Rebecca Bedell on Moved to Tears

Rebecca Bedell Moved to Tears book coverIn her new book Moved to Tears, Rebecca Bedell overturns received ideas about sentimental art, arguing that major American artists—from John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale in the eighteenth century and Asher Durand and Winslow Homer in the nineteenth to Henry Ossawa Tanner and Frank Lloyd Wright in the early twentieth—produced what was understood in their time as sentimental art. This was art intended to develop empathetic bonds and to express or elicit social affections, including sympathy, compassion, nostalgia, and patriotism. In this Q&A, she discusses the ways sentimental art has been misunderstood, and why it is important today.

What is new in the book? What did you hope to accomplish?

I hope both to uproot the still tenacious modernist prejudice against sentimental art and to transform our understanding of it. So many art critics, art historians, artists, and others regard “sentimental art” as a synonym for “bad art.” I want to redefine and complicate ideas about sentimental art: what it looks like, who made it, the cultural work it does.

Isn’t there bad sentimental art?

Yes, of course. There’s also bad abstract art, bad Impressionist art, bad portraits—but we don’t dismiss those entire categories of art because of that.

I associate sentimental art with Victorian genre painting. Is that what you focus on?

No. I do not associate sentimental art with particular subject matter, nor do I locate it in the Victorian era alone. I’ve tried to suggest in the book the extent to which the sentimental pervaded artistic production (and reception) from the later eighteenth century onward. It touched nearly all categories of subject matter: portraits, history painting, religious imagery, landscape, and so on. It affected the creation not only of painting, sculpture, prints, and photography, but also architecture, landscape design, and public spectacles.

Who are the key figures in the book?

The artists I address range from John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale in the late eighteenth century, to Andrew Jackson Downing, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and others in the nineteenth, to Henry Ossawa Tanner and Frank Lloyd Wright in the early twentieth.

So, what is sentimental art?

Sentimental art has fundamentally to do with connectedness, with our connectedness to others, to place, to the conditions of our existence. Sentimental art aims to develop empathetic bonds and to represent and elicit what were called in the eighteenth century the “social affections,” those emotions that bind us together, including tenderness, affection, sympathy, compassion, and patriotism.

I see sentimental art as part of the broader “sentimental project,” as historians have termed it, launched from Great Britain in the eighteenth century. Its ambition was to transform individuals and society through the cultivation of sympathy. Abolitionism, penal reform, child labor laws, and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals were all, in some measure, parts of the project.

In working on the book, did you come upon anything that surprised you?

I began the project by combing through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books, newspapers, and magazines for the use of the word “sentimental” in relation to art. The first instance I found of this was a surprise to me. A writer for a Boston newspaper in the 1780s described John Trumbull’s Revolutionary War paintings as sentimental, and in a very positive way. That was my first hint that sentimental art’s early associations were not with the feminine and the domestic, but with the masculine, the public, and the political.

Where did the book begin? What launched you on this project?

As an art historian and teacher, I have been thinking about these issues and themes for a long time. But in a way, this project began in a big way for me during Barack Obama’s presidency, when he was selecting a new Supreme Court justice. He said that one of the qualities that he valued in jurists was empathy. The backlash against that statement was so intense and powerful that it shocked me. To me, empathy, an ability to think oneself into the subject position of someone different from oneself, seems a critically important quality in a judge.  Where did this angry, visceral reaction against the connective emotions of the sentimental come from?

At the same time, in my readings in my field of American art, I was continually coming upon statements such as, “Winslow Homer was never sentimental,” “John Singer Sargent’s paintings of children are never sentimental.” Yet their works—at least some of them—looked sentimental to me.  Why this need to deny the presence of the sentimental in the works of artists we admire?

All of this came together to launch me on this project. I had become conscious of a broad societal aversion to and rejection of the sentimental in both art and public life, and I wanted to understand it historically. What caused this aversion? Where did it come from? When did it begin?

Is sentimental art still being made today?

Certainly.  Steven Spielberg is one of the great sentimental filmmakers of our time. Ken Burns too. Much of the environmental art being created today is deeply concerned with our connectedness to the natural world. Some of the most powerful art associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, such as Carrie Mae Weems’s recent work, is, in my understanding of the term, sentimental. In fact, I think it is difficult to identify any artists whose work excludes the sentimental completely. Its emotions—compassion, sympathy, affection, pity, concern—are fundamental to our human identities. I don’t think they can ever be wholly suppressed, and indeed one of my discoveries in my research and writing is that the sentimental is at the core of much of the art we admire and enjoy the most.

