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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Viktor Vasnetsov

Alyonushka, Knight at the Crossroads, 1822, Viktor Vasnetsov.
I've long contended, and history has proven me out, that the most versatile artists are the most successful artists. Despite isolated eras such as the Dutch Golden Age, few painters can make much of a living specializing in only one subject. It almost goes without saying that an artist is going to be better at painting one subject over another, but that does not mean they can, or should, go far by refusing to paint anything else. Personally, I think I'm better at painting portraits than other subjects, but I can think of very few content areas which I've not painted at least once. I consider myself about equally adept in handling landscapes, still-lifes, genre, animals, planes, trains, and automobiles. That's because I've consciously avoided specializing in any of those items. Moreover, I'm only slightly better at portraits than all the others. Viktor Vasnetsov was a Russian painter working around the turn of the century, (1870s until his death in 1926). Like myself he refused to specialize at a time when many other Russian painters were inclined to do so.
From priest to painter.
In 1870, Vasnetsov befriended Ivan Kramskoy to become a part of his association of Realist artists, the Peredvizhniki (the Itinerants). Despite Vasnetsov’s later fame for historical and mythological scenes, his works of the 1870s celebrated on the common business of life. Best known as a painter of historical and mythological scenes, Viktor Vasnetsov was born in 1848 in Lopiyal, in Viatka Province (near what is now Kirov, northeast of Moscow). He originally intended to follow his father and grandfather into the priesthood. From the age of ten, Vasnetsov attended seminary. While studying in Ryabovo, he helped a local icon painter with his trade and aided exiled Polish artist Antiroll to make frescoes for the Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral. Upon graduating from seminary, however, Vasnetsov decided to pursue his own course. He auctioned two of his own paintings to fund a move to St. Petersburg, where in 1867 he began to attend the Imperial Academy of the Arts.
The Flying Carpet, 1880, Victor Vasnetsov
Victor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov was among the first painters to turn to bylinas, fantastic plots. He was convinced that in fairy tales, songs, bylinas, drama, and other affects, the entire face of a whole nation can be seen, internal and external, past and present, as well as the future. Vasnetsov's Flying Carpet (above) from 1880, was the first fairy tale picture Vasnetsov, created. Vasnetsov never consciously chose to cross the line to a fine art motif. He expressed his people's long-standing dream of a free flight, giving the painting a poetic resonance. In the wonderful skies of his childhood Vasnetsov depicted soaring as if on a fabulous birdlike carpet. The hero, in elegant attire, proudly stands on the carpet, holding his golden ring, a cell extracted from The Firebird, with its unearthly glow. All was unmuted in bright colors, a brilliant example of the decorative capabilities of the young artist. The painting was commissioned by Savva Ivanovich Mamontov, a major industrialist and philanthropist, who helped to unite talent in the creative artistic alliance, known as the Abramtsevo circle. As chairman of the Donetsk Railway Construction Company, he commissioned the artist to do three paintings, which were to decorate the board room offices as fabulous illustrations to the awakening of a new railroad-rich Donetsk region. One of those pictures was Flying Carpet, an amazingly fast means of transportation.

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, 1887, Viktor Vasnetsov
Among the historical painters of the turn of the 19th-century, Viktor Vasnetsov is probably best noted for his depth of feeling and the power of his style. A painter, draftsman and graphic artist, Vasnetsov played a primary role in the development of Russian art from the realist traditions of the wanderers to Art Nouveau. He is considered a key figure in the revivalist movement in Russian art. The Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) movement of realist artists rebelled against Academism. Vasnetsov befriended their leader, Ivan Kramskoy, referring to him as his teacher. He also became very close to his fellow student, Ilya Repin, another prominent Russian artist. Ironically, Vasnetsov, who is intricately associated with historical and mythological paintings, initially avoided those subjects at all costs.

