Sunday, June 23, 2013

Mia by Mia

Mia Robinson "Self-Portrait Mid-Room"  2013  
Mia Robinson (b.1979) shows herself in the process of using her i-pad to paint a self-portrait. Robinson is one of the surging wave of artists who trained in traditional art-making methods but are turning to new technology. Robinson has exhibited her work both nationally and internationally. Her website can be seen here

Friday, June 21, 2013

Painting Polly

Beatrice Whitney Van Ness "Polly Saltonstall Painting"  private collection
Beatrice Whitney Van Ness (1888-1981) grew up in Massachusetts and attended the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, studying under artists Frank Benson and Edmund Tarbell.  She was a highly proficient student, winning numerous prizes and being appointed to the teaching faculty immediately after her own graduation. Upon marrying and starting a family, her interests broadened and became additionally concerned in the field of art education for children. She founded a pioneering art department at a private school outside of Boston which became a model for some of the earliest art education programs in public schools throughout the country.  Residing in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, she and her family spent every summer in Maine, where she painted intensively, bringing back sketches and unfinished canvases for later completion. Many of her works are set on or near the water as a result and she developed a particular flair for portraying the effects of sun and water reflections on a subject's face.

Van Ness won many major awards and exhibited frequently in galleries and museum shows during her lifetime. Her work is now in the collections of such venerable institutions as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Academy of Design, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is said to have painted vigorously right up until her 91st birthday.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Self-Inflicted Portrait

Sarah McEneaney  "Self-Inflicted Portrait"  1989 private collection
Sarah McEneaney (b.1955) is a painter whose work is often reminiscent of the Mexican ex-voto tradition and akin to the "naive" paintings seen around the world, an especially vibrant tradition in some Latin and African cultures. Yet this Academy-trained North American artist has received a raft of prestigious "art world" awards, including several fellowships, grants and multiple artist residencies.  She is not, nor does she purport to be, a self-taught or "outsider" artist. Clearly she is tapping into some common human impulse  for visual story-telling, her style effortlessly bridging the naive and the sophisticated through its sincerity. In this scene, the artist is explaining that something has happened to her....probably a knife slipped as she was opening a package of something (cheese?) and the result, a thickly bandaged, possibly casted hand, is held aloft as the artist draws us the story.

The scene appears simple at first glance, but deceptively so, and there are many points to ponder.  Is the knife we see only a drawn representation, like the cheese packet beside it, or is it a "real" knife lying on the drawing paper? The artist appears to be drawing with her left hand: is she naturally left-handed or is this perforce because of her injury? Or, if she is is gazing in a mirror, a common practice among self-portraitists, then it would only appear that she is using her left-hand. Is she in reality right-handed?
I'm also interested in the way the drawing tools lie on the edge of the table, tools which are used to "open" the story to us, echoing the way a knife is used to open a package. Is there some reminder in this of how easy it is to make a mistake, to slip up (albeit less bloodily) when performing such an aesthetic opening or telling?

The title too, carries layers of meaning. Obviously we see and read that the wound was self-inflicted (and almost certainly accidental) but the title creates a sense of unease...a feeling perhaps that the artist felt compelled to "inflict" the painting upon her audience. Nonetheless, such a depiction of a wound taps into several traditions, the classic Christian European depiction of martyr injuries and stigmata, and also the related mexican retablo tradition of depicting the injured or diseased body part for which the supplicant begs relief. Another point is that the painting has been made in either oil or gouache...yet we see the artist wielding a pencil. This visual inconsistency and all other details as well add vibration to the otherwise still and contemplative air of the piece.

McEneaney studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She is represented by Locks Gallery in Philadelphia and by Tibor de Nagy in NYC. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013


 "Elisabetta Sirani Painting her Father" Nineteenth-century engraving by Luigi Martelli made from a self-portrait in the then existing Hercolani Gallery of Bologna.  Whereabouts of original painting now unknown.

 Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was a Baroque era painter from Bologna, a city in Italy famous for its progressive attitude towards women's rights, and home to numerous female scholars, scientists and artists. Sirani was a bit of a wunderkind even in that rarified milieu. The daughter of artist Giovanni Andrea Sirani, Elisabetta began her art career at a very early age. By 17 she was a fully trained engraver and accomplished painter and had completed over ninety works. By the time she died at the young age of 27, she had added at least eighty more known works to her repertoire. Sirani also assumed control of the family's art workshop when her father became incapacitated by gout in the early 1660s. She supported her parents, her younger siblings and herself, entirely through her art and her teaching. It is said that  the stress created by such heavy responsibilities may have contributed to her early death. 

Elisabetta Sirani Self-Portrait ca. 1660 

Initially trained by her father, Sirani was encouraged in her career by Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia, a family friend and influential art writer, who helped her gain recognition for her unusually precocious skill. Sirani was known for her ability to paint well and quickly, so quickly that debate arose as to her work's authenticity, and to counterract these aspersions, art lovers were invited to visited her studio to watch her perform her magic at the easel. A contemporary account reported "There was such speed and directness in her brush that she looked more like a fairy painting than a mere mortal." She  produced portraits and mythological subjects but was especially valued for her images of the Holy family, and the Virgin and Child. She imbued these sanctified subjects with a homely immediacy and familiarity that her contemporary audiences found very refreshing.

Elisabetta Sirani Self-Portrait ca. 1658

When Sirani died at age 27, after experiencing stomach pains, her father suspected she had been poisoned by a jealous maidservant. However, an autopsy revealed numerous lacerations in the artist’s stomach, presumably evidence of perforated ulcers, and the maid (jealous or not) was acquitted of any crime. It's sobering to contemplate the artist's early death, and what wonders what she might have gone on to achieve had she lived longer. To my eye, the artist's extant works show an immense inconsistency of style and technique, as though the young artist was still experimenting and learning even as she gave her command performances.

Elisabetta Sirani "Allegory of Painting" ca. 1665
Sirani recieved a splendid funeral from the city of Bologna which included formal orations, performances of specially commissioned poetry and music, and an enormous catafalque, a bier or scaffolding bearing the casket during the funeral procession, surmounted with a life-size sculpture of the artist. Sirani left an important legacy not only through her artwork but through her teaching. Her pupils included her two younger sisters, Barbara and Anna Maria, and several other young Bolognese women who also became professional painters.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Contemporary Genre Painting

Susan Lichtman "Plein Air Painters" 2012 Private Collection

Susan Lichtman (b.1959) is a true contemporary genre painter, a painter of everyday life.  Almost all Lichtman's work is painted in a domestic setting, with porches, balconies and kitchens being the most painted-in rooms. As an mother-artist myself, the typical houshold brouhaha and bric-a-brac all seems very familiar. I marvel at Lichtman's daring in setting up her easel right in the the center of the whole vortex of family life. In this her work reminds us, inevitably of Fairfield Porter, yet I get the feeling that Porter's works were far more posed, that people stopped and life was suspended when he painted the dining room table or posed a daughter on a porch chair. In Lichtman's work you can feel the hum of busy lives swirling around the artist's canvas and being captured in snatches and starts in mid-current.

Susan Lichtman "Artist and Baby" 1997  Private Collection
Her work is fascinating to me in that although the subjects are loosely painted nevertheless a definite feeling of personal character is evoked, and while the pieces are often painted in a narrow range of value, great depths and changes of light sweeping across interiors are sometimes (when wanted)  achieved. Lichtman says “I think my idea of beauty in painting has to do with the tension between the depiction of deep space and the properties of shape and surface. I see that tension in interior paintings of artists I love best, from Roman wall painting to De Hooch, Vuillard, Bonnard, and Gwen John. Sunlight or lamplight juxtaposed with shadows add to the complexity of shapes. I am interested in how light can divert attention away from figures and slow down the reading of the imagery.” It is perhaps of some interest to note that the artist's own name, Lichtman, means "light one" in translation. A highly appropriate moniker for a true painter of light.