Rebecca Bedell is associate professor of art and chair of the Art Department at Wellesley College. She is the author of The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825–1875 (Princeton). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Bird Fact Friday— Shining & Purple Honeycreepers

Adapted from pages 532-533 of Birds of Central America:

Illustrations of the Shining Honeycreeper and the Purple Honeycreeper, by Dale Dyer.

Tangers and Honeycreepers are small birds found mainly in canopy of humid broadleaf forest, often with mixed flocks. Female honeycreepers can often be separated by their heads and underpart patterns. 

The Shining Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes lucidus) is found in south Mexico and the northern part of South America. It is an uncommon resident of humid foothills, and rare in Belize. They are identified by their yellow legs. Males ar violet-blue, with a black face, throat, and wings. Female have a bluish crown, nape, and malaria, with whitish underparts with a blue streaking. Their rarely heard dawn song is a thin, high-pitched, repeated tsip tsip chaa, tsip tsip chaa. Meanwhile, their calls are a high-pitched, thin, piercing tseet and or tsip and a nasal, gnatcatcher-like chaa or naaa or whaaa

The Purple Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes caeruleus) is a rare and local resident in the lowlands and foothills of Central/Southern America. Like the Shining Honeycreeper, it is identified by its yellow legs. Males and females closely resemble the Shining Honeycreeper, but watchers can note a more restricted black throat in males. Females, meanwhile, are more extensively streaked below and have green nape and crown. They canopy in the edge of human broadleaf forests, or shaded plantations. They live in pairs or small groups. Their call is a high pitched, lisping zzree or a long, slurred ssseup.

Birds of Central America
Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama

By Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer

Birds of Central America is the first comprehensive field guide to the avifauna of the entire region, including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Handy and compact, the book presents text and illustrations for nearly 1,200 resident and migrant species, and information on all rare vagrants. Two hundred sixty detailed plates on convenient facing-page spreads depict differing ages and sexes for each species, with a special focus on geographic variation. The guide also contains up-to-date range maps and concise notes on distribution, habitat, behavior, and voice. An introduction provides a brief overview of the region’s landscape, climate, and biogeography.

The culmination of more than a decade of research and field experience, Birds of Central Americais an indispensable resource for all those interested in the bird life of this part of the world.

  • Detailed information on the entire avifauna of Central America
  • 260 beautiful color plates
  • Range maps, text, and illustrations presented on convenient facing-page spreads
  • Up-to-date notes on distribution supported by an extensive bibliography
  • Special focus on geographic variation of bird species

Dale Dyer on the Art of Illustrating Field Guides

I’ve been drawing and painting birds for books for about 25 years now. It seems like a long time, but it took me a while to get there. When I was a kid, Don Eckelberry was my hero – he was the illustrator for the Audubon Field Guide and the Guide to Birds of the West Indies by James Bond (real, not fictional) – and my dream was to become a bird illustrator. By the time I went to art school, however, I was enthralled by the great painting of the past and was determined to find a way to make great art in the present. Birdwatching and bird drawing were set aside. Perhaps the accompanying studio self-portrait (left) shows the ambition and angst associated with that preoccupation.

I eventually found myself back in the woods, the shore and the mudflats with my binoculars anyway. More than expressing myself, I wanted to express something about the world. I started to teach myself the birds by drawing them.

I’m interested in communicating not only the experience of an encounter with nature, but also a scientific understanding of it. Though I have no formal training in ornithology, I have always had a serious interest in taxonomy and biodiversity. I am currently a Field Associate of the Ornithology Department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and have been working in that collection for fifteen years. That is an education in of itself, and I have had the privilege of meeting and talking with ornithologists from all over the world.

A field guide is a portrait of the biodiversity of a region. When the illustrations are designed well, and combined with accurate range maps, biogeographic patterns emerge with special clarity. Thorough review of bird specimens from across Central America, as well as a review of ornithological literature, is what gives me an understanding of what needs to be said, and inspires me to get to the drawing board.

The only way to study geographic variation in a species is by placing specimens from far apart places side by side. A great collection like that at the AMNH gives one an opportunity to study species and species relationships in a way that watching birds in the field can not. Nevertheless, it necessary to combine field experience with museum experience to create a vivid and accurate image of a species.

Over the ten-year course of working on Birds of Central America, I traveled nearly every year. I wish it could have be more – some of my experience with a species feels like just a little taste, and there are quite a few species in the book that I have never seen. Bird illustration, however, requires not only observation and reproduction skills, but research and re-creation skills. I’d love to see them all, but work which requires a lifetime of preparation never gets done. Painting a book requires a tremendous amount of time just sitting in your chair working.

