What can you learn from a pumpkin?

The inner self emerges, despite our best efforts to keep it stuffed down.

Pumpkins by Maggie Daigle.

If the weather holds today, I’ll be painting with my pal Ken DeWaard. We don’t worry about painting the same subject. He doesn’t want to paint like me, and—because he won’t let me copy off his paper—I don’t paint like him.

This week I assigned my Zoom classes to paint pumpkins. They’re in season, after all. After I’d had that brilliant idea, I had to figure out something interesting to say on the subject. That was harder, but I eventually managed to marry pumpkins to a Big Idea in Painting.

Pumpkins by Mary Silver.

Color temperature is especially complicated on an orange (or blue) object, because they’re at the outside edges of that useful artistic convention we call “warm and cool.” If you’re managing the color of light by simply modulating all your colors with the same tinted white pigment, it’s no great problem. But if, like the Impressionists, you’re dialing around the color wheel to control the color of light, you run into a problem. There’s simply nowhere warmer than orange or cooler than ultramarine blue. That gave me a subject to talk about regarding pumpkins.

My students then proceeded to paint. And that’s where the real learning started… for me.

A leaning tower of pumpkins by Kathy Mannix (unfinished).

I wasn’t optimistic about the results. After all, how interesting could two dozen still-life paintings of pumpkins be? It’s not as if the gourds were out in the field waiting to be gathered up, on plants, buried in leaves, or stacked in innovative ways. Shorn of context, they would be plopped on tables from Maine to Texas. I expected to harvest a crop of very similar paintings.

Instead, there was as much variety as there would have been if I’d suggested self-portraits.

Pumpkins by Patricia Mabie.

Kathy Mannix stacked hers in a leaning tower. Samantha East added a large squash to break up the composition. Lorraine Nichols laid her gourds out on a textile printed with pumpkins; Maggie Daigle and Patricia Mabie played the stripes of their gourds against the stripes of textiles. Carrie O’Brien’s pumpkins were reflected in the bowl of a silver spoon. Somehow, each painting was reflective of each artist, “warts and all,” as Lori Galan joked about her own painting.

Pumpkins by Yvonne Bailey.

The arts are the voice of our inner self, but painting is uniquely self-expressive. It’s influenced fairly equally by both our conscious and subconscious minds. Contrary to what you might think, our subconscious expression gets stronger the more we gain technical skill. When our process runs quietly in the background, there’s space and time for our souls to start speaking.

For example, it’s impossible to mistake a Caravaggio for an Artemisia Gentileschi, even though both painted Biblical subjects, belong to the same general broad movement in art and underwent similar training. It’s not just the lighting or drafting that immediately tell us which is which, either. The very personality of their work is different.

One very warty pumpkin by Lori Capron Galan (unfinished).

There are many reasons for a teacher to avoid trying to create mini-me painters in the studio, but it’s a pointless exercise anyway. The inner self emerges despite our best efforts to keep it stuffed down.

I’m also reminded—again—that there’s little point in trying to predict the outcome of my ideas. Sometimes I’ll put something out that I think is dreck, and it catches the public imagination. Sometimes, I’ll labor long and hard on something I think is brilliant, but nobody else much cares. I’ve learned to just cast my bread upon the waters and let the results take care of themselves.

