Artist Books

The Book as Stage, the latest exhibition at the Yale Haas Arts Library, features artist books. Artist books use books as the form and can vary wildly depending on the artist’s vision. This show focuses on theater and theatrical presentations using the book arts.

So much fun are the books that look like stage sets in miniature or mock ups for the real thing. Here’s the tunnel book format, with pages layered so we’re tricked into seeing depth.

Laura Davidson. Tunnel Vision. 2001.

Look at how this accordion-pleated book creates a construction site stage set, fronted with a nude in contrapposto. Weird and fun juxtaposition.

What you see in the back of the below image is the mirror reflection of the book. Notice the complicated intersections and weavings of strings. Aren’t the doorways of this sculptural book appealing? We can walk right into a Medieval world and join in with the characters.

Susan Collard. Geschichtliches. 2011.

The book is meant to be architectural, just as during the Medieval period, interest in Gothic architecture peaked (all puns intended). Susan Collard, the artist, purposefully included women in contemplation and learning, arenas occupied by men at the time.

This book focuses on the theater of war. It opens up to create the stage set, as you see. The pages are cut out to create theater scrims, layering the space. Newspaper clips and maps are collaged in, focusing on Middle East conflicts.

Maria G. Pisano. Theater of Operations. 2006.

Of course, what I see is the tie-in to the flag and American imagery. And I think of the Southern Connecticut State University students in my class “Shaping the American Identity.” Each made a page, mostly collaged, about their understanding of American identity at the end of the semester. The pages were then assembled into a class artist book. It was a powerful experience for us all, coming after their first election.

Hon 298 Fall 2016 and their Artist Book

Their energy, passion, and political intelligence is an inspiration, as powerful as any of these professional artists.

Ah, Love, Beauty,…and Deception

After a pleasant visit with family at The Met, including a decadent stop in the member’s dining room, I stopped in for a lecture on the French Baroque artist Valentin. Imagine my pleasure in discovering one of the speakers was a favorite professor from the University of Delaware, David Stone. A Caravaggio scholar, he was examining the career of this French follower of the big C and looking for references and quotations.

They are all over the place, and I enjoyed having David open my eyes once again. He pointed out the freshness of vision of Valentin, which had been easy for me to miss.

Visiting the exhibit afterward, where did I linger? Over the witty paintings of deception borrowed from Caravaggio’s The Card Sharps.

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Caravaggio. The Card Sharps. c1595.

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Valentin. Cardsharps. c1615.

Note that being lost in the love and beauty of your own music could get your pocket picked. To me, this reads as a metaphorical lesson to look outside oneself.

Valentin. Musicians and Drinkers. c1625.

Music seems to play a role in the deceptions throughout the gallery. It was also dotted with the instruments depicted in the paintings, some unusual to my eye.

Lute and Spinet









Perhaps my favorite work is the fortune teller who doesn’t see the present well enough to know she was being robbed. What Valentin did was riff on the same subject Caravaggio introduced in clever ways.

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Valentin. Fortune-Teller. c1626-8.

The exhibit is dark, lush, and romantic like the paintings. So the bright lightness of the Jean Honore Fragonard drawings and prints exhibit was just right for the cotton-candy Rococo that followed the Baroque. I was still in France but now celebrating the frivolity of love and romps in the park.

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Jean Honoré Fragonard. The Island of Love. c1770-80.

The drawings and prints are delicate and frothy like his paintings. A joy to behold.

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Jean Honoré Fragonard. Draftsman in a Trellised Garden. c1770-2.

Over in the Breuer Building, which The Met inherited from the Whitney, is the joyous look at lobe by Kerry James Marshall. The exhibit is filled with his giant genre paintings of everyday black life, and in the 2000s, he began focusing on love, directly inspired by Fragonard. Edging away from identity politics, he painted masterpiece-inspired scenes of ordinary romance. Normalizing black love was his goal and challenge to a white audience.

I loved so much of this exhibit by the Chicago artist. I felt uplifted by it in this time of racial anger.

Enjoy the sensual love of Slow Dance.

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Kerry James Marshall. Slow Dance. 1992-3.

The delights of two versions of the Fragonard-quoting Wishing Well.

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Kerry James Marshall. Wishing Well. 2012.

Can you tell he uses glitter? Love that!

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Kerry James Marshall. Wishing Well. 2012.

And the complexities of School of Beauty, School of Culture. Like Velazquez’s Las Meninas, Marshall puts himself in the scene, obscured by a camera flash rather than a giant canvas.

Kerry James Marshall. School of Beauty, School of Culture. 2012.

Directly referencing the English Renaissance artist Hans Holbein, he uses the same visual anamorphic trick. When walking from side to side, the image will come into focus and clarity. But instead of a skull reminding us of our mortality, he uses a white beauty icon as a reminder of how dominant white culture ideals distort the black experience of beauty.

The anamorphic trick doesn’t quite work; the blonde would appeal undistorted if it did.


But no matter. There’s so much to love and investigate. Note the toddler peeking around at the cartoonish white face, trying to make sense of its strangeness here.

The enormous painting creates an entire world to step into, and its wonderfully inviting!

As a delicious coda, Fragonard’s 17-year-old sister-in-law Marguerite Gérard (who goes on to a notable art career) copied Fragonard’s drawings as he instructed her in printmaking. She made this rather hilarious (to our contemporary eyes) print featuring Ben Franklin.

Yes, that’s Franklin at center. His face is so unmistakable that the print literally stopped my slow stroll through this French art gallery. What is this? I wondered. Please let me decipher it for you.

Ben is being protected by Minerva and her shield overhead, as he instructs Mars, god of war, to slay the enemies of America! You can’t leave her out of any allegorical scene of the brand new nation. There’s America in her truncated feather headdress, leaning on Franklin’s knee.

If you ever doubted Franklin’s celebrity in Paris, here’s your most exquisite proof!

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Marguerite Gérard. The Genius of Franklin. 1778.

Shining Future

Today has been my first day to not be brave and reasoned since the election. I spent some time wallowing in videos of post-election sense-making and then decided to take in this glorious fall day in downtown New Haven.

Walking through the Yale campus, I paused at the chalk writings covering the plaza and sidewalk outside Sterling Library. Students declaring they’re still here. They’re not leaving. Everyone wants to be seen and heard. Everyone. This need is not limited to the victors.

Over on Church St, a march was noisily passing by.

I stepped into the Yale University Art Gallery for my now daily dose of art as medicine. I hadn’t yet seen the Yosemite exhibit and having taught the promise of the West with my students, I really needed to see what YUAG had uncovered from its own collection.


Since the plethora of eye surgeries have created some new abilities, I was happy to discover another one. For the first time in my life, I can actually see the 3-D image form using a stereoscope. And it is marvelous! I sat with this one for several long minutes studying every detail.

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Underwood and Underwood. Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point Trail. 1902.

The flanks of the horses, the overlap to the lone shrub, the droplets of water seemingly visible from the falls, I marveled at every detail and “you are there quality.” I get it. I understand why these things were such a major form of entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This image was one of 3 with stereoscopes in the exhibit. I was arrested by it in particular, I think, because of the journey it promises.

Albert Bierstadt. Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail. c1873.

Standing in front of this large painting by Albert Beirstadt, I realized something. As one tear slid down my check, I understood why this moment is even worse for me than 9-11.

Then, I felt shocked and stunned because we were victimized into an awareness finally that Americans are not universally beloved. Art was my savior then, too. I stood many mindless moments absorbing an Impressionist painting of a winter scene, part of a special exhibit at the Phillips Collection at the time, before I realized beauty was what I needed an an antidote. I turned my life toward art.

No, this moment is different. Americans are not victims this time. We have stabbed ourselves in the heart. I feel broken in a new way that became evident when meditating on this glorious evocation of the belief in the American promise.

That saturated golden light represents the future infused with American values, rights, and systems. The journey toward the spiritually evanescent light calls to all of us in the foreground to journey toward it, to be clear-sighted, and stay the course to the future.

That light for me now has been snapped off.

It’s been a long run and a mostly good one since this promise was made after the Civil War. Perhaps, in the grander scheme of things, it’s time for another country’s light to shine bright.


