The Thanksgiving turkey is America’s most iconic edible fowl, with a prominent role in countless cookbooks, novels, and printed ephemera. It even stars in the exhibition Art and Appetite: American Art, Culture, and Cuisine, now in the Art Institute’s Regenstein galleries. While Thanksgiving celebrates the unifying meal shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans, it wasn’t until 1864 that President Lincoln made it a national holiday. This dramatic Harper’s Weekly double-spread by Thomas Nast appeared the previous year, in the midst of the Civil War. As a result, the Pilgrims’ harvest festival became a plea for unity between the North and South.
Before the turkey became the mainstay of the Thanksgiving feast, like ducks and geese it was a staple of British holiday meals. George Cruikshank’s lottery ticket showing “The Grand Turk” from 1820 playfully confuses the fowl and the country, even giving the stately bird a turban. Cruikshank was not alone in making this glib connection, as an old chestnut of American culinary puns emphasizes the bird’s global significance: “What international catastrophe occurs when a waiter drops a platter on Thanksgiving? The downfall of Turkey, the overthrow of Greece, and the destruction of China.”
Although the bald eagle became the United States’ national bird, Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey. John James Audubon agreed, and would eventually restore the wild turkey’s dignity by capturing it in two of his massive color plates in his important testament to local avian wildlife, The Birds of America (1826–1838). A smaller and more affordable edition appears here, but Audubon’s fascination remains the same: For its “great size and beauty, its value as a delicate and highly prized article of food . . . render it one of the most interesting of the birds indigenous to the United States of America.”
1. Thomas Nast and Harper and Brothers, Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization, Vol. VII, December 5, 1863. (Dorothy Braude Edinburg Art LLC).
2. George Cruikshank, “The Grand Turk,” from Twenty-six lottery tickets, c. 1820. (Prints and Drawings, RX16354/0117).
3. John James Audubon, The birds of America: from drawings made in the United States and their territories. Vol. 5: New York, V.G. Audubon and C.S. Francis & Co., 1855. (Ryerson and Burnham Libraries)
Devouring Books (November 19–January 27), the new exhibition in the Ryerson Library, investigates the relationship of books and food throughout the ages, and complements Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine. Examples of books becoming the literal food of bookworms are on view, as are literary treasures with food acting as the catalyst for high adventure. But how early were these commodities linked in the popular imagination? Did literacy (and the advent of the cookbook) improve (and democratize) culinary pursuits? A look at one of the earliest objects in the show and its intended audience may offer some clues toward the most curious literary tastes of all.
“When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”
This paraphrase comes from a letter the extremely well-read Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote to a friend on April 12, 1500. (In fact, the original Latin phrase discussed his obsession with books written in Greek, not just any books. But the sense remained the same.) Man (particularly a Renaissance humanist) could not subsist on bread alone.
The innovative German printmaker Albrecht Dürer never issued his dramatically illustrated Apocalypse (Book of Revelations) in the original Greek, as vividly imagining the end of the world in Latin and German seemed sufficient.
Yet Erasmus, who was one of the biggest champions of the artist’s prints, likely owned the Latin version of Dürer’s Apocalypse from 1498. One of the most startling woodcuts shows Saint John, who was said to have written this very Book of Revelations, receiving his inspiration from a fiery, disembodied being in the form of a book. This entity demands he eat the book, which he does, simultaneously devouring the knowledge it contains.
“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire: and he had in his hand a little book open: . . . And I took the little book out of the angel’s hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter. And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.”
(King James Version)
While Erasmus retained his library to the end of his days (and did not have to liquidate or burn it to feed or warm himself), he too took on a proselytizing role. Erasmus even appeared in a much-copied Dürer portrait engraving with seven of his beloved books. Comments like his humorous privileging of books over food made clear his stance on the importance of education to feed the mind. From the beginnings of letterpress in the fifteenth century, printed books, including many by Erasmus himself, fed voracious appetites of all kinds.
Albrecht Dürer. Saint John Devouring the Book, from The Apocalypse, c. 1496–98, published 1511. The Charles Deering Collection.
Albrecht Dürer. Saint John Devouring the Book (detail), from The Apocalypse, c. 1496–98, published 1511. The Charles Deering Collection.
