18th century

Hillwood Estate: Self-Portrait of an Heiress

Edward Chandor, "Portrait of Marjorie Merriweather Post," 1952

How I’ve missed blogging over this past month! These past several weeks have been some of the most hectic that I have experienced in a long time. I don’t even have a Halloween-themed post for today (you can look at my Rubens and Goya posts from previous Halloweens). Instead, I want to share some thoughts on something completely different: a female collector who was interested in frothy, powderpuff, sumptuous decorative arts that are often called “feminine.” (And hey, I know that a few of you may find this art to be just as frightening and off-putting as a ghoulish work by Goya!)

Marjorie Merriweather Post was an art collector in the mid-20th century. In 1955, Post purchased the estate Hillwood in Washington, DC to house her large art collection. Hillwood is one of the “collection museums” that I listed in an earlier post. The museum has a short introduction film on their website which is as fabulous as the tag line for the museum: Where Fabulous Lives.

Early in life, at the young age of twenty-seven, Marjorie Merriweather Post became the heiress of the Postum Cereal Company (later known as General Foods Corporation) in 1914. Many biographers have commented on how Post was thrust into a “man’s world” of industry and business at a very early age.1 Several years after inheriting the family company, Post began to acquire furniture and decorative art with the help of art dealer Joseph Duveen. Interestingly, Post developed a keen interest in art during the same period in which she pushed for her business to merge with Birdeye Frozen Foods. Post’s art collection and museum can be interpreted as a self-portrait of Post, visually emphasizing her approachability, gender and femininity in order to draw a contrast with her perceived “masculine” pursuits in business.

Clock, 1896, silver gilt, bowenite, watercolor on ivory. Height 11.25", width 4"

The works that Marjorie Merriweather Post collected seem eclectic and even disparate at first glance: she was interested in French decorative arts from the 18th and 19th centuries, porcelain, jewelry, objects from imperial Russia, Farbergé, costumes, and even Native American art. However, when analyzing Post’s collection, one can see the majority the collection requires the viewer to interact with the objects in a similar way. Many of the items in Post’s collection are created on a small-scale, which require the viewer to examine the finely detailed objects at an extremely close distance. It has been commented that Post was considered to be intimidating and off-putting to many people, because she gave the impression of “being very grand.”2 In one sense, Post’s art collection reflects and even extends this idea of grandeur, since the objects are very fine, luxurious, and extremely expensive. However, Post’s collection of small, dainty objects also presupposes an environment of familiarity, approachability, and even intimacy. In turn, one can assume that Post wanted to have these characteristics extended to her own persona. Post wanted her objects to be seen up close, and perhaps used these smaller objects to creatively assert that she, as an individual, was also approachable.

French Drawing Room at Hillwood Estate

The interior decoration and collective effect of the display contribute to the sense of femininity at Hillwood Estate. Such femininity is particularly manifest in the French Drawing Room, which is designed to “evoke the splendor of the French aristocratic life from the 18th century.” Such objects, particularly those from the Rococo period of 18th century France, historically have been considered “feminine” in nature. Art historian Melissa Hyde has stated, “During the second half of the eighteenth century, the rococo qualities exemplified by the work of [the artist] Boucher – grace, plenitude, emphasis on the seductions of color…came to be identified exclusively with the feminine.” Post includes a tapestry by Boucher in her drawing room, which compliments the flowery objects and lyrical decorative lines that suggest plenitude and grace. Such femininity can be seen in the rugs, chairs, and even the gilded molding of garlands on the wall. It is this particular room at Hillwood Estate that is decorated with many of the objects that Marjorie collected in the 1920s, the period in which she rallied to have her business merge with Birdseye Frozen Foods.

This post isn’t long enough to give a sense of the rich, luxurious quality or the expansiveness of Post’s collection- it’s quite amazing. There are many other ways that the collection and estate relate to gender, femininity, and domesticity too (I didn’t even get to the estate gardens!). Has anyone visited Hillwood Estate? What was your impression of the place?

