You are here

WordPress Blog

Updated: 1 hour 6 min ago

Fun Facts: Paris Street; Rainy Day

May 22, 2015 - 2:17pm

Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day is not only one of the museum’s foremost Impressionist masterpieces, it’s also a visitor favorite. And while many are familiar with the very Impressionist focus on light and weather and the modern subjects, there are probably a few bits of trivia that have escaped even our most devout followers. Read on for some fun facts and behind-the-scenes information:

– It was painted in 1877 and purchased by the Art Institute in 1964. In the years between, it was primarily owned by Caillebotte descendants, but was acquired in the 1950s by Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., the son of the scion who founded the Chrysler organization and financed New York’s Chrysler Building.

– The painting was first exhibited at the Impressionist exhibition in 1877, which Caillebotte largely organized and financed. The Art Institute’s own Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare by Monet also appeared in the exhibition.

– In 2014, Art Institute conservator Faye Wrubel began to remove varnish that was added some time in the mid-20th century. Check out our video to see her process and some surprising results, including the realization that what we thought was a pearl earring, we now believe to be a diamond.

– Caillebotte was not only one of the foremost Impressionist artists, he was also an esteemed collector. In fact, when he died, he gave his collection to the French nation and the pieces now form the backbone of the Impressionist collection at the Musée d’Orsay.

– The couple walking in the foreground of the painting is strolling down the rue de Turin, which intersects with the rue de Moscou immediately behind them. This intersection still exists today and looks remarkably similar.

– Caillebotte owned property in this neighborhood and his friend and fellow artist Edouard Manet lived less than five minutes from this intersection.

This monumental painting currently greets visitors when they enter the museum’s Impressionist galleries, but it’s about to leave Chicago for a short time for an upcoming exhibition devoted to the artist. In advance of its departure in mid-June, we invite you to revisit this masterpiece and test out some of your new knowledge on your friends/family/fellow visitors!

Image Credit: Gustave Caillebotte. Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877. Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection.

 

Powerful Prints: Warrior Saints and Holy Kings

May 20, 2015 - 10:40am

In the Buddhist Japanese and Christian European traditions, historical religious figures could be just as effective miracle workers after their deaths as when they were alive. Posthumous miracles due to a saint’s intercession were in fact required for Catholic canonization. The touch of a relic torn from their martyred bodies could cure illnesses, but sometimes even the sight of a modest printed image of a holy person could do the same.

Two prints illustrating this idea appear side-by-side for the first time in the interdepartmental Asian Art and Prints and Drawings exhibition Spreading Devotion: Japanese and European Religious Prints (on view in Gallery 107 until June 21), showing how the fascination with holy figures extended far beyond their lifetimes, and well beyond anyone remembering their true likenesses. Though sometimes said to have intrinsic healing powers, these powerful images did not always celebrate healing, instead glorifying righteous, bloody conquests. Warrior saints and kings could be equally renowned for their tactical prowess, real, or imagined.

The tall print above is a 17th-century woodcut of the sword-wielding Heavenly King Indra, which was printed much later, around 1845, and mounted as a hanging scroll. The other, horizontal composition (below) is a detailed engraving from 15th-century Germany showing Saint James the Greater—who is also armed to the teeth—routing a Turkish army in an imaginary battle in Spain 800 hundred years after his death around AD 44.

The woodcut is said to have originated from the hand of the monk Nichiren, founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism in the thirteenth century. According to legend, he carved a woodblock with a crude image of his patron deity, the god Indra, holding a sword. The block was rediscovered at Daikyōji temple in Shibamata near Tokyo in 1779; during a famine in 1783, ninth-generation head priest Nikkyo carried this woodblock around in the streets, and it had healing effects. The image became famous, with smaller versions sold to pilgrims to the Daikyōji Temple.  Many versions of the print exist. The Art Institute’s print is believed to have been made from the oldest surviving woodblock of the image from the 17th century, and carries the signature and ciphers of the 12th generation head priest Nikki (1800-1859), and the next priest Nittei, who became the head priest in 1845.

In contrast, the engraving showing Saint James in the middle of a battle that never occurred was itself not known to have performed any miracles. Yet the scallop shell on James’s hat refers to the pilgrimage his many devotees made to visit his relics at Compostela, Spain, after making their penitent way through much of Europe. The saint initially became the patron of Spain in part because of his supposed role in driving the Turkish army out of that country. While this print lacks the personal seals of its printers as seen in the Indra print, the signature at the bottom, M+S, suggests it was made by the famous German engraver Martin Schongauer (active 1470s-90s). This association, like the fictitious subject matter, is not entirely trustworthy; in fact most scholars agree that it was done by others in Schongauer’s workshop, who adopted his style and signature.

