Fat Tuesday marks the height of the Mardi Gras festivities and is celebrated—at least in New Orleans—with parades, parties, and other general revelry. Also masks. Lots and lots of masks. And while Mardi Gras masks are commonly feathered or bedazzled in some way, they come in all shapes and sizes, similar to the masks in the Art Institute’s collection. So if you’re looking for a little inspiration for your own Fat Tuesday mask, we’ve got some ideas for you. . .
The Kuba, who live in central Africa, use masks like this Mukenga mask in funeral ceremonies for the highest ranking men. In this particular mask, the artist uses luxurious symbolic materials to give expression to its power. The face is covered with the fur of the fearsome leopard; the ruff of the regal colobus monkey forms a beard; the protruding eyes recall the rotating, all-seeing eyes of the chameleon; a long, protruding trunk suggests the power of the elephant. A cluster of red parrot feathers accents the trunk and contrasts the weighty power of an elephant with the air flight of a bird. I think it goes without saying that Mardi Gras attendees would applaud such an elaborate mask.
If you’re looking for something a bit simpler, we recommend looking to Saul Steinberg. Steinberg made no distinction between high and low art, creating covers and drawings for The New Yorker alongside masks made from brown paper bags and crayons.
This mask was not meant for a human, but a horse. It originally would have been attached to cloth or leather as part of an elaborate bridle and would have been placed on the horse’s forehead, between the ears. The mask resembles a medusa-like monster, with a mouthful of bared teeth and long tusks hanging from either side.
A bit morbid, but facial molds of the dead—or death masks—have been taken since ancient times, and this death mask of Napoleon is one of the best known ever. The mold was taken by the Corsican physician Antommarchi on the island of St. Helena two days after Napoleon’s death on May 5, 1821. The gaunt face with prominent cheekbones is a haunting image, recalling Napoleon the revolutionary war hero rather than the self-satisfied imperial image projected at the peak of his power.
What else can we say but laissez les bon temps rouler!
Mask (Mukenga), Kuba, Western Kasai region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, late 19th/mid-20th century. Laura T. Magnuson Fund.
Saul Steinberg. Untitled (Mask), 1959–62. Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Monster Mask from a Horse Bridle, China, Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1050–771 B.C.), c. 9th century B.C. Lucy Maud Buckingham Collection.
Dr. C. Francesco Antommarchi (from a mold by), cast by: Louis Richard and E. Quesnel. Death Mask of Napoleon, modeled 1821 (cast 1833). Estate of E. Blake Blair.
In my post last week, I mentioned that both of the Art Institute’s Egyptian mummies would be CT scanned in the near future. In fact, their appointment was later that week! And now, while we await the results, I thought readers might be interested in learning about how we coordinate a project like this.
The planning took about 4 months. First, the mummies had to be examined to ensure they could make the trip without sustaining any damage. After a careful assessment by objects conservators, and a few quick treatments to reattach loose areas of linen and flaking paint, we were good to go.
Colleagues in the packing department modified the mummies’ storage crates to provide the necessary support for safe transport. This included adding interior foam structures and tyvek padding to both hold the mummies firmly in place and to absorb any bumps and vibrations they might encounter along the way.
Another interesting aspect of this project was the decision to use Superior Ambulance Service for transporting the mummies to their appointment at the University of Chicago Hospital. We typically use specially equipped trucks for transporting artworks, but ambulances are designed for moving bodies, which is exactly what we had. By modifying the hydraulic gurneys used by Superior, we were able to minimize the number of times the mummies had to be handled and moved.
Once in the scanning room, museum art handlers carefully uncrated the mummies and placed them on the scanning table. Because modern CT scanners are rarely used for full body scans, there were some challenges in getting the scans we needed. Both mummies had to be scanned once from the head down, and then manually rotated 180 degrees for a second scan from the feet up.
During the scanning, detailed images and 3D renderings were generated in a viewing area just outside of the scanning room where radiologist Dr. Michael Vannier, Egyptologist Dr. Emily Teeter, and Art Institute curator Mary Greuel saw the results as each mummy passed through the tube. Some interesting discoveries were instantly visible, such as an outer shroud around the wrappings of Paankhenamun’s head and a cylindrical object, possibly a papyrus scroll, placed alongside the arm of the female mummy.
While the final results of the scans will not be made public for some time—there are over 66,000 images to analyze!—we look forward to presenting some of our findings in future galleries of Near Eastern and Egyptian Art here at the museum.
