Annibale Carracci, Vincent van Gogh and Michael Jackson

Self-portraits and easel paintings have a long tradition in art, from Carracci through Cezanne and, yes, Michael Jackson.

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Today, July 15, is the anniversary of Annibale Carracci’s death (in 1609). One of his more famous works was his self-portrait, displayed right. Read about the significance of self-portraits and easel paintings in the post below, not just for Carracci but for van Gogh, Corot, Cezanne, Marc Chagall, Norman Rockwell and more.

Vincent van Gogh, Easel Paintings and a bit of Michael Jackson

 

 

© 2017 by Ted Macaluso

Vincent van Gogh, Easel Paintings and a bit of Michael Jackson

Near the end of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, the young Vincent van Gogh thinks about what he might become when he grows up. When he thinks about becoming a painter, he thinks about easels. It turns out that lots of artists use easels in their self-portraits. What do these paintings mean?

“And [Vincent] thought about what it would mean to be a painter. He thought about standing at an easel in a studio. Then he thought about carrying an easel and paint to capture the landscapes he and Theo had seen.”

Vincent, Theo and the Fox is a story about Vincent van Gogh and growing up (for ages 4-10). It is illustrated with 30 of van Gogh’s paintings (including the two above). Some readers want to know more about the paintings so, on Mondays, I blog about one or more of them.

One of Vincent van Gogh’s more famous self-portraits (above left) is from 1888 and shows him standing at an easel. Paul Cezanne adopted a very similar pose in an 1885 self-portrait, as did Camille Corot in 1825, Peder Severin Kroyer in 1902 and Marc Chagall in 1914.

Some artists get quite imaginative with their easel-involved self portraits. As far back as 1605, Annibale Carracci painted his self portrait as if it were an unfinished painting propped on an easel (perhaps, as art critic Laura Cumming points out, to symbolize that he is like all men a work in progress). More recently, Norman Rockwell gave the genre a wonderful twist with his Triple Self-Portrait (which emphasizes the importance of the mirror to self-portraiture).

But why include an easel in a self-portrait? Is it the same as a stonemason, say, posing with a mallet and chisel (or the picture of me posing with a laptop above my bio)? Tools of the trade are important and there can be an aspect of advertising involved in artist self-portraits. A self-portrait shows the skill of an artist. A potential patron can compare the artist to her self-portrait and decide whether or not to commission a work. But there is, I think, more significance than that in both the idea of easels and self-portraits themselves.

The history of easel paintings is interesting. The website essentialvermeer.com gives some insight. The word “easel” comes from the Dutch word, ezel, meaning donkey. Around 1600, the word started to be used in its secondary sense of a stand used to support paintings. Easels, as stands, have probably been around since the ancient Egyptians. But, until the 13th century, paintings tended to be large: murals and wall-paintings. After the 13th century, there was growing public interest in acquiring art. Meeting that desire required smaller paintings, namely ones that could be done on an easel. Ever since, easel paintings have become the typical form of modern painting. Being highly transportable, easel paintings were easy to buy and sell, easel painting facilitated the growth of the art market.

Basically, easel paintings are an embodiment of a mind switch in the art world. Painting became secular. Fine art was no longer just for chapels and castle walls. Easel paintings were objects of worth in their own right. Also, an easel, with its freedom from a fixed location, makes a subtle assertion of the independence of the art of painting and the profession of painter.

But, with or without easels, self-portraits are often gripping to see. They are the artist’s answer to the eternal question, “Who am I?” The author of A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming, points out:

“Self-portraits make artists present as the embodiment of their art; it sounds so neat and succinct. But they often do so only to ask who or what this person is who is looking back from the mirror, how dismaying it is to be alone, how hard it is to represent or even just to be oneself.

Van Gogh had the courage to look in the mirror numerous times, painting 41 self portraits. Vincent–and all the other artists who have done serial self-portraits–make me think of Michael Jackson’s wonderful hit, “Man in the Mirror.” Here is a YouTube tribute by the person who wrote the song for (and performed it with) Jackson, Siedah Garrett.

 

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. His book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (for ages 4 – 10). He now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

 

Text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to tedmacaluso.com is included. Uses affiliate links.

The Art of the Re-Do: From van Gogh to Steely Dan

“Don’t be a copycat,” people say. Teachers warn students not to plagiarize. But have you ever said something and later thought you could have said it better? Vincent van Gogh would repeat his paintings. Today, we look at one of them and ask what it tells us about creativity.