Lichtman studied at Brown University and received her MFA from Yale University. She currently teaches at Brandeis University. She is represented by Gross McCleaf Gallery and by Lenore Gray Fine Art. The artist's website can be seen here.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Child Prodigy

Anna Waser "Self Portrait, age twelve" 1691 Kunsthaus Zürich 

Anna Waser (1678 or 1679-1714) was a Swiss artist who had some very good luck and some very bad luck in her short life. Her story starts out well...she was lucky to be born into a wealthy and cultured family in Zurich. Her father Johann Rudolf Waser, who was a magistrate, was highly educated and unusually unprejudiced. Interested in art himself, when he noticed his fifth child Anna showed signs of precocious art talent he took her to study with Joseph Werner in the city of Bern. Werner was one of the leading Swiss artists of the day. Waser studied with Werner for a little more than four years, from about age 11 through sixteen, boarding with the artist's family. She was his only female student among many young men.  This piece was painted while she was studying with Werner, and we see her teacher's portrait on her easel. Her precocity was obviously a source of great pride to Werner, and he encouraged her to prominently display her age in the work.

At about age sixteen she returned to her family in Zurich where she found herself to be something of a local celebrity. She began accepting commissions from the notable and fashionable people of that city. Her portraits, landscapes and miniatures proved very popular and her fame began to spread farther.  When she was about age twenty-one an art loving nobleman, Count Wilhelm Moritz von Solms-Braunfels, invited her to become the court painter at his historic Castle Braunfels. Off she went on this exciting new start of what looked like a brilliant career. But it was not to be.

She had not been long with this court, and they were in the midst of planning a protracted visit to Paris, when her mother back in Zurich fell gravely ill. For a variety of reasons Anna was deemed the only of the Waser siblings capable of dealing with this domestic crisis, and she was forced to return to her family home. From 1702 onwards she was completely beset with familial duties, running the Zurich home and caring for both of her parents, each of whom now needed tending. Her painting was sidelined dramatically although she continued to execute a small piece here and there. She frequently branched out into silverpoint drawing, a technique that is of course less time-consuming than painting in oils, and handier for someone with not a lot of free time at their disposal.

At some point the ailing Waser parents passed on, but Anna Waser didn't have much time to enjoy a lessening of her domestic responsibilities. We read in a chronicle of that time that "Mit 30 Jahren verlor sie ihre Leibs- und Gemütskräfte." ("at age thirty she lost her abdominal and mental powers.")  She was then living with her two sisters Anna Maria and Elisabetha, callligraphers and graphic artists, who cared for her until her death at age thirty-five from complications following a fall.

 Other than the young self-portrait painting shown above, Waser's most notable authenticated work is said to be a silverpoint drawing reported to be in the Altes Museum in Berlin. (I was unable to verify this.) Waser started her career young, but she was summarily interrupted before she'd really begun. A catastrophic illness and early demise prevented her from ever fully picking up the threads again. Nonetheless, her family greatly esteemed and respected their once-famous sister and kept her story fresh in the family lore. A century after her death, a talented young writer named Maria Krebs married into the Waser family and was so intrigued by the tales of her husband's ancestor that she researched and wrote "The Story of Anna Waser" (by Maria Waser, first published in 1913, Stuttgart.)

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Painter In the Garden

Eliza Auth  "Painting in the Garden" 2010  private collection

Eliza Drake Auth created this painting of fellow artist Frances Galante during a plein air event at Camphill Special School.  Auth (b.1952) is known for her serene landscapes and gentle portraits.  Her softly-descriptive style and quietly glowing color seems to spring directly from the Boston School of painting, yet this Philadelphia-based artist has never lived in Boston, but studied at the University of the Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her work is represented by the Rosenfeld Gallery in Philadelphia. The artist's website can be seen here.