Whether medieval, 17th, or even 19th century in origin, these rare prints show us the fervor of belief in both cultures, as well as the common desire to be able to own a piece of the history of these charismatic, dangerous, and above all, holy, individuals.

Spreading Devotion: Japanese and European Religious Prints was curated collaboratively by Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art, and Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings.

After Nichiren. Heavenly King Indra, 17th century, printed around 1845, gift of Martin A. Ryerson.

School of Martin Schongauer, Saint James at the Battle of Clavijo, late 15th century, bequest of Mrs. Potter Palmer, Jr.

Insider’s Look

May 18, 2015 - 2:55pm

James Rondeau, is the Art Institute’s Dittmer Chair and Curator, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art and the exhibition curator of the recently opened Charles Ray: Sculpture, He recently spoke with our Member Magazine about some of his earliest artistic memories and why you shouldn’t be intimidated by contemporary art.

Do you remember when you were first drawn to art?

My mother was a Sunday painter, so I remember growing up with her paintings around the house, and I have strong memories of the occasional visit to Boston or New York museums for “blockbuster” exhibitions of Egyptian or Impressionist art. But it was not until college that I was alerted to art history as a discipline.

If you could pick one piece from the Art Institute’s collection for your office, what would it be?

Impossible. One of the great things about my job is that the quality and depth of our collection makes any such game of favorites truly beside the point. Yes, we are proud of our singular masterpieces, but our greatness comes as a whole that is more than the sum of its individual parts.

What were some of the installation challenges with “Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997–2014″?

Every challenge presents an opportunity to learn more about the artist’s work and about our own museum, its incredible possibilities, and its occasional limitations. In this case, the extreme weight of some of Ray’s sculptures presented real challenges. Working with our colleagues in the Department of Design and Construction alongside a team of outside structural engineers, we were able to solve most every issue.

The Art Institute has been committed to collecting contemporary art since its founding. When the museum was first established, Monet was a contemporary artist. Do you feel any kind of pressure given this legacy, being responsible for finding the Monets of today?

Not pressure per se, but a great sense of responsibility. It’s useful to remember that all great art was once contemporary. To be sure, part of our mandate is to embrace the experimental and not to be afraid of risk. That said, we know who we are as an institution, we know our history, and we know the context we provide to artists and objects. All of this makes us different from many of our peer institutions that only collect contemporary art. Hopefully an understanding of these distinctions informs the decisions we make in the most positive sense.

You get to work with living artists. What’s one thing that would surprise people about the foremost artists of today?

Surprise? Not sure. But almost without exception, I am struck by the confluence of great artistic talent with incredibly agile, open, challenging minds and kind and generous personalities. That said, great artists can also be tough. They keep us on our toes.

You curated a major exhibition of the work of the artist and director Steve McQueen the year before he won the Oscar for Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave. Is this a rare crossover or the shape of things to come?

Steve is one of the great artists of his generation working with the moving image. We have presented his work twice here, first in a small exhibition in 2002 and then again with the survey we organized in 2012. I am proud that we recognized his talent early and then showed it in depth. Increasingly, artists who work with media move between formats (film, video, digital) and modes of distribution (the art gallery, the museum, the movie theater, television, the Internet). This fluidity makes things exciting but also makes identifying the differences between “art” and the “everyday” more of a challenge, possibly even irrelevant.

Some people try but struggle with contemporary art. What is your response to that?

Go with your instincts, but most contemporary art emerges from a basic paradox: because it sometimes does not look like traditional forms of expression, we find it alienating or off-putting. But precisely the opposite is intended. The revolutionary freedom inherent in contemporary art—the expanded set of possibilities for what a work of art can look like, how it can function, who can make it, and for what purposes—is meant to be both liberating and welcoming. Hopefully, we can find such an open field exciting rather than vexing.

Which would go best—a hearty red or crisp white wine—with work by the following artists: Roy Lichtenstein, Sol LeWitt, Ed Paschke, Jackson Pollock, and John Chamberlain?

At least one glass of each.

Orange and Green and Everything in Between

May 6, 2015 - 2:44pm

In March, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840 opened at the museum. While the century and a half the exhibition covers is noted as one of relative peace and stability in Ireland, the era was not without its conflicts. About a hundred years after the Battle of the Boyne, an unexpected group of revolutionaries led a major uprising against British rule.

But first, some background. Despite the adage that nothing is black and white, when it comes to historical conflict, we tend to divide those involved into distinct oppositions rather than consider the innumerable subtleties. Such is the case with Ireland, where popular perception of the political and religious division is not black and white, but green and orange.