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I had the good fortune to visit The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. two days ago. The Road Menders (above) is in their permanent collection. It is also one of the paintings used to illustrate my children’s book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox.

There are two versions of the painting: the one in the Phillips Collection and another (below), titled The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Remy), held in the Cleveland Museum of Artlarge-plane-trees-1889blog

In 2013, the Phillips Collection brought the two paintings together for Van Gogh Repetitions, an exhibition that included 13 examples of van Gogh’s penchant to sometimes re-do his paintings.

Art teachers in prior centuries believed that making copies of artworks was a valuable practice in learning art. Later, the idea of copying fell into disfavor in some circles. It was felt that an artistic genius should capture and express the original; should make an “authentic” representation or gesture of the subject; not focus on the mundane practice of, eww!, copying. Besides, the thought went, while an original is “imaginative,” a copy borders on being a fake–and a copy can come dangerously close to plagiarism.

Van Gogh’s repetitions, therefore, did not receive serious comparative study for some years. The exhibition at the Phillips Collection used modern techniques, like x-ray analysis, to establish that the version held by the Cleveland Museum came first (for example, x-rays show erasures and changes underneath the top-level paint in The Large Plane Trees; these are not present in The Road Menders). Visual analysis shows that the version held by the Phillips Collection features smoother brush strokes. There’s more. Henry Adams, in an excellent New York Times article, Seeing Double: Van Gogh the Tweaker, interviewed one of the exhibition’s curators, William Robinson. While the two paintings are very similar, Robinson points out that in The Road Menders van Gogh moved the street lamp for artistic effect, added more lines to the trees, and included an extra person digging. You can find other differences between the two images if you examine them closely, above.

Why did van Gogh “copy” his paintings? In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh said that the repetitions were an opportunity to improve and clarify. Adams’ Seeing Double article further explains that, when working outdoors, van Gogh would be beset by gawking onlookers and the light would change. It was in the studio, van Gogh told Theo, that “he could transform a painting from a direct transcription of a scene into a true work of the imagination.” Take that, anti-copy purists!

Repetition is also modern. Using these two paintings, Michael Lobel, a professor of art history at Purchase College, S.U.N.Y., addressed van Gogh’s “contemporaneity” in an article in the May 2014 issue of Art in America magazine. Van Gogh remains relevant to the modern art world, he says, because his embrace of repetition lets us perceive him:

as an artist who understood the modern condition of the image as repeating and repeatable and subject to extensive circulation in the form of reproductions….this version of van Gogh is more compatible with the artistic outlook of our own time, in which the strategy of appropriation has become a central device in the artist’s toolkit.

Barbara J. King, Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary, makes an additional observation. In her NPR Cosmos & Culture blog, Van Gogh Teaches Us How To Keep Life Interesting, she points out that  copying as a way to perfect artistic technique is not unusual  (musicians, for example, practice many hours every day). King’s insight is that van Gogh’s repetitions are not about copying or practicing in any conventional sense. Instead, she points out that van Gogh’s repetitions are about looking at one’s finished, visible-to-the-public product and deciding to do it again, almost the same, but not quite.

I agree with King. Creative repetition gives incredible freedom and growth. Live concerts are exciting because each performance is slightly different. Rather than getting caught up in perfectionism, in worrying about whether one’s so-called finished product is good or bad, we would do well to heed King’s NPR blog post. She highlights the lesson van Gogh teaches us with his repetitions: “embrace and take delight in an iterative process…you can appreciate what happens when a new mosaic of meaning emerges from the previous one.” As ’70s rock band Steely Dan sings and (for fellow jazz lovers) the more recent Philipe Saisse Trio plays, Do It Again.

– Ted Macaluso

How is The Road Menders used in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? The book is an adventure story that introduces children 4 – 8 to van Gogh’s paintings in a fun, exciting way. The tale starts with young Vincent and Theo trying to catch a fox. After the young boys have finished chasing the animal, they reflect on how the fox tried and failed at different activities before finding happiness. Vincent thinks he too will try different things as he grows up. One is to be a road mender. Today’s painting illustrates that thought. If you haven’t seen the book yet, you can check it out here.

 

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided you include attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com.

 

Thatched Cottages By A Hill

An unfinished painting from van Gogh’s final days, an innkeeper’s daughter, and a Bob Dylan song. Today’s post ties them together, and also includes a giveaway prize.