A special thanks to Dr. Michael Vannier, Dr. Emily Teeter, Superior Ambulance Service, and Terry and Cynthia Perucca for their generous support of this project.
—Lorien Yonker, Technician & Art Handler, Department of Ancient & Byzantine Art
Art Institute art handlers Lorien Yonker, Eric Warner, and Milan Bobysud place the mummy of Paankhenamun for scanning
Objects conservator Rachel Sabino inspects both mummies before approving them for travel.
Vehicles from Superior Ambulance Service, ready to transport the mummies to the University of Chicago Hospital
Art handlers finish uncrating the female mummy; Paankhenamun is placed on the table for the first round of scanning
Dr. Vannier inspects the results of Paankhenamun’s first round of scans
Christopher Wool opens tomorrow for members and Sunday for everyone, but Art Institute staff got a sneak peek today. See below for a first look at the exhibition that has transformed our special exhibition space, opening windows that haven’t been seen in over a decade. There are nearly 90 paintings, photographs, and works on paper—along with one sculpture just outside the exhibition’s entrance—including Wool’s best known “word paintings” and his more recent “gray paintings.” Enjoy!
There are just two ancient Egyptian mummies in the Art Institute’s collection. But while many visitors are familiar with the mummy of Paankhenamun, which stood in the Egyptian art galleries until their deinstallation in 2012, Wenuhotep, the mummy pictured above, hasn’t been on view since the beginning of the 19th century. Recent findings have also suggested that Wenuhotep’s not quite who we thought she was. . .
She was originally brought to Chicago in 1892 by Henry H. Getty and Charles L. Hutchinson, two early trustees who donated a significant proportion of the museum’s collection of Egyptian antiquities. In 1941 she was lent to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. From there she traveled to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum in 1959, where she remained on display until 2007.
Upon her return to the Art Institute, Wenuhotep became the focus of a project sponsored by the Community Associates Research and Lecture Series by Dr. Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist from the Oriental Institute. In studying both the mummy and sarcophagus of Wenuhotep, Dr. Teeter quickly realized that the two were not a stylistic match. While the sarcophagus dates to around the 26th Dynasty (664-525 B.C.), the mummification style of the woman’s body is that of the Ptolemaic Period (323-30 B.C). The two could have been created as many as 500 years apart!
The hieroglyphs confirm that the sarcophagus definitely belonged to Wenuhotep. But if the woman contained inside is not Wenuhotep, then who is she? Her mummification style certainly indicates someone of status, with detailed scenes painted in vivid color and extensive gilding on the chest and head pieces. Even the soles of her sandals were painstakingly rendered. However her name is surprisingly not recorded, so her identity remains a mystery.
Some years ago the mummy underwent x-rays and CT scanning. While some of the results were lost, the reports we do have offer conflicting information regarding her age, height, and health as well as the presence of jewelry inside her wrappings and the preservation of her internal organs.
In the coming weeks radiologists from the University of Chicago will be utilizing the latest in CT scanning technology on both of the Art Institute’s mummies. The information they glean will be assessed by Egyptologists and Art Institute staff to see what can be learned about this mystery woman, and hopefully put some of the conflicting reports to rest.
There’s romance and then there’s Romance. This painting just happens to include both. But what exactly is the difference?
The Romantic era (the kind with a capital “R”) began in France and Great Britian in the early 19th century as a reaction to the Enlightenment, or as it was also called, the Age of Reason. Art of the Enlightenment favored rational order, logic, and Neo-Classicist ideals. But with the chaos of the French Revolution, artists began to insert emotional intensity and imagination into their work. This new kind of Romantic painting could manifest itself in a variety of ways: in a sweeping landscape with tumultuous weather, in a violent shipwreck with no savior in sight, or, in this case, in a portrait of a woman who’s not looking out at the viewer, but who is engrossed in her reading with her head in her hands.
In this painting, Isabella Wolff is contemplating a figure of the Delphic Sibyl from the Sistine Chapel ceiling in a book of prints. The Delphic Sibyl was one of several created by Michelangelo, all of whom represent priestesses of classical legend who made mysterious judgments and prophecies. Sibyls were frequently depicted in exotic costumes and Mrs. Wolff’s turban, shawl, and Asian textiles might just equate her as the present-day embodiment of Michelangelo’s feminine ideal.
