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It Was a Dark and Stormy Mezzotint

POSTED BY , ON February 20, 2015, 1 COMMENTS

Frye

Mezzotint is the spookiest medium. This engraving process is perfect for nocturnal effects, as it starts with a roughed-up printing plate that prints in pure black. Any light sources—especially candles, fires, and glowing ingots—are added by burnishing in smoother areas, which print in lighter tones. Two exhibitions opening at the Art Institute this spring feature an abundance of mezzotint engravings. Fans of society portraiture will appreciate the velvet textures and pearl-strewn accessories lavished throughout Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design 1690-1840 (opening March 17 in Regenstein Hall). For those seeking a more sinister bedtime story, Burnishing the Night: Baroque to Contemporary Mezzotints from the Collection (opening February 21 in the Prints and Drawings Galleries 125-127) revels in artificial light, Old Testament lightning bolts, and garishly colored disembodied heads.

Dawe

Yet two of the scariest head studies to 18th-century eyes might not have been Jacques Gautier d’Agoty’s Cranial Dissection. Instead, they are the Irish artist Thomas Frye’s Young Man with a Candle (top image), whose bulging eyes scan the room for inexplicable horrors, and the English artist Philip Dawe’s Female Lucubration (image immediately above), which hangs next to it in the show. Dawe’s maidservant, reaching up for a book in the dead of night, is clearly up to no good. Is she is actually “lucubrating” (studying at night using artificial light)? Or is she simply pilfering her mistress’s saucier novels (perhaps the banned Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure). The “Novel-Reading Panic” throughout Europe in the 18th century expressed the moral anxiety over what, and if women were reading, just as the first Gothic novel was published. Literacy was a deeply frightening topic.

Everdingen

As the popularity of the mezzotint continued (the latest item in the show is from 2007), in 1905, the English writer M. R. James wrote a short story, called “The Mezzotint,” in which an image of an anonymous country house changes of its own accord. While the story does not refer to a real print, Allaert van Everdingen’s Baroque Landscape in the Dark Manner (above) gives a similar feeling of ambiguity. Like the children in Roald Dahl’s The Witches ,who vanish into paintings and grow old in them, or Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels, who only move when no one is watching, a kidnapping or murder is reenacted within the space of the print. From “The Mezzotint”:

At last, some time past midnight, he was disposed to turn in, and he put out his lamp after lighting his bedroom candle. The picture lay face upwards on the table . . . What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable—rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

The protagonist, a print curator at Oxford or Cambridge, keeps watch as the print turns from day to night, the ghostly figure enters the house, and then sneaks away, with a child under his arm. The curator buys the print for his collection, but keeps a careful eye on it. As with any mezzotint, the textures lead to multiple interpretations. Once the tragic story within the mysterious print ran its course, however, that was that: “. . . though carefully watched, [the mezzotint] has never been known to change again.” In the flickering candlelight of Burnishing the Night, who knows what you’ll see?

Image Credits:

Thomas Frye. Young Man with a Candle, 1760. Gift of Dorothy Braude Edinburg to the Harry B. and Bessie K. Braude Memorial Collection.

Philip Dawe. Female Lucubration: Étude Nocturne, 1772. Gift of Langdon Pearce

Allart van Everdingen. Landscape in the Dark Manner, 1657–61. Alsdorf Fund

 


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Head to Head: Helmets of the Art Institute

POSTED BY , ON January 30, 2015, Comments Off

This Sunday the New England Patriots take on the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, and watercoolers and message boards are abuzz with talk of Deflategate, the Legion of Boom, and unauthorized “Beast Mode” hats. While Chicago may not have a dog in this race, we thought, why not show off a collection of helmets sure to put both teams to shame? Though most of these helmets were probably fashioned for murderous or ceremonial intentions, I think we can agree the game would be all the more exciting with some age-old battle armor thrown in the mix.

