end of the Pax Romana and the beginning of a long period of unrest.
International trade and social ties across Europe collapsed rapidly. The many Roman industries that required cooperation and transportation ended. These included pottery, glass, olives, wine, African grain, Chinese silk, Indian spices and much more. Systematic agriculture vanished, along with most organized education. The military posts that had created cultured society on the outposts of Empire were gone.
We have ways of estimating the impact of these changes. One is population decline. In formerly-Roman Europe, there was a population drop of about one-third between 150 and 600 AD. Then came a series of plagues that knocked off another half of the population.
Ancient shipping is measured in shipwrecks. They fell off abruptly after the fall of Rome. Europe was extensively reforested as farming declined.
The Great Buckle from Sutton Hoo, courtesy of the British Museum
Britain always stood uneasily on the rim of the Roman Empire. It had less to lose. While the rest of Europe was floundering, “Britain lead the world in areas such as poetry, medicine, and organisation of land and taxes,” according to Dr. Claire Breay. She curated Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Words, War, now at the British Library. If I were in a mood to travel, I’d go.
Almost a thousand books written or owned in Medieval England have survived. These include the Domesday Book, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a hymn by England’s first poet, Cædmon, and the epic poem, Beowulf. In addition, written law codes, wills, and account books show a people who could, at minimum, keep their own affairs in order.
Th’ owd Man is an Anglo-Saxon carving in St Mary’s Church, Wirksworth, Derbyshire. It is the oldest-known depiction of a miner. Courtesy geograph.org.uk.
The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms did not convert to Christianity until the late 6th century. The missionary Augustine was invited by Bertha, the wife of King Æthelberht of Kent. Bertha was literate enough to exchange letters with Pope Gregory the Great. She had the influence to bring about the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England.
Christianity sparked a new literacy in Britain, both in English and Latin. At the forefront were abbesses, women of high status who presided over double monasterieswhere both men and women served. These were the major cultural, economic, and intellectual centers of their day. Anglo-Saxon women could inherit and bequeath property. Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, ruled Mercia in her own right, kicked the Vikings out of Mercia, and defended and fortified her cities. According to researcher Christine Fell, women were “near equal companions to the males in their lives, such as husbands and brothers, much more than in any other era before modern time.”
Hilda of Whitby (c. 614–680) was the most famous abbess of her day, a wise woman consulted by kings.  
We know Anglo-Saxon art mainly from manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiatinus, the oldest existing copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Christianity discouraged the burial of grave goods but their pagan predecessors had no such scruples. Both groups left a tremendous legacy of metalwork, textiles, ivory carvings, wall paintings, and monuments.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a massive embroidered wall-hanging commemorating the Battle of Hastings and Norman Conquest. It was designed and executed in England by Anglo-Saxon artists.
And then, in 1066 AD, it suddenly ended. The Norman Conquestmeant a massive plundering of the churches and courts by the new ruling class. They had little interest in the arts. Eventually, the Norman influence would create a new art—perhaps the greatest in British history—but for the moment, the light of the so-called Dark Ages was snuffed out.

Like a rolling stone

I understand the impulse to go, but I’m also starting to consider the cost.
The Sound of Iona, c. 1928, Francis Cadell, private collection

This is the time of year when my husband and I look at each other and say, “we never go anywhere.” That’s ridiculous, since I have plenty of opportunity to travel. But I’m a restless soul.

One place I’d like to return, palette in hand, is Iona, in Scotland. It’s home to one of Christendom’s oldest religious sites, but it was also a favorite haunt of the Scottish Colourists.
These were four painters who brought Impressionism and Fauvism home and married them to their own native landscape. They wouldn’t have broken the constraints of Scottish tradition without leaving, but at the same time, they were clearly torn between the two milieus.
I understand the impulse to go, but I’m also starting to consider the cost.
A Rocky Shore, Iona, undated, Samuel Peploe, courtesy City of Edinburgh Council
Samuel Peploe was born in Edinburgh. He studied briefly at the Royal Scottish Academy, and then moved on to the Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi in Paris. His Scottish plein air work started in 1901, when he began traveling through the Hebrides with his pal John Duncan Fergusson.
In 1910 Peploe moved back to Paris. It was a short relocation; he returned to Scotland in 1912. During the 1920s, he summered on Iona with his friend Francis Cadell. He died in 1935, after advising his son Denis to not take up art as a career.
Dark Sea and Red Sail, 1909, John Duncan Fergusson, courtesy Perth & Kinross Council
Disenchanted with the rigid instruction available in his hometown of Edinburgh, John Duncan Fergusson traveled to Morocco, Spain and France, determined to teach himself. By the 1920s, he was settled in London. In 1928, he and his wife, dancer Margaret Morris, moved back to Paris, until the threat of another world war drove them home. They moved permanently to Glasgow in 1939. He died in 1961, a famous, feted artist.
Francis Cadell, too, was born in Edinburgh. He studied at the Académie Julian starting at the age of 16. Unlike his friends, Cadell spent his adult life in Scotland. As a consequence, he concentrated on intimately local themes—landscapes, New Towninteriors, society portraits, and the white sands of Iona. He served in WW1 with Scottish regiments.
Cadell died in poverty in 1937. His success is largely posthumous; his paintings now command upwards of half a million pounds.
Boats in Harbour, undated, Leslie Hunter, private collection
Leslie Hunter was the outlier.  He was born in Rothesay, the only town on the Isle of Bute. After the death of two of his siblings, his family emigrated to California. Hunter was 15. By age 19, he had moved alone to San Francisco, where he worked as an illustrator.
In 1904, Hunter made the requisite visit to Paris. He saw, for the first time, the fantastic ferment of Impressionism. He returned to San Francisco and began painting. This body of work was destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Disappointed, Hunter returned to Scotland, settling in Glasgow. He was introduced to the Fauvists in a 1907 visit to Paris. There, his old buddy, Alice Toklas, took him to the Stein Salon. Hunter was shocked but impressed by the painting.
The outbreak of WW1 forced him back to Glasgow, but by 1927, Hunter was again in France, sending work back to Britain. In 1929, he suffered a physical breakdown. His sister fetched him home. Recovered, he still hoped to break out, this time for London. His health continued to fail and he died in a nursing home in Glasgow at age 54.
As I write this, I am reminded of a beach near me, also with white sand, also lovely. No chance of that, however; I’m leaving again on Tuesday.

