Sunday, May 31, 2009

Summer Blockbusters

For the May Art Poll By Bob, I went floral in honor of those great post-April showers May flowers and asked, “Which of these beautiful bouquets would you pick for your garden of earthly delights?” In an Art Poll by Bob first, Gustav Klimt’s Country Garden with Sunflowers (1905-1906) beat out Vincent van Gogh’s Irises, Sait-Rémy (1889) 24 to 21, marking the first time that Vincent's not come out on top. Monet’s Monet's Garden, the Irises (1900) came in third with 16 votes and Frida Kahlo’s Flower of Life (1944) came in fourth with 9. Emil Nolde’s Flower Garden (1908) finished fifth with 7 votes, while Paul Gauguin’s Sunflowers (1901), Paul Klee’s Heroic Roses (1938), and Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Roses (1890) all tied for sixth with 5 votes each. Eugène Delacroix’s Bouquet of Flowers (1849-1850) brought up the rear with 3 votes. Thanks to all 95 people who stopped to smell the flowers and voted.

With June’s arrival, I can’t help but think of Summer, and Summer Blockbusters. In recent years, there’s been no source of blockbuster material as reliable as comic book superheroes such as Batman, fighting a villain named, of course, Blockbuster (created by Carmine Infantino, but the Detective Comics #349 of March 1966 cover art above is by Joe Kubert). I admit that I still haven’t “outgrown” my fascination with superheroes. Part of me is still that little boy coloring in his Batman coloring book, which included Blockbuster smashing through walls, etc., and wishing I could draw like those incredible artists. So, for the June 2009 Art Poll By Bob, I ask, “Which of these great comic artist’s work would you want to see on the big screen?”:

Neal Adams. Batman versus Ra’s al Ghul (1971).

Dave Cockrum. X-Men (1975).

Jack Cole. Plastic Man (1941).

Steve Ditko. Doctor Strange (1960s).

Frank Frazetta. Conan the Barbarian (1970s).

Jack Kirby. Captain America (1976).

Joe Kubert. Hawkman.

Todd McFarlane. Spider-Man (1990).

John Romita, Sr. Spider-Man (1967).

Joe Shuster. Superman (1938).

I know that not everyone in my audience is a comic book fan such as myself, but I hope that everyone can take a second look at recognize just what kind of draftsmanship and creativity went into these images. Jack Cole’s Plasticman is a study in abstract art all by himself! I could go on and on about each of these artists and what memories they stir up inside me, but I’ll let the works speak for themselves. So, don your capes, put on your masks, get some popcorn, and vote for these blockbusters of the imagination!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Independence Day

This year, I’m celebrating Independence Day early. Herewith is my personal Declaration of Independence (minus the crinkly paper, fancy penmanship, and Thomas Jefferson’s inimitable style). Today, after almost twenty years of working in publishing, toiling in cubicles and offices, I’m giving my two weeks of notice and taking the next step forward with my life. I’m going to be a teacher—a high school English teacher, to be specific. For the next year, I’ll be studying towards a Masters in Education that, combined with my MA in English Literature, will allow me to help educate the next generation of leaders. I’ve briefly tried my hand at teaching in the past on the college level, but with the love and support of Annie and Alex, I’m taking the plunge and pursuing a whole new evolutionary stage of self. Teaching and learning are so intertwined that I’m sure that my love of learning will allow me to infect teenagers with the same drive to excel. The texts may be by Melville and Wordsworth, but the subtext will always be learning how to think about the world around us and communicate with the rest of humanity throughout time. Lofty goals, I admit, but after two decades of deadline pressure with little to show for it, I’m ready to tilt at windmills, although I’ll never believe that education’s a lost cause.

When I recently saw a picture of Bob Trotman’s installation sculpture titled Business as Usual (Coverup, Chorus, and Committee) (above), it struck me as the perfect symbol of my life in corporate America. For fifteen years, I belonged to a company that was bought and sold like chattel. We used to laugh at how quickly company letterhead had to be discarded to keep up with the latest name change. In 2001, however, we were finally sold down the river. A foreign company that couldn’t get past Clinton’s Department of Justice’s interpretation of a monopoly found the Bush Administration quite accommodating. The day of corporate judgment when the retained and the redundant were to be separated was scheduled for September 12th, 2001—yes, one day after 9/11. Two corporate suits unfortunately had seats on one of the hijacked planes and died. Out of respect, the company waited two whole weeks before axing 75% of my department. I was retained, but vowed never to forget the looks on the faces of my friends as they were labeled redundancies. In Trotman’s installation, I’m one of the Chorus in the middle, flailing my arms in frustration as such inhumanity is covered over and a committee of corporate types weighs the lives of people against the bottom line with all the compassion of a stone wall.

Two years after that, with an eye on starting a family with Annie, I made the jump from the for-profit world of publishing to the non-profit world, which was strangely making a better profit than the for-profit sector. Better benefits, especially for healthcare, lured me away despite a cut in pay. We were coming out ahead, at least at the beginning. Sadly, the corporate world seemed to follow me, with new corporate suits bringing their inhumane perspective to what was truly a great situation. The better benefits disappeared. Quality of life became a real issue. I started this blog in search of a way of finding a new creative outlet for all the things that I felt were trapped inside me. The job itself had become such a monotonous bore and the workplace a land of the living dead, ala George Tooker’s Landscape With Figures (above, from 1965-1966), that I needed a new escape plan. After much thought, Annie and I realized that teaching was not just an escape from, but also an escape to. I was escaping to the person that I wanted to be.

For the first time in a long time, I feel like my occupation will have real purpose. I’ve never found any real sense of identity in the publishing world. Actually, I’ve felt sorry for some of the people who’ve submerged themselves in their jobs to the exclusion of finding fulfillment in their personal lives. That’s a price I’ve never wanted to pay. The idea of teaching has me bursting with optimism, ala William Blake’s Glad Day (above, from 1796), except, of course, with my clothes on. I’ve always lived the life of the mind as a sideline, a hobby, but as a teacher I will finally be able to bring that part of my life to the front and center. I’m sure this sounds naïve, but I go into teaching clear-eyed. I know there’s drudgery and hierarchies to answer to in the educational world, too, but the final result is something I’m willing to work towards, which is something I just can’t say about publishing. The ethical and moral injustice I’ve witnessed in the field threatens to corrode my soul. Just the promise of teaching even one kid how to think better cleanses my spirit like a warm, summer rain.

I invite everyone to visit my “other” blog, a work in progress about my life as a teacher in progress—Disco Doceo, which roughly translates in Latin to “to learn to teach.” It has nothing to do with The Hustle or the Bee Gees, but will trace my progress learning the steps to the pedagogical dance. Art Blog By Bob will continue as before, but this new venture will surely color and, I hope, improve my writing and thinking about art and life.

[Infinite thanks to Annie and Alex for inspiring me to take this giant leap. I love you.]

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Passion Play

Working as a teenager as apprentice to a glass painter and restorer, Georges Rouault came face to face daily with beautiful stained glass windows showing scenes of the life of Christ. Born May 27, 1871 to a poor, pious Parisian family, Rouault’s faith was always strong, but it was his friendship with the philosopher Jacques Maritain that drove Rouault to commit himself to painting primarily religious subjects. Rouault’s The Flagellation (above, from 1915) shows the lingering influence of stained glass window design in the cloisonnist dark lines separating the fields of color. Christ stands at the pillory in the center of the work to take the blows of the soldiers. World War I raged as Rouault painted this scene of suffering, which may allude to Europe’s self-flagellation in the name of nationalism. It is interesting that Rouault’s works concentrate almost exclusively on the passion and death of Christ, with no images that I know of depicting the triumph of the Resurrection. Rouault identified with agony more than ecstacy, saying once, “The conscience of an artist worthy of the name is like an incurable disease which causes him endless torment but occasionally fills him with silent joy.” Perhaps Rouault allowed himself a moment of “silent joy” upon completing The Flagellation, but the emphasis was definitely on the silence.

In 1920, Rouault painted The Crucifixion (above) in the same stained-glass style with the same contorted limbs. The Fauves claim Rouault as one of their own for his bold use of color. The Expressionists count him among their ranks for Rouault’s tortured rendition of the human body, usually Christ’s. Certainly Emil Nolde’s 1912 Prophet equals the religious fervor and Expressionist angst of Rouault’s religious works. I find it fascinating that Rouault paints Jesus in The Crucifixion without a beard, whereas other works show the familiar bearded face. Michelangelo chose to paint the Savior of The Last Judgment as a beardless youth to allude to the Greek ideal, casting Christ as a new Apollo bringing light into the world. I’m not sure that Rouault shared Michelangelo’s same faith in humanism, especially in 1920, when the aftershocks of the Great War continued to be felt throughout Europe. Maybe Rouault paints Jesus here as the beardless youth to stand for the whole generation of beardless European youth that met their end in the trenches and fields of wartime folly.

Before Rouault turned his attention to Christ-centered paintings, he painted series of works showing clowns, kings, and prostitutes as a way of commenting on the sad state of modern society. In Christ Mocked by Soldiers (above, from 1932) Rouault shows Jesus at the moment he is forced to play the clown king for the amusement of the soldiers, who crown him with thorns and place a reed “scepter” in his hands. In Christ Mocked by Soldiers, Rouault mocks the world itself, which he sees as prostituting itself for material things at the expense of its soul. “The richness of the world, all artificial pleasures,” Rouault lamented, “have the taste of sickness and give off a smell of death in the face of certain spiritual possessions.” By 1932, Rouault may have recognized, as did many others, the degenerating situation in the world that would eventually lead up to World War II. Rouault returns to the image of the bearded Christ here to emphasize the weariness of age rather than the innocence of youth of The Crucifixion. In his sixties himself, Rouault grew weary of the world and its self-destructive ways. Shortly before his death in 1958, Rouault destroyed three hundred of his own paintings, which would be worth a fortune today, as if to place them on his own funeral pyre and out of the reach of the materialists who valued them in currency instead of, as he did, in Christianity.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Band of Brothers

One of the most befuddling bands of artists for attributers remains the Le Nain brothers—Louis, Antoine, and Matthieu. Louis, who died on May 23, 1648, was born around 1593, followed by Antoine in 1599 and Matthieu in 1607, but even those birth years are partly conjecture. Complicating things even more so, the brothers signed all their works “Le Nain,” making conclusive individual attribution impossible. However, Louis, the eldest brother, usually gets credit for the peasant scenes the Le Nain name is best known for today. In Four Figures at Table (above, from the 1630s), a peasant family readies for a meal. The sepia tones of the painting lend an extra touch of nostalgia. Ironically, this portrait of peasant simplicity began as a portrait of a rich man. X-ray technology revealed the red touch in the boy’s face to be a pentimento, or painted over, portrait of a man wearing a red ruff. Whether the subject of that portrait failed to pay up is unknown, but his prosperous face was covered over much as the Le Nain brothers’ prosperous connections were covered over during a revival of their work in the mid-nineteenth century. Gustave Courbet saw recently installed works by the Le Nains in the Louvre and followed their example in creating such works as A Burial at Ornans. Little did Courbet suspect that a nobleman lurked beneath those peasants’ faces, or even that, as some critics today suspect.

During their lifetime, the Le Nain brothers made their fortune through commissions from the church and the upper class. Their Birth of the Virgin (above, from 1645) still hangs in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Such work, and other paintings by the brothers depicting popular mythological subjects, follows the tastes of the period. This conventionality and willingness to play the game well helped all three brothers become members of the French Royal Academy at its inception in 1648, the year that both Louis and Antoine died. Although Matthieu, the youngest, survived until about 1677, the “Le Nain” signature disappears on works after 1648, as if Matthieu let it die with his brothers. Matthieu, the official painter of Paris since 1633, eventually aspired to the nobility that he had served so well beside his brothers. That service, however, disserved the Le Nains during the French Revolution, when angry mobs targeted anything tainted by association with the church or the king. Associated with both blacklists, many of the church-related works of the Le Nain brothers met the flames during the revolution, effectively rewriting who and what they were until their “rediscovery” in the 1840s as painters of peasants.

