Birthday Post: Illarion Pryanishnikov

Illarion Pryanishnikov - Vasily Perov (detail)On this day in 1840, the great Russian painter Illarion Pryanishnikov was born. At the age of 16, he was sent off to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. And he stayed there for most of the rest of his life — for ten years as a student, then for the final two decades he was an instructor there. But he was something of a radical — a founding member of the Society of Travelling Art Exhibitions, which sought (like the post-impressionists later in France) to get beyond the control of the academy.

Pryanishnikov tended to paint historical scenes — especially scenes from recent wars. He was great at doing crowds. But I want to focus on one painting from when he was still a student, Jokers. Gostiny Dvor in Moscow. To us, 150 years on, it doesn’t mean much. But according to Moscow: A Cultural History, it “depicts a clerk making bunny ears with his fingers behind the head of a man who appears to be drunk for the amusement of a group of corpulent top-hatted Moscow merchants.” The implication is that the wealthy people got some poor (maybe homeless) man drunk so they could make fun of him. It’s degrading of all parties involved. Such art is the kind of thing that can lead to revolution — although in the case of Russia, it would take another 52 years.

Jokers. Gostiny Dvor in Moscow - Illarion Pryanishnikov

Happy birthday Illarion Pryanishnikov!

Birthday Post: Al Jaffee

Al JaffeeToday, the great cartoonist Al Jaffee is 94 years old. Everyone my age knows him from Mad magazine. And in particular, I remember him for the last page of every issue with the fold-in. It was a cartoon with some question attached to it. And then, if you folded the page in a particular way, a different image would appear that would answer the question. The question would also be changed. It was generally clever rather than funny. But it was very clever. And when I was a kid, I was just amazed at the technique. In later years it was easy enough to see what the folded image was without folding. But when I was very young, it was always amazing to me.

Here is a typical example. It is from 1995 and in reference to which of the Republicans would become nominated only to lose to Bill Clinton the following year. Good prediction!

Al Jaffee - Fold-in 1995

Happy birthday Al Jaffee!

Birthday Post: Winslow Homer

Winslow HomerOn this day in 1836, the great painter Winslow Homer was born. He is one of those unfortunate artists who has been so copied that it is hard to see his work as fresh. But does it ever deserve to be seen with fresh eyes! He was such a brilliant painter — most especially regarding his seascapes — but really in all of his work. And it is interesting to see his work develop. In his twenties and thirties, I find his work somewhat stilted — still very much tied to his work as a commercial illustrator. But this is when he visits Paris and is inspired by some of the work being done by Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet, and Manet. Slowly, his work becomes more fluid and realistic into his forties and fifties. And at its greatest in his sixties.

This is not the way the art world seems to look at Homer, however. They seem to think him at his best in his late thirties and early forties. And I’ll admit: it is fine work. Here is one I like from that period, Fresh Eggs:

Fresh Eggs - Winslow Homer

But I much prefer The Fisher Girl from twenty years later. And it isn’t just this painting. His work during the 1890s is just exceptional.

The Fisher Girl - Winslow Homer

Happy birthday Winslow Homer!

The Stained Glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany

Louis Comfort TiffanyOn this day in 1848, the great stained glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany was born. He was the son of the Tiffany. He came from money — much further back than his father. But we don’t need to talk about that. He actually worked in a lot of different forms including painting. But it is the stained glass that really stands out. He did a lot of Art Nouveau, but his most interesting stuff is his religious work — although I don’t think he was a particularly religious person.

So let’s look at some of his work. First, here is Sermon on the Mount from 1902:

Sermon on the Mount - Louis Comfort Tiffany

And here is Girl with Cherry Blossoms from a decade earlier:

Girl with Cherry Blossoms - Louis Comfort Tiffany

There is a lot more of his work you can check out on Google Images. But I think you get the idea. He also did a lot of those stained glass lamps, but that was just part of the family business. Try not to think about it.

Happy birthday Louis Comfort Tiffany!