POSTED BY Suzanne K.S., ON October 30, 2013, Comments Off
Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” isn’t the only exhibition at the Art Institute that features this blood-spattered story. A dramatic example also appears in Dreams and Echoes: Drawings and Sculpture in the David and Celia Hilliard Collection, a fitting context for the tale’s macabre subject matter. But although these works focus on the same subject, they portray it in very different ways.
The tale of Judith slaying Holofernes is inspired by the biblical Book of Judith from the Hebrew Apocrypha. In the story, Judith seduces and beheads Holofernes, an Assyrian general whose troops are besieging Judith’s city. Gentileschi’s version presents a stalwart depiction of Judith as an athletic heroine fully capable of completing the gruesome act. Yet as the Italian prints accompanying the magnificent Uffizi painting attest (in Gallery 202a), most depictions skip directly to the bagging of the severed head and reduce her sword to a seductive fashion accessory, rather than a murder weapon.
In the Hilliard exhibition, Soldiers Discovering the Body of Holofernes (above), a startling drawing from around 1550 by the Master of the Liechtenstein Adoration, completes Judith’s saga by focusing solely on the aftermath. It is an exercise in contrasts and contortions, with black and white highlights dancing atop the Master’s distinctively deep purple ground. The resulting Mannerist excess palpably renders the enemy camp’s turmoil following Judith’s ferocious act. While the artist prepared a related drawing of Holofernes’s demise, he made at least two versions of this much rarer subject. Though she is physically absent, Judith’s recent presence is very much felt in the bloody severed neck on the toppled central body. It leaves no doubt of her peak physical form and commitment to her cause. A tiny detail in the distance further cements her tactical ingenuity. The minute dot at the end of a spike issuing diagonally from the besieged city’s gate in fact represents her dripping trophy. Mounted in plain sight before its owner had even been missed, Holofernes’s head became a rallying point for the Israelites that ended the siege.
This unusual focus on the discovery (rather than the slaying) of Holofernes reappears in a print series by Philip Galle after Maerten van Heemskerck from 1564 that expanded the Book of Judith narrative into eight scenes. Six of these curious prints are on display near the Gentileschi painting. They document each step of the story exhaustively, including Judith’s radical decision to save her besieged home city of Bethulia; her preparation for the seduction; her wily success with Holofernes; her efficient decapitation of the inebriated general; her victorious display of the head to her people, and finally, the discovery of the headless body and its disheartening effect on the Assyrian army (above). Visitors to both exhibitions will note that the diminutive head appears in the distance above the city walls in both instances (detail from Soldiers Discovering the Body of Holofernes below). Although the Book of Judith explicitly mentions her strategic use of the head, the similarity of the two depictions makes one wonder . . . Did Heemskerck somehow know the Hilliard drawing, perhaps through a painting? If so, he liked what he saw.
Master of the Liechtenstein Adoration (Netherlandish, active c. 1530-1560). Soldiers Discovering the Body of Holofernes, c. 1550. Pen and black ink and brush and black wash, over lilac wash, heightened with white gouache, on cream laid paper, laid down on cream laid paper. Celia and David Hilliard and Harold Joachim Memorial Endowments, 1999.683.
Philip Galle (Netherlandish, 1537-1612), after Maarten van Heemskerck (Dutch, 1498-1574). The Discovery of Holofernes’s Corpse, plate eight from The Story of Judith and Holofernes, 1564. Engraving in black on ivory laid paper. Gift of Ursula and R. Stanley Johnson in honor of Douglas Druick, 2011.1082.
With a federal government shutdown in effect, and the staff of the National Gallery of Art locked out of their offices until further notice, it’s looking a lot like 1995. The intricacies of the budget arguments are not germane here, but out of that first stalemate came something surprisingly beautiful, almost miraculous.
At first, the picture looked bleak when the first major U.S. exhibition of the paintings of the Baroque Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer coincided almost exactly with the 1995 financial crisis. Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and View of Delft, which had never been out of Holland, were two of the unprecedented 21 of Vermeer’s 35 known paintings in the show. They joined our national treasures, the Woman with a Balance and Girl with a Red Hat (both pictured) for a luminous display, the likes of which had never been seen in one place. (Even as fine an encyclopedic collection as the Art Institute’s contains no Vermeer paintings.)
