Get ready for a total art history nerd post! The Rokeby Museum has given me access to their archive and I have been digging through the letters and images of Rachael Robinson (a 19th century illustrator).
As a teenager Rachael studied drawing in New York with her teacher Ernest Knaufft. In one of her letters back home she writes about seeing an exhibition of work by Charles Dana Gibson (image 2). From her letter we know that his work had a big impact on her art!
There is a new exhibition of Gibson’s pen drawing a little way from Mr. Knaufft. I have been twice, they are grand. I wish thee could have seen them. Some of them sell for $2.00. They are very large. Some 3 by 2 feet. I should think he is a young man yet. Some of his lines, on faces especially, are so fine you can scarcely see them. They have to be sent to Paris to be reproduced.
— Rachael Robinson Elmer to Robinson Family, March 5, 1893
Gibson was famous for his images of ‘modern womanhood’. At the turn of the century American women had better access to education and work possibilities than they had in the past. The role of the woman was changing and Gibson captured this evolution in his art.
As an art student Elmer student and drew sketches of her relatives. The above image shows her mother Ann reading the pages of her father’s manuscript. Her author father was nearly blind at this point and her mother played a central role in his writing process. She corrected and re-transcribed his writing and corresponded with his editors.
In a sense both artists recorded a modern image of womanhood. Yet they couldn’t feel more different. Elmer’s women feel old fashion compared to the “Gibson Girls”. But given a little context, her image of Ann is a much truer example of a woman at work.
Gibson’s depiction of 20th century womanhood isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s limited. He depicts the women he saw and knew in his affluent New York circle. Elmer’s art helps broaden our understanding of what social change meant for a different part of the country. Of course neither artist tells us much about the condition of BIPOC from this period. For me this comparison highlights the importance of seeking out new voices from history.
How did a young woman from a rural town become an important book illustrator at the beginning of the 20th century? Join me as I chart Rachael’s artistic journey and share a drawing exercise from the course she took in the 1890s. The Rokeby Distance Drawing Course is available now on the Rokeby Museum Website.
In this week’s lesson I invite students to make a copy of a drawing by Rachael, a portrait of her father, Rowland. Through archival material from the museum’s collection we also explore Rachael’s relationship with her father- a prominent illustrator and author.
Rowland was a major influence on Rachael’s professional career. An active author he would often get Rachael to illustrate his articles and books. Before the age of 18 Rachael had a dozen published illustrations thanks to this collaboration.
Understanding Rowland’s role in Rachael’s story, forces us to think more critically about the role of distance education in Rachael’s success. Rachael studied art with an important New York illustrator through a correspondence course. Having access to this education gave Rachael the tools to pursue her career. But seeing how hands on her father (and mother) were in her education and her early career reminds us that access doesn’t equal success. Rachael was able to take advantage of distance education because she had a stable and supportive home life.
By sharing Rachael’s story I want to pull back the curtain on the modern conception of an artist as a genius. Generally when an artist has early success it is because there is a support system around them.
I don’t think you need an author father to get your start as an illustrator. But I think it suggests that beyond education, artists need to think about finding some kind of apprenticeship to learn the business side of their trade.
Bill Reid was my first engagement with art. I can still remember seeing his Raven and the First Men sculpture and the sense of awe that I felt. The launch of the new toonie with his design brought me back to those memories.
It’s interesting to think about Reid’s work and my own practice all these years later. What stands out to me now when I look at his work is the quality of his craft and the narrative clarity.
Looking at a Reid sculpture, I have the same “how did a person make that” response that I did all those years ago. His work is beautiful. The composition, the detail and his carving technique are all incredible.
As a kid I remember getting pulled into the story of Raven. In a single still image we understand the story that Reid is trying to communicate.
As an artist I strive for these same artistic qualities. I want my art to be beautiful and I want it to communicate clearly.
Reid might not seem like an obvious influence on my work. We are working in different cultural traditions. For me what connects our work is craft. Reid apparently rejected the title of artist and called himself a ‘maker of things’. I get that. Like him it’s this process of making that drives and defines my practice.
