Sunday, January 31, 2021



So, I thought I'd take a quick look at the history of fabric and clothes, then report.  

That turned out like taking a quick glance at the entire worldwide history of art.  In other words, it includes virtually everything.  First off,  everyone was naked for who knows how many tens of thousands of years or whether they had become humans yet.  Along the long, long way, discoveries were made or invented at different times in different parts of the world depending on myriad circumstances.

The more I researched, the happier I am (and you too!) that I wasn't one of our (pre) people ancestors. For instance, there's not a chance that I would have pulled fibers from the inside of tree bark and begun rolling and rolling them on my thigh.  And then! after weeks of rolling when I had enough strands, no way would I have thought to twist them around each other until I'd created string.  So, with me in charge there wouldn't have been fishing lines and nets, bows for hunting and creating fire, bags to wrap and carry bundles, straps to carry babies close to the chest and so much more that our civilization relied on.  Oh, and clothes!   

And the blue in those jeans we all - worldwide -  have multiple pairs of and wear for everything from work to fashion?  You can't imagine how much artifice and effort it took to produce that indigo dye from certain types of green plant leaves.  Once that stable pigment was figured out, it was terrific for ink or paint.  But getting it to adhere to cloth, well that was cave person rocket science.  Then there's all the, you know, factories, trading routes, money and banking and other things that needed to be invented before we could all step into our daily jeans.

The other day I was writing about Super Kids as if they are something new.  But, come to think of it, our ancestors were the original Super Kids.  They may have been 'primitive,' but boy were they smart, resourceful and creative.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

First Lady's Choice


Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821-1872), Landscape with Rainbow, 1859, 30 x 52.25", oil on canvas

I didn't catch this pastoral landscape on WSJ Live on Inauguration Day, but perhaps some of you watching on television did.  It had been selected by Jill Biden from the Smithsonian Collection to be on prominent display in the U.S. Capital during the inauguration.

The artist, Robert Seldon Duncanson, was one of very few established African-American artists active during the pre-and post-Civil War era.  'Established' meaning he was able to support himself by his art, even to travel to and receive art training in Paris.  These accomplishments are never easy for any artist; Duncanson was extremely gifted but he also worked tirelessly first as a house painter, then as an itinerant portrait painter particularly around Cincinnati and Detroit.  There was little formal art education for most Americans at the time and virutally none for African-American artists, so he taught himself to paint by copying prints and etchings of European artists and sketching from nature as he traveled seeking portrait commissions.  

He also became intrigued by travel prints, exploration journals and how Hudson River School artists whose works he encountered used nature to convey ideas about America and its ideals. With the goal of becoming a landscape artist himself, he came off the road, away from portraits and settled in Cincinnati, which had a large free slave population as well as a strong arts community.  There, in what was then called 'the Athens of the West' and filled with new inspiration, he received an important commission from Charles Avery, an abolitionist Methodist minister.  His work for Avery, combined with Avery's social reach,  cemented Duncanson's career by establishing him within a network of abolitionist patrons who purchased his art, sponsored his trips to study old masters abroad and sustained most of Duncanson's career.

Sadly, that career was shortened by dementia and early death at 51.  It is thought Duncanson's suffering, like perhaps Michaelangelo, Goya, Van Gogh among others, was caused by lead in the paints.  Even by then though he was one of the very few landscape painters of the nineteenth century and achieved levels of success unknown to his contemporaries.  By the 1860's American art critics were proclaiming  Duncanson the "greatest landscape painter in the West" while London newspapers held him in equal regard to other British artists at the time.  He is credited with developing the regional Ohio River Valley art style and to this day the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati maintains an artist-in-residence program for African-American artists in honor of Duncanson.

So, the First Lady chose very well indeed.  

Thursday, January 14, 2021

How'd You do That?


Here it is a little closer: 

It's at the highest point of the Church of Sant'Ignazio in Rome, near the Pantheon. isn't a dome at all. Ie, the ceiling up there is flat.

Backtracking a bit, I was thinking about those high church ceilings and wondering how artists got up there to decorate them. Many of us, particularly those who read Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstacy or saw the movie, know Michaelangelo worked from scaffolding to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  He actually designed a unique system of platforms attached by brackets to the Chapel's walls.  This was ingenius (of course), but he never did figure out a way to overcome the physical strain of the increasingly uncomfortable work. Definitely not by lying on his back to paint.  Contrary to the movie image of Charlton Heston, he and his assistants stood and reached above their heads to paint, for years!  Makes my muscles ache just thinking about it.

So far I haven't learned how other artists before the advent of modern technology went about painting those gorgeous vaulted and domed ceilings around the world.  But I did learn about the false dome above which was a major accomplishment in its own right and executed by another Renaissance genius, Brother Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709).

Pozzo may have been a Brother in the Jesuit order, but he appears to be the Father of the illusionistic artistic technique called trompe d'oeil.  The widely traveled virtuoso painter-priest was an expert in mathematics who wrote detailed treatises on theories of perspective. And, when he was put in charge of the interior decoration at Sant'Ignazio from 1685-94, he had a supreme opportunity to put his theories into practice.

The Catholic Church at the time was in the business of winning believers back from the new Protestant orders that had sprung up since Martin Luther.  One of their main techniques was filling their churches with dazzling, theatrical art that stirred the hearts and astonished the minds of worshippers.  So, the original plan for the new Sant'Ignazio church called for an impressive, soaring dome through which the light of the Lord would appear to stream.  

But, some time before completion, either the church ran out of money or the locals objected to a massive dome that would block their sun.  Enter Brother Pozzo who managed to make the bascilica's massive (and flat!) ceiling disappear, opening up an entirely convincing vista into the celestial world above.  What he was standing or sitting or lying on, I don't  know, but, however he did it,  Pozzo's masterpiece is one of the most impressive pieces of artistic illusion ever painted.

Brother Andrea Pozzo, S.J., Self-Portrait, 17th C.