Spidey’s (Art History) Sense

It was the fourth and last exam of the semester, so I was surprised to find a new (yet strangely familiar!) name on an answer sheet.

Mr Parker ignored the first half of the test (multiple choice questions) but felt strangely attracted to section three, the unknowns. For he, too, has a secret identity! But rather than guess who had made the images, he opted to draw them. Quite sensitively, I might add.

To unmask these super artists yourself, click here and here.

For the final section of the exam, the comparison essay, Mr. Parker called in a more physically imposing friend to help him out. “Spidey take test? Hulk take test, too!”

Alas, FERPA regulations forbid me from disclosing whether the exam passed or failed. But I can say that this professor is regularly amused by his classroom comics.

Eyes on the iPad

I’ve just returned from a short trip to Alabama, where I managed to pop into the Birmingham Museum of Art to see The Look of Love, a fascinating exhibition of over a hundred miniatures from the Skier collection. Each work features an eye, usually painted on ivory or vellum, and mounted in an elaborate, bejeweled setting.

 

 

To us, the works might look like proto-surrealism, but it’s likely that Magritte knew precisely which source he was drawing upon when he painted his own images of eyes.

 

Magritte: The Eye, 1932 and 1935, oil on canvas

 

The works in the Skier collection were , on the whole, made by British and French artists during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. They are often tiny–almost all are significantly smaller than life-sized. Thumbnail size, often. Reproductions invariably make them look much larger than they really are. Believe me: they’re smaller than you think.

How–the curators must have asked themselves while planning the exhibition–can we exhibit these lilliputian works effectively?

For security reasons, they obviously had to be kept behind glass (or perspex), and placed in cabinets and vitrines. This would necessarily keep them at a slight remove, even though they were made to be worn on the body or kept close to it. The miniatures were often part of a ring, or a locket, or a brooch, or (a bit weirdly) a case for tooth or ear picks! The intricacy and size of the works encourages intimacy and extremely close looking. Enhanced sight would, in the exhibition, have to compensate for this lack of touch.

 

 

The museum’s solution was to supply neither magnifying glasses nor enlarged photographs, but to make iPads freely available to visitors. Once in the exhibition space, you simply entered the catalogue number of a miniature into an app, and were then free to enlarge the image to many times its natural size, to the size of the screen. An “information” button supplied you with factual details and interpretative comments about the piece; a “flip” option revealed further images of the back of the work; and, where appropriate, you could access video clips of a curator opening and closing the object.

 

The Look of Love app, as seen on a museum iPad

 

Normally digital versions of art are put in opposition to the “thing itself,” as though we have to choose between the two. But here, in the gallery space, I was being encouraged to oscillate between the one and the other, between the tiny object and the appealing, touchable screen. It was a complicated, enriching experience and made me want to linger longer in the exhibition.

 

 

The need to feed and entertain the kids stopped me from doing so, but the show had already given me a lot to digest. I’ll certainly try to get hold of the exhibition catalogue, which includes a number of essays about these fascinating and varied objects. If, however, you happen to own an ipad (and I gather many people will be getting new ipads today) you can download the app for free, although the catalogue essays are not included. Just click here.

 

 

The museum and the collectors should be commended for their generosity and for their desire to make an excellent digital version of the exhibition available to the public. I’ll watch with interest to see whether other art institutions follow their example.

 

Art History Bacon

From Vampires to Vincent Van Gogh, eternal life to still-life. People and/or cultural objects form the connections.

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

The vampire (1) enjoys eternal life and eternal popularity—thanks most recently to the Twilight series of novels and films (2). Robert Pattinson, one of the stars of the films, now appears in Bel Ami (3), an adaptation of the 1885 novel by Guy de Maupassant (4). Vincent van Gogh (5), an enthusiastic reader of Maupassant, included Bel Ami in his Still-Life with Plaster Statuette (1887), which was painted a decade before Bram Stoke published Dracula (1).