And this is where the other kind of romance comes in. If you look at the credit line below, you’ll notice that this painting was created over the course of 12 years. In 1803 when it was started, Isabella was the wife of Jens Wolff, a wealthy Anglo-Danish timber merchant and shop broker. Then it was left unfinished in Lawrence’s studio for 10 years. When he took it up again in 1914, the couple had separated and Mrs. Wolff was living with one of her sisters. Over the course of this period, Wolff and Lawrence maintained a friendship and were thought to have had an affair. Did he idealize her because he was in love with her? Romance or romance or both?
Either way, wishing you whatever kind of romance you prefer this Valentine’s Day!
Image Credit: Sir Thomas Lawrence. Mrs. Jens Wolff, 1803–1815. Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball Collection.
Olympic fever has officially swept our office, with excitement and discussion on everything ranging from the team figure skating scoring process to whether or not Shaun White would break out the YOLO Flip in the halfpipe finals to the current status of Bob Costas’s eye infection. It’s been a big week. And it’s encouraged us to take a closer look at our collection because, with over 250,000 pieces, we figured there just hadto be some works that celebrated the Olympics. We were not disappointed.
Contemporary Olympic gold medalists get endorsement deals, but some winners of the Ancient Olympic Games received an arguably larger perk. A minted coin celebrating their victory. In the Ancient Olympics, horse races were among the most prestigious competitions. Horses were symbols of socioeconomic status, since only the privileged could afford to buy, feed, and train them and transport their teams and trainers to Olympia every four years. In time, many of the victors in the horse races included kings and tyrants. The top coin shows Gelon of Syracuse, who minted this to commemorate his victory in the four-horse chariot race in 488 B.C. Three years later he became ruler of the city. The image below features Anaxilas, ruler of Messana and Rhegium, who commissioned this coin to celebrate the victory of his mule team in either 484 or 480 B.C. Both coins are currently on view in Gallery 151.
The next one might be cheating a little bit because Hannes Schroll (pictured below) never actually competed in the Olympics, but did finish first in the 1935 Olympic Trials in several alpine skiing events, including slalom, downhill, and combined. However, he was Austrian born and thus wasn’t eligible to be selected to the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. This portrait of Schroll was taken in 1935 in the Yosemite Valley, where he was a ski instructor. The photographer? None other than Ansel Adams.
The Cheetah Flex Foot pictured below was worn in the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, most famously by South African Oscar Pistorius. This custom-engineered prosthetic limb was designed for both above-the-knee and below-the-knee amputees and was inspired by a cheetah’s hind legs. The curved shape and carbon composite materials enable the prosthetic limb to store and release energy like a spring to closely mimic the anatomy of the human foot and ankle, allowing disabled athletes to sprint at new high speeds. It has been instrumental in the achievement of several world records.
Sadly (as far as I’m concerned), the model below will never be built. Local architect Stanley Tigerman created it for Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid, which our fair city lost to Rio de Janeiro in 2009. This complex would have been part of the imagined Olympic Village, housing athletes and coaches alike.
If you weren’t already with us, we hope this gets you in the Olympic spirit!
Greek, minted in Syracuse, Sicily. Coin Showing Quadriga with Bearded Charioteer, 485–478 B.C. Gift of William F. Dunham.
Greek, minted in Sicily, Messana. Tetradrachm (Coin) Portraying Biga with Mules, 484–476 B.C. Gift of William F. Dunham.
Ansel Easton Adams. Hannes Schroll, Yosemite Valley, California, c. 1935. Gift of Mrs. Katharine Kuh.
Van Phillips and Hilary Pouchak, Manufactured by Össur Icelandic. Cheetah Flex Foot, c. 2000. Gift of Ossur Americas.
It isn’t every day that George Clooney and an all-star Hollywood cast make a movie about the fate of a drawing now at the Art Institute of Chicago. And yet, The Monuments Men, which is opening today nationwide, is a celebration of the soldiers who saved millions of purloined artworks from willful destruction by the Nazi regime during World War II. These men and women, officially known as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, were no ordinary soldiers, but trained art historians, architects, and archaeologists. They went into battle to save the irreplaceable cultural heritage that Hitler had amassed in his progress through Europe. He hid these riches everywhere from Austrian salt mines to Bavarian castles and then instructed his troops to destroy them as the Reich fell. Not only did the Monuments Men save the art, in the years following the war they returned it to its rightful owners, many of whom were Jewish.