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As with last week’s column, this week we continue to look at van Gogh’s work during the period he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise. Van Gogh was fascinated by the thatched roofs he saw in the area. In a letter to his sister dated the same month as the painting (June 1890), van Gogh wrote, “there are some roofs of mossy thatch here which are superb and of which I shall certainly make something.”According to Ronald Pickvance, author of Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers, today’s painting “shows the most extensive view of thatched cottages in all van Gogh’s Auvers canvasses (p. 269).”

However, while it is an extensive view, a number of art historians believe that today’s painting is unfinished. It is easy to see the reason for this belief when we compare the painting to another painting of thatched roofs done in the same month, the dramatic Houses With Thatched Roofs, Cordeville shown below (courtesy of WikiArt.com):

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In contrast to the Cordeville painting, today’s painting has a blank sky and some of the fields appear uncharacteristically plain. Compared to the turbulent sky and the witches tree hovering over the Cordeville house, the dwellings in Thatched Cottages By A Hill appear calmer.

At the same time that they offer relative calm, the dwellings in Thatched Cottages By A Hill lack straight walls and roofs: they curve organically and feel almost alive. There is a tension in them, accentuated by the angle formed between the cottages on the left and right. They offer shelter, both in the form of solid roofs and the hills that surround them, yet bear the knowledge that storms will come. Van Gogh was suffering from psychiatric problems and he died in July, the month after creating these paintings. It is tempting to think that van Gogh sought shelter from his coming storm through them.

When vaportrait-of-adeline-ravoux-1890-1blogn Gogh was living in Auvers-sur-Oise he stayed at the Auberge Ravoux, an Inn run by the Ravoux family. The innkeeper’s daughter, Adeline Ravoux, was young (I believe 15) when van Gogh lived with them and painted her portrait. When she was 76 she wrote a memoir about the artist which you can read here. Her memories include:

“Vincent did not visit anybody in the village, to the best of my knowledge. He had few conversations with us….On the other hand, Vincent had attached himself to my little sister Germaine…then a baby; two years old. Every evening, following the meal, he took her on his knees, and drew The Sandman for her on a slate: a horse harnessed to a cart, in which the sandman stood upright, throwing sand by the handful. Following this the little girl kissed everyone and went to bed.”

Thatched Cottages By A Hill and the facts surrounding van Gogh’s life in Auvers therefore evoked for me Bob Dylan’s classic song, Shelter From The Storm, especially his last two verses:

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Even though I doubt Dylan was thinking of van Gogh when composing this song,¹ the parallels between his lyric and van Gogh’s life are intriguing.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. While intended for children, adults find the book interesting too: it has full-color reproductions of over 30 of van Gogh’s masterpieces and the story gives readers new contexts for appreciating their favorite paintings. I write about one of the paintings in the book every Monday for readers who want more information. See the book here.

¹ Some claim that Dylan’s beautiful song Visions of Johanna is about van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger, who moved Dylan because of her single-handed transformation of the reputation of an obscure suicide into that of a major artist….

WIN A FREE GIFT

I’m introducing free giveaways this week to reward readers and build up my followers on Twitter. It is administered by Amazon.com. Click here to win a copy of a Van Gogh Coloring Book from the Van Gogh Museum. Three copies being given away, winners chosen at random.

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Bob Dylan’s lyrics copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music. Everything else © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. This post may be freely reproduced provided attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is given.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eight books for kids about female pioneers in the arts

How do women become pioneers in the arts? How do they shine apart from their male colleagues? Eight delightful children’s books hold valuable lessons that make art more fun for aspiring female artists.

American ballerina, Misty Copeland, a pioneer in her own right, recently made headlines flawlessly recreating some of Edgar Degas’s famous ballet paintings. A pairing of female and male artistic giants is not unusual: Degas and painter Mary Cassatt, for example, were friends for years. Other examples include Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as painter Georgia O’Keefe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. But how do female artists come to shine apart from male colleagues and gain the spotlight for themselves?

513xtv9ozll-_sy454_bo1204203200_Copeland, of course, is already famous in her own right (see the 2015 documentary, A Ballerina’s Tale). She also wrote an award-winning picture book, Firebird, for any girl whose confidence is fragile but who also yearns to reach the heights Misty has.

Here are 7 additional children’s books about other pioneering female artists, both well-known and less well-known (note: uses affiliate links).