A feminist painter and her feminist royal patron

It’s very trendy right now to ‘discover’ women artists. But how lost were they, really?
Mary Moser, c. 1770-71, George Romney, courtesy National Gallery
I’m in Edinburgh finishing a portrait this week. My subject bought me a copy of The Lady. This is one of Britain’s longest-running magazines. Founded in 1885, it was where the gentry advertised for domestic servants. Between the nanny ads and the horoscopes, there are some pieces of surprising interest, including a biography of 18th century painter Mary Moser.
Moser is best remembered for her decorative painting at Frogmore House, an English country house within the Home Park at Windsor. Started in 1680, it was largely renovated by Queen Charlotte, whom Americans know as the wife of King George III.
A Vase of Flowers, 1792-97, Mary Moser, Frogmore House, courtesy Royal Collection Trust
But the Queen was much more than that. Among other things, she was a champion of women artists and a keen amateur botanist who helped expand Kew Gardens. It was this interest in botany that led to her hiring Moser to decorate the South Pavilion at Frogmore House.
The house was more than a century old when Queen Charlotte purchased it in 1792. She used it as a retreat from nearby Windsor Castle, where she and her daughters could practice their hobbies of “painting, drawing, needlework, japanning, reading and ‘botanising’.” The Queen had borne 15 children (13 of whom lived to adulthood) and had a mentally-ill husband, so it’s perhaps understandable that she then built another retreat within the gardens of this retreat. That’s Frogmore Cottage, where the Duke and Duchess of Sussex now live with their new baby.
Queen Charlotte, 1761, studio of Allan Ramsay
Moser was already well-regarded as a floral painter when she took up the commission at Frogmore House. She had been trained by her father, an enamellist and himself a drawing tutor to George III. She was one of 36 artists who joined together to form the Royal Academy of Arts. At the age of 24, she was the youngest Academician and one of just two women among the founders. The other was Angelica Kauffman.
Moser did not marry until later in life. By convention, a woman’s professional life ended upon marriage. “[P]erhaps there was no man worth giving it all up for,” suggested The Lady.
Moser carried on an affair with miniaturist Richard Cosway. He was well-known as a libertine, and “commonly described as resembling a monkey.” (His wife was, in turn, getting it on with Thomas Jefferson.) In his notebooks, Conway made lascivious comments and “invidious comparisons between her and Mrs Cosway,” implying that Moser was more sexually responsive than his wife. He died insane, just in case you’re wondering if there’s cosmic justice.
A Bunch of Flowers, 1792-97, Mary Moser, Frogmore House, courtesy Royal Collection Trust
Moser married at age 49. Bowing to social pressure, she retired and began exhibiting as an amateur under her married name. She’d made a pile of money as a painter; the Frogmore commission alone earned her £900, which is equivalent to £100,000 today. She left most of her wealth to women: relatives, friends, and the wives of other artists.
It’s very trendy right now to ‘discover’ women artists. But how lost were they in the first place? Artemisia Gentileschi, for example, may not have been a household name twenty years ago, but was well-known to students of the Baroque.
The problem wasn’t so much with their own times, but with the peculiar blinders of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Moser’s membership in the Royal Academy was circumscribed to some degree by her gender; she could not attend nude sketch sessions, for example, and some meetings were closed to her. But all in all, she had a happy and complete life as a painter.

Writing or rewriting history

We need to redress the artist gender gap in the here and now, not in museums.
Allegory of Fame, c. 1630–1635, Artemisia Gentileschi

I smiled at a headline that read something like, “Artemisia Gentileschi and eight other woman artists found at the National Gallery.” Gentileschi has only been ‘lost’ to those who don’t know art history.

For those of us who study it, she’s exactly where she should be. Not in the first rank of the Baroque, for she was not the innovator that Caravaggio, Velázquez or Georges de La Tourwere. But a solid, workmanlike painter, on a par with, say, Zurbarán or her own father, Orazio Gentileschi. That’s no small achievement after 450 years of winnowing.
David and Goliath, c. 1605-1607, Orazio Gentileschi, courtesy National Gallery of Ireland. Artemisia Gentileschi’s father was no minor painter.
Rediscovering women painters is all the rage right now. A recent study found that, in our major museums, 87% of artists represented are men. While I take exception to their methodology (crowdsourcing), I think the overall percentages are probably pretty accurate when it comes to the Renaissance and after.
For anything earlier, it’s pure speculation. We have no idea who created most of the pre-Renaissance art in our museums. We can’t assign gender or race to its creators based on our assumptions, since they’re so often wrong. Starting with Minoan culture, the great classical cultures were empires. Empires are, above all, cosmopolitan.
Judith and her Maidservant, 1613–14, Artemisia Gentileschi, courtesy Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Still, western art, from the Renaissance until the middle of the 19th century, was overwhelmingly produced by white men. This is a fact, and there are only two options—accept it and move on, or rewrite the story of western art.
All art criticism is by nature subjective. That doesn’t make it untrue. We respect great painters not just for the superlative canvases they produced, but for the influence they had on later painters. This is true not just for those who were feted in their lifetimes, but for those who lived and worked in relative obscurity, only to be discovered by later generations. Over time, our culture has reached consensus in the recognition of great art.
To change that, to elevate certain painters because of their gender would be to upset that narrative in an historically inaccurate way. Women primarily worked in the home until the late 20th century. Why try to whitewash that fact?
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638–39, Artemisia Gentileschi, courtesy Royal Collection

Where that falls apart is in the modern era, and that’s exactly where we need to redress the gender imbalance. An excellent example is the disparity between the reputations of Lois Dodd and Alex Katz. They’re contemporaries with similar achievements and resumes. But Katz is represented by innumerable top-flight museums worldwide, while Dodd’s first painting was only recently acquired by MoMA.  

