The Eyes

The Eyes

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Art and Controversy of Paul Cadmus

Paul Cadmus (1904-1999) is recognized as one of the first contemporary artists to chronicle gay life. Pushing the envelope with his depictions of naked and muscled male physiques, museums consistently rejected his work because of its gay themes. 

In the 1930s, Cadmus worked for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first of the federal art programs conceived as part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. He created paintings for a planned PWAP exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. One of these works, The Fleet’s In, is a provocative depiction of U.S. Navy personnel carousing with women dressed like prostitutes. It includes a subtle homoerotic image of a sailor flirting with a civilian man offering him a cigarette, while another sailor lies draped across them. The painting generated controversy, causing the Navy to remove it from the exhibition. The scandal brought the artist national attention.

At the Smithsonian's American Art Museum hangs the striking Night in Bologna, a dark comedy of sexual tensions played out on a stage of shadowy arcades. In the foreground, a soldier on leave throws off a visible heat that suffuses the air around him with a red glow. He casts an appraising look at a worldly woman nearby, who gauges the interest of a man seated at a café table. The gawky tourist is unaware of her attentions, and looks longingly at the man in uniform. Cadmus left the outcome unclear because he was more interested in the tangle of human instincts than in tidy resolutions.

In a lengthy oral history for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Cadmus said that after 50 years as a painter, he was happy with the trajectory of his career, though he had never achieved lasting fame or a consensus of critical appreciation. He quoted a line from one of his favorite painters, the French neoclassicist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. "'People say my paintings are not right for the times' or something like that," Cadmus recalled. "But then he says, 'Can I help it if the times are wrong? If I'm the only one that's right, it's all right.'"

Sources:  Smithsonian American Art Museum and Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Carnegie Library of Washington

At lunchtime today, I took an opportunity to tour Washington, D.C.'s Carnegie Library. The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. currently occupies what was the central public library for the City of Washington for nearly 70 years. It's location at Mount Vernon Square was part of Pierre L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the District of Columbia, which included more than a dozen open spaces for parks or memorials throughout the city. Mount Vernon Square sits on a plot where seven different streets converge in the northwest quadrant of Washington. The square is located where Massachusetts Avenue, New York Avenue, K Street, and 8th Street would intersect, and further bounded by 7th Street, 9th Street, and Mount Vernon Place.

In 1899, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was visiting the White House when he heard about the need for a library building in Washington. His contribution to Washington totaled $375,000, making it one of the largest of the Carnegie libraries built. In the end, Carnegie funded the building of 1,679 libraries around the United States.

The building was designed by Albert Randolph Ross of the New York architectural firm Ackerman and Ross, who had studied at the influential École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Ross designed it in the Beaux-Art style that became popular at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and its "White City." The lead architect of the World's Fair was Daniel Burnham, designer of another Washington Beaux-Art building, Union Station, completed in 1908. 

Dedicated on January 7, 1903, the ceremony was attended by President Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie. During that time, Washington was a heavily segregated town, except for the federal government. One of Carnegie's requirements for his donation included that the building could not be segregated. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson and his Administration, resegregated federal workers. With oversight of the Carnegie Library falling to the hands of the federal government, the library staff were segregated, but the citizens of Washington who used it were not. That policy remained in effect until Wilson left office in 1917.  Heavily used and short on space, the central public library was moved to the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in 1970.

The Historical Society leads 45-minute free tours of the beautiful Carnegie Library on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1:00 p.m. Visit to register and for more information.

Photos by Cary Knox

Friday, April 15, 2016

Kindred Spirits | The Poet and the Artist

Ten days after his 47th birthday, Thomas Cole—America’s first important landscape painter—died of pneumonia on February 11, 1848. At the time of his death, he was the acknowledged leader of the loosely knit group of American landscape painters that would become known as the Hudson River School.

In New York, he was honored with a memorial exhibition of his works and a service highlighted by a
eulogy delivered by William Cullen Bryant, one of Cole's closest friends and a successful American nature poet. Among the tributes Bryant offered, one was especially prescient: “I say within myself, this man will be reverenced in future years as a great master in art.” 

