Cutting it fine

Why do some Americans work so darn hard?

Best Buds, 12X16, $1449 framed

I don’t typically travel for fun in the summer, but with my Cody workshop cancelled due to the national car rental shortage, I had a few free days. Of course I filled them in with another trip. It wasn’t until I was unpacking my truck last night that I realized that I left my watercolor kit at my daughter’s house in New York. Oops.

 “Do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing, and you’ll never be criticized,” wrote Elbert Hubbard.

In 1913, Hubbard pleaded guilty to six counts of using the US mail to distribute “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy and indecent material.” He was fined $100 and surrendered his rights as a citizen.

Apple Tree with Swing, 16X20, $1623 unframed

Here is one of the jokes that earned him disgrace:

“The bride of a year entered a drugstore.  The clerk approached.  ‘Do you exchange goods?’ she asked. ‘Oh, certainly! If anything you buy here is not satisfactory we will exchange it.’ ‘Well,’ was the reply; ‘here is one of those whirling-spray [contraceptive] affairs I bought of you, and if you please, I want you to take it back and give me a bottle of Mellin’s [baby] Food, instead.’ And outside the storm raged piteously, and the across the moor a jay-bird called to his mate, ‘Cuckoo, cuckoo!’”

Another concerned “the new stenographer whose name was Miss Mary Merryseat. But Old Man Lunkhead, Senior member of the firm of Lunkhead Sons & Co., Ltd., never having taken a course in Dickson’s Memory Method, called her Gladys.”

Owls Head Fishing Shacks, 9X12, $869 framed

Leaving aside his penchant for criminally-bad jokes, Hubbard was a busy man. He is credited with the aphorism, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” He’s best remembered for founding the Arts and Crafts Movement called Roycroft. Based on the ideas of William Morris, it was a community of printers, furniture makers, metalsmiths, leathersmiths, and bookbinders in East Aurora, NY.

Roycroft’s creed was a quote from John Ruskin: “A belief in working with the head, hand and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that every task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness.”

It’s the ‘play’ part that is frequently neglected by Americans. I found, during my four-day interlude in New York, that I kept falling asleep. That’s a sign of exhaustion, and it’s no way to do art or anything else.

Belfast Harbor, 14X18, $1594 framed

Why do we live like this? In part, it’s training and competitiveness. And in part it’s the culture. Americans have long been the hardest-working people of all the industrialized nations

The middle class bears the brunt of our work-mania. “The average middle-class married couple with children now works a combined 3,446 hours annually, an increase of more than 600 hours—or 15 additional weeks of full-time work—since 1975,” according to the Brookings Institution.

In 1960, when I was learning to toddle, only 20% of women with children worked outside the home. Today, 70% of American children live in households where all adults are employed. That means all the unpaid work of the household is now done by parents after work and on weekends.

I’m a product of my culture, so I beat myself up for forgetting my watercolor kit. I leave to teach back-to-back workshops on Friday. I need it, and there’s no chance I can get it back in time.

Had I stayed home over the holiday weekend, I never would have mislaid it. I would have opened my gallery and maybe sold a painting. I’d have finished projects to button up for winter.

And I’d also have missed my granddaughter’s sixth birthday party. Relax, Carol, and learn to play a little.

Painters of the middle class

There’s no shame in painting what people love, as long as you do it well.
Two chattering housewives, 1655, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Dordrechts Museum
If I weren’t in Buffalo, I could fly to see Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age, opening on February 22 at the National Gallery in London. (London and Los Angeles are roughly equidistant from my house, so that’s not as daft as it seems.)
The Dutch Golden Age (the 17th century, roughly) was when trade brought prosperity to the Netherlands. That, in turn, fostered a flowering of scientific thought, military might and culture. The conditions that made this possible were the nation’s recent liberation from Spanish rule, a solid Protestant work ethic, and the development of a new kind of business: the corporation.
The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602. It was the first multinational corporation and it was created by exchanging shares on the first modern stock exchange. This may seem humdrum to us, but at a time when for most of the world wealth and poverty were inherited conditions, it allowed for the creation of thriving merchant and middle classes.
The Eavesdropper, 1657, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Dordrechts Museum
Until the Dutch Golden Age, great art was commissioned by extremely wealthy people, who essentially dictated the tastes of the times. Suddenly, middle class people were buying art. This radically changed what artists painted.
The Dutch Reformed church and Dutch nationalism informed the aesthetic of Golden Age painting. Catholic Baroque was out; simplicity and Calvinist austerity were in. Dutch art concentrated on reality and ordinary life at all levels of society. The focus on realism is why the period is sometimes called Dutch Realism.
Always that realism was invested with meaning. Significant in this worldview was a rapid growth in landscape painting, particularly as it represented unique Dutch values and scenes. A windmill on a flat plain or a boat at sea may seem like tropes today, but they were symbols of heroism to the audience of the time.
The Dutch painted lavish still lives that seem overly full and overripe to modern eyes. They were simultaneously objects of beauty, symbols of abundance, and full of symbolic meaning. Among these are floral vanitas paintings, done with scientific accuracy while warning us of our ultimate destiny.
The Virtuous Woman, c. 1656, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Wallace Collection
Genre painting underwent a renaissance, because home and hearth were as important to these middle-class buyers as they were irrelevant to princes elsewhere. Nicolaes Maes was among the most important of these genre painters. After studying with Rembrandt for five years, he hung out his shingle, first in Dordrecht and then in Amsterdam. Like so many artists, he didn’t specialize in the beginning, painting whatever was necessary to make a living. After about 1660 he focused on lucrative portrait paintings. It was a good strategy, because he died a very wealthy man.
The contemporary American artist has two broad market paths open to him. The first is to produce conceptual art that is meaningful to high-flyers in New York. The second is to produce work that appeals to middle-class buyers. If the latter is your target audience you can learn a lot by studying the careers and subjects of Maes and his peers.
There are those who sneer at plein air painting even as it develops into the largest modern movement in painting. But the critical message of the Dutch Golden Age is that there’s no shame in painting what people love, as long as you do it well.