Images from Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

Bill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949), one of the most important American artists, came to art-making on his own and found his creative voice without guidance. Traylor was enslaved at birth in Alabama , and his 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. Between Worlds, a magnificent exhibition catalogue by curator Leslie Umberger, 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.

Traylor was about twelve when the Civil War ended. After six more decades of farm labor, he moved, aging and alone, into segregated Montgomery. In the last years of his life, he drew and painted works depicting plantation memories and the rising world of African American culture. Upon his death he left behind over a thousand pieces of art. Between Worlds convenes 205 of his most powerful creations, including a number that have been previously unpublished. This beautiful and carefully researched book assesses Traylor’s biography and stylistic development, and for the first time interprets his scenes as ongoing narratives, conveying enduring, interrelated themes.

Here are several of Traylor’s works from the period 1939—1942.

The exhibit that this catalogue accompanies is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through April 7, 2019.
 

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog), July 1939, colored pencil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum; Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment. Photo by Gene Young

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Basket, Man, and Owl), ca. 1939, colored pencil on cardboard. Collection of Victor F. Keen. Image courtesy Bethany Mission Gallery, Philadelphia


Bill Traylor, Untitled (Event with Man in Blue and Snake), 1939, colored pencil and pencil on cardboard. Collection of Penny and Allan Katz. Photography by Gavin Ashworth

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Seated Woman), ca. 1940–1942, pencil and opaque watercolor on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum; The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson. Photo by Gene Young

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Man, Woman, and Dog), 1939, crayon and pencil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum; Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., and museum purchase made possible by Ralph Cross Johnson. Photo by Mindy Barrett

Browse our 2019 Art Catalog

We are pleased to announce our new Art catalog for 2019! Among the exciting new titles are an exploration of how cataclysmic social and political transformations in nineteenth-century Europe reshaped artists’ careers, a unique companion to the Tale of Genji featuring paintings and calligraphy from the Genji Album, and a pathbreaking book about Joris Hoefnagel’s stunning and eccentric Four Elements  manuscripts.

You can find these titles and more at Booth 508 at CAA this week. On Friday, February 15, at 4:30 p.m., we’ll be celebrating this year’s new books and authors with a reception at the booth. All are welcome.

 

Crow Restoration cover

As the French Empire collapsed between 1812 and 1815, artists throughout Europe were left uncertain and adrift. The final abdication of Emperor Napoleon, clearing the way for a restored monarchy, profoundly unsettled prevailing national, religious, and social boundaries. In Restoration, Thomas Crow combines a sweeping view of European art centers with a close-up look at pivotal artists, including Antonio Canova, Jacques-Louis David, Théodore Géricault, Francisco Goya, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Thomas Lawrence, and forgotten but meteoric painters François-Joseph Navez and Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas.

 

McCormick Tale of Genji cover

Written in the eleventh century by the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji is a masterpiece of prose and poetry that is widely considered the world’s first novel. Melissa McCormick provides a unique companion to Murasaki’s tale that combines discussions of all fifty-four of its chapters with paintings and calligraphy from the Genji Album (1510) in the Harvard Art Museums, the oldest dated set of Genji illustrations known to exist. In this book, the album’s colorful painting and calligraphy leaves are fully reproduced for the first time, followed by McCormick’s insightful essays that analyze the Genji story and the album’s unique combinations of word and image.

 

Bass Insect Artifice cover

Insect Artifice explores the moment when the seismic forces of the Dutch Revolt wreaked havoc on the region’s creative and intellectual community, compelling its members to seek solace in intimate exchanges of art and knowledge. At its center is a neglected treasure of the late Renaissance: the Four Elements manuscripts of Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1600), a learned Netherlandish merchant, miniaturist, and itinerant draftsman who turned to the study of nature in this era of political and spiritual upheaval. Presented here for the first time are more than eighty pages in color facsimile of Hoefnagel’s encyclopedic masterwork, which showcase both the splendor and eccentricity of its meticulously painted animals, insects, and botanical specimens.