Separating art from the artist

If you’re in a rut, move to Tahiti and take a string of child-mistresses. It worked for Gauguin.
Two Tahitian Women, 1899, Paul Gauguin, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art 
Last year, the Metropolitan Museum took heat for a 1938 painting by Balthus, Thérese Dreaming. The painting is not overtly obscene, but Balthus had a sexual obsession with prepubescent girls. In light of that, Thérese’s panties are an art-history problem. Where should the line be drawn between censorship and veneration?
The Met also owns many paintings and prints by another Frenchman with a girl problem—Paul Gauguin. Excising Gauguin would be far more problematic. He profoundly influenced 20th century art.
Gauguin is most famous for traipsing off to Polynesia at the end of his colorful, fractious life. He wrote that he wanted to escape European civilization and ‘everything that is artificial and conventional,’ but his grand statements always had the whiff of dross about them. He had a family in Copenhagen whom he’d abandoned, and he expected to get rich in Tahiti.
Vahine no te tiare (Woman with a Flower), 1891, Paul Gauguin, courtesy Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
He arrived in Papeete in 1891. Instead of nubile, naked Tahitian girls, he found church-going ladies in Victorian dress. Moreover, it was full of expatriates and colonists and was expensive. Disappointed, he moved to a bamboo hut in Papeari.
Gauguin’s first Tahitian portrait was Vahine no te tiare (Woman with a Flower), above. It’s neither exotic nor exploitative. Instead, it is investigatory. He studied her face, and he put her in the western dress that she really wore.
Back in Paris, Gauguin had read some Dutch texts written in the 1830s, about the Arioi. This was a Tahitian secret religious order. They practiced complete sexual freedom before marriage and aborted or murdered any babies that were conceived through these unions. They worshipped a war god named ‘Oro.
Te aa no areois (The Seed of the Areoi), 1892, Paul Gauguin, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
If this sounds like a Marvel comic book, you recognize the basic tone of 19th century ethnographers. These stories were probably a farrago of lies, rumor and truth.
Gauguin was fascinated. He was free to invent the details, which meshed with his own self-promotional legend as a depraved sensualist and a martyr to his art.
Gauguin did twenty paintings and a dozen carvings over the following year. Nine were shown in Copenhagen. Gauguin was sufficiently optimistic to return home, although he was still broke. Moreover, he was already showing the signs of tertiary syphilis.
Paul Gauguin with his mistress Pahura (second from left) and another woman, who looks less than thrilled with his hand on her breast. Courtesy Daniel Blau.
Gauguin took three young native girls as vahines, or ‘wives’, during his Tahitian period. They were 13, 14, and 14 at the time. There’s no suggestion that they were unwilling.
He used them as models and to do the work of survival in a pre-industrial society. While Papeete was westernized, Papeari had no corner grocery store; its families fished, hunted and gathered breadfruit and bananas from the mountains.
But mostly, it was about sex. “He loved the whole idea of someone getting pregnant and showing the world that he still had it,” said art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews.
Gauguin returned to Paris in 1893, swanking around the Left Bank dressed in Polynesian costume and carrying on with a Malay teenager called Annah the Javanese. As usual, it rapidly went sour. He was broke and bitter. In 1895, artist Eugène Carrièrebought him a cheap, one-way ticket back to Polynesia.
Self portrait, 1903, Paul Gauguin, courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel
Gauguin spent the next six years living an apparently comfortable life in and around Papeete. His vahine during this period was Pahura, who was age 14 when she moved into his house. Later, he would accuse her of thievery, and rail at the colonial police for not taking him seriously.
In 1901, Gauguin moved to the Marquesas, complaining that Papeete had become too westernized. There he built a house called Maison du Jouir. That’s hard to translate, but “Love Shack” probably comes closest. His health continued to deteriorate. He became a regular user of morphine and laudanum. His lost paradise was falling victim to time. 
His vahine, Vaeoho, seven months pregnant, went home to Hekeanito bear his last child. She didn’t return. By December, 1902, he could no longer paint. He was found dead on the morning of May 8, 1903, by a neighbor. Tioka confirmed his death in the traditional manner, by chewing on his head in an effort to revive him.