Silvermine mines beauty

After the disruptions of this week, I found myself under the spell of the exhibit at Silvermine Arts Center today. Just what I needed. I was bringing the Gallery Manager Jennifer some Artventures! Games for their newly opened holiday show when my feet compelled me right into the galleries and the “New Work/New Directions” exhibit.

The Silvermine Guild is comprised of 300 professional artists from around New England, and this show features the work of several. What immediately appealed to me is this work by Arlé Sklar-Weinstein.


With “Rainbow Vines (Measuring Days)”, she works with cotton cord and tightly twisted yarn, playing with our conceptions of time. You know the idea of counting time on a stick. She riffs on that with these curly vines.

While they are sold separately, I love the curtain of vines as an installation. There’s something primal and snakey about them, while also patterned in the most pleasing way when seen as a whole.

This work by Camille Eskell is intriguingly titled “F-ezra: Made a Woman” from The Fez as Storyteller series.


You can make out the fez as what the artist calls “the sculptural foundation.” A fez is traditional headgear worn throughout the Middle East.

The digital images, Hebrew letters, coins beaded together, and the braid all represent the melding of the cultures of Iran, India and Sephardic Jewish traditions in her family, as well as gender representations. Notice the elegant Islamic style patterning as well. This piece is large, 55″ tall. Imagine actually wearing it!


These toy-like sculptures called “Once Upon a Time” by Marilyn Richeda look soft and cuddly, until you get up close.


Surprise. Now you can see the textured clay that makes up the piece. It almost looks like concrete. Just a little cold. Not so fuzzy-wuzzy after all.

Plays of light and texture make this artist’s work amazing, too. Joycelyn Braxton Armstrong has created these winged creatures out of clay. Yes, that’s not fabric, but clay. 2016-11-11-11-54-00

This work called “Tempest” references the white dove, a symbol of peace. Take a moment to fully take this in, in its spare, elegant beauty. Just the salve you may need as much as I do right now.

The work sold as part of the Silvermine Holiday Show is equally arresting. I’m so pleased to have Artventures! as part of this beautiful place. So go visit now for the holidays and absorb these celebrations of human creativity and possibility.



The Sole of Connecticut

Loving the quirky little exhibit here and there and relishing shoes as art, the shoe show at the Connecticut Historical Society is just the thing.


These well-heeled shoes for the well-heeled woman were not only owned, but also made by Hannah Edwards in about 1746.  Looking pretty sharp for 260 years old.  I would let Hannah make me a pair of shoes any day.

Like many Colonials, she made and repaired shoes at home, buying leather tanned by Native Americans.  Vegetarian spoiler alert:  the Indians used animal brains to tan the hides.

Even from early on, when shoes were made in small workshops called tanneries, chemicals from the process were dumped in our rivers.  Sigh.


These shoes were made from a military flag carried in the American Revolution.  Really!  Red silk damask and painted with gold.  Made in about 1780, they are a remarkable blend of patriotism and “waste not, want not.”

These shoes come from an era when many people went barefoot.  See this 1776 ad that offered a $5 reward for the return of an African-American man named London, who had run away with a coat, vest, leather breeches, two pair of trousers, and notably two pairs of shoes.


I’m very committed to flats, so marveled at this wisp of a shoe.

Colonial Ballet Flats

Colonial Ballet Flats

2016-10-13-17-31-49Owned by Ann Francis Darling in about 1865, I don’t see how this shoe could get a lady through a war.  These wedding shoes on the right from 1876 look like they would only last for that special day.


Mid-1800s N. Hayward & Co. shoe advertisement

1888-1893 Colchester Rubber Co. advertisement



Rubber has been big business in Connecticut since Charles Goodyear figured out how to vulcanize it for durability in 1844.






Rubber shoes and boots showed up not long after.  In 1893, displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair, U.S. Rubber displayed these miniatures as advertisements for their full-sized counterparts.  They were sold as tchotchkes, too.  Instant nationwide marketing.

Attach canvas to a rubber bottom, and you get that feeling of walking barefoot.  Yes, back to our roots, when shoes were a luxury good.

Comfort and canvas and rubber and voila!, you get sneakers, a Connecticut invention.  These shoes were dubbed sneakers because the rubber soles allow you to sneak around very quietly.  Shhhh.


In 1916, U.S. Rubber consolidated 30 companies to form the Keds brand.  Soon athletes adopted Keds, as did just about everyone else, me included.  I’ve had some pretty sharp Keds in my day–colors, patterns.  Pretty groovy!

As was the pop culture section of the “Growing Up in Connecticut” exhibit also at CHS (it could have been Growing Up in Anywhere, U.S.A. after WWII).

This tv is so cute, it makes me reconsider having one of my own.


I was a Beatles fan, but don’t recall the baseball cards, like the one here on the left of John Lennon.  My brother and I would have loved those.


We did definitely play with lots of plastic dinosaurs and creepy figures.


Oh what memories!


The nights get longer

As we approach Labor Day, the psychological end of summer, I’ve been noticing how much shorter the days are already.  Maybe that’s why I fell under the spell of “Electric Paris” on view at the Bruce Museum.

Only the French would design an electric light pole that looks like this.

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Charles Marville, Opéra (Lampadaire), c1865-9

Charles Marville went around the city photographing the extraordinary lamp posts.

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Charles Curran, Paris at Night, 1889

Even so, perhaps no surprise to you, I could give a pass on most of the French artists and their take on their city.  But I was mesmerized with this Curran painting, with its Americanist approach and style.  Look at how the gas lamplight dances on the street and the oil lamps on the carriages glow.  I can hear this painting.  Can’t you?

1889 was a big year in Paris, as it hosted the Universal Exposition celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution.  Artists like Curran were quick to capture the buzz of the spectacles–readymade scenes that pull us in and put us right there.

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Charles Curran, Evening Illuminations at the Paris Exposition, 1889

Careful!  You might get jostled by the crowd!

See that vertical streak of color in the background on the right?  That’s the effect of the water fountains lit each night at 9 p.m. during the fair.  The water jets were illuminated by electric arc lamps with colorful glass plates to create the cotton candy effects you see.

You might just be able to make out the Eiffel Tower, at this moment of its unveiling to the world, in the far right background.  It served as the entrance to the fair and was the tallest human-made structure at 1000′ at the moment Curran captures.  It was lit by two electric search lights at the top, with thousands of gas lamps.  By the 1900 World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower was fully electrified by 5000 incandescent lights.

Here’s Alfred Maurer’s look at the monument.

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Alfred Maurer, Nocturne, Paris, n.d.

Now you can make out the beams at the top.  Maybe we can take a break and lean up against the rail, too.  You can see why the Eiffel Tower has become the symbol of Paris as the City of Light.

And you can get a sense of how fascinated American artists were with painting the night scene, as it was changing with technology.

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Theodore Butler, Place de Rome at Night, 1905

Don’t you have a sense of the night energy?  Light slashes on the wet pavement.  People are mere impressions as they move about their night.  Everything pulses with the vigor of the city.  Butler takes us way up over the scene, several stories up.  We look down on all the hustle and bustle, transfixed by light and color, now anathema to the dark night.

Night life moves inside with Everett Shinn.  In many of his paintings, he puts us right up front in the theater.

Everett Shinn, Theater Box, 1906

Everett Shinn, Theater Box, 1906

We’re seated in the box, just behind this woman with her deeply-decolletaged, sage green, pillowy dress.  Don’t you love how the faces of the other audience members get lit up?  This is truly a shared experience.

But sometimes, the night is just quiet.  And who better to give us such a scene than the painter of quiet, Henry Ossawa Tanner?  An African American painter, Tanner left the U.S. to live in Europe where his classically-inspired religious works were better received with less overt racism.

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For Tanner, light was religious.  Sparks of spirit.  Perhaps you feel that, too.

With nights like this, we might not mind the shorter days so much.  Happy Labor Day!


Site-specific art of wit and lightness

As ever, the Aldrich Museum, a non-collecting contemporary art museum, makes a worthy stop to see what its clever curators have dreamed up.  This summer, the show features four artists who have made site-specific works.  That is, works that in some way reference the museum or the town of Ridgefield, CT.

The works of two artists made me really happy: Virginia Overton and Peter Liversidge.

Overton worked with a dead pine tree from the museum property to make monumental indoor and outdoor sculptures.  I love the outdoor swing, which has attracted more than human behinds.  Apparently, a local cat really likes to sit on the swing, as do birds.

