Follow by Email

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Arts and Crafts and the 20th Century Design Sales

The market for Arts and Crafts has been especially volatile in the past few years.  While it is easy to blame everything on the global economic crisis, and tempting to pretend as though a rebound towards stability and predictability is imminent, the recent New York sales show a market that refuses to be either stable or predictable.


For the most part, Christie's seems to have abandoned their interest in Arts and Crafts--their most recent sale (December 17th) only yielded 2 items:
1. a Stickley three door oak and glass cabinet that sold for 25,000, and
2. a pair of Thomas Jeckyl andirons  that went for 56,250


By contrast, Sotheby's offered many more arts and crafts lots, and priced them fairly aggressively.  Broadly speaking, 35 of the first 37 lots of the sale could be termed arts and crafts.  Excepting the Manship Vase and Augustus Saint Gaudens box, the selection was a standard who's who of the movement and offered Stickley furniture, Elizabeth Copeland's silver work, Grueby pottery, and Dirk Van Erp Lamps and metal pieces.  These are the types of things that always sell at arts and crafts auctions, and usually do well too.  If you needed to form a blue chip index for the movement, these are the names and the types of objects you would pick.


Unfortunately, as the economist and Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb reminded readers in Fooled by Randomness, past performance is not a reliable predictor of the future, despite what market gurus and consultants believe.  Describing what he calls "a more severe aspect of naive empiricism," Taleb reminds readers that "[one] can use data to disprove a proposition, never to prove one.  [One] can use history to refute a statement, never to confirm it."(Taleb 119)  Thus, even though history might indicate to you that you can sell an Overbeck vase comfortably (or perhaps optimistically) for $80-120K,  or a Grueby Daffodil Vase for $50-70K, history sometimes makes little difference to the present moment.  In part, it seems as though the success of the movement at auction is part of the problem, since high prices now form a barrier for those looking to begin collecting.  Ironically, the high prices have been largely due to a few major collectors who, as their own collections grow, have less need for pieces, and higher standards for acquiring them.  How else does one explain why a Marblehead Potteries vase with roses fails to sell in 2011 even with an estimate of 30-50K, when just last fall David Rago sold a similar example (with better design) for $134,200?  Rago's estimate of 25-35K on that vase, combined with the stronger design, seemed to encourage competition in the bidding room.  If this indicates anything, the take away might be that the high end of the market remains strong but finicky, and that past performance needs to be treated with a bit more suspicion. 


Take for example Lot 14 an "important and rare landscape motto plaque" made by Marblehead Potteries which was estimated at $60-80K and sold for 68.5K (with the buyers premium).  Just 5 years ago Sotheby's offered a similar example, estimated at 25-35K which sold for $90K.  More buyers?  Better estimates?  Who knows?  The lesson, if there is one in this, is that one shouldn't rely upon past performances to craft high reserves and estimates in a market that appears to be unpredictable.


Was there good news in any of these sales?  Of course.  The market for Tiffany remains strong, as evident in both the major sales this past month.  Sotheby's did $4.6 million on 53 lots, Christies total was slightly higher (4.8 million) but keep in mind that sale had more than 3 times the lots that Sotheby's offered.  There were some surprises in modern design as well.  The star of the auction season was Francois-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008) whose group of 10 sheep at Christies went for more than 12 times the low estimate of 600,000 to reach a staggering sum of $7,474,500 when the bidding had finished.  An elegant and rare teapot by Naum Slutzky breezed easily past its estimate of 60-80K at Sotheby's to reach a final price of $374,500.


Late 19th and 20th Century design gets a break for a while, as the season shifts (as it does every January) to the Americana sales.  With nice offerings by both major houses, it should be a good indicator of the overall health of the market as we roll into the new year.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Auction Roundup: A Rough Weekend for Rookwood, and other notes

I could look at Rookwood pottery for days on end.  I like the company's history of innovation, the quirky designs of pieces from almost all eras, and I think the company did a great job of navigating the tricky space between an industrial concern and the artistry people expected in the late Victorian era into the arts and crafts.  The market for Rookwood, however, is changing as evident by recent sales results.  


The annual sale (or two) of Rookwood has been something of a tradition, certainly in Cincinnati and for a long time the Cincinnati Art Galleries did well by this sale.  But changing tastes, a general drop in the Arts and Crafts market mid-level wares, and an economy in flux seem to have conspired against this past weekend's sale at Humler and Nolan.  The offering--465 lots of (mostly Rookwood) on Sunday, December 4th--was an ambitious array of Rookwood, but one has to wonder whether this type of monolithic sale makes sense in a market that is changing.    


First, the good news:


232 of the 465 lots offered for sale either met or exceeded their pre-auction estimate.  


The strongest sales, not surprisingly, were among the rarest pieces, and Amelia Sprague's Aerial Blue vase of 1895 led the sale, going for $14,000, or comfortably within the 12-15K estimate.  William Hentschel's carved mat vase went for slightly less ($12,000), but this figure doubled the low estimate.  Matthew Daly's exceptional Indian portrait vase met its estimate selling for $8,250, but this seems a far cry from the prices these pieces were commanding at the height of their popularity.




  


Less welcoming news was that 233 lots fell below their pre-auction estimates or failed to sell.  