Leafing through a field guide gives one a sense of what exists, what is fragile, what needs to be preserved, and also fills the traveling birder with an excitement in anticipation of what they may encounter. I like making art for books because books are affordable, accessible to all, and because I know how intently birders look at the pictures. No one painting for gallery exhibitions can depend on the kind of focused attention to their work that I get.

 

Dale Dyer  is an ornithological illustrator who has contributed to many books on birds, including Birds of Peru and All the Birds of North America. Dyer, along with his co-author Andrew C. Vallely, are currently field associates in the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History.

Green: Ten Facts You Didn’t Know about the Color Green

Pastoureau Green book coverGreen is the color of cash, and also of protecting the environment. A green light means go, but a green-tinged emoji means someone is about to be sick. Where did these cultural meanings come from, and how have they developed and shifted throughout history? Michel Pastoureau’s book Green: The History of a Color takes readers from ancient times to the present day, exploring the role of green in Western societies over thousands of years.

Green is just one title in Pastoureau’s acclaimed series on the history of colors in European society! This National Color Day, don’t miss Red, Blueand Black.

How many of these facts about green did you know?

1. The ancient Egyptian god Ptah was depicted with a green face. In Egyptian painting, green was a beneficial color that protected against evil.

2. The Roman emperor Nero was known for eating a large amount of leeks he consumed, which was unusual for a high-ranking person at that time. Leeks were strongly associated with the color green, and even lent their name to one of the Greek words for the color, prasinos.

3. The Roman Empire’s chariot races featured two opposing stables: the Blues and the Greens. The Blues represented the Senate and the patrician class, while the Greens represented the people. Each stable was backed by a large, influential organization with a network of clientele and a lobby that extended far outside the racecourse.

4. The prophet Muhammad favored the color green. After becoming the dynastic color of the Fatimids, green came to be the sacred color of Islam as a whole.

5. During the Middle Ages, green was the color of hope for pregnant women in particular. Pregnant women in paintings were often shown wearing green dresses.

6. Possessing a green shield, tunic, or horse’s quarter sheet often meant that a knight was young and hotheaded. One well-known example of a “green knight” is found in the late fourteenth-century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

7. In Gothic stained-glass windows, green was the color of demons, sorcerers, dragons, and the Devil himself.

8. Dyeing in green was difficult during the Middle Ages. Green dyes from plants produced faint and unstable color that grew even more faded when mordant, or fixative, was applied. Because of this instability, green came to represent inconstancy, duplicity, and betrayal. Judas, for example, is often shown dressed in green.

9. Another obstacle to dyeing in green was the way the dyeing trades were organized. Professional dyers were licensed to dye only in certain colors. This made mixing colors—such as blue and yellow, which make green—next to impossible. Even dyers who broke the regulations and used both blue and yellow dyes had to possess the then-rare knowledge that blue and yellow combined make green. This combination may seem obvious to us now, but in pre-Newtonian color classifications, green was never located anywhere near yellow.

10. Schweinfurt green was a shade developed in Germany in 1814 and made from copper shavings dissolved in arsenic. It was used to make paint, dye, and painted paper. When exposed to humidity, the arsenic evaporates and can be toxic. According to some theories of Napoleon’s death, he was poisoned by his wallpaper.

Bird Fact Friday— Oilbird and Potoos

Adapted from pages 80-81 Birds of Central America:

Drawings of Potoos and Oilbirds (bottom right corner). Art by Dale Dyer.

The Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) is a large, nocturnal, frugivorous bird with no close relatives. Found in Central and Southern America, these poorly known birds are perhaps a rare vagrant or local resident. Their breeding habits are unknown in Central America. These distinctive, large, and long-tailed birds are nocturnal, and frequently live in large caves in humid forested regions. They often appear “front heavy” as it perches with its head held awkwardly below the body. They primarily feed on palm fruits. Their call is a repeated, dry, clicking sound (chk-chk chk). 

Meanwhile, Potoos are large nocturnall birds that are remarkably cryptic as they perch motionless, with eyes closed, on their day roosts. Their loud, eerie nocturnal vocalizations are often the best clue to their presence. Northern Potoos (Nyctibius jamaicensis) are identifiable by their large yellow eyes, broad mouths, and small bills. Meanwhile, the Common Potoo also has large yellow eyes, but usually shows a long, narrow, blackish malar and irregular band of blackish spots on their breast. Finally, the Great Potoo is paler than other potoos, with very fine, sparse, dusky barring and vermiculations. 

Birds of Central America
Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama

By Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer

Birds of Central America is the first comprehensive field guide to the avifauna of the entire region, including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Handy and compact, the book presents text and illustrations for nearly 1,200 resident and migrant species, and information on all rare vagrants. Two hundred sixty detailed plates on convenient facing-page spreads depict differing ages and sexes for each species, with a special focus on geographic variation. The guide also contains up-to-date range maps and concise notes on distribution, habitat, behavior, and voice. An introduction provides a brief overview of the region’s landscape, climate, and biogeography.