National Gallery of Art curator Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. had worked eight years to secure loans and complete research for the exhibition, but it closed on November 13 in the government deadlock—just two days after it opened. The National Gallery stayed dark for only a week on that occasion, but even after drawing such phenomenal crowds that weekend viewing hours were extended to 7:00p.m. and then 9:00pm, the Vermeer exhibition was shuttered again on December 15. The federal budget talks had failed once more, leading to a shutdown with no end in sight. There was no possibility of an extension, as this once-in-a-lifetime show was scheduled to go directly on to Holland to its second venue, the Mauritshuis in The Hague. By then, with blizzards further complicating the issue, the exhibition had already been closed for nineteen days of its precious three-month run. Something had to give.
Private funds were eventually found to reopen the exhibition (the rest of the museum was closed) for the ten days of the remaining federal furlough, and the crowds kept coming. Tickets were free, but all the advance passes were long gone by the time the show reopened, and despite the winter conditions, daily ticket lines increased. As a high school student in D.C. at the time, I couldn’t wait in the morning lines, and might not have seen the show at all, if not for a stroke of luck and some slight subterfuge. My mother and I came to see if we could get in, just at the time someone had left an extra ticket at the visitor desk. She folded it in half in her hand in an attempt to make it look like a pair. By the time the guard stopped me to ask for my ticket, she was already in the exhibition. “My mother has it,” I replied, went in, took the single ticket, and gave it to the guard. Then I disappeared into the luminous prospect that was, against all odds, Johannes Vermeer at the National Gallery.
Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Johannes Vermeer, Dutch, 1632 – 1675. Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665/1666, oil on panel. Andrew W. Mellon Collection,1937.1.53
Johannes Vermeer, Dutch, 1632 – 1675. Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, oil on canvas. Widener Collection, 1942.9.97
POSTED BY Suzanne K.S., ON June 26, 2013, Comments Off
How many artfully-draped centaurs, bacchantes, and nymphs does it take to make a dirty magazine? Only one early 20th-century periodical has the answer: The Aesthetic Nude (Le Nu Esthétique), an amazing period piece culled from the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries for the Department of Prints and Drawings’s Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy.
Illustrated entirely with unclothed models enacting quasi-mythological imagery, the covers alone range from a rapturous Leda and the Swan to a centaur’s semi-consensual abduction of a nymph. Inside each issue appear even more views of studio models in increasingly far-fetched poses, all of which were ostensibly meant to supplant the live model in studio practice.
It’s not clear that anyone ever copied these compositions in paint, but the effort that went into cutting out the photos in lively shapes, and the publication’s run of several years (c. 1902-06), suggests a market existed for it!
These ‘aesthetic nudes’ beg the question of what constituted nudity, as opposed to nakedness in the late 19th and early 20th century. Was it simply the academic and mythological guise that made these images acceptable, even collectible?
In Undressed’s adults-only Prostitution gallery (127A), less is definitely more. In fact prices increased inversely to the amount of clothing removed by skilled Parisian courtesans in the 19th century! While those often-raucous images must be experienced in person, the nearby gallery with the Aesthetic Nude (127B) focuses on the purer nude. Full of academic studies of (mainly) male models, this space offers a curious contrast to the scores of women caught in the act of undressing elsewhere in the exhibition. Drawing from the nude was a necessary step in artist training, for only after apprentices had mastered copying from sculpture casts and engravings could they attempt the live model. The emphasis remains on classical form; indeed, these figures are so detached from the context of clothing, the final result is hardly provocative. Even discounting the novelty of photography, these ‘aesthetic nudes,’ however, are something else entirely.
Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy is an exhibition of works on paper (open through September 29 in the Prints and Drawings Galleries) complementing the Art Institute’s summer extravaganza, Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity. Undressed strips the veneer of fashionable public clothing and shows European and American women and some men from the 18th into the early 20th century anywhere from a state of nature to fashionably deshabillé.
Image Credit: Selections from Émile Bayard, Le nu esthétique: l’homme, la femme, l’enfant, (The aesthetic nude: man, woman, child), no. 36 (September 12, 1905). Ryerson and Burnham Libraries.