Credits:
1. “Castle Dracula,” illustration from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)
2. Twilight publicity poster (1998)
3. Bel Ami publicity poster (2012)
4. Photograph of Guy de Maupassant (Undated, New York Public Libraries)
5. Self-Portrait, Vincent Van Gogh (1889, Musée d’Orsay)
6. Still-Life with Plaster Statuette, Rose, and Two Novels, Van Gogh (1887, Kröller-Müller Museum)

 

 

 

A Quick Trip to the Coast

It’s not even Christmas and I’ve already made my first (and perhaps only) New Year’s resolution: I hereby resolve to spend more time exploring the Gulf Coast.

It’s taken me a while to affirm something that should have always been entirely obvious. Over the years, I’ve been to the Gulf coasts of Alabama, Florida and Texas. But I’d never before visited the Mississippi coastline, despite having lived in the state since 2003. (In case you’re wondering, yes, I’m embarrassed.) This changed on Tuesday, when I went down to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, accompanied and chauffeured by Brent Funderburk, my friend and colleague.

Brent’s an amazing artist, a dedicated teacher, and a passionate advocate of the artist and Ocean Springs resident, Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965). He is also a long-term friend of Anderson’s four children, who all still live in the Ocean Springs area and continue to run Shearwater Pottery, the family business. Walter Anderson divided his time between working for the business and pursuing his own art. As is well known, this often involved venturing south to the barrier islands, which are now part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Here are some of the photos I took during two days spent in Ocean Springs. Click on any photo to enlarge it and to access the entire slideshow.

Ocean Springs Community Center
We started off by visiting the Ocean Springs Community Center, which connects to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art.

 

Ocean Springs Community Center (left); Walter Anderson Museum of Art (right)

 

There’s lots to see in the museum, but I only broke out my camera once we’d entered the community center. The buildings communicate for a good reason: in the early 1950s, Anderson painted a large mural in the community center’s main space.

 

Community Center (looking towards main doors)

 

The murals cover the four walls of the space but, as you can seen, still have to compete with the day-to-day activities of a vibrant community center. It’s difficult to give a sense of the larger scheme of the murals in photographs, and so I concentrated on taking pictures of the work’s many charming details. Bringing the outside inside, Anderson demonstrated his love of the area’s wildlife.

 

Community Center Mural, bird motif

 

Community Center Mural, fox and turtles

 

Community Center Mural, owl and flying squirrel

 

Community Center Mural, cat

 

Community Center Mural, Biloxi Indian and turtle

 

Community Center Mural, French settlers and self-portrait

 

Among this abundance of flora and fauna, there is also humanity and history. On one side of the room, Biloxi Indians and Europeans face, or confront, each other. Notionally, the scene is set in 1699, when the French arrived in the area, but this doesn’t stop Anderson from including his own likeness among the Europeans. The figure at the bottom right of the above photograph has the artist’s distinctive long nose and sports his trademark hat.

 

Shearwater Birds--in the community center mural & on the sign for the Shearwater Pottery Showroom

 

Shearwater
The next morning, we met up with John Anderson, the youngest of Walter’s four children, and he generously treated us to a tour of the Shearwater compound, which consists of studio spaces and houses belonging to the family. Only six years ago, Hurricane Katrina turned the compound upside down but, to the naive eye, that’s not at all evident today. After looking around the showroom, we ducked into the ceramics workshop to see where Shearwater products are made.

 

Master Potter, Jim Anderson at work

 

Jim Anderson's Hands

 

Shearwater Pottery Workshop, with photo of Peter Anderson

 

There’s an amazing sense of time and tradition at Shearwater. Founded in 1928, the operation has had just two master potters over eight decades: Peter Anderson (Walter’s older brother) and Jim Anderson, Peter’s youngest son. When you watch Jim at work you are impressed firstly by his incredible skill and then by a profound sense of historical continuity. At the back of the studio, just behind where he was working at the wheel and beside some recently thrown vessels, I noticed a framed photo of Jim’s father, standing among his own objects.

Walter Anderson’s Cottage

 

Walter Anderson Cottage, rear

 

We also explored Walter Anderson’s cottage, a small mid nineteenth-century building with only a few rooms, but generous and pleasing proportions. Katrina swept it off its foundations in 2005, but now it’s been beautifully restored.

