Category: Art et al

Love and Ambition of Maria Cosway

The unrequited love and ambition of
Maria Cosway

In 1781 on the 18 January, the son of a schoolmaster from Devon married the daughter of a successful Italian innkeeper from Livorno. He was twenty years her senior and known for his profligate lifestyle. A union with a modern twist! She, a beautiful, talented artist. He, a painter of miniatures, whose self-portrait, in profile, shows a foppishly dressed, rather effeminate man sporting a curled and powdered wig. But look at her “selfie” and note the difference! Maria Cosway, although dressed in the fashion of late eighteenth century, with a turban atop her powered curls, adopts an extreme and unusual pose for this time.

Maria Cosway Self-Portrait
Maria Cosway Self-Portrait

She stares defiantly out of the picture, with her arms firmly crossed, letting the viewer know she is no ‘wilting violet.’ Was it a gesture of frustration? Did she feel she never fully achieved her potential? After all, there is little indication of her artistic career. No palette, no brushes, no easel. Yet, she had exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and her painting ‘The Hours’ was greatly admired. Apart from a promising career as ‘a portraitist and history painter,’ she was an outstanding musician, who in later years founded schools and did pioneering work in education for woman. An enviable CV, even by the standards of today! What was the cause of her resentment? It took the form of Richard Cosway, her husband, who jealous of her ability, prevented his wife from selling her paintings to achieve greater artistic recognition. Who instead, preferred her to play the role of ‘the Hostess with the Mostest’ at his fashionable, though it is also believed, immoral parties, frequented by the Prince of Wales. Who did not want to be embarrassed by an independent wife who earned her own money?

Richard Cosway Self-Portrait
Richard Cosway Self-Portrait (1770)

In the summer of 1786, she accompanied her husband to Paris where he was to work on a commission for the Duc d’Orléans. A fateful decision, as in this city she would meet the second man in her life, an American diplomat, one Thomas Jefferson. For him, it was love at first sight. For her, an initial impression of his importance and public persona. Today, it is not certain if their whirlwind relationship/affair extended beyond country walks and romantic letters.

In October, Maria returned to London with Richard, leaving Jefferson to nurse a broken heart! He would later immortalize their impossible love in a 4500-word letter – a Dialogue between the Head and the Heart. After Paris, they continued to exchange letters for the rest of their lives. She, in 1838, would end her days at the school she founded in Italy. He, at his home in America, Monticello. He is remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence. She, the talented daughter of an innkeeper who captured the heart of a future President. Would she perhaps, given her passion for art, have preferred the legacy of a great artist? We shall never know.

Still Life in Mobile Phones

The popularity of the “Selfie” a photograph that one takes of oneself, has become a social phenomenon and not just with the millennial generation. They have become our own personal form of self-expression, a visual capturing of our identity. Some of us even feel the urge to camouflage our faces with the help of Snapchat, Instagram or even Animoji characters. There are lots of other ways that we can dehumanize our features by using the latest smartphone technology and software. Our phones are a reflection of the human impulse to control and categorize ourselves, our emotions, that we can share with our friends and the world of social media. But when did it all begin?

Hippolyte Bayard invented the first photographic process and in 1840, he portrayed himself as a suicide victim in a photograph entitled Self Portrait as a Drowned Man. He is accredited as being the first photographer to take a self-portrait and the pioneer of that now obsessive self-dramatization art form referred to as conceptual photography – the art of creating photographs with the purpose of illustrating an idea, where the idea or concept, an abstract thought in the mind,  is the most important aspect of the work. Some conceptual photography is perhaps influenced or draws inspiration from Surrealist painters such as Salvador Dalí et al. Hippolyte Bayard, has more or less proved the point that the urge to turn the camera on ourselves, is as strong as it was in his day.

 

Hippolyte Bayard -Self Portrait as a Drowned Man on Pennzer
Hippolyte Bayard portrayed himself as a suicide victim in a photograph entitled Self Portrait as a Drowned Man.

