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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”


          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.  


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.
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.
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.

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.