Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seeing Singer Sargent

While I was in Chicago with my daughter, Courtney, we debated whether to visit the Museum of Modern Art or the Art Institute of Chicago. We would only be there for two days so if we wanted to see the city, we could only take time for one museum. We had to decide.

I chose the Art Institute of Chicago as soon as I realized they had several works by Cezanne. I have been studying his work lately and find it to be very intriguing. I knew this to be the right decision because after talking with some of the museum staff, we discovered they also have 6-8 John Singer Sargent Paintings on display.

That would be AMAZING! I have love, love, loved John Singer Sargent's work for like FOREVER! He was known for his ability to sketch with paint and the result was much like a finished work of art. This created some jealousy among his peers. Madam X, pictured below in its three different forms, was one of his most notorious pieces.
A photo of the 3 versions of Madam X from the Tate Museum
I first saw Madam X at the Seattle Art Museum and was intrigued and in awe by Sargent's ability to create such a perfect painting. It was so long ago, and I actually think I saw the first version of this piece with the shoulder strap down. Madam X was not one of my favorite paintings but it had an impact on me because of the story and disapproval the painting received. I was surprised it didn't get great reviews. It is a pretty impressive work of art.

This painting was considered a scandalous entry when it was debuted at the Paris Salon of 1884 and originally was painted with one strap sliding off her shoulder. The reviews were terrible and consequently humiliated the subject, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who was a beautiful socialite in Paris society who used her femininity to advance her position and status. Although Madame Gautreau was famed for her infidelities, the scandal of the painting's reception did not work in her favor.

Eventually two other artists painted portraits of her that were similar in style, yet not nearly as dramatic, and were very well received by the art critics and the public. John Singer Sargent gave up his dream of becoming a famed portrait painter of Paris and moved to London where he continued to paint amazing portraits and became famed for this ability, despite the negative experience in Paris.
Since that long ago viewing and until this trip, I was only able to see John Singer Sargent's work through the internet and books.

Fast Forward to the Unexpected Chicago Visit, 2013.

Shortly after entering the Art Institute of Chicago, it became clear that it would take more than a week to explore all the art available for viewing.

We decided we had to pick up the pace and get moving if we were going to see the Singer Sargents... and a Cezanne... Dali... O'Keefe... Gauguin... Monet... Wood... Hokusai... oh Art Institute of Chicago you attention hog!

This realization came after we spent a large amount of our time being amazed by the 68 piece Thorne Miniature Rooms Collection where Mrs. James Ward Thorne of Chicago constructed perfect miniature historical period rooms between 1932 and 1940 and where one foot equals one inch in scale, display after display amazed us both. (Yes, that is the Montgomery Ward family connection.) Mrs. Thorne directed the most talented craftsmen/women on every aspect of each display.

The amount of detail in each work was really accurate from the dishes on the shelves to the weave of the braided or Persian carpets to the teeny tiny toys scattered on the floor where children would have played had they been Lilliputians.

The rest of our visit seemed like a mad dash to the finish. There were complete buildings we didn't have time to explore on the campus. Next time.

Following are the paintings that I was so happy to see in person. I was surprised by the fact that we were allowed to take pictures of these paintings and that on more than one occasion, I was able to step right up and stand inches away from these great works.

These are the highlights:

Master printmaker Hokusai's Great Wave at Kanagawa is a stunning print and one of my son, Benjamin's favorites so, of course, I had to get a photo... or two. (Look how close I am to the art. I am feeling like someone should have run over and scolded me.)

Although Claude Monet is not my favorite artist, the Art Institute of Chicago has an impressive collection. The Haystack series is pretty interesting because it is several paintings of the same thing. Monet repeated his subject matter over and over.

While wandering through the different rooms, for a moment, I thought we had walked into the same gallery we had just been in, because I was seeing the lilies again. The Art Institute had... 30 or more Monets.

Tehamana Has Many Ancestors, 1893, by Paul Gauguin is a beautiful painting. I love everything about it. The design of the background, the uncomfortable pose, the striped dress, the lighting.

In 2012, before I went to Denmark I saw an extensive showing of Gauguin's work at the Seattle Art Museum. It was really a beautiful display of his many talents as an artist, printmaker, and carver.

When I visited the Glyptotek across from Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, the woman said it was a shame I hadn't come at a different time because their extensive Gauguin Collection was in Seattle.

Paul Cezanne is another favorite that I am just now discovering. Seeing The Basket of Apples, 1893, was a kind of a thrill, I have to admit. I was totally an art nerd and Courtney just laughed as we discovered new treasures around every corner.