Buyers were particularly unenthusiastic about Rookwood's standard ware, with pieces that less than a decade ago would have been quickly snapped up failing meet estimates, or even sell.  The general mood of the sale (at least if one is to believe the numbers reported by LiveAuctioneers) was one where astute buyers were able to snap up good deals, but where big money sales failed to materialize.  Particularly disappointing were the failure of lots 1152 and 1178 to sell, since these two pieces had estimates in the 20-30K dollar range.  


A rare electroplated vase decorated with bats and carved poppies that was exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900 failed to sell.  While there was some wear on the unusual plating (gold over copper), the provenance of the piece alone might have attracted bidders in the past.  Lot 1178, photo from Live Auctioneers.   




A similar fate befell the rare tiger eye vase decorated by Mary Taylor (lot 1342) which apparently did not attract enough interest to meet its reserve, as well a sweet little silver overlay teapot made in 1892.    








The news from Treadway's sale (as far as Rookwood is concerned), was equally mixed.  The top selling lot, a large scenic vellum plaque, went for $17,000, but this was well under the 20-25K estimate.  


Lot 258, photo from Live Auctioneers.  This large scenic landscape plaque fell below it's estimate.  By comparison, a similar sized plaque done in the same year by the same artist sold at David Rago's in March 2004 for $50,000. 


A number of lots passed, and many went for under their pre-auction estimate.  The Treadway sale was buoyed, in part, by a more diverse offering of wares and strong performances by two Dirk Van Erp Lamps.  The modern offering performed more unevenly, and by the day's end there were a number of larger lots that failed to sell.  Notable in this regard were lot 809 (Nakashima table, est. 18-24K); and lots 592-3, two works by Sam Gilliam.


On the horizon, there's a particularly nice selection of ceramics and good arts and crafts coming up for sale at Sotheby's December 15 Important 20th Century Design Sale.  Sotheby's and Christies seem to have adapted to the shifting market by offering less wares, but presenting a bit more of a highly curated (and cultivated) selection.  Both sales kick off with a set of similarly designed Thomas Jeckyl Andirons, Christies' pair is in iron, the Sotheby's pair in brass.  

Friday, December 2, 2011

Redwood Catalog Entry: Alfred Hart's Portrait of Berkeley after Smibert, by Jennifer Lee

Jennifer Lee's entry on Alfred Hart's portrait of Berkeley blends a solid understanding of the historical aspects of this image with contemporary references that help place why the desire for this copy would have been especially appealing for the Redwood Library collection.

  

Alfred A. Hart, Reverend George Berkeley (after Smibert), ca. 1858, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 (76.2 x 63.5 cm)
Gift of Charles H. Olmsted
RLC.PA.033 (1858)


Painted in 1858, Alfred A. Hart’s Bishop George Berkeley is a testament to the continued importance of Berkley’s legacy to Newport as an economic and cultural center in Colonial America.  Born in Killerin, Ireland, writer and philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) gained considerable notoriety for his An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision (1709), A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713). By the 1720s—and fearful the England was falling to ruin—Berkeley had begun formulating plans to start a Christian community outside of England where he could establish a college.  He chose the colony of Bermuda due to its agreeable climate and abundance of resources; a royal charter was granted in 1725 and Berkeley and his entourage sailed in 1728.  Determined to create an area of study where he could educate the “savages” on Christianity, but lacking the necessary funding to begin, Berkeley and his shipmates—including the painter John Smibert—remained in Newport from 1729-1731. 
            Although Berkeley’s residence made Newport an intellectual and artistic center, it was Smibert’s painting that announced this forcefully and heralded the arrival of the fine arts to a colonial culture largely devoid of trained painters.  During Berkeley’s brief tenure he introduced the fine arts to America and helped found the Newport Philosophical Society, the forerunner of the Redwood Library. Alfred Hart’s painting, which used Smibert’s depiction of Berkeley from The Bermuda Group (1729-1731) as its model, demonstrates the painting’s popularity and importance even to a nineteenth century audience. Hart would have seen The Bermuda Group on display at the Yale College where it had been since 1808. More than just simply a record of Berkeley’s visit, the painting came to stand for the beginning of the fine arts in America and secured Newport’s importance as a colonial port.  
            Smibert’s reputation, both in the United States and England, was indebted to his travels with Berkeley and The Bermuda Group and the painting was revered as a singular contribution to the evolution of the arts in America.  As early as 1762, in his Anecdotes of Painting in England, Horace Walpole remarked on Smibert’s time with Berkeley’s “uncertain but amusing  scheme.”  By 1818, antiquarian Gulian Verplanck noted that while the painting was “not one of Smibert’s best” he presumed “it is the first painting of more than a single figure ever painted in the United States.” By 1855, just around the time that Hart executed his copy, the critic and historian Henry Tuckerman informed readers that “The visit of Smibert and associates Berkeley’s name with the dawn of art in America.” Berkeley’s importance to Newport’s legacy and The Bermuda Group’s stature as a painting would have resonated with audiences and made this a particularly fitting image for the library’s collection.           

Selected Bibliography
Annals of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, R.I.: Redwood Library, 1891.

Berkeley, George. The Works of George Berkeley Part One. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Gaustad, Edwin S. “George Berkeley and New World Community.” Church History 48 (March 1979).

Tuckerman, Henry T. “Berkeley’s Visit to America.”  Home Journal 2 (January 1855).