Although much of their work is awkward in composition, dreadfully mainstream, or both, the Le Nain brothers sometimes could create a work as mysterious and compelling as Smokers in an Interior (above, from 1643). Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro clearly influences this painting, as it did so many other works in the seventeenth century. But Smokers in an Interior adds a mysterious (yes, smoky) element in the darkness. We don’t know who these men are or what they are doing together, or even if they are indeed together. Some of the men stare off blankly into space, disconnected from the rest of the pack. Others confront the viewer directly, as if caught performing some secret rite concluded by the conviviality of smoking together. In the balance of darks and lights here, the illuminations only serve to make the shadows rise in importance. Smokers in an Interior serves as the perfect visual emblem of the Le Nain brothers in its ability to generate question after question. Did Louis the eldest turn his attention from peasants to the middle class? Did Matthieu the overachieving baby of the family rise to the top of the class? Did Antoine, the middle brother, finally squeeze out of the obscurity of middledom? The Le Nain brothers keep their silence still.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cutting Session

What sets black portraiture apart from the rest of portraiture as a genre? In Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture, Richard J. Powell argues that the difference lies “in the artistic contract between the portrayer and the portrayed: conscious or unconscious negotiations that invest black subjects with social capital… invariably linked to the subject’s sense of self—an awareness that through self-adornment, self-composure, and self-imaging upsets the representational paradigm and creates something pictorially exceptional.” What makes black portraits “exceptional,” in other words, is the way that the subjects “clothe” themselves psychologically to produce a “self” to be portrayed and understood by another. Romare Bearden’s collage titled Pittsburgh Memory (above, from 1964) embodies this building up of self from parts that Powell sees at the heart of the “subject-dominated portraits” of black subjects versus the larger history of portraiture in which the artist’s vision dominates. Powell riffs off the idea of collage and makes use of the phrase “cutting a figure” to capture “the sense of pride and exhibitionism implicit in this expression,” which are “often qualified by race, class, and historical circumstances.” What a white audience may view as immodesty, a black audience may view as self-expression. Powell cuts apart the different subgenres of portraiture to reassemble in the end a clearer picture of the power of portraiture to give a voice to the voiceless.

In the chapter titled simply, “Interlocutors,” Powell traces how early black portraiture dealt with the issue of slavery and the continued control of the white population over image making. The “thematic current that flows throughout these works, intentional and subconscious,” Powell writes, “is freedom: both personal, bodily emancipation and sovereignty in a more abstract, metaphysical sense.” Nathaniel Jocelyn’s Cinque (above, from 1840) neatly encapsulates this freedom-centered dynamic. When a group of Africans from Sierra Leone faced trial in the Amistad case recounted in the 1997 film, abolitionists commissioned Jocelyn to paint a portrait of the slaves’ leader, Sengbe Pieh, whose name was mispronounced as Joseph Cinque. Jocelyn shows Sengbe with startling humanity. “Looking more like a Greco-Roman divinity than a brutish marauder, and with a staff that invokes the insignia of an ancient shepherd or wanderer,” Powell writes of Cinque, “this representation contradicts the prevailing perception of Cinque and his fellow Africans as savages and instead embraces a republican ideal, an allegorical representation of Christian proselytizing, and a symbol of black activism.” Powell then moves from Sengbe’s passive role in propagandizing against slavery to the active roles of activists such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Both Douglass and Truth used their personal appearances as weapons in the fight against slavery. Rumors that the exceptionally tall Truth was actually a man compelled her to bare her breasts in public to silence critics, which drew even greater sympathy to her cause as both a black and a woman. In Douglass’ case, Powell notes, the sexual dimension aided his cause differently. “[T]he hypnotic power that [Douglass] and certain other black men had over spectators” created “a potency that combined race, gender, and sexuality to achieve psychological dominion over cultural perception and social stratification,” Powell asserts. Thanks to photography and paintings, Douglass and Truth spread the word of freedom through the power of portraiture.

In a fascinating and daring leap, Powell abruptly turns his attention to the case of Donyale Luna, the first internationally acclaimed African-American fashion model. Almost completely forgotten today, Luna’s “Nefertiti-like face” appeared in magazines and on television regularly in the mid to late 1960s. Much of that forgetting comes from how unforgettable Donyale once was in the fashion world. “Contesting the prevailing white/male/artist-dominated production of acquiescent black images,” Powell writes, “Luna’s aggressive figure cuts through the racial and gender hierarchies, imposes its own aesthetic will, and prevails.” American magazines actually banned Richard Avedon’s 1966 photograph of Luna in a dress by Paco Rabanne (above) for this very aggression. In this section, Powell gives convincing weight to the sometimes lightweight world of high fashion modeling as a real barometer of social attitudes and the role of portraiture in revealing those views. Donyale stepped outside the boundaries of modeling to pall around with the likes of Miles Davis and Andy Warhol, write and act in plays, and even appear in films by Warhol, Federico Fellini, and Carmelo Bene. Even Dali doodled on Donyale during an encounter in 1966. Sadly, drug abuse led to Luna’s early death in 1979, just as models such as Iman and Grace Jones began to follow her unconventional path. In tracing the trajectory of Luna’s rise and fall, Powell prepares the ground for a later discussion of how in the 1980s, blacks were suddenly omnipresent in American media, from The Cosby Show to Michael Jordan’s endorsement blitzkrieg. Jean-Michael Basquiat comes to embody the “black bohemia” of the 1980s art scene. After the height of Gatorade’s “Like Mike,” however, comes the low of the 1990s rap generation, who “for better or worse, revealed a nihilism and avarice that, while present within any socioeconomic grouping, had not previously been seen so broadly or explicitly in an African-American context.” Tupak Shakur and others come to represent “the unheralded but irrefutable demise of a representative blackness as it had been known,” Powell laments. The strength and freedom of Douglass, Luna, et al. disappears into the void of materialism and anarchy of “thug culture.”

For Powell, the 1970s represent a “golden age” of black portraiture, in which “attention-grabbing hair-styles, along with clothing made of leather, polyester, and cotton with African-style prints, became the primary means by which African-Americans announced themselves anew, challenged the white status quo, and probed the more extroverted sides of their personality.” No artist got as down and funky in a fine arts way as Barkley L. Hendricks. Hendricks recognized that young African-Americans formed a sense of “blackness” from clothing and attitude. In a 1977 self-portrait titled Brilliantly Endowed, Hendricks painted himself nude except for some jewelry, striped socks, Converse sneakers, and an applejack cap perched on his head to emphasize the role in how clothes made the man, even when it was just the accessories. Later travels to Africa impressed on Hendricks the role of a specific black “attitude” via clothing in black cultural survival. During one of those trips, Hendricks encountered the singer and activist Fela, whom he painted posthumously in 2002 in Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen… (above). “Hendricks’ Fela employs his art as a creative offense,” Powell writes, “and his body as a jump-suited defense against moral hypocrisy, political corruption, and, above all, social invisibility.”

