Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 16,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other works on paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection: exhibitions, class visits, monthly Student Picks exhibitions, as well as research on and personal encounters with individual artworks. Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Guest blogger Jennifer Guerin is a Smith College student, class of 2014, majoring in American Studies and History with focuses in Public History and Social Movements. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
William Henry Brown, American (1808-1883). Thomas Cooper, from Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, 1844. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, smooth, cream-colored paper. Gift of Mrs. Chester Dale. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:106-4
I've been fascinated with silhouette portraiture for a large portion of my life. As a kid, I went to Disneyland with my family fairly regularly, and one of the Main Street shops had an artist that made cut-out silhouettes. Somewhere in the depths of my closet I have several silhouettes done of me, or of me and a friend. Younger me was interested in the speed with which the silhouettes were made, and now as a student of art and culture, I'm particularly interested in how that short time frame of creation interacts with our subconscious ideas about what art is, as I personally find that many people automatically see art as a time consuming process by necessity.
William Henry Brown, American (1808-1883). Martin Van Buren, from Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, 1844. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, smooth, cream-colored paper. Gift of Mrs. Chester Dale. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:106-9
Silhouette portraiture is an artistic style which involves representing the profile or shadow of an object as a solid shape, without any internal detail; it became popular in the 1800s, though there are certainly examples prior to that period. Though the style was sometimes used in painting, silhouettes were most often cut out from black paper or heavier black card. Because a skilled silhouette artist could produce a number of portraits fairly quickly, it seems to have been a reasonably reliable form for artists looking to make a living in a more commercial way. Additionally, because artists could do a lot of sittings and make a lot of portraits in short periods of time, they did not necessarily need to charge particularly high prices, which also allowed a larger sector of society to have access to this type of art.
William Henry Brown, American (1808-1883). John Tyler, from Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, 1844. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, smooth, cream-colored paper. Gift of Mrs. Chester Dale. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:106-5
The Cunningham Center owns a particularly interesting set of silhouettes, done by an artist named William Henry Brown. Brown was a popular silhouette maker in the 1800s, and was thus able to get a number of famous Americans to sit for him. In 1845, he created the Portrait Gallery of Distinguished American Citizens, which featured prints of 26 of his silhouettes, which were attached to lithographed backgrounds before a print of the entire image was produced for the book. The prints were accompanied by short biographies of these people and a printed copy of some sort of correspondence to provide an example of their handwriting.
William Henry Brown, American (1808-1883). Henry Alexander Wise, from Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, 1844. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, smooth, cream-colored paper. Gift of Mrs. Chester Dale. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:106-12
Some of these figures are still well known today, such as former Presidents Van Buren, Tyler, Quincy Adams, and Jackson, while others have faded somewhat in the historical memory, such as Samuel Southard (a U.S. Senator, Secretary of the Navy, and the tenth Governor of New Jersey) or Henry Wise (a United States Congressman and governor of Virginia, who would go on to be a general in the Confederate States Army). While many silhouette portraits traditionally depict the profile of the figure from the shoulders up, Brown’s silhouettes are full body, which is an interesting choice for depicting these highly respected people, as full body images can be decidedly less flattering (take, for instance, Dixon Hall Lewis, who is partially known for having weighed somewhere in the area of 500 lbs., and is clearly shown as such in Brown’s portrait).
William Henry Brown, American (1808-1883). Dixon Hall Lewis, from Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, 1844. Lithograph printed in black on medium thick, smooth, cream-colored paper. Gift of Mrs. Chester Dale. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1963:106-15
The choice to do full body silhouettes is, however, potentially helpful for distinguishing the different figures from each other, since silhouettes are necessarily missing so many other details that could clearly identify their subjects.