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Featured Student Work: Lucia Benton

Lucia Benton's entry on Chester Harding's Portrait of Daniel Webster is an excellent example of the work being done for the Redwood Cataloging Project:





Chester Harding, Daniel Webster, n.d [ca. 1845-52], oil on canvas, 30”x 25”

RLC.PA.146

          This full profile, bust length portrait of the distinguished American statesman Daniel Webster is one of at least seventeen likenesses that Chester Harding made of his lifelong friend.  Harding actively pursued prominent figures to paint, recognizing their value to his reputation, and this is likely how the two met. In 1827, after returning from a three-year painting trip to England, Harding was first commissioned to paint Webster’s wife, Grace Fletcher Webster. The following year, then-Senator Webster sat for him as well, the first of many portraits Harding made of him. In spite of their very different backgrounds, they were often included in the same social circles in Boston, and their daughters were devoted friends. Harding much admired Webster, referring to him often in his letters, as well as his memoir, and was proud of these connections.
          Daniel Webster began his political career in 1813 when, as a young attorney, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in his native New Hampshire. He later resettled in Boston, and was a delegate at the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in 1821. He again served in the United States House, this time representing Massachusetts, a post he held until 1827, when he became a United States Senator. He was initially elected as a Federalist, but eventually joined the Whig Party, which, with members from both the North and the South, believed in the primacy of Congress over the Presidency, as well as a policy of modernization that included rapid economic and industrial growth, improvement of infrastructure, and universal public education. As a Whig, Webster was twice Secretary of State (1841-1843 and 1850-1852), and in 1852, was the party’s failed Presidential candidate, likely a result of his unfaltering support of compromise in the slave issue.

“Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

          Daniel Webster’s legacy is multifaceted, but the great orator is best remembered for his passionate fight to preserve the Union in the fractious years leading up to the Civil War. He fervently believed that, “It is to that Union we owe our safety at home, and our consideration and dignity abroad.” He was an outspoken anti-abolitionist, not for a personal stance on the issue of slavery, but rather for his belief that the disruptions of the anti-abolitionists jeopardized the unity and stability of the nation. Despite the political peril, he was resolute in his support of compromise, and the gradual removal of slavery, ardently opposing the idea of secession. Daniel Webster died in 1852, just as the Whig Party was beginning to disintegrate over the issue of the expansion of slavery to the territories, but his remarkable eloquence in argument immortalizes him as one of the greatest orators in United States history.
          Though they often encountered each other socially, Webster apparently only sat for Harding on two occasions. This full profile portrait is most likely made from an early daguerreotype image taken before 1845 by Southworth and Hawes of Boston from which the artist made many replicas over a course of years. When artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse brought the daguerreotype process to the United States in 1839, many felt that the technology would be the end of portrait painting.  Many artists, however, including Harding, used it to their advantage as it allowed them to render likenesses from afar, eliminated the need for long sittings, and made it possible to paint memorial portraits of the deceased. Painted portraits of prominent politicians were being commissioned at unprecedented rates for civic buildings and private homes alike in the rapidly growing nation, and photography allowed artists to meet that great demand.
          Though this painting was taken from a two-dimensional photograph, it is in many regards a very human rendering of Webster. The painting shows the full development of Harding’s talent, with realistic three-dimensional rendering. In full, left profile, his visible eye appears to gaze at nothing, suggesting an inwardly focused contemplation. There is a pensive quality to the portrait, though it is unclear whether this was the artist’s intent or merely a matter of the stillness required for the long exposure times for daguerreotype images.  Webster’s body is rendered comfortably, the proportions correct and with none of the stiffness seen in other Harding portrayals of Webster, including the ones taken from live sittings. It is known that Harding was preoccupied with achieving a true likeness in the face, with body, clothes, and hands being secondary in importance, and very often significantly less developed. Here, the whole person hangs together in a naturalistic way. Working from the daguerreotype may have allowed Harding the luxury of giving equal time to his sitter’s body.
          The undated painting had to have been made after the introduction of daguerreotype in 1839. Based on its similarity to several dated paintings Harding made from the same daguerreotype, it was likely painted between 1845 and 1852. Daniel Webster was in the final stretch of his distinguished life, at the center of what was perhaps the most tumultuous era of United States history. This sensitive and contemplative portrait captures the seriousness of that moment when Webster’s beloved nation stood at the brink of the ultimate fracture that turned into the Civil War.  

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brigham, David R, Laura K. Mills, and Philip A. Klausmeyer. Early American Paintings in the Worcester Art Museum. Online Catalogue. Worcester, MA: Worcester Museum of Art, ____.
Harding, Chester. My Egotistigraphy. ed. by his daughter, Margaret E. White, Cambridge, Mass.: Press of John Wilson and Son, 1866.
Hart, Charles Henry. “Life Portraits of Daniel Webster.” McClure’s Magazine 9 (1897).
Lipton, Leah. A Truthful Likeness: Chester Harding and His Portraits. Washington: National Portrait Gallery, 1985.
Lipton, Leah. “Chester Harding and the Life Portrait of Daniel Boone.” American Art Journal 16, no.3 (1984), 4-19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1594392
McDonough, John, and Nan Thompson Ernst and Manuscript Division staff, Library of Congress. Daniel Webster: A Register of his Papers in the Library of Congress. Washington: Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 1997. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss.ms000013
Otto, John C. Selections from the American Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum.  Springfield, MA: The Quadrangle, 1999.
Webster, Daniel.  “Our Country” The Green Mountain Gem; a Monthly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Arts 6, no.94 (1848). Retrieved November 27, 2010, from American Periodicals Series Online. (Document ID: 356104831).
Webster, Daniel and Edward Everett. The Works of Daniel Webster, Volume III. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851.

