The Eyes

The Eyes

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Shark Attack at The National Gallery of Art, Washington

Watson and the Shark (1778)
John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas | 71 11/16 in. x 90 7/16 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington

As we fight the sweltering heat of summer and dream of cooling off in the refreshing waters of the ocean, I can't help but hear the dramatic music from the movie, "Jaws." Before each shark attack, that ominous sound begins to stir, knowing something evil is about to happen. When visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington, you should seek out the painting, "Watson and the Shark." At nearly 6 feet high and 8 feet long, this giant depiction of a real-life event will make you squirm.

In 1749, 14-year-old Brook Watson, an orphan, had unwisely decided to take a dip from a skiff while the ship on which he was crewing docked in Havana Harbor. A shark attacked him, biting his right leg and pulling him under. The boy surfaced briefly before the shark dragged him under a second time, severing his right foot. By the time Watson surfaced again, his mates had nearly reached him. The painting depicts the boy’s climactic rescue: just as the shark zeroed in for its third strike, a determined crewmate armed with a boat hook drove it away. John Singleton Copley’s dramatic rendering of the shark attacking Watson caused a sensation when it was exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1778.

Copley, an American artist who moved to London amid the tensions of the Revolutionary War, here takes the pictorial representation of terror to new heights. The injured Watson’s deathly pale body rises from the depths, naked and vulnerable, with blood swirling around his leg. As the huge shark’s gaping jaws close in, Watson looks back in shock and grasps futilely for the lifeline cast by a West African crewman, whose prominent position in the picture and sympathetic rendering were extraordinary for the time. Two shipmates stretch desperately to reach the boy flailing in the turbulent waters.

Watson went on to have a successful business and political career and very likely commissioned the painting. He eventually bequeathed the painting of his adolescent triumph over adversity to a London school for disadvantaged youth, believing it would offer moral inspiration.

Source:  National Gallery of Art, Washington

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Mary Cassatt | A Woman Among the Impressionists

Mary Cassatt was born into an affluent family in Pennsylvania on May 22, 1844. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, one of the country's leading art schools. In addition to having regular exhibitions of European and American art, the faculty at the Academy encouraged students to study abroad. In 1865 Cassatt approached her parents with the idea of studying in Paris. Despite their initial objections, Cassatt's parents relented and allowed her to go.

In Paris, Cassatt attended classes in the studios of the academic artists Jean Léon Gérôme and Thomas Couture. She also traveled extensively in Europe studying and copying old master paintings. In 1874 she settled permanently in Paris, where her work was regularly shown at the Salon, the annual government-sponsored exhibition. The following year she saw the pastel work of Edgar Degas, one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement, in a gallery window. Years later, Cassatt described the importance of this experience, "I used to go and flatten my nose against the window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it." Degas and Cassatt were close friends until his death in 1917.

Cassatt was one of a relatively small number of American women to become professional artists in the nineteenth century when most women, particularly wealthy ones, did not pursue a career. Her decision to study abroad reflects the strong character she displayed throughout her career. When Cassatt settled in Paris, an artistic revolution was already underway in France. Changes were occurring in the way that artists showed their work to the public, and in the freedom artists had to choose their own subjects and styles. Cassatt's career developed against the backdrop of these changes.

Mary Cassatt Self-Portrait (1880)
Gouache and watercolor over graphite on paper | 12 7/8 in. x 9 11/16 in.
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC
The Loge (c. 1878-1880)
Oil on canvas | 31 7/16 in. x 25 1/8 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878)
Oil on canvas | 35 1/4 in. x 51 1/8 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Sources:  National Gallery of Art, Washington, Washington, DC
              Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Walter Ellison's Train Station

Train Station | 1935
Walter Ellison
Oil on Cardboard | 8 in. x 14 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Walter Ellison’s Train Station depicts white and black travelers departing from a central terminal, bound for different cities. The composition reflects the social values of the time, which prevented members of the two races from mixing. On the left, white passengers board trains for vacations in the South, while on the right, African American passengers head for trains going to northern cities such as Chicago and Detroit. In those cities, black travelers hoped to find better jobs and living conditions.

