Friday, March 9, 2012

Politics of Another Color by Charles Wilson Peale

What DO American politicians look like? Have they always had pasty tans, over-gelled hair, and flag pins in their lapels? Thankfully no - there's plenty of evidence for a different model. Not to say that politics was ever a kind and gentle sport, but, thanks to an artist who played a part in the founding of the country, we have a vivid way of considering the nature of early politicians. Washington? Of course. We all know the painfully set jaw, the white wig, the stiff military posture, the disaffected presidential gaze. But there are other versions: ask Charles Wilson Peale, one of the most interesting, entrepreneurial artists this country has ever produced. Peale painted 60 versions of Washington, including a 1772 portrait, the earliest known depiction. Washington, wearing the uniform of his regiment from the French and Indian war, was at the time merely a Virginia farmer, though he was also starting to voice his opposition to oppressive British policies. Peale's 'Princeton Portrait' of Washington shows him 9 years later in full American Revolution regalia after a decisive battle. With all the trappings of a European state portrait, Washington stands elegant, fashionable and surrounded by paraphernalia and attributes, proclaimed a man of great character and deed. The painting (for which Washington posed) is thought to have been commissioned by Martha Washington. (Not one for 'photo ops,' Washington sat only a few times for Peale - Peale (the entrepreneur part) made good use of his resources to produce all those versions and numerous copies, including 18 of the Princeton portrait.) Charles Wilson Peale, himself a loyal patriot born and bred in the colonies who fought alongside Washington, left a treasury of portraits of colonial movers and shakers, many which can be seen in a Portrait Gallery just down the street from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Peale, an ideal of the American pioneering spirit of inventiveness and pragmatic 'just-get-it-done' achievement, was a politician, a soldier, a fund-raiser, a naturalist, the founder of the first American museum for both art and science, the founder of the first American art school, the sponsor of the first American art exhibit,  and, by some accounts, could also fix your teeth, shoes, and furniture. He also had 16 children, several of who went on to become artists and found their own museums. Peale's museum was originally on the second floor of what is now Independence Hall - the mastodon that used to be the main attraction is long gone, but his paintings now form the collection in the Portrait Gallery. Many of the subjects have lost their 'household name' familiarity, but the history they reveal is fascinating. Peale, who studied for three years in London, manages a gloss of European sophistication of technique and observation without losing a kind of American honesty - the paintings are a rich aesthetic experience as well as an historic one. A double portrait of Robert Morris and Gouvernor Morris - not related, but linked by time and effort for the American cause - is a nice example of his relaxed but respectful approach. Gouverneur Morris slouches at the left, a little cocky but with a twinkle in his eye. The bright son of a wealthy New York loyalist family, Morris authored sections of the Constitution, and despite a wooden leg, was a notorious charmer of the ladies. Though he favored a more aristocratic standard for democracy, he opposed slavery and argued strongly for religious freedom. Robert Morris, a very wealthy merchant and businessman at the time of this portrait, was a man of integrity who financed much of the Revolution, including providing for the starving, freezing troops under Washington out of his own money. He also set up a clear financial plan for the young country and established the first national bank - his investments of time and money never paid off for him, however, and he died in relative poverty. Selflessness and dedication to the greater good - those ideas are in the fabric of the lives in these portraits - scientists, soldiers, intellectuals, artists, doctors, explorers, women in various capacities, and yes - politicians.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Up Close with Van Gogh

Van Gogh is not everyone's favorite artist, though, from the long lines to see the 'Van Gogh Up Close' show at the Philadelphia Museum, you might think so. The wait (even with my member's ticket) gave me a chance to think about several things. First - the idea of 'favorite.' I certainly understand 'not favorite' - in fact, to be honest, I think the choice of Van Gogh as a favorite artist is a bit naive. But I've also heard 'I don't like Van Gogh.' That's harder to understand. What don't you like? His impeccable sense of color harmonies? His astounding inventiveness with line and composition? And, of course, there's his dramatic, heart-wrenching life story. I can't imagine not 'liking' Van Gogh - he's too earnest and eager to please, like a child, albeit one who was supremely gifted and very brave. The PMA exhibit is titled 'Up Close' because it focuses on his attention to nature, including still lifes and studies of flowers and plants. The title is a bit misleading. There are plenty of broader landscapes as well, just not much in the way of portraits or people. Like many exhibits the organization is by date, earlier to late, but with Van Gogh that isn't terribly significant because almost all of his great works erupted from him in the last three to five years of his life. Even so, the progression is interesting - a few floral studies, startlingly conventional, begin the journey. You can see him struggling to square the set images in his mind - traditional Dutch still life paintings of big bouquets in vases, centered in a darkened space - with new ideas from the Impressionists he'd just met in Paris. If he'd stopped with the ones on view no one would know his name. Within a year or two he'd burst through and reinvented the idiom - the glowing golden 'Twelve Sunflowers in a Vase' is a stunning testament. Also at the beginning is the small canvas with a pair of used boots he bought at a flea market (and wore), included as an example of his 'study' approach and also for his particular way of putting animas into inanimate objects, turning everything into a self-portrait. And for Van Gogh everything really is a self-portrait; his tender-hearted, vulnerable life trails across canvases and boards in streaks of color. I have a particular love of Van Gogh's vocabulary of line, one of the most extraordinary, extensive expressions of mark-making of any artist or period. In paintings like Vineyards at Auvers and Tree Trunks in the Grass, you see him stroking, slashing, dotting, dragging, squiggling, chopping and wisping his color onto the surface, weaving an endlessly inventive visual fabric. One of the most moving paintings in the show is Landscape with Plowed Field, a serene scene of man and nature working together to produce a world of order; a huge sun, a close cousin to the moon in Starry Night, hovers like a benevolent god over neatly plowed fields, a tidy stone fence, and a pleasing range of moderate hills. But, cutting across the lower third, a rough messy diagonal upsets the calm - it turns out to be the path trod by Van Gogh's fellow inmates in the asylum at St. Remy - the view is out through the bars of his room. Another thought as I waited in line - Van Gogh would have loved this show, the crowds, the gift shop with all the sunflower tchotchkes - if you read his letters (very recommended, especially if you think he was just a looney as some people seem to - he was a lucid, intelligent, articulate writer with a deep knowledge of art) you find that his mission in life was to do something good for people, something that would make a difference in their lives. He may not have seen much success or money while he was alive, but he sure accomplished that.