Women in the arts, in 2011, earned68¢ for every dollar earned by men. That was far worse than in the broader economy, where women could expect to earn 79¢ for every male-earned dollar. I haven’t seen much change in the last eight years.
Let’s put our efforts where they matter, in the here and now, and leave the art canon to mind itself.

The perfect body

What is the ideal of beauty in art? That’s a moving target.

Death of Boudicca, by Carol L. Douglas. The sculpted female form is peculiar to our own time in history. Our ancestors would have found it déclassé.
I once had a perfect body, you know. Like most women, I didn’t realize that until I’d lost it to childbearing, cancer and that ultimate indignity, age.
I was reminded of this yesterday when a friend showed me new photos of her daughter, who’s an actress (and a great kid). Her publicity pictures focus on her long, articulated muscles, whippet-thin torso, and delicate fair hair. By contemporary standards, she is physically perfect.
Longing, by Carol L. Douglas
“You have to suffer to be beautiful,” my grandmother told me as she tried to tame my frizzy hair into submission. I must have told my own kids that without thinking, because I’ve heard it from their mouths.
“Perfection is ‘lean’ and ‘taut’ and ‘hard’ — like a boy athlete of twenty, a girl gymnast of twelve. What kind of body is that for a man of fifty or a woman of any age? ‘Perfect’? What’s perfect? A black cat on a white cushion, a white cat on a black one… A soft brown woman in a flowery dress… There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination.
Physical ideals change, but they are reflected by artists. That is their only tangible record. Sleeping Venus may have been painted by a woman (Artemisia Gentileschi) but it suggests all the tropes of female beauty of the time. She is soft, languid, deferential. She is young, because youth has always been associated with beauty.
Michelle reading, by Carol L. Douglas
Fashions in beauty were enhanced through whatever panniers, stays or padding were in style at the time. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that women started sculpting our own bodies in earnest. Dieting became a fact of life for most of us. In the 1980s, plastic surgery went mainstream, with women buying dental veneers, breast and buttocks augmentation, nose jobs and eye lifts.
Changes in beauty norms are more pronounced for women, but they’re true for men, too. Historically, the markers of male beauty were money, power and class. These were expressed through clothing, ornamentation, and setting. Sculpted muscles were considered vulgar, reflecting the hard work of the lower classes. The shift to beefcake as beauty corresponds historically with the shift to sculpted bodies in women.
The Laborer Resting, by Carol L. Douglas
As always, our ideals about beauty reflect our longing for something we cannot have. Only the wealthy have the leisure and money to afford personal trainers at expensive gyms, chefs to create careful, well-thought-out diet regimens, plastic surgery or tropical tans. The vast majority of us grab breakfast on the run and head in to work, where we sit all day.
“Beauty always has rules. It’s a game. I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt. I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves,” wrote Le Guin.
“There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place, and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.”

Same spot, different vision

None of us see the same way. It’s more important to achieve the right state of mind than to find the perfect angle.
Dyce Head in the early morning light, 12X9, oil on canvas board, Carol L. Douglas. I’m drawn to lighthouses, even though I know they’re a trope and a trap.

One of the joys of participating in painting events is running into the same people. Often, we don’t just paint in the same locations, we paint the same scene. Still, our paintings end up looking vastly different. How does that happen?