This cut and dried dichotomy is embodied in Ireland’s national flag (first introduced in 1848), with green representing republicanism, or the tenet that all of Ireland should be an independent republic, and orange representing the supporters of William of Orange and those who felt Ireland should remain subject to Great Britain. Similarly but less militantly, green is also tied to Irish nationalism—the advocacy of a united Ireland and the promotion of Irish culture and language—and orange to unionism, or the belief that Ireland should retain political ties to Great Britain. Each color is also associated with the majority religion on either side—green for Catholics and orange for Protestants. The white at the flag’s center signifies the hope for lasting peace between the two groups.

Green versus orange, republican versus loyalist, nationalist versus unionist, Catholic versus Protestant—these are the dualities that have come to define Ireland’s divisive past, but as the Irish Rebellion of 1798 demonstrates, no conflict is so straightforward.

The 1798 rebellion was a major bid for Ireland’s independence first set in motion not by the Catholic majority but by a group of liberal Protestants who sought to “abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen.” Founded in Belfast in 1791, they were fittingly called the Society of United Irishmen, and their membership crossed religious and class divides to include Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and even some members of the Protestant Ascendancy (those Anglican aristocratic families whose authority in Ireland was solidified by William’s victory at the Boyne).

Inspired by the recent revolutions in France and America, the Society’s main ambitions were radical reform of the Irish parliament and Catholic emancipation. The British government—at war with France and increasingly concerned with the prospect of invasion—felt the United Irishmen’s progressive principles and brazen veneration of the French posed a dangerous threat. Society membership was made illegal, and the United Irishmen were forced underground where they began to plan an armed revolt for independence with French support.

Fighting broke out in May of 1798, but due to a series of mishaps and divided leadership, the rebellion was swiftly and ruthlessly defeated. In response, the Act of Union was passed in 1800, which officially united Great Britain and Ireland, closed Irish parliament, and returned all governing decisions to Westminster in London..

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 was very much a “green”—i.e. republican—cause, but its leaders were almost entirely Protestant; a fact that was obscured for many years in Ireland to suit popular versions of history. Several men of this period who defy the color categorization appear in our exhibition:

Charles Cornwallis was a decorated British general who was appointed lord lieutenant—the highest post in Ireland —in the wake of the rebellion. Cornwallis helped pass the Act of Union but pushed King George for Catholic rights. He resigned when his requests went unheeded, but his actions laid the groundwork for future emancipation movements.

Henry Grattan was a Protestant aristocrat, Irish politician, and renowned orator who devoted his career to Irish legislative freedom and Catholic emancipation.

Visit the exhibition to see these men’s likenesses and learn more about the whole spectrum of Ireland’s colorful history.

—Anna Decatur, Assistant Director of Principal Gifts

Image Credits:

Dublin, Ireland. Dublin Castle Pattern 1769 Short Land Musket with Bayonet, 1770-75. Walnut, iron/steel, and brass. Private Collection.

Hugh Douglas Hamilton. Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, 1772. Pastel and chalk on paper. Private Collection.

Peter Turnerelli. Henry Grattan, 1820. Marble. Private Collection.

Conservation FAQs

April 30, 2015 - 9:59pm

Earlier this week, painting conservator Allison Langley began working on Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl in full view of the Art Institute’s visitors. And as you might imagine, our visitors have LOTS of questions. So to ensure that Allison can get some work done over the next few months, we’ve included some FAQs below.

Please feel free to add any additional questions you might have in the comments and click here for details about the conservation of this monumental painting.

Q. How many conservators are there at the Art Institute?

A. It’s a large department, in part divided by categories of artworks. There are 17 conservators, 3 conservation scientists, and a team of interns and fellows. The conservators are spread across 6 different areas: paintings, objects (sculpture), works on paper, photography, books, and textiles. They examine, research, and restore the works in the collection, and generally monitor the condition of the artworks in the museum’s galleries and storage to ensure their long-term preservation. The conservation scientists work across all the departments, and they study the materials, processes, and techniques used by artists, right down to the analysis of individual paint samples and particles. It’s helpful to think of the conservators as surgeons and the conservation scientists as the pathologists. Of course all of the conservators and conservation scientists work closely with the curators on the research and treatment.

Q. What sort of training and background do museum conservators have?

A. Very extensive and very technical! Conservators are first required to have studied studio art, art history, and chemistry at the undergraduate level as a pre-requisite for entering a graduate program to study art conservation. There are 3 such programs in the United States and several in Europe and Canada from which conservators receive a postgraduate Master’s degree. The programs are small—5-10 people per year—and it generally takes 3 or 4 years to complete the degree, depending on the program. Multi-year internships, and hands-on experiences, are the critical last steps for a conservator’s training.