 

Walter Anderson Cottage, main living space

 

Walter Anderson Cottage, fireplace in main living space

 

Walter Anderson’s presence and touch is still palpable in his cottage. He made the sliding doors, the built-in cupboards, and the benches; and he built the solid and appealing fireplace with its decorative hummingbird motif, which rises phoenix-like above the fire. The most famous murals in the cottage have been moved to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, but some painted walls remain in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

Walter Anderson Cottage, shelves, objects, mural

 

Walter Anderson Cottage, shelves and objects

 

Walter Anderson Cottage, shelves and objects

 

Walter Anderson Cottage, shelves, objects, and a photo of Sissy, Anderson's wife

Although tasteful order has now replaced the clutter that Anderson lived in during his later years, I assume that many of the objects remain the same. They speak of a life devoted to the coast, to the study nature, and to art. They speak of the kind of life that made the community center murals possible.

Next time I return to the Mississippi coast, I’ll walk the beaches and find some objects to bring home and put on a shelf of my own. It’ll happen sometime during 2012, I trust.

(Re)designing Film Posters

This semester I’ve been teaching a class called “Art & Film.” For their final projects, I allowed students to make an art work, or art works, in response to the course material. Each time I teach the class, a number of students–usually graphic design students–decide to design (or redesign) film posters. This semester’s class yielded a particularly rich crop, so I thought I’d share some of them here. I also require students to write an artist statement explaining their work, and I’ve prefaced each student’s work with a relevant excerpt from their statement. Please click on the images to take a closer look.

Classics
I usually show my students at least one full Hitchcock film (this time, it was Rear Window), and clips from several others. Student projects often have a Hitchcockian theme.

Kirby Davis: “In Film Studies, Ed Sikov states that before the auterists, Hitchcock’s films were not recognized for their value beyond superficial entertainment. The auterists realized that he was not only brilliant as a film artist, but also praiseworthy for his communication of his worldview and questions of morality in his films…. Since the films of Alfred Hitchcock are a powerful visual communication of his own ideas, I decided to condense the entire narrative of the films into a single moment: the cameo appearances of Hitchcock within the film. This represents the director as artist and demonstrates how essential his ideas are to the creation of the final product…. In The Birds, Hitchcock appears walking two white terriers. He walks by the window wearing a cowboy hat in Psycho, and is seen at the train station with a fiddle in Strangers on a Train.”

Kirby Davis

 

Kirby Davis

 

Kirby Davis

 

Clara Thames: “As I rewatched The Birds before making the poster, the scene where the birds gathered on the jungle gym outside the school house stuck out in my mind. I decided to rely on mark making to recreate the feeling of that scene. It was not a funny or romantic scene, instead it was eery. Therefore I did not want to draw a pretty picture with nice light weights and happy colors. Instead I chose to scribble scratchy lined birds on a skewed jungle gym. I decided my type needed to be scratchy too. The image could not reflect the scene without scratchy type to go with it.”

Clara Thames

 

Mark Whitmire: “Can one single frame become an icon, synonymous with an entire film? With Steve McQueen on a motorcycle, sailing over a barbed wire fence, I would say so…. Even though McQueen’s character eventually wrecks the motorcycle and is recaptured, the leap over the fence became the hallmark of the film. It is instantly recognizable. For my project, I wanted to take this singular image and simplify it to help capture the essence of the film. The determination of McQueen’s character to do anything to escape and reach freedom is what helps to make the image so compelling.”

Mark Whitmire

 

The ‘Eighties and After
Other students chose more recent films for their points of departure.

Claire Ferguson: “For my last project I chose to do a series of movie posters inspired by John Hughes movies, and incorporate minimalist design as well as inspiration from Saul Bass’s work. In Saul Bass’s designs his single image is always portrayed in a sophisticated way and delivers a powerful message in just a small amount of simple shapes. I chose to do a single image that represented the movie(s) that I had chosen. I tried to choose an iconic image that epitomized the movie. So, for Sixteen Candles I chose to do a birthday cake with, of course, sixteen candles in it. Although this scene is at the end of the movie it is one of the most iconic of the whole film. For Ferris Bueller’s Day Off I chose to do a simple image of the red Ferrari that is featured in the movie. I added tire tracks because in the movie Ferris likes to drive the car fast. Last but not least is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. There are many memorable scenes from this movie, but the one that stuck out to me the most was the squirrel inside the Christmas tree.”