My knowledge of craft acts as an entry point for me to engage with different fine art traditions. When I look at something like sculpture (which I don’t do myself). I look for clues to how the artist made the object. When I start to understand their process the intention of the artist starts to reveal itself organically. There is always a connection between how something is made and what it is trying to communicate.
The traveling exhibition, Morrice – The A.K. Prakash Collection in Trust to the Nation, is the story of an artist, a collector, and two kinds of Canadian identity. It offers a contemporary reading of the work of Canadian painter James Wilson Morrice through the eyes of the prominent Canadian art dealer Ash K. Prakash.
The show is built around Prakash’s $20 million collection of the artist’s work that he generously donated to the National Gallery of Canada in 2015. The collection was built up over 3 decades and speaks to the collector’s passion for the artist’s work.
The exhibition is curated by Katerina Atanassova, Senior Curator, Canadian Art, at the National Gallery of Canada. An important curatorial choice was to include a video interview of Prakash talking about his collection and his interpretation of the artist’s paintings. Including this video shifts the exhibition from an artist retrospective to a conversation between artist and collector around national and personal identity.
J.W. Morrice a Canadian Artist
Morrice born in 1865 was the son of a Montreal merchant. Originally he studied law but after graduation abandoned the practice to pursue a painting career. To do so he moved to Paris to further his studies with French masters of the day. Unlike most Canadians who studied abroad, Morrice did not return to Canada after his studies, but only made short visits to the continent at Christmas throughout his adult life.
Morrice did stay connected to his native land on a professional level. Over the years he exhibited in Canada and was part of several artist associations including the Ontario Society of Artists, the Art Association of Montreal and the Royal Canadian Academy.
He also fostered many relationships with Canadian painters in Europe including Maurice Cullen and William Bryamer. Because his work was often shown in Canada, it was an important influence on the modernist style of the Group of Seven and especially to the work of the artist A.Y. Jackson.
“It was through (Maurice) Cullen and Morrice that we in Montreal first became aware of the fresh and invigorating movements going on in the art circles of France,” A.Y. Jackson wrote in 1966. (Larsen, Montreal Gazette)
A.K. Prakash – Canadian Identity
As if mirroring the experience of Morrice, Prakash was born in Ambala, India, and immigrated to Canada in 1968 after completing his studies at the University of Michigan.
For two decades he worked in the Canadian government most notably for the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office. In 1979 he discovered a passion for art while working for UNESCO in Paris. In the early 1990’s, he left the civil service to devote himself to collecting and art scholarship. Now considered one of Canada’s most important art dealers, he has also contributed to Canadian art through his scholarship and the publication of several books on Canadian art.
The pair represent two versions of Canadian identity. Morrice was born in Canada but spent his adult life abroad. Prakash grew up abroad but has spent his adult life in Canada. It is not their Canadian identity that unifies these two men but their lived experience as global citizens.
Morrice’s Mood Landscapes
Morrice is considered a Post-Impressionist painter. Like the Group of Seven he is best known for his small oil sketches (or Pochades). His refusal to abandon the figure or his urban setting place Morrice apart from his impressionist contemporaries. On an aesthetic level, Prakash argues that it is the sense of mood in his work that makes him one of the great early modernists.
His work is less interested in descriptive reality and is instead “a search to transform painting from a vehicle of seeing to an aid to feeling.” (National Gallery of Canada) Prakash explains that where the impressionists were directed by light, Morrice employs light to direct the emotional response of his viewer.
“For Morrice a landscape was a composed expression of a mood, of unétat d’âme as he wrote in one of his sketchbooks.” (Hill, Morrice at Montreal)
Morrice’s work expresses the melancholy of an outsider. The existentialism of Camus’ L‘Étranger comes to mind. Constantly traveling he paints the streets and cafes of Europe and Northern Africa. Subjects are seen from a distance and disconnected from the viewer. They are engaged in their own private world and seem unaware of the artist’s gaze. The audience is placed in the position of voyeur or tourist: observing scene without knowing how to engage.
Prakash describes Morrice as “at home nowhere and out of place everywhere” and adds “I relate to that.”
Art that Expresses the Eternal
In 1985, the time of his last major retrospective, Morrice was read as a Canadian living abroad. But relating Morrice’s émigré identity to his own experience, Prakash uses Morrice as a bridge between the cultural identity of natural born and naturalized Canadians.
“Morrice has the unique ability to acknowledge his experience of life and, through his paintings, to distill a moment into that which is eternal and does not change”. (National Gallery)
This inclusive look at identity is relevant and important in our age where national identity is evolving and its rhetoric is too often used to divide us. Morrice’s search for the eternal speaks to our shared human experience – one that transcends time, place and creed.
Prakash calls his donation a gift to the nation. The exhibition is accompanied by a beautiful catalogue free to visitors. At the National Gallery until March 18th the show will travel to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Alberta and the Musee d’art de Joliette.
“I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description – The subject of this picture is comprised in its title and I will refer these inquisitive School ma’ams to Lieut. Maury [author of the Physical Geography of the Sea] – I have crossed the Gulf Stream ten times and I should know something about it. The boat and sharks are outside matters; matters of very little consequence – they have been blown out to sea by a hurricane. You can tell they ladies that the unfortunate hero who is now so dazed and parboiled will be rescued and returned to his friends and home and ever after live happily-” Winslow Homer in response to a request from his dealer, Knoedler, for an explanation of The Gulf Stream.
Refusing to give any explanation, Winslow Homer forces the viewer to come up with his own interpretation of this painting.
In his new show In search of the Miraculous at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, the artist Kehinde Wiley offers his own interpretation of the work of Homer and invites the viewer to revisit a seminal moment in history.
In this show, Wiley also takes inspiration from the work of JWM Turner and Hieronymus Bosch, but I was particularly intrigued by his reference to the fellow American painter.
In 1988, curator Peter H. Wood, Karen C. C. Dalton and Richard J. Powell mounted a traveling exhibition of Homer’s work entitled “Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years.”
According to Christopher Kent Wilson’s review of the show “Through the perceptive eyes of the artist, we see how Homer perceived many of the critical issues facing Afro-Americans, including emancipation, discrimination, military service, and education.”
Building on the show’s thesis, Wiley seizes this opportunity and uses this narrative to contextualize his discussion of contemporary politics surrounding uprooted cultures.
Art on Life after Slavery
Homer left a prominent illustration career to pursue painting in the 1860s. He first came to fame as a war artist capturing scenes from the front during the Civil War. Hailing from the North, Homer was a Unionist and supported the project to abolish slavery and build a more democratic America.
In his early work he seems to celebrate the modern democratic values of post war American life through happy paintings of country children going to school, women’s participation in the public sphere and the life and culture of African Americans.
In the 1870s he took a trip to Petersburg, Virginia, and produced a series of paintings that portray the lives of an African American community after the Civil War. This series was produced around the same time that Reconstruction was effectively ended. Some scholars have suggested that embedded in this work is a social critique of the Union’s failure to see through the Reconstruction process and “the slow but insidious renewal of black servitude” (Wilson).
Like Wiley, Homer uses costume to express the complexity of African American identity. According to Nicolai Cikovsky, in his painting Dressing for the Carnival, “these figures dressed for a carnival – the older man as Harlequin in the European comedia dell’arte tradition, but, like the taller boy, with torn strips of cloth that derive from the African ceremonial dress – and the two boys who hold American flags, all describe the complexity of its uprooted culture” (Cikovsky, Winslow Homer)
Wilson takes this interpretation a step further writing, “The artist may have been raising questions about black independence after Reconstruction: In the future, will blacks celebrate and truly participate in national independence as symbolized by the American flags, or will they have to revert to their former celebrations of temporary independence as embodied in the Jonkonnu costume” (Wilson, The Journal of American History)
There is a very obvious shift in mood over the course Homer’s life. As if retreating from society, he moves into a cabin in the woods and his main focus becomes landscape. The figures that do make it into his later work are fisherman and hunters (also living outside of modern society).
In 1884 he takes his first trip to the Caribbean, visiting the Bahamas, Cuba and Florida. Over the next 15 years he makes several trips to paint Caribbean fisherman at work. This project culminates in his painting The Gulf Stream.
Like the United States, the Caribbean islands abolished slavery during the 19th century but the region was also facing challenges in their campaign to build a new democratic society. Weather or not it was the artist’s intention, the painting The Gulf Stream evoques the uncertainty that was facing this newly freed population in the Americas.