Most of the helmets seen here were donated by collector George F. Harding. A colorful figure in Chicago business and politics, Harding assembled an enviable collection of arms and armor in his lifetime, much of which he displayed in a two-story annex to his South Side home. Completed in 1927, the annex was built as a Gothic Revival stone turret, complete with a dungeon, secret passages, and cannonballs embedded in the exterior walls. In 1982, the collection was donated to the Art Institute, fulfilling Harding’s intention to offer his remarkable array of arms and armor to the people of Chicago.

helmet Turban Helmet, c. 1475 1500

helmet Closed Burgonet (Siege Helmet), c. 1620

helmet Helmet, 4th century B.C.

helmet Funerary Close Helmet, 1600 1700

helmet Spider Helmet, 1650 1700

Image credits:

[Now on view in Gallery 50] Western Iranian. Turban Helmet, c. 1475/1500. George F. Harding Collection.

Northern Italian. Closed Burgonet (Siege Helmet), c. 1620. George F. Harding Collection.

Greek, Macedon. Helmet, 4th century B.C. Costa A. Pandaleon Endowment.

English. Funerary Close Helmet, 1600/1700. George F. Harding Collection.

English or French. Spider Helmet, 1650/1700. George F. Harding Collection.


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Capturing El Capitan

POSTED BY , ON January 15, 2015, Comments Off

Adams El Capitan

Yesterday Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed the first free climb of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. This granite monolith soars 3,000 feet above the floor of the Yosemite Valley and while it has long enticed climbers, it has also fascinated artists.

The image above by Ansel Adams—who has created some of the most famous images of Yosemite— illustrates how the early morning light hits the face of El Capitan and how the Dawn Wall gets its name.

Carleton Watkins (images below) took these photographs of El Capitan in 1861, years before Yosemite became a national park. In fact, it is said that Watkins’ majestic images of Yosemite helped to persuade President Lincoln to sign the bill that first protected the valley. Mount Watkins in Yosemite is named after the photographer and honors this contribution.

Watkins El Capitan

Watkins El Capitan 2

Image Credits:

Ansel Adams. El Capitan, Sunrise, Yosemite National Park, 1956, printed 1960. Photography Gallery Fund. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

Carleton Watkins. Tutocanula, or El Capitan, 3600 ft., from the foot of the Mariposa Trail, Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County, Cal., 1861/76. Restricted gift of the Kunstadter Family Foundation.

Carleton Watkins. Mirror View of El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County, Cal., 1861/76. Restricted gift of the Kunstadter Family Foundation.

 


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Beauty Marks Go Global

POSTED BY , ON January 14, 2015, 1 COMMENTS

Ever wake up with a pimple in the middle of your forehead and wish that you could just make it go away? In the eighteenth century, Lima’s citizens had a solution that would not only hide the pimple, but that was simultaneously stylish and sexy! Faux beauty marks made of black velvet or taffeta covered in gum arabic were the height of fashion. An ample example can be seen in the portrait of the wealthy, American-born Spaniard, Doña María Rosa de Ribera Mendoza y Ramos Galbán, which is currently on view in Galleries 212 and 212A in the Art Institute’s exhibition, A Voyage to South America: Andean Art in the Spanish Empire. And they covered more than just pimples. Large beauty marks could easily cover smallpox scars as well as unseemly sores caused by syphilis. Their beauty came not only from their ability to obscure defects, but also from the striking contrast of the dark taffeta on the porcelain-white skin that was the ideal for elite women at this time. They positively screamed to the viewer “the sun never touches this face!”