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The piece (actually three separate works, but I see them as one), though, that I lingered with, reveled in, and meditated on was Untitled (Log Stand) from 2016.  Not naming a piece leaves the experience to the viewer, but in this case, the artist also didn’t share any intentions with the work.

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Still, I had lots of experiences of it.  As a dead tree trunk, something we all know, the thing has weight, heft.  Yet Overton has lifted these trunks way up in the air.  It doesn’t take long for the support stands to lose their seeming weight, too, and for the whole piece to seem to float.

One of the museum interpreters told me the only thing the artist really intended was to have each piece point to the outdoors.  Which they do.  I started to see more, like sea creatures.

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I watched the logs’ spirit rise to heaven.  I started to feel my spirits elevate, the way architects intended when people look up in or at a church or cathedral.

The kinesthetic sense of the lifting and lightening of this ‘dead’ thing animated it and me.  Overton created a weightless sculpture, a defying of gravity that is so joyous and of the spirit.

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Peter Liversidge lifted my spirit, too, with his seemingly insatiable wit.  He made 60 site specific proposals to the museum, all framed, mounted, and on view in his gallery there.  24 were implemented in the museum and around town.  Some were not, as they were philosophical…

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…and just silly.

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A British conceptual artist (the concept is the art), Liversidge has a creative mind I relate to, so I’ll share my favorites of his works on view at the museum.

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The first could be easy to miss.  The above photo shows you why.  The work is just a dot on a sea of white wall.  Oh, but so much more.

(excellent shadows, too)

(excellent shadows, too)

Ridgefield is a town with deep history.  Keeler Tavern, next door to the museum, stills sports a Revolutionary War cannon ball fired by the British lodged in its walls.  Liversidge had Revolutionary War re-enactors shoot a cannon ball into a new wall, then installed it at the museum.  A Brit leaving yet another gift for Ridgefield.  Wonderful!

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A British philosopher Bishop Berkeley espoused that nothing is real but what’s in the mind.  An early postmodernist?  Samuel Johnson countered that matter is real, proving it by kicking a rock.  Liversidge proposes, “I intend that, whenever I come across a stone in Ridgefield that is a larger or similar size to my foot, I will stop what I am doing, and I will kick that stone to The Aldrch…”  He and his interns kicked rocks into the museum, into the elevator, then across the bridge to his gallery.  A man true to his word.

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Then there is Proposal No. 20: Wooden objects posted to the Museum from the artist’s studio in London, UK, installed on a shelf.  Yes, you understand that correctly.  Liversidge mailed found wooden objects to the museum.  He had to work with the postmaster in London and get agreement in Ridgefield.

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a little wear and tear, and the canceled postmarks

a little wear and tear, and the canceled postmarks

Liversidge mailed a tambourine and a scrub brush!

Liversidge mailed a tambourine and a scrub brush!

The postwoman normally delivers mail to the administrative offices, located in a church up the hill above the museum.  She started delivering the pieces directly to the museum, so that she, too, the interpreter told me, became a creator of the work.

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I leave you with this Liversidge proposal, one I resonate with deeply.

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Collaged Townscape

Jane Fisher, Director, is a visionary leader for the Wallingford Public Library, and today, she gave me a tour of the marvelous new community technology lab there and a glimpse into the future of public libraries.

Witness the community art project conducted by over 100 Wallingford residents from January through April this year.  Dedication, creativity, inspiration, and town-celebration all rolled into one.

The Wallingford Townscape is a 4′ x 10’4″ photo-collage created with the leadership of artist Rashmi Talpade.  Rashmi is from India and has sold her work internationally.  She immigrated to Connecticut in 1991 and has gotten deeply involved with community arts and museums around the state.

Rashmi Talpade. The God Next Door. Photo Collage.


In Wallingford, she worked with residents to collage over 1000 photographs of the town.  See if you can make out historic images, as well as contemporary scenes.

Wallingford Townscape detail

Wallingford Townscape detail

The four panels create an ‘imaginary’ yet realistic landscape that tells so many stories when looking up close and coheres into something universal at a distance.  It’s magical.

Rashmi Talpade with the collage waiting to be hung at the library

What a great idea to do in your community…

Monochrome, Pattern, and Shadow

At the moment I seem to be attracted to stark images, quiet shadows, monochromatic palettes.  Maybe because there’s so much color and noise in the world right now.  Take a quiet moment with me.

Hart House, Old Saybrook, original wall

Hart House, Old Saybrook, original wall

Bartow Pell Mansion

Bartow Pell Mansion

Wallace Nutting, Tenon Arm Windsor Double Back Settee

Wallace Nutting, Tenon Arm Windsor Double Back Settee

John Henry Twachtman, Snow, c1895-6, PAFA

John Henry Twachtman, Snow, c1895-6, PAFA

Charles Vezin, Winter Grays, Brooklyn Docks, c1900, on view at the Mattatuck Museum

Charles Vezin, Winter Grays, Brooklyn Docks, c1900, on view at the Mattatuck Museum

Francois Clouet, Mary Queen of Scots, c1549, Yale University Art Gallery

Lilian Westcott Hale, Black Eyed Susans, before 1922

Lilian Westcott Hale, Black Eyed Susans, before 1922, on view Florence Griswold Museum

Hedda Sterne, Annalee Newman, 1952

Hedda Sterne, Annalee Newman, 1952, Vassar College Museum

Girolamo Fagiuoli, Penelope and Her Women Making Cloth, c1545, Engraving, Yale University Art Gallery

Girolamo Fagiuoli, Penelope and Her Women Making Cloth, c1545, Engraving, Yale University Art Gallery

Charles Courtney Curran, Shadow Decoration, 1887, Vassar College Art Museum

Charles Courtney Curran, Shadow Decoration, 1887, Vassar College Art Museum

Renee Iacone, Stacks, 2015-6, Mattatuck Museum

Renee Iacone, Stacks, 2015-6, Mattatuck Museum

Vassar College Art Museum

Vassar College Art Museum

Grotesque Mask, 16th century (?), on view at Yale University Art Gallery

Grotesque Mask, 16th century (?), on view at Yale University Art Gallery

Grotesque Mask, 16th century (?), on view at Yale University Art Gallery

Grotesque Mask, 16th century (?), on view at Yale University Art Gallery

Etienne Delaune, Music book plate, 16th century

Etienne Delaune, Music book plate, 16th century, Yale University Art Gallery

Etienne Delaune, Perspective book plate, 16th century, Yale University Art Gallery

Etienne Delaune, Perspective book plate, 16th century, Yale University Art Gallery

Silas W. Robbins House, Wethersfield, CT

Silas W. Robbins House, Wethersfield, CT

Corona Park, Queens

Corona Park, Queens

Lotus Pagoda Library Lamp, Tiffany Studios, c1905, Queens Museum of Art

Lotus Pagoda Library Lamp, Tiffany Studios, c1905, Queens Museum of Art

16th-century frame waiting for you to fill it

16th-century frame, on view at Yale University Art Gallery, waiting for you to fill it


Having spent an inordinate amount of time in my own garden recently, I found myself interested in the low-maintenance variety.  The Florence Griswold Museum is featuring a joint exhibit with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts of American Impressionist paintings of gardens.

Here are a few works that caught my eye.

As you know, the Impressionists were all about light and color and thick paint application and that sensation of being in the moment captured in paint.  For me, this lovely Harry Hoffman painting really works in all ways.

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Harry L. Hoffman, Childe Hassam’s Studio, 1909, Florence Griswold Museum

The flickering light in the blossoms is accomplished through paint application which you can see here.

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I could linger for hours in this place.  The cool respite of the porch.  That springtime moment when the fruit trees have burst open.  I love the fresh newness juxtaposed against the comfortably dilapidated.  The real dreaminess of the place.

Charles Curran’s A Breezy Day is visceral, too.  Can’t you feel that gusting against your cheek and tousling your hair?

Charles Curran, A Breezy Day, 1887, PAFA

Charles Curran, A Breezy Day, 1887, PAFA

We don’t see the hard work of the laundry women, the backbreaking toil of scrubbing, wringing, and ironing.  For a moment, we join them outside in the fresh air as the sun peeks through the clouds to bleach the sheets a clean white.