Claire Ferguson

 

Claire Ferguson

 

Claire Ferguson

 

Alexa Werling: “I selected a movie I had not watched (Trainspotting), analyzed the artwork posted on Netflix, watched the movie, and created a new, more fitting poster. Judging only by the cover art provided on Netflix, Trainspotting is a candid film about five friends or acquaintances…. Upon actually watching the film, I found a number of discrepancies between the movie and the assumptions I had made from the artwork. My suspected main character (Sick Boy) was not the protagonist at all; Mark Renton, the leftmost figure, was the real central character. The ‘intelligent’ looking Spud was, in fact, enduringly dimwitted. Diane, the sole female, is a precocious teenager who, while not promiscuous, certainly pushes boundaries. Begbie, on the far left, was the only character I nailed, save for the hypothesis that he held ‘more responsibility’ than the others. Most of all, I missed on the subject of the movie itself–it was all about drugs! Rather than starting their lives, most of the characters were destroying their chances at life. Using this information, I created a more fitting poster, based on drug use and the chaos of the film.”

Alexa Werling

 

Hal Teasler: “My poster is a bit of a knock-off of Drew Struzan and Tyler Stouts’ styles…. The first step was to come up with a general layout of the poster with a list of all the actors that I wanted to use in the poster. The next step was to watch the movie and take pictures. If I saw a scene or a moment that I thought might be good in the poster, I would pause the movie and take a picture…. After I had all the pictures I would organize the photos, picking the best ones. I composited the pictures in photoshop. I lowered the opacity of the layout and  printed it out on drawing paper. I redrew the poster with pencil and ink. I then scanned the image in and colored it in Illustrator. I wanted to keep a minimal color palette. I made the image low contrast to give it a washed-out or vintage look because the movie takes place in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I chose to set the type in Helvetica because it’s used on many older movie posters.”

Hal Teasler


Bethany Johnson: “I began by brainstorming and researching the film, looking for one image in particular that could represent the entire film. I chose the tail/tie that the meanest farmer, Bean, shoots off Mr. Fox in the film. It has two meanings, the first being the scene it is from in the film. The second, however, is a much deeper meaning. The animals in the film appear to be classy, well-educated animals. They wear slick clothes and participate in human activities such as school and work. Only for brief moments do they reveal their wild roots to the viewer.”

Bethany Johnson

 

David Kyle Newton: “The Water for Elephants poster does not work for me. For my poster, I thought I would change it around a good bit. Rather than go and photoshop the ‘A Listers’ faces into a poster, I thought it would be more interesting and much more original to hand work the poster…. I chose to add Rosie, the elephant that would save the Benzini Brothers’ Circus. However, I did not want to add her entire body. The head would get my point across…. Rather than just having a straight trunk for her, I thought the subtle shape of a water drop would be nice. This may not be noticeable at first glance, but I feel it adds more to the poster. It also incorporates the movie title into the imagery. Lastly, something else was needed. If I were to leave it just with the title and the image of Rosie, it wouldn’t feel complete. Something else from the movie was needed. In my opinion, a circus tent was a little generic. After viewing the film, I felt that the train was much more suitable. More of the movie takes place on the train that in the circus tent. However, I did not just want a train. I wanted it to be more interesting with a bridge.”

David Kyle Newton

 

And a New Release!
Several students also decided to make their own films for their final project, and some went so far as to create DVD sleeves and promotional posters. Such was the case with Corey. You can view his film, C4, here. As his poster suggests, it’s about a deadly game of Connect Four.  

Corey Childers: “For my final research project in this class, I chose to do a short film–a mockumentary about a competitive Connect Four player who hopes to defeat the current, undefeated champion of the CFUC (Connect Four Underground Championship). I’m not really sure how the idea came to me; it just popped into my head toward the end of class one day. I titled the film C4 and made a poster before I actually ever started shooting (or even writing the script)…. I used the basic design theme from the original poster for the DVD packaging and the onscreen menu…. I was pleasantly surprised with how the entire project turned out, and how much fun it all was, despite being a good bit of work. I’ve definitely gained a new appreciation (and a new fascination) for film-making and how DVD and Blu-ray releases are created.”

