As you stroll through Burnishing the Night, the atmospheric Prints and Drawings exhibition of mezzotint engravings currently on view in Galleries 125-127, you might notice a cameo appearance by one of art history’s most famous moms, Whistler’s mother. But what you’re looking at isn’t the larger-scale painting by James McNeill Whistler meant for public exhibition; rather, it’s a smaller black and white mezzotint created by the lesser-known Richard Josey (under Whistler’s supervision) intended for display in private homes.
You might be surprised to discover that the expatriate American painter and printmaker extraordinaire James McNeill Whistler did not even consider his 1871 painting of his mother to be a portrait. He thought of it as a study of tone, and gave it the title Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 as an allusion to musical terminology. The word “mother” doesn’t appear anywhere. Indeed, to him, public interest in its sitter and literal subject, rather than the way it was painted seemed irrelevant:
Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?
Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890, p. 128.
While Whistler pretended not to comprehend why the painting’s identity as a simple picture of his mother would interest the public more than its artistry, he was also a consummate businessman. He was closely involved in the production of this mezzotint about eight years after he produced the original oil on canvas. Josey’s plate may in fact have been steel-plated after it was engraved, allowing for hundreds, or even thousands of impressions of the same quality to be pulled from it. In fact, the medium of mezzotint was especially prized for its usefulness in reproductions of paintings, and the painterly quality of this print does not disappoint. Nowhere is the lack of color and its subtle gradations between values more intentional.
Here’s a closer look at the color range in engraver Richard Josey’s rendition, a mezzotint entirely printed from a single kind of black ink. Far more than the proverbial 50 shades of gray, these include up to the maximum of 256 different shades shown in the Photoshop-generated color table above.
Whistler built up the muted tones of his original composition through brushstrokes on canvas. In contrast, Josey reductively made the printing matrix by burnishing light effects into a previously roughened plate that would otherwise print in solid black. In addition to the color table mentioned above, the following diagram also pinpoints the amount of black present in several areas of the print—from a near 100% black for the shadows of the skirt (point nr. 1) to the 59% black, grayed-out midtone of the wall (point nr. 3). The brightest highlight within the print at 10% appears in the fold of the handkerchief in the sitter’s hand (point nr. 4), but the 4% tone of the paper support is even brighter (point nr. 2).
Perhaps in part due to the proliferation of Josey’s print, the painting known as Whistler’s Mother has now been considered the Victorian Mona Lisa, and may well be one of the best-known (and parodied) paintings by an American artist, much like the Art Institute’s own American Gothic. Now that’s a fancy bit of printing, even one in monochrome.
Image Credit: Richard Josey, after James McNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mezzotint, 1879. Clarence Buckingham Collection.
Many thanks to Liana Jegers for her help in troubleshooting the Photoshop color mapping.
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.
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.
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?
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
POSTED BY Suzanne K.S., ON September 10, 2014, Comments Off on Feathered Knights in Shining Armor
You’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t noticed a certain level of Medieval mania within pop culture. Renaissance Faires and LARPs (live action role playing games) increasingly abound, not to mention the overwhelming popularity of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, which has resulted in at least one “reality show.” And here at the museum, we’re completely on board with some German Romantic escapism (with more than a touch of nationalism). The museum’s new Medieval and Renaissance galleries are still in the early stages of development, but until December, the nineteenth-century prints in Gallery 221a will be enthusiastically reenacting their own Renaissance.
Sadly, there isn’t room for a full-sized set of caparisoned jousters careening down the second floor hallway on their mounts, lances in hand. But the noblemen in this liminal space, (who could be students escaped from Lucas Cranach the Younger’s Art of Wrestling), parade by with swords, steeds, and armor nonetheless. Using the new medium of lithography, artists such as the Senefelder brothers and Ferdinand Piloty enthusiastically copied extant Germanic treasures including a manuscript of jousts held at the court of Wilhelm IV in Munich between 1510 and 1545, and invented others entirely. Piloty’s early nineteenth-century Saint George in Armor lithograph (below left) for instance, closely referenced a 1506 woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder (below right), but the lithographer outfitted his warrior saint in a glowing haze and simpler armor. Omitting Cranach’s ostrich-feathered helmet and adding a shock of corkscrew curls, he enhanced the figure’s soft, contemplative demeanor.
Even more than Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer’s art was considered a vital part of the distant Germanic past. For one enormous Dürer woodcut coat of arms, only a single damaged impression had survived, and so the artist completed the missing lower right part of the composition himself. The dozen peacock feathers atop this imposing crest also alluded to current tournament fashions suggesting prowess through luxury, exaggerated size and bright, distinguishing coloring. The surviving print in fact remains brightly colored, though its copyist only reproduced the woodcut lines.