The Art Institute rigorously publishes the known provenance of its artworks on our website under “Ownership History.” For one luminous drawing by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, this history is truly the stuff of legend. Not only was the work confiscated from its Jewish gallery owner Georges Wildenstein in Paris in 1943, but a physical card survives marking it as one of the works recovered by the Monuments Men in 1945. Wildenstein took possession again in 1947, and eventually sold the work of his own accord. When the Art Institute purchased the Ingres drawing in 1972, it was free and clear of any connection to the years it was held hostage by the third Reich. (The full ownership history of the drawing is included below.) And most importantly, thanks to the Monuments Men, it survived for us to enjoy.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, (French, 1780-1867) Sheet of Studies with the Head of the Fornarina and Hands of Madame de Senonnes, 1814/16. Graphite, with stumping, on light-weight yellowish-tan wove paper. Restricted gift of the Joseph and Helen Regenstein Foundation, 1972.32.
Estate of the artist [Lugt 1477]. Georges Wildenstein (1892–1963), Paris [E.R.R. card]; confiscated by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (E.R.R.), before January 15, 1943 [January 15, 1943 is the date the drawing was entered into the E.R.R.’s records at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris]; recovered by the American Forces’ Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Service (M.F.A.A.) and processed at the Munich Central Art Collecting Point, June 24, 1945 [Central Collecting Point card]; repatriated to France, September 19, 1946 and restituted to Wildenstein, March 21, 1947 [Central Collecting Point card; Cultural Plunder by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg: Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume (on-line)]. Wildenstein and Company, London, by May 1956 [1956 exh. cat.]. Villiers David, London [according to a letter from Frederick Schab dated March 7, 1972 in the curatorial file]. Sold by the William Schab Gallery, New York, to the Art Institute, 1972.
In 1931, Victor Schreckengost received a commission for a large punch bowl for a special, anonymous client. The client requested that the bowl be “New Yorkish” in style. Schreckengost took inspiration from a memorable performance by Cab Calloway at New York’s famed Cotton Club and his design captured the excitement of the city’s nightlife, with signs flashing and lights illuminating the skyline. One side shows glasses, liquor bottles, and other evidence of drinking, somewhat ironic considering this was created during prohibition.
As it turns out, the anonymous client was Eleanor Roosevelt. She commissioned it to celebrate FDR’s reelection as governor of New York and the famous couple was quite unconcerned by the alcohol-related ornamentation. In fact, shortly after Roosevelt’s election to the presidency in 1933, prohibition was repealed. And future generations of Super Bowl viewers breathed a sigh of relief.
Victor Schreckengost, made for Cowan Pottery Studio. Jazz Bowl, c. 1931. Through prior acquisition of the Antiquarian Society; Thorne Rooms exhibition Fund; Bequest of Elizabeth R. Vaughan; and the Winfield Foundation.
Sea gods and monsters, shipwrecks, and other dramatic Dutch and British prints from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries are now resplendently on view in Gallery 213a. Northern Renaissance and Baroque artists witnessed a golden age of seafaring expansion, and duly produced a cornucopia of art on paper littered with fantastical sea beasts that they imagined might be encountered, if one were only to travel far enough. As the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1532 map of the world suggests, most of the globe was covered by water, and it was those unexplored areas that might well contain leviathan whales, or perhaps even the proverbial dragon. These tales were the stuff of ancient mythology, and artists continued to tell the same stories with added verve of an ever more real threat across the ocean in the New World. By the nineteenth century, these versatile sea creatures could also express political statements rather than serving merely as excuses for imperiling classical nudes.
Among the works on view is a 1601 engraving by Jan Saenredam after a drawing by Hendrick Goltzius, that envisions the story of the princess Andromeda as a traditional Renaissance nude. The beautifully bare Andromeda has been chained to a bone-strewn rock as food for a ravening sea beast. Just then, Perseus swoops in on Pegasus to do battle with the creature and save the damsel from distress. Andromeda’s nudity is accentuated by her flowing locks, blown dramatically by the wind and waves; she is a comely tidbit for monster or man. Saenredam’s early training was in cartography, and his rendition of Goltzius’s sea beast resembles the hybrid stock characters that populate dangerous uncharted waters of Holbein and other sixteenth-century artists.
Finally, a later adopter of sea creature fright tactics, printmaker James Gillray’s raucous political satires often included biblical and nautical references. This dynamically hand-colored etching from 1806 bears a lengthy secondary title, which may have clarified the subject matter for contemporaries: “Representing an Empty-Barrel tossed out to amuse the great Leviathan John-Bull, in order to divert him from instantly laying violent hands upon the new Coalition Packet.” The monstrous whale with “John Bull” horns symbolizes the British nation (as personified by the heroic and comedic archetype, John Bull), who attacks a packet boat steered by an unpopular new political group.