Most Impressionist painters, men and women, conflate their depictions of women with flowers–those ornamental things to be enjoyed for their beauty before it fades.  We observe freely, consume for pleasure, reducing women to objects.  What better way to understand the stifling moment that also spurred women to agitate for suffrage.

There are plenty such paintings in the exhibit.  The one that caught my eye was by a woman artist.

June was created for the cover of a 1902 issue of Everybody’s Magazine, a monthly women’s publication.  Even women artists producing images for women perpetuated the woman-as-beautiful-object trope.  Violet Oakley may have enjoyed her women the same way as any man, if you catch my drift.  Still, as usual, with Oakley, I’m seduced by her vision…

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Violet Oakley, June, c1902, PAFA

…and the charming detail of cutting the frame to catch the full sweep of a skirt.

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By the way, the red rose in Oakley’s signature references the group of women artists she lived and painted with – the Red Rose Girls.

As ever, I find Lillian Westcott Hale’s work refreshingly feminist.  Yes, we have the girl with the flowers–our now familiar symbol.  But the flowers are drooping, and the girl seems to be deep in thought, suggesting her worth lies with her mind, regardless of outward appearance.  Her ideas bloom, even if her transient bouquet does not.  Thank you, Hale.

Lilian Westcott Hale, Black Eyed Susans, before 1922, charcoal and colored pencil on paper, Private Collection

Lilian Westcott Hale, Black Eyed Susans, before 1922, charcoal and colored pencil on paper, Private Collection

But we really don’t have to be analytical or political.  It’s summer.  We can simply relish the beauty of our gardens right now.

So join me in getting up close and personal with a rose and looking at its glories through paint.


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150 years and things

Time to stretch my brain with a visit to the Peabody Museum of Natural History, now celebrating its 150th anniversary with 150 distinctive objects from the collection.

You know me and science.  When people ask what a particular plant or tree is in the garden, I usually reply, “pretty” or “yellow.”  Astute, don’t you think?

So you can imagine how accomplished I was during the behind-the-scenes tour today.  My group visited mineralogy and anthropology (I thought I might have a chance with something humanish).

2016-06-02 16.43.51I liked the mineralogist, Stefan Nicolescu, short in stature, tall in passion.  Fortunately, he didn’t tell us about the 40,000 specimens in the collection, but focused instead on some history of the museum and a couple of good local stories.  He explained his accent, since he is from Transylvania.  One of the tour participants noted Transylvania was the origin place of the Unitarians.  Another quipped, “aren’t they the ones that stay up all night?”  Smart group.

They tracked with Stefan on all his explanations.  I played on the surface, liking the story of the meteor that landed nearby in Connecticut – yikes – which allowed Yale scientists to deduce for the first time that meteors are extraterrestrial.  And the explanation that 9 new species of minerals (minerals have species? Yes!) were discovered in the nearby Branchville quarry.  Each specimen makes the reference point for all other identifications!

Spodumene-top shelf, on the right

Spodumene-top shelf, on the right



There you go.

When you need to identify spodumene, I suggest you take your sample and compare it to this beauty at the Peabody.





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How do you talk about two million objects in 20 minutes?  I’m not sure, and maybe Roger Colton, curator, wasn’t either.  We found ourselves deeply admiring the 1930s storage compartments, which could be a study in themselves.  Dovetailed just like a good piece of furniture.

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A behind-the-scenes tour that is object-based would probably last 3 hours.  And that truly would be amazing here.

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One fact that stuck with me is the interesting find from a nearby rock shelter–a dolphin vertebrae.  Now how did that get here?  Deer bones, fish skeletons, fossilized birds, yes.  But dolphin?  There’s always more to discover with science.



Richard Conniff, author of House of Lost Worlds, then told us stories about the museum.  I liked the movie stories.  How the brontosaurus at the Peabody served as the model for the dinosaur Cary Grant’s character in “Bringing Up Baby” works on for years and years, before Katharine Hepburn brings it crashing to the ground in love for him.  Did I mention that Hollywood created a bone-by-bone replica?

The Peabody’s work on dinosaurs provided source material for Godzilla, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones, based on the Yale explorer Hiram Bingham.

Life magazine’s cover from 1953 that excerpted from the 110′ long mural at the Peabody inspired a generation of budding scientists, including Richard himself.

You can glimpse the mural in the background, by looking through the dinosaur bones.

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From the exhibit, I was enchanted by Stumpy, the Archelon fossil of the largest marine turtle species ever found.  Incredible to be in its presence.  Richard calls this mammoth turtle Stumpy, due to that missing foot, taken off by a shark perhaps?  The Archelon may have eaten giant clams that grew up to 4′ wide.  Yes, the clam that ate New Haven is on display nearby.  I suggest you run…

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No need to run from this Olmec Colossal Head.  This king doesn’t scare anybody, not even this pint-sized girl with her stuffed animal.

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I have a particular fondness for statues with tongues sticking out, so you can imagine how much I like this debating stool from Papua New Guinea.  Carved from one piece of wood, his eyes are made of shell.

The stools are not for sitting but for formal debates.  The speaker strikes the stool with a bundle of leaves to reinforce a point.  Maybe Hillary needs one.

For most of my Peabody visit, I felt just as wide-eyed as this guy!




The semester is over, and as students yahoo into their summers, I feel a bit wistful.  Transitions are like that.  I turned to current Connecticut exhibits for insights, solace, release, inspiration, and pure joy.  Here’s what I can share with you.

Martin Lewis, Dawn, Sandy Hook, Connecticut, 1933, Flo Gris

Martin Lewis, Dawn, Sandy Hook, Connecticut, 1933, Florence Griswold Museum

Martin Lewis, one of my favorite under-known artists, marks that transition from day to night, the walk from the commuter train and New York City into suburban Connecticut.  It’s cheerless and lonely, but the sky promises something fresh and new.  I see that commuter taking off his coat and hat for springtime.

So I turned my closet around, putting bright spring and summer clothes out front, pushing those winter darks into the corners.  I remembered things I forgot I had and saw what new outfits I can create.

Claudia DeMonte, La Donna di Buona Fortuna, 2013, bronze, Mattatuck Museum

Claudia DeMonte, La Donna di Buona Fortuna, 2013, bronze, Mattatuck Museum

And I got a bit more organized.

Claudia Demonte, Female Implements, 1995, Mattatuck Museum

Claudia Demonte, Female Implements, 1995, Mattatuck Museum

Join me in saying goodbye to skating in perfect harmony for now.

Miriam Anne Barer, The Skaters, 1943, egg tempera on masonite, Flo Gris

Miriam Anne Barer, The Skaters, 1943, egg tempera on masonite, Florence Griswold Museum

Because there are strawberries to eat…

Charles Ethan Porter, Strawberries, 1888, oil on canvas

Charles Ethan Porter, Strawberries, 1888, oil on canvas, Florence Griswold Museum

…and flowers to whiff, while the gentle spring sun tickles the tops of our heads.

Edward F. Rook, Laurel, c1905-8, oil on canvas

Edward F. Rook, Laurel, c1905-8, oil on canvas, Florence Griswold Museum

Remember that life starts over for us each season, too.

So give yourself a quiet moment to reflect.

J. Alder Weir, Portrait of Ella Baker Weir, c1910, oil on canvas, Lyman Allyn Museum

J. Alder Weir, Portrait of Ella Baker Weir, c1910, oil on canvas, Lyman Allyn Museum

Talk a walk somewhere new.

J. Alden Weir, U.S. Thread Company Mills, Wilimantic, CT, c1893-7, on view at the Lyman Allyn

J. Alden Weir, U.S. Thread Company Mills, Wilimantic, CT, c1893-7, on view at the Lyman Allyn

Try something a little crazy, just to shake out the old energy.

Salvador Dali's Alice in Wonderland, on view at New Britain Museum of American Art

Salvador Dali’s Alice in Wonderland, on view at New Britain Museum of American Art

Write your thoughts upside down or in a funny shape.  What’s new about what it says now?

Excerpt, Salvador Dali's Alice in Wonderland

Excerpt, Salvador Dali’s Alice in Wonderland

Sometimes I just need to reframe something.  And then it’s new all over again!

Harry Holtzman, Open Relief, 1983, oil on wood, stone, Florence Griswold Museum

Harry Holtzman, Open Relief, 1983, oil on wood, stone, Florence Griswold Museum

And I’m ready to keep going…

Happy Spring!

