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Examining Photographic Activity through a Wide-Angle Lens

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, Paris was the locus of artistic activity. For that reason, the current exhibition Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard profiles six long-term residents of the French capital: printmaker Henri Rivière, Belgian painter Henri Evenepoel, and four members of the Nabis (Hebrew for ‘prophets’), a well-known artists’ circle active in Paris. The show pairs the professional output of these selected post-Impressionists with their recreational experiments as amateur photographers. Introduced in 1888, the handheld Kodak camera became a ubiquitous accoutrement of the modern artist. In addition to Parisians, Snapshot also includes the work of Dutch modernist George Hendrick Breitner, which demonstrates the universality of the avant-garde and their quick response to new technology. Such efforts to present a more inclusive history of the period broaden the show’s geographical scope.

Breitner’s work is unfamiliar to many outside of his native Holland. He spent the majority of his career in The Hague and Amsterdam, with brief sojourns in Berlin, London, and Paris. From 1876 until 1880, Breitner attended the Hague Art Academy, and, following disciplinary expulsion from the institution, he continued his studies in the private studio of Hague School painter Willem Maris for one year. Under the tutelage of Maris, he painted en plein air, a practice that likely contributed to his break with more conventional methodologies. Around the same time, Breitner discovered the French Naturalist writings of Gustave Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers (Edmond and Jules), and Émile Zola, which informed his selection of subject matter. His compatriot Vincent van Gogh also exhibited an appreciation for the transnational literary movement. Naturalist texts made available a plethora of suitable motifs for urbanites like Breitner and van Gogh. The two artists exchanged their favorite publications, and van Gogh accompanied Breitner on sketching excursions in The Hague’s working-class districts, and other sites described by Naturalist authors. Consequently, these activities yielded cityscapes as opposed to the pastoral views and seascapes favored by the preceding generation of Dutch artists, namely the Hague School painters.

George Hendrik Breitner, “The Dam, Amsterdam” 1895. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

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The Viking Revival and American Design at the Turn-of-the-Century

Local plants and maritime motifs adorned the wares of Marblehead Pottery (1904-1936), a small studio located in the coastal Massachusetts town of the same name. Like many turn-of-the century American pottery firms, Marblehead stressed both the regional and national character of its style through selected subject matter and a palette inspired by the surrounding landscape. Yet, American ceramicists of this period often yielded to foreign influence despite their supposed resistance (see Martin Eidelberg’s “Myths of Style and Nationalism”). This vase (ca. 1910-1920), currently on view in our American galleries, illustrates Marblehead’s assimilation of European imagery. Drawn from medieval Scandinavia, the vase’s pattern consists of five identical Viking longships in a single decorative band. Interestingly, Marblehead’s designers embraced Viking iconography for its patriotic value.

vase; Marblehead Pottery; 1910-1920; Harold Victor Decorative Arts Fund; 1994.81

Viking-inspired motifs adorned the arts and crafts of Scandinavia, particularly Norway and Sweden, in the latter half of the nineteenth-century. This style of ornamentation, called Viking Revival or Dragon Style, developed from a collective enthusiasm for the Icelandic eddas and sagas in the Nordic countries and Great Britain. Studies of this heroic literature began in the seventeenth-century and gained considerable momentum during the nationalistic fervor of the nineteenth-century. Archaeological excavations near the Oslofjord in Norway unearthed the Tune (in 1867), Gokstad (in 1880), and Oseberg (in 1904-05) Viking ships, which further encouraged popular interest in the intrepid seafarers and provided material evidence of their technological advancements as shipwrights.