It’s partly a matter of composition and the pigments we choose. Occasionally it doesn’t work; for example, an iconic object like a well-known lighthouse can force painters into a narrow box. A scene with only a single viewpoint creates the same problem.
Not a cloud in the sky, 8X6, oil on canvas board, Carol L. Douglas. This is the Owl’s Head Light painted from the back.
One of the distinguishing factors in painting is how the artist perceives light. To some degree, all of us see it within our own historical perspective, where certain values predominate. In our time, the driving forces are color temperature and chroma. But light in a painting is also a spiritual element that reflects the artist’s own values, identity, and perception of reality.
This isn’t a thinking process: no artist goes out in the morning and says, “I think I’ll seek out a strong rim light today.” It’s a matter of what draws his or her eye, and through it, speaks to his or her soul.
Owl’s Head Light, 8X10, oil on canvas board, Carol L. Douglas
In other words, the last thing lighting is in a great painting is an ‘effect.’ You can see that clearly in chiaroscuro. It was wildly popular throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and continues to be used in photography to this day. Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Georges de la Tourand Artemisia Gentileschi all used it; it was the stylistic convention of their time. But they ended up with vastly different results. We viewers can read far more about the artists than just their historical setting. The way they handle light tells us about their character.
Henri Matisse thought deeply about art history and his place within it. He described a distinction in his own work between natural light and inner, or what he called “moral light.”
Cape Spear Road, 10X8, oil on canvas board, Carol L. Douglas. That’s not one, but two, lighthouses.
“A picture must possess a real power to generate light and for a long time now I’ve been conscious of expressing myself through light or rather in light,” he said.
Matisse was an agnostic. “But the essential thing,” he said, “is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.”
“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” For a founding Fauvist, that seems contradictory. But Matisse’s essential convictions overrode his stylistic ideas. His work is restful.
None of us see the same way. It’s more important to achieve the right state of mind than to find the perfect angle.

A family affair

Natalie MacMaster is touring with her husband, Donnell Leahy, playing in the hotspots of Caribou, Rockland and Brownfield, ME before heading off to the bright lights of New York and Boston. We jumped at the opportunity to see them in the intimate Strand Theatre in Rockland last night.
MacMaster is a member of a famous Cape Breton fiddling family that included the renowned fiddler, Buddy MacMaster, among others. Cape Breton fiddling is the older brother of Highland fiddling, transported to Nova Scotia after the Highland Clearances. Once you’ve heard it, it needs no further introduction.
Leahy, who’s Irish, toured extensively with his seven siblings. His style of playing is more emotive, throatier. “I grew up in Ontario without that kind of [Cape Breton] style around me. But I listened to my father play the fiddle. I listened to the radio. I listened to accordion music because I had a friend who was an Irish accordion player,” he said.
As you can imagine, they’re both superlative players. But they were not the stars on the Strand stage. That honor went to their five eldest children: Mary Frances, Michael, Clare, Julia, and Alec. (Baby Sadie sat out the show.) The kids played the fiddle. They step-danced. They sang The Mary Ellen Carter. Their teenaged cousin has extended his winter break from school and is traveling with them, playing the pipes.
The Painter and the Buyer, 1565, was a self-portrait by proud paterfamilias Pieter Bruegel the Elder

 With such a family legacy, it’s no surprise that the kids are about ready for their first big break. That’s coming soon, with an appearance scheduled on Steve Harvey’s Little Big Shots later this year.

Artistic dynasties like the Leahy-MacMaster clan are now rare, but that hasn’t always been so. There was the Boothfamily, who are now remembered mostly for their ignominious assassin. The family of Johann Sebastian Bach included 50 musicians of note for two centuries. The same is true for the descendants of the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. For women like Artemisia Gentileschi, a family workshop was a safe space to pursue an unconventional career. And there is, of course, Maine’s own Wyethfamily. I could go on for pages.
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638–9, is by Artemisia Gentileschi, who had the advantage of being trained in her father’s workshop.
What has changed? Public education tends to dilute parental influence even as it democratizes knowledge. Children are in school while their parents are in offices far away. Fewer children are being trained in any craft now, as we educate a nation of generalists. Moreover, we expect our children to self-actualize, to make and follow their own dreams rather than go into the family business.
Watching the Leahy kids on stage with their parents, I’m inclined to think we need more of that, and less factory education. I look forward to their future careers.

A man’s world, and it needs fixing

"Christmas Still Life," 1916, by Gabriele Münter. If art prices were tied to achievement, Munter would be among the top-selling 20th century artists, instead of being remembered for being Kandinsky's mistress.

“Christmas Still Life,” 1916, by Gabriele Münter. If art prices were tied to competence, Münter would be among the top-selling 20th century artists, instead of being remembered as Kandinsky’s mistress.
There have always been women painters, but they never had the opportunity to enter either apprenticeships or academies—whichever were the great training systems of the time. The ones who rose above the lack of opportunity had advantages of birth (Sofonisba Anguissola and her sister Lucia) or fathers who were painters (Artemisia Gentileschi)
It has not been until the modern era that we have seen women artists rise in their own right. Even in the 20th century, many of them hitched their stars to men (Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz), sometimes with disastrous personal results (Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky).
"Breakfast of the birds," 1934, by Gabriele Münter.