The culmination of more than a decade of research and field experience, Birds of Central America is an indispensable resource for all those interested in the bird life of this part of the world.

  • Detailed information on the entire avifauna of Central America
  • 260 beautiful color plates
  • Range maps, text, and illustrations presented on convenient facing-page spreads
  • Up-to-date notes on distribution supported by an extensive bibliography
  • Special focus on geographic variation of bird species

Qualification, Exclusion, and the Art of Bill Traylor

by Leslie Umberger

Leslie Umberger Bill Traylor Between Worlds book coverBill Traylor, regarded today as one of America’s most important artists, was born into an enslaved family in rural Alabama around 1853. Traylor and his family continued to work as farm laborers after Emancipation, work that Traylor himself spent some seven decades doing. In the late 1920s, Traylor moved by himself to Montgomery, Alabama. About a decade later, no longer able to take on heavy physical labor, he began to make drawings. What does it mean for Traylor, untrained as an artist, to now be held in such high esteem?

Certainly, part of what makes Traylor’s story so profound is that he chose to become an artist of his own volition; no one suggested he make drawings or showed him how to do it. In fact, in the days of slavery, literacy was strictly the privilege of whites. Reading and writing were regarded as tools of empowerment, and blacks seeking these tools were often harshly punished. Traylor never became literate, and in his time and place, the very act of taking up pencil and paper might have been viewed as an affront to white society—even if it was becoming increasingly common for African Americans to be both educated and successful.

So what Traylor did was radical in multiple ways. He was among the first generation of black people to become American citizens, and Traylor grappled with the meaning of that identity as he sat in the black business district of Montgomery in the 1930s and 1940s and watched a rising class of business owners and community leaders—finely dressed, educated black folks who were strong, creative, and were assertively shaping a cultural identity distinct from that of white America. Traylor created a record not just of his own selfhood, but also of the oral and vernacular culture that had shaped him.

Many terms are bandied about for untrained artists; we often hear them called self-taught, folk, visionary, or “outsider.” Traylor may not have conceptualized being an artist in a predetermined or conventional way, but the way we talk about him and his art matters. Traylor lived and worked quite literally in a different world than that of the mainstream fine arts.. And as is true with any artist, the facts of his life provide meaningful contexts and deeply inform the work he made. It is highly significant that Traylor came through slavery and lived the rest of his days in the Jim Crow South—this life powerfully undergirds the entire body of work.

Still, when we speak of an artist as being successful or important only within a subcategory of art, we diminish an artist’s larger validity. To say, for example, that Traylor is among America’s “most important self-taught artists” is to qualify his importance, to send a signal that his work is ultimately lesser than that of trained, mainstream artists—that it exists in a subcategory without full rank. To call an artist an “outsider” is to note difference as the foremost framework. The term describes the artist, not the art, and ultimately functions as a euphemism for race, class, or social agency. Marketers often grab encompassing terms because they are easy, but “outsider” has always been a disparaging way of grouping individuals by difference, rather than seeking to foster a broader understanding of art and its diverse makers.

Understanding context in a deep way brings meaning to art that is unique and unaffiliated with the mainstream art world, yet it is key to remember that qualifiers always signal disparity. We recognize that it is demeaning and inappropriate to say, for example, that someone is “among the best female employees,” or “among the best black experts,” but we have yet to fully extend this to artists like Traylor. It has been clear for decades that Traylor is among the most important self-taught artists; his work fetches blue-chip prices and is recognized and collected the world over. Today we need to look at the magnitude of what he did against the larger backdrop of art in his nation. He is one of America’s most important artists—no qualifier welcome. Between Worlds fleshes this out and proposes a different, more encompassing course that moves beyond an exclusionary past.

Exhibition Schedule
Smithsonian American Art Museum
September 28, 2018–March 17, 2019

Leslie Umberger is curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She is the curator of the exhibition Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor and the author of the accompanying exhibition monograph.

Bird Fact Friday—Tinamous

Adapted from pages 28-29 of Birds of Central America:

Drawings of the Great Tinamou (top 4 birds), and the Highland Tinamou (bottom two birds).

Tinamous are short-tailed, terrestrial birds, found mainly in humid broadleaf forest. They are sensitive to hunting pressure and can be difficult to see as they quickly walk away at the approach of an observer. In less humid areas, tinamous can sometimes be located by the scratching sound produced as they walk over dry leaf litter. Most are detected by voice.