The wonder of faces

Faces–ancient, privileged, unfinished.  That was the theme of my day in the galleries.

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Satyr and Maenad, Egypt, 4th century; note the halos

If you haven’t seen the ancient textiles exhibit at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, rush quickly.  It’s a small show, focused on a narrow window in time.  You can linger over each object.

These are primarily tapestries and tunics, surviving because they were used in funerary rites, created during that chaotic period when the Middle East and Europe were shifting from polytheism to Christianity.  Polytheistic traditions were observed in secret during the 300s and 400s, still at home as was traditional.  Temples became churches, but carried the ancient aesthetics forward to new subject matter.

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Dionysus and Pan, c.4th century, Egypt

Most of the textiles were from Egypt, where Greco-Roman traditions had already been merged with ancient Egyptian sensibilities.  I just loved Dionysus, god of wine, with Pan, both encircled in halos, a Christian allusion, used to warm an Egyptian home and then entombed.

Dionysus was the right god to depict, as the Romans inherited the tomb party concept, celebrating the life of the dead, from the Etruscans.  Tunics were worn to such parties and banquets where Dionysus ruled!

Bust of Spring (small)

Bust of Spring, see her halo?

You will marvel at the colors–lustrous greens and corals, probably faded from red, that have remarkably survived for 1500-1800 years.  My clothes only last a few months before falling apart.

The figures show such delicacy along with the Egyptian love of patterning.  Animals and birds and intricaScreen Shot 2016-04-16 at 6.40.55 PMte geometric patterns, which may reference Islamic influences.

You can click on the photo to enlarge it.  People take magnifying glasses to these works to see how they are constructed.  Remarkable.

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Gorgeous, intriguing, each is a story.

The Comtesse Du Barry in a Straw Hat, c.1781


The portraits of Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun each tell a story, too, mostly subservient in interest to her own.  She was a favorite of Marie Antoinette as a young artist, making grand, official family depictions.  She also was the master of the intimate, bust length portrait, making all the aristocrats look fresh, young, and lively.





Marie Antoinette with a Rose, 1783, a breathtakingly beautiful painting

That is until they started losing their heads.

Vigee-Lebrun hit the road, before settling for several years at the Russian court of Catherine the Great.  She seemed to do well with powerful women.

Eventually, she returned to France where a new generation of artists kept her from regaining her popularity.  She kept painting and lived a long life until the mid-19th century.

Thank you to the Met for hosting an exhibit of an historic woman artist.  That’s a rarity.  Perhaps it was no accident, though, that a light bulb was burned out, with its sole job to illuminate the one self-portrait in the show.  I guess we still have a way to go to get these women out of the dark.

Self-portrait, 1790

The exhibit did play on the surface, with few new ah ha’s.  Yes, there was the light reference to the turbulent relationship with her daughter, who fled France as a girl with her resourceful mother.  (The self-portrait with Julia, alas, is not in this show.)  Few other insights came out of the dark.

Although very uneven, the Unfinished show at the Met’s new Breuer building is more interesting.  For the life of me, this building, for all the hoopla, still like just like the Whitney did. There’s even the same overly humid HVAC system.  You’ll have to tell me the differences you see.

Meantime, the opening exhibit works a little too hard to make its point and would have been served by some culling. Still many of the unfinished works tell good stories.

James Hunter Black Draftee, by Alice Neel, 1965 What’s he thinking about?

Alice Neel.  A powerhouse.  She taps into the poignant so seemingly effortlessly.  Look at this portrait of James Hunter from 1965.  It’s unfinished because after the first sitting, James didn’t return for the second.  Why?  He was off to Vietnam.

Gustav Klimt wasn’t the only artist in the exhibit to have trouble finishing a portrait out of frustration.  Manet gave up on a painting of his wife after three failed attempts.  He scraped the paint off her face each time, dissatisfied.  Hmmm.  Knowing Manet, this may say something about that marriage.

Madame Édouard Manet, c.1873

Manet gave up; Klimt died.  But not before his sitter died, and her family rejected two other portraits.  Sheesh!  Still this painting shows something joyous, even as the object label describes the placement of color as tentative.  After two rejections, you might be a little leery, too!  Klimt seemed to die to get out of finishing it!

Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III, by Gustav Klimt, 1917-8

I was captivated by this hauntingly modern, surreal portrait of Mariana da Silva by Mengs.  He couldn’t get the placement of the little lapdog quit right and apparently was unhappy with the face.  So he painted a gauzy veil over it.

Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1775

Not all the painting in the show were portraits, but those were the ones I was attracted to, I think for the way they blurred identity.  I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and this day shows in pictures how identity is mutable in the moment and in reflection later, even centuries later.

Fascinating stuff.  Let me know what you think.


Vassar Delights

If I could have my favorite day, it would include like-minded people exploring art, literature, music, history.  Wait?  That happened today!

The intrepid New York Chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America traveled to Vassar for an almost unbelievably pleasant and stimulating day.  This was my first trip to the 150+ year old campus.  No surprise, it’s lovely.

2016-04-09 12.03.20We first met in the art history building where refreshments were in a room that resembled a little, red schoolhouse, only really the little, red-chair school room.

But the lectures that kicked the day off were in a very comfortable, modern auditorium.  We would have to travel into history in our minds.

Marilyn Francus, a Professor of English from West Virginia University, regaled us with her work from Chawton House, a research center on early women’s writings.  She admitted to geeking-out on manuscripts and books that Jane Austen wrote in, sussing out from that her mentoring relationship with young writers, particularly her nieces.  She investigated the family’s charades and riddles and shared how the love of language was reinforced in everyday life in the Austen home.  More about that below.

Francus wrapped by deciphering the advice Jane Austen would give to new writers.  Essentially, know the canon (read, read, read), write what is real, and practice your craft.  Good advice indeed.

And that got put into action with our next set of presenters.  Susan Zlotnick, a Professor of English at Vassar, is currently teaching a course on The Gothic Novel (including Austen’s parody Northanger Abbey).  She gave us an introductory talk, then invited seven of her students to read us their “3-Minute Gothic Projects,” reflecting their learning on the tropes of the genre.

What you need to know is that Gothic novels draw upon the philosophical underpinnings of the Romantic Sublime, by Edmund Burke–the awe of God, nature, and our emotional selves that fuels literature, music, and art of the period; Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ centering on re-surfacing unconscious desires, the return of the repressed, and the Self confronting itself; and the female Gothic, which penetrates patriarchal power by using male villains to threaten the heroines.

The latter is an intriguing take on the genre.  Zlotnick suggests that when men labeled strong women, with challenging and uncomfortable ideas, as ‘mad’, the woman would be imperiled in a number of thematic, violent ways.  The woman reader could become aware of how women lacked personal power and rights, when male domination is threatened.

There was much more to these ideas, beyond the scope of a blog, but clearly offering very fresh ways to understand detective fiction, thrillers, and Gothic romances.

The students were tasked with writing Gothic stories that take place on the Vassar campus, not necessarily today.  The results ranged from exceedingly clever to outright hilarious.

I loved Christian Lewis’ story about the mysterious disappearance of Meryl Streep (an esteemed Vassar grad) from a production of “The Cherry Orchard” that is repeated by a contemporary in the current production, literally on campus now.  He is playing with early detective fiction with his funny, funny “The Mysteries of the Martel” and its sly references to Streep films that show up as ghostly Meryl hauntings.

Jennifer Ognibene, an English major who is pre-med, read her “Demolition of Mudd Chemistry,” referring to the current tear-down of the chemistry building.  Her fantastical story of a woman student who is a chemist murderer would even make Edgar Allen Poe laugh.  The trouble starts when the student runs an experiment, injecting herself with black widow spider venom, and it all does downhill from there.  Seriously, it’s ready to be filmed.

Lexi Karas’ clever “A Strong Girl Displaced” was more serious, delving into notions of the Self and doubling from Freud’s theories.  The plot twists and taut writing would make Austen proud.

None of these students is a creative writer per se.  They put into action Austen’s code–know the canon first.  They have read a lot of Gothic novels.  Candidly, better them than me!  I can leave the Bronte’s and Bram Stoker on the shelf.