The history behind the specific prints owned by the museum is somewhat unclear. The confusion stems from the fact that Portrait Gallery of Distinguished American Citizens was reprinted in the 1930s, and the reprint does not appear discernibly different from the original printing. Neilson Library owns a copy of the 1930s printing which is missing all its plates, so I thought, briefly, that perhaps the museum has the prints from the book in the library. However, the museum file on the prints includes donor information, so we know that the prints were donated specifically to the museum whereas the book in the library was purchased with money from a fund named for President Seeyle, which leaves us with more questions and no answers. If necessary, we might be able to pin down the date of these prints by analyzing the age of the paper they are printed on. For now, however, they remain a mystery.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
A recent New York Times article described the latest trend in diets. It was called “The Mirror Fast.” This diet was not prescribing the usual avoidance of certain foods or some exercise regime, but instead suggested a diet of one’s own mirror reflection. While the author of this new diet, who did not look at her own reflection for a year, recommended it mostly to women who might suffer from societally induced body image distortion, we might propose something along these lines as a more general solution for our society which has come to exhibit over the past couple decades an arguably unprecedented degree of self-obsessive disorders. Just the same, narcissism is not a new thing. Just read from Shakespeare or the classics and you come across many a picture perfect narcissist.
Pop artist Andy Warhol predicted in 1968 that a time would come when everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Fast forward to 2013 and we find ourselves living in a culture where we advertise the most intimate details of our lives through tweets and Facebook while recording our selfies with our iPhone cameras―a brave new generation, hunched over, umbilically connected to our devices waiting for our “friends” to virtually “like” us.
Of course much has already been written on the rise of what seems to be an increasingly self-absorbed and exhibitionistic society that promotes and publicizes the “I” perhaps at the expense of the “We.”
Lauren Greenfield, American (1966-). Showgirl Anne-Margaret in her dressing room at the Stardust Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada. She tapes a note that says, "I approve of myself" and pictures of models she admires to her mirror for inspiration, 1998. Dye destruction print. Gift of Susan and Peter MacGill. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2011:72-25.
The emergence of these books and articles about the rise of narcissism could however also be a sign of a rising awareness urging for some societal recalibration. Historically humanity has reached similar realizations and often societal limits were created to reign in these excesses. In ancient Greece societal myths like the famous story of the youth Narcissus, who pined away after falling in love with his own reflection, warned of the detrimental consequences of such vices as self-love, vanity, and pride. In the early Middle Ages, basic moral edicts were cast as the cardinal (or Seven) deadly sins. While the early Christian theologians did not always agree on the number or order of mortal sins, Pride and (or Vainglory) was ultimately regarded as the worst: the origin of all evil, the one that started it all…
Government and church implemented sumptuary laws that have functioned over the ages as a sort of “fashion police,” restricting the type and number of luxury goods a person could buy or wear. Such laws were instituted by the Greeks, and after them the Romans, continuing on in various forms not only throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but even into to puritanical New England, where flashy lace collars were just not done.
Abraham Bosse (French, 1602-1676). Le Courtisan suivant le dernier édit, ca. 1633 (print not part of the Smith College Museum of Art collection).
[above] Louis XIII (quite the dandy himself) imposed on the 6th of February 1620, laws that ordered the population to wear simpler clothes with less ornament. The courtier in this print is taking of his elaborate clothing and replaces it with simpler garb.
We feature a newly acquired series of wonderful moralizing prints in our collection that addresses this concern with the subject aptly titled: The cycle of the Vicissitudes of human life. These prints were rendered as a warning to the good and wealthy Flemish folk of the 16th century, demonstrating in strong symbolic visual language that one phase of the human condition could lead to the next. It all starts with Lady Prosperity whose actions lead to Pride, who births the child Envy with its snakes for hair, which in turn will lead to War, who will give birth to Poverty dressed in rags, which will lead to Humility, out of which will come Peace and finally go back to Prosperity which will deliver etc…..
Karel van Mallery, Flemish (1571 - 1635); after Maarten de Vos, Flemish (1532 - 1603). Wealth Brings Forth Pride from The Cycle of the Vicissitudes of Human Life, 1581-1635. Engraving printed in black on paper. Purchased with the gift of Catherine Blanton Freedberg, class of 1964, in honor of Suzannah Fabing, Director of the Smith College Museum of Art, 1991-2005. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2013:40-2.
Detail of baby Pride from Wealth Brings Forth Pride, looking in her mirror
The prints were based on another series of prints by the well-known Haarlem artist Maarten van Heemskerck who drew his inspiration from a religious procession celebrating the Feast of the Circumcision in Antwerp in 1561.
Maarten van Heemskerk (Dutch, 1498-1574). The Cycle of Human Vicissitudes, 1561. Depicted is Pride holding her mirror. (not part of Smith College Museum of Art collection).