In America, Nordic studies were stimulated by Rasmus Bjørn Anderson (1846-1936), a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Building on the scholarship of Dane Carl Christian Rafn (1795-1864), Anderson wrote an alternate history of America’s discovery and reminded his audience that Leif Erikson preceded Christopher Columbus by nearly five hundred years. Anderson’s narrative appealed to recent Scandinavian immigrants, as well as long-established residents, who preferred the tale of Leif Erikson’s harmonious arrival to Columbus’ more controversial conquest (see J. M. Mancini’s “Discovering Viking America”). Anderson’s text encouraged others, such as Professor Eben Horsford (1818-1893) of Harvard, to investigate America’s Viking origins. Citing place-names akin to Old Norse and archaeological “discoveries” in the area, Horsford made the dubious assertion that Erikson had settled in the Charles River Basin in Massachusetts, instead of Newfoundland.

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The Art Wager of Super Bowl XLIV and Its Fortuitous Outcome

Joseph Mallord William Turner, "The Fifth Plague of Egypt," 1800. Gift in memory of Evan F. Lilly; 55.24.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) labeled J. M. W. Turner’s The Fifth Plague of Egypt (1800; IMA) “a total failure” in his magnum opus Modern Painters (1843-1860). Ruskin, who is often remembered as Turner’s greatest champion, delivered this harsh criticism on the grounds that the painting’s “awkward resemblances to Claude [Lorraine] testify the want of [Turner’s] usual forceful originality.” Modern Painters, a five volume polemic, held that Turner’s chief works shed the influence of the Old Masters, particularly Claude (ca. 1604-1682), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), and Salvator Rosa (1615-1673), whose visual formulas and adherence to naturalism held sway well into the nineteenth-century. Ruskin dismissed the artist’s early landscapes as derivative and, as a result, unconvincing. He continued his literary assault on the composition, stating: “…the pyramids look like brick-kilns, and the fire running along the ground bears a brotherly resemblance to the burning of manure.” Ruskin’s knowledge of the motif likely derived from the mezzotint after The Fifth Plague of Egypt, which was included in the Liber Studiorum (“Book of Studies,” published in 1808), and not the original painting. Nevertheless, the sentiments expressed in Modern Painters reflect Ruskin’s bias.

Ruskin’s opinion did not represent the general consensus among contemporary viewers.  The debut of The Fifth Plague of Egypt at the Royal Academy’s 1800 exhibition was met with the approval of art critics, who applauded the painting’s ability to elicit an intense emotional response from its audience. The aesthetic treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), penned anonymously by the British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797), informed the public’s taste for landscape painting. Burke argued that scenes of terror produced a stronger visceral reaction than the pleasure derived from beauty. Here, Turner uses monumental scale, a swirling vortex of clouds, and chiaroscuro to dramatic effect in his depiction of the seventh plague’s destructive hail and fire. (The public overlooked Turner’s mistitling of the subject.) Jerrold Ziff’s article “Turner and Poussin” (1963) discussed the resemblance between The Fifth Plague of Egypt and Poussin’s similarly tempestuous Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe (1650-51; Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt), and he proposed that a version of this earlier composition may have served as a model for Turner’s work. In addition, Barry Venning (Turner; 2003) aptly observes that the painting’s debt to Poussin and Richard Wilson (ca. 1713-1782) would have been commonly understood. Contrary to Ruskin’s supposition, Claude was a less obvious source for this particular work because his landscapes typically convey tranquility. The success of a painting in an academic context hinged on its fulfillment of established criteria and not, as Ruskin would later advocate, on the originality of its execution.

Artistic considerations aside, The Fifth Plague of Egypt was cast in a somewhat unusual role as the subject of a Super Bowl bet. That fortuitous intervention of the power of American football transported this famous painting to Louisiana in late March 2010. Claude’s Ideal View of Tivoli (1644) hung alongside The Fifth Plague of Egypt at the New Orleans Museum of Art for three months. The short-term loan was the result of a wager proposed by arts blogger Tyler Green and encouraged by then directors Maxwell L. Anderson of the IMA and E. John Bullard of NOMA. Juxtaposing the two paintings offered viewers complementary aesthetic models of landscape painting – the Sublime (the Turner) and the Beautiful (the Claude) – as initially discussed by Greek literary critic Longinus (1st century CE) and expanded upon by Burke in the eighteenth-century. Modern audiences were, thus, better equipped to appreciate the qualities noted by attendees of The Fifth Plague of Egypt’s 1800 exhibition.