51tsflvev5l-_sx398_bo1204203200_Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, by Newberry honor winner Margarita Engle and illustrator Rafael Lopez, tells the fascinating story of Millo Castro Zaidarriaga. In 1932 she broke through a Cuban traditional belief that only boys should play drums. She played alongside the greats of American jazz and became a world-famous musician. The text is a poem that paints captivating word images. The illustrations capture her father’s initial disapproval, her dreams, her actions to keep her dream alive, and her father’s eventual transformation. The illustration that moved me the most was a two-page vertical spread of Millo looking up at the ceiling where a bird cage holds a trapped bongo drum with wings. Great book!

51zvardrfol-_sy452_bo1204203200_Capturing Joy – The Story of Maud Lewis, written by Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrated by Mark Lang, gives the fascinating story of a Canadian folk art painter who was born with birth defects, was poor, and lived with rheumatoid arthritis. Maud Lewis married a fish peddler. In the home where they lived there was no electricity and no indoor plumbing. The book is about her self-determination to overcome these obstacles and create images of joy. Unlike the instant fame that Hollywood portrays, the book shows that Lewis became famous slowly (a message I think valuable). Lewis eventually turned her whole house into a work of art and it is now part of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

51ykl0jup7l-_sx411_bo1204203200_Georgia O’Keefe followed a unique, sometimes controversial, path to becoming one of America’s greatest painters. Her relationship with the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz is, perhaps, too complicated for young readers. Two picture books, however, do a good job of showing how Georgia saw the world and what motivated her to follow her own path. Originally published in 1998, My Name is Georgia by Jeanette Winter, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of51j0rxzxnil-_sx402_bo1204203200_ the Year and made the New York Public Library’s “100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.” Through Georgia’s Eyes by Rachel Rodriguez and illustrated by Julie Paschkis also focuses on how Georgia saw the world. The illustrations are beautiful and the book’s goal is to convey Georgia’s “singular perspective as a woman artist in her time.”

Me, Frida, written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist David Diaz, is one of many books about artistic pioneer Frida Kahlo. What I like about this book is that it focuses on Frida’s time in San Francisco. This is where she found her inspiration to step out and find fame on her own, sepa61pbefdi9wl-_sy481_bo1204203200_rate from the shadow of her husband and mentor, Diego Rivera. The book shows Frida and Diego exploring the city. How familiar is this: he  expresses an opinion; Frida disagrees? When the couple explore towering redwood groves Diego feels empowered; Frida falls asleep. Gradually, she explores the city on her own, focusing on the things that appeal to her. There is a great illustration where, out of the blue, Frida starts to sing Mexican songs at a party to honor Diego. That night, she painted a picture that made her famous. It was a portrait of her and Diego. As in life, he was big and she was small. However, in the portrait, in a ribbon in the beak of a bird, she puts her name first. Unlike many other children’s books on Kahlo (which, overall, give more information about her life and art), Me, Frida recognizes the significance of this step. In the story it occurs in a context in which its meaning makes sense.  Estupendo!

Mary Cassatt: Family Pictures (Smart About Art) by Jane O’Connor and illustrated by Jennifer Kalis is a fun read. It takes the form of a school report by “Claire” who has such wonderful observations as:

“I thought that Mary would be a shy, gentle person. Wrong again! Mary had a bad temper and an opinion on everything. During dinner parties, if her guests said something she disagreed with, she’d bang her fists on the table.”

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The book has a lot of information about Cassatt and contains paintings she did as well as paintings that influenced her. We find out that Cassatt did few paintings of men because, back then, it was not respectable for a single woman to use men as models. Despite a 40 year friendship with Edgar Degas we find that they never married. It intrigues “Claire” that, before she died, Cassatt burned all the letters Degas had written her. Overall, the book shows that even in the 1800’s women could be independent; it shows that Mary wanted nothing more than to be a great artist and, by golly, that is what she became.

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Finally, how about a book about a woman who writes and illustrates books? The Scraps Book: Notes From a Colorful Life is both by and about Lois Ehlert, one of the most gifted picture book makers of our time. It is incredibly colorful, has many craft lessons for readers, and shows what it is like to be an artist. It addresses where inspiration comes from. I especially liked the time when Ehlert’s sister’s cat brushed her ankles. No spoilers here, but I recommend reading the page where she shows two versions of the story that grew out of that incident. Ehlert is a recipient of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art Artist Award for lifelong innovation in the field of children’s books. What a role model for an aspiring young artist.

These books will stick with young readers and engage their imagination. Check them out in the library, your favorite bookseller, or through the links above.

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso is the author of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, an adventure story for kids based on the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. He now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, kind hearted dog, and temperamental word processor. His son is in college. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

 

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely copied provided attribution and a link to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is included.