A Dash of Art History

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Most of Harry Wilson Watrous’ paintings feature elegantly dressed women engaging in banal activities against pastel, abstracted backgrounds. He presages Edward Hopper’s simplified forms and urban modernity, but with none of the isolating tension.
The titles, though, generally invite considerably more interesting—and sometimes even surreal—interpretations.
These perception-shifts range from the mild—a woman in elegant and slightly iridescent black sits rather uninspiringly in a cafe until her poetry-inpired title, A Cup of Tea, a Cigarette, and She, implies a third party—to the bizarre—a woman holding a tiny figurine of an 18th-century gentleman doffing his hat is somewhat unnervingly entitled The Suitors.

Sometimes Watrous’ choice casts intriguing doubt on an already-provocative piece: this family, an interracial couple and their daughter, caused enough of a stir at the National Academy of Design by the subject alone.
The title, though—The Drop Sinister—immediately raises a few more questions. Around 1913, when this was painted, a Constitutional Amendment was being proposed to ban interracial marriage on a principle called the “one-drop rule”: any African American ancestor at all, and a person would be considered black for the purposes of marriage. So perhaps that’s the answer—they worry for the marriageability of their daughter (and perhaps for the future legality of their own marriage). Certainly it’s an answer that would have occurred to Watrous’ audience.
The phrasing is a little odd, though. In casual speech, “a sinister drop” would sound more natural than. And it does seem slightly strange that two people with fairly dark hair have produced such a strikingly blond child. Not to mention that the nervous tension in the woman’s arm—and gaze—seems more focused on her husband than on her child. (But then, the bar sinister is a heraldic symbol indicating illegitimate birth.)
Now, I don’t have nearly so involved a tale to tell you about the 1915 painting this post ostensibly centers on. But I can tell you its suspiciously unassuming title: Just a Couple of Girls.

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Most of Harry Wilson Watrous’ paintings feature elegantly dressed women engaging in banal activities against pastel, abstracted backgrounds. He presages Edward Hopper’s simplified forms and urban modernity, but with none of the isolating tension.

The titles, though, generally invite considerably more interesting—and sometimes even surreal—interpretations.

These perception-shifts range from the mild—a woman in elegant and slightly iridescent black sits rather uninspiringly in a cafe until her poetry-inpired title, A Cup of Tea, a Cigarette, and She, implies a third party—to the bizarre—a woman holding a tiny figurine of an 18th-century gentleman doffing his hat is somewhat unnervingly entitled The Suitors.

The Drop Sinister

Sometimes Watrous’ choice casts intriguing doubt on an already-provocative piece: this family, an interracial couple and their daughter, caused enough of a stir at the National Academy of Design by the subject alone.

The title, though—The Drop Sinister—immediately raises a few more questions. Around 1913, when this was painted, a Constitutional Amendment was being proposed to ban interracial marriage on a principle called the “one-drop rule”: any African American ancestor at all, and a person would be considered black for the purposes of marriage. So perhaps that’s the answer—they worry for the marriageability of their daughter (and perhaps for the future legality of their own marriage). Certainly it’s an answer that would have occurred to Watrous’ audience.

The phrasing is a little odd, though. In casual speech, “a sinister drop” would sound more natural than. And it does seem slightly strange that two people with fairly dark hair have produced such a strikingly blond child. Not to mention that the nervous tension in the woman’s arm—and gaze—seems more focused on her husband than on her child. (But then, the bar sinister is a heraldic symbol indicating illegitimate birth.)

Now, I don’t have nearly so involved a tale to tell you about the 1915 painting this post ostensibly centers on. But I can tell you its suspiciously unassuming title: Just a Couple of Girls.

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Would you buy a print called Echoes of the Stylish Set and the Fashionable Life in 1977?
Well, Albert Lynch’s Echoes of Bon Ton and the Life of Fashion in 1850 filled that niche for 1887.
Lynch carefully composes the scene to show off the furniture and clothes he highlights—but also to give a sense of the overall social dynamic. It is that attention to the conversations occurring which makes the scene so vivid.
But it is nonetheless purely suppositious.
(Lynch wasn’t even born until 1851.)

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Would you buy a print called Echoes of the Stylish Set and the Fashionable Life in 1977?

Well, Albert Lynch’s Echoes of Bon Ton and the Life of Fashion in 1850 filled that niche for 1887.

Lynch carefully composes the scene to show off the furniture and clothes he highlights—but also to give a sense of the overall social dynamic. It is that attention to the conversations occurring which makes the scene so vivid.