Redwood Library and Athenaeum Paintings Catalog


The American Fine and Decorative Arts Program at Sotheby’s Institute of Art is pleased to announce that it is working with the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island to produce a catalog of this important collection of paintings and sculpture. The collection is especially strong in American paintings before 1850 and is notable for works by Feke, Smibert, Allston, Gilbert Stuart, John Wesley Jarvis, and Thomas Sully among others.  The project is part of an initiative to designed to allow students to work with actual objects in real world settings, give them a platform in which their work will be published, and provide a service to the broader American Art community by contributing to the expansion and diffusion of knowledge. 

The project began two years ago as part of a research seminar in which students began writing biographical entries for the collection’s more than sixty artists.  As that aspect of the project winds down, students have begun working on entries for selected paintings in the collection.  The process is a collaborative one, designed to take advantage of peer-review, the discussion and presentation of research findings, and stresses the idea of research writing as a process of revision and discovery rather than a task that one simply completes.

At present, Program Director Jonathan Clancy is working on an online database of works that will feature edited versions of the entries so that the project will be available in a timely fashion to scholars, library patrons, and other interested parties as the work emerges.  The immediate goal is to have the database publicly available by the end of the academic year.  Once the project is completed a manuscript will be prepared for publication.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Victor Dubreuil: His life details and a self portrait

         Victor Dubreuil (ca. 1840-after 1908) remains a puzzling painter.  Although his works are well known and included in prominent private and museum collections across the United States, his life has remained mystery.  Known mainly for depictions of money (frequently painted in a trompe l’oeil fashion) Dubreuil’s imagery is dense; the lack of pertinent biographical information has hampered the understanding of his career and the accurate dating of his paintings.  Previous scholarship on the artist, namely the work of Bruce Chambers and Edward Nygren, have posited various meanings for these idiosyncratic images, but these interpretations suffered from being at once too specific (attempting to discern the artist’s intentions for certain paintings) and overly broad (often including Dubreuil into a larger cultural context that was presumed to be composed of shared values). Recent research sheds significant light on Dubreuil’s life and career and is cause for a reevaluation of the meanings suggested by Chambers and Nygreen in their work.
Detail of the painting traditionally known as Don't Make a Move showing a self portrait of Victor Dubreuil.
         In terms of Dubreuil’s career, there is perhaps no painting more important for understanding the artist and his politics than the one traditionally known as Don’t Make a Move, which features the only known depiction of the artist.  Unfortunately, the painting presently bears a later inaccurate title, and has been dated incorrectly.  A newspaper account of the painting appeared as early as October 1893 and identifies the title as A Prediction of 1900, or A Warning for Capitalists (ca. 1893, present location not determined).  The anti-Semitic depictions Edward Nygren found in the work are difficult to sustain as the account of the image identifies the female figure as Dubreuil’s “ex-washerwoman, now gathered to her fathers” and the man as an image of the artist himself.  The author found that:
[the painting] not only tells a story of its own, but is the key to the life, struggles, and aims of the man who produced it, [it] is the most important and interesting in the place…. [The] desperate looking accomplice with the pistol is the artist himself, and the entire picture is the key to the aspirations, disappointments, joys and sorrows of Victor Dubreuil, ex-financier, soldier, journalist, organizer, porter and stableman, and at present artist, author and socialist agitator.
Dubreuil’s painting does not reference a fear “of American people being robbed and victimized by Jews” but instead imagines a future in which the world’s workers will not sit idly by while the capitalist system grows wealthy at their expense (see Nygren, 149).  The international nature of the painting’s elements (the newspaper from London, the currency from the United States) suggests allegiance to International Socialist movement and concern for the struggle of all the working class, rather than an obsession with American financial policy.  To the extent this image functions autobiographically (a reading supported by his inclusion of a self-portrait), it seems to represent the struggles of a socialist artist living in a capitalist metropolis.
         Based on the age of his self-portrait in A Prediction of 1900 as well as some of the claims made in the newspaper account of his life, Dubreuil was born in France, probably around 1840. He was a soldier during the French intervention in Mexico from 1862-5 and may have stayed in the Army until the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War. Later he was involved in banking, and authored at least two texts: Nouveau Procédé d'émission présenté au Conseil municipal de Paris, le 27 avril 1876, à l'occasion de l'emprunt de 120 millions (1876) and Projet de conversion de la rente 5% en rente 3% (1879); he also began a short-lived newspaper titled La Politique d’Action. Claims regarding his African Development company—his French equivalent to the East India Company—but with profits benefitting the workers, have not been verified, though they seem in keeping with his socialist mission.  By 1886 he was living in New York City and in 1888 was granted a patent for a design of suspenders. He had hoped to make enough money to return to France, and his absence after 1908, along with the discovery of a painting of a 500 franc note by a dealer in Amsterdam, suggests he may have made it back (Chambers 68).  His perpetual depiction of money—stemming no doubt from his socialist beliefs and buttressed by his penniless predicament—function as a commentary on the gross displays of wealth attendant to the period.
         A Prediction of 1900 also serves as a reminder about the difficulties and limits of interpretation.  Chambers and Nygren, based on the evidence of the painting itself—the date of 1900 on the newspaper and the physiognomy of the figures—made assumptions that seemed warranted at the time.  Yet, these were made in the absence of specific knowledge about the artist and relied upon broad assumptions of culture and meaning which the authors attempted to assign to a specific image.  Dubreuil’s biography, however, suggests an alternate reading and demonstrates the difficulty in assessing the “truth” of a painting.  Artists make choices that sometimes confound the viewer, they include elements which might have great personal significance, but which are often lost as time passes, as paintings get new titles, and as the historic record obscures their lives and works.

