Miniature Camp Chronicles

POSTED BY , ON July 15, 2013, 3 COMMENTS

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There are 68 Thorne Miniature Rooms in the Art Institute’s collection (including the French Dining Room pictured above), but we presently have 69 on view with the addition of our German Rococo loan room. It is my pleasure to take care of these rooms, as well as research their history and construction. This has led me to take up making miniatures of my own as a means of practice and to further my knowledge and appreciation of the art of fine miniatures. One of my great opportunities to practice comes once a year in a tiny coastal town in Maine called Castine. A group of miniature artists descends upon this town for Guild School, which is part of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans.  I just got back from this weeklong study trip and thought it might be interesting to share some of the things I learned.

But first a view of the town. It’s beautiful here but the trip is all about miniatures…

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All kinds of skills are taught, from creating miniature furniture to silver- and other metal-smithing to making plants and even miniature gold fish.

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We have the opportunity to work with many amazing miniatures teachers and students from around the world. While I was there, I ran into fellow Chicagoan and artist Mary Grady O’Brian.

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Some of you might remember her work as a part of our annual holiday decorations for the Thorne Rooms. She created the little Victorian doll and a bulto (or saint figure) for our New Mexico room.

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Here I am studying how to make a miniature basket in a class led by Francine Coyon.

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and at the end of the week a hinged lidded basket!

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And now learning miniature painting techniques with South African artist Beth Freeman-Kane.

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Here is my finished painted bird and landscape from her workshop.

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My new skills will be put to the test later this year as we bedeck a new Thorne Miniature Room this year for the holidays. Which will we pick? You’ll have to wait and see, but feel free to leave your guesses in the comments!

—Lindsay Mican Morgan, Department Technician, Thorne Rooms

Image Credit: Mrs. James Ward Thorne. French Dining Room of the Periods of Louis XV and Louis XIV, c. 1937. Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.


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Weathervanes and the “Windy City”

POSTED BY , ON March 13, 2013, Comments Off on Weathervanes and the “Windy City”


Recent blustery conditions in our fair city—remember, Chicago’s moniker is the “Windy City”—has caused me to reflect on the weathervanes in the American Folk Art gallery. Weathervanes have been part of the American landscape for many years; originally, they were introduced by English colonial settlers as an instrument to reveal wind direction, or as decoration for a rooftop. But they were also coveted by American folk art collectors of the early 20th century because of their visual impact as silhouettes, appealing to collectors’ and artists’ modern aesthetic.

driehaus in studio

A wonderful newly acquired weathervane (top image, left side) by Henry Driehaus (1860-1943, in his studio immediately above) from this time period was recently installed in the Grainger Gallery of American Folk Art at the museum. Above four silhouetted fish bearing the four cardinal points, Driehaus crafted a hunting dog obediently waiting behind his master and a Native American wielding a bow and arrow, with the exaggerated spikes of his headdress complementing the form of his pants and the bush below him. Born in the United States to Prussian immigrants, rural blacksmith Henry Driehaus trained as a smith in the European cities of Essen, Basel, and Zurich and learned ornamental ironwork in a monastery before returning to Pennsylvania in 1880. A few years later he opened a permanent shop in Hendricks Station, Frederick Township, where he executed multifaceted ironwork—from shoeing and ironing wagons to ornamental ironwork (such as andirons, coat hooks and hinges). This hand-wrought weathervane, which is actually signed by the blacksmith, illustrates Driehaus’s predilection for and specialization in decorative ironwork.

Complimenting the weathervanes in the gallery is a whirligig (top image, right side) made by Lithuanian immigrant Frank Memkus (1884-1965). Whirligigs have been made in America since at least the early 19th century. Unlike weathervanes, which functioned as indicators of wind direction, whirligigs were mainly intended for fun and ornamentation, and therefore, tend to be more personally decorated. Naturalized as an American citizen on May 24, 1945, Memkus could have made the whirligig as a commemorative gesture toward his newly adopted country.  As a new American, he might have been inspired by his recent naturalization, in combination with the Allied victory in Europe, to construct this overtly patriotic object. It employs the colors red, white, and blue to highlight the nation’s flag, and atop it stands a saluting seaman surrounded by airplane propellers, which, along with the flags, whirl and flutter in the wind.

These objects (and so many others) may be viewed in the Grainger Gallery of American Folk Art! But we apologize in advance for the lack of wind.