The Great Tinamou (Tinamus major) is the most common and widespread.  They are 44 cm tall, and are fairly common residents in lowlands and foothills (to 1800 m). These birds can be identified by their gray legs and white throat, mostly brownish barred with dusky on upperparts and flanks, and are grayish below with fine barring on flanks. Most often detected by voice during early morning or dusk, and sometimes calls from elevated roost site. Individuals, pairs, or small groups can be located by listening for rustling sounds produced as they forage or walk in dry leaf litter. Their call is two to four paired, long, tremulous whistles. First note usually slightly lower-pitched and sometimes repeated two or three times. Second note drops in pitch.

Meanwhile, the Highland Tinamou (Nothocercus bonapartei) are uncommon residents in foothills and highlands (above 1200 m). These are fairly large (40cm) birds, with  gray legs, and dark gray crown and sides of head. The birds’ underparts are cinnamon, becoming brightest on throat and belly, and narrowly and sparsely barred with dusky. They have Dark rufous-brown above with fine blackish vermiculations and variable buff spotting on wings. Some have buff spotting extending to rump and mantle. They are, more often than not, solitary or in pairs, secretive and rarely seen. Most often detected by voice , with a call that sounds like a short, hoarse, low-pitched huh-wowr or unh-heer, which it sometimes repeats steadily.

Birds of Central America
Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama

By Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer

Birds of Central America is the first comprehensive field guide to the avifauna of the entire region, including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Handy and compact, the book presents text and illustrations for nearly 1,200 resident and migrant species, and information on all rare vagrants. Two hundred sixty detailed plates on convenient facing-page spreads depict differing ages and sexes for each species, with a special focus on geographic variation. The guide also contains up-to-date range maps and concise notes on distribution, habitat, behavior, and voice. An introduction provides a brief overview of the region’s landscape, climate, and biogeography.

The culmination of more than a decade of research and field experience, Birds of Central America is an indispensable resource for all those interested in the bird life of this part of the world.

  • Detailed information on the entire avifauna of Central America
  • 260 beautiful color plates
  • Range maps, text, and illustrations presented on convenient facing-page spreads
  • Up-to-date notes on distribution supported by an extensive bibliography
  • Special focus on geographic variation of bird species

Leslie Umberger on Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

Leslie Umberger Bill Traylor Between Worlds book coverBill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949) came to art-making on his own and found his creative voice without guidance; today he is remembered as a renowned American artist. Traylor’s experiences spanned multiple worlds—black and white, rural and urban, old and new—as well as the crucibles that indelibly shaped America—the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration.

Leslie Umberger’s book Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor accompanies the exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, curated by Umberger. She presents an unparalleled look at the work of this enigmatic and dazzling artist, who blended common imagery with arcane symbolism, narration with abstraction, and personal vision with the beliefs and folkways of his time. In this Q&A, Umberger offers an introduction to Traylor’s life and work. For more, check out the exhibit and the book!

Who was Bill Traylor?

Bill Traylor was born into an enslaved family in rural Alabama around 1853. Although slavery ended when Traylor was about twelve, things in Alabama didn’t change dramatically or rapidly after that, and families like Traylor’s had limited options for finding work, shelter, and safety elsewhere—so they often stayed on as laborers, living in the same cabins as they had before Emancipation. This is what Traylor’s family did.

Traylor spent over seven decades working as a farm laborer. His life was split almost evenly between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so he was eyewitness to enormous change over a lifetime that almost reached ten decades. Around 1927—Traylor’s wife had died and most of his grown children had given up on life in the South—he made the choice to move, alone, into Montgomery. The city was segregated, and he was increasingly old and frail between then and his death in 1949. But in the last years of his life, Traylor began to draw and paint memories, stories, and dreams recalling that remarkable lifetime and observing black life in an urban setting. Against the odds, many of the artworks he made in the late 1930s and early 1940s survived, and today he is acclaimed as one of America’s most significant artists.

Your book is titled Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor. What “worlds” was Traylor between?

Traylor’s lifetime spanned an epic period of American history that encompasses slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, two world wars, and, through it all, the steady rise of African American culture in the South. Traylor didn’t live to see the civil rights movement, be he was among those who laid its foundation. Six years after Traylor died, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger just a few blocks from where Traylor had sat and painted.

Throughout his life, Traylor straddled markedly different worlds: slavery and freedom, plantation and city life, and overarching it all, black and white cultures. “Racial etiquette” was the custom in the Jim Crow South wherein black people had strict and demeaning rules governing what they said and how they behaved in the presence of white people—any minor infraction of which might literally imperil that individual’s life. Traylor knew these systems, and his drawings nimbly employ symbolism, allegory, and ambiguity to send different messages to black and white viewers—to “code switch” as we would say today. He lived between worlds, looking back at a long life of labor and oppression, and ahead at the long, hard road toward freedom his children were traveling on.