Sources:
Assemblée Nationale, Commission des Marchés, Rapports vol. 3 (nd?), 408-12 which detail the decommissioning / resignation of a “Victor Dubreuil” for refusing to march as ordered.

Chambers, Bruce. Old Money: American Trompe L’oeil Images of Currency, exh. cat. New York: Berry Hill Galleries, 1988.

Dubreuil, V., “Suspenders,” Patent No. 386,973 (United States Patent office: July 31, 1888).

Nygren, Edward J.  “The Almighty Dollar: Money as a Theme in American Painting.” Winterthur Portfolio 23 (Summer – Autumn 1988): 129-50. 

“Paints Millions But Hasn’t a Cent” (New York) World, October 3, 1893.  It was soon reprinted under various titles across the nation, see for instance, “Paints Money: Victor Dubreuil, Soldier, Socialist, Artist, Journalist, and Banker,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 29, 1893.


Jonathan Clancy


This research stems from my chapter "Passing the Buck: Perception, Reality, and Authenticity in Late 19th Century American Painting" in the Book Art and Authenticity (Lund Humphries, 2012).

Friday, November 11, 2011

Delaware Trip

Each year, the class goes to Delaware and always for the same reasons.  First and foremost, it enables the students to see the collections at Winterthur, the palatial estate that Henry Francis DuPont filled with arguably the finest collection of American antiques assembled under one roof.  The collection holds (by most estimates) about 85,000 objects and the house part of the museum (there are galleries as well) is divided into 175 rooms.  There is virtually no didactic material at all in any of the rooms (except for discretely placed binders with object lists and information)--instead, one relies upon the well-trained guides to take you through the house, inform you of the history of the collection, and place the furnishings into context.  I'm always stunned to see that there aren't more people at Winterthur on any given day.  It's easily accessible from NY, NJ, PA, and the Baltimore-DC area, and with 175 rooms, one can easily take tour upon tour finding new rooms, new displays, and noticing things you have never before seen.  It is an overwhelming tour each time, and I mean this in a good way.  DuPont's collection has a depth of materials that one cannot even begin to process and fully appreciate in the time allotted.


Our first day started with lunch at the cafeteria in the visitor center.  We were joined, as we have been in year's past, by a number of fellows from the Winterthur program, most in their second year, and anticipating the upcoming semester of thesis writing that awaits them.  From there, we took the garden tram tour over to the museum.  The grounds at Winterthur are as staggering as the collection.  Situated on close to 1000 acres of land, there is no way one can begin to process the extent of the land in a single visit.  Moreover, DuPont's sensitive plantings mean that each season the grounds take on a different character, as plants bloom in succession, and create a rich and variable tapestry of texture and color.


Although we arrived at the museum, our goal was to tour the library, see some of the special collections, and familiarize the students with the rich archival material that Winterthur holds.  In addition to the letters and papers of DuPont, including color photographs demonstrating the seasonal arrangements of rooms and their color schemes, the archives holds incredible treasures.  Jeanne Solensky, Librarian at the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, did not disappoint.  Students saw a number of important primary sources, from the inventory of Duncan Phyfe, to a manuscript written (and even illustrated) by Thomas Sully, to employee payroll ledgers from Gustav Stickley's United Crafts in Syracuse.  This year's group was especially interested in the collections on hand, and so, without even meaning to, we ran a bit late.


Other highlights included a first edition of Thomas Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, a beautifully illustrated book of trades published in Germany in the 19th century, and photographs of DuPont's cows--they were prize winning cows and he seems to have taken a portrait of each one he owned. 

There are few things finer than seeing things first-hand.  Here, students are pouring over Thomas Sully's Memoirs of a Professional Life from 1851.  From the lower floor of the library, we were gathered up and headed upstairs to see the painting conservation laboratory and talk with Joyce Hill Stoner about her work, the work of students in the program, and some of the important discoveries she has made in her career.

The University of Delaware and Winterthur do an incredible job of training the next generation of conservators, of researching the most effective way to clean and protect paintings, and of making themselves accessible for educators and their students.  The projects we saw in process ranged from the cleaning and stabilization of an American late 17th to early 18th century regional portraitist, the cleaning of a French 19th century work (pictured above), and the incredible work they are doing to repair tears and structural damage in canvas.  It provides the students an opportunity also to see the differences in approach between commercial conservation and academic museum style of conservation.  


While both adhere to similar professional standards regarding the reversibility of any work they do, and an approach that fills in gaps but does not obscure the original artist's surface, the academic / museum world has a luxury of time and depth of investigation that is rarely available in a commercial setting.  Understanding both sides of the practice (or at least two discrete dimensions of it) gives students a better sense of the limits and concerns involved in painting conservation, and exposes them to a broader range of options involved in the field.