 

Thomas Crow on Restoration

Crow_Restoration book coverAs the French Empire collapsed between 1812 and 1815, artists throughout Europe were left uncertain and adrift. The final abdication of Emperor Napoleon, clearing the way for a restored monarchy, profoundly unsettled prevailing national, religious, and social boundaries. In Restoration, Thomas Crow combines a sweeping view of European art centers—Rome, Paris, London, Madrid, Brussels, and Vienna—with a close-up look at pivotal artists, including Antonio Canova, Jacques-Louis David, Théodore Géricault, Francisco Goya, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Thomas Lawrence, and forgotten but meteoric painters François-Joseph Navez and Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas. Crow explores how cataclysmic social and political transformations in nineteenth-century Europe reshaped these artists’ lives and careers with far-reaching consequences.

You say in your introduction, by positing that the essential subject of history is change, that periods of exceptionally rapid change contain a greater quantity of history than others.  Do you mean that a few years of upheaval might be equivalent in their historical density to a much longer epoch of more gradual transition?

The interval between my giving the Andrew Mellon Lectures at the Washington National Gallery in 2015 and their publication in this book strikes me as just such a period, in a way that few would have anticipated. The apartment provided by the Gallery in downtown Washington is only a few blocks from the White House, and it was always heartening to walk in that direction and think about the Obama family being inside. I wasn’t thinking much about the ominous portent in the signs across the street announcing the future Trump International Hotel hollowing out the gray stone of the old D.C. Post Office building.

Less than four years later, the dizzying reversals symbolized by the changed state of those landmarks hardly needs describing, and my proposition about the exceptional density of history between 1812 and 1820 may carry more intuitive resonance for everyone who has seen the most trusted form of order in domestic and international politics suddenly exposed as fragile or obsolescent.

Much the same can be said about the catastrophic effects of the Brexit referendum in the UK. In both societies, people share a pervasive anxiety over where these processes of history are taking us and what a suddenly uncertain future will be like.  Such were the states of mind among the artists whose personal stories make up this book. A friend (and former Mellon Lecturer) just wrote me and gratifyingly called Restoration “politically prescient for these dark times when all sorts of stuff we hoped had gone away seems to be restoring itself in unwanted ways.”

Paging through the book, with all of its splendid color illustrations, a reader wouldn’t immediately think of dark themes.

Firstly, I have the combined efforts of the National Gallery and Princeton University Press to thank for the number and wonderful quality of all those images. My hope for the book was that reading it would be as close as possible to being in the hall for the talks. I wanted the quickness of vivid images arriving just at the point they apply to the words. And the words would have as much of the immediacy of speech as possible, not slowing down or impeding the sense of rapid change and surprising innovation that Restoration tries to bring alive.

I think you can imagine, alongside all the devastation left by two decades of war, the wave of relief that swept across Europe at the apparent end of conflict. Rome, in particular, became the prime scene for this emotional release. Movements of armies and militarized borders had made normal travel in Europe nearly impossible. The British in particular had been shut out, and Rome became a magnet destination for them. The brilliant society painter Thomas Lawrence made the journey and created two of his most compelling portraits—one of the Pope himself and the other of his right-hand man, Cardinal Consalvi. The very fact that an artist from a deeply anti-Catholic society would undertake these at all speaks to the startling alterations of customary behavior engendered by Napoleon’s fall.

Lawrence was only one among an influx of artists from elsewhere, among them the brightest talents of the age. Théodore Géricault arrived in 1816, eager to absorb the lessons of Roman greatness in the arts. But his attention quickly wandered to the life of the city’s inhabitants, especially the rituals, ceremonies, and carnival celebrations that seemed to dominate their lives. And he had a companion in his artistic explorations of these exotic forms of life, a former Parisian rival named Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas, who left the most astonishing, up-close visual record of the teeming Roman streets.

Nothing sounds too dark so far, rather the opposite.