Van Gogh's Grapes, Lemons, Pear, and Apples, 1887 is one I have not seen before. I think that most of the time, the famed painters of the past have a handful of art they are known for, but when you dig deeper, you find treasures that surprise. With Van Gogh we are so used to seeing the self-portraits and the brighter colored works.

Talouse Latrec, Equestrienne, 1888. I love this.

John Singer Sargent

Okay, finally, the reason for this post: John Singer Sargent and what I love about his artwork.

Mrs. George Swinton, 1897

First of all, his skin tones are beautiful. He puts the delicate pinks in the right places and highlights are subtle but add a richness and reality to the subjects features.

When he paints the hands, Sargent uses just a few strokes and the hands look natural and realistic, but when close up, I see the strokes and the changes are just varying hues of light and dark.

The fabric is masterful. He has an amazing ability to capture the light and shadow and nature of certain fabrics and how they bend. Also, the satin and taffeta are reflecting perfectly where the cloth rises and folds. The sheer quality of the left sleeve is lovely. Up close it looks like a jumble of paint strokes.

Mrs. George Swinton was huge, over 90 inches high. I loved seeing this painting in person.

I took many many more pictures at this museum and, as you know, I can go on and on about these artsy experiences.

So I will wrap this up and say that I am thankful my daughter brought me along on this impromptu trip to Iowa and I loved it that we somehow ended up in Chicago. I saw 6 paintings of my favorite painter and so much more.

I love Chicago!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Reassessing Renoir

The Art Institute of Chicago is a wonderful place to explore. I believe it would take a few weeks of daily visits to see everything there is to see, but still that wouldn't leave time to actually study the works on display.

While in Iowa finishing up our visit to the town of our family origins, Courtney and I were studying a map and trying to figure out where we would be for the next few days. We discovered that Chicago was pretty close and right next to Chicago was a Great Lake... Michigan to be exact.

We dipped our toes in the Mississippi, why not a Great Lake? Asking that question is how we ended up at the Art Institute of Chicago.

I am a graduate of the Art Institute of Seattle and I don't remember ever seeing an art museum on campus. It was the early 90's, but still,  I did think all the Art Institutes were connected and that you could easily transfer from one school to the next and still get the same education and the same opportunities. After seeing the massively amazing Art Institute of Chicago, I have decided one is not interchangeable with the next.

While dashing around looking at all the displays, I stumbled upon a Renoir. It was somewhere between the Talouse Latrec pieces and the Salvador Dali offerings. This made me pause. I have heard some criticism towards the inclusion of Auguste Pierre Renoir into the Great Masters of Art for his Impressionist Paintings.

Auguste Pierre Renoir, 1841–1919) was a French artist who was a leading painter in the development of the Impressionist style. As a celebrator of beauty, and especially feminine sensuality, it has been said that "Renoir is the final representative of a tradition which runs directly from Rubens to Watteau." Wikipedia

Let us look for a moment at a comparison within this tradition from Rubens to Watteau (click on the painting to enlarge):
A Girl with a Watering Can,
1876, Auguste Pierre Renoir
The Honeysuckle Bower,
1609, Peter Paul Rubens
Commedia dell' Arte,
1718-19, Antoine Watteau

I do not understand how the Renoir is "the final representative of a tradition which runs directly from Rubens to Watteau." I really would like to know how these paintings are linked and what tradition is this quote in reference to?

Renoir is an impressionist painter, Watteau was into Rococo, and Rubens was Baroque. I suppose we could draw a line from the exacting work of Rubens to the less exacting style of Watteau and then ultimately to the Renoir as the style loosens considerably from the other two.

I find this interesting, and yet I do not know the answer.

Feel free to chime in.

Madame Leon Clapisson, 1883

Monday, August 12, 2013

Quick Question!

Does it seem odd to anyone else to drive halfway across one farming state and only see two different crops?

Recently, my daughter and I went to Iowa and while we were there, we saw some lovely scenery, historic sights and a whole lot of corn. Scattered throughout some of these massive corn fields were smaller crops of soy beans.

It was pretty amazing to me, growing up in a farming community like Ellensburg I saw a diversity of crops from corn, alfalfa, hay, wheat, cherries and apples. I never really thought about how a farming state could become singularly motivated, so while I was in Iowa, I learned about corn.