The decorative background of Hendricks’ portrait of Fela draws immediate comparisons to the iconic hip-hop portraits of Kehinde Wiley. In Wiley’s “Passing/Posing” paintings, however, Powell sees not the subject-centered portraiture of Hendricks but, instead, “Tupac Shakur-like ‘thug fiction’ where macho self-deception and hip-hop ‘fronting’ cut straight into the heart of representational matters.” Sadly, the subject center no longer holds in black portraiture for Powell, one of the many symptoms of a larger identity void that plagues not only African-Americans and America as a whole. “Through self-fashioning, provocative role-play, and other insignia,” Powell concludes, “peoples of African descent and their artistic delineators have slashed away at the fixed boundaries imposed upon black bodies in the public, predominantly Euro-American arena.” Like Jean-Paul Goude’s four-part portrait of Grace Jones (above, from 1978), the idea of the black portrait remains a fluid, ever-changing work in progress. Powell’s approach to the subject mimics that of a great jazz musician taking themes from here and there to create a new, personal composition full of individual flavor. Young jazz musicians looking to challenge the established lions would enter “cutting sessions” in which no mercy was shown. (Charlie Parker recalled having a cymbal thrown at him on his first attempt.) In Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture, Richard J. Powell enters the lion’s den of art history to do battle with the long legacy of portraiture and succeeds in emerging with a new vision of the black portrait as a valuable tool for self-fashioning in the past and, hopefully, for the future.

[Many thanks to the University of Chicago Press for providing me with a review copy of Richard J. Powell’s Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture.]

Monday, May 25, 2009

Rub a Dub Dub

Any parent will tell you that one of the most “interesting” parts of their day is bath time. Thanks to a small armada of toy boats, Mr. Bubble, and assorted other tricks, Alex usually enjoys his bath time. After pulling my slippery three year old from the suds and wrapping him up in a dry towel, I sweep him up in my arms and hold him close to keep him warm. For that brief moment, he’s our little baby again. Although never a parent herself, Mary Cassatt painted many scenes of mothers and children during bath time. Born May 22, 1844, Cassatt met Edgar Degas and worked closely with him. Degas’ interest in the female nude in a bath setting may have spurred Cassatt’s interest in her own bath pictures, which have a more acceptably “female” approach in the motherly relationship between child and parent. Cassatt’s The Bath (above, from 1891-1892) shows the early style of Cassatt, not yet fully Impressionist yet no longer entirely the strict realism of her PAFA training. Around the time of this painting, Cassatt saw an exhibition of Japanese prints as part of the larger Japonisme fad of the age. Elements of Japonisme appear in The Bath in the diagonal of the child’s body crossing against the near diagonals of the mother’s striped dress. The flatness of much of the color also shows the influence of Japanese prints. In addition to all these styles straining against each other simultaneously, Cassatt tenderly depicts the intimacy of the mother and child at the moment that the child is the most vulnerable.

In Jules Being Dried by His Mother (above, from 1900), Cassatt depicts the next stage of the process. Degas loved to show women after the bath, especially during that awkward transition from water to dry ground. Little Jules here looks straight ahead while his mother’s eyes lock on his face with affection. In this painting, the intimacy seems almost one-sided. Cassatt paints their disconnect rather than a connection here. Little Jules is not so little anymore. He seems ready to do things for himself. Jules’ expression shows almost a kingly tolerance of his mother drying his limbs. The elaborate dress of Jules’ mother appears almost courtly rather than realistic, adding to the regal indifference of princely Jules. (I personally prefer a t-shirt and running shorts when administering ablutions.) Stylistically, Cassatt begins to turn more Impressionist. Jules Being Dried by His Mother shows an almost Renoir-like softness in the modeling of faces and bodies, an interesting divergence from the influence of Degas. Although unrealistic, the pattern of yellow and white as well as the shimmering highlights of the mother’s dress make it the star of the painting.

In After the Bath (above, from 1901), Cassatt copies the gestural pastel technique of Degas in the parallel lines that make the picture almost seem to move. Degas allowed himself to grow bolder and bolder in this technique to the point that the bathers or dancers in the work became almost superfluous to the technique. Cassatt, however, continues to center the image on the relationships of the subjects. In After the Bath, Cassatt returns to the intimacy of mother and child, but with the added twist of a love triangle formed by the presence of an older sibling. Sigmund Freud and his idea of sibling rivalry developing from the Oedipus complex were not yet mainstream ideas, but any student of human nature such as Cassatt instinctively knew that siblings will fight among themselves for more face time with parents. Is the older child’s grip on the baby’s wrist a gesture of affection of an attempt to break the contact between baby and mother? The painting doesn’t offer any clues as to motivations or final outcome but does allow for the possibility of connection or conflict. As a woman, Cassatt felt limited in her range of subjects. Painting in the acceptable genre of bath time, Cassatt could subversively explore avenues in the human heart that exist at every age.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Urban Myths

Henri Rousseau, better known by some as “Le Douanier” or “The Customs Officer” (his occupation until his retirement in 1893), painted in obscurity during his lifetime but is known well today for his mysterious, almost childlike paintings of wonder such as Sleeping Gypsy and The Snake Charmer. Born May 21, 1844 in the Loire Valley, Rousseau’s most famous works present a strange jungle world, yet he himself inhabited the urban jungle of Paris for most of his career. Rousseau’s Self-Portrait of 1890 (above) shows him situated in a civilized setting, yet still retains the simplicity and unstudied charm of his other works. During his lifetime, Rousseau withstood the ridicule of other artists who couldn’t understand his primitive style. However, Jean-Léon Gérôme, an academic painter himself, gave tips to his friend Rousseau as “Le Douanier” pursued painting past the point of being a hobby into a true outlet for his unique perspective. As much as I love Rousseau’s dark jungles, I find it equally fascinating how he applied his unique vision to the real world around him, spying modern wonders with that same childlike fascination.