While it may be hard to imagine such a colorful parade with its elaborate didactic scenes processing through the streets of present day Antwerp, it does say something about the popular awareness of such complex concerns.
During the Middle Ages the creation of art in the West had been more a communal undertaking. Artists were for the most part born into the profession. Art in those days was funded by the church or the nobility. Individualized and secular art was rare and these medieval artists were, as a rule, not appreciated for the originality of their work, but rather for its excellence in craftsmanship and technical skill. This all changed in the late Renaissance with the resurgence of individualism and humanism and the concomitant changes in the status of the artist. This was a time when self-portraits and aggrandizing portraits of the “average” person became quite popular. Artists also started to sign their name to their work and some even “hid” images of themselves in their own compositions.
Hendrik Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617). Circumcision, 1594. Engraving (detail). (print not part of the Smith College Museum of Art collection).
However in Northern Europe no self-respecting portrait was complete without some reminder of things to come. This often came in the form of a skull or an hourglass or putti blowing bubbles or a flower losing a petal or two; all symbols of the fragility of life and the vulnerability of times of prosperity. These visual reminders of death were placed as evidence of the sitter’s modesty and morality.
Jacob Matham, Dutch (Matham 1571 - 1631); after Paul Morelsen. Portrait of the artist Abraham Bloemaert, 1610. Engraving on paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Rose (Clarice Goldstein, class of 1927). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1973:9-6
Detail from Portrait of the artist Abraham Bloemaert
Hendrik Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617). Quis Evadet?, ca. 1594. (not part of the Smith College Museum of Art collection)
While it’s clear that narcissism is not a new phenomenon, what does seem to be new is the status it has gained in our western society; narcissism has become our new religion. We now carry our narcissism with pride. While we imagine ourselves a society of individuals, social media suggests a miscarried longing for a lost communal spirit. We clearly still need acknowledgement from others, yet we find ourselves stuck staring at our own reflection in the mirror.
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Spanish (1746 - 1828). Haste la muerte. (Till Death), Plate 55 from Los Caprichos, 1799. Etching and aquatint printed in black on laid paper. Purchased with the gift of Albert H. Gordon. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1964:34-55
I guess what history and art teaches us is that we all could use a symbolic hourglass or two on our bedside table or an occasional mirror fast. It won’t change our longing for feeling special but might make for a better and maybe healthier worldview.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Student Picks is a SCMA program in which Smith students organize their own one-day art show using our collection of works on paper. This month’s student curator and guest blogger Meredith Shanoski '16 discusses her show “Interior, Exterior: Parisian Harmony vs. Discord” which will be on view THIS FRIDAY, December 6 from 12-4 PM in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. We hope to see you here!
René Magritte, Belgian (1898 - 1967). L’étoile de pierre, from Le Fidélité des Images, negative 1935; print 1976. Gelatin silver print. Purchased. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1977:13-8.
"Interior, Exterior: Parisian harmony versus discord, 1876-2009" explores tensions in the portrayal of French culture. Those tensions probe the spectrum between 19th century and current art, between photography and drawing, between the intimacy of interior scenes and the urban scape, between color and black and white.
Edouard Vuillard, French (1868 - 1940). Printed by Auguste Clot. Intérieur aux teintures roses II, 1899. Lithograph printed in pink, red, maroon, yellow, green, gray-green and blue on paper. Gift of Selma Erving, class of 1927. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1978:1-58a.
Edouard Boubat, French (1923 - ). Places des Vosges, Paris, 1979. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Lynn Hecht Schafran, class of 1962. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2000:38-6.
The images play off each other to establish these tensions, yet to build a unified body of images. In selecting the pieces, I looked to artists within the Smith collection that I was more familiar with like Vuillard, Bonnard, and Magritte, but also discovered others like Moyra Davey and Nan Goldin whose works bring a new perspective to the more classical artists included in the exhibition. This integration establishes the sense of past and present which I find poignant within French culture.
Moyra Davey, Canadian (1958 - ). Untitled from 16 Photographs from Paris, 2009. Folded digital c-print with paper and cellophane tape, postage, and ink. Purchased with the Dorothy C. Miller, class of 1925, Fund. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2010:19-12