Q. How do you decide which artworks need to get treated?

A. These decisions are the result of an ongoing dialogue among the museum’s conservators and curators in which a variety of factors come into play. Treatment priority is generally given to stabilization and structural treatments to extend the life of the artwork. In other instances the decision to treat a painting may be driven by aesthetic issues.  The schedule of the work is often determined by exhibition priorities, such as another institution requesting the painting for an exhibition (as is the case with Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl).

Q. How long does the treatment of a painting usually take?

A. The time of treatment varies widely and really depends on the size and condition of the work of art and the type of treatment needed. For example, research on and treatment of Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River took a few years, as is our current work on a medieval Spanish altarpiece [link to that post]. Sometimes simple treatments last just a few hours or days, like the work on Magritte’s Time Transfixed. The cleaning [link to video] of Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, which was done in preparation of that painting’s loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. lasted for about a year.

Q. How often are paintings treated and/or cleaned?

A. The goal is to treat a painting as infrequently as possible. And we do lots of upkeep—for example, we regularly dust the works in the galleries, just as you would dust the objects in your house. But anything more than that is done on an as-needed basis. When a work is cleaned and treated, we aim to have the treatment last 50-100 years, or more.

Q. Where do you take the x-rays and other technical images?

A. We actually have an x-ray unit—just like at the hospital—here at the museum, and conservators using it stand behind lead screens. We also use medical and industrial x-ray film that we process and develop in-house. We then scan the film and make composite images as a road map for the treatment of a particular work. The Picabia painting, for example, required 96 sheets of 14×17 x-ray film and 5 hours to complete. Many additional hours will be required to digitize the images and assemble a seamless mosaic composite.

Q. Do the x-rays harm the artwork?

A. No, they don’t. The x-rays have very low levels of radiation.

Q. What is varnish?

A. Varnish is a clear resin coating applied to the surface of a work of art. Artists from the medieval era through the 19th century have used varnish on their paintings. Medieval artists used an egg mixture as a “finishing” layer; and resin-based (and now synthetic resin) varnishes came into more common use in later eras. The Impressionists were among the first artists to stop using varnish regularly, though collectors and dealers often varnished their works afterward. Varnish is applied mainly to achieve a particular aesthetic effect. It deepens and intensifies colors and usually adds gloss to the surface.

When it comes to Impressionist and Modern paintings, much of the work of the conservator is focused on removing varnish from paintings that were never meant to have it. Varnish can change color and contrast relationships, throwing them out of balance and subverting the artist’s intentions.  Removing varnish in these cases helps to re-establish the correct relationships and returns the surface to a more matte appearance. This is especially important with large paintings because a less reflective surface enables the viewer to see the whole of the painting without the interference of reflections.

Q. Isn’t the daylight bad for the painting?

A. It’s actually the UV light in daylight that is the most harmful for paintings, as it is for your skin. As a result, we use UV-blocking film on the windows throughout the museum to filter out the harmful light, and actively monitor light levels throughout the museum.

Q. How long will the painting be in this gallery?

A. We estimate that the work will be done in late September.

Q. Where will it go when it is finished?

A. When Allison has completed the painting’s treatment, it will return “home” to the third floor galleries of the Modern Wing. In the summer of 2016 it will travel to Zurich and then New York City as part of a major Picabia retrospective exhibition.

Q. How long has the treatment been going on?

A. Since the fall of 2014. The first phase, which required a ventilation system for the use of cleaning solvents took place in the conservation labs from September 2014 to March of this year. In April we moved the painting to its current location.

Q. Why is the conservator not here all day long?

A. Conservators have many projects and the Picabia treatment is one of several that Allison is currently working on.  She also performs regular preventive care for other works in the collection.

Q. How will the conservator reach the top half of the painting?

A. We will turn the painting upside down. We promise that Allison will not be suspended from the ceiling to work on the painting!

Q. What are those weird glasses on her head?

A. They are magnifying glasses that are referred to as “head loupes,” like a jeweler would wear.

Q. What is the small machine with nozzles and vents next to her?

A. That’s an air purifier to ensure that the solvents and pigments that she’s using do not spread beyond the workspace.

Image Credit: Painting conservator Allison Langley working on Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic), 1913. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Armand Bartos.

On the Move: Picabia

April 29, 2015 - 2:40pm

Painting conservation usually happens in the museum’s conservation studios, but this spring and summer, museum visitors are in for a special treat. In a first-of-its-kind public demonstration, conservation work on Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl (pronounced ed-town-easel) will be performed in full view of museum visitors at the base of the spiral staircase in the Art Institute’s Morton Wing.