When Rousseau painted The Eiffel Tower (above, from 1898), Gustave Eiffel’s colossus was less than a decade old. Anyone who has visited Paris has some visual memory of the tower, either from a vantage point in the city or, if you’ve taken the ride up, from above, looking down upon Paris itself. The Eiffel Tower anchors Paris like a lighthouse shining its beacon to guide lost travelers home. With that powerful effect in mind, it’s fascinating that Rousseau chooses to literally cut the Eiffel Tower down to size in a painting named after it. He reduces the landmark to the size of a gift shop replica hanging from a key chain. Instead, the waterways of Paris dominate the scene as the Parisians who work the banks go about their daily jobs. Rousseau flips the idea of importance on its head in this painting. All adults “know” that the Eiffel Tower is the most “important” thing in this painting, but children don’t know such things. Children visually value the waterways and the workings of the people just as much, if not more, as Rousseau tries to show in this painting.

Before his death in 1910, Rousseau got to witness the advent of powered flight, which began with the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903. In View of the Bridge at Sevres and the Hills at Clamert, Saint Cloud and Bellevue (above, from 1908), Rousseau paints a Wright Brothers-style plane sputtering across the sky. Nearby, a type of dirigible flies. The early twentieth century saw a “golden age” of blimps and dirigibles. Races were even held above Paris using the Eiffel Tower as a turning stake. In the distance between the plane and the dirigible, a hot air balloon floats. The first manned balloon ride happened in Paris in 1783 in a contraption built by the famous Montgolfier brothers. Rousseau’s arrangement of these three flying machines suggests the advent of the plane and blimp and the decline of the hot air balloon technologically. (Thomas Eakins’ 1871 Max Schmitt in a Single Scull creates a similar hierarchy by showing older, slower watery craft in the distance behind the Schmitt’s sleek racer.) To Rousseau’s old, yet young eyes, these new flying machines must have seemed magical. Critics credit Rousseau for opening up avenues of seeing that paved the way for the Surrealists, but in his more “real” works of wonder, Rousseau showed us more importantly the value of seeing as a child sees and recognizing the magic all around us every day.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


The long and often tragic history of Germany is tied up in large part with an identity complex. Like many European countries, the idea of Germany as a country with clear borders is a relatively modern one. Wars and kingships have moved borders back and forth so often that what was German land and what wasn’t remained an enduring question. In the late nineteenth century, Germany tried to fill this identity void by creating truly Germanic heroes. In the world of art, Albrecht Durer was crowned the first and truest German superstar. Born May 21, 1471, Durer brought the Italian Renaissance north, where it became the Northern Renaissance. Yet, just as Germany itself was a work in progress, Durer had to grow into his superstardom. The Self-Portrait of 1493 (above) shows the 22-year-old Durer at the beginning of his career, just starting to travel across Europe to accrue the mixture of influences that would inspire his mature work. Durer painted this self-portrait in Basel and shipped it back to his intended back in Nurermberg, writing “Things with me fare as ordained from above” at the top of the picture. From the very beginning, Durer sensed his fate was in God’s hands.

Just five years after painting the awkward Self-Portrait of 1493, Durer paints the self-assured Self-Portrait of 1498. Durer now sits up straighter than before. Whereas the 1493 portrait is isolated, the 1498 portrait includes a window onto the world. Durer had just returned from Venice with the Italian Renaissance still fresh in his mind. The world had literally broken wide open for Durer in the span of just five years. Legend has it that Durer’s dog barked and wagged his tail upon seeing the 1498 portrait for the first time, fooled into thinking it was actually his master. The realism of this portrait as well as the opulence of the clothing Durer wears show that Durer had mastered the techniques of the Renaissance masters and was turning a fine profit for himself. Yet, Durer remains turned slightly away, as if he can’t yet bring himself to face the viewer full on. His mission was not yet complete.

In the final painted Self-Portrait of 1500 (above), Durer faces the viewer directly in total confidence of his powers. He wears kingly clothing and his hair cascades down like a lion’s mane, proclaiming him the king of the German cultural jungle. Durer assumes visually the mantle of the King of Kings, Christ himself, in this final self-portrait not out of blasphemous braggadocio but instead to illustrate how the artist imitates God himself in the creative act. If imitation is the sincerest flattery, Durer imitates Christ to praise him as the source of all artistic and creative power. In a 1522 drawing, Durer lent his features to Christ again, but this time as the Man of Sorrows instead of Christ triumphant. As age began to take its toll on Durer, he identified increasingly with the Suffering Servant side of Christ’s story, recognizing that his ascension to the rank of creator had ended. Of all the artists in different media adopted by the Nazis at the apex of German nationalism, Durer and perhaps Beethoven seem to be the two left untainted by that association. As the German Expressionists recognized (especially Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who fashioned himself a modern-day Durer through his own self-portraiture), the stellar light of a superstar such as Durer can never be tarnished by mere mortals.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Crowded Out

Along with Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens helped make the Antwerp school famous during its day. Born May 19, 1593, Jordaens was younger than Rubens and slightly older than van Dyck, who sandwich him in the minds of art historians today to the point of being crowded out, much as he crowded himself out in his Self-Portrait with Parents, Brothers, and Sisters (above, from 1615). Jordaens forces us to play some Dutch version of Where’s Waldo? to find him among the familial fray, and even squeezes in a pair of cherubs over his head to fill out the last empty space. The individuality of the portraits in this group recalls the touch and technique of van Dyck, whose portrait style took England by storm and continued to influence British artists centuries later. At the same time, the comedy of the crowded room, which reminds me of the “stateroom scene” from The Marx Brothers’ movie A Night at the Opera, follows the line of conventional Dutch genre painting illustrating daily life with all its ups and downs. Rubens and van Dyck walked with royalty, but Jordaens never lost his common touch, which may be why he’s become the Zeppo of the Antwerp School.

Rubens actually hired Jordaens to create larger-scale versions of some of his original designs—a common practice in the apprenticeship world of guilds. This outsourcing proves that Rubens recognized Jordaens’ talent as well as his Rubenesque style. Jordaens’ Prometheus (above, from 1640) reinterprets Rubens’ famous Prometheus Bound of 1611. First, Jordaens flips the composition of Prometheus Bound and the vulture, creating a mirror image. Next, he concentrates more on showing Prometheus’ anguish facially rather than through the contortion of his body, thus inserting a van Dyck style portrait into a Rubens. Finally, whereas Rubens left Prometheus alone on the crag to fight the vulture forever, Jordaens shows the moment at which Hermes comes to the rescue. It is almost as if Rubens was comfortable with the idea of eternal torment (perhaps reflecting an idea of man’s inherent sinfulness), whereas Jordaens couldn’t allow the story to not have a happy ending. Jordaens desire to save Prometheus falls in line with his happier view of humanity, flaws and all.