This pairing also rebutted Ruskin’s critique by elucidating Turner’s reasons for emulating seventeenth-century landscapes. Turner was determined to elevate the category of landscape painting in the hierarchy of genres, which he achieved by reinterpreting the Old Masters and imbuing his own works with greater historical or literary detail. As a stipulation in Turner’s will, London’s National Gallery received the gift of his paintings Dido Building Carthage; or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire (1815) and Sun Rising through Vapour (1807) on the condition that they hang in perpetuity next to Claude’s Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca (1648) and Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648), which are also historical landscapes. In my opinion, the outcome of the Super Bowl XLIV wager – a comparison of NOMA’s Ideal View of Tivoli, a pure landscape painting, and the IMA’s biblical Fifth Plague of Egypt – improves on Turner’s original plan.


Gauguin’s Still Life with Profile of Laval: A Modern Freundschaftsbild

Paul Gauguin, "Still Life with Profile of Laval," (1886). Samuel Josefowitz Collection of the School of Pont-Aven, through the generosity of Lilly Endowment Inc., the Josefowitz Family, Mr. and Mrs. James M. Cornelius, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard J. Betley, Lori and Dan Efroymson, and other Friends of the Museum. 1998.167

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) presented a painting to his friend and colleague Charles Laval (1862-1894) in 1887. The work, Still Life with Profile of Laval (1886), reinvigorates the longstanding European tradition of painters exchanging Freundschaftsbilder – pictures that demonstrate friendship and, often, artistic allegiance. Yet, in the article “Japan as Primitivistic Utopia: Van Gogh’s Japonisme Portraits” (1984), Tsukasa Kōdera credited van Gogh (1853-1890) with resuscitating this practice in 1888, a year after Gauguin’s gift to Laval. Van Gogh imagined Japanese artists living and working in a fraternal community, which he sought to emulate. He envisioned developing a similar artists’ cooperative in Arles, his new home and a place he called the “atelier du Midi.” Kōdera cites correspondence between Gauguin and the Dutch artist (specifically, a letter [now lost] dated September 1888) as evidence that van Gogh proposed a portrait exchange to foster the Gemeinschaft (sense of community) between himself and fellow artists Gauguin, Laval, and Émile Bernard (1868-1941). However, Van Gogh’s role as progenitor of the modern Freundschaftsbild is debatable. His inspiration to exchange portraits was derived from a false impression that Japanese artists participated in the same activity. According to Kōdera, Self-Portrait: Les Misérables (1888; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) represents Gauguin’s first contribution to the genre. Van Gogh reciprocated the gesture with his Self-Portrait as Bonze (1888; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, Cambridge, MA).

Paul Gauguin, "Self-Portrait with Portrait of Bernard (Self-Portrait: Les Misérables)," 1888. Oil on canvas, 45 x 55 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Vincent van Gogh, "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin (Self-Portrait as Bonze)," 1888. Oil on canvas, 59.5 x 48.3 cm. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

These portraits, which are rendered in new artistic idioms, announce the painters’ collective denial of naturalism and simultaneous entrée into the international Symbolist movement. Interestingly, Still Life with Profile of Laval (1886), which predates van Gogh’s request to swap portraits and Gauguin’s rejection of Impressionism, has not yet been discussed in these terms.

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“Authentically American”? Hopper’s Reception at the 1952 Venice Biennale

The Venice Biennale has figured prominently on the IMA blog recently, and for good reason. The museum organized Gloria, an exhibition of six works by Allora & Calzadilla, which is currently on display at the U. S. Pavilion. Press coverage of the show has been both extensive and favorable with many critics collectively applauding the selection of the collaborative duo.