Avoiding folklore, Vasnetsov painted the Kremlin instead.
In 1876 Ilya Repin invited Vasnetsov to join the Wanderers colony in Paris. While living in France, Viktor studied classical and contemporary painting. It was also during this time that he began to discover what would become his primary source of inspiration--Russian mythology with its legends, ballads, and fairytales. Folklore was still very much alive in the north-central Russia.
The Bogatyrs, 1898, Viktor Vasnetsov
From the Russian village where he grew up, Vasnetsov found that his very soul was steeped in the poetry of Russian epic literature. Not only was he one of the first artists to turn to folklore for inspiration, but he also one of the first to study it in terms of method and technique. The Bogatyrs (above) is a later example of Vasnetsov's Russian folklore paintings. Thus he became the founder of a new style in Russian painting. In the late 1870s Vasnetsov concentrated on illustrating Russian fairytales and tall-tales. During this period, he executed some of his best known pieces such as Alyonushka, Knight at the Crossroads (top). The works, however, were not appreciated at the time they appeared. Even such prominent connoisseurs as Pavel Tretyakov refused to buy them. The popularity of Vasnetsov’s paintings would spread in the 1880s, when he turned to religious subjects and executed a number of icons for the Abramtsevo Estate of his patron, Savva Mamontov.

Last Judgment, 1880s, Viktor Vasnetsov.
From 1884 until about 1889 Vasnetsov was commissioned to paint frescoes in St. Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev. It was challenging work. Vasnetsov welcomed the offer as an opportunity to create an integral ensemble comparable to those done by ancient fresco-painters. Work on the decoration of the cathedral took over ten years, during which time Vasnetsov executed some 400 sketches and studies. The murals he and his assistants painted covered almost two thousand square meters. In fulfilling this assignment, Vasnetsov relied on his favorite range of motifs and characters, painting the walls with the images of Princes Vladimir, Alexander Nevsky and Andrey Bogoliubsky, Princess Olga, the chronicler Nestor, and other outstanding figures from Russian history.

The Baptism of Russia, 1896, Viktor Vasnetsov.
Reaction to Vasnetsov's Kiev murals were mixed. The influential art critic Vladimir Stasov called the frescoes “a sacrilegious play on the religious feelings of the Russian people.” However, another popular critic, Dmitry Filosofov, referred to them as “...the first bridge over the 200-year-old gulf separating different classes of Russian society.” In keeping with the general tendencies in the development of Russian art at the end of the 19th-Century, an important role is played in Vasnetsov's works by landscape elements, “moods” which unite people and nature, akin to folklore “parallelism” imagery.

Joy of the Lord, the Righteous, 1884-89, Viktor Vasnetsov.
These three segments connect but the images were not
photographed in a manner allowing me to do so here. 
In 1885 the painter traveled to Italy. That same year he worked on stage designs and costumes for Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden. Later on, Vasnetsov collaborated with his brother, Apollinary, on the theatrical design of another Rimsky-Korsakov premiere, “Sadko” in 1897. In the 1910s Vasnetsov was commissioned to design a new uniform for the Russian military and produced the so-called “bogatyrka” military cap. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Vasnetsov demonstrated his versatility as an artist by working actively worked in several different fields (even architecture)..

Viktor Vasnetsov's younger brother was also an artist. At various times the two collaborated.
In 1894 Vasnetsov designed his own mansion. The house, built to his plans in Moscow, was turned into the Vasnetsov House Museum (bottom) in 1953. The picturesque wooden house that Vasnetsov lived in has some beautiful wooden furniture and several of Vasnetsov's paintings of fairytale characters such as Sleeping Beauty and Baba Yaga in the studio upstairs. Unlike many house-museums where the furniture has been brought in to approximate the requisite era, everything here is original, from the 19th century benches to the huge canvases in the wooden attic. Vasnetsov's paintings here are at least as good as the ones in the Tretyakov Gallery, the facade of which Vasnetsov designed in 1906.

