The Eyes

The Eyes

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

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Lana Turner Has Collapsed! By Frank O'Hara

Lana Turner Has Collapsed! is one of Frank O’Hara’s funniest and best-loved poems. With its campy treatment of a tabloid headline in February 1962 about a glamorous celebrity facing adversity, it’s often cited as an example of O’Hara’s embrace of pop culture and his affection for the cinema and its stars. O'Hara would use his lunch hour to compose poetry, often dropping into the Olivetti typewriter showroom to tap them out.  This is one of my favorites.

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

From Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara
© 1964
City Lights Books

There is a wonderful audio recording of O'Hara reading this poem in late 1964 on the website linked here. While O'Hara's poetry is generally autobiographical, they read more like a diary, and tend to be based on his observations of New York life rather than exploring his past. In his introduction to The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, Donald Allen says "that Frank O’Hara tended to think of his poems as a record of his life is apparent in much of his work.”

In the early morning hours of July 24, 1966, O'Hara was struck by a jeep on a Fire Island beach, after the beach taxi in which he had been riding with a group of friends broke down in the dark. He died the next day of a ruptured liver. O'Hara was only 40 years old.

Portrait and Poem Painting | 1961
Larry Rivers and Frank O'Hara
Oil on Canvas | 36 in. x 36 in.