From there, we headed back to the hotel, checked in, and dressed for the opening night of the Delaware Antiques Show.  I like the Delaware show a lot, not only as a place to visit, but also because it provides an exceptional teaching opportunity for the students.  Not only do they see different models of business and get to engage the dealers and the materials directly, but they also see a different model of show--one smaller in scale than the Winter Antiques Show which they will work at in January.  It's also a lovely opening, and had I not run into so many folks who are friends of the program (Elle Shushan, Leslie Keno, Carrie Barratt, Amelia Peck, and Tom Savage to name a few).  I might actually have found the time to take pictures of the show.  I am certain that we'll find some and promise to post these right away.


Day two of our two day jaunt to Delaware began with a lecture in the museum's furniture galleries by Brock Jobe.  Brock is among the most generous of scholars: an expert in his field who goes out of his way to share his knowledge and who reminds students constantly of how much they have learned in the short time they have been with the program.  This year was no exception.  His lecture begins with a quiz, gathering a number of objects from the collection, allowing the students to examine and discuss them, but insisting that they identify form, region, maker (or thoughts on maker), and then give the rationale for this.  



Brock's sessions with our students always teach them the importance of connoisseurship, and stress the value of looking--something that too often art history programs either ignore or (because they never leave the classroom) are incapable of doing.  In addition, the whole idea of connoisseurship often gets a bad reputation, yet it is an essential skill to build and develop.  Unless you can assess the object you're studying and know about it--what's right or wrong with it / the difference between overpainting and original work, or have the ability to spot repairs and alteration--all of your studies are rooted in assumption.  I stress connoisseurship not as an end itself, but as a tool you need to possess so that whatever work you do beyond connoisseurship is rooted in fact and observation, not just belief.  
Knowing where and when a chair was made is important--not only for establishing the value of an object, but because this helps document the effects of commerce on regional styles, it allows us to better understand how craft practices moved through the colonies and nation, and helps create a network of ideas in which interchange and fluidity mark the period, rather than static regions with little or no communication.

Once the students have settled on their answers, Brock makes them present the evidence, discusses their work with them, and reminds them how far they have come in their ability to analyze and understand American material culture since they began their educations in September.  He is a wealth of knowledge, gracious, generous, and a highlight of each year's trip.  

From Brock Jobe we moved directly into the museum tour, many students seeing the depth of DuPont's collecting practices for the first time.  I have been to Winterthur half a dozen times probably, but am always surprised by how much I don't know, how many objects I have walked past that capture my attention, and how many rooms I walk into for the first time.  Although furniture and American objects are the focus of the collection, Winterthur has important holdings in paintings, prints, and pastels (a pair by Copley--his self portrait and portrait of his wife come to mind) that are displayed within the rooms.  Winterthur transcends the average house museum not just in its size (or the size of the collection), but in its depth, in the personal nature of each tour, and in establishing a context for American life that is unrivaled anywhere in the United States.  Unfortunately, you cannot photograph while on the tour, but to get a sense of what we saw, just go and visit.  It's about the best way to spend a day in Delaware. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sotheby's in the South: Charleston Day 3

With day 2 behind us, and a little more tired from the activities than expected, I decided to make day 3 a little bit less full so that there would be no issues with missing planes, or running out of energy at the very end.  On our agenda for the day were 2 historic houses: the Nathaniel Russell House for the morning, followed by some free time to explore the city, then touring the Aiken-Rhett House in the afternoon.  We were to meet curator Brandy Culp at the Russell house that morning, but some bad weather delayed her in Texas.  In her place, we had a fabulous tour of the house with Bridget O'Brien, historic Charleston's museum coordinator, who deserves a lot of credit for stepping in (at the 11th hour no less) and taking us through the house and collections.




Unlike most of the museums in the northeast, where southern furniture and decorative arts are largely ignored, the Historic Charleston collections are packed with great objects.  And unlike period rooms, where I always feel a bit like I am moving through a series of dioramas, the museum-house allows you to experience the the architectural setting of the environment as a constantly changing backdrop.  This means that you see much more than a typical period room environment can provide: the way that light changes in the rooms, the fluid relationship between interior and exterior which opens up views and vistas on the yard and town, and the acoustic properties of the space, the shift in sounds that each room and transitional space brings.  As always, one of the highlights of the tour was getting to see the storage area--this type of access gives a good sense of what the museum holds, and always features items of interest to our group.  Bridget's tour was no exception, she took us into the storage spaces, discussed the various strategies of presentation of historical materials that the foundation employs, and gave us a preview of their upcoming work.






Knowing that I had some time to spare before our next house museum, I walked through town, looking into antique stores, grabbing some coffee, and wandering up towards the Aiken Rhett house.  Along the way, however, I made two stops: the Confederate Museum in Charleston followed by the Joseph Manigault House.


The Confederate Museum was not at all what I expected.  Frankly, I didn't know what to expect, but there was no amount of preparation for what I encountered.  It is a small, densely packed space, with cases of exhibits, paintings on the wall, cannons, maps, and uniforms.  What struck me as odd (and admittedly, I am a bit of an outsider here) was the complete lack of any didactic material.  My impression was that the museum took for granted your knowledge of the civil war, assumed a familiarity with soldier's and officer's names, and thus decided to provide labels that were informational / factual (i.e., here is what you are looking at) rather than explanatory.  I was particularly struck by the lack of mention of slavery throughout the museum, with the exception of an urban slave tag on display.  Perhaps I am cynical, but I took the label to claim that slaves were sometimes allowed to work, as if somehow this was enough explanation.  What happened to the wages, the treatment of the slaves by their masters, and indeed the whole question of servitude was neatly sidestepped.