I already knew a little about subsidies to farmers, but I needed a lot more information. Following, is a very brief and somewhat vague version of the subsidy program in a wild walnut shell:

The subsidy programs give farmers extra money for their crops and guarantees a price floor... meaning the price will not drop below a predetermined price, ensuring farmers can continue to survive during the leanest of times. This sounds like a pretty good way to keep farmers farming so they can continue to feed the masses.

In 2006, farmers were paid $40,000 per person on the farm or $80,000 per couple, depending on their crop, of course.

The top three states receiving subsidies are Texas, Iowa and Illinois. Iowa recieves 9% of its farming income from subisdies.  "The Total USDA Subsidies from farms in Iowa totaled $1,212,000,000 in 2006." Wikipedia. (This represents 2% of the state's population that continues to farm.)

The largest soy bean field we saw.  Corn on the horizon.
Today, as it turns out, Iowa farmers are getting rich. The corn prices have skyrocketed, and consequently, the subsidies keep coming because they are not dependent on how high or low the farmer's income happens to be at any particular time. What matters, is that the subsidies keep the farmers farming so the Agri-Business thrives,  corn additives can continue to lure shoppers to market for high calorie packaged food, cattle can consume more corn-feed, and ethanol can keep engines running.

Also, another side benefit is that the U.S. can sell more crops and be more competitive in the World Market, thus making it difficult for farmers in developing countries to attain economic growth. As you may have guessed, the U.S. Agriculture Subsidy Program is very controversial. (I do not guarantee the accuracy of my facts.)

The Tassel - The Male Part of Corn
Back to the Corn! What you see in this picture is the plant that is cultivated for next year's corn feed crop. The top of the corn stalk is called the tassel. This is the male part of the plant. The ear is the female part.

While we were learning about corn, the kids in Central Iowa, were already shoulder-deep in the De-tasseling season. What happens during de-tasseling is that the tassels of the crop are removed and then every other row is pulled so that alternating rows contain a male plant with tassels in tact and a female plant containing ears. The silk grows out of the ear and is pollinated by the tassel. This tiring job can earn the de-tasselers about $12-15 per hour. (Thats better than some graphic designers earn after years of expensive un-subsidized education.)

De-tasseling was primarily a line of work filled by the children of the community but as times change, the kids are opting out, forcing farmers to hire seasonal workers. This change in the workforce then has implications and impact on several other interesting and controversial subjects such as migrant farm-worker's conditions, corruption, undocumented workers, minimum wage, and labor disputes. (Fodder for another post, I am sure.)

Anyway, back to America's crop, the tassels pollinate the ears and voila, up to 1000 embryos can be created on each ear of corn, thus creating the seeds for next year. So this cornfield like many of the fields we saw while traveling through Iowa, were planted just to make seeds in a cross-pollination process that most likely was genetically altered in some way to become a super-all-powerful-death-defying-uber-amazing corn plant.

Just look at these stalks. They were all so green and thriving that it was a little weird. Field after field as far as the eye can see. It really was a beautiful sight and I found myself wanting to sing our National Anthem on more than one occasion. Instead, Courtney and I ignored the "No Trespassing" signs and stepped into.... a cornfield!

I would like to point out, for the record, nothing bad happened in our cornfield. I have heard that "nothing good happens in corn fields."

The best fact I learned about corn came from our friend John. "Each kernel on the ear is represented by a strand of silk. If the silk strand gets damaged, it will create a hole where the kernel should have been."

Question? Have you ever wondered why some kernels of corn were collapsed when you peeled back the husk?

Now you know. I love this fact. It made me very happy to learn this little bit of corn trivia! This info, although important to a farmer and genetic engineer, is not useful to me which is why I will remember it forever. Thank you, John.

I had a great time in Iowa. We spent some time with friends, which was really the best time and we learned quite a bit about the state of our ancestors.

I was able to help Joan a bit with her wedding plans for her daughter who will be married later this coming weekend, which brought to mind my daughter's wedding that we celebrated a few days ago.

Some of the sights that will stay etched in my mind: The wild walnut trees and beautiful purple flowers growing in a field near burial mounds that made me pause, feeling sadness for the extinct Indian tribes of Iowa.

Near the Iowa River I saw amazing vines growing from the trees and walked across the muddy water on an old train trestle while intoxicated inter-tubers floated below.

Our friends shared, their families, the fruits of the garden, love and prayers.

Our friends in Grundy Center and Steamboat Rock are the BEST!

As I sit here in my home, drinking a glass of my favorite wine, I offer a toast, and a team meeting to our friends. Have a joyful celebration this weekend and thank you for the wonderful memories. Good times.