Saturday, July 26, 2014

Bucket Lilies

Clementine Hunter "Bucket Lilies" 1967 Private Collection
 Clementine Hunter (1887-1988) was a self-taught artist from Louisiana who didn't start painting until she was 54 years old. She worked as a field hand in the cotton fields from a young age, and only attended school very briefly. She was married twice and had seven children, while continuing in agricultural labor.  Then, she and her family found employment at Melrose Plantation, a large southern estate famous for being one of the first African-American owned southern plantations.  Carmelita Henry, the lady of the manor, was deeply interested in the arts and turned the plantation into a kind of ongoing artists residency, with numerous artists invited to enjoy the beautiful relaxed atmosphere. At some point Hunter stopped working in the fields and pecan groves and began working in the big house. She immediately showed an aptitude for design, making quilts and creating beautiful clothes for the estate children, as well as creating imaginative flower beds and arrangements. She took great interest in the visiting artists and their pursuits and the friendly, supportive artistic atmosphere. One night she apparently remarked to Francois Mignon, the assistant to Mrs. Henry who acted as a kind of art residency manager,  "I could do a painting if I set my mind to it." Mignon gave her some paints left behind by a visiting artist and Hunter did indeed put her mind to it. The rest is history.

detail from "Bucket Lilies"
Hunter liked to work on all kinds of supports, from canvases and boards to old window shades, bottles, pieces of cardboard and even brown paper bags. She was highly prolific, and although she had made a late start as an artist she apparently created thousands of works. She originally sold her pieces for as little as 25 cents, to anyone who came to her door and asked. Now her work sells for thousands of dollars and hangs in museums including the American Folk Art Museum, the Los Angeles County  Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Hunter received numerous honors and accolades for her work in her lifetime including an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts.  A book Clementine Hunter: her life and work came out in 2012, published by LSU Press. When she died, she was buried near her friend Francois Mignon, who had believed in her and helped her get started in her late blossoming art career. Interestingly, Mignon was the original owner of this painting, which he received as a gift from the artist after he gave Hunter the bucket of lilies which inspired the piece!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Margeurite in Miniature, plus Mysteries!

François Dumont ca. 1800 "A Lady, Possibly the Artist Margeurite Gérard"
courtesy of Christie's
François Dumont (1751-1831) was a French painter known for his fine miniatures. Left orphaned at a relatively early age, with younger siblings dependent upon him, he trained briefly with miniaturist Jean Giradet and very soon set up his own portrait studio with the encouragement of artist Anne Vallayer-Coster. Her confidence in him proved sound, and Dumont's talent was very quickly recognized. He received numerous commissions and grants for further study, and was elected to the French Academy in 1788.  He was also granted an apartment in the Louvre (a common perk for Academic artists.)

Another inhabitant of the artist's apartment complex that was the Louvre in those days was painter Margeurite Gérard. Dumont painted her at least twice, both times with her palette and brushes in her hand. They seem to be painted with a kind of affectionate respect, showing her as a professional artist and a person with a sweet, friendly and intelligent personality.

François Dumont  1793 "Miniature Portrait of Margeurite Gérard" The Wallace Collection
An interesting detail of this painting to my eye is the way the artist has depicted Gérard's satin skirts clinging to her legs, delineating their form clearly. This was a highly unusual presentation. It was an age when, "Low-cut gowns were not considered immodest or even sexual; breasts were merely seen as feminine."  However, "...revealing the ankles or legs was considered scandalous." (Georgian Period ResearchKjerstin Wittwer, 2011) A possibility is that Dumont (although married) had some kind of sexual or romantic relationship with his (unmarried) sitter, though no records of such exist, in such a situation he may have painted this piece for private remembrance. However, Gérard's pleasant and calm gaze does not lend itself to supporting the idea of a torrid romance between the two. Instead I wonder if Dumont was subtly hinting that Gérard's prowess and skill as an artist made her into a kind of "honorary man", a respected gentleman colleague rather than a member of a lesser "ladies' auxiliary" type classification. (Similar to the sincere but backhanded compliment still given today to women painters, that they "paint like a man!")  The way the fabric folds creates almost an impression of trousers lends some credence to my theory. Although it is only conjecture on my part.

Margeurite Gérard "Self-Portrait while Painting a Lute Player" before 1803
location unknown

At age 14, upon the death of her mother, Marguerite Gérard went to live with her older sister, miniaturist Marie-Anne Gérard Fragonard and her husband, renowned painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Gérard lived with the family in their apartment in the Louvre, and quickly became a fully integrated member of the Fragonards' studio, studying etching and engraving as well as oil painting. Gérard never married, but seemed content with her position of maiden aunt within the Fragonard household. She was able to study and work to her hearts content. Although never elected to the French Academy (there was a very strict and tiny quota on the number of women artists allowed to join the Academy at this time) she had a very respectable career, receiving numerous commissions and sending forty-two pieces to eleven Salon exhibitions between 1799 and 1824. She produced mainly portraits and genre paintings and some etchings.

Possibly by Margeurite Gérard, possibly "The Artist's Sister in Her Studio, Painting her Husband's Portrait"
Zimmerli Art Museum 
There is a lot of mystery about this painting. Its most widespread attribution online usually runs something like this :
Marguerite Gérard, French, The Artist, Fragonard's Sister-in-law, Painting her Husband's Portrait. 
c. 1780's, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University.