Frances Galante (b.1959) studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where she was one of the select circle of young artists mentored by Arthur DeCosta. In addition she earned a degree from Tyler School of Art, and received a scholarship for an Oxbow Artist's Residency. This versatile oil painter can turn her hand to almost any subject, but she is perhaps best known for her still-life work, with her paintings of flowers being in particularly high demand. We see her here happily ensconced in a garden, absorbed in painting some of her favorite subjects. Galante is represented by Artists' House Gallery in Philadelphia and her website can be seen here.

(Plein Air for Camphill, during which this piece was created, is an event organized to benefit a residential school/summer program for older teens and young adults with special needs. This age-group is a very under-served population, many services and programs for children with special needs simply end for children over age 14, many opportunities such as after-school play-study groups, weekend gym classes and summer camps, simply will not take children over 14, and relatively little else becomes available until legal adulthood at 21. It seems important to support institutions such as Camphill Special School that are striving to fill this desperate need for services for teens and young adults.  For more information on Camphill Special School click here. For more information on the most recent Plein Air for Camphill, click here.) 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

High-Steppin' Artist

Miriam Schapiro "High Steppin' Strutter I"  1985

Miriam Schapiro (b. 1923) was one of the founders of the feminist art movement in the United States.  While teaching at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in the early 1970's, she and artist Judy Chicago collaborated on establishing a program at that school called the Feminist Art Program.  Schapiro was also known as a leading figure in the Pattern and Decoration Art Movement.

Schapiro was born in Canada but moved to the US with her family as a child. She attended classes at MOMA while she was in High School, and went to college at the University of Iowa. There she met fellow artist Paul Brach and the couple married in 1946. They have one son, and remained married until Brach's death in 2004.

Schapiro has worked in wide variety of mediums over the course of her long and productive career, including paint, collage, assemblage and needlecraft, but the artist has also created large metal outdoor sculptures, soaring several stories high. Perhaps the fact that her father was an industrial designer means she inherited a certain fearlessness when it comes to materials.

Schapiro has been honored with a multitude of prestigious awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship, and her work is in numerous museum collections including the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.  

Monday, June 3, 2013

Giovanna gentilissima

Giovanna Fratellini  "Self Portrait"  1720  The Uffizi Gallery

Giovana Fratellini (1666-1731) was a Florentine artist of the Baroque period, who started off life as a lady-in-waiting to the royal court.  A well-born young woman, she was presented by her family to serve the granduchessa Vittoria della Rovere, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. It was soon discovered by the art-loving Medici court that Fratellini had a natural talent and fondness for drawing. She was encouraged and received professional art training. She specialized in miniatures and small memento portraits but also worked larger-scale and occasionally tackled religious subjects. It was said of her portrait work that she gave “all the tenderness and warmth of life.” Her work was in great demand.  She traveled widely to execute commissions for members of the ducal court and the various royal Italian families. She was married and had a son.  She was appointed to the prestigious Accademia delle Arte del Disegno of Florence in 1706 and was elected to full membership in 1710.

Fratellini was proficient in several mediums: pastel, chalk, enamel and oil painting. Interestingly, although this self-portrait (above) was done in pastel, we see her using oil paints. She depicts herself as a lively and appealing middle-aged lady (age 54), happily engaged in painting a likeness of her son, the artist Lorenzo Fratellini. Giovanna Fratellini herself took part in training her son in his profession. Contemporary accounts also credit her with training and mentoring a young female painter Violante Beatrice Series, who took Fratellini's place as court painter upon her demise.

Fratellini is often compared to the Venetian painter Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757.) The two artists actually met around 1719 when Fratellini traveled to Venice complete one of her many court commissions. Fratellini is said to have greatly admired Carriera, who in turn extended to her esteemed colleague the warmest and kindest of receptions,  a “gentilissime accoglienze.”