You might think the “selfie” is a rather modern phenomenon. Not so. Robert Cornelius is considered to be the first photographer to have taken one all the way back in 1839. He did this by removing his lens cap and then running into a frame where he sat for a minute before covering up the lens again. Inscribed on the back of the image was “The first light picture ever taken. 1839.”

 

Robert Cornelius Self-Portrait
Robert Cornelius’ Self-Portrait: The First Ever “Selfie” (1839).

“Selfie” as an art form? Perhaps not an actual art form all by itself yet, but its a form a digital self-expression, an extension of the art of self-portraiture – but the “Selfie” may just end up pushing the artistic boundaries of this particular medium and what it is. Trying to decide what is or isn’t an art form these days, raises more questions than they answer. Maybe we should just refer to it as “Selfie-expression”? The desire to turn our phone cameras on ourselves, in an almost obsessive and narcissistic way, is just going to grow in popularity, as technology continues to dictate how we use our smartphones. Of course, there is no denying that smartphone technology has essentially caught up with the camera. But for now, Ladies and Gentlemen take “Selfies”.

Easter Art

Easter is the season of eggs and bunnies and Easter Art. The art of Easter is a time of the crucifixion, suffering, death, and resurrection. Many artists have been inspired and produced some of their greatest works in depicting the story of Christ’s passion. Whether you choose to believe in the resurrection or not, easter is perhaps far more personal than that of Christmas. Certainly, portrayals of the resurrection can be just as unsettling as those of the Crucifixion. There are some great examples of this including Matthias Grunewald’s – Second State of the Isenheim Altarpiece, somewhat unsettling, but still a great depiction.

 

Matthias Grunewald's - Second State of the Isenheim Altarpiece.
Matthias Grunewald’s The Crucifixion

It’s great works by artists such as Grunewald that you can get a sense of the inner meaning of Easter, even if their works are somewhat harrowing and visceral. If only it was more about art and less about Easter Eggs and Easter Bunnies. Still, I will be enjoying my Easter Egg tomorrow, and enjoy yours too.

A Head for Art

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elf-portraits include some of the greatest works of all time. As a genre, self-portraits have so much to say. With some self-portraits, the artists look as if they were painting themselves into the haven of artistic greatness. Others appear to show self-mockery and modesty. They have a story to tell for those that can see it, that can portray all sorts of messages. Self-portraiture is also about the time and skill that the artists bestowed on their own representations. Whatever your views on this old artistic genre, they were that days answer to the newfangled selfies of today, a paintbrush or pencil in hand, instead of a front-facing camera or selfie-stick.

 

William Dobson’s Portrait of the Artist

Some might say that William Dobson is the ‘Forgotten Man’ of British Art. The court ‘painter on hand’ to Charles I in the 1640s following the death of Anthony van Dyck, is the genius English painter that should never be allowed to be forgotten. William Dobson’s Portrait of the Artist is one of the best self-portraits created in British art. Dobson’s youthful features are a mop of curly black hair down to his shoulders, dark eyes, skin punctuated by rigid eyebrows, a prominent mustache, and a minimalist goatee. You can’t really tell if he’s happy or sad – but Dobson must have been happy about his face and there is nothing wrong with that. His facial expressions appearing to shift from wariness to a glare of satisfaction. Dobson painted forceful images of himself and his second wife Judith in Portrait Of The Artist’s Wife (c. 1630-40), as companion works. The paintings were finally and rightly reunited after 30 years apart and are currently on display at the Tate. William Dobson was certainly a true genius of self-portraiture. Not to be referred to as Doby.

William Dobson’s Portrait of the Artist
William Dobson’s Portrait of the Artist painted in about 1637.

Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas

This ensemble portrait by Velázquez is a stunning as it is frustrating and mysterious. Not only does Velázquez paint himself into this portrait, like Alfred Hitchcock making a cameo appearance in one of his own films, there are some other interesting subjects there too. Thankfully some of the subjects in the painting are identifiable but there are some hidden clues put there like a ‘Spot the Ball Competition’, just waiting for you to find them. In the center of the painting, there is Infanta Margarita Teresa, who reigned from 1666 to 1673. She was to be Velázquez’s subject in many of his portraits. Then there are the Maids of Honor, who are surrounded by the princess, and some servants. The patining itself is a day-in-the-life perspective of a Spanish Court. Above the princess’s head, you can spot a dark wooden frame with two figures within it. They are King Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria – her mother and father. Drawing your eyes to the left of the picture is Velázquez himself – an emerging photobomb, standing there with brush in hand, not a selfie-stick or front-facing camera in sight.

 

Diego Velzquezs Las Meninas
Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas.

Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait

It was not until after his death, that Vincent van Gogh was appreciated. Only having sold one painting during his lifetime, it’s his paintings of sunflowers, textured landscapes, and his portraits and self-portraits that are now widely recognized throughout the world. This self-portrait is emotive in color, yielding energetic brushwork, and was painted by him shortly after suffering a breakdown in Saint Remy. Van Gogh painted no less than 36 self-portraits during his lifetime of 37 years. This three-quarter length pose captures his true character, with a serious expression, art props in hand, that those other great painters used in their own self-portraits. It shows Vincent van Gogh both as a self-conscious, thinking individual, perhaps conveying a wish to be taken seriously as an artist. It’s anyone’s guess as to what he is trying to say to the viewer in this self-portrait. Perhaps he just wished to see and be seen.

 

Vincent van Goghs Self-Portrait on Pennzer
Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait 1889.

Is Art Good?

As debates go, the art debate is perhaps one that will never truly satisfy both sides – but art will always be about whatever people perceive it to be. Not even the powers that be or the so-called art system that designates what art is,  successfully manages to answer questions such as What is Art? Is it any good? and Why should some art forms be considered art, and others not?

Some artists are more comfortable with video, then they are with canvas or marble. It doesn’t mean that their chosen art form is silly, and it shouldn’t be dismissed as art just because it doesn’t resemble a Gainsborough, a Michelangelo, or a Jackson Pollock. The setting shouldn’t be a factor either or if the art is exhibited in a Gallery or Museum. It is not necessarily a work of art because of where it is. It is not necessarily art because it was written about in an art magazine or because it was shown on an art documentary on TV.

There are some of us that get irritated by what is art or if its any good. It can be hard for some of us to look at a piece of art and be expected to understand it. So we just have to continue to be irritated. It seems that when art takes a particular form that we don’t recognize, we ask “Is this art?”.  A group of people in a room trying to agree on what is art? may never reach a consensus on what is good art or bad art. Not even when they try to put themselves in the artist’s shoes. All you can do is to try and understand their work, to discover the artist’s hand, to try to relate to the artwork if you can.  If we can’t relate to it, then is it art? Does art even have a consensus? Do we need to change the way we define art? or do we dare to? Perhaps there does have to be some sort of consensus from knowledgeable art people (whoever they are), to let us know if something they deem as art is good or bad, to give us something that we can appreciate, something that can act as a flagship for what is art, and what is good art. The problem is that when you do that and there is nothing to see, then it may no longer exist as art in some people’s eyes.

Being knowledgeable about art or having a good eye, might not be enough to convince people if something is art or if its any good. The way art is evolving, anything might end up being considered as art. You have to ask yourself what it’s about, what does it mean (if anything), when was it made, how was it made, does it make any social contribution, what range of emotions does it provoke to the viewer. By asking good questions as to what art is, this can help us to determine what is or isn’t art.

Art has become more important to us, judging by the number of people that visit galleries and museums, the numbers are up, and people have become and are becoming more ‘art aware’. We are comfortably becoming our own art critics, while still listening to the art elite and to their knowledgeable opinions of what art is. As we become more art aware, we will be able to make more subjective determinations on what art is, and we will know art when we see it. As art becomes more ubiquitous, it might not matter where art is exhibited, or if museums decide not to show it because they don’t think its good enough, it will be more about if we believe it is and when we just get it, regardless of whatever its art form is.