However, some of this attribution is clearly wrong. Margeurite Gérard never married. So she could not be painting "her husband."  It is far more likely to be a portrait of Margeurite's sister, the painter Marie-Anne Gérard Fragonard.  It might even be a self-portrait by Marie-Anne!  The male portrait in progress on the easel does resemble Jean-Honoré Fragonard and the boy might be their son, Alexandre Évariste Fragonard, later a painter himself. The Zimmerli Art Museum has decided to play it safe, understandably by attributing the painting in this way:

Unidentified Artist
Portrait of an Artist in her Studio, ca. 1790
(French, active late 18th to early 19th century)

It would be sure fun to time travel back and visit with the Fragonard-Gérard-Dumont posse, and get the answers to these questions!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Portrait of Diana

Artist Unknown  "Thamar Painting Diana"  France 1400s
This is an illumination or illustration from a copy of Bocaccio's book On Famous Women which was a runaway "best seller" of the middle ages, and was copied and recopied many times. Because calligraphers and illuminators rarely signed their work we have no idea who painted this charming scene of Thamar at work painting her famous portrait of the goddess Diana.  

Despite the contemporary 15th century clothing, Thamar, also known as Timarete or Tamaris, was a 5th century BCE Greek artist. She was the daughter of another painter, Micon the elder, and Pliny wrote about her in "Natural History" (77 CE) saying of her that she"scorned the duties of women and practised her father's art."  This "scorning" was almost certainly referring to the fact that she never married and produced children, rather than the fact that she was a painter. In ancient times women practiced all kinds of crafts and trades, painting among them, usually learning from and assisting a parent or family member, as was the case with Thamar.  It was only a small percentage of upper class women who were free from the necessity to help earn money, and were what we would today typify as "typical" housewives, concerned primarily with domestic duties. In ancient times, as in most times throughout history, the vast majority of women worked at paying jobs in addition to "the duties of women" to support themselves and their families, or else were actively working to assist and support those who actually worked outside the home. Life is almost always a team effort!

Thamar was best known as the creator of a painting of Diana, or Artemis, that graced that Goddess's temple at Ephesus for many centuries. Alas, Ephesus was destroyed, either razed by the Goths in 278 CE. or burned to the ground by an anti-pagan mob in the 400s (historians disagree) and Thamar's artwork was destroyed.

Because Bocaccio's book On Famous Women was such a big hit, there are many many editions of it, all with illuminations. I'll be posting the best of such Thamar at work illustrations as come my way from time to time. Many of them are little gems! To see all the Thamar paintings I have posted to date, just look up "Thamar" in the side bar of artist and subject names, or click here.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Winning WAPs!

A few (well, several) months ago I got an email from the Portrait Society of America which announced the winners and finalists of their 2014 International Portrait Competition. The announcement showed small images  of the winning pieces. I was thrilled to see three count 'em three WAPs (Women in the Act of Painting-s) in the crowd! Seems like the sign of a good trend. Here they are, for your viewing pleasure:

Kelly Carmody "Self-Portrait" 2013 
This elegant piece won third place in the competition. Kelly Carmody (b. 1977) is a Massachusetts artist who studied with George Nick and Paul Celli at Mass Art, and elsewhere including two years at The Art Students League of New York. She has received numerous awards and grants and her work is represented by Sloane Merrill Gallery in Boston. Carmody's website can be seen here

Aimee Erickson "Self Portrait with Key" 2014
This striking painting received an Award of Exceptional Merit in the competition. Aimee Erickson (b.1967) is a Portland-based artist. She studied at Brigham Young University, and then went on to study further at The Art Students League and the Florence Academy of Art.  She is represented by Shaffer Fine Art. The artist's website can be seen here.

Lea Colie Wight "So Far" 2013

Last but not least, this charming work by Lea Colie Wight (b.1951) was awarded a Certificate of Excellence in the competition. Lea is a Philadelphia-based painter specializing in figurative work and still-life. She received her degree from the Minneapolis  College of Art and Design and went on to study further at Studio Incamminati, where she is now a popular instructor. Lea maintains studios in New Jersey and in Philadelphia, PA. She is represented by Haynes GalleriesNew Masters Gallery and Main Street Gallery. The artist's website can be seen here

Congratulations to this talented trio of artists! Please keep up the excellent WAP work! You make me proud.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Tent Studio

Napachie Pootoogook "Napachie Drawing in her Tent" 1984-85 
Collection of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-Operative Ltd., on loan to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Napachie Pootoogook (1938-2002) began drawing with her mother, acclaimed Inuit artist, Pitseolak Ashuna. Despite the title of this drawing, something about this charming scene makes me wonder if the artist wasn't remembering watching and learning from her own mother? Or, it certainly could be a self-portrait, and the eager, watching, child could be one of her own many children. 

Pootoogook was the mother of eleven children (including contemporary artist Annie Pootoogook) and was highly respected in her community as both an accomplished artist and as someone who knew "the old ways." She experienced many hard times, and spoke openly but not bitterly about the dark side of life. Not all of her children survived to adulthood. One of her most horrifying experiences was as a young mother in a tent out on the land, having to singlehandedly fight off a polar bear who was attempting to snatch her youngest child. It was a prolonged attack, after several hours she managed to run it off by pouring gasoline on its face. Pootoogook was also known to be a talented throat singer, and was in great demand as a performer and also a teacher of this traditional Inuit singing technique. Her artwork is in many major collections and museums in Canada and also abroad.