Now don’t get us wrong, we love making our visitors happy, but that’s not why we’re staging conservation in this location. Rather, this step of the extensive conservation treatment calls for natural light—lots and lots of natural light. So the painting moved today from the Modern Wing to one of the museum’s most sun-drenched spaces, Gallery 135, just outside the gallery of Indian art of the Americas.

We’ll have much more on the conservation of Edtaonisl in the coming weeks, but for now we wanted to take you on the painting’s journey through the museum as it moved to its new temporary home.

It began its trek through the Modern Wing’s Griffin Court. . .

then carefully rolled through the Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan Art. . .

made its way through the Asian Art galleries. . .

until it reached its light-filled home in the Morton Wing.

Now Open—Chatter: Architecture Talks Back

April 24, 2015 - 5:08pm

Chatter: Architecture Talks Back, open now in the Modern Wing’s Architecture and Design galleries, explores the work of five contemporary architects and their responses to the history of the practice. As you explore the exhibition, you’ll discover the compound meaning of its title: first, and most presently, chatter describes the impact of modern communication on the practice of architecture. Architects are using (and trying to make sense of) Twitter, Instagram, texting, Yik Yak, Snapchat, Whisper, and Yo* just as much as the rest of us. The open-ended conversation they create is what’s featured in the exhibition (you won’t find too many of the standard models and plans you might expect to see in an architecture exhibition here—come to see video, drawings, photography, and application design instead). Chatter documents the exploration of these modes of communication as they impact and interpret current architectural thought.

The next meaning of chatter describes how these practitioners respond to the history of architecture—a conversation across generations. For instance, Jimenez Lai of Bureau Spectacular uses cartoon-like drawings to directly reference the content and style of legendary Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman. Erin Besler confronts unorthodox methods of representation by interpreting Peter Eisenman’s seminal Fourteen Transformations using robotic drawing and 3D modeling. A number of works from the Art Institute’s holdings of Architecture and Design are on display to emphasize and illustrate this dialogue with the past.

The Chatter galleries also house an installation by Iker Gil of the journal MAS Context, featuring the work of a global array of design thinkers. Visit the exhibition on Saturday, May 16 to participate in a roundtable discussion of how we communicate about architecture. I.e., chat about Chatter. *Full discosure: Yo, Yik Yak, Snapchat, and Whisper are not actually mentioned anywhere in this exhibition. Full disclosure, part 2: I am not sure what all of these services do.

Badgers vs. Blue Devils

April 6, 2015 - 2:59pm

Tonight’s NCAA championship game pits the Wisconsin Badgers against the Duke Blue Devils and we couldn’t resist taking a look into our collection to see what a more artistic match-up between these teams would look like.

Perhaps surprisingly, there were several images of badgers in our collection, primarily from our Asian collection. In Japan, badgers are mischievous goblins who use all sorts of disguises to deceive people. And when they lead their prey astray, they love to delight in their misfortune. In this image, the badger is dressed up like a begging monk. Hijinks ensue.

Finding a blue devil was a bit more difficult. Because a blue devil isn’t a devil of the traditional sort; rather, the name comes from “les Diables Bleus,” a respected and daring French military unit from World War I. Because that’s a bit too obscure even for the Art Institute’s large collection, I sought out an image of a duke.

The man you see above is José Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba. The artist Goya painted several portraits of the duke, including this version completed a year before his death. The duke was known as a music lover and equestrian, but probably not a basketball fan since it was invented nearly a century after his death.

As a good midwestern girl, I’ve definitely got a favorite, but who are you rooting for?

Image credits:

Kawanabe Kyosai. Badger in the Guise of a Buddhist Monk, Meiji Period, c. 1780. Asian Departmental Sundry Trust Fund.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. Portrait of José Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba and Marquess of Villafranca, c. 1795. Anonymous loan.

 

250 Shades of Gray

April 2, 2015 - 10:07am

As you stroll through Burnishing the Night, the atmospheric Prints and Drawings exhibition of mezzotint engravings currently on view in Galleries 125-127, you might notice a cameo appearance by one of art history’s most famous moms, Whistler’s mother. But what you’re looking at isn’t the larger-scale painting by James McNeill Whistler meant for public exhibition; rather, it’s a smaller black and white mezzotint created by the lesser-known Richard Josey (under Whistler’s supervision) intended for display in private homes.

You might be surprised to discover that the expatriate American painter and printmaker extraordinaire James McNeill Whistler did not even consider his 1871 painting of his mother to be a portrait. He thought of it as a study of tone, and gave it the title Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 as an allusion to musical terminology. The word “mother” doesn’t appear anywhere. Indeed, to him, public interest in its sitter and literal subject, rather than the way it was painted seemed irrelevant:

Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?

            Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890, p. 128.

While Whistler pretended not to comprehend why the painting’s identity as a simple picture of his mother would interest the public more than its artistry, he was also a consummate businessman. He was closely involved in the production of this mezzotint about eight years after he produced the original oil on canvas. Josey’s plate may in fact have been steel-plated after it was engraved, allowing for hundreds, or even thousands of impressions of the same quality to be pulled from it. In fact, the medium of mezzotint was especially prized for its usefulness in reproductions of paintings, and the painterly quality of this print does not disappoint. Nowhere is the lack of color and its subtle gradations between values more intentional.

Here’s a closer look at the color range in engraver Richard Josey’s rendition, a mezzotint entirely printed from a single kind of black ink. Far more than the proverbial 50 shades of gray, these include up to the maximum of 256 different shades shown in the Photoshop-generated color table above.

Whistler built up the muted tones of his original composition through brushstrokes on canvas. In contrast, Josey reductively made the printing matrix by burnishing light effects into a previously roughened plate that would otherwise print in solid black. In addition to the color table mentioned above, the following diagram also pinpoints the amount of black present in several areas of the print—from a near 100% black for the shadows of the skirt (point nr. 1) to the 59% black, grayed-out midtone of the wall (point nr. 3). The brightest highlight within the print at 10% appears in the fold of the handkerchief in the sitter’s hand (point nr. 4), but the 4% tone of the paper support is even brighter (point nr. 2).

Perhaps in part due to the proliferation of Josey’s print, the painting known as Whistler’s Mother has now been considered the Victorian Mona Lisa, and may well be one of the best-known (and parodied) paintings by an American artist, much like the Art Institute’s own American Gothic. Now that’s a fancy bit of printing, even one in monochrome.

Image Credit: Richard Josey, after James McNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mezzotint, 1879. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Many thanks to Liana Jegers for her help in troubleshooting the Photoshop color mapping.

Why 1690?

March 31, 2015 - 3:04pm

Earlier this month, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840 opened at the museum. For the casual viewer, 1690 to 1840 might seem like an arbitrary span of time, but the choice was quite deliberate. So today we’ll answer the question on everyone’s minds—why start with 1690?

While the century and a half our exhibition covers is noted as one of relative peace and stability in Ireland, the era was not without its conflicts; the period was ushered in by one of Ireland’s most famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) military encounters, the Battle of the Boyne.

But let’s back up just a bit. In 1689, William III, a Dutch Protestant, was crowned King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, deposing the Catholic James II. Protestant nobles in England, fearful of a Catholic royal dynasty, had secretly encouraged William to seize the throne.

When William took the crown, James was exiled to France, but he did not sit idly by. With troops supplied by his cousin, the Catholic King of France Louis XIV, James landed in Ireland hoping to invade England from the Emerald Isle and regain the throne. Ireland’s majority Catholic population rallied to his cause in the hopes that a Jacobite (from the Latin for James) victory would help them regain property they had lost after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland some 40 years earlier and secure Irish sovereignty and Catholic religious toleration.

So on July 1, 1690, the armies of William and James clashed on the banks of the River Boyne, 30 miles north of Dublin, in what was the beginning of the Battle of the Boyne. Among those to fight alongside James was Sir Neil O’Neill, pictured below.

This is not what Sir Neil wore on the battlefield but rather what he chose to portray himself in for his formal portrait painted a decade earlier. Nearly every detail is deliberately pro-Irish: the costume, spear, shield, and headdress are those of an Irish chieftain; the Irish wolfhound a symbol of national pride. Less obvious to today’s audience is the Japanese armor that appears in the bottom left-hand corner, but Sir Neil’s contemporaries would have recognized it as a reference to the persecution of Jesuit missionaries in Japan. So Sir Neil not only saw himself as a guardian of Ireland but as a defender of the Catholic faith.

In the end, Sir Neil, James, and the rest of the Jacobite army were defeated. William remained king, and James returned to exile in France. Sir Neil, unfortunately, died of injuries sustained in the battle. In Ireland, William’s victory ensured that the island’s minority Protestant elite retained their political, economic, and social authority for over a century in what is commonly referred to as the Protestant Ascendancy. But the fight for Irish autonomy did not die at the Boyne. Next time we’ll look at the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and some of its key players who, like Sir Neil, are featured in our exhibition.

—Anna Decatur, Assistant Director of Principal Gifts

P.S. You might be wondering why someone in the museum’s development department is writing on Irish history. In fact, I started working at the museum shortly after receiving my master’s degree in Irish history from Queen’s University Belfast, not knowing that a major presentation of Irish art was in the works. I’m deeming it a happy coincidence!