The sign reading "colored" above the platform doorway on the right emphasizes the degrading conditions that African Americans in the South faced at the time. In the center section, black porters aid white passengers, yet black travelers are not offered any help.

Ellison himself boarded a train heading north from Macon, Georgia, joining the more than six million blacks who left their rural southern homes after World War I and during the Great Migration. Ellison traveled to Chicago, the nation’s industrial center, where migrants could find potential jobs in meatpacking and at rail and steel mills. Although discrimination was inescapable, the city offered acceptable schools, voting rights, and leisure activities. Once in Chicago, Ellison studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During the 1940s, he was active in the South Side Community Art Center, which was sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Federal Art Project.

Source:  The Art Institute of Chicago

Friday, July 27, 2018

Dutch Marine Paintings at National Gallery of Art

The Dutch rose to greatness from the riches of the sea.  During the seventeenth century they became leaders in marine travel, transport, commerce, and security as their massive cargo carriers and warships traversed oceans and their small vessels and fishing boats navigated inland and coastal waterways.  Water was central to their economic and naval successes, but was also a source of pleasure and enjoyment.  In the warm summer months, dune-covered beaches offered scenic vistas, while in the winter, frozen canals provided a place for people of all ages to skate, play, and enjoy the outdoors.

In a nation of sailors and skaters, it is no wonder that marine subjects became a favorite of seventeenth-century collectors and artists alike.  Some painters delighted in capturing the marine environs in and around the Dutch coast.  Others turned their attention to the activity of frozen canals on a wintry day.  Many artists also depicted the open seas, including some who often sailed the seas themselves, rendered every imaginable vessel, from fishing boats and major transport ships to the great warships of the Dutch naval fleet, each formulating his compositions with extraordinary accuracy and attention to detail.  At the same time, they also introduced atmospheric light effects and various weather conditions to bring life and drama to their scenes.

From quiet harbor scenes and frozen canals to fierce naval battles and wicked weather, water had an extraordinary impact on art of the Dutch Golden Age.

Skating on the Frozen Amstel River (1611) 
Adam van Breen 
Oil on Panel | 17 7/16 in. × 26 3/16 in. 
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast (1667) 
Ludolf Backhuysen 
Oil on Canvas | 45 in. x 65 7/8 in. 
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Burghers of Amsterdam Avenue by Elaine de Kooning

For a major show of her portraits at Graham Gallery in April 1963, Elaine de Kooning created this enormous group portrait, seven feet high and fourteen feet long, painted with thin washes and bold strokes of bright color. It depicts nine young men, sitting and standing in a variety of poses, each with a distinct expression—quizzical, contemplative, resigned. 

The painting references both Rodin’s bronze sculpture The Burghers of Calais (1884–89) (seen below) and seventeenth-century Dutch group portraits, such as Rembrandt's The Night Watch (1642) (also seen below). The title is a witty reference to the Netherlands and to Amsterdam Avenue in New York City. 

Elaine found the subjects through her friend Sherman Drexler, who was teaching art at an experimental treatment center connected with Riverside Hospital for youths with drug addiction and psychological problems. Two of the men who appear in the portrait, suffering from addiction, had worked for Elaine as assistants in her studio. She told a friend that she had terrible fights with one of them because he stole jewelry from her. Ultimately, he died a horrible junkie's death in a flophouse a few years later.

When Elaine finished her painting, she started packing it up to take home, but the school principal, concerned about the privacy of the underage subjects, refused to let her take it. In a cunning move, she covered the students’ faces in the painting with acrylic to appease the principal, and when she got home, she simply wiped it off.

Rodin's The Burghers of Calais (1884–89)
Rembrandt's The Night Watch (1642)

Sources: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC and "A Generous Vision: The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning" by Cathy Curtis