Feathers assume an even more active (or perhaps, proactive) role in the double-page Senefelder Jousters facsimile (above) showing a festive combat in Munich around 1545. The Art Institute’s partially colored proof was never filled in with the blue and whites diamonds of the Bavarian arms or lavish hues of the combatants’ house colors from the original manuscript. Yet the contrast of shining metals (golden bells, silvery armor, brass fittings) make more of a statement about the types of materials on display without the distraction of color. The distinct metals suggest the ringing of the bells and the sliding of the armor’s lames (overlapping plates) in motion. These contrast with the quiet softness of the feather-tufted helmets and horse armor (detail below). Most functional of all is the pillow-like feather cover wrapped diagonally around the fallen lances at the bottom of the image. In tournament settings, these were used to keep the wood from shattering in all directions on impact, saving lucky nobles from splinters. The soft, sketch-like touch of lithography makes these feathery accessories even more tactile than they would be in a woodcut, and draw the viewer into a vibrantly re-imagined, if slightly glorified past.
And if this leaves you wanting even more from medieval times, we’re launching a behind-the-scenes video series on our Arms and Armor collection in this very space later this month. Stay tuned!
Top left: Ferdinand Piloty after Lucas Cranach, the elder. Saint George in Armor, n.d. Gift of Dorothy Braude Edinburg to the Harry B. and Bessie K. Braude Memorial Collection.
Top right: Lucas Cranach, the elder. Saint George Standing, 1506. Clarence Buckingham Collection.
Bottom: Clemens Senefelder and Theo Senefelder. Joust, from the Tournament Book of Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria, 1817. Joseph Brooks Fair Fund.
In early 16th-century Germany, the elite youth turned to wrestling coaches for necessary life skills including lessons in dexterity, elegance, and sportsmanship, not to mention the helpful ability to break arms when actual weapons weren’t at hand. A recent gift to the Art Institute of Chicago from the drawing, book, and print collector Dorothy Edinburg celebrates all these things, and you can page through it in its entirety online here! The book will eventually be on permanent display near the arms and armor in our upcoming reinstallation of the Medieval and Renaissance galleries.
Lucas Cranach the Younger’s masterful woodcuts from 1539 delight in showing grappling bodies in motion in this exceedingly rare Renaissance wrestling handbook, Ringerkunst, or The Art of Wrestling. Fabian von Auerswald, the then seventy-five year old wrestling master of the Duke of Saxony (whose arms appear on the title page) wrote the text. He refers to the images as “artistic and amusing paintings,” and presumably oversaw the production of these designs for the woodcuts of the eighty-five different wrestling holds, given their specificity and accompanying step-by-step instructions. Even at his advanced age, Auerswald is shown subduing significantly younger opponents through his superior footwork and knowledge of advanced techniques. An ode to the nobility of unarmed combat, the aristocratic youths seeking to learn this art appear well-heeled and expensively garbed. None appear to have suffered the last resort Auerswald described on the verso of page D1, the “not very companionable” option of stressing or even breaking the occasional limb to get out of a stranglehold (such as the one seen on the verso of page C6). Indeed, he reasserts at the end of the introduction that the book (and the wrestling moves it teaches) are guaranteed to please, stating, “A good fellow who ventures to wrestle boldly and well cannot fail.” This particular copy was bound later in seventeenth-century leather, but is otherwise almost unblemished, a pristine (if not heavily consulted) and beautifully printed testament to Auerswald’s art.
In contrast, at least one copy of the book survives in resplendent color (Walker Library, Connecticut), though it is not known whether the color was applied by the seller or the purchaser. Given the sumptuous outfits the wrestlers sport in each successive contortion, it seems only fitting to imagine their doublets, leggings, and even codpieces arrayed in jewel tones. Indeed, amateur colorists were rampant in the early sixteenth century. A didactic woodcut showing ways to measure distances on foot in an example of Peter Apian’s Cosmographia of 1524, which now resides here in Chicago at the Newberry Library, demonstrates the care with which the book’s owner colored in the codpiece and other details:
While the Art Institute’s gift shop is unlikely to offer an Art of Wrestling reprint as a coloring book to a new generation, screenshots of the digital version can serve in a pinch. If you can stay within the lines, send us a picture. Or even better, have fun recreating some of the poses, bearing in mind the immortal words of the girl who “Cain’t Say No” in Oklahoma!: “Every time I lose a wrestling match, I get a funny feeling that I’ve won!”
Colorful codpieces optional.
Image Credit: Courtesy The Newberry Library, Chicago. Call # Vault 7 .A7 1524.