Portrait of Dona Maria Rosa de Rivieria Cnndessa de la Vega del Ren

The passion for beauty marks came to South America, like so many high-fashion trends, from that center of extravagance and style, France, where they first appeared in the sixteenth century. French ladies, in fact, might wear many beauty marks, cut not only into modest circles like the one on Doña María’s temple, but also into stars, suns, moons, even trees, horses, cupids, and doves. Satirical eighteenth-century prints show women with faces spotted by numerous beauty marks. By the eighteenth century in Europe, beauty marks had acquired a symbolic language all their own. In a satirical essay published in 1764, Luis de Velasco, Marques of Valdeflores, described Spanish ladies expertly employing beauty marks as tools of flirtation. The patches not only acquired symbolic meaning depending on where they were worn, but a true flirt might carry a box of beauty marks with her so as to be able to adjust her message depending on her audience. If we were to interpret Doña María’s mark based on Valdeflores’s description, we would find that “placed on the right temple [a beauty mark] implies that she is prepared to break [with her current lover] and find a new one.” Alternately, contemporary French writers tell us that placement near the temple might convey passion, while near the lips was coquettish, in the middle of the forehead was majestic, at the center of the cheek indicated gallantry, and near the nose was risqué.

It is likely that at least some of this significance traveled across the ocean to South American along with the black beauty marks themselves, although it is hard to imagine that Doña María sat down to be painted by one of Lima’s most renowned portrait painters while wearing a beauty mark that told the world she was looking to drop her current lover and take up a new one! Beauty marks were popular in Mexico as well, where they were known as chiqueadores and function today as headache remedies. The Brooklyn Museum collection houses two portraits of a distinguished Mexican lady, as a toddler ca. 1735 and then again as a young woman in 1760. As a toddler she wears one modest beauty mark, but by the time she was an adult she was wearing 5!

BrooklynMuseum

But perhaps the trend will return? Guests of both genders at the opening of the Voyage to South America exhibition enjoyed wearing their own chiqueadores, as instructed by a costumed 18th-century guide.

Beauty Spots Event

The Art Institute also offers temporary tattoos inspired by James Ensor’s Temptation of Saint Anthony to visitors who come to see our current exhibition, Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor, proving that the museum may just be at the forefront of a new fashion in body art!

—Emily Floyd, recent Prints and Drawings intern and Tulane University Ph.D student

Image Credits:

Pedro José Díaz (Active in Peru 1770–1810), Doña María Rosa de Rivera, Countess of the Vega del Ren, 1780s, oil on canvas. Carl and Marilynn Thoma Collection.

Miguel Cabrera (Mexican, 1695–1768), Doña María de la Luz Padilla y Gómez de Cervantes, about 1760, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Attributed to Nicolás Enríquez (Mexican, active 1730–1768), Doña María de la Luz Padilla y Gómez de Cervantes, about 1735, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum of Art.


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A Neapolitan Menagerie

POSTED BY , ON December 26, 2014, 3 COMMENTS

There are no less than 50 animals in the museum’s Neapolitan crèche, including dogs, cows, goats, sheep, chickens, horses, rabbits, and even a pet monkey. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the creatures figure prominently in the scene portraying the announcement of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds, but they are also included throughout the crèche for a variety of different reasons.

Creche Lamb

Tiny lambs are placed throughout the crèche, despite the fact that sheep generally give birth in the spring, rather than during the winter solstice, the time of Christ’s birth. However, the presence of the lambs symbolizes the innocence of the Christ Child and foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice.

Creche Dog

Herding dogs are mixed with the sheep and goats, but if you look closely, you’ll also find hunting dogs. These animals wouldn’t have been relevant from a religious perspective, but reflected the favorite activity of the Neapolitan king and aristocracy.

Creche Rabbit

While the crèche is symbolic on many levels—religious, cultural, mythological, political—it includes elements that also make it a charming scene, such as this rabbit perched on a nibbled winter squash.

To see these animals in person, you can visit the crèche in Gallery 209 through January 11.

Image Credit: Crèche (details), mid-18th century. Naples. Charles H. and Mary F. Worcester Collection, Ada Turnbull Hertle, Eloise W. Martin Legacy and Lacy Armour funds; restricted gifts of Mr. and Mrs. James N. Bay, Linda and Vincent Buonanno and Family, and Mrs. Robert O. Levitt.


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