It is this analogy of the sea as limbo that Wiley transports a century later into his latest body of work In search of the Miraculous.
Kehinde Wiley’s New Series
Wiley is best know as “a man on mission to make blackness visible in a history of art that has ignored people of colour for centuries” (Spence, FT). In his portrait art he replaces the nobility of old Europe with young urban men (and more recently, women).
But this new series is about a lot more than visibility. In this series Wiley gives his subjects a specific geographic location and asks the viewer to build a relationship between person and place.
In an interview with the Financial Times Wiley says, “I am asking the question: is the sea friend or foe?”
For this series, Wiley used a group of Haitian men as his subject. In nine paintings Wiley shows various scenes of his sitters on the shore looking out to rough waters or navigating their boats through a storm.
These images easily evoke hurricanes and issues of migration in the Trump and Brexit era. But by connecting his work to that of Homer, Wiley asks the viewer to step back and consider the whole history of the African diaspora.
“Others might see maritime painting as a really wonderful way of looking at gentlemen’s leisure, or a certain aspect of Western ingenuity and know-how,” Mr. Wiley explained to the New York Times. Yet to him, “the genre evokes an age of exploration that gave rise to sugar-cane fields in Jamaica, cotton fields in South Carolina and rice fields in Georgia,” he said.
In this series Wiley is asking a question about the nature of progress. Weather it be the French Revolution, Haitian Revolution or American Civil War the nineteenth century was defined by civil movements fighting for social equality. Wiley’s new show reminds us that the image portrayed in Homer’s The Gulf Stream can so easily evoque contemporary issues – calling us to question our progress on issues of social equality.
“My work is a contemporary call to arms. It is time to get our mojo back. To rediscover our true north” (Spence, FT).
Kehinde Wiley and Beauty
Wiley is taking on some weighty issues. Yet, in spite of the gravity of his subject he remains positive.
“I stand on the shoulders of those who survived slavery and colonialism. Of those who created jazz, the blues and hip-hop from the most perilous situations” (Nayer, NYT).
Wiley’s work has always been defined by a belief in beauty. His work is sometimes criticized for his idealistic portrayal of his subjects. This series is no exception. Despite the disastrous conditions surrounding the figures in this latest series they maintain their idealised beauty.
In a Guardian review Sky Sherwin comments “Instead of the mad outsiders evoked by Foucault and Fanon, Wiley’s sitters are a sanctioned physical ideal. They seem to have fast-forwarded over any trauma implied by their isolation and those dangerous waters, offering instead the aspirational vision of luminous young black skin that has always obsessed the artist” (Sherwin, The Gaurdian)
But consider how the artist discusses his own upbringing:
” [I had] an amazing childhood, despite what you might think about black struggle and poor neighbourhoods and the ghetto. My mother was an educated budding linguist who really inspired us” (Nayer, NYT).
With this biographical insight we can understand physical beauty as a metaphor for inner strength and the nobility of his subject. Adding yet another level by which to understand these paintings.
One key difference in the painting of Wiley and that of Homer is the subjects response to his situation. In Homer’s work the sitter is portrayed as victim. He is portrayed motionless, presumably awaiting his fate. In Wiley’s In search of the Miraculous series his subject are seen battling the storm. Homer is guilty of a paternalistic view of his subject. Wiley corrects this and shows his subject ready to fight the elements.
In this new series Wiley offers us not only an image of the hardship of a people trying to overcome a colonial past, he does something revolutionary for painting. He breaks the voyeuristic gaze that has defined western painting and asks us to view his subject as they wish to be seen.
Sherwin, Skye. “Kehinde Wiley review – black souls sail between empowerment and exploitation.” The Guardian, Friday 24 November 2017.
Spence, Rachel. “Kehinde Wiley’s contemporary call to arms.” The Financial Times, December 1, 2017.
Nayeri, Farah. “Kehinde Wiley on Painting the Powerless. And a President.” The New York Times, November 27, 2017.
Wilson, Christopher Kent. “Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years.” The Journal of American History 77, no. 1 (1990): 246-53. doi:10.2307/2078659.
Cikovsky, N., Kelly, F. and Homer, W. (1995). Winslow Homer. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art.