Concert in the chapel

Concert in the chapel

After lunch, we were serenaded by the Vassar College Women’s Chorus, with madrigals and other traditional British songs.  But noteworthy were the two sets of Austen writings put to song.

The Three Prayers by Jane Austen have been put to music by Amanda Jacobs, who wrote a wonderful Pride and Prejudice musical I saw in 2011.  Today, Jacobs directed the chorus in the US premiere of these works.  Here’s a tiny sliver.

What tickled me were the parlor game songs, commissioned by Vassar College Music Department for the Women’s Chorus and put to music by Eleanor Daley.  The three poems survived when Austen copied them into a letter in 1807.

Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother played a game where they devised poems where every line ended in a rhyme with the word rose, in “Verses to rhyme with ‘Rose’.”  Jane’s was clever, Cassandra’s romantic, their mother’s so funny.  Here’s her poem:

This morning I woke from a quiet repose,
I first rubb’d my eyes, and I next blew my nose;
With my stockings and shoes I then covered my toes,
And proceeded to put on the rest of my clothes.
This was finished in less than an hour, I suppose.
I employ’d myself next in repairing my hose.
‘Twas a work of necessity not what I chose;
Of my sock I’d much rather have knit twenty rows.
My work being done, I look’d through the windows,
And with pleasure beheld all the bucks and the does,
The cows and the bullocks, the wethers and ewes.
To the library each morning the family goes,
So I went with the rest though I felt rather froze.
My flesh is much warmer, my blood freer flows,
When I work in the garden with rakes and with hoes.
And now I believe I must come to a close,
For I find I grow stupid e’en while I compose.
If I write any longer my verse will be prose.

She seems destined to be a model for the Twitter-verse!

We wrapped the day with a visit to the campus art museum.  Much too short.  Lots of great works.  I’ll share just one, in honor of the day.  A woman artist, of course.  Adele Romany, a French artist, and her 1804 “A young person hesitating to play piano in front of her family.”  Shame on her!  No Austen heroine every would!

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What is Papa thinking? Paintings like this could be used to put a young lady's advantages forward. Hung in a pre-modern version of

What is Papa thinking? Paintings like this could be used to put a young lady’s advantages forward. Hung in a pre-modern version of

What is she thinking?

What is she thinking?


Nature-inspired Gothic clothing

Thomas Cole, The Past, 1838 and the golden glow of Romanticism

You gotta love it!  The Wadsworth Atheneum has put together another of its seemingly modest, but creatively eye-opening exhibits.  This time, from Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy.  Don’t go expecting much Alexander McQueen.  Goth is a footnote, and I was delighted this exhibit focused on American Gothic.

Even those two terms seem like an anathema.  American and Gothic?  Yes, with a slight tweaking of more American phrases we typically use–the Hudson River School, antebellum fashion styles–we can start connecting that Victorian-dark Gothic Revival furniture with our golden landscapes and elegant gentility.

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Look at this gorgeous detail from Lilly Martin Spencer’s Reading the Legend, 1852.  You know how much I love Spencer’s wit and social commentary.  This painting couldn’t be more conventional, with the Romantic tryst in nature and picturesque ruin.  But look at the details of that dress–the transparency of the lace over the bodice, the golden floral shawl, and the ruby-red satin of her gown.  Luscious.

Two revelations came from the exhibit for me.  That the Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, who painted the connection between the Romantic notion of untamed wilderness and God, also influenced fashion.  Yes, according to the exhibit curators.

Even more than in the Spencer painting, consider this dress.

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2016-03-20 15.34.01It sparkles with metallic thread in the embroidery and the golden material accentuates the Greek Revival fronds, so fashionable in all the decorative arts.  Though a brighter palette, the same theme is used in this beaded bag that reads Hartford Conn 1833 and was inscribed with Almira H. White’s name.  No German import for her!

You can see the American forest flora and fauna in these objects.  Just what Cole, Church, and particularly Asher B. Durand painted.



This Durand nature study is not in the show, but makes the point.  Note the botanical specificity, the golden glow.

The russet tones of the dress below, and then pull in the neo-Gothic chair…

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…and you get my second revelation.  The  pointed dress pleats and shawl front are reversals of the classic Gothic aspiring point.  Wow!  I had never put that together before.

So I reached out to Erin Monroe, American Art Curator at the Wadsworth, and she replied via email, “the pointed pleats on the dress and the slimming down or elongated silhouette of the dresses—moving away from the GIANT leg o’ mutton sleeves in the earlier dresses—are the visual reaction to or emulation of the Gothic elements of the architectural.”

How cool is that?  Thanks, Erin!

You can really see it here:

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The gold

The points

The nature motif



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Now look at the nearby painting by Cole, Scene from ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’ Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Temenund, 1827.  It’s all there.  Plus the lead character in the book was a ‘Natural Man’, so a fitting subject for our landscape guru.

Cole’s painting predates the dress and shawl above by some 10 years, and you might connect the influence of his golden glow, pointed spires, the botanical specificity (of so much more important than the miniscule figures).  Thomas Cole changed landscape painting everywhere, and now I know him as a fashion inspiration!

Maybe the love of pointed mountain peaks with their evocation of mystery and spirituality, helped inspire the whole Gothic Revival thing.  (This is how an art-geek thinks.)

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More examples of the earth-tones, flora and fauna patterning, and severe points.  Look at those pleats to the right.  Makes me gasp for air.

Perhaps the quirkiest decorative art to be inspired by Cole and gang was not really an art, but more a decorated functional object.  A stove.  Yep.

Look at how this parlor stove from about 1844 has been cast with the same decorative motif.  Rounded foliage right out of a landscape painting.  The exact patterns used in dresses…and stoves!

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Don’t you love when you see something so familiar in a totally new way.  Brava, Curators!




Breath of Wonders

Art as the breath of life.  Joseph Morris makes the idea literal with “Serpentine Breath” from 2014.  Mesmerizing.

The “Intelligent Objects” show at Creative Arts Workshop is full of wonders that may be best experienced in person.  I’ll try to give you a sense here.

Across the gallery from the breathing fabric is “Breathing Water.”  I stood and watched and breathed in time with the water.  And I tried to imagine how Robin Mandel filmed this.

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His “Red Giant” from 2015 is made of gold clubs, steel armature, and electrical components.  In the gallery, it looks like some kind of primordial, burning star.  Maybe you can see that in this shaky video.

Mandel’s chair-on-the-wall thing is just fun.

Robin Mandel, Unrealized Gain, 2015, wood, metal

Robin Mandel, Unrealized Gain, 2015, wood, metal

The breeze would seem to move “Solar Particle Wind Chime” by Morris.  It uses “a data sonification system that pulls real time solar wind particle data from the Advanced Composition Explorer satellite.”  Wow.  I don’t know.  It’s looks as playful as a Calder mobile to me.

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check out the shadows!

Good old fashioned breath-powered wind would move Susan Clinard’s mobiles.

Susan Clinard, Kinetic Figures, 2015, paper, wire

Susan Clinard, Kinetic Figures, 2015, paper, wire

Literally, light as breath.

I’m passionate about Susan’s work, and Susan, and have written about her before.  Her “Filtering Noise” show at the DaSilva Gallery is glorious, and very, very quiet.

I really love this new work of hers.  Hands are an important motif for me, and I think Susan’s mixed media pieces are so loving, so sensitive.

Susan Clinard, Full Circle, 2016, wood, clay

Susan Clinard, Full Circle, 2016, wood, clay

There’s deep humanity in her work.  So much heart.  Her works breathe.2016-02-27 13.14.11  They break free of bonds.  They remind us to breathe.

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World in Play

Pontaut Chapter House, The Cloisters

Pontaut Chapter House, The Cloisters

The Cloisters

The Cloisters


I’ve long been fascinated with playing cards of all types, and as you know, have created a game with reproductions of art historical masterpieces as part of Artventures!™ Game.  So as soon as I could, I ventured to the glorious Cloisters in upper, upper Manhattan (I even drove!) to see the current exhibit, “The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1450-1540.”




Luxury cards

The Stuttgart Playing Cards, ca. 1430. German, Upper Rhineland. Paper (pasteboard) with gold ground and opaque paint over pen and ink.

It is an inspired exhibit of precious works of art in miniature.  Do go, if you can, and revel in the elegance of the place, which will calm your soul, and the preciousness of this exhibit.