Two of Viktor Vasnetsov's sons also became artists.
Vasnetsov House Museum, Moscow


Saturday, December 9, 2017

Pedro Américo

Independence or Death, 1888, Pedro Américo
The Arab Fiddler, 1884,
Pedro Américo
I've written a few times before regarding what we've come to call the "Renaissance Man." They are few and far between. Leonardo fits that description, as do Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Pushkin, and per-haps one or two individuals from the history books of most countries. These are men, and in a few cases, women, who are so outstanding in the many fields making up the arts and sciences that it's difficult to decide which of their talents to lift above others. The nation of Brazil has one such Renaissance man--Pedro Américo. He was a novelist, poet, scientist, art theorist, essayist, philosopher, politician, pro-fesssor, but is best remembered as one of Brazil's most important academic painters.
Peace and Concord, 1894, Pedro Américo
Pedro Américo was a Brazilian painter born in 1843. Strangely enough, for a man of such historic importance, I could find no reliable reference as to where he was born; but we can probably assume it was somewhere in Brazil. One of the most important painters of Brazilian history, he was the painter of the massive Cry of Ipiranga, an alternate title for Independence or Death! (top). The painting now hangs in the Museum of Ipiranga. Americo also painted the Battle of Avai (bottom), and Peace and Concord (above), and Battle of Campo Grande (below), among others.
Battle of Campo Grande, 1871, Pedro Américo
Pedro II of Brazil,
Pedro Américo
Pedro Américo was the son of guitarist Eduardo de Figueiredo and Lesley Cirne. In 1854, at the age of eleven, he went to Rio de Janeiro, studying at Col gio Pedro II. In 1856 he joined the Imperial Academy of fine arts. He received from Pedro II, a scholarship at the school of fine arts in Paris, in 1859. There he studied under the legendary academic painter, Jean-Auguste Ingres. Américo returned to Brazil in 1864, but soon after returned to Europe, where, at the University of Brussels, he received the title of Doctor of Sciences. The following year, in Port-ugal, he married Charlotte of Ara jo Porto Al-egre, daughter of the Brazilian consul in Lisbon. The couple had three children. During this per-iod he painted the portraits of Pedro I, and Pedro II as well as the Duque de Caxias.
Pedro Americo's skill as a portrait artist is plainly visible
in the pencil self-portrait on the left just above. He appears
to have been about twelve years old at the time.
Returning to Brazil, in 1888, Américo produced his most well-known work of art: Independence or Death!, depicting the moment when Prince Peter declared the country independent from Portugal. The painting has illustrated elementary school history books Brazil for decades. Although considered a Brazilian painter, Pedro Américo and his family lived mostly in Florence, Italy, but traveling extensively back and forth from Rio de Janeiro. During this time he managed to work also as a lecturer and an art historian. Américo was knighted by the German Crown and was also a Great Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher. With the founding proclamation of the Republic in Brazil in 1889, he was elected a deputy of the National Assembly. Pedro Américo died in Florence, in 1905 at the age of sixty-two.

Battle of Avaí, painted 1872-79, Pedro Américo
This gives you some idea of the massive scale of
Americo's battle scenes.


Friday, December 8, 2017

Gridley J. F. Bryant

Boston's old City Hall, designed by Gridley Bryant in 1860-65.
Boston's Old City Hall,
Gridley Bryant 1860-65.
Depending upon the size of the firm, today the role of architect, like that of virtually every other profession, has changed drastically in the past two-hundred years. Today, ar-chitects deal one-on-one with clients, sometimes even whole committees of clients. Then they retire to some quiet stu-dio/office and conceptualize, putting ideas and solutions to problems down on pa-per to present to the decision making clients for approval. In some cases, where there is a formal competition for the job, all such work is done on specu-lation. Once the concept has been revised, and approved, a team of draftsmen, designers, and engineers is formed with the initial architect becomes the principal architect responsible for coordinating the group through the remaining design stages, the cost analysis, con-tracting, and supervising all phases of construction and interior design until the project reaches completion, sometimes several years later.
Broadway Savings Bank in South Boston, 1833, Gridley Bryant's first major structure.
Two-hundred years ago, the role of an architect was much broader and a good deal simpler. Although architectural firms were coming into existence, very often the principal architect was something of a one-man-band, seeking commissions, making proposals, drawing up plans, selling them to the client then singlehandedly shepherding the project though to completion. That's not to say others weren't involved. Some architects were not structural engineers, others utilized the services of a whole stable of draftsmen (before the days of copying machines) while in other cases the principal architect would consult with others for both the interior and exterior design details. That was the world Gridley J.F. Bryant was born into two hundred years ago in 1816.
An Architect of the Old School.
Gridley Bryant was born in Boston, his mother was Maria Winship Fox, his father Gridley Bryant, a noted railway pioneer, in Scituate, Massachusetts. In his youth he moved to Gardiner, Maine, and attended the Garrdiner Lyceum for his secondary education. He studied mathematics and engineering there before leaving to join his father's engineering office. He also interned with local lithographers and artists to experiment with design and artistic manipulation Later, Bryant apprenticed with engineers before opening his own architecture practice in 1837. He was but twenty-one years old.
Bigelow Chapel, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA.

Washington Tower, Mt. Auburn
Cemetery, Gridley Bryant
Working alone and collaboratively, Bryant designed numerous public, commercial and residential buildings throughout New England where he became closely identified with the Boston Granite Style. Partnering with Arthur Gilman, Bryant designed Boston's Old City Hall, built between 1860 and 1865. He was also the principal architect for the Hort-icultural Hall, built in 1865, for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Other notable works includes the Suffolk County Jail dating from 1848 to 1851, the Mercantile Wharf Build-ing in 1857, the Boston City Hospital in 1864, along with several houses in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. At Mount Auburn Cemetery, Bryant worked with Jacob Bigelow to design two signature buildings, The Bigelow Chapel, in 1845, and The Washing-ton Tower (above, right), 1852-1854. The Tower was sited 125 feet above the Charles River, atop the highest point in the Cemetery, Mount Auburn. At 62-feet tall, it serves as both a landmark, visible from the surrounding neighborhoods and as a vantage point, with views from its observation deck of the cemetery below, Cambridge, Boston, the Charles River, and beyond.

1-2-3 Arlington, Boston, Gridley J. F. Bryant
Gridley J. F. Bryant grew up in a world of granite construction. Although brick was the predominant building material used in Boston, major architectural landmarks erected after Bryant’s birth in 1816 were often built of granite derived from regional quarries. The architect’s father worked as a mason and constructed many of these buildings. Indeed, the elder Bryant was best known as the inventor of mechanisms and devices to transport and manipulate the heavy stone used in construction. His most famous accomplishment, the “Granite Railroad” in Quincy. Arlington 1-2-3 (above) were designed to give the appearance of one large, monumental building, in the French Academic style popular in Paris during the 1850s and 1860s.  Arlington 2 (the middle house) is recessed slightly further back from the street than the two flanking houses, whose mansard roofs project outwards slightly to frame it. As originally designed, there was a five foot wide passageway at the rear of 2 and 3 Arlington, running parallel to Arlington and underneath the rear ells, to provide access to the alley for all three houses.

The Quincy Market, 1925, Alexander Parris with the "help" of Gridley Bryant (doubtful, in that he wasn't even living in Boston at the time).
By the time Boston was incorporated as a city in 1822, downtown commercial demand had grown beyond the capacity of Faneuil Hall. To provide an expansion of shop space Quincy Market was built, as an indoor pavilion of vendor stalls. Designed by Alexander Parris, and according to tradition, with the help of his protégé Gridley Bryant in 1825. The latter claim is doubtful. Bryant would have been just nine years old at the time (maybe he worked sharpening pencils). Quincy Market was built immediately east of and "behind" Faneuil Hall which at the time sat next to the waterfront at the town dock. In an early example of Boston's tendency toward territorial growth via landfill, not to mention employing school boys as "architects," part of the harbor was filled in to extend a plot of land for the market.

The Charles Street Jail before repurposing.
From a social point of view, one of Bryant's most important and enduring structures was his design of Boston's Charles Street Jail complex (above). The jail was constructed between 1848 and 1851 to plans drawn by Bryant and the advice of prison reformer, Rev. Louis Dwight, who designed it according to the 1790s humanitarian scheme pioneered in England known as the Auburn Plan. The original jail was built in the form of a cross with four wings of Quincy granite extending from a central, octagonal rotunda with a 90-foot-tall (27 m) atrium. The wings allowed segregation of prisoners by sex and category of offense, and thirty arched windows, each 33 feet high, provided ventilation and natural light. The original jail contained 220 granite cells, each 8 by 10 feet (2.4 m × 3.0 m), which was state-of-the-art penal standards at the time. The jail served its purpose for more than a century, closed in 1990 due to overcrowding. The prisoners were moved to newer facilities while the jail was refurbished and reopened in 2007 as a 300-room luxury. The Liberty Hotel (below), as it is now known, has retained much of the historic structure, including the famed rotunda.

I wonder if they still have guards.


Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Top Ten Most Expensive Paintings (at the moment)

Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I, 1907, Gustav Klimt
A few days ago Leonardo da Vinci made history. That's pretty remarkable for an artist who's been dead almost five-hundred years. His last remaining painting in private hands, Salvator Mundi sold at auction for $450.3-million (including frame), a record price for any work of art. I should note, however, that this record is a very perishable item. Back on July 19, 2011, I made the same claim for Vincent van Gogh's Dr. Gachet, (below) which sold in 1990 for a record $82.5-million. Similarly, I made the same claim on January 17, 2013, for Gustave Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, (top), which broke the van Gogh record to the tune of $135-million. And as an example of how fluid the art the high art market has long been, just a few months later, on May 24, 2013, I related the fact that Edvard Munch's The Scream had breached the one-hundred-million dollar mark, selling for $125.1-million. I promised myself then I'd never again write about the record prices being garnered for great art work. And for several years now I haven't.
Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890, van Gogh
Well, so much for promises. I couldn't resist this one. As of this date, none of the paintings mentioned above even make the top ten list. Is there no end to the astronomical sums art collectors will fork over for masterpieces by the grand masters? How long before some artist's work rockets past the half-billion mark? See anything you like, Mr. Gates? (Who, incidentally, owns Leonardo's handwritten journals.) I know, Salvator Mundi is an acknowledged masterpiece, as are all the other paintings mentioned earlier and the top ten listed below; but does it strike you, as it does me, that there is something obscene about these prices in a world where a sizable chunk of the human population goes to bed hungry every night?

The Scream, 1895 version, Edvard Munch
Of course, there is nothing I, nor anyone else, can do to eliminate world hunger or the staunch the one-upmanship we see in the prices being paid for the beauty created by artists. The whole purpose of a "top ten" list such as this is to underline the situation in the hope that some multi-billionaire contemplating a Picasso or a Pollock, and bidding a thousand times what the artist received for the work, will take a step back and consider how far his or her riches might go for the benefit of mankind, womankind, and kidkind around the world.

10. No. 5, 1948, Jackson Pollock,
$166-million, 2006
9. Nu Couché, 1916, Amedeo Modigliani
$172.2-million, 2015, painted around 1917-18
8. Les Femmes d'Alger  ("Version O"), Pablo Picasso

$181-million, 2015
7. Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen  Coppit,
 1633, Rembrandt van Rijn
$182-million for the pair, 2015, owned jointly by the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre.
6. No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red), 1951, Mark Rothko
$188-million, 2014
5. Number 17A, Jackson Pollock.
$202-million, 2015, the only artist with two in the top ten.
4. Nafea Faa Ipoipo? (When Will You Marry?) 1892, Paul
$212-million, 2014, now owned by the nation of Qatar
3. The Card Players, 1892-93, Paul Cézanne
$266-million, 2011, now owned by the nation of Qatar
2. Interchange, 1955, Willem de Kooning
$303-million, 2015. Painted in 1955 this and the
Picasso (no. 8) are tied for the most recent of the top ten.
1. Salvator Mundi, 1500, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.
$450.3-million, 2017,
There is, of course a difference between the most expensive paintings and the most valuable ones. The paintings mentioned above were offered for sale. Most will probably never change hands again. in virtually all other cases, the most valuable paintings are in museums and most definitely not for sale at any price. Can you imagine the Louvre ever selling the Mona Lisa? In such cases, the hypothetical attachment of a price to such works is totally meaningless other than to say that many  would far outstrip the "meager" prices attached to these recent sales.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Konstantinos Volanakis

The Argo, after 1850, Konstantinos Volanakis
Anyone who follows my diverse meandering around and through the maze we inadequately term the "art world, knows that I have a weakness for ocean-going vessels of all sizes, shapes, and eras. Although I admire greatly those who take it upon themselves to pain sailing ships, my real interest in ships likes with ships powered with steam. I'm not particularly interested in naval battle scenes whether driven by steam or sail (being something of a "peacenik" from way back). In fact, being an artist, I'm much more interested in paintings of such ships than the ships themselves. That's why I enjoyed so much stumbling upon the exquisite drafting and delicate painting skills of the Greek painter, Konstantinos Volanakis. He painted little else. He has come to be known as the "father of Greek seascape painting."
Volanakis died a pauper in 1907.
Konstantinos Volanakis was born in 1837. He lived the first nine years of his life in a small village near Heraklion on the north shore of the Island of Crete. For business reasons, his family moved to westward along the Cretan coast to another small town called Rethymno. He completed his basic education on an Aegean island named Syros in 1856.
The Moonlit harbor of Volos, Konstantinos Volanakis
Upon graduation, his brothers urged him to Trieste (northeastern) Italy, there to become an accountant for a family of Greek merchants related to the family by marriage. Apparently it was not a job for which he was well-suited. The account books soon became littered with drawings of ships and harbor scenes. Ordinarily such dereliction of duties would have seen the young artist packing his bags to go home; but his employers were, instead, impressed with his drawing skills (if not the state of his ledgers). Rather than dismiss him, the family made arrangements for him to study at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, under Karl von Piloty. However, once there, His instructors discouraged any sort of landscape paint-ing, because it was "in decline," so Volanakis concen-trated mostly on portraits.
Ship, Konstantinos Volanakis
Naval battle at Lissa, 1869, Konstantinos Volanakis
Konstantinos' "big break" came in 1869, when Emperor Franz Joseph held a drawing competition to memorialize the Battle of Lissa some three years before. Volanakis won the contest, receiving 1000 gold Florins (about $558 U.S Dollars in 1900) and free travel cruises with the Austrian navy for three years. Volanakis took full advantage of this, by producing numerous canvases and sketches. He married in 1874. Nine years later, despite warnings that it would ruin his career, Volanakis returned to Greece and settled in Piraeus (the seaport for Athens), where his family had a pottery factory, citing pressure from his wife, whose health was suffering from the cold winters in Germany.
Exodus of the Ares, 1894, Konstantinos Volanakis
From then until 1903, he was a teacher at the Athens School of Fine Arts. On the side, Volanakis also operated his own private school. In 1889, he was awarded the Silver Cross of the Order of the Redeemer. Although Volanakis painted ships and boats of all kinds and sizes, his most popular works were those commissioned by the Greek government to commemorate naval victories such as that at Lissa.
The Burning of a Turkish Frigate, Konstantinos Volanakis. The paintings from top to bottom can be read as something akin to a movie recording the event.

Konstantinos Volanakis was very poor in his later years, due to the burden of his very large family and more important, a general decline of interest in his art. In a rather innovative effort to increase his income, Volanakis reversed the usual method of painting first, then framing the finished painting. By working with a group of framers who crafted luxuriously carved frames, he then creating paintings to fit them. My guess is the arrangement was none too successful or the practiced might still be around today.
I am especially fond of the effects of calm seas the artist
captures in his paintings depicting fishing boats.

Inauguration of the Corinth Canal,
Konstantinos Volanakis