Of course, not everything is sunny in Jordaens’ world. The shadow of Caravaggio falls heavily on some of Jordaens more mysterious work, particularly the enigmatic Apparition by Night (above, undated). A young man tosses and turns in his sleep as a ghostly nude female figure walks across the room. Two women open the door to look in on the youth and their candle lights the room just enough for us to see the spectral seductress. Whereas Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro sharpened his scenes with the stark dark and light drama, Jordaens’ brand of chiaroscuro forces us to look as through a glass darkly. The nude ghost seems to walk not only in darkness but also underwater, making her murkier and more apparitional. I can’t help contrast Apparition by Night with Henry Fuseli’s Nightmare and Silence, which also muddy the visual waters to conjure ghosts in the night. Jordaens’ Apparition by Night seems almost Romantic by that association with Fuseli even though he paints a full two centuries before the “Romantic” age. Like the apparition, we see Jordaens only fleetingly in the shadows of his bigger countrymen, but wish we could see him in a stronger, more revealing light.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Brotherly Love

Before you even open Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision, edited by Katherine Lochman and Carol Jacobi, you know that this is a different kind of art history book. The faux Victorian exterior design and endpapers transport you back to that time and prepare you to see the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and others through their eyes and not through the distorting lens of a century and a half of critique, including the help (and sometimes harm) of fellow Victorian John Ruskin’s writings. In his 1905 book, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hunt railed against depictions of Rossetti as the clear leader of the group, calling himself the “true” Pre-Raphaelite adhering to the original tenets of the Brotherhood. “The book ends with an attack on decadence [i.e., French Impressionism and Modernism in general] and an expression of anxiety about the downfall of the noble British artistic tradition,” Carole Silver writes in her essay, “Visions and Revisions.” In a painting such as Hunt’s The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro During the Drunkenness Attending the Revelry on the Eve of Saint Agnes (above, from 1848), taking a scene from Keats’ poem The Eve of Saint Agnes, Hunt rewrites Keats’ lines to emphasize his moralizing mission. In casting the fleeing lovers as moral rather than the drunken partiers, “Dreams are compared with truth, appetite to love, social rules and rituals to personal freedom,” Carol Jacobi writes in “Pre-Raphaelite Rebellion: Brotherly Love.” As Jacobi puts it, the Pre-Raphaelites arose from “[s]tylistic innovation… generated by a shared interest in vision that was part of a timely and sophisticated inquiry into the nature of subjectivity… artists, poets, and critics alike debated the predicament of the individual in modern circumstance and the role of art in a material age.” This collection sets out to show how Hunt and his “brothers” set out to save the world through art by reaching back to the “Pre-Raphaelite,” pre-corrupted age of morality that the materialism of their society had left behind.

The most concrete example of Hunt’s personal mission to spread the word remains The Light of the World (above, the second, 1854 version). In “The Light of the World: Mission and Message,” Jonathan Mane-Wheck retraces the steps of the most traveled artwork in history, seen by more than seven million people on a 1905 tour of the British Empire, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. Mane-Wheck sees modern distaste for Hunt’s Light originating in confusion between the work itself and the “kitsch industry” surrounding and, in many ways, stemming from it. Hunt paints Christ holding a lantern and knocking on a door—an embodiment of opportunity knocking, in this case the opportunity to embrace salvation. Hunt himself, however, rejected harsh dogma. “Possessing a more synthetic, universalist concept of religion,” Mane-Wheck asserts, Hunt “was open to Judaism and Islam.” In fact, when Hunt created a smaller version of his Light in 1854, he modified the lamp with a star and crescent as a nod to Islam “to show the breadth of the Christian system, which takes in other systems,” Hunt told an interviewer at the time. Unfortunately, over time, Hunt’s personal intentions have been clouded not only by a religious intolerance he did not practice, but also by political appropriation. “In its journey across the globe,” Mane-Wheck writes, “The Light of the World had become an icon of British Imperial Protestantism.” Hunt certainly believed in the nobility of British art and its power to save, but may have been uneasy in his Christ being “drafted” in the battle for colonization.

In “Textile Background: Cloth and Costume,” Linda Parry examines Hunt’s life-long relationship with fabrics and costume and how that experience played out in his painting. Both Hunt’s father and grandfather worked in the London textile industry. Hunt grew up in a home just above the textile works and even worked in the industry for two years before devoting himself to art. The drawings of the clothing designers were among the first artworks Hunt saw firsthand. This world of color and textures easily translated into the opulence of such works as The Finding of the Savior in the Temple (above, from 1860)—Hunt’s retelling of the story of the young Christ found lecturing in the temple. Many of the rich colors in Hunt’s painting copy newly developed dyes of the 1850s. (Joyce H. Townsend and Jennifer Poulin discuss elsewhere Hunt’s painstaking approach to pigments to the point of pointing out defects to the manufacturers.) Photographs of costumes Hunt designed for his models accompanying Parry’s essay as testimony not only to Hunt’s love of fashion, but also of his exacting brand of realism. Thanks to his travels in the Middle East and the Holy Land, Hunt developed a taste for exotic dress that he satisfied with costumes for himself, which allowed him to feel closer to the religious subjects centuries in the past that he painted in the Victorian present.

