Friday, May 20, 2016

Franz Winterhalter

Leonilla, 1843.  On loan to MFAH from the J. Paul Getty Museum.  No reproduction can convey the beauty of this painting.  Inspired by Ingres, this portrait of a Russian princess married into a German aristocratic family is easily the most breathtaking painting in the exhibit.

     After the death of her uncle, King William IV, the London born Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837 at the youthful age of 18.  Born of a German mother and eventually married to her German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, Queen Victoria’s life was deeply intertwined with continental royalty even before her coronation.  Victoria and Albert had nine children, each married to another continental aristocrat, and-- as best as I could ascertain from some of the sumptuous Winterhalter exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston—her nine children had more than forty of their own, and a dozen of them became kings, queens, emperors and empresses of Greece, Norway, Russia, Romania, Wales, Spain, Prussia and other various German kingdoms.  Until August 14, about 45 of his paintings will be on exhibit at the MFAH.

A pair of portraits of Albert and Victoria, 1842.  On loan to the MFAH.

In the 1820s and 1830s, the German born Franz Xaver Winterhalter emerged from the Munich Academy of Arts as a favored court painter for the aristocracy in Baden.  Winterhalter relocated to France by the end of the 1830s and became the favored painter of King Louis-Phiippe, who lost political power during the Revolution of 1848.  In exile in Britain, the deposed French monarch ingratiated himself with his distant cousins, Victoria and Albert while is painter pivoted toward the painting of biblical and classical scenes rather than aristocratic portraits.  With his patron in exile, Winterhalter traveled to Switzerland, Belgium, and eventually England.

Florinda, 1853.  This was given by Victoria to Albert, now on loan to the MFAH from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

                He picked up where he left off, with an unmatched reputation for portraiture Winterhalter quickly became the primary painter of Victoria’s growing family in the 1850s.  The revolutionary French government did not last, and the restoration of Bourbon monarchy in 1852 quickly followed.  Winterhalter returned to France and served Napoleon III, painting the re-emergence of ostentatious monarchal fashions of the Second Empire. The rule of Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie ended in war with Prussia in 1870; Winterhalter was abroad, and during the war returned not to France but to Germany, dying three years later. 

Young Woman in Profile, 1862.

                For forty years in Germany, France, and England Winterhalter produced some of the most recognizable portraits of the European aristocrats, particularly favored for his ability to capture qualities of light and texture on clothing, hair, and skin which presented aristocrats in an exalted form which they aspired toward, even if they failed to surpass their own indulgent and insular lives, even if their extraordinary wealth gave them the privilege to cultivate artists like Winterhalter who did not hesitate to portray them as unblemished ideals. 

Lydia Schabelsky, 1857.

                I am quite fond of the 1960s era republican demand in England to “liquidate the lot” and jettison all romanticization of the aristocracy, but I confess like many Americans there is still something unshakeably appealing about the concentration of vast surplus wealth directed at the creation of works of beauty.  And many of these portraits are simply beautiful.

                One last beauty,

Susanna, 1866. Frye Art Museum, on loan to MFAH.

If you are in Houston then you are in luck, this is the only US location of the exhibition.  Go see the exhibit before it moves on High Society: Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter

Molly Glentzer, Houston Chronicle
Randy Tibbits, Houston Press
Catherine Anspon, PaperCity Mag

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Old South's Old Testament

I just picked up an old copy of Roark Bradford's Ol' Man Adam an' All His Chillun (1928) and found the chapter illustrations to be delightful.  Bradford grew up in Tennessee and served in World War I, and although his major stories and novels came out in the 1920s and 1930s he is most certainly overshadowed by other Lost Generation writers, especially William Faulkner.  He later served in WWII and taught literature at Tulane.

Bradford's collection makes use of southern black dialect and Jim Crow minstrelsy stereotypes to retell Old Testament fables reset in the Old South; I suppose the black child narrator serves a sort of Scheherazade like conceit, introducing each of the Biblical tales together for his audience.  The collection became the basis of a prize winning, popular drama about the South, Green Pastures (1929) and many of the nostalgic themes would of course appear in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1936).  Green Pastures on stage and television provided a not uncontroversial vehicle for many African-American actors in the 1930s to the 1960s.

The greatest part of the book, however, remain the whimsical illustrations which recast the familar Old Testament into the world of the Plantation South replete with steamboats, top hats, whiskers, and belles.  Enjoy.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Frank Conroy, Nantucket, and Travel Writing

     Just this morning while feeling the need to procrastinate, and to further avoid grading some student essays, I picked up Frank Conroy’s 2004 entry in the Crown Journeys series on his summers and brief year long residency on Nantucket.  This slim meditation on his life on the island and the changes he observed from the 1950s to the 1990s would not likely have caught my attention when I found it in the $1 bins a few weeks ago if I had not just been reminded of Conroy’s centrality to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the n+1 essay collection, MFA vs NYC.  I assume that MFA programs continue to study Conroy- he published a memoir, an essay collection, and a novel between 1977 and 1993 which rate as among the finest books from any writer’s writer, but aside from many literary essays and those three volumes (including only a single novel) it seems his major career was training young writers in Iowa and teaching along with other literary giants such as Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut.