By contrast, the Joseph Manigault house was a little more clear in its intention, and more didactic in the presentation of materials to the public.  Part of this is achieved by requiring a guide for all tours, who leads you through the home's history, introduces you to the families involved, and provides information about the pieces in the collection.   Although in some sense your experience is dependent on the guide (and thus not guaranteed or necessarily repeatable), the guide I had was pleasant and knowledgable.


The museum features one of the nicer portraits by Swiss Painter Jeremiah Theus that I saw in Charleston, as well as beautiful gardens and architecture.  The collection is not quite a strong (on the whole) as the Museum's Heyward Washington House, but it does provide an additional layer of depth towards understanding the cultural, decorative, and architectural heritage of the city, and should be on anyone's list of museum to see who visits the city.


The last stop of the day for the class was the Aiken Rhett House, which provides a stunning contrast to Historic Charleston's other property (the Nathaniel Russell House) and shows the true depth of the foundation's didactic tools, as well as the range of its mission.  Unlike the Nathaniel Russell house, where all tours are guided, the Aiken Rhett House is an audio tour, and one which (I have to confess) I didn't hear.  The goal in the house was to have the students take the tour, then reconvene with curator Brandy Culp and me, to debrief.  What did they like about the tour?  What worked?  What didn't?  What did they want more of?  Less of?  In some ways, this (in addition to broadening the range of culture we cover) is the fundamental goal of this year: speaking to your audience.  While the students took the tour, I examined one of the museum's paintings, and then sat in on a conservation meeting discussing possible steps and strategies.



After the conservation meeting, but before our debriefing, I talked to the students briefly about the conservation plans, some of the issues with the painting, as well as the logistical issues of the conservation. Then, I went to the basement, awaited the students and the debriefing / question period began.  I was incredibly surprised by the depth of the students questions, the issues they raised, and the thoughtful critiques (both positive and negative) they gave of their tour.  While it would be difficult to say there was consensus on the issues, it was remarkable to me how keenly the students hit on major points, how sharp their eyes and observations were, and how much they had absorbed in the short time they had spent in the program.  One of the reasons the program has stressed connecting with audiences as a theme, is that it is a skill applicable to a wide range of careers open to students upon graduation.  Whether you decide to write, pursue a PhD, sell objects, work in museum education, work in development, or provide consultation services to collectors, the fundamental task of connecting with the audience remains the same.  Without this skill, the ability not just to repeat the facts, but to forge a connection and understand (anticipate even) the needs and desires of the audience, remains a paramount indicator of future success in the art world.  Based on what I saw in Charleston, and in Boston, and in the classroom, I have great confidence that this year's group of students will do exceptionally well.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Charleston: Sotheby's in the South Day 2

If day one was supposed to relax and acclimate the students, then day 2 was supposed to give them a total Charleston Experience.  We had a rather ambitious schedule to follow with the following events planned:

  1. City Hall Portrait Collection
  2. Drayton Hall
  3. Lunch
  4. Gibbes Museum of Art
  5. Heyward Washington House
  6. Charleston Silver Vault reception
We started early, and arrived at City Hall right about 9:00 AM.  Once we made it through the security check and metal detector (there was a wand at this one in addition to the walk through) we took the elevator up to the second floor to see the portraits.  This might be one of the hidden gems in Charleston: I have only been twice but each time there were few people.  Considering the collection boasts important portraits by John Trumbull, Charles Willson Peale, John Vanderlyn, Samuel F. B. Morse, and GPA Healy, it is a wonder this is not on more people's radar.  We were met by the tour guide, who is an eager and lively student of history.  She knows the figures in the painting well, is versed in Charleston history, and has a dramatic flair to her presentation that is often amusing.  She appears to be quite taken with Healy's portrait General Beauregard (seen in the image below), who apparently was regarded throughout Charleston as quite handsome.

 Just below the painting is a case containing Beauregard's sword--the very one seen in the image. 

The centerpiece of collection is the portrait of Washington by John Trumbull, and the story associated with its commission.  Originally, the portrait of Washington at the Battle of Trenton (presently at Yale) was delivered to the city but refused.  Why?  Well, the rumor is that Charleston wanted a picture of Washington with some connection to Charleston, and that the Battle of Trenton (as important as it was) just didn't appeal to them.  David Bjelajac, in American Art: A Cultural History states that the town thought Washington looked too severe--not approachable or welcoming enough--but the guide tells a different story.  According to this version, the positioning of the rear facing horse (its most notable attribute above the skyline and the mayor and councilmen pictured in the middle ground of the painting) was Trumbull's revenge (as the painting is sometimes referred to in Charleston).  

We made it through the galleries and then were on our way back to the hotel to catch the bus that would take us to Drayton Hall.


Drayton Hall is the finest piece of Palladian architecture built in the United States, and it is difficult to imagine the impact this would have made upon visitors arriving in the 18th century.  Situated along the Ashley River about 15 miles outside of Charleston, it was built for John Drayton from 1738-42.  We arrived a bit early, and after a quick jaunt through the gift shop met up with Carter Hudgins, the Director of Preservation and Education.  Carter's work at Drayton Hall is exceptional and the discoveries that they have made there--from fine pottery the likes of which are not seen anywhere else in the colonies, to remains of the original porticoes that flanked the house originally--will force a dramatic reevaluation about life and culture in the southern colonies.  Although the house has no furniture, he brought with him photographs of what is known from the family and let us know where it could be seen in Charleston.