It is Hunt’s relentless search for fidelity in his depiction of matters of faith that truly sets him apart from his Pre-Raphaelite brethren. As a pilgrim in the Holy Land, Hunt identified with the plight of the Jewish people to the point of becoming an outspoken Zionist in support of the founding of a Jewish state. As Nicholas Tromans explains in “Palestine: Picture of Prophecy,” Hunt “saw himself as a kind of avant-garde Christian intellectual, looking confidently (on the whole) to the future of an ever-changing world in which a divine centre nevertheless held steady.” Neither Darwinism nor Zionism could shake Hunt’s faith. In fact, Hunt saw a continuity not only between the symbolic typology of Judaism and of Christianity but also between, as Tromans puts it, “divine revelation and modern science.” Hunt’s humanism spurs him to paint works such as The Shadow of Death (above, from 1871), which combines the realism of Hunt’s research in the Middle East with the symbolism of the cross-like shadow in the rear that horrifies the Virgin Mary. In fact, Hunt’s humanism as played out in the realistic depiction of Christ as carpenter stretching his limbs drew criticism for being too real and ignoring the divine side of the savior. In his religion, his politics, and his art, Hunt refused to draw the same lines of distinction that others did. Tromans paints a picture of Hunt the Zionist as a Victorian Bono. “Like a rock star of today seeking to shame politicians into acting on African poverty,” Tromans writes, not naming names, “Hunt’s credibility to speak [on a Jewish state] lay paradoxically exactly in his political inexperience and overt individualism.” I couldn’t help smiling at Tromans comparison, which cast Hunt, the “stodgy” “pious” Victorian in a whole new light. I almost immediately put amber, wraparound sunglasses on Hunt in my mind’s eye.

Carole Silver sums up the whole Hunt (above in his Self-Portrait of 1867) nicely: “Today we see him as a man of his era, replete with its visions and blindnesses, at times a rebel, at others deeply conventional, intensely nationalistic and filled with British imperialist ideology, yet capable of great religious and ethnic tolerance, at times patriarchal, at others somewhat radical in view of relations between the sexes.” As much recent research on the Victorian era suggests, the Victorians were never as “Victorian” as we believe them to be. They were as inconsistent, intolerant, and individualistic as any other age but perhaps slightly more conscious of the modern turn towards materialism and away from the spiritual to the point of wanting to reverse the course. In his 1867 Self-Portrait, Hunt paints himself as painter-prophet adorned in the richly colored dress of a Middle Eastern wise man while holding a palette full of colors with which he could paint his next tale of moral instruction. Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision wipes away much of the false imagery of intervening discourse and takes us back to the source, lighting the path back to The Light of the World and other works to illuminate their original intent, which is invariably more interesting than the conventional wisdom handed down to us. The Victorians stood on the brink of the modern life that we continue to deal with today. William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood tried to turn back the clock to the fundamentals of life and art that they believed would make the future brighter and better.

[Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy of Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision, edited by Katherine Lochman and Carol Jacobi.]

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Dark Ages

Any adult who has received a Catholic education and survived will have plenty of “interesting” stories to tell of the more mystical or, as we liked to call them, weird aspects of the faith, which were usually remnants of the theology born during the time not so affectionately known as the Dark Ages. (They prefer the Middle Ages now.) Domenico di Pace Beccafumi, better known simply as Il Beccafumi, died on May 18, 1551, as the Dark Ages were giving way to the enlightening humanism of the Renaissance. Born 1486, Beccafumi, whose name translates roughly as “catching smoke,” painted the dark, smoky Self-Portrait above around 1525, at the height of his career. Little did he suspect that he was one of the last of his kind, the last of Mannerist painters of the Sienese School of Il Sodoma and others. For modern art lovers, the Florentine School stretching from Giotto to Michelangelo and Botticelli overshadows the work of their Sienese cousins, but the art of the Sienese Mannerists, particularly that of Beccafumi offers us a glimpse of the medieval Catholic mind.

Perhaps the most repulsive of all the torture-centered saints is Saint Lucy (above), painted by Beccafumi in 1521. It was common to portray saints with some token of the method of their martyrdom. Even Michelangelo’s Last Judgment shows several saints in the circle around Christ brandishing the weapons of their own destruction. Because legends has it that Saint Lucy’s eyes were gouged out before her execution, she is often shown holding her eyes. Because she’s holding the eyes, or other times (as here) displaying them on a plate, while the eyes in her head are restored, I was confused as a child as to whose eyes she was actually serving up for our viewing, uh, pleasure. The gruesomeness of this imagery emphasized the physicality of the saint’s suffering to a mostly illiterate church-going population. In an age of plagues and all-around short life expectancy, suffering was the common coin of life, the language people understood easiest. Saint Lucy’s eyes to my modern eyes seemed grotesque, whereas the eyes of a sixteenth-century boy may have recognized them as par for the course.

It’s hard for us to step into the shoes of Beccafumi and think like him and the people he worked for because we live in a post-Renaissance, humanist world (or at least like to think we do). We just don’t see ourselves as fallen into sin as Beccafumi’s time did. Beccafumi’s Christ in Limbo (above, from 1530-1535) shows Christ’s Harrowing of Hell during the time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Today, the idea of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and his visiting of the good, but unbaptized souls relegated to Limbo seem politically incorrect in our polytheistic world. Beccafumi might have sensed the unfairness of this doctrine of the early church by sympathetically portraying the souls approaching Christ and asking for redemption. Beccafumi unbalances the composition by outweighing Christ on the left with the abundance of dead on the right. Christ’s expression mixes both compassion and almost surprise at how death had undone so many. Yet, in Beccafumi’s world, rules are rules. Christ’s crucifixion opened the gates of Heaven for the Old Testament saints awaiting that redemptive moment, but for the unbaptized remainder, nothing could save them from a life of aimless limbo. My bleeding liberal’s heart would have made me a bad Medieval man, but I really should judge Beccafumi’s theology since I don’t know how I would have acted in his time and place. Beccafumi’s art is truly a glimpse into another worldview at the near the very end of its reign.

Friday, May 15, 2009

All in the Timing

It’s very ironic that it took a comedian—the manic Michael Palin of Monty Python fame—to resurrect the reputation of an artist known for the deathly quiet and stillness of his art—Vilhelm Hammershoi. Of course, Palin’s mind is much more versatile than that of a simple madcap, as his thoughts on Hammershoi prove, just as Hammershoi is much more than a kind of grand claustrophobic of art. Born May 15, 1864, Hammershøi studied painting as a young man and exhibited a portrait of his young sister Anna, titled Portrait of a Young Girl (above, from 1885), as his first public attempt at success. Although many, including reportedly Renoir admired Portrait of a Young Girl, Hammershoi failed to win the prize, just the first of many slights that would drive Hammershoi further and further into himself. Today, Hammershoi has become a “name” in the lexicon of Danish art thanks to several touring exhibitions of his work in the United States and Europe. Although portraits such as that of Anna and even nude studies by Hammershoi exist, the “branding” of Hammershoi as a reclusive, obsessive painter of interiors, almost exclusively the famous apartments he shared with his wife, has taken hold, possibly forever. Like Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh, Hammershoi suffers from an overabundance of psychobiography when critics try to grasp his work and understand the artist himself.