But it is nonetheless purely suppositious.

(Lynch wasn’t even born until 1851.)

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William McGregor Paxton painted Woman with Book in around 1910.
Bonhams writes, of Paxton, that “[h]e is noted for his highly finished compositions of single figures—most often female—in sumptuous interiors….”
I’m sure you’re all very, very tired of seeing me compare artists to Vermeer, but there is something incredibly reminiscent in that single female figure standing at a table, face indistinct, in a room lit from one side. Even the coat is strikingly similar to the ermine-lined yellow coat Vermeer used in several of his compositions.
Instead of Vermeer’s ubiquitous white enamel wine jug, though, is a large Japanese vase, and instead of a map is a vivid and slightly mysterious landscape—likely as not, of the Hudson River School.
Though neither would have been especially modern to the 1910s—in fact, they reflect 19th-century tastes—both certainly place the scene at a firm distance from its Dutch Golden Age echoes.

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William McGregor Paxton painted Woman with Book in around 1910.

Bonhams writes, of Paxton, that “[h]e is noted for his highly finished compositions of single figures—most often female—in sumptuous interiors….”

I’m sure you’re all very, very tired of seeing me compare artists to Vermeer, but there is something incredibly reminiscent in that single female figure standing at a table, face indistinct, in a room lit from one side. Even the coat is strikingly similar to the ermine-lined yellow coat Vermeer used in several of his compositions.

Instead of Vermeer’s ubiquitous white enamel wine jug, though, is a large Japanese vase, and instead of a map is a vivid and slightly mysterious landscape—likely as not, of the Hudson River School.

Though neither would have been especially modern to the 1910s—in fact, they reflect 19th-century tastes—both certainly place the scene at a firm distance from its Dutch Golden Age echoes.

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George Lambert’s 1910 painting Holiday in Essex stands at a slightly disconcerting crossroads of style.
His handling of paint in the background, especially the grass, betrays a distinctly modern flavor of painterliness—of deliberately and overtly visible brushmarks.
The grand scale, the studied composition, and the vivid lighting, though, all point to a much older influence.
An influence, in fact, that Lambert deliberately courted: the Art Gallery of New South Wales quotes Arthur José’s point that the painting “began as a deliberate attempt to emulate the Spanish (or rather the continental) convention of the days of Velasquez…the placing of the figures and the background, and the lighting of the studio was so arranged as to produce the traditional chiaroscuro of that epoch.”

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George Lambert’s 1910 painting Holiday in Essex stands at a slightly disconcerting crossroads of style.

His handling of paint in the background, especially the grass, betrays a distinctly modern flavor of painterliness—of deliberately and overtly visible brushmarks.

The grand scale, the studied composition, and the vivid lighting, though, all point to a much older influence.

An influence, in fact, that Lambert deliberately courted: the Art Gallery of New South Wales quotes Arthur José’s point that the painting “began as a deliberate attempt to emulate the Spanish (or rather the continental) convention of the days of Velasquez…the placing of the figures and the background, and the lighting of the studio was so arranged as to produce the traditional chiaroscuro of that epoch.”

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To be honest, dear reader, it might have taken me a minute to figure out that Vasily Vereshchagin’s 1887 painting depicts the crucifixion if it weren’t for the fairly self-explanatory title: Crucifixion by the Romans.
(The three crucified figures on the right might, I suppose, have been a tip-off.)
But the scene has none of the usual hallmarks: not only has Christ been relegated to an edge of the painting, but his cross stands no taller, no farther forward, than either of the thieves. His hair obscures his face, and instead of an artful path of blood from the spear-wound in his side, he—like his two fellows—drips blood down his arms and sides, where it soaks into the white cloth at his waist.
Even his mourners, far from being able to stand arrayed at the base of the cross, stand at the back of the crowd with the viewer (on the opposite side of the canvas from him).
By departing so drastically from the usual portrayal, though, Vereshchagin producing a striking commentary on, not just the past, but the present.
 Christie’s writes, of Crucifixion and two other paintings in a series Vereschchagin did on capital punishment in three powerful empires: “[e]ach work symbolically illustrates the moment of the greatest ethical test each empire had faced, lamenting the brutality of the state while poignantly depicting the unchanging humanity that connects people and populations across vast expanses of time and geographical territory.”
Given that context, it makes sense that Christ is pushed to the side, while the crowd around him is depicted with archeological accuracy.
It isn’t about him—it’s about the Roman empire. And, by proxy, the modern empires of the 19th century.

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To be honest, dear reader, it might have taken me a minute to figure out that Vasily Vereshchagin’s 1887 painting depicts the crucifixion if it weren’t for the fairly self-explanatory title: Crucifixion by the Romans.

(The three crucified figures on the right might, I suppose, have been a tip-off.)

But the scene has none of the usual hallmarks: not only has Christ been relegated to an edge of the painting, but his cross stands no taller, no farther forward, than either of the thieves. His hair obscures his face, and instead of an artful path of blood from the spear-wound in his side, he—like his two fellows—drips blood down his arms and sides, where it soaks into the white cloth at his waist.

Even his mourners, far from being able to stand arrayed at the base of the cross, stand at the back of the crowd with the viewer (on the opposite side of the canvas from him).

By departing so drastically from the usual portrayal, though, Vereshchagin producing a striking commentary on, not just the past, but the present.

Christie’s writes, of Crucifixion and two other paintings in a series Vereschchagin did on capital punishment in three powerful empires: “[e]ach work symbolically illustrates the moment of the greatest ethical test each empire had faced, lamenting the brutality of the state while poignantly depicting the unchanging humanity that connects people and populations across vast expanses of time and geographical territory.”

Given that context, it makes sense that Christ is pushed to the side, while the crowd around him is depicted with archeological accuracy.

It isn’t about him—it’s about the Roman empire. And, by proxy, the modern empires of the 19th century.

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While Sotheby’s calls this painting by Robert Koehler The Old Sewing Machine, I strongly suspect that’s a change from the original title.
I was reading a newspaper review of an exhibition by the Society of American Artists earlier today when I came across a description of a work by Robert Koehler, painted in 1882. I don’t recall the exact verbiage, but in essence it described a woman having brought a piece from her sewing machine to a blacksmith’s shop.
Indeed, here we see what looks to be a widow and her young daughter, looking on while the top part of her treadle sewing machine is carefully examined.
And, if I’m correct in linking the two, there’s even an explanation for the concern in the lines of her face and the position of her hand: this piece has the evocative title of Her Only Support.

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While Sotheby’s calls this painting by Robert Koehler The Old Sewing Machine, I strongly suspect that’s a change from the original title.

I was reading a newspaper review of an exhibition by the Society of American Artists earlier today when I came across a description of a work by Robert Koehler, painted in 1882. I don’t recall the exact verbiage, but in essence it described a woman having brought a piece from her sewing machine to a blacksmith’s shop.

Indeed, here we see what looks to be a widow and her young daughter, looking on while the top part of her treadle sewing machine is carefully examined.

And, if I’m correct in linking the two, there’s even an explanation for the concern in the lines of her face and the position of her hand: this piece has the evocative title of Her Only Support.

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John Vanderlyn’s technically impressive Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles (an oil on a cylindrical canvas) became even more impressive to me when I found out that—when he painted it in 1818 and 1819—Vanderlyn was in New York.

Of course, he worked from detailed sketches he’d made in Versailles. (But still.)

It’s accurate enough that the Metropolitan Museum can compare it to “Adam Perelle’s seventeenth-century prints (20.41.126) [to show]…that, in spite of the slightly barren look of the grounds and lack of floral detail in parterres, the layout of the garden remains essentially as André Le Nôtre designed it in the late seventeenth century.”

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Looking at The Man in the Chair (1876), you probably won’t find the British Museum’s comment about Henri de Braekeleer to be a revelation: “Strongly influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish genre painting.”
Certainly the bright, clear light streaming in through the open windows—and the red chair (with its brass studs and turned legs) that the light falls on—evoke the Dutch Golden Age.
The gilt-leather wall hangings, called Cuir de Cordoue, practically quote Pieter de Hooch:

Interestingly, though, a few elements of the scene stand clearly (and deliberately) anachronic to that influence.
Most obvious, of course, is the tired—and modern—subject seated in the chair.
Directly above him, though, is a painting that says “Titian” more than it says “de Hooch.” And above that, a sculpture of a saintly bishop that more than likely predates the Protestant Reformation.
Now, either or both could easily be original to a 17th-century Dutch interior: an interest in the art of the past didn’t spring up, whole and unprecedented, in the middle of the 19th century.
But they do suggest an awareness, on de Braekeleer’s part, of his own work’s resonance with the past he evokes.

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Looking at The Man in the Chair (1876), you probably won’t find the British Museum’s comment about Henri de Braekeleer to be a revelation: “Strongly influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish genre painting.”

Certainly the bright, clear light streaming in through the open windows—and the red chair (with its brass studs and turned legs) that the light falls on—evoke the Dutch Golden Age.

The gilt-leather wall hangings, called Cuir de Cordoue, practically quote Pieter de Hooch:

Pieter de Hooch, Interior with Figures, 1663–1665

Interestingly, though, a few elements of the scene stand clearly (and deliberately) anachronic to that influence.

Most obvious, of course, is the tired—and modern—subject seated in the chair.

Directly above him, though, is a painting that says “Titian” more than it says “de Hooch.” And above that, a sculpture of a saintly bishop that more than likely predates the Protestant Reformation.

Now, either or both could easily be original to a 17th-century Dutch interior: an interest in the art of the past didn’t spring up, whole and unprecedented, in the middle of the 19th century.

But they do suggest an awareness, on de Braekeleer’s part, of his own work’s resonance with the past he evokes.

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Charles Dana Gibson: that great American name, synonymous with the height of style in the late 19th- and early 20th-century—and with blatant sexism.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum writes that Gibson’s, well, “‘Gibson Girl’ was the model of American womanhood in the 1890s and into the 20th century.” In Studies in Expression: When Women are Jurors (1902), we have one such shining example of his womanly ideal: turning a slightly arch expression towards the exaggerated shock (and exaggerated dress) of her neighbor, she displays her artfully gathered hair and tastefully understated clothing to excellent effect. 

Meanwhile the (artificially fashionable) woman in a white boa delights in the opportunity to pass judgment…on her fellow juror.

The doe-eyed creature behind is clearly paying more attention to the case—she has shed a single tear, a sentiment shared by the surprised young woman on the far right. The older women book-ending the front row are sincerely skeptical of the proceedings, though.

The piece may have offered Gibson an excellent opportunity for exercising his considerable talents for capturing character and expression, but very much at the expense of the genericized women he mocks.

And, unfortunately, the joke isn’t even on him—it wasn’t until astonishingly late in the 20th century (and I mean late: Taylor v. Louisiana in 1975) that American women in all of the states were evenhandedly called on to serve as jurors.

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Johan Christian Dahl painted the aptly titled View of Dresden by Moonlight in 1839.
According to the Metropolitan Museum, “Johan Christian Dahl was [Caspar David] Friedrich’s friend and upstairs neighbor in Dresden from 1823 on…Dahl adopted from Friedrich the mysterious, mood-enhancing effects of dusk, fog, moon, and twilight.”
That suggests, though, a more dramatic scene than View of Dresden.
True, there’s an element of mystery in the bright, but partially obscured, moon—especially in contrast to the red-orange glow of the illuminated windows on the far bank and the fires on the near—but the scene is unusually matter-of-fact.
A close look, for example, at the domed building in the distance reveals precise and neatly delineated architectural details: the antithesis of enigma. The women hanging laundry in the near left corner add to the prosaic effect.
Yet the very concessions Dahl makes to concreteness also make the scene as compelling as it is. The disunity of color between the sky and the iced-over river, at first perhaps seeming to reflect a disappointing unwillingness to idealize, produces conflict in an otherwise largely uniform piece.
And there is a sort of pathos—given the temperature that the ice and the hour imply—in the comparison of the washerwomen, elbow-deep in damp laundry, to the buildings across the river (which glow with warmth, and with occupants).

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Johan Christian Dahl painted the aptly titled View of Dresden by Moonlight in 1839.

According to the Metropolitan Museum, “Johan Christian Dahl was [Caspar David] Friedrich’s friend and upstairs neighbor in Dresden from 1823 on…Dahl adopted from Friedrich the mysterious, mood-enhancing effects of dusk, fog, moon, and twilight.”

That suggests, though, a more dramatic scene than View of Dresden.

True, there’s an element of mystery in the bright, but partially obscured, moon—especially in contrast to the red-orange glow of the illuminated windows on the far bank and the fires on the near—but the scene is unusually matter-of-fact.

A close look, for example, at the domed building in the distance reveals precise and neatly delineated architectural details: the antithesis of enigma. The women hanging laundry in the near left corner add to the prosaic effect.

Yet the very concessions Dahl makes to concreteness also make the scene as compelling as it is. The disunity of color between the sky and the iced-over river, at first perhaps seeming to reflect a disappointing unwillingness to idealize, produces conflict in an otherwise largely uniform piece.

And there is a sort of pathos—given the temperature that the ice and the hour imply—in the comparison of the washerwomen, elbow-deep in damp laundry, to the buildings across the river (which glow with warmth, and with occupants).