—Monica Obniski, Assistant Curator of American Art

Image Credit: Image courtesy of Guy Reinert files, Winterthur Library

Art Scene Investigation: Copies as Originals, or a Strange Case of Double Vision

POSTED BY , ON April 04, 2012, 1 COMMENTS

If upon looking at the image below you are reminded of a pastry chef’s experiment gone wrong, think again. This is neither a layered cake nor a failed attempt at molecular gastronomy. And measuring less than 5 mm across, or roughly as big as a single sesame seed, it wouldn’t be very filling either.

What you see here is a paint cross-section: the result of going with a surgical scalpel at a painting. (If you are suddenly horrified at the mere mental association of scalpel and painting—like any true art-lover should be—know we do it in a very controlled and skilled way. In other words, please don’t try this at home!) Conservators and scientists typically sample at the edge of a painting or in unobtrusive areas, often by a pre-existing loss. We remove a microscopic fragment about the size of a grain of fine table salt and then embed the fragment in a clear resin. With some polishing, we’re able to expose all the painting layers that the artist applied in sequence on the canvas.

What you really see here though is a valuable piece of investigative evidence in the ongoing quest to understand a much debated work. It is a cross section from a painting (below) by El Greco entitled Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation, 1595-1600. We are very fortunate at the Art Institute because this is one of several paintings on display at the museum by this great artist, who not only enjoyed public  recognition in his times, but also influenced some of the superstars of the modern and contemporary art world, including Pablo Picasso and Jeff Koons. And among Greco’s paintings at the Art Institute is the undisputed masterpiece of his early career, The Assumption of the Virgin.

Saint Francis, the founder of the Franciscan Order of friars, was a spiritual hero in late 16th century Spain. It has been estimated that nearly one fifth of the entire output of El Greco’s studio was represented by images of the saint. So if you go around the world and suddenly you think you have double vision because you could swear you have seen that same Francis pictured here, relax. You are not hallucinating. You are simply experiencing a clever production of multiples to satisfy an insatiable market.

How did El Greco do this?  What did he paint and what did he leave to an assistant?  One prominent 20th century scholar, Harold Wethey, thought he had all the answers in the 1960s based only on inspection of paintings and photographs. Citing “dull colors that lacked the brilliance of the master,“ the famous critic relegated our picture to art world purgatory: “workshop.”

But discerning between original work by the master, finishing touches to workshop productions, straight workshop versions, faithful copies, and outright forgeries sometimes takes more than the eye of the connoisseur. Nowadays the tools of science, in conjunction with conservation and art historical expertise, can help unravel some of these mysteries for good. In this case, our analysis disclosed pigments, a layer structure, and brushwork that are practically identical to the one unquestioned masterpiece of this subject: the St. Francis Venerating the Crucifix now in The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

And so the sleuthing art detective found a trail of veritable fingerprints. We discovered bright, relatively expensive pigments (like azurite blue below and red lakes) in the priming layer, the layer that the artist applied as a basis for the painting itself. This points to the use of palette scrapings, or leftover bits of paint, a practice the young El Greco may have learned by the great masters Tintoretto and Titian during his training in Venice. On the other hand, a copyist would typically have imitated the warm color of the priming by using a much simplified and inexpensive mixture of pigments.

Moreover, X-radiography (a technique that uses x-rays to show the distribution of dense pigments and thus the artist’s changes) revealed subtle adjustments in the position of the head and hood of the saint. This is often considered a clear sign of the master rethinking his figure placement in paint, unlike what a pedantic assistant would do, preoccupied solely with producing an exact copy. Compositional changes (as revealed by comparing a visible image with an x-ray of the painting) likely denote an artist’s hand and not that of a copyist.

So in the end, art detective work—with scientists, conservators and art historians working together– provided convincing elements to the art historians to upgrade the judgment of the painting, assigning it to El Greco again. Call it a modern day redemption story: a comeback from art purgatory.

See the painting for yourself in our galleries, or come this Thursday, April 5th, at 6 pm in Fullerton Auditorium at the Art Institute, to hear the whole story during Copies as Originals—Decoding El Greco’s Studio Practice.

—Francesca C., Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist

Image Credits: El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation, 1595–1600. The Art Institute of Chicago, Robert A. Waller Memorial Fund.

Contour line overlays by Kuniej Berry Associates, LLC

A Discussion of Divine Transportation in Gallery 170

POSTED BY , ON October 18, 2011, 1 COMMENTS

I came upon an old man staring so fixedly at this Inness painting that I had to stop and stare along with him. I’d spent time in front of this painting, mesmerized, but couldn’t help but wonder if there was something I’d missed.