Corey Childers

 

Conference update: SECAC 2011 and CAA 2013

I’m excited that I’ll be travelling to Savannah, Georgia, next week to attend the South East College Art Conference, or SECAC to its friends (pronounced see-cack!). I’ve never been to Savannah before, but my mental image of the town comes almost entirely from Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man. So I will be on the lookout for Spanish moss, hurricanes, and Kenneth Branagh. By a stroke of luck I have friends who have recently settled in the town; I will be staying with them and avoiding the generic conference hotel experience. Phew.

SECAC has become a fixed point in my academic calendar and I’ve gradually become more and more involved in the conference. I’ve been going every year since 2004, and this year’s conference (my eighth) will be my busiest ever. This is partly because of my growing commitment to the organization and because SECAC has been offering me more and more ways to be involved. But there’s also a degree of expedience behind my busyness. Research budgets for academics have declined steeply over the last few years, even while research expectations have remained the same. (At least this is the case in my institution.) Put bluntly, if I only have enough funding to get to one conference per year, then I’d better make the most of it.

So I’ve managed to line-up five different commitments over the conference’s three days. I’m giving a talk, moderating a panel on “excellence in teaching”, attending the board meeting, talking with artists and art historians from Mississippi (I represent the state on the SECAC board), and—last but not least—serving as a mentor for another art historian. Credit for the last item goes to the organizers of the conference, who have busily been pairing students with mentors. Actually, it’s not just students: I’ll be meeting with a younger professor. Most mentoring happens within educational institutions, but it’s surely beneficial for artists and art historians to receive advice from outsiders, too. It’s certainly a perspective that I would have welcomed at various points of my career.

Of course, success at one conference doesn’t guarantee success at another. Yesterday I discovered that a panel Monica Bowen and I proposed for CAA 2013 has not been accepted. Understandably, CAA’s email did not offer specific reasons for the rejection, beyond the fact that they received a total of around 300 proposals. I’d like to think that among the accepted proposals was another one about the same topic we proposed—namely, the art history blog (or lack thereof). But it’s perhaps more likely that they will have accepted a proposal on the broader topic of the digital humanities. Things will become clearer once the official call for papers is published.

At any rate, the art history blog is not going away and I predict that, slowly but surely, more art historians will maintain blogs, or their equivalents. Welcome to the blogosphere, Martin Kemp!

Monica and I will probably pitch our panel idea again. Who knows? Maybe someday it will even be accepted….

A Florentine Room with a View

My review of Sabine Rewald’s Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century is now up at Three Pipe Problem, and can be accessed here.

I think it was the E. M. Forster reference in the catalogue’s title that initially grabbed my attention and made me want to read the book, so it was a bit of a disappointment (though hardly a surprise) to discover that it contained no mention of Bloomsbury’s artists. Yet Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant often painted and drew interiors with open windows in them.

Here, for example, is one of Bell’s illustrations for Virginia Woolf’s Flush. The book was published in 1933, but since it’s really about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it’s firmly rooted in the mid nineteenth-century, just like the catalogue.

Bell: at Casa Guidi (illustration for Flush)

Several of the works in Rooms with a View are by northern European artists but depict interiors with impressive views of Italian skylines. Oddly, not one of them features the city seen in Bell’s image, which also happens to be the crucial Italian location in Forster’s A Room with a View: Florence. In Bell’s work, Barrett Browning looks at the Duomo from inside the Casa Guidi, where she and Robert Browning lived for several years. She died in the house in 1861.

Now open to the public, the Casa Guidi aims to help its twenty-first century visitors experience a nineteenth-century style interior.

 

Anna’s Blog

A few months ago, I blogged about Anna, my independent study student, who was going off to Paris for the summer. In the same post, I also included the syllabus I’d (rather hastily!) designed for her.

Anna in the Louvre

The basic idea was for her to respond to at least seven assignments from a list of fourteen possibilities–all were on the general topic of “French Visual Culture, 1850-1900.” Less conventionally, I asked her to fulfill these assignments using a blog. And she agreed.