Pamela Colman Smith

Pamela Colman SmithOn this day in 1878, the great illustrator Pamela Colman Smith was born. She was closely associated with photographer Alfred Stieglitz who felt her work had a synaesthetic (multi-sensory) sensibility. She was also friends with poet William Butler Yeats, for whom she illustrated some books. But she is best know for the Waite-Smith tarot cards. Arthur Edward Waite wrote the booklet that went along with the cards, but the cards themselves are all Smith’s. You have doubtless seen them. Pretty much all tarot cards either use her designs, or are recreations of her designs. I remember them from my childhood. (Because I was raised by Satanists!) They are wonderful. Here are some samples:

Tarot Cards

Happy birthday Pamela Colman Smith!

I’m feeling very tired, so I’ve just recycled this text from last year’s birthday post.

Ion Andreescu

Ion AndreescuOn this day in 1850, the great Romanian painter Ion Andreescu was born. By his early twenties, he was already a noted drawing instructor. He was clearly influenced by the works of the impressionists. In his work, I see a lot of Édouard Manet. But it is hard to say, given his relative isolation in Romania. Regardless, in 1878, he moved to Paris where he was immediately recognized as a peer of painters such as Monet and Renoir.

Unfortunately, he caught tuberculosis in Paris and was forced to return to Romania in 1881. He died the following year at the age of only 32. Here is one of his stunning works, which I unfortunately do not have a title for:

Title Unknown - Ion Andreescu

Happy birthday Ion Andreescu!

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta

Giovanni Battista PiazzettaOn this day in 1682 (or maybe 1683), the great Italian Rococo painter Giovanni Battista Piazzetta was born. He started off as a Baroque painter, but moved in the direction of the more open and and free-wheeling style of Rococo. Most of his work was scene painting. He did both religious and secular work. So let me present an example of each.

First is Idyll at the Coast. It was painted rather late in his career in 1741. But despite the fact that it is nominally a landscape, the focus is all on the people. And then there is the whimsical touch of the cow peaking its head in — like the 18th century equivalent of photo bombing. Of course, Rococo was known for its wit and I think we see rather a lot of it in this painting:

Idyll at the Coast - Giovanni Battista Piazzetta

Here is The Assumption of Mary from 1735. What I especially like about this is how the painting gets lighter the closer we get to heaven. It’s a really beautiful piece:

The Assumption of Mary - Giovanni Battista Piazzetta

Happy birthday Giovanni Battista Piazzetta!

Ellen Day Hale

Ellen Day HaleOn this day in 1855, the great American impressionist painter Ellen Day Hale was born. Her work reminds me very much of Édouard Manet. And I think of her very much part of the impressionist movement — never moving toward post-impressionistic work, even though she was of the right age for it. I’m more fond of the post-impressionists work, but there is something constantly thrilling about Hale’s work.

Most of her work consists of portraits. And they are very much in keeping with the impressionist style. But other things transcend this. I’m especially impressed with her use of direct lighting. Take for example, the painting Morning News, which she painted at the age of 50. It is just gorgeous. Off canvas to the left is a large window with the morning sun streaming through. A teapot and a flower in a vase is on the shelf behind her. I don’t know if she is waiting to serve breakfast and is taking a moment after. But it is a complete story — a slice of life — a moment when life is worth living.

Morning News - Ellen Day Hale

Happy birthday Ellen Day Hale!

The Politics of Norman Rockwell

Norman RockwellOn this day in 1894, the great painter Norman Rockwell was born. He is best known for his many covers for The Saturday Evening Post. I never thought much about him when I was younger. But over the years, I’ve come to really appreciate his cleverness and even subversion. Rockwell was a good old fashioned New Deal Democrat. You know: the kind of person who would be called a radical today.

A great example of his political orientation was found in his Four Freedoms series. It is a representation of Franklin D Roosevelt’s State of the Union address in 1941. And the four freedoms are radical by today’s standards. They include two “of” freedoms: freedom of speech and freedom of worship. Everyone agrees with those because they’ve been around for so long. But show me a Republican who would agree with the two “from” freedoms: freedom from want and freedom from fear. Even among so called liberals in this country, there is only modest support for the idea that there might be freedoms that would require any sacrifice from the power elite.