     Back in 2002 Crown Publishers initiated a literary travel series known as Crown Journeys and the two inaugural books published in the series came from then acclaimed novelists Michael Cunningham and Edwidge Danticat.  (They’ve continued writing and publishing, but have not quite held onto the attention of readers and critics ever since.)  They wrote about Provincetown and Haiti, respectively, and Crown surely hoped to catch a ride on the enormous critical acclaim and commercial success that followed when Cunningham won the Pulitzer in 1999 for his 1998 novel, The Hours, and when Danticat’s first 1994 novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory exploded commercially as a result of her selection for the Oprah Winfrey book club in 1998.

     By 2003, the series expanded with five new volumes.  Popular literary novelists like Chuck Palahniuk wrote about Portland, African American novelist Ishmael Reed on Oakland and blues; Christopher Buckley wrote about DC while, surprisingly, the talented and acclaimed Civil War historian James McPherson turned out an elegant book on Gettysburg.  Like Danticat on Haiti, Journeys seems to have always sought to include American writers on life abroad, and so William Murray mused about Rome.


     (The same year of Conroy’s volume, Crown Journeys also released Tim Cahill on Yellowstone, Kinky Friedman on Austin, Alex Kotlowitz on Chicago, and Myla Goldberg on Prague.  The planned volume by essayist Philip Lopate on NYC sprawled beyond the series’ format restrictions, and when paired with other NYC essays became the incredible 2004 volume, Waterfront.  Although the absence of a volume on NYC in this series is impossible to overlook, Lopate’s book is truly remarkable.)


     The series seems to have lost momentum, with two books by McKibben on Vermont and Blount on New Orleans released in 2005.  And although these books are incredibly personal and beautifully written, it is heartbreaking to read Blount on New Orleans in a book published just six months before Hurricane Katrina washed away so much of what he beautifully portrayed.  In 2007, Madison Smart Bell’s volume on Baltimore appears to have been the final entry in the series.


     In truth, memoirs about travel and the meaning of place to artistic and thoughtful people place a very close second to literature in taking us to other places and showing us how people see the world differently than you or I.  This little series of fifteen or so books is well worth reading and although I am sure Conroy’s readers will have strong sentiments toward his essays, memoir, or novel it may be that this slim book has escaped their attention, but his other writing will no longer escape mine.  In 2005, Conroy died of cancer and so Time & Tide will remain his final reflections on a literary life lived among Nantucket’s year-long residents, summer visitors and day trippers.  I don’t have any plans to visit Nantucket in the near future, but when I do Conroy will be my guide.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

14th Amendment

Today is the anniversary of the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 which guarantees birthright citizenship in the United States.

Passed in both houses of Congress by June 1866 it took more than two years to be ratified by the states.  Every former Confederate state opposed its ratification until Congress made it a condition for readmission to the Union and the seating of southern Congressmen.  Citizenship for freedmen and women in the South opened the possibility of African American men voting and holding office, something anticipated eagerly by the Republican party, depicted here on the cover of Harper's Weekly as the amendment gained support throughout 1867.

Not everyone, of course, welcomed African American votes, particularly California Democrats who would soon push for the closure of Asian immigration to the state out of fear that the 14th Amendment would make citizens of the children of immigrants.  Below is a typical anti-Republican cartoon trading on anxieties about the 14th Amendment's impact on the citizenship rights of blacks, Native Americans, and Asian immigrants.

From the LOC description:  "A satire aimed at California Republican gubernatorial nominee George C. Gorham's espousal of voting rights for blacks and other minorities. Brother Jonathan (left) admonishes Gorham, "Young Man! read the history of your Country, and learn that this ballot box was dedicated to the white race alone. The load you are carrying will sink you in perdition, where you belong, or my name is not Jonathan." He holds his hand protectively over a glass ballot box, which sits on a pedestal before him. At center stands Gorham, whose shoulders support, one atop the other, a black man, a Chinese man, and an Indian warrior. The black man complains to Gorham, ". . . I spose we'se obliged to carry dese brudders, Kase des'se no stinkshun ob race or culler any more, for Kingdom cum." Gorham replies, "Shut your mouth Cuffy--you're as indiscreet as Bidwell [another gubernatorial nominee] and Dwinelle--here's the way I express it--T̀he war of opinion is not yet fought through. It must go on until national citizenship shall no longer be controlled by local authority, and "Manhood alone" shall be the test of the right to a voice in the Government.'"Chinese man: "Boss Gollam belly good man. He say chinaman vo-tee all same me1ican man--Ketch--ee mine all same--no pay taxee--belly good." Indian: "Chemue Walla! Ingen vote! plenty whisky all time--Gorom big ingin." At right a man in a top hat, holding a monkey on a leash, calls out mockingly, "Say, Gorham! put this Brother up."

The 14th Amendment did ultimately empower African Americans to participate in the electoral process, but racial obstacles to black voting and office holding led to the 15th Amendment's passage which would guarantee freedman the right to vote in 1870.  Below is a water color lithograph celebrating the men who pressed during the 1860s and 1870s including Head-and-shoulders portraits of Frederick Douglass, Robert Brown Elliott, Blanche K. Bruce, William Wells Brown, Md., Prof. R.T. Greener, Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, J.H. Rainey, E.D. Bassett, John Mercer Langston, P.B.S. Pinchback, and Henry Highland Garnet.