This was all a bit of an experiment. I was especially curious to see how a blog format might work for a study abroad student, and was also hoping that a public venue might act as a good motivator. (We professors typically ask students to write for a readership of essentially one other person. But is this really the best model?!) I’m also planning to take students overseas at some point and looked at this as a kind of test: it was something that would help me see how viable a blog-based course might be in these kinds of situations.

As you will gather, Anna is extremely talented and dedicated: it’s obviously unrealistic to expect most other students to do so well at such a task. But her success has certainly encouraged my belief in the potential of asking students to use a blog format.

anna on art, Journey to Giverny

 

How Anna Fulfilled her Task
Here’s a list of the assignments Anna chose, arranged in the order that she posted her responses in her blog, anna on art. Each is followed by the italicized title of Anna’s response to the assignment. Clicking on this title will take you to the relevant section of her blog.

1. Take a self-guided walking tour of Impressionist Paris, and write a photo-essay about the experience. (NB: By ‘photo-essay’ I mean photos accompanied by your commentary.)

4. Visit a temporary exhibition relating to ‘the topic’ (e.g. the Manet show at the Muse d’Orsay) and write a review of it.

10. Read Robert Herbert’s discussion of the flâneur and write a blog post about the subject. [See his Impressionism: Art, Leisure, & Parisian Society (Yale University Press).]

8. Take a trip from Paris to another location associated with French art of this period (examples: Giverny, Rouen, the Normandy coast, Barbizon, Aix-en-Provence, London, etc.). Blog about the experience and about what you discovered at your destination.

13. Free card. Write a post on a subject of your choice. (The only parameter is that it should be about ‘the topic.’) Surprise me!

12. Read a novel set in later nineteenth-century Paris, and write a post about it. (I can offer suggestions.) Pay particular attention to the Parisian locations mentioned in the book.

14. Retrospect. After your trip, look back on the entirety of the experience, focusing on what you’ve learnt about ‘the topic.’ Write about your expectations before the trip and what you actually experienced. Consider addressing the following questions: What exceeded your expectations? Was anything disappointing? What were the high-and low-lights? What impact will the trip have on your broader understanding of art history? Will you return and, if so, what will you try to do next time?

 

anna on art, The Neighborhood

More Anna
Judging from people’s responses, I was not alone in appreciating Anna’s blogging and her insights about Paris and French art. And I’m also sure I’m also not the only person who’s added Anna on Art to my RSS reader over the summer. I’m looking forward to reading her future posts, which may well have a bit of a New York City flavour to them. For it’s my bitter-sweet duty to inform you that Anna has transferred to Barnard College and will be continuing her art history education there. Many congratulations, Anna!

The Portrait of Mr. O.W.

Prompted by Harvard University Press’s new edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray,  I recently wrote about Kerry Powell’s intriguing account of “Magic Picture Mania”–the nineteenth-century craze for stories about magical pictures, especially portraits.

In this post, I will eventually turn my attention to a portrait of Oscar Wilde. But in order to provide a context for this discussion, I first want to consider the following question, which is raised cumulatively by Powell’s account and by the many portraits and editorial notes included in HUP’s Dorian Gray. Can this “magic picture mania” be best explained as an exclusively literary trend (the parameters that concern Powell) or should we understand it as part of a broader cultural phenomenon, as one symptom of the nineteenth-century’s peculiar relationship to portraiture?

Wilde, "Fancy Portrait" (Punch cartoon: 5th March 1892)

The two possibilities are presumably mutually reinforcing, but as an art historian I’m naturally inclined to stress the latter, if only as a strategic corrective to an approach that insulates literature from visual culture. At any rate, consider the following bits and pieces, all of which tend to confirm the assertion that “artistic portraiture was undergoing a renaissance in Britain,” as Nicholas Frankel, the editor of the HUP edition puts it (125).

By 1890, photography had been generating quasi-magical pictures for half a century and had especially helped to stimulate portraiture. More people were now having their portraits taken, and these circulated in greater numbers and in new ways (think, for example, of the carte de visite).

Hills & Saunders, Oscar Wilde (carte de visite, 1876)

One of my favourite details in The Picture of Dorian Gray concerns precisely this new expanded culture of portraiture. Dressed in mourning clothes, Dorian’s housekeeper wears “a photograph of the late Mr. Leaf [her husband] framed in a large gold brooch at her neck” (176). This prose vignette points to an untold story and one that might parallel Dorian’s, albeit on a more mundane level.  It too would be about portraiture, dependency and death.