  
From there, we joined up with Debbi Zimmerman, Drayton Hall's Group Tour Coordinator who took us through the house.  It's quite difficult to describe the impression the house makes upon you when you enter: it is at once majestic and tragic.  The majesty of the rooms and the intricacy and expense of the carving are overwhelming.  I suppose it is the home's emptiness, the quietness, and the realization that people do not build with this degree of elegance anymore that accounts for the tragic side of it.  In fact, the house is so beautiful unfurnished, so elegantly planned and realized, that it is difficult to imagine it furnished.  The effect must gave been overwhelming when it was occupied.


Although the rooms can be generally divided, by the amount of decoration and their location in the plan, into private and public spaces, the attention to detailing, the carvings, and the ceilings make each space individual and quite special.  

The carvings in the great room on the first floor are impressive and original to the house's construction.  The alternating floral motif used in the frieze of triglyphs and metopes creates a pleasing rhythm that carries throughout the room.


This ceiling is later plaster work and a good example of Drayton Hall's mission to preserve and stabilize the structure and its many layers of history rather than attempting to strip it back to a single interpreted point in time.  The result is a complex and woven history that allows interpreters to discuss the building as an original structure without ignoring its one history of use and even modification.    

No one seemed entirely certain what the overmantel carving was supposed to represent: a fox? a boar?  Likely taken from an English pattern book, the carving nonetheless testifies to the strong ties that rural plantations had with high style English design.

Light and sound are among the most important features of a building that virtual tours, and slides, and even books cannot convey.  One reason we make it a point to travel is because architecture, perhaps more so that any of the other arts, demands that you experience it in order to make sense of it.  Sitting in this room, the sense of balance, the proportions and the scale are not just seen, they are felt and absorbed. 

It's easy to overlook small details, or to leave a room wondering how exactly the sense of a totally designed space was conveyed to you from the moment you entered.  The carving of the volutes, the vegetal forms that spiral outward, the egg and dart molding and the central rosette--these are the types of things that, even when not remarked upon, help to define a space and aid in shaping the impression of a space from the moment you enter.  That level of detailing, whether in a carved capital or a stair riser, is essential to the building's effect.  




It was, in many respects, a perfect morning at Drayton Hall.  A bit chilly (especially for the locals) but clear skies and bright sun.  This is a view looking down towards the main entrance over a circular earth mound that was created during the dredging of ponds in the Victorian period.  These layers of history are particularly well preserved at Drayton Hall and allow for a much broader discussion of social and cultural history than in many institutions.

If there was one bad thing about Drayton Hall, it is this: we had to leave.  One could easily spend far more time there than our group did, but the day was progressing, lunch was necessary, and the Gibbes Museum of Art awaited.

The Gibbes is a lovely museum, and I say this knowing that when we visited only a part of it was open as exhibitions were changing.  Even with that in mind, their exhibition "The Charleston Story" is a beautiful and worthwhile addition to any visit to the city.  The museum has strong holdings: a beautiful portrait of Thomas Middleton by Benjamin West, some lovely works by Henry Benbridge, a delicate and charming pastel by Henrietta Derring Johnston, and a number of paintings by Charleston's Jeremiah Theus, a swiss born painter who settled in the city in the mid 18th century.  The surprise for me was the stunning portrait of Robert Gilmor, jr. by Thomas Sully after Sir Thomas Lawrence.  Even though Sully's work is a copy, he captures the sense of light, the crispness of the collar, the moisture in his subject's eye's to such a degree that it is shocking.  The figure's anatomy has more strength and structure than I usually associate with Sully's portraits of this period, and it is among the finest paintings I have seen by him.  There is a depth and clarity to the work that leaves no doubt that Sully is a masterful painter and solid technician.

From the Gibbes we made our way down to the Heyward Washington House, one of the two historic properties owned by the Charleston Museum, and as luck would have it, Grahame Long was sitting outside and eager to take us through the collection.  Built in 1772 by Daniel Heyward, the house was rented to George Washington in 1791 for a week, and has been known ever since by its dual name.  It would be unthinkable to be in Charleston and not see the house, especially since the collection includes pieces original to Drayton Hall.  


The star of the house (aside from the European pieces the Drayton's owned) is undoubtedly the Holmes-Edwards bookcase.  Much of what we know about the bookcase and its attribution to the Pfeninger Shop in Charleston is due to an article by Thomas Savage that appeared in the Chipstone Journal American Furniture.  Far from being something produced in a minor way at the periphery, the Holmes-Edwards bookcase is a testament to the skill of southern craftsmen, and also to the diverse nature of immigration in the south that helped to shape its culture.  At various points in its history, the bookcase was believed to be English which underscores the types of regional bias that permeated scholarship.  The unspoken implication, of course, was that Charleston was too rural, too southern to make a case this fine.  The evidence indicates otherwise.

We finished the day with a delightful wine and cheese reception hosted by Al and Charlotte Crabtree of the Silver Vault of Charleston.  In addition to being Charleston's premier dealers of American and Continental Silver, the Crabtrees are gracious hosts, kind with their knowledge of silver, eager to discuss business questions that students had, and allowed us to handle pieces and examine them closely.  In addition, Al is a talented silversmith and restorer, with a broad knowledge of the history of silver, the curators in the field, and the auction world too.  It was exceptionally kind of them to welcome us into their shop, and a perfect end to a long and full day.