“He saw celestial beings, you know,” the old man said, turning to me.

He had a trimmed white beard and neatly cut hair, as if he had just come from the barber, and wore a faded red shirt buttoned up to his collar. He leaned backwards as he squinted at the painting.

“Who saw beings?” I replied. “George Inness?”

“No, Swedenborg,” he said with irritation. “Maybe Inness did too, though I doubt it, judging from this painting.”

The 18th-century Swedish scientist, theologian, and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg had a profound influence on many writers and thinkers, including Blake, Yeats, Emerson, Thoreau and even Helen Keller. Inness came under his influence late in life when he joined a utopian community in New Jersey, and his art moved from his early Barbizon-influenced realism to a more personal style.

“Swedenborg not only saw angels,” he continued, “he talked to them. He said their faces are clear and radiant. But I see nothing clear and radiant in this painting. All I see is dissolution.”

He peered through his thick glasses into Inness’s version of dusk.

“Why do you need the surface to dissolve?” he said. “Is that because we like to pretend that we can see below the surface? I’ve never had a vision but I always imagined it would be something super-real, with even harder edges than usual. I don’t know about you, but I want something I can hold onto. Maybe it’s because I’m so old.”

I told him about a Catholic nun who described for me a vision she’d had of St. Sebastian. She was staring at a meadow on a hot summer day and suddenly the flowers in a field became the tail feathers of the arrows and the earth became the pierced body of St. Sebastian. It was so intense that the colors hurt her eyes, but there was nothing misty or tentative about it.

“Maybe the world is more solid to visionaries, he continued. “All I can say is that I look forward to the day when our images of angels revert to creatures without wings, like elephants or tortoises.”

The mention of the word tortoise brought back a childhood memory of riding Galapagos tortoises at Branch Brook Park in New Jersey. I shared this recollection with him, and he stared off for a moment, as if savoring the same memory.

“Now,” he said, ‘wouldn’t that be a helluva way to ride into paradise?”

—Paul J., Assistant Director of Communications

Image: George Inness. The Home of the Heron, 1893. Edward B. Butler Collection.


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Recent Acquisition: Kazimir Malevich

POSTED BY , ON February 01, 2011, 5 COMMENTS

Last week, the Art Institute made one of the most significant acquisitions in its history: Kazimir Malevich’s Painterly Realism of a Football Player–Color Masses in the 4th Dimension. This masterpiece is the first work of Russian Suprematism to enter the museum’s collection and bridges one of the few gaps in the museum’s extremely strong holdings of European modern art, characterized by works like Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte–1884 and Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River. With this acquisition, the Art Institute becomes only the second public institution in the United States to feature a Suprematist painting by Malevich in its collection.

There are many pioneers of abstraction, but Malevich (1879-1935) is one of the most significant and rigorous, doing the most to push art to non-objective abstraction through his Suprematist movement. Having worked previously in a style related to cubism and futurism, it was not until 1915, the year of Painterly Realism of a Football Player, that Malevich brought his abstraction to its fully realized form. Painterly Realism of a Football Player was one of a group of revolutionary works that Malevich created in secrecy for one of the most seminal exhibitions of the modern moment, 0.10 (Zero-Ten): The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting in Moscow in 1915. For that exhibition, Malevich created paintings that completely eradicated all references to the recognizable world and focused instead on the inherent relationships of geometric shapes of various colors that seem to float against their white backgrounds.

Considered at the time a pure and fundamental embodiment of painting itself (the “zero” in the Zero-Ten exhibition), Painterly Realism of a Football Player offered a radical formal vocabulary for art. Influenced greatly by developments in the understanding of space-time physics and the notion of the fourth dimension, Malevich referenced the natural world in his title (the football player) but also dispelled it on the canvas to present bold lines and planes freed from the weight of the third dimension. Malevich later even gave up the last vestige of the art of representation by disposing with traditional ideas of the “top” and “bottom” in his canvases; historical documentation reveals that in the four instances that the artist showed Painterly Realism of a Football Player during his lifetime, it was shown in two different orientations: with the circle at the bottom (as seen above) and with the circle at the top.

Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Football Player–Color Masses in the 4th Dimension (1915). Oil on canvas. ß27-5/8 x 17-5/16 in. (70.2 x 44.1 cm). Through prior gift of Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, Art Institute of Chicago Acquisition Funds, 2011.1.