What kind of topics did Traylor depict in his artworks?

Traylor covered a lot of territory in his subject matter. He became known not only for deceptively simple renderings of horses, mules, and other animals he knew from farm life, but also for many other species, including dogs, snakes, and birds. Traylor knew these animals and their visages well, but his representations of them are complex, for he also had a deep grasp of their symbolism. For example, the mule as a metaphor for black slaves or laborers, or the snake as a symbol of deceit—the lurking enemy.

Throughout his oeuvre there is a strong thread of storytelling. He often revisits particular themes or memories, and very often the works cohere when seen together in ways they don’t when viewed alone. A particular focus of both the exhibition and the book is to give certain images adjacency and draw out related themes, so that the artworks can function collectively and tell their stories more completely. Traylor depicted people he recalled from plantation days as well as the finely dressed black citizens of Montgomery he saw before him. His drawings are often quite enigmatic, as the artist engaged dreams, superstitions, and various spiritual belief systems.

Some of Traylor’s most iconic drawings present multifaceted narratives, chaotic action that swirls around a house, a tree, or a local site such as the fountain in Montgomery’s Court Square. He devised a manner of presenting story lines, sometimes left to right on the page but more often from top to bottom—or bottom to top. He discovered that vertical arrangements gave the story a different reading: events unfold rapidly or simultaneously, instead of sequentially. The viewer’s eye is caught in a swirling eddy of action that obscures Traylor’s meaning, which, in turn, gave him a higher degree of safety among white viewers. These works have a quality of operatic drama and demand a deep look: narratives that might at first seem humorous are often quite dark; the unspeakable violence of Traylor’s life and times looms large.

Traylor’s body of work is a sizable pictorial record of the oral culture that had shaped him. He embarked on making a record of selfhood that he devised for himself, one picture at a time.

Exhibition Schedule
Smithsonian American Art Museum
September 28, 2018–March 17, 2019

Leslie Umberger is curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She is the curator of the exhibition Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor and the author of the accompanying exhibition monograph.

 

10 facts about the color black

Black—favorite color of priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists—has always stood for powerfully opposed ideas: authority and humility, sin and holiness, rebellion and conformity, wealth and poverty, good and bad. In this beautiful and richly illustrated book, the acclaimed author of Blue, Red, and Green tells the fascinating social history of the color black in Europe. 

Here are ten facts from the book about black:

When Isaac Newton discovered the color spectrum in 1665, he presented a new order of colors in which there would no longer be a place for white or black. This thinking continued for centuries.  

In the Medieval period, painters and dyers did not make purple by mixing blue and red, rather by mixing blue and black; purple was a sort of demi-black.

In Medieval Europe, white is the color of priests, red the color of warriors, and black is the color of artisans.

In the Upper Paleolithic period, humans learned how to make black pigment by burning plants and minerals. Depending on the original material—woods, barks, roots, shells, pits—the shade of black would be more or less brilliant and more or less dense. When they learned how to burn bone in a similar fashion, they had access to even more beautiful blacks.

The most prized black pigment by the Romans was from vines, obtained through the calcination of very dry vine shoots that gave the color depth and blue highlights.

In Latin caeruleus can refer to both blue and black. Viridis can refer to green and black.

Medieval heraldry used only six colors: white, yellow, red, blue, green, and black. Black could be found in 20-25% of European coats of arms. Red was the most common color and green, the rarest.

It was lawyers, judges, and magistrates who popularized black as a color for clothing in early 14th century Europe. Prior to that, black was the color of Satan and fear, but it came to be seen as a color of sobriety and gravitas. By the end of the century, merchants, bankers, and all men of finance had also adopted black as their chosen color for attire.

Early inks following the appearance of Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid 15th century contained linseed oil to make it heavy and viscous enough to adhere to the paper; iron or copper sulfate to give it a brilliant black color; and metallic salts to facilitate its drying.

While the Age of Enlightenment was characterized by a near universal retreat from dark colors throughout much of Europe and embrace of bright colors and pastels, Protestant morals in Northern Europe forbade too vivid or frivolous colors—black prevailed there.

Michel Pastoureau is a historian and director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études de la Sorbonne in Paris. He is the author of many books, including Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton) and The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes.