In the street-level studies by both Géricault and Thomas, the costumes, Baroque church liturgy, and exuberant festivity are shadowed by events like public beheadings, which were clustered at the opening of the carnival season. Both artists drew analogies between cruel punishments of human beings and the agonies of animals led to torture and slaughter, which they witnessed in the bullring (installed inside the ruined mausoleum of Augustus) and the meat markets that surrounded it. Géricault’s drawings of these subjects are relatively well known, but you can’t really get the measure of them unless they’re seen side by side with the astonishingly vibrant watercolors of the same subjects by Thomas. I only had the rather pallid prints done after them when I gave the Mellon Lectures, but discovered the unpublished studies in Rome afterwards, and they make some of the most spectacular illustrations in the book, including some great two-page spreads.

What would be an example?

Both Géricault and Thomas were fascinated by the races of riderless horses, careening along the Corso, right down the central axis of the city, as a prime spectacle of carnival season since the Middle Ages. Géricault even planned to make a monumental painting out of the maddened animals held back by their handlers. But Thomas reveals the excruciating goads and fireworks in their bridles that induced these specially-bred Barbary horses to complete the course.

Did Géricault ever produce that painting?

He never did, but he carried back an imagination of endurance in the face of suffering, both animal and human, that then motivated a series of extraordinary, monumental canvases.

The Raft of the Medusa, you mean?

Yes, that would be its ultimate expression, the bare collection of decimated shipwreck survivors, summoning their last strength to attract their rescuers, which everyone knows from the Louvre—and it is truly one of the greatest paintings in art history. I try to put it in that light, but also bring out some less familiar, but astonishing work that also subsumes what he’d witnessed by going to Rome, and participates just as much in the upheavals of the time.

Immediately on his return to Paris, he set about painting three gigantic landscapes in an ostensibly classical vein, but their desperate and dejected inhabitants seem to traverse gloomy stretches of devastated terrain. Nothing obviously topical there, unless you’re aware of the catastrophic changes in the climate that struck Europe during exactly the period that Géricault was traversing northern France and the Alpine region on his way to and from Rome. The cause, which no one could grasp, was the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Indonesian archipelago. Its spreading plume of high-altitude ash cut sunlight to the point that 1816 in much of Europe was called “the year without a summer.” Widespread crop failures, famine, and vagabondage continued though the next summer as he was returning home. It would have seemed that the cosmos itself had been warped by the enormous social and political upheavals of the moment. No evidence survives of any commission or exhibition of the works during the artist’s lifetime, making them in all likelihood a compulsive effort to reconcile the traumatized, post-Tambora condition of rural Europe with his drive to make major art.

A last question: can you say something about the title of your book?  Is it just about the crowned heads of Europe putting the French monarch back on the throne?

More than that, I hope. That’s the technical meaning of the word, but it contains an irony, in that nothing so momentously altered can ever be restored as it was. The artists, from the finest grain of their work to their frequently towering themes, speak most eloquently to that existential reality.

And art itself became a prime object of restoration, in that the period saw the first major controversy about the return of works looted or otherwise displaced from their place of origin. The Pope dispatched the great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova as his ambassador to broker the return of the Vatican antiquities and major paintings like Raphael’s Transfiguration, which the French had appropriated for the future Musée Napoléon in Paris. But it was no forgone conclusion that they would go back; when they did, Thomas Lawrence celebrated by placing key antiquities like the Vatican Apollo and Laocoön at the right hand of Pius VII in his portrait, as if the pontiff again commanded their mythical might as a boost to his own.

The paradox of Canova’s embassy was that, when traveling to London to secure British support, he publicly endorsed the recent looting of the Parthenon sculptures by Lord Elgin, and there they remain in the British Museum, still the object of impassioned but unrequited pleas for their restoration to Athens.

Thomas Crow is the Rosalie Solow Professor of Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. His many books include Emulation: David, Drouais, and Girodet in the Art of Revolutionary FranceThe Long March of Pop: Art, Music, and Design 1930–1995; and No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art.

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.