Precious, yes.  Likely no one played with these cards.

Suit of Acorns, from The Playing Cards of Peter Flötner

A tame image of the pigs from the Suit of Acorns, from The Playing Cards of Peter Flötner

Polite?  Not always.  One of the decks on display is wildly scatalogical–referencing unsavories by humans and, ahem, pigs (associated with gluttony and lust).  These cards seem meant to irritate the morally upright.

No wonder playing cards was, ahem, frowned upon by the Church and government leaders.  They really didn’t like card playing, associating it with various vices, including gambling.  By the way, this tisk-tisking didn’t start with Christianity.  Apparently, ancient Roman men loved to gamble with dice, although it was a no-no, too.

With something so morally questionable, can there be great art?  You bet!  Like any great art, the images give us a window into the world of the time.


Uncut Sheet of Tarot Cards, North Italian, 15th century, woodcut on paper

Uncut Sheet of Tarot Cards, North Italian, 15th century, woodcut on paper

Playing cards emerged in the mid-14th century, originating in the Near East, as a less-heady alternative to the also-popular chess.  They could be mass-produced on sheets, using the latest technology of wood block printing or stamping, keeping costs down.  The individual cards were then cut off the sheet and glued to multiple layers of paper to make the stiffer playing card.  Ordinary playing cards in use wouldn’t last very long.


Not like these treasures.

Upper Knave of Falcons, from The Stuttgart Playing Cards

Upper Knave of Falcons, from The Stuttgart Playing Cards

The Stuttgart Playing Cards from about 1430 are hand painted on a gold (yes, really) background.  They are also huge–about 7 1/2″ x 4 3/4″ each.  Rather than the standard playing cards we know, the suits show the importance of the hunt, with the suit of Hounds, Stags, Ducks, and Falcons.

They are show-stoppingly beautiful.

Queen of Stags, from The Stuttgart Playing Cards

Queen of Stags, from The Stuttgart Playing Cards

Queen of Hounds, from The Stuttgart Playing Cards

Queen of Hounds, from The Stuttgart Playing Cards












Courtly Hunt Card

Courtly Hunt Card


I also love the elegant hounds and herons of the Courtly Hunt Deck from 1440-5.  They seem inspired by an Asian aesthetic.  Delicate and dreamy.

5 of Herons, from The Courtly Hunt Cards

5 of Herons, from The Courtly Hunt Cards












A bit of trivia.  Tarot cards were not used for foretelling the future until the 19th century.  The decks called tarot here are playing cards for a rather complex, trick-taking game.  They originated in Northern Italy, with the suits of Swords, Batons, Cups, and Coins, just like modern tarot decks with swords, wands, cups, and pentacles.

I lusted after the Visconti-Sforza Tarot.  They are almost painfully exquisite, with the gold leaf and raised stamping.

from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Deck

from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Deck

from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Deck

from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Deck

from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Deck

from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Deck

Be still my heart!  One more…

from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Deck

from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Deck

This last a scene of lovers, with the little dog representing loyalty and faithfulness.  Traditional, symbolic representations found in paintings of the time.

In contrast, there’s that naughty deck by Peter Flotner, with the suits of Bells, Acorns, Leafs, and Hearts.  Which seems so civilized.  But this post-Reformation German deck.  Whoa!  What a different world view.

Suit of Bells, from The Playing Cards of Peter Flötner

Suit of Bells, from The Playing Cards of Peter Flötner

The lower the number of the suit, the coarser and cruder it is.  The 4 of Bells, a woman flogs the bare bottom of a man.  Nothing beautiful here.  But a fascinating glimpse into a different mindset–of bawdy moralizing, erotica, and ‘humorous’, scatalogical images of peasant life–those pigs and more…representing the artist’s attitudes toward flawed humanity.

Me?  I prefer the elegant, courtly view of human experience.  Why not opt for beauty?

Suit of Hearts, from The Playing Cards of Peter Flötner

Suit of Hearts, from The Playing Cards of Peter Flötner

Queen of Horns, from The Cloisters Playing Cards

Queen of Horns, from The Cloisters Playing Cards

Suit of Tethers, The Cloisters Playing Cards

Suit of Tethers, The Cloisters Playing Cards


Decorative Delights

Everywhere I turn, I’m seeing beauty in the world.  Yes, the snow, and also the handwork of so many startlingly talented people from today and history.

The Guilford Arts Center has a crisp show of Connecticut-made contemporary quilts, “Local Color: Connecticut Stories.”

I was impressed by the landscape and genre character of many of the quilts.

Paula Klingerman, Happily Every After

Paula Klingerman, Happily Every After

And the number of artists using the photographer as part of the image.

Rita Daley Hannafin, Snapshot

Rita Daley Hannafin, Snapshot

Kate Themel, Self-Portrait

Kate Themel, Self-Portrait

Talk about mixed media!

With quilts, part of the pleasure is the texture.  I like this work that mixes different kinds of needlework.

Detail, Karen Loprete, Joy

Detail, Karen Loprete

This work reminded me of Miriam Schapiro’s exhibit at the National Academy of Design Museum.  A must see!

Once she got past what the art world was doing and found her own voice, in alignment with 1970s feminism, Schapiro’s work is simply breathtaking in its decorative design and message power.

Miriam Schapiro, Blue Burst Fan, 1979, acrylic and collage on canvas

Miriam Schapiro, Blue Burst Fan, 1979, acrylic and collage on canvas

Here, she shows us a traditional female object–the fan–and creates a form of high art from what male critics deemed low-art.  Together, with Judy Chicago, Schapiro reshaped the dialogue about what art was and how to bring the woman artist out of anonymity.

On the wall label, she is quoted from 1977, “I wanted to validate the traditional activiites of women, to connect myself to the unknown women artists who had made quilts, who had done the invisible ‘women’s work’ of civilization.”

Detail, Blue Burst Fan

Detail, Blue Burst Fan

Schapiro coined a term femmage to describe this art form that is created by a woman, has women-centric themes, and uses mixed media, patterns, and narrative.  The definition is even more detailed that I just relayed and is a bit prescriptive for me.  I don’t know that the term has taken off, but this outstanding show demonstrates how important she was for opening doors to today’s artists, including the quilters at the Guilford Arts Center.

I love this piece, which my friend Helen describes as a transition from her early work of hard-edge abstraction to her own voice of femmage.

Miriam Schapiro, Lady Gengi's Maze, 1972 is she referencing the amazing illustrations in Tales of Genji, the world's first novel?

Miriam Schapiro, Lady Gengi’s Maze, 1972
is she referencing the amazing illustrations in Tales of Genji, the world’s first novel?

For a little wow factor, it never hurts to stop in at the Met.  Although I was headed to another exhibit, I was delayed by Diana and Her Chariot.  This video gives you some sense of her magic.

Automaton Clock in the form of Diana and Her Chariot, German, c1610

Automaton Clock in the form of Diana and Her Chariot, German, c1610

Her eyes move with the tick-tock of the seconds, the leopards leap up and down, the wheels of the chariot move, the monkey raises and lowers that hand with the ball, and yes, Diana shoots the arrow!

The “Luxury of Time” exhibit is full of such beauty and grace and magic.  Fun, too, when the clocks go off on the quarter hour.

Mantel clock (pendule de chiminée)

Clockmaker: Paul Gudin Le Jeune, figures by the Meissen Factory, Flowers by Vincennes Manufactory, c1750

I was enchanted by this Rococo clock, with it’s ‘hand-kiss’ group and elegant flowers.  Charmant!

How’s this for a souvenir?


Watchmaker: Firm of Vacheron and Constantin, c1844

If you went on the Grand Tour, and didn’t want to schlep a lot of art around, you could pick up this pocket watch, with its view of St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican etched in.  Pretty nifty.

I would like one of these though, even better.


Watchmaker: Abraham Vacheron Girod (Swiss), 1832

The Great Ruby Watch

Watchmaker: Nicolaus Rugendas the Younger, c1670









What I was actually headed toward is the special exhibition of Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age.  Oh my goodness!

Detail of the Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room

Dazzling.  Ah, what a little money will do.  Here are some of my favorites.

Cabinet, made in New York City, 1884-5, Rosewood, mahogany, cherry, pine, pewter, brass, mother-of-pearl inlay

Cabinet, made in New York City, 1884-5, Rosewood, mahogany, cherry, pine, pewter, brass, mother-of-pearl inlay

Imagine the mother-of-pearl inlay in the star pattern shimmering in candlelight.