Part of the reason why Hammershoi seems to perpetually recline on the art historian’s psychobabble “couch” is the lack of source materials. Hammershoi’s silent works seem even more silent thanks to the lack of words left behind by the artist. Whereas someone such as the recently departed Thomas Chimes surrounded his works with volumes of verbage, Hammershoi deafens us with his quietness. Hammershoi himself seems to have been extremely shy, once famously traveling to England to meet his hero Whistler and then never mustering the courage to knock him up. Regardless, Hammershoi’s paintings, such as Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30 (above, from 1901), stand for more than agoraphobia. Painting his wife Ida in their home, Hammershoi captures the coziness of his domestic setting while also creating a fascinating composition of shapes. The frames on the wall echo the larger frame of the wall itself. The plates lined up on the table draw us into the picture, as if inviting us to sit down and eat as we listen to the music. The colors are somber, but the mood is not funereal. Hammershoi feels at home here, and wants us to, too.

I have no idea if artists such as Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper were ever aware of the work of Hammershoi. The plates in Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30 remind me of the plates in Wyeth’s Groundhog Day. Hammershoi’s Sunbeams, or Sunshine: Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams (above, from 1900) reminds me of Hopper’s quote that all he wanted to do was paint the play of light on a wall. Just like Wyeth made an entire universe out of his Chadds Ford surroundings, Hammershoi created whole galaxies out of a simple set of connecting rooms. Light coming through the window of his parlor served as the doorway to infinite. If William Blake could see infinity in a single grain of sand, Hammershoi could find it in a dust mote dancing in sunlight. If artists’ reputations can be likened to stocks, Hammershoi stock is rising slowly and, characteristically, quietly.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


The idea of the “maneater” or, as the French would say, femme fatale is one of the oldest tropes in Western civilization, going all the way back to Samson’s Delilah in the Bible and further back into the darkness before recorded time. Much of the look of the modern maneater comes from the brush of the most sensual member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Born May 12, 1828, Rossetti founded the PRB with John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt and followed the religious and moralizing trend of the Brotherhood at the beginning. However, Rossetti drifted more and more to the carnal over the spiritual, especially after the death of his one-time model, fellow-artist, wife, and everlasting muse Elizabeth Siddal. A year after Lizzie’s death, Rossetti began painting Beata Beatrix (above, from 1864-1870), which casts his departed wife as Beatrice Portinari from Dante Alighieri's poem La Vita Nuova. Dante Alighieri held Beatrice up as the epitome of purity, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti seems to follow suit, but there are hints that Siddal as Beatrice isn’t as snow white. The dove that brings flowers isn’t the conventional white of purity but rather the red of passion. Rossetti ostensibly shows the moment when Beatrice dies and experiences the rapture of the divine embrace, but like Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, the difference between an expression of religious thrill and that of sexual orgasm is clearly blurred. As discussed in Jay A. Clarke’s Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth (my review here), Edvard Munch recognized this dual nature in Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix and translated it into his Madonna. Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix perfectly embodies the In Freudian idea of the Madonna-whore complex decades before Freud himself coined the term.

After the death of Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti struggled to find firm footing in her personal life, even as his artistic career blossomed. Rossetti careened among a traffic jam of mistresses, experiencing his fair share of total wrecks. One of those mistresses, Fanny Cornforth, served as the model for Lady Lilith (above, from 1868). Mythology paints Lilith as a strong, usually destructive female force and sometimes even as the first wife of the first man, Adam. Rather than mythologize the scene, Rossetti paints his Lilith in contemporary clothing. Fanny’s Lilith lounges in her bedclothes rather than the corseted garb of Victorian days and contemplates her pouty lips in a mirror. Fast forward a century, and Lady Lilith becomes Sharon Stone crossing her legs in Basic Instinct. Rosetti accompanied Lady Lilith with Sonnet LXXVIII, entitled "Body's Beauty," from his book of poetry The House of Life:

Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.

And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
Lo! as that youth's eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

The long hair Lilith dithers with in the painting becomes literally a noose that strangles unfortunate men in the poem. Whereas Beata Beatrix was equal parts Madonna and whore, Lady Lilith is pure harlot of the black widow variety.

It’s easy to see Rossetti as an embittered chauvinist in his portrayals of his maneaters. Just as the dangerous Lilith is also the strong woman of Lilith Fair fame, Rossetti’s femme fatales are also copies in some respect of the highly accomplished Lizzie Siddal, the supermodel of Pre-Raphaelitism that added a sister to the Brotherhood. With Venus Verticordia (above, from 1863-1868), Rossetti maintains the sense of danger while simultaneously exposing the full power of womanhood. As with Lady Lilith, Rossetti appended a sonnet to Venus Verticordia:

She hath the apple in her hand for thee,

Yet almost in her heart would hold it back;

She muses, with her eyes upon the track

Of that which in thy spirit they can see.

Haply, 'Behold, he is at peace,' saith she;'

Alas! the apple for his lips, - the dart

That follows its brief sweetness to his heart,

-The wandering of his feet perpetually.'

A little space her glance is still and coy;

But if she gets the fruit that works her spell,

Those eyes shall flame as for her Phrygian boy.

Then shall her bird's strained throat woe foretell,

And as far seas moan as a single shell,

And her grove glow with love-lit fires of Troy.

Rossetti mixes the message of menace found in the poem by adding natural touches to the painting. The arrow and apple of doom remain in the painting, but the lack of clothes (hence, all trappings of civilization) and addition of flowers portray Venus as Mother Nature, and you don’t fool with Mother Nature. Rossetti painted the face of Venus from one of his model-mistresses, Alexa Wilding, but he painted the body from a tall nanny that he happened to pass in the street. Only a woman who literally stood head and shoulders above the crowd would fit the bill for this painting. Rossetti painted all three of these maneaters around the same time, showing how he moved back and forth in his view of the subject—a complex and complexing concept that consumed him as he created the most unforgettable images and poems of his career.