Asma Naeem on Black Out

Black Out Naeem book coverBefore the advent of photography in 1839, Americans were consumed by the fashion for silhouette portraits. Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, the first major publication to focus on the development of silhouettes, gathers leading experts to shed light on the surprisingly complex historical, political, and social underpinnings of this ostensibly simple art form. Silhouettes registered the paradoxes of the unstable young nation, roiling with tensions over slavery and political independence.  Presenting the distinctly American story behind silhouettes, Black Out vividly delves into the historical roots and contemporary interpretations of this evocative, ever popular form of portraiture.

Here, author Asma Naeem discusses her interest in the form, as well as some of the surprises she discovered during her research.

The exhibit this book accompanies is curated by Naeem and runs through March 10, 2019, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

What was the inspiration for Black Out?

The spark for Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now happened many years ago on a brilliant sunlit day as I stood in front of an antiques shop in St. Michael’s, Maryland. Tucked in the corner of the window, away from the mahogany Chippendale secretary, Federal convex mirrors, and handsome Windsor chairs, were some of the most arresting objects of early Americana that I had ever seen. The simplicity of design, the lustrous maple and gilt frames, the creamy paper, the intense black shapes cut by human hands, not to mention the intimate nature of the portraits – all of these things formed an indelible impression.

Imagine my pleasure years later when I joined the National Portrait Gallery and became a steward of one of the most stellar collections of silhouettes in the country.

Once I began researching these objects, however, different impressions began to form, impressions of an America that many of us didn’t know existed.

Why did you decide to include both historical and contemporary artists?

Once I decided to create an exhibition on silhouettes, suddenly, everywhere I looked I saw silhouettes—on signage, on book covers, on my mobile phone, and of course, in thrilling contemporary art installations by established and emerging artists alike. I knew then that I had to share these discoveries, known only to handfuls of experts, with the public at large.

What was your research process like?

I conceived of this show four years ago and it has been a years-long journey to find and then narrow down the list of objects for the exhibition. I wanted this show and catalogue to be more than your grandmother’s silhouettes, so I had to spend a lot of time looking for unique objects, both historical and contemporary. I went to many small historical societies to unearth their treasures. I encountered some of the most generous archivists and a few ghost stories along the way! I also had to spend much time accumulating all of the scholarship on silhouettes, much of which is written for antique collectors. For the contemporary works, I visited the artists in their studios or galleries when possible, and had numerous conversations about what I envisioned the show to look like and how their work fit in that vision.

Were you expecting to find so much historical material dealing with race, enslavement, and disability?

Yes, and no. I knew that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the traditional medium of portraiture, oil on canvas, precluded the less wealthy, women, and people of color because of its expensive, exclusive status. I didn’t expect to find such interesting, beautiful portraits of African Americans, the disabled, and such spunky women, particularly within our own collection here at the Portrait Gallery.

What can studying the history of the silhouette teach us about the representation of identity today?

This book will hopefully deepen our understanding of how Americans—women, men, black, white, states men, laborers—wanted to see themselves in the years of the Early Republic. We have always been a polyphonic, vibrant society. It also opens new pathways between our past and our present in terms of period notions of individualism, racial profiling, power, and even how our digital selves can be critiqued through the medium of portraiture.

Who else contributed essays to the book?

This project has been enriched and transformed by some of the most erudite minds in American art and conservation. I was fortunate to have essays written by Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania, and Penley Knipe, the Philip and Lynn Straus Senior Conservator of Works on Art on Paper at the Harvard Art Museums.

Nemerov and Shaw each probe the cultural contours of the remarkable worlds of unconventional nineteenth-century silhouettists Martha Ann Honeywell and Moses Williams, respectively. Knipe carefully examines silhouettes from the inside out, revealing various aspects of their material composition—about the paper, the scissors, and so forth—that many readers will find surprising.

Anne Verplanck, associate professor of American studies and humanities at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, who is one the preeminent scholars on silhouettes in the country, also was generous enough to write entries on many of the objects, not to mention offer her invaluable expertise to me regarding the historical art form on numerous occasions.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope that readers will find silhouettes as fascinating, complicated, and significant in the history of American art as I do. I very much want the reader to see how silhouettes, like other forms of craft, should no longer be devalued in the art canon, and do, in fact, offer revelatory insights into how our country’s racial, social, and political history. I also would like to see silhouettes repositioned in our understanding of portraiture – what an incredibly popular and democratizing force they were in Early Republic America – well before the advent of photography in 1839. Without silhouettes, we would not have as much insight into the lives of such overlooked populations as the enslaved, same-sex couples, international envoys, and the disabled. And with the contemporary works, I’d offer silhouettes as an enduring, capacious, and utterly modern mode of expression, with their seemingly contradictory qualities of generality and specificity, blackness, playfulness, and the intersection with our social media profiles of our digital selves. The four female contemporary artists featured have created breathtaking, complex works that confirm that silhouettes are here to stay.