Mapping the globe or a nation’s ever-changing political vistas evidently each had their own intricate difficulties. These prints will only be on view for a few months, and then, like the irregular and often cruel tides the artists immortalized, they must come back down. Check back in April for a new Gillray etching; its glorious handcoloring only allows it to stay up for half as long as a work in black and white.
After Hans Holbein. Typus Cosmographicus Universalis, 1532, reproduced 1889. Lithograph on paper. Gift of Emily Crane Chadbourne.
Jan Saenredam after Hendrick Goltzius. Andromeda, 1601. Engraving on cream laid paper. Elizabeth Hammond Stickney Collection.
James Gillray. A Tub for the Whale!, published March 14, 1806. Handcolored etching and aquatint on cream wove paper. Gift of Thomas F. Furness in memory of William McCallin McKee.
“This country has more marvels and monuments that defy description than any other.”
That’s Greek historian Herodotus’s account of Egypt in the 5th century B.C., then a land of wealth and exoticism that intrigued Greeks. A century later when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in his successful war against the Persian Empire, the fusion of the two cultures led to the creation of new gods and ways of showing them (which you can see for yourself in When the Greeks Ruled Egypt, on display in Gallery 154).
To represent the combined cultures, Alexander joined the Greek god Zeus and Egyptian god Amon to create (wait for it). . . Zeus Amon. Egyptians thought of pharaohs as gods on earth, so descent from this god, as Alexander and his successors claimed, was an important part of adapting to their new home. Wander through the exhibition and you’ll notice figures with distinctive head gear: ram’s horns. In this tetradrachm, for example, Alexander is shown with this distinctive feature curling around his ear—an image that unmistakably identifies him as the son of Zeus Amon and consequently the legitimate leader of Egypt.
On another coin, Zeus Amon himself appears. Not only is he a hybrid of faiths, but so is the way he’s shown: with the symbolism of Egyptian religion, but in a naturalistic, Greek style.
It’s fitting that an exhibition about cultures coming together is presented at the crossroads of the museum, which itself is at the center of a vast, global city. See the over 75 fascinating objects, including mummy masks, portraits, coins, and magical amulets for yourself, along with enlightening quotes printed on the gallery walls, through July 27.
Installation view of When the Greeks Ruled: Egypt After Alexander the Great.
Greek, minted in Ephesus, Asia Minor. Tetradrachm (Coin) Portraying Alexander the Great. 306-281 B.C., Issued by Kind Lysimachus of Thrace. Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Martin A. Ryerson.
Greek, minted in Cyrene, North Africa. Stater (Coin) Depicting the God Zeus Ammon, about 322-308 B.C. Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Martin A. Ryerson.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day gives us an opportunity to celebrate and consider Dr. King, his impact on the course of history, the context for his life’s work, and the aftermath of his assassination. Art reflects life, as we all know, and three photographs in the Art Institute’s collection provide a look at the triumph and pain found in the story of Dr. King.
Tony Spina, a photojournalist for the Detroit Free Press, photographed Dr. King on June 23, 1963. This was the date of the Detroit Walk to Freedom, a large civil rights march that took place just a few months before the more well-known March on Washington. (In fact, King delivered an early version of his I Have a Dream speech in Detroit.) We see Dr. King waving to the crowd (estimated at 125,000) and walking alongside civic and state leaders; the image is a strong reminder of his ability to draw very visible support from politicians and citizens alike, and the boisterous energy of the Civil Rights Movement of the early 60′s.
On April 4, 1968, as news of the assassination of Dr. King spread, cities around the country erupted in violent riots. Jack Jaffe, a Chicago photographer known for documenting the Civil Rights Movement, captured this somber image in Gary, Indiana. Jaffe’s photograph depicts a line of figures silhouetted by flames and dwarfed by a dark, looming sky—a moment of profound sadness amongst the violence.
Finally, we have Terri Garland’s Martin Luther King Day, Pulaski, Tennessee, a photograph with a darkly ironic title. The image of a smirking bigot in a tasteless t-shirt reminds us that perhaps the only thing worse than a racist is a racist who thinks he’s funny. More importantly, it reminds us why we have a holiday in commemoration of the life and spirit of Dr. King: we are all responsible for carrying on his work.
Tony Spina. Martin Luther King in Detroit, June 23, 1963, printed by June 24, 1988. Ernest N. Kahn Photography Fund.