“Breakfast of the birds,” 1934, by Gabriele Münter.
ARTNews does an annual survey of inequality in the art markets and it’s very depressing. For the past two years, 92% of paintings that went through the big New York auction houses were by men; 8% were by women. If you think that’s terrible, that’s about the same ratio as is represented in MoMA.
There are idiots who still say that this is because men are better artists. What does that even mean? That women don’t paint like men? If that were true (and it isn’t) would it be a question of worth or of difference? It’s galling to see the Art Establishment, which sneers at traditional values, gleefully going on in their merry misogynistic way. But until women get wall space in galleries and museums, they’re not going to achieve the prices they deserve.
Cabin in the Snow at Kochel, 1909, by Gabriele Münter.

Cabin in the Snow at Kochel, 1909, by Gabriele Münter.
Last night, a reader sent me this short essay about power plays for women. I wish every woman artist would read it. The art market isn’t a meritocracy any more than the workplace is—probably less so, in fact, because art is so subjective.
Women are naïve about power and influence, usually ascribing their failures to their own personal shortcomings rather than the culture. We project deference instead of confidence. We petition instead of negotiating.
As was true in medicine, engineering and law, we can’t wait around for the culture to change. Men are either players or benefitting from the status quo. Some women are fellow-travelers, just as they were in those other professions. I’m open to suggestions about ways to equalize the art field, readers. We need to use every tool in the arsenal to claim our rightful place in the marketplace.

Power of women

“Jael and Sisera,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620.

“Jael and Sisera,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620.
Since the Bible is a compilation of 66 books by 40 authors, it is a lot of things, including an historical record. It includes rather ugly facts about the condition of women in the ancient world. That doesn’t make it misogynistic; it makes it history. It’s also replete with women heroes.
For some reason, the history of Renaissance art includes a great love for the two warrior women, Judith and Jael. I’ve been thinking a lot about these paintings since my visit to the Met last weekend. Why is it that the predominantly male art world was so fascinated by the hammer of retribution being wielded by the feminine hand?
The story of Jael comes from the Book of Judges. Deborah, the only named female prophet and judge in the Bible, advised Barak to mobilize troops to meet a Canaanite threat. Barak whined. Deborah agreed to go with him, but told him that the honor of victory will go to a woman because he was being such a wimp. A downpour mired the Canaanite chariots and they were defeated. Their general, Sisera, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. She gave him a jug of milk and a blanket and he fell asleep. While he was sleeping, Jael drove a tent peg through his skull.
“Judith Slaying Holofernes,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614–20.

“Judith Slaying Holofernes,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614–20.
The story of the beheading of Holofernes by Judith comes from a book we now consider deuterocanonical, although it was part of the Catholic Bible during the Renaissance. Judith visited the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes, who was about to trash Judith’s hometown. Drunk, he passed out. Judith sawed his head off, and it was carried away in a basket.
“Susanna and the Elders,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610.

“Susanna and the Elders,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610.
The story of Susanna and the Elders is considered doctrinal by Catholics and Orthodox Christians and apocryphal by Protestants. As Susanna bathed in her garden, she was watched by two voyeurs, who, as elders, were powerful. They threatened to accuse her of meeting her lover in the garden unless she agreed to sleep with them. Refusing to be blackmailed, she was about to be put to death when young Daniel insisted on a proper investigation. The elders’ stories didn’t match, and Susanna’s virtue escapes unscathed.
These subjects are considered part of a medieval and Renaissance art genre which inverts the typical power relationship between men and women. They included myriad secular stories and classical myths as well as the Bible stories I’ve mentioned. What they reflect are the gender politics of the late middle ages, not those of the Biblical era.
I’ve used paintings of these subjects by Artemisia Gentileschi. She was almost alone in being a successful woman Renaissance painter. She has a unique view of the Power of Women discussion.
“The Meeting of David and Abigail,” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630.

“The Meeting of David and Abigail,” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630.
There is another hero woman mentioned in Samuel who didn’t get much traction with painters. Abigail overrode her loutish ingrate husband to intervene with an irate King David. She has been painted at her meeting with David, when she prophesizes his greatness and begs him to spare her people, saying that in his moment of greatness, “ my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself.”
The part I would like to paint, however, is when she went home to Nabal and told him off for being such an ass. He had a hangover, and then he had a stroke, and then he died. A fine ending, that.