Asma Naeem is curator of prints, drawings, and media arts at the National Portrait Gallery.

 

Sara Blair on How the Other Half Looks

BlairNew York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures. How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

How have representations of the Lower East Side changed since the mid-nineteenth century?

In surprising and powerful ways, they haven’t. A set of complex associations—with vice, poverty, raw energy, the threat of the alien and the unassimilated—have continued to swirl around New York’s historical ghetto through its many lives and afterlives, well into our own moment. Over time, these associations have drawn image-makers and writers there to experiment with new visual technologies, new perspectives, and new media. In a real way, the Lower East Side and its received image have helped shape modern practices of seeing and imaging—not just the other way around.

What do recent representations of the Lower East Side tell us about our cultural moment?

They remind us how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America, what it means to be or become an American and to have a collective future. In the 2016 Harry Potter franchise film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, for example, the unfolding of Magic as a contest between nativism and progressive aspirations (one that’s all too familiar to us IRL) depends on the Lower East Side as a space defined both by its threat to a “pure” citizenry and its promise of a more robust and dynamic nation. In a very different mode, the award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice draws on images of the Lower East Side both to make real the unprecedented effects of climate change—and to hold out hope for its reversal. However unexpectedly, images of the Lower East Side continue to be a resource for apprehending the way we live now, bringing America’s histories and possible futures into view.

How did you approach the research for this book?  What surprised you?

I began this project by trying to answer a broader question: how did the Lower East Side become both a key subject of representation and a powerful force in shaping practices of representation? The problem of seeing that space—of making sense of its staggering density, heterogeneity, and energies—challenged image-makers, writers, journalists, guardians of public order, and everyday citizens alike to test new visual technologies, whose cultural uses came to reflect on-the-ground encounters with the world of the tenements and the streets. As I worked my way through a host of archives—of everyday photographs, print media, literary projects and more—what surprised me most was the range of practices that turn out to have been shaped by encounter with the Lower East Side, from the emergence of photography as an art form and the rise of the U.S. film industry to efforts to revive print culture in digital contexts. On all these and more, the Lower East Side has left its own indelible mark.

Are there instances of images that represent the Lower East Side shaping the site itself?

By all means. Early photographs of New York’s ghetto and tenements, made by Jacob Riis in the 1880s, not only codified uses of the camera as an agency of social seeing. They drove projects of slum clearance and social reform that shaped the built environment of New York’s downtown as well as hugely influential ideas about the city, its modernity, and its citizens. By the mid-1930s, in the grip of the Depression, photographers who had themselves been children of the ghetto were experimenting with new ways to represent its complex histories, using them as a vantage point to look critically at the American success narrative. Their work helped photography reinvent itself as a postwar art form—alongside the attention of urban planners who would undertake to redesign the tenement landscape in service of twentieth-century urbanism as a master plan. From lurid accounts of Bowery poverty and as-if “documentary” images of nuclear strike on the U.S., the iconography of the Lower East Side has remained vitally available, and it has continued to enter into the material life and lived experience of that generative place.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope they’ll think differently about the Lower East Side, as a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America. As my mother said (to my delight) when she browsed the book, this isn’t just about Jews. It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.

Sara Blair is the Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English and a faculty associate in the Department of American Culture and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century and Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA.

Announcing the trailer for Gorey’s Worlds

The illustrator, designer, and writer Edward Gorey (1925–2000) is beloved for his droll, surreal, and slightly sinister drawings. Gorey’s Worlds delves into the numerous and surprising cultural and artistic sources that influenced Gorey’s unique and instantly recognizable visual language. A variety of objects shaped his artistic mindset, from works of popular culture to the more than twenty-six thousand books he owned and the art pieces in his vast collection. As this book shows, these artistic pieces present a visual riddle, as the connections between them—to each other and to Gorey’s works—are significant and enigmatic. Featuring a sumptuous selection of Gorey’s creations alongside his fascinating and diverse collections, Gorey’s Worlds reveals the private world that inspired one of the most idiosyncratic artists of the twentieth century.

Gorey’s Worlds by Erin Monroe, with contributions from Robert Greskovic, Arnold Arluke, and Kevin Shortsleeve, from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Erin Monroe is the Robert H. Schutz Jr. Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. She is the author of Andrew Wyeth: Looking BeyondRobert Greskovic is a dance critic for the Wall Street Journal and the author of Ballet 101Arnold Arluke is professor emeritus of sociology and anthropology at Northeastern University. His books include Just a Dog and The Photographed CatKevin Shortsleeve is associate professor of English at Christopher Newport University. His books include Thirteen Monsters Who Should Be Avoided.