Despite photography, or perhaps partly because of it, portrait painting flourished, too. 1891 saw the founding of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and five years later the National Portrait Gallery opened its new (and current) premises, just off Trafalgar Square. Living in Chelsea, Wilde was acquainted with many of the district’s notable portraitists, including John Singer Sargent, Charles Shannon, and James McNeill Whistler.

Napoleon Sarony, Portrait of Oscar Wilde (albumen print), 1882

Oscar Wilde actively participated in this growth in portraiture. He sought out some of the most prominent portrait photographers of his day; during his famous tour of America, for example, he visited Napoleon Sarony’s well-known Manhattan studio and posed for him in various different costumes and attitudes. He also commissioned at least one painted portrait of himself.

The resulting work particularly captures my imagination in relationship to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Made sometime between 1882 and 1884, it’s an oil painting by the American artist Harper Pennington and is reproduced in the HUP edition of Dorian Gray. (By the way, not much seems to be known about Pennington and I’d love to find out more about him.)

Harper Pennington, Portrait of Oscar Wilde (circa 1884)

In his work, Pennington depicts the Anglo-Irish writer assuming a distinguished and somewhat haughty attitude.  One arm extends smoothly forwards, while the other bends jauntily and accents his high hips and waistline. One hand holds a cane, the other gloves. These are dandyish accoutrements and, despite the carpet, they hint at urban explorations. The pose has royal associations and recalls, for example, Van Dyck’s famous portrait of Charles I, now in the Louvre.

Details of Van Dyck's Portrait of Charles I (circa 1635) and Pompeo Batoni's Portrait of Charles Cecil Roberts (1778)

By the late Nineteenth Century, this basic pose had become something of a formula, although we find it in varying degrees of rotation and with any number of adjustments. Drawing attention to the subject’s body as much as his head, it was used for many full-length “swagger” portraits and found to be eminently suitable for male artists and writers. Manet, for example, had used a version of it in his portrait of the artist Carolus Duran, possibly taking his cue from the fact that Carolus is a latinate version of Charles.

Manet's Portrait of Carolus Duran (1876, detail) and John Singer Sargent's Portrait of W. Graham Robertson (1894)

Similarly William Merritt Chase, visiting London in 1885, used the pose in his portrait of Whistler, who was also Pennington’s teacher. The pose thus connects three American artists who painted in London.

William Merritt Chase, Portrait of Whistler (1885)

At least five years passed from the time Wilde posed for Pennington’s portrait to August 1889, when he successfully pitched the idea of The Picture of Dorian Gray to the editor of Lippincott’s Magazine. Those five years would have been long enough for the work to appear to Wilde not just as a different self, but as a distinctly “earlier” self.  It’s tempting to speculate that in addition to the general vogue for portraiture, this painting would have made Wilde conscious of portraiture’s relationship to aging, time, notions of immortality, and the splitting of self and image–all crucial aspects of his novel.

Like the picture in the story, Pennington’s portrait of Wilde is a “full-length” (67) and  “life-sized” (89) work, and would have required lengthy sessions for the artist and sitter; the painting almost certainly represents a far greater investment of Wilde’s time and money than any of the other portraits he commissioned. And there’s a very good reason to think that Pennington would have been in Wilde’s mind in 1889, again in relationship to posing and modeling: early that year, fifteen of the artist’s illustrations had accompanied Wilde’s article about “London Models.”

Celebrity authors, like Wilde, commissioned and sat for portraits; and whether they liked it or not, they also became the subjects of caricatures–no-one more so than Wilde. So in all its variety, portraiture increasingly mediated between authors and readers, helping to shape the image of a writer in the public’s mind. Perhaps, then, we should not be too surprised that writers found the topic of portraiture so compelling. And let’s us not neglect another important yet productive aspect of portraiture: tedium. “It is horribly dull,” opines Dorian Gray in the second chapter of Wilde’s novel, “standing on a platform and trying to look pleasant” (92). While they sat or stood for their portrait, and while conversation with their portraitist lagged, I imagine these authors diverting themselves by inventing stories, even stories about strange pictures.