At the 1952 Venice Biennale, Deputy Commissioner of the U.S. Pavilion, Eloise O. Spaeth, employed a different approach with mixed results. Four established and well-known artists – Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1893-1953), and Alexander Calder (1898-1976) – were honored with small retrospective exhibitions. In his review of July 20, 1952, Stuart Preston of the New York Times expressed disappointment with the uninspired exhibition concept, stating that the American Federation of Arts “play[ed] [it] safe this year.” Despite this critique, Preston found merit in the apt selection of Hopper to represent the United States abroad. Preston observed that: “Hopper made the deepest impression. Foreigners recognized, and rightly, something authentically American in the pathos of his landscapes, a germ of loneliness which they detect in our literature.” The IMA’s Hotel Lobby (1943), which was among the works displayed at the 1952 Biennale, conveys the feeling of isolation described by Preston and noted by the show’s attendees. Hopper’s figures, whether alone or in the company of others, appear detached from their surrounding environment.

Edward Hopper, "Hotel Lobby," 1943. William Ray Adams Memorial Collection. ©Edward Hopper.

The motif of the contemplative figure is hardly unique to the work of Hopper, or even American art, though. Scholar Gail Levin and others have cited artistic precedence in the domestic interiors of Dutch seventeenth-century painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), which were likely seen by Hopper on his many trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or on the three occasions he visited Europe from 1906 to 1911. According to art historian Pamela Koob (“States of Being: Edward Hopper and Symbolist Aesthetics”), Vermeer studies experienced a revival during this period due to the organization of several exhibitions in New York.

Hopper’s paintings also bear a strong resemblance to those of Dane Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916). In December 1912, an exhibition of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish art, sponsored by the American-Scandinavian Foundation and organized by Christian Brinton, opened at the American Art Galleries in New York. Since Hopper lived in the city at this time, it is possible that he was introduced to Hammershøi’s paintings in person or in print, as they were discussed in three separate New York Times reviews. Interestingly, art critics lauded the curator’s selection of Hammershøi and praised the authenticity of his work. In a preview of the exhibition, published  August 11, 1912, a Times reporter found that Hammershøi “…not yet in his fifties, has taken an isolated place in the art of Denmark, belonging to no school, and betraying in his work no clearly defined inheritance from the past.”

Vilhelm Hammershøi; Interiør med ung læsende mand 1898.Olie på lærred. 34,4 x 51,8 cm. (via

Forty years apart, the reviews of Hopper and Hammershøi exhibited rather provincial slants, as they failed to acknowledge the wider application of the artists’ themes.  However, Robert Rosenblum’s seminal Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (1975) would later propose the existence of a “Northern” sensibility, which manifested itself in the artistic production of Europe and America for at least a century and a half. Noting parallels in form and feeling, Rosenblum traced a trajectory from the German Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) (who, incidentally, popularized the motif of a contemplative figure seen from the back, called a Rückenfigur) to the chromatic abstractions of Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Clearly, the cases of Hopper and Hammershøi substantiate Rosenblum’s argument. (The prolific scholar even identified the works of the two artists as analogous in a 1997 essay on Hammershøi.) Yet, the broader context of their paintings seems to have been lost on critics of the American-Scandinavian exhibition in 1912 and, later, of the 1952 Biennale.



About Leslie Anderson

Job Title: Kress Interpretive Fellow
Interests: Scandinavian art and culture, travel, museums and presidential homes, the history of New York City, and University of Florida football
Favorite Movies: I appreciate subtle humor and great cinematography. Rushmore and Barry Lyndon are two of my favorites.
Favorite Music: I listen to almost everything, but I am particularly fond of ‘90s alternative rock bands, such as Our Lady Peace and Radiohead, and indie rock.
Favorite Food: Egg-centric dishes (e.g., quiche, eggs benedict, egg salad and avocado sandwiches)
Something Extra: I have studied Danish, German, French, Italian, and Spanish. If pressed, I can also read Norwegian.

Leslie has written 6 articles for us.