In appreciation of Bryant’s role in celebrating Cole’s memory and in recognition of the friendship between the poet and the painter, the New York collector Jonathan Sturges commissioned Asher B. Durand to paint a work that would depict Cole and Bryant as “kindred spirits.” Durand, several years older than Cole and a successful engraver, had been inspired by Cole in the 1830s to take up landscape painting and was soon a leading practitioner in his own right. 

Sturges’ request that the two men be shown as kindred spirits was inspired by the words of English poet John Keats, whose Sonnet to Solitude celebrates the ameliorative aspects of nature and concludes:
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and sure it must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
Durand’s Kindred Spirits was completed in 1849 and delivered as a gift to Bryant. It shows the poet and Cole standing on a ledge in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where both had been inspired to create some of their finest works. Although executed in the detailed and realistic style that Durand championed for American landscape painting, its composition brings together several sites—including the Clove of the Catskills and Kaaterskill Falls—that could not be seen from a single vantage point. As such, it was intended as an idealized tribute to American nature and to the two men whose art had extolled its special beauties.

Kindred Spirits | 1849
Asher B. Durand
Oil on Canvas | 44 in. x 36 in.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Source:  National Gallery of Art, Washington

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Poet, His Muse, and the Artist

Jeanne Duval, a Haitian-born actress and dancer of mixed French and black African ancestry, was the undeniable muse of French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire. Duval met Baudelaire in 1842, after he saw her in a cabaret show in Paris and became obsessed with her. They maintained a turbulent and passionate relationship for the next two decades. Duval is said to have been the woman whom Baudelaire loved most, in his life, after his mother. 

Baudelaire paid homage to Duval in numerous poems, naming her the "mistress of mistresses" and calling her his Vénus Noire (Black Venus). Duval invoked in him feelings of pity, despair, lust, and betrayal—the commanding themes of his masterwork of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal. That slim volume of 140 poems, which was seized and destroyed on the grounds of obscenity when first published in 1857, is now recognized as the finest poetry in the French language and the first modern poetry in any language.

In every other respect Duval was the poet’s ruination. They quarreled constantly. She continually begged for money and sold his possessions when he failed to provide. She took lovers, including many of his friends. Baudelaire suspected that sometimes she sold herself on the streets to raise money.

Artist Édouard Manet, a friend of Baudelaire, depicted Duval in his 1862 painting Baudelaire's Mistress, Reclining.  By this time, Duval was going blind and dying from syphilis.  Five years later, Baudelaire would be dead from the same affliction.

Baudelaire's Mistress, Reclining | 1862
Édouard Manet
Oil on Canvas | 35.43 in. x 44.49 in.
Szepmuveszeti Museum | Budapest, Hungary

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Picasso, Apollinaire, and the Saltimbanques

The theme of the circus and the circus performer has a long tradition in art and in literature, especially prominent in French art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A more immediate inspiration for Pablo Picasso came from performances of the Cirque Médrano, a circus that the artist attended frequently near his residence and studio in Montmartre.

Circus performers were regarded as social outsiders. They provided a telling symbol for the alienation of the avant-garde artists and poets of their time. Picasso's Family of Saltimbanques (1905) is perhaps an autobiographical statement, a group portrait of him and his circle. The red clown figure is said to be modeled after his friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire similarly wrote a poem titled, Saltimbanque in 1913, an English translation is below.

In a funny twist to their friendship, Apollinaire, who had once called for the Louvre to be burnt down, came under suspicion, was arrested, and imprisoned for the 1911 theft of the famous Mona Lisa. Apollinaire implicated his friend Picasso, who was then brought in for questioning. The event created somewhat of a media circus, but both men were later exonerated.

(The "Traveling Entertainers" or "Acrobats")

The strollers in the plain
walk the length of gardens
before the doors of grey inns
through villages without churches

And the children gone before
The others follow dreaming
Each fruit tree resigns itself
When they signal from afar

They have burdens round or square
drums and golden tambourines
Apes and bears wise animals
gather coins as they progress

Family of Saltimbanques | 1905
Pablo Picasso
Oil on Canvas | 83 3/4 in. x 90 3/8 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington