Last week, I found myself challenged with the task of speaking to our astute docents on the subject of American landscape. The prospect of saying anything overarching was daunting, as the story of landscape and the American painting tradition is as broad and vast as the mountain vistas depicted by American artists.
I had just finished writing and speaking about contemporary artist Jenny Holzer and the aphorisms, or truisms as she calls them, that she broadcasts via giant walls of light on the surfaces of great buildings, carves indelibly into granite, or silk-screens onto large canvases. Perhaps I was influenced by my study of Holzer to share with the docents short, digestible truths of my own invention that seem to reasonably summarize the American landscape artist’s approach.
I began the formulation of my truism list by revisiting William Cullen Bryant’s poetic advice to his buddy Thomas Cole, the symbolic forefather of the Hudson River School of American landscape painting. In his 1829 sonnet To Cole, the Painter, Departing for Europe, Bryant characterizes Europe as having “everywhere the trace of men.” He directs Cole’s attention to the American landscape, our untouched wilderness, as the defining characteristic of our fledgling nation, reminding the artist to revel in European scenes while keeping “that earlier, wilder image bright.” Put another way: Unspoiled nature was an expression of cultural and national identity.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848), The Hunter's Return, 1845, oil on canvas
What America had to offer in those days that seemed unique was the sublimity of pristine nature, and landscape painting provided one manner of expressing that identity. And so, a little bit inspired by Holzer’s truisms, I showed the docents a slide of my own proclamations based on aspects of the landscape works in our collection:
OUR LANDSCAPE DEFINES US
CAPTURE IT BEFORE IT’S GONE—or if there have been intrusions, eliminate the traces of human intervention.
ART LEADS TO PRESERVATION
WHEN CIVILIZATION INTRUDES, GO FARTHER AFIELD—WITHIN AND BEYOND THE CONTINENT
If you are a landscape artist and your subject matter is disappearing to industry and the march of civilization, show it as it was, with a foreboding sense of what’s to come. Go farther west to find the limits of so-called progress. If technology and tourism have already gotten there, paint them out. See if you can aid in preservation by alluding to the future destruction. Capture it all before it disappears. And, when you have run out of American exotic locales, travel abroad.
This week, when I move forward chronologically, my plan is to add the following to the truism list:
SEEK REFUGE FROM THE STRAINS OF MODERN LIFE. GO TO THE SHORE. HAVE A PICNIC. SEEK ARTIST COLONIES. GO WEST.
A LANDSCAPE PAINTING CAN BE ABOUT MORE THAN NATURAL SPLENDOR, IT CAN BE AN URBAN LANDSCAPE OR AN INDUSTRIAL ONE. THERE’S BEAUTY IN THOSE, TOO.
TURN TO ABSTRACTION
CHRONICLE OUR OWN DESTRUCTION
Skeet McAuley (b. 1951), Untitled, from the Native America Series, 1984-86, dye destruction print
Though the proclamations may not prove accurate in all cases, putting them in front of our docents seems as good a way as any to connect to the rich holdings of American views we have here at the Amon Carter.
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
The Amon Carter is fortunate to have a wonderful corps of docents who work with visitors to the museum by giving regularly scheduled tours, sharing information at the Art Carts, and facilitating special tours. Several of our docents were in fine form Friday night as the museum celebrated the first day of spring with our members at the Spring Fling.
Come on by and take a tour of our permanent collection. Public tours take place at 2:00 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and begin at the Information Desk. No reservations are required; admission is free.
Our pre-school friends from Holy Trinity Catholic School in Grapevine came to visit today. It's hard to tell who has the most fun on these tours - the kids or the gallery teachers. Tours are available for students of all ages, and all of them are free.
People of all ages are always welcome. Are you bringing young people? Pick up an Art Activity Kit at the desk and have some fun in the galleries. Most afternoons you can find an Art Cart with a knowledgeable volunteer ready to talk to you about what's on the walls. Or just sit on a bench and enjoy the view!
The museum recently celebrated its first anniversary as part of the Google Art Project. We commemorated the occasion with our first online exhibition featuring Parson Weems' Fable by Grant Wood, plus other artists who captured this famous couple in their works. We will be posting more of these projects in the coming months.
You can find our Google Art Project page by clicking here or by using the menu bar and clicking on our Collections page. It’s your opportunity to browse our collection at your pace in your space.
It’s time for a confession: The thought of being without my various technological devices when something new and exciting happens sends a shiver down my spine. If a great event occurs and someone does not snap a shot for group consumption on social media, did it really happen at all? If an occasion of worldwide significance transpires, photographs proliferate, memes flourish, and we can all see the images in an instant.
I’ve been thinking about the inevitability of images in today’s society in relation to the periodical illustrations of Frederic Remington (1861–1909)—a leading visual recorder of the newsworthy events of his time. If Remington wanted to share with a wide audience a scene of cowboys on the range, a nasty skirmish between warring factions, or even a bicyclist passing a stagecoach on a dusty road, he had to engage in several modes of creation to ready his rendering for mass dissemination.
Frederic Remington, The Right of the Road-- A Hazardous Encounter on a Rocky Mountain Trail, 1900, 1961.246
He often captured what he witnessed in a one-of-a-kind grisaille (or, as we’d call it today, grayscale) oil painting, intentionally created without color so that it could be translated into print media. Imagine going to all that trouble! To take advantage of modes of reproduction, he might also do a drawing of the scene. The drawing would then be transferred by any number of skilled wood engravers in reverse onto the end grain of multiple wooden blocks, which were then inked and used to reproduce the image in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribners, or Collier’s.
Printing block and special conservation housing
Jodie Utter, the museum’s conservator of works on paper, recently collaborated with me on an installation of wood blocks used by periodical publishers to make several of Remington’s illustrations. Such blocks were typically destroyed after printing or were sanded down and reused to make other newsworthy images, so it is rare to see them intact. We invite you to take a look in the special drawers in our Mezzanine Galleries to see them and better appreciate the labor-intensive process of yesteryear image making.
When you take your next selfie and post it to Instagram, think of the road Remington’s images needed to travel for anyone to see them. Of course, this begs the question, “Were we better off when it was more difficult to spread an image far and wide?” After all, if my friends had to carve their photos of me into wood blocks in order to share them, I bet many an unflattering image would be lost in thin air!
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
And now this from Jodie Utter:
What's In Our Drawers?
The Amon Carter has a varied and vast collection of masterworks; our largest collections, works on paper and photographs, are also the most sensitive to light. As the museum’s paper conservator, I spend a lot of my time documenting light-exposure histories for each paper object before it goes on display. Besides controlling temperature, air quality, and relative humidity, light gets most of my management attention. That said, the drawers in our Mezzanine Galleries are a paper conservator’s dream.
Why? Most of our art on paper collection is kept in dark storage with a fraction put on display each year. This is partly due to changing exhibitions, a finite display area, and most importantly to the history of display of individual objects—in other words, exposure to light. I will now put on my conservation hat –don’t leave—stay with me: Light damage is irreversible—and cumulative—therefore it’s of great importance to limit the display of light-sensitive works. This is why we keep close record of exactly how long a work has been on display since its arrival at the museum.
Inspecting the drawers in our Mezzanine Galleries
Okay, still with me? That’s why I love those drawers! If a work is displayed on the wall for four months (our typical length of exhibition) it would receive approximately 1000 hours of light exposure; however, in one of these drawers for one year, the work receives less than sixty hours (or approximately one week) of exposure. I love it. Of course, not everything can be displayed in a drawer, nor would I suggest such craziness. But it’s pretty great that when a work on paper is not being viewed, it’s in the dark! See why I love these drawers?
Jodie Utter, Conservator of Works of Art on Paper
Studies have shown that medical students who spend time looking at art develop more acute observation skills, a key advantage in their careers. I cannot claim that looking at works of art has improved my scientific acumen, but I can certainly say that spending time with a work of art sets off my curator’s stream of consciousness. My brain builds associations based on personal experience and a sort of mental Rolodex of images forges connections unique to my idiosyncratic way of thinking.
All of which leads me to a somewhat unlikely pairing of two great paintings in our collection: Thomas Eakins’s Swimming (1885) and Frederic Remington’s A Dash for the Timber (1889).
More than just a chronological convergence or the fact that one work depicts human nudes and the other equine nudes, I’d argue a sort of commonality of influence in these two paintings in the application of photography to the process of depicting bodies—horses or otherwise. The 1880s saw the rise in popularity of the photographic motion studies of the eccentric Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904), whose landmark scientific experiments at the University of Pennsylvania captured aspects of sequential movements theretofore invisible to the naked eye but recorded by the lenses.
Eadweard Muybridge, Annie G. with Jockey, ca. 1887
Eakins spent time in 1884 at Muybridge’s laboratory-studio, only to devise his own photographic techniques for recording motion. We know that he took several photographs in the process of preparing to paint Swimming, though the final outcome is an artistic statement all his own. Even though he has depicted several individuals, I can’t help but see it as reminiscent of photographic studies of one nude in motion.
Paintings of horses were never the same after Muybridge’s studies. Suddenly, rather than legs splayed out horizontally to indicate a horse at full gallop, Remington and others (including Eakins) showed a variety of seemingly implausible horsey poses inspired by what the human eye could not possibly perceive, but the camera could. When I look at A Dash for the Timber, I see the effects of Muybridge and his photographic contemporaries written all over it. This is partially because I had the occasion to look at both paintings closely with a photographic historian friend, and partially because I have devoted time in the past to understanding the juncture of art and science in Muybridge’s day and what was considered acceptable behavior in the laboratory but not the artist’s classroom.
Making connections between paintings is not a science. It’s okay to form your own associations. If our paintings make sense to you because of a sunset you once observed or because of a story about your family, I say go for it. And, for all you aspiring medical professionals out there, come to the Amon Carter and stay a while. It will only help your career!
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
One of our loveliest portraits is of a young Alice Vanderbilt Shepard by John Singer Sargent. Alice was a well known beauty, but she was involved in a childhood mishap that led to a life of enforced inactivity. During one period of convalescence she became interested in the idea of a neutral auxiliary language that could facilitate communication among diverse groups of people. Alice and her husband David Morris founded the International Auxiliary Language Association (IALA). Not too long after her death the Interlingua-English Dictionary was published, presenting to the world her life's work, Interlingua, a language for the world to use. All of us here at the Amon Carter wish you a "Felice natal e eon anno nove," which is "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" in Interlingua.
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
Alice Vanderbilt Shepard, 1888
Oil on canvas
Before you extract your roasting pan, baster, and meat thermometer from their storage places to cook your holiday bird, I ask that you pause for a moment to honor the nobly awkward fowl that is Thanksgiving’s most famous participant—the turkey.
Benjamin Franklin, purveyor of early American wisdom, is said to have remarked that, in comparison to the badly behaved bald eagle, the turkey was “though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
John James Audubon, VULGO (WILD TURKEY) Meleagris Gallapavo, Engraving with watercolor on wove, off-white paper, 1826
It’s no wonder, then, that in 1826, American ornithologist John James Audubon chose the wild turkey, or Meleagris gallapavo for the first plate of his monumental publication, The Birds of America (1827–38). Audubon’s grand project to record all the birds of North America was not merely a scientific pursuit but an artistic accomplishment of great ambition. Audubon’s life-sized rendition of the wild turkey is not your grandmother’s frozen Butterball but a resplendent creature with a full beard and intricately articulated copper, yellow, and blue feathers. He stands in a pose designed to show off all the colorful assets belonging to the male of the species. The successful outcome of Audubon’s now-famous project was not simply that he reproduced the birds to scale in a setting that allowed them to appear their most lifelike, but also that he sought the best collaborators to bring his project to life.
Audubon initially relied on the Scottish engraver William Home Lizars to translate his large watercolors into colored engravings, and the first ten plates in the series are the result of Lizars’s efforts. This print in the Amon Carter’s collection was possibly one of the first Audubon works to make its way to America from Edinburgh where it was printed.
If you happen to encounter a wild turkey this season, take care to check out his every attribute. Then, as the Meleagris gallapavo gobbles along his merry way, tip your hat to the prowess of John James Audubon.
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
As a recent addition to the Amon Carter’s staff as an assistant curator, and as a newcomer to Fort Worth, it’s comforting to have art around that reminds me of my east coast origins and the places I’ve been. Chances are, if you have the opportunity to care for and interpret a stellar collection of American art, you have had the privilege of engaging with one of the Diana sculptures created by the renowned nineteenth-century artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens. As I ascend the Amon Carter’s Atrium stairs, I am delighted to be greeted by our bronze Diana of the Tower.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), Diana of the Tower, bronze, 1899
A close friend of celebrated New York architect Stanford White, Saint-Gaudens was asked around 1887 to create a sculpture to adorn the top of the architect’s Madison Square Garden. Saint-Gaudens chose to make a monumental weathervane depicting the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana. Traditional classical sculptures of Diana were robust, but Saint-Gaudens, in the only female nude sculpture of his oeuvre, sculpted a more lithe version of the goddess, delicately balanced on one foot as if interrupted mid-hunt. When the original eighteen-foot-tall Diana, adorned with flying drapery, was installed atop the building’s tower, White and Saint-Gaudens were dismayed to discover she was out of proportion with the building and too unwieldy to move well. Down she came to be replaced with the thirteen-foot Diana now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, my former curatorial home. She was the talk of the town in her heyday.
Nineteenth-century Americans judged the sculpted goddess a major hit, and she quickly became the most famous nude in the country. Saint-Gaudens then went about creating intricate bronze reductions of the larger goddess. Each one of the smaller versions was modeled by hand and varied in the configuration of bow, arrow, string, hair, patination, and base. So, even though I have seen a Diana or two in my day, there’s always something special to see with each encounter.
Our 1899 small-scale Diana of the Tower is not the lone representative of the sculpture in our collection, or even in Fort Worth. Over time, the Amon Carter has acquired three different versions of Saint-Gaudens’s Diana – the bronze, an early concrete sculpture, and the large gilded version that now resides at Fort Worth’s Bass Hall.
Though a late-nineteenth-century artwork holds intrinsic appeal for me as an art historian, Diana is of particular interest to me as a former competitive archer. While Saint-Gaudens’s technique is beyond reproach, archers will tell you that the goddess could benefit from a few pointers. Suffice it to say, none of my competitors ever prospered by pulling the bowstring back behind the ear, and I never saw an Olympian able to shoot a bow standing on tippy toes!
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
The Amon Carter staff were very excited to welcome a new acquisition of a major, full-length painting by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). The work, titled Edwin Booth from 1890, is a portrait of the great 19th-century Shakespearean actor, Edwin Booth (1833–1893).
Come visit the museum and see this important piece of American art for yourself. Admission is always free.