Harper Pennington, Portrait of Oscar Wilde (detail)

Later in the 1890s, when Wilde was imprisoned and ruined financially, his friends Ada and Ernest Leverson bought Pennington’s portrait during the sale of the author’s possessions, thus saving it for him. Wilde later joked about the corrupting influence the work might have had on those who had seen it at the Leversons: “I was quite conscious of the very painful position of a man who had in his house a life-sized portrait, which he could not have in his drawing-room as it was obviously, on account of its subject, demoralising to young men, and possibly to young women of advanced views” (letter to Frank Harris, 13 June 1897). Just before his release, Wilde arranged for the picture to be retrieved from the Leversons and stored it in “a small room in Hornton Street, Kensington”. There it stayed while Wilde lived out his remaining days on the continent.

Later in that same letter, Wilde vividly and humorously describes the portrait as a “social incubus.” The language irresistibly recalls another potentially dangerous and parasitic portrait. This other portrait, the one in The Picture of Dorian Gray, also needed to be hidden away from the wrong sort of viewer, even while remaining fully visible to the reader’s imagination. Pennington’s portrait, on the other hand, ended up surrounded by books. It is housed in UCLA’s Clark Library, where, I trust, it is fully visible to all, yet never found to be “demoralising to young [Californians]… of advanced views.”

Works Cited:
Powell, Kerry. “Tom, Dick, and Dorian Gray: Magic-Picture Mania in Late Victorian Fiction” in Philological Quarterly, vol.62, no.2 (Spring 1983) 147-170.
Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.).
_________  (Nicholas Frankel, ed.) The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011).

My Father, the Art Historian

Father and Son
Dad has handed me the perfect topic to write about on Father’s Day: him!

I’m happy to announce that Charles Jeremy Harvey (Jeremy to most people, Dad to me) has just completed his M.Phil at the University of the West of England. With a bit of luck, I’ll be making one of my rare trips to England in July, and so should be able to join him in Bristol for his graduation ceremony.

After my BA graduation ceremony, University of Birmingham, 1994

Here’s a picture of Dad and me taken after my own graduation ceremony in 1994. The photo includes a little sartorial joke: we’ve switched hats. While Dad’s wearing the standard mortarboard that I’d just worn in the ceremony, I’m wearing his deluxe, rounded PhD academic cap. Dad had earned the right to wear it three years earlier, when he received his doctorate for his work on George Lyward, the pioneer educationalist. Remarkably, he wrote this dissertation while also working full-time as the Head Master of a comprehensive school.

Just weeks after the photo was taken, I would start my MPhil at the University of Birmingham’s wonderful Barber Institute. It was, as the phrase goes, a formative experience and the start of my career as an Art Historian. I was on the road to earning my own doctorate.

A few years later, in 1997, Dad retired from teaching and increasingly devoted his energies towards art: making art, thinking about art, writing and lecturing about art. Now with the completion of an MPhil in Art History, it feels as though we’ve come full circle. If I owned a PhD cap, I’d swap it with him after the ceremony this July. Perhaps he’ll lend me his!

Uncle and Niece
Here’s something Dad’s taught me, although I’m also sure I could never live up to his example in this respect: for a researcher, being sociable and socially adept are invaluable and underrated assets. Simply put, these qualities opens doors.

Over the years, Dad has forged connections with a number of prominent writers and artists. It was Dad’s friendship with Daphne Spencer, Stanley Spencer’s niece, which lead to his MPhil. His thesis draws on unpublished letters written by Stanley Spencer (mostly to Daphne) and is about an inter-generational family relationship, like this post.

To read the abstract, click on the screen-shot of it below.


Using the letters, dad has unearthed important information about the last decade of Spencer’s career, and this has allowed him to provide new insights into the artist’s life and work. He writes, for example, about Spencer’s Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, a major painting but one left unfinished when the artist died in 1959.

Spencer Portraits: Stanley's of Daphne Spencer and Daphne's of Stanley (both circa 1951)

I’m looking forward to reading my dad’s thesis later this summer, and to quizzing him about what his next research project might be.