In this case, McCloskey’s Wrapped Oranges speaks to industrial and agricultural advances of the 19th century. Prior to 1881, a painting like this one would have been almost impossible. First of all, McCloskey lived in Philadelphia. Oranges were grown in more tropical climates. And because of this, oranges were a costly luxury. But the invention of refrigerated rail cars in 1881 (by a Chicagoan!) enabled fresh produce to travel great distances. By the end of the 19th century, oranges were a widely available commodity. The tissue paper surrounding the oranges (which looks incredibly life-like in person) also served to preserve oranges during transit.
Check out the exhibition before it closes on January 27 for insights on early locavores and home gardening, the rise of the restaurant and food pairings, and what just might have served as the equivalent of the first food truck.
William J. McCloskey. Wrapped Oranges, 1889. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Acquisition in memory of Katrine Deakins, Trustee, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 1961–1985.
Exhibition curator Lisa Dorin aptly describes Monika Baer’s subject matter as “intensely common and commonly intense.” How else to describe paintings that include everyday objects like playing cards, coins, bricks, cigarettes, and meat slices—yes, meat slices—but also shy away from obvious narrative and obscure more than they reveal?
The exhibition includes work from 1990 (when Baer was in art school at the prestigious Kunstakademie Düsseldorf) to 2013, but although it spans several decades, almost all of the images merge figuration and abstraction. The red wall paintings (example above) exemplify this approach. They all include a red background on the left with a wall of bricks on the right. Space and depth are unclear, but chains, shapes, and graffiti-like scribbles seem to rest/float on top of the brick wall and red field. Dorin notes that it all seems to call to mind the idiom “banging one’s head against a wall,” which can be perceived both literally and metaphorically as the viewer tries to uncover any underlying meaning.
More recently, 2013′s 3 bad habits (3a) also combines the illusion of deep space with a smashed cigarette butt painted on the canvas and a yet-to-be-opened airplane-sized bottle of spiced whiskey perched on top of the painting. If those are two of the aforementioned bad habits, what is the third? Your guess is as good as mine, but Dorin suggests that it might just be painterliness.
Still wondering about those meat slices? They appear in several paintings, including the untitled work above from 2005. Check out the disk-like objects seemingly spinning through the bottom right corner.
focus: Monika Baer is the first U.S. museum exhibition devoted to the artist and is open through January 26 in the Modern Wing’s Abbott Galleries.
Monika Baer. rote Wand, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles.
With temperatures in Chicago approaching -40 (with the wind chill), we’re convinced that the best place to appreciate the snow is indoors. But since it’s hard to see anything when the window in your office looks like this, here are some snow covered images (all currently up in the museum!) for your viewing pleasure. Stay warm, Chicago.
George Wesley Bellows. Love of Winter, 1914. Friends of American Art Collection.
Guy Carleton Wiggins. Snow-Crowned Hills, c. 1920. Walter H. Schulze Memorial Collection
Claude Monet. Stack of Wheat (Snow Effect, Overcast Day), 1890/91. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.
Childe Hassam. New York Street, 1902. Bequest of Edna H. Loewenstein.
With their carefully-scaled furniture and exacting details, Mrs. James Ward Thorne’s miniature rooms make up one of the most treasured collections at the Art Institute of Chicago. While they range from medieval European church interiors to a 1940s San Francisco penthouse complete with contemporary artworks, none of them include people. Miniaturizing the human figure proved too difficult, and would have disrupted the way viewers find themselves inexorably drawn into the rooms.
But a recent gift to the Department of Prints and Drawings of six shadowboxes created by Mrs. Thorne turns this notion on its head.
These shallow, glazed shadowboxes (or dioramas) are inset into the lids of other boxes. They consist of layered collages of cut-out prints and drawings, many of them hand colored. And unlike the full-blown miniature rooms, all of these include images of people. Mrs. Thorne produced them for charity auctions in the 1930s or 1940s, likely with the help of Eugene Kupjack and other skilled miniature makers connected to her workshop. Two of the most intricate shadowboxes include tiny three-dimensional objects made of other materials (such as a metal chandelier and urns), as well as separately standing paper figures that were glued to the background on small pieces of wood. A number of these components have temporarily come loose in the first box (above), lending a Monty Python-like quality to the scene of bewigged gentlemen bowing at each other. The better-preserved second box (below) shows two couples conversing in front of an elaborate archway.