Four Freedoms - Norman Rockwell

Rockwell created those paintings for The Saturday Evening Post. But by 1963, he left the magazine because of the constraints it was putting on his work. He wanted to cover more overt political ground. It led to some brilliant works. The most affecting is probably Murder in Mississippi — a rendering of the murder of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. It’s a remarkable piece: half social realism and half neo-romanticism. It doesn’t look much like what people think of as his style:

Murder in Mississippi - Norman Rockwell

But he still did profound pieces that were clearly his style. One of my very favorites is, The Problem We All Live With. It renders the first day of school for Ruby Bridges at the once all-white William Frantz Elementary School. She is accompanies by four literally faceless deputy US marshals. Even today, I can’t see it without being affected by it.

The Problem We All Live With - Norman Rockwell

Happy birthday Norman Rockwell!


ParmigianinoOn this day in 1503, the great painter Parmigianino was born. He was one of the great Mannerist painters — highly influenced by Antonio da Correggio. His work is know for its elongated figures such as Madonna with the Long Neck. What I find compelling about Mannerism generally, is that it isn’t slavishly dedicated to perspective like the High Renaissance. It was a move to make art not so much as nature is, but as nature ought to be. Parmigianino was very important in the development of the school.

Most of what we know Parmigianino for is his religious work, but he was better known as a portrait painter during his own life. It is hard to find much of his stuff online. And the following image of Gian Galeazzo Sanvitale is not the greatest, with the light reflection. But you will get the idea:

Gian Galeazzo Sanvitale - Parmigianino

The image at the beginning of this article is a self-portrait from the year Parmigianino died at the age of 37 from a “fever.” He looks like he’s in his sixties. Times were hard. But the following self portrait was made when he was 21. It was painted on a convex panel by looking at himself in a convex mirror. It’s an amazing piece:

Convex Self-Portrait - Parmigianino

Happy birthday Parmigianino!

Eldzier Cortor

Eldzier CortorToday, the great painter Eldzier Cortor is 99 years old. He is known most for the influence of African art of his portrayal of the female figure most especially. This has led to some criticisms of his work as objectifying women. That’s actually a pretty funny criticism of an artist who, you know, objectifies everything. But whatever.

His art is hard to pigeonhole, which is typical of the best modern artists. There is no doubt that much of his work is surrealist. That’s quite explicit in something like Room No V. But here is one that seems less obviously so, Woman in an Interior from 1945. The window panes are similar to what Magritte would do later in The Empire of Lights:

Woman in an Interior - Eldzier Cortor

And then, in a totally different vein, but the very same year: Man with Sickle. I’d commented before that the subject seemed to express “pain and anger.” But I’m no longer sure. He may just exhibit exhaustion. I’m not sure there is a difference. But it is an amazing painting:

Man With Sickle - Eldzier Cortor

Happy birthday Eldzier Cortor!

Image of Eldzier Cortor cropped, reduced, and degraded from an image by Fern Logan.

André Masson

André MassonOn this day in 1896, the great painter André Masson was born. It is hard to classify him, which is what makes him so great. The clearest aspect of his painting is surrealism, especially that of Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí. But I also see Paul Klee and M C Escher. At least, that’s what I see in his mature work in the 1930s and 1940s. His earlier work is experimental with a lot of automatic drawing, which probably is why he became a major influence of the abstract expressionists much later. I like to think that he was laying the groundwork for his later work — the way that the last dream of the night combines elements of the earlier, simpler dreams.

When the Nazis took over France, they did not like Masson’s work. But really: whose work did the Nazis like? They considered it “degenerate.” So he managed to escape from France and make it to the United States. When people from the customs department found some of his art work that he had smuggled with him, it was pronounced pornographic and destroyed. I know that some people have a real problem with my attitude, but there is really something that connects Germany and the United States. And it ain’t good. They (We!) are a parochial people. And while I’ll allow that Germany is much improved since the Nazis, the United States has regressed in many ways since the New Deal.

In 1938, having seen the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the general rise of fascism throughout Europe, Masson painted In the Tower of Sleep. It is simultaneously horrific and transcendent. He wrote of the central figure whose skin has been flayed off that it came from having seen while fighting in World War I “a figure lying in a trench with his head split open…” I think it’s a masterpiece that better renders the time and place than anything I’ve ever seen:

In the Tower of Sleep - Andre Masson

Happy birthday André Masson!