Category

18th century

Dutch Dollhouses and Miniatures

Jacob Ortman, "Doll's House of Petronella Oortman," c. 1710. Oil on parchment on canvas. 87cm × 69cm. Rijksmuseum

Jacob Appel, “Doll’s House of Petronella Oortman,” c. 1710. Oil on parchment on canvas. 87 cm × 69 cm. Rijksmuseum

When I watched The Minaturist TV series a few years ago, it didn’t even occur to me to wonder whether the 17th-century doll house was grounded in historical fact. I think that the darker aesthetic and bizarre aspects of the show made me think less about any historical foundation. However, I learned this evening that it there was a small group of adult Dutch women in the 17th and 18th centuries which have miniature houses – these dollhouses and miniatures were usually given in connection with weddings. They weren’t meant to be for children to play with, but were meant for adult collectors to enjoy. You can see some details of one such house that was on display at the MFA in this video.

Curatorial research fellow Courtney Harris explained in another MFA video, “The Dutch Golden Age in Miniature” how these miniature environments were ways for women to enact control over an environment on a small scale. Women were also able to interact with craftsmen to purchase miniature objects and held autonomy over what was placed on display. Women could also control the viewing of the miniature houses by keeping them covered with curtains until an appropriate time to reveal the miniature spaces to guests. One dollhouse, owned by Petronella de la Court, was an exact replica of her own house!

Doll's house owned by Petronella de la Court, c. 1670-1690. Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Doll’s house owned by Petronella de la Court, c. 1670-1690. Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Image courtesy Wikipedia

The Rijksmuseum has an interesting painting in their collection which depicts the dollhouse owned by another collector, Petronella Oortman, a woman who “spent vast sums of money on creating and decorating her house” (see image at top of post). The museum also has the actual dollhouse in its collection as well. I am drawn to this painting, though, because it is a miniaturization of the miniature house. The actual house is 255 cm high and 190 cm wide (approx. 8.3′ x 6.2′), whereas the painting is 87 cm and 69 cm wide (approx. 2.9′ x 2.25′). I wonder why this miniature house caught the attention of a male painter, unless this painting was a commission? By painting the miniature objects on an even smaller scale than the actual house, is Jacob Appel attempting to outdo the technical achievements of the craftsmen who made the small objects for the house? Or is Appel’s creation of this painted house intended to rival the Petronella Oortman’s miniature creation?

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Fragonard and Morisot?

Berthe Morisot, "Reading (The Green Umbrella), 1873. Oil on fabric, 18 1/8 × 28 1/4 in. (46 × 71.8 cm). Cleveland Museum of Art

Berthe Morisot, “Reading (The Green Umbrella), 1873. Oil on fabric, 18 1/8 × 28 1/4 in. (46 × 71.8 cm). Cleveland Museum of Art

The post that you are reading is a very different one than the first one that I originally wrote this evening. I recently read in The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint that Berthe Morisot was the descendant of the painter Jean-Honore Fragonard, and I hoped to write a post that explored that relationship between the two. However, as I researched, I found conflicting information about how Morisot was either the granddaughter of Fragonard, the great-niece of Fragonard, or the great-great-niece of Fragonard. So I began to comb through the genealogical timelines of the Morisot family and realized that I couldn’t find a clear ancestral connection between the artists at all. Dozens of sources claim that this connection comes through the family of Berthe’s mother, who was named Marie-Joséphine-Cornélie Thomas, although as of yet I can’t find the origin of this claim in writing. I can assert though, that Morisot is not the granddaughter of Fragonard: her paternal grandparents were Tiburce Pierre Morisot and Claude Elisabeth Morisot; her maternal grandparents were Jean Simon Joseph Thomas and Caroline Françoise Marie Mayniel.

Chronologically, it seems to be that Fragonard lived four generations before Morisot. Her only two great-grandparents that I know of (her grandmother’s parents, whose names were Jean Henri Mayniel and Josephine Anne Victoire de Ménard) were both born in 1760. That doesn’t go back far enough to meet up with Fragonard, who was born in 1732. Other branches of Berthe Morisot’s family line don’t seem to go back far enough, at least through online genealogical records. I finally found an archived excerpt of  Anne Higgonet’s 1995 book Berthe Morisot, which explains that “family tradition claims indirect descent from the painter Fragonard.” Is this actually just a “family tradition” then, but an unsubstantiated one? If that’s the case, we need to stop repeating it in scholarship or take Higgonet’s approach to explain the relationship has just been merely “claimed” or rumored through family tradition.

I can see how it is appealing to connect these two artists together. Fragonard painted many outdoor scenes that depicted aristocrats engaged in romantic or pleasurable pursuits. Likewise, Morisot painted plein air and often depicted members of the bourgeoisie. I also like thinking about how they both were drawn to the subject matter of a woman reading: Fragonard’s Woman Reading (c. 1776, shown below) was made almost exactly one hundred years before Morisot’s Reading (The Green Umbrella) from 1873 (shown above). It is also clear to see how Fragonard’s lively brushwork (especially seen in the fabric of the painting) helps to open the door for the loose, painterly strokes of the Impressionists like Morisot.

Fragonard, "A Young Girl Reading," c. 1776. Oil on canvas. National gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Fragonard, “A Young Girl Reading,” c. 1776. Oil on canvas. National gallery of Art, Washington, DC

One thing is certain: if Morisot was a descendant of Fragonard, she never met the artist. Fragonard died in 1806 and Morisot was born in 1841. The one thing that makes the ancestral connection believable in some regard is that Fragonard’s reputation and career fell into a decline during the end of his lifetime due to the upheaval of the French Revolution.1 He even remained relatively unknown for the first half of the 19th century and was even omitted from scholarship.2 So he would have seemed like an odd choice to claim kinship in the 19th century, unless the kinship either was actual or derived from family lore that began in the 18th century!

If you can fill in the genealogical record or add to the connection (or lack thereof) between Fragonard and Morisot, please share! I’m also curious to learn how this “family tradition” has been upheld in scholarship – who was the first to pen down this connection? Was it Berthe Morisot herself or it is in an Impressionist review? So far the earliest mention I have found is from 1904.

Regardless of the ancestral connection, I am particularly struck at how often this connection has been repeated in scholarship and publications. On one hand, it is a neat connection if it is true, simply to show how art was a familial pursuit. But I also wonder if this connection to Fragonard was also used to legitimize the contributions of a female artist in the male-dominated world of art.

1 Melissa Percival, Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure: Painting the Imagination  (Routledge, 2017), p. 19. Found online here: https://books.google.com/books?id=lCgxDwAAQBAJ&lpg=PP19&ots=Ao2piIFUCW&dq=fragonard%20posthumous%20reputation&pg=PP19#v=onepage&q&f=false

2 Ibid.

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Fragonard’s “The Swing” and “Portrait of a Lady”

Fragonard, "The Swing," 1766. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Fragonard, “The Swing,” 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Tonight I am feeling very sheepish. About three or four months ago, a student mentioned to me that Fragonard’s The Swing served as a point of inspiration for “Portrait of a Lady.” I found a copy of Henry James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady a few days later. Now, after reading 660+ pages and finishing the book, I was left rather confused as to what my student meant, so I went online to read some commentary. Only then did I realize that my student was referring to William Carlos Williams’ poem “Portrait of a Lady” and not the Henry James novel! I don’t regret reading lengthy book at all, but I feel less confused and won’t try to dwell on which suitors are courting Isabel Archer (or perhaps Pansy?) in this Fragonard painting anymore!

Instead, the William Carlos Williams poem has very direct references to Rococo art and painters. This is the poem, which was first published in The Dial in 1920:

Your thighs are apple trees

whose blossoms touch the sky.

Which sky? The sky where Watteau hung a lady’s slipper.

Your knees are a southern breeze — or

a gust of snow. Agh! what

sort of a man was Fragonard?

— As if that answered

anything. –Ah, yes. Below

the knees, since the tune drops that way, it is one of those white summer days,

the tall grass of your ankles

flickers upon the shore —

Which shore?

Agh, petals maybe. How

should I know?

Which shore? Which shore?

–the petals from some hidden

apple tree — Which shore?

I said petals from an apple tree.

I’ve been reading commentary, scholarly interpretations, and watching a short lecture segment (though disregard some of the art historical commentary in the video, since it is a bit inaccurate) on this poem, and thinking about how this poem encapsulates the difficulties of poetic words and conventions in terms of expression. The poem seems to show the problems which poets can face, especially since there are two voices which interrupt the flow of the expressive content. There are even other exclamations which disrupt the flow, too: the first “agh!” may have been exclaimed when the speaker realized that he meant to say “Fragonard” instead of “Watteau” when first referencing to the artist of The Swing.1

Given the historical context of his poem and how the disjointed style of the poem is interpreted as a precursor to postmodernism, interesting to me that these two Rococo artists were mentioned. Watteau is the earlier of the two artists, and he really served as a pioneer for the Rococo style. On one hand, Watteau’s art can be interpreted as expressing conflicting emotions and voices (the subject matter of his artistic output is associated with pleasure and sadness, perhaps typified in his comedia dell’art painting Italian Players from 1720), which parallels the disjointed and interrupted conversation of the speakers in the poem.2 Watteau also was a bit of a radical artist for his time, since his “fete galante” paintings of the aristocracy did not fit the conventional requirements for academic history paintings, and this unconventional approach to art mirrors the unconventional form of disjointed expression in Williams’ poem.3

Fragonard, detail of "The Swing," 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Fragonard, detail of “The Swing,” 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Obviously, Williams was considering the themes like love and eroticism when he made a reference to Fragonard’s The Swing, since a woman is accompanied by two suitors and she kicks off her shoe (and reveals what is underneath her dress) at the suitor who is hidden in the bushes. Fragonard is a later Rococo artist who followed in Watteau’s wake, and I think his socially-accepted painting style and traditional career don’t have the same parallels to the radical style of poetry that Williams used. However, from a compositional standpoint, I like how compositional lines meander through the painting (such as the branch which zig-zags in the upper left corner, see above); these visual lines complement the nonlinear, back-and-forth voices presented in the poem.

Yinka Shonibare, The Swing (after Fragonard)', 2001. Tate Modern

Yinka Shonibare, “The Swing (after Fragonard),” 2001. Tate Modern

Really, I think the best work of art today that encompasses Williams’ poem is Yinka Shinobare’s installation “The Swing (after Fragonard)” from the Tate Modern. Since the Fragonard painting has become iconic, Shinobare’s composition is familiar to the viewer but also strange: the tree lacks a trunk and the principal subject lacks a head. This familiar-and-strange reaction is similar to what is conveyed through Williams’ poem, since the poem attempts to reference the traditional language of poetry (like using a metaphor about an apple tree), but the metaphors are intentionally used in an ineffective way. Since Shinobare intentionally omits aspects of Fragonard’s composition, this disjointed appearance mirrors the disjointed flow of Williams’ poem.

Shinobare detail

Yinka Shonibare, detail of “The Swing (after Fragonard),” 2001. Tate Modern

The skin of Shinobare’s model is also dark and she wears a print that references African textiles which have a complex global history regarding colonial production and international consumption. These references to the complexities of globalization and visually acknowledging multiple voices seems to be a fitting parallel with how Williams’ poem is seen in relation to postmodernism – a movement which accepts the multiplicities of meanings and perspectives.

Do you see any other parallels between Williams’ poem and either the Fragonard painting or Shinobare’s installation?

1 See Thomas Dilworth, “On ‘Portrait of a Lady,'” The Explicator 56.2 (Winter 1998). Available online: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/williams/lady.htm

2 For more information on how Watteau’s art is associated with conflicting emotions and interpretations, see Linda Walsh, “Subjects, Society, Style: Changing Evaluations of Watteau and His Art” in The Changing Status of the Artist by Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods (Open University Press, 1999), 220-248.

3 Ibid., 235-238.

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“Oath of the Horatii” and the Nazi Salute

Jacques-Louis David, "Oath of the Horatii," 1784. Oil on canvas, 330 x 425 cm. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Jacques-Louis David, “Oath of the Horatii,” 1784. Oil on canvas, 330 x 425 cm. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Today was one of those days in which a student points out something so obvious, that I’m shocked that I’ve never considered it before. I think sometimes my eye is so trained to look for certain visual details, that I need a new pair of eyes to help me look at familiar paintings in a more objective way. That was the case today: when discussing the Oath of the Horatii in class, a student raised her hand and simply asked why the brothers have their hands raised in a gesture that looks like the Nazi salute. And now after looking at the painting, I’m embarrassed as to why I never really entertained that thought before.

Luckily, other historians have already made this connection. In 1987 Albert Boime wrote about how “the brothers stretch out their arms in a salute that has since become associated with tyranny. The “hail Caesar” of antiquity [although at the time of the Horatii a Caesar had yet to be born] was transformed into the “Heil Hitler” of the modern period. The fraternal intimacy brought about by the Horatii’s dedication to absolute principles of victory or death [and the resultant] emphasis on the destruction of all intermediate loyalties between citizen and state, and on the absolute sovereignty of state power, is closely related to the establishment of the fraternal order.”1

Furthermore, in 2009, Martin M. Winkler published a book called The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology (.pdf available online). Winkler finds that David’s painting served as the foundation point for what early 20th-century fascist governments called the “Roman salute” – even though there is no evidence that the Romans actually existed.2 (For more information, see this article on the history of the Nazi salute.)

It’s interesting to me that David’s painting would have these changing political meanings over the centuries, long after David had died. In some ways, this change in political associations is in line with David’s own career: he often would cater to whatever political group or leader was in power. As a result, David was associated with French Revolutionaries (including Robespierre during the Reign of Terror) earlier in his career, and then about a decade later, became the First Painter to Napoleon. In an unexpected way, the fluctuating political associations with the “Oath of the Horatii” gesture, especially in modern times, appropriately parallel the flexible political persona that David crafted for himself during his lifetime.