The men appear in regimental outfits, which are comparatively unchanging, and so, difficult to date, but the women appear in trendy ensembles from the early 1810s that were meant for just such a promenade. Eugene Kupjack’s son, Henry, is still in the business of making miniature rooms, and retains some of his father’s materials that Mrs. Thorne used. Henry suggested that the sources for the prints could be an early nineteenth-century British periodical called Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics (below), which Mrs. Thorne had cut apart with relish for use in her charity projects. Interestingly, the figures in these boxes turn out to be several centimeters shorter than the fashion plates in that magazine. And, on closer inspection, they are not printed at all, but are colored drawings! Did Mrs. Thorne continue to be concerned about using proper scale in these boxes so that the figures did not dwarf the architecture? Or did she simply need male characters for her scenes that the magazine lacked? (In the first six years, only half a dozen images of men’s fashion appeared, compared to the requisite two to four female outfits per monthly issue.)
Where then, did these lovely ladies come from? They may still have been inspired by Ackermann’s, even to the point of the color and texture of their dresses. Indeed, this publication was a mixed-media artwork in its own right. Including meteorological and political reports as well as stock tips, each issue also presented British-made fabric samples corresponding to the fashion plates so that women could recreate them. In fact, the Art Institute’s Ryerson Library holds many issues with the fabric samples still intact.
Perhaps Mrs. Thorne used this lovely promenade outfit from June 1814 (above) as a jumping-off point for the frill on the woman on the left, perhaps even imagining one confected from the recommended striped lace muslin. Perhaps these fabric swatches inspired the use of tiny textiles in Mrs. Thorne’s other boxes, including the rugs and microscopic bits of knitting. Indeed, the Repository’s other offerings of fancy work papers and embroidery patterns must have been equally appealing to the architect of the Thorne Rooms in all their meticulous, if strikingly un-peopled glory.
You might be surprised (or not) to discover that this week is the busiest week of the year at the museum. With holiday break for the kiddos, family in town, and PTO to burn, we get a LOT of visitors.
And besides the myriad of exhibitions on view, we’ve got quite a few special holiday offerings to keep you busy (and entertained) on a visit. And since I love a good list, here are the top four must-dos on a holiday visit to the museum. . .
1. It almost goes without saying, but no visit to the museum is complete without a pic of the wreathed lions.
2. Check out our newest acquisition, the Neapolitan creche. This nativity scene is on view for the very first time and is the finest example of its kind outside of Italy.
3. Go on a scavenger hunt. Pick up the holiday brochure and go on a journey around the museum to complete our holiday game. Finishers will be rewarded!
4. Music in the galleries! This one is time sensitive, but if you visit the museum this weekend, you’ll be treated to concert by Joel Spears.
With The Christmas Prayer, a very special loan to the museum this season, Van Gogh hoped to express what he called the “special mood” of the holidays. In a letter to his brother, he explained that he was particularly satisfied with this drawing, comparing it favorably to another of his works. It is clear that he identified with the figure giving thanks before a meal. “Just as much as an old man of that kind, I have a feeling of belief in something on high.” The scene was probably based on his observations of life in the Hague, where Van Gogh made many studies of local people.
In that spirit, we hope you all experience the “special mood” of the holiday season!
Image Credit: Vincent van Gogh. The Christmas Prayer, 1882. Lent in memory of a boy with whom every day was like Christmas because he shared so much love.
It is a feast of food and cooking in Art and Appetite, but in our scientific laboratories we sometimes like to cook up some magic potions too.
Think of your classic “mad scientist” stereotype: white lab-coat, a murky solution ominously boiling on a hot plate, the repetitive buzzing of a magnetic stirrer, and a little smoke. That’s actually not too far off from what happens at the museum. However, here there is no black magic and nothing but the best intentions. Bbut we are cooking up some of the finest nanotechnology of the 21st century! Yes, the combination of nanotechnology and art are invincible allies for the art detective.
And similar to Art and Appetite,we’re not going to be secretive about our process. Just like a chef, we’ll share our recipe:
Dissolve a silver compound (silver nitrate, to be specific) in very pure water, bring to a vigorous boil, mix with a cousin of lemon juice (a chemical known as sodium citrate) and voilà!
If you continue to boil for 30 minutes (but not a minute longer!) while stirring continuously, the solution goes from colorless to yellow to milky grey (see above). It may look unappetizing, but it is a good sign: it means that a fine suspension of minuscule particles of silver are created. We call them nanoparticles, meaning you will have to line up 1,000 of these little handy silver beads to span the diameter of only one of your hairs.
Now what would we use this solution to accomplish? Well, when you love something, or someone, you just want to know everything about the object of your passion. Think about how often we check on our Facebook friends or tend to Instagram. So here at the Art Institute when we look at a painting, we dig deeply into it. There’s no small detail that is unimportant. Which is where our mysterious solution comes in. . .