Side Chair, New York City, 1881-5, mahogany, other woods, mother-of-pearl, brass, copper, pewter, upholstery

Side Chair, New York City, 1881-5, mahogany, other woods, mother-of-pearl, brass, copper, pewter, upholstery

Who’s sitting in this chair?  Well, everyone who comes to visit (and hopefully has a small bum).  It’s one of a set.

Herter Brothers, Secretary, from the Jay Gould House, New York City, 1882

Herter Brothers, Secretary, from the Jay Gould House, New York City, 1882

As with many of the objects I was attracted to, this dense inlay in the floral pattern recalls the then-fashionable Near Eastern patterns.  I talked with a woodworker who was mesmerized by the piece.  They just don’t make ’em like this any more…

Bedstead, carved for Elizabeth Love Marquand (daughter of the 2nd president of the Met), 1881-4

Bedstead, carved for Elizabeth Love Marquand (daughter of the 2nd president of the Met), 1881-4

Women weren’t the only anonymous artists.  This bed was likely carved by an expert immigrant who brought his skills to the U.S.

Those anonymous artists are lost to us today, but fortunately, we can still melt into the magnificence of what they left behind.

The Irish Problem

Refugees fleeing untenable situations at home.  That heartbreaking reality seems to recur with uneasy frequency, but I had never made the connection between the Holocaust and the Great Famine in Ireland that lasted from 1845-1852.  But Murray Lender, of Lender’s Bagels and a New Haven native, did.


Low ceilings and wood planks meant to mimic steerage

He funded the Quinnipiac University collection of materials and art about the famine, which after collection growth, opened in a new home three years ago.

Even the building tells the story.  The exterior is meant to resemble the stone-faced hovels the Irish lived in, and the first floor exudes the cramped feeling of steerage on the ships coming to New York.  Only the upstairs, which references a ship’s topside, has high ceilings and windows.

Alexander Williams. Cottage, Achill Island. The museum facade resembles a stone cottage.

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum presents the painful facts of the famine and now has an exhibition of Daniel Macdonald’s paintings.  The show features a rare depiction of the famine by any artist during the Great Hunger itself.

Daniel Macdonald. An Irish peasant family discovering the blight of their store. 1847.

The painting shows the severe distress of a family that has discovered that their storage pit has been ravaged by the fungus that rots the potato, killing it from the inside out.  When an average man ate 12 to 14 pounds of potatoes per day (perhaps supplemented with some buttermilk and herring) and the usually hearty crop could last a family for almost a year after working an acre, the blight was devastating.

Macdonald otherwise made fairly ordinary scenes of angelic children, dances, and fairies.  But the Great Hunger that ravaged his people compelled him to make this painting when not only was Realism of everyday people considered unworthy of fine art, but his principal patrons in London would be repulsed by the subject.

The English condescended to most of their colonists, but perhaps none took it quite so hard on the chin as the Irish.  During this famine, unbelievably, Irish food was still being exported to England.  Absentee landlords raised rents so that subsistence, potato-reliant tenants could no longer afford to stay.  The landlords converted their lands to pasture for the more lucrative grazing of cattle.

For those who had nowhere else to go, they dug pits called scalps, roughly covered with a roof of sticks.  Others hit the road.  Who cared if eviction essentially meant death for the poor family?

Daniel Macdonald. Eviction. Crawford Art Gallery, Cork City.

Racist attitudes that relied on stereotypes of the Irish as lazy wastrels justified the lack of action; these evicted families didn’t deserve aid.  It was the Irish Problem, and the British government responded with “systematic neglect.”

Some charity existed.  The workhouse, where 750,000 displaced and homeless families crowded together, fomenting deadly disease.  Many more were on the waiting list.  Three million a day went to soup kitchens run by Quakers.  Other Protestants exchanged soup for conversion.

So you can imagine why emigration appeared to be the only reasonable action.  Two million left Ireland, some stymied by disease before and during the crossing.  Along with the one million who starved or died on the roads, the population of Ireland was decimated and has never recovered to the pre-famine levels.

But the Irish fighting spirit has been there, too.  Emasculated by British imperialism, Irish men long acted out, through rebellious acts and fighting, often spurred on by alcohol.  Factions formed and ritualized fights both were glorified and were killers.  Here’s Macdonald’s heroic take.

Daniel Macdonald. The Fighter. 1844.

The poignant film at the museum suggests how the Irish spirit still bears the wound of the Great Hunger.

Kieran Touhy. Thank you to the Choctaw. 2005

Kieran Touhy. Thank you to the Choctaw. 2005


How ironic that 16 years after their own forced removal to Oklahoma, the Choctaw Native American tribe in 1847 raised $170, sent to Ireland for famine relief.

This moving tribute to that extraordinary act of generosity is in the museum’s contemporary art gallery.

The modern painting below by Lillian Lucy Davidson captures the alienation and grief still felt a hundred years after the Great Famine.


Lilian Lucy Davidson. Horta. 1946.









I understand this ongoing wound.  For me, the Holocaust still seems close.  The Somali’s and now the Syrian’s remind us that the world, or more accurately, human nature doesn’t seem to change.  Painful.


Could be Anatevka…

Dead Wake

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Having just finished Eric Larson’s Dead Wake about the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-Boat, I got interested in visiting the Submarine Museum in Groton, CT.  Naturally, I arrived when part of the museum, including the actual submarine were closed off due to a Change-of-Command ceremony.

After heading to a local diner, eloquently called The Shack and packed for lunch, I was able to come back and have the full sub experience.  No, I didn’t have a sub for lunch, although that would have been poetic.

    The tallest point of a sub

The tallest point of a sub

The film told the history of submarines in the U.S., starting in 1900, when the Navy bought a sub from Holland for $150,000 (This ignores the historic submarine written about previously in this blog).  In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt took a 3-hour trip on the second U.S. sub, leaving from his home in Oyster Bay and sailing around Long Island Sound.  He declared it “fun.”  I say, “bully!”

Over time, safety became a priority, with the shift to diesel power from gasoline with its danger of asphyxiation and engineering improvements–angle of diving, the rotating and retracting periscope, and the control room.

But life on subs was woefully hard.  Called ‘pig boats’, subs were basically ‘glorified sewer pipes’ that were cramped, dirty, and smelly.  Little water was available, so no one could bathe or brush their teeth.

One drunk sailor returning from shore leave had a skunk on a leash and apparently argued with the on-board duty officer that the potential smell was no worse than the existing, and everyone would get used to it.  I don’t know the outcome–if Pepe le Pew became a submarine pet–but I bet not.

(Overall, it probably helps to be a man.  I sure couldn’t do it.)

After Pearl Harbor, the US Navy was able to enter the game of war quickly because the submarines were spared.  Within days, unrestricted sub warfare was engaged, with US subs sinking Japanese ships.  Interesting that among the visitors at the museum were Japanese tourists.

Subs continued to play a big part in the Navy through the Cold War.  We “hounded the Soviet Navy,” one captain declared.

On board the Nautilus

On board the Nautilus

The real reason to go to the museum is to board and crawl around in the Nautilus, the nuclear power sub.  I followed a bow-tied, curly hair, bespectacled man with two children.  He explained each thing to them, in terms I could understand, so I didn’t even have to listen to the audio tour.  Apparently, he had worked on a nuclear sub!

The stairways are really, really narrow and the steps very steep.  Discovery number 1: you have to be skinny to work on the sub.

Step way up and duck at the same time

Step way up and duck at the same time




The bunk beds–8 to a closet–are teensy.  Discovery number 2: it helps to be short if you work on a sub.

The hatch opening between areas are kept small, so not only do you have to duck, but you also have to step over the the bottom of the opening to the next compartment–probably about 2 1/2 feet high.  Discovery number 3:  you have to be agile to work on a sub.

Do you qualify?  I, for one, was plenty ready to climb those steep stairs back to the deck.  Clearly, I’m not built for sub life.

The commodious officer's dining room

The commodious officer’s dining room

8 bunks, 4 on each side

8 bunks, 4 on each side

The facilities

Better accommodations

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This electric submarine resembles a whale

This electric submarine resembles a toy whale