1 Albert Boime, Art in the Age of Revolution: 1750–1800 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 400-401.

2 Martin M. Winkler, The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009), 54.

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Grace Kelly’s Pressed Flowers

Grace Kelly measuring one of her flower collages, from "My Book of Flowers" (published 1980)

Grace Kelly measuring one of her flower collages, from “My Book of Flowers” (published 1980)

I’ve been reading My Book of Flowers by Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly) this past week. I’ve been fascinated to learn about this creative outlet for Grace Kelly, which I imagine gave her much satisfaction since many of her early expressions of creativity (as an actress) were put aside after she married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. This book was published in 1980, just two years before Grace Kelly was in a fatal car accident in September 1982.

I especially love My Book of Flowers because it explains Grace Kelly’s thought process and techniques for creating her pressed flower collages. For her, the physical process of touching the flowers and carefully working with her hands provided satisfaction: “…I prefer to use the tip of my fingernail or a small stem to move the petals into place. It is not only that the eyes find pleasure in finishing the pressed flower picture, but just sliding the flowers into place brings that same kind of tranquility as doing needlework, crocheting, or knitting.”1

Grace Kelly also explained that spacing of flowers is really important, especially when creating geometric collages that need to maintain a sense of “pristine formality.”2

Grace Kelly, pressed flowers in a geometric pattern with protea leaves, periwinkle, viola, daisies, and a yellow daffodil, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed flowers in a geometric pattern with protea leaves, periwinkle, viola, daisies, and a yellow daffodil, n.d.

Grace Kelly, flower collage with white phalaenopsis orchids from Ceylon, bougainvillaea and periwinkle, n.d.

Grace Kelly, flower collage with white phalaenopsis orchids from Ceylon, bougainvillaea and periwinkle, n.d.

Grace Kelly, Jasmine, Prunus Leaves

Grace Kelly, pressed collage from a branch of jasmine, prunus leaves, and pale davidii leaves known as “the handkerchief tree,” n.d.

Grace Kelly, Poppies, Buttercups, Wild Grasses

Grace Kelly, pressed collage “to capture the mood of a summer’s day” with poppies, buttercups, and wild grasses, n.d.

Grace Kelly, jigsaw puzzle, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed collage like a Provençal print or a Liberty fabric, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed collage with a reconstructed red rose and hydrangea flower from California, with pink pelargoniums from Spain, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed collage with a reconstructed red rose and hydrangea flower from California, with pink pelargoniums from Spain, n.d.

I particularly like this last collage by Kelly because the dark background reminds me of the paper flower collages that Mary Delany created in the 18th century (such as this one of the passionflower). Delany’s collages (which she called “paper-mosaicks”) were made from hundreds of pieces of tissue paper that were carefully cut and layered (and occasionally were touched-up with watercolor). Mary Delany’s collection of work is located at the British Museum. Grace Kelly discusses Mary Delany’s work at length in My Book of Flowers, so I think it is very likely that Kelly had Delany’s work in mind for this particular collage.3 Perhaps Kelly even thought that her “reconstructed red rose” (made from separately-dried flower petals) was similar to Delany’s process in constructing flowers out of cut pieces of paper.

It makes sense to me that Grace Kelly would be interested in creating pressed flower collages, not only as a creative exercise, but from a historical standpoint. Pressed flower collages historically have been associated with restraint and decorum, which are two things that I associate with Grace Kelly (both as an actress and a princess). For one thing, creating flower collages was popular among women during the Victorian era (the age of decorum and restraint!). And, in a ironic way, this restraint and decorum is also associated with the true origin of pressed-flower making, known as the art of Oshibana in Japan. This form of art began in the 16th century, allegedly was created by Samurai warriors as a way to practice patience, restraint, and concentration, as well as harmony with nature.

Although it seems unlikely that Victorian women or Grace Kelly would even be paired with Samurai warriors in the same sentence, I’m really tickled that the art of creating pressed flowers has found resonance and meaning across different time periods and cultures. Perhaps this international art form is another way that pressed flower collages help to embody Grace Kelly’s role as a diplomat and representative of a principality. Several of her collages bring together flowers from different countries too, which in a way is akin to the role she needed to perform as a political figure. This type of international harmony fits well with what Grace said about flowers and her immediate environment too:

“Through working with flowers we began to discover things about ourselves that had been dormant. We found agility not only with our fingers but with our inner eyes in searching for line, scale and harmony. In bringing out these talents within ourselves, we gained a dimension that enabled us not only to search for harmony in an arrangement, but also to discover the importance of carrying it into our lives and our homes.”4

Grace Kelly at an exhibition of her flowers at Galerie Drouant in Paris, 1977

Grace Kelly at an exhibition of her flowers at Galerie Drouant in Paris, 1977

1 Princess Grace of Monaco with Gwen Robyns, My Book of Flowers (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980), 47.

2 Ibid., 48.

3 See discussion of Mary Delany on Ibid., p. 144-147.

4 Ibid., 10.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.