Relatively recent films and television shows like Pret á Porter, Ugly Betty, and The Devil Wears Prada offer extreme views of publishing in the fashion world. Fraught with danger, conflict, and misadventures, the stakes seem unnaturally high for each glossy issue. And yet, aspects of Edward Steichen’s influential take on modern fashion photography could be said to have originated in the very real, international conflict of World War I. Sharp, Clear Pictures: Edward Steichen’s World War I and Condé Nast Years, a fascinating show now open in the Art Institute’s Galleries 1-4, maps the ways the artist’s outlook on photography changed after becoming deeply involved in establishing an aerial photography program for the U.S. military during World War I.
Steichen started out the early twentieth century as an Alfred Stieglitz protégé, perhaps most memorably photographing Auguste Rodin in Paris in an evocatively lit haze, sitting in profile opposite his statue of The Thinker. This image is nonetheless a key opening to Sharp, Clear Pictures, as Rodin had a connection to the important album of aerial photographs Steichen assembled after the war, and which makes up about half of the exhibition. Indeed, Steichen inscribed this book of over 80 views of artillery-damaged European towns to a friend whose family included some of Rodin’s major patrons.
The book has been disbound, so visitors can see all the album sheets with his handwritten captions in the order Steichen assembled them in 1919. This was just after he left his position as commander of the Photographic Section for the United States Army Expeditionary Forces Air Service. The approach varies, from comparisons between oblique and vertical shots of bombed-out locations with “practically not a roof left in the town,” to masked-out and collaged negatives honing in on specific enemy locations and airport installations. In several cases, the images have been juxtaposed and spliced together, often out of necessity to give the illusion that planes could fly high enough to take in larger expanses, with jagged edges rimmed with black borders. Although Steichen and his colleagues borrowed this technical approach from the French and British, he also seems to have utilized the same idea of image construction in publishing later on. In two intriguing instances in the show alone, he produced a double spread for a magazine by taking two separate pictures with a similar center, which allowed him to splice them together and crop the overall image to his liking. It also allowed him to reuse his favorite models on both sides of the page, or as in a fashion shoot from a biblical musical show, double the cast of singers by reorganizing them from the left to the right in the second half of the image. Interestingly, one of the few sheets in the album that is not aerial photography taken under his command is a fashion plate of sorts, involving a caricature of officers making fun of each others’ uniforms. Its inclusion may have been arbitrary, or an attempt at comic relief, but it would be in fashion that Steichen found his next muse.
Similarly honing his skills, Steichen made several self-portraits over the years, including one from 1917 before heading to war-torn Europe. Although he probably did not in the end act as a photographer on live missions, here he posed himself with his camera in a self-assured and more matter-of-fact manner than an earlier one developed gradually in painterly strokes. The result is also more cinematic, even bearing a striking resemblance to a 1990s Aidan Quinn and so to modern eyes, suggestive of his future in celebrity portraiture.
Many of the actors and playwrights he would portray had enlisted in World War I, even if they had not necessarily seen live combat. Nöel Coward was one of those given an early honorable discharge. Steichen poses him here in gloriously modern attire and a feline grace within a sleekly abstract architectural interior in 1932 for Vanity Fair. Coward was by then the successful playwright, actor, and songwriter of the titillating Private Lives, which had already been turned into a Hollywood film. Oozing glamor with each puff of his cigarette, Steichen’s evocation of Coward as the man of his age is absolutely seamless, just like his rethinking of photography.
Photographic Section, US Air Service, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), and Major Edward J. Steichen, ASA. In Chateau Thierry Sector showing service bridges destroyed by retreating enemy forces, 1918. Gift of William Kistler. © 2014 The Estate of Edward Steichen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Edward Steichen, Self-Portrait with Camera, 1917. Restricted gifts of Brenda and Earl Shapiro and the Smart Family Foundation; Laura T. Magnuson Acquisition, Comer Foundation, The Mary and Leigh Block Endowment funds; restricted gifts of Sidney and Sondra Berman Epstein, Karen and Jim Frank, Marian Pawlick; Ethel T. Scarborough, Hugh Leander and Mary Trumbull Adams Memorial Endowment, Betty Bell Spooner funds; restricted gifts of Vicki and Thomas Horwich, Robin and Sandy Stuart; Samuel A. Marx Purchase Fund for Major Acquisitions, S. DeWitt Clough, Photographic Society, Irving and June Seaman Endowment, Morris L. Parker funds, © 2014 The Estate of Edward Steichen/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Edward Steichen. Noel Coward, 1932. Bequest of Edward Steichen by direction of Joanna T. Steichen and George Eastman House. © 2014 The Estate of Edward Steichen/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.