Image Credit: John Michael Wright. Portrait of Sir Neil O’Neill, 2nd Baronet of Killyleagh, 1680. Private Collection.

Free Your Mind

March 25, 2015 - 10:25am

Let me set the scene. The latest “snowpocalypse” bears down as you exit the CTA or navigate traffic on the I-90.  When you arrive at the museum, there is a check in on Facebook and a text is sent to a friend about dinner. Receipt of an admission ticket grants entry to the galleries and the journey begins. After a few dizzying hours, looking at one amazing artwork after another, your eyes begin to glaze and your stomach begins to grumble. Do you stop? No, you press on because you must see American Gothic, but you haven’t even made it to the Modern Wing yet! * sigh * “Museum fatigue” has officially set in.

A visit to the Art Institute of Chicago can fill you with a sense of wonder about the world, provide a respite from your everyday life, or inspire and educate you all at the same time (at least we hope so)! But with 5,000 works of art spread over one million square feet, a visit can also prove exhausting.

With all of life’s pressures, slowing down to really look at art can be a challenging task. The average museum visitor looks at a work of art for 30 seconds or less. How much can really be seen in such a short amount of time? Is there a way to get our visitors to slow down and take their time? As a museum educator I think about this issue a lot.

So I developed a program called Mindfulness Mondays where instead of looking at a work of art for 30 seconds we look at it for…wait for it… 30 minutes!

(chirping of crickets and the woosh of a tumbleweed rolling past)

I know, I know. . . but hear me out on this one.

As a group we will begin with a 10-minute meditation to calm our minds and prepare for an extended look at an artwork. For 30 minutes we will consider a work of non-representational modern or contemporary art, like the Malevich painting you see above. This “looking exercise” will consist of questions that provoke all participants to look deeply, describe, wonder, and connect. To conclude, we will reflect on the experience and set a positive intention for the week ahead.

If you have ever found yourself rushing through the galleries, multi-tasking your way through life, or experiencing frustration when looking at abstract art, this program is for you.

Start your week off right. Upcoming events meet at 2:00p.m. in Griffin Court and are free with museum admission. Upcoming dates include March 30, April 13, May 4, May 18, June 8, and June 22.

See you soon!

—Emily Beaver, Woman’s Board Fellow, Department of Museum Education

Image Credit:

Kazimir Malevich. Painterly Realism of a Football Player – Color Masses in the 4th Dimension, summer/fall 1915. Through prior gifts of Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection; Mrs. Albert D. Lasker in memory of her husband, Albert D. Lasker; and Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection.

 

Check Out Our Rack

March 20, 2015 - 1:24pm

Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 opened this week and features over 300 objects in a huge array of media—painting, sculpture, furniture, glass, silver, musical instruments, bookbinding—the list goes on. And while this is a first-of-its-kind exhibition, most of what you’ll see in the show does hold the similarity of having been created by human hands (predictable, I know).

One object stands out in this regard, though. Hanging above visitors as they enter the exhibition are the skull and antlers of Megaloceros giganteus, more commonly called the Giant Irish Elk. Dating from somewhere around the late-Pleistocene/early-Holocene (give or take a few years), skeletons of the Irish Elk were often discovered, fully-preserved, in Irish bogs by workers harvesting peat.

The antlers welcome guests to our exhibition, just as they would have welcomed guests into an eighteenth-century Irish country house. This particular specimen denotes an important theme of cultural exchange fundamental to the exhibition. Given to the American College of Surgeons in Chicago by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland over 100 years ago, the antlers represent the widespread diaspora and exchange of Irish art since the eighteenth century. In fact, despite the exhibition’s size and depth, it is drawn entirely from North American collections.

So yes, in the true spirit of an art museum, we are celebrating an 11,000-year-old elk skull not as a scientific specimen but as a symbol of the healthy exchange of art and ideas. Come get a dose of that at Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, open through June 7.

Your Favorite Art Throbs

March 6, 2015 - 5:05pm

 

Vincent van Gogh once said, “There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread,” and while I’d guess most if not all of you were snacking when you took our love-themed Art Throb quiz, it’s still clear many of you are looking for that perfect romantic match. In fact, 13,000 of you took the Art Throb quiz in just one week! Looking at the collection of final results, it was fascinating to see exactly what types you found most appealing.

Here are the romantic types you chose in order of popularity:

The Romantic—27.17%
The Unicorn—22.78%
The Seducer—19%
The Psycho—10.30%
The Life of the Party—5.97%
The Tortured Genius—5.63%
The Alpha Dog—5.37%
The Sporty Type—2.03%
The Fling—1.75%

There you have it! The Romantic proved the most popular of paramours by a significant margin. Second place went to the Unicorn, that mythological creature so perfect and beautiful, and yet unattainable. These results come as no surprise. If nothing else, our vast Impressionist collection brings many a hopeless romantic through our doors, and honored we are to have them. But the subsequent results are slightly more troubling.