Take, for example, Renoir’s Woman at the Piano:
We want to understand just who is the lady in the white dress? How did Renoir lay his brush onto the canvas? What changes did he make while he was painting? (One major change: she was once slightly turning away from us, and was a little less fashionably coiffed). Where did he buy his canvas? Did he have to walk a long way from his studio or was he just going around the corner? Too bad Renoir did not have Instagram. . . but the art detective has SERS! Short for Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (I know, it is a mouthful and it has nothing to do with Ramen noodles), this is a scientific tool with superpowers.
For decades now museum scientists have done a good job at identifying the crushed minerals that artists used to make most of their colors, but look at the blush of pink on the woman’s cheek, at the purple shadow on her piano, at the scarlet profile of the sheets of her music. Those are tricky ones to figure out. They are in fact painted with red lakes, pigments created by reacting the red juices extracted from plants or insects with whitish mineral materials to create an opaque paint material. Yes, you are not mistaken, some of the lustrous scarlets on Impressionists masterpieces (and many other works throughout the history of human creativity, including that lipstick I put on last night and the strawberry flavored drink I have enjoyed all summer long) are nothing but the essence of some exotic bug. Bugs and art? It’s not totally out of character: artists have always been able to find beauty in unexpected places.
These insects and plants make such beautiful reds and pinks and, like truffle oil in the kitchen, a little goes a long way so you need very little material to make a beautiful, strong, color. But what is a beauty for the artist can be a maddening mystery for the scientist. The colors are so strong, yet so elusive when you try to figure out where they are coming from.
Enter nanotechnology and the boiling glass-beaker we talked about before. Add just one drop of that grayish solution on one of the very small and precious samples our conservators take of the original paint, shine some laser light on the combo and the magic happens; we have nailed our suspect.
We want to jump for joy, and with SERS, the signal that we detect for our mystery compound is so strong and so enhanced in the Renoir painting that it feels like jumping on a trampoline.
Look at this slice of paint taken from the painting (we call it a cross–section). If you illuminate it with UV light, you can see that the scarlet layer at the top is actually made of two different red pigments, one that fluoresces orange, the other not. This is also visible if you expose the entire painting to black light. Take a look below at where Renoir “applied blush” to enhance the pink and purple tones, glowing orange in the dark:
On that minuscule sample, no bigger than a grain of fine table salt, and with this technique of analysis called Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy we are able to determine that for the red pigment, Renoir used not only the Mexican bug cochineal (image immediately below), but also the fruit of a plant (the root of madder, bottom image) to decorate the carpet, the blush on her cheeks, and many other parts of the painting.
Mystery solved: call it glow in the dark science!
—Francesca Casadio, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist
All images courtesy of Federica Pozzi and Kelly Keegan, except:
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Woman at the Piano, 1875/76. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.
The Art Institute’s Neapolitan Crèche is not only one of the museum’s most recent acquisitions, but it’s also the most complete version of a crèche of its kind outside of Naples. It’s also quite a complicated piece—it’s made up of more than 200 figures and took several weeks to install—so here are just a few highlights. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a closer look at some of the details, so consider this your 101.
– According to legend, crèches date back to the 13th century, but examples like this one gained popularity in the 18th century. During this time, Italian nobility would compete to see who could have the largest and most intricate crèche.
– There are three main parts: the Nativity, the Annunciation to the shepherds, and the tavern scene. It might seem surprising that a tavern scene plays such a prominent role, but Neapolitans wanted to see themselves in the crèche so there are ordinary people who represent many professions, including butchers, musicians, and cheesemongers.
– There are 50 animals in the crèche, including horses, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, dogs, and cats.
– The architecture is inspired by Naples itself. Look for arches, gateways, and Roman columns reminiscent of 18th-century Naples.
– Many of the figures in the crèche wear their original silk garments made in the royal silk factory in San Leucio.
– The objects that make up the crèche were often not made by miniaturists, but by specialists who recreated their wares in miniature. For example, the jewelry was fashioned by jewelers and includes coral, which was highly prized at the time.
– And perhaps most importantly, due to its delicate nature, it can only be on view for five weeks every year. This year, it will go off view on January 8, so don’t wait!
Crèche, mid-18th century. Naples. Charles H. and Mary F. Worcester Collection, Ada Turnbull Hertle, Eloise W. Martin Legacy and Lacy Armour funds; restricted gifts of Mr. and Mrs. James N. Bay, Linda and Vincent Buonanno and Family, and Mrs. Robert O. Levitt.
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