Okay, sure, the Seducer. Who hasn’t fallen under the spell of someone they’d be better off without? And yet the Fling was our least popular result! Does this mean we are more likely to fall under the seductive spell of the callous charmer rather than take fate in our hands? Are we more willing to allow deception rather than commit to an evening of passion with all the cards on the table?

But that’s not nearly as troubling as the fourth most popular type: The Psycho. Really, people, the Psycho?! In this case, of course, we mean the cold and calculating type who only loses it behind closed doors, à la Patrick Bateman. And here it makes sense again. While we fall head over heels for just the right type—the Romantic, the Unicorn—we seem to be almost as prone to fall for those who are superficially charming instead. I suppose that’s not all that unusual. If anything these are the pratfalls we all try to avoid in love, and nobody said dating is easy.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from our admittedly tongue-in-cheek love quiz, it’s that our followers admire beauty and romance in any form, especially if it comes from the heart. But we’ll take the glibly attractive if nothing else. Something for us all to keep in mind as we go out and seek our perfect mates. We wish you all success in love and hope you’ll consider the strength of the Obamas’ marriage. Their first date was at the Art Institute—just saying.

Thanks to everyone who made Art Throb a success!

It Was a Dark and Stormy Mezzotint

February 20, 2015 - 2:54pm

Mezzotint is the spookiest medium. This engraving process is perfect for nocturnal effects, as it starts with a roughed-up printing plate that prints in pure black. Any light effects—especially candles, fires, and glowing ingots—are added by burnishing in smoother areas, which print in lighter tones. Two exhibitions opening at the Art Institute this spring feature an abundance of mezzotint engravings. Fans of society portraiture will appreciate the velvet textures and pearl-strewn accessories lavished throughout Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design 1690-1840 (opening March 17 in Regenstein Hall). For those seeking a more sinister bedtime story, Burnishing the Night: Baroque to Contemporary Mezzotints from the Collection (opening February 21 in the Prints and Drawings Galleries 125-127) revels in artificial light, Old Testament lightning bolts, and garishly colored disembodied heads.

Yet two of the scariest head studies to 18th-century eyes might not have been Jacques Gautier d’Agoty’s Cranial Dissection. Instead, they are the Irish artist Thomas Frye’s Young Man with a Candle (top image), whose bulging eyes scan the room for inexplicable horrors, and the English artist Philip Dawe’s Female Lucubration (image immediately above), which hangs next to it in the show. Dawe’s maidservant, reaching up for a book in the dead of night, is clearly up to no good. Is she is actually “lucubrating” (studying at night using artificial light)? Or is she simply pilfering her mistress’s saucier novels (perhaps the banned Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure). The “Novel-Reading Panic” throughout Europe in the 18th century expressed the moral anxiety over what, and if women were reading, just as the first Gothic novel was published. Literacy was a deeply frightening topic.

As the popularity of the mezzotint continued (the latest item in the show is from 2007), in 1905, the English writer M. R. James wrote a short story, called “The Mezzotint,” in which an image of an anonymous country house changes of its own accord. While the story does not refer to a real print, Allaert van Everdingen’s Baroque Landscape in the Dark Manner (above) gives a similar feeling of ambiguity. Like the children in Roald Dahl’s The Witches who vanish into paintings and grown old in them, or Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels, who only move when no one is watching, a kidnapping or murder is reenacted within the space of the print. From “The Mezzotint:”

“At last, some time past midnight, he was disposed to turn in, and he put out his lamp after lighting his bedroom candle. The picture lay face upwards on the table . . . What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable—rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.”

The protagonist, a print curator at Oxford or Cambridge, keeps watch as the print turns from day to night, the ghostly figure enters the house, and then sneaks away, with a child under his arm. The curator buys the print for his collection, but keeps a careful eye on it. As with any mezzotint, the textures lead to multiple interpretations. Once the tragic story within the mysterious print ran its course however, that was that: “. . . though carefully watched, [the mezzotint] has never been known to change again.” In the flickering candlelight of Burnishing the Night, who knows what you’ll see?

Image Credits:

Thomas Frye. Young Man with a Candle, 1760. Gift of Dorothy Braude Edinburg to the Harry B. and Bessie K. Braude Memorial Collection.

Philip Dawe. Female Lucubration: Étude Nocturne, 1772. Gift of Langdon Pearce

Allart van Everdingen. Landscape in the Dark Manner, 1657–61. Alsdorf Fund