1 For one example, see interview with Ellen Charles, granddaughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post (Hillwood introduction film at 3:39). Available at:

2 See interview with Dina Merril, daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post (Hillwood introduction film at 2:42). Available at:


“Masculine” Civil Architecture in Colonial Brazil

This quarter I am lucky enough to teach a course on Brazilian colonial art. There are hardly any undergraduate courses in the United States that touch on Brazilian art, and I feel really lucky to work at a university that encourages students to expand their interests to include various global topics.

This week I am going to be presenting to my students some of my own research and thoughts on the civil architecture that was constructed in colonial Brazil. Through my own observations, I have noticed that a lot of the civil architecture is constructed with columns and pilasters from the Doric order (an architectural style that developed in ancient Greece).

Example of the Doric order with the plain, unadorned capital, as it appears on both columns and pilasters (rectangular columns embedded into a wall).

I think that this popularity of the Doric order especially interesting, since the Doric order has long been associated as a “masculine architectural style.” In fact, the Roman historian Vitruvius compared the Doric order to the proportions of a man. In his influential writing, On Architecture, Vitruvius explained that the proportions of a man’s foot (in relation to the man’s height) were used to form the Doric order. In contrast, Vitruvius continues to explain that the Ionic order resembles a female, and the Corinthian order can be compared to a slender virgin.1

So, what does this have to do with civil architecture in Brazil? I think that the usage of the Doric order might have had symbolic significance for the European colonists, some of whom probably were familiar with Vitruvius’ text. This “masculine” Doric order would have been in opposition to the Latin American soil, which was considered to have intrinsically female attributes. Annette Kolodny has explored how European colonizers viewed the Americas as having essentially female attributes (“land as woman”), and compared described the American continent to a virgin (“Virgin Beauties”).2 If the American land embodies the qualities that are already interpreted to be part of the Ionic (female) and Corinthian (virgin) orders, then perhaps the Doric order seemed like better point of visual contrast for colonial architecture. But I think that the Doric order is associated with much more than a mere visual contrast to the land. In a way, the rigid, masculine Doric order of the invading colonizers can be interpreted as a masculine European domination over the female Americas.

Muncipal Building (Casa de Camara), Salvador, Brazil, 17th century. Restored in 1960s

This theme of architectural domination and conquest can be extended outside gender binaries, too. Previous scholars, such as Gauvin Bailey, have discussed how the classical characteristics of Latin American architecture could have been used to associate the Spanish and Portuguese with the greatness of the Greek and Roman empires. As colonizers and conquerors of the Americas, the Portuguese and Spanish were building their New World empires, following in the footsteps of their classical predecessors.Therefore, by association, government buildings could embody authority, conquest, and domination. I feel like all of those characteristics can be seen in the Municipal Building of Salvador (see image above). The classical features such as the Doric capitals, Doric pilasters and arcade all reference the glory of previous empires. I also get a sense of domination from the low-lying, horizontal structure itself: the horizontal emphasis suggests that building wants to cover (or dominate) as much surface area of colonial land as possible.

Antonio Landi, Governor's Palace at Belém do Pará, Brazil, 1771. Landi was an Italian architect who moved to Brazil in the middle of his life. Since Landi worked as a professor of architecture in Bologna, I'm fairly certain that he was familiar with Vitruvius' "masculine" interpretation of the Doric order

I also think that Doric capitals also embody a sense of authority, since it is the most austere and rigid of the classical orders. This rigidity is especially apparent to me in the Governor’s Palace at Belém do Pará (see above), where Doric-like features (suggestive of pilasters) are decorated with quoining. The rigid, rectangular quality of the quoining reinforces the strength and rigidity of the structure (and therefore the governor, by extension). Did you notice that this is another horizontal, low-lying structure that dominates as much surface area as possible?

Any other thoughts on the Doric order and colonial conquest? Civic architecture in Brazil is a very under-explored topic in scholarly research, and I’m always up for generating more conversation!

1 See Vitruvius’ “On Architecture,” (1st century BC). Text from Chapter 1 (which mentions the Greek orders) is found here.

2 For more information on the Americas being interpreted as female (or as a woman), see Annette Kolodny, “The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters”(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 4-7.

3 Gauvin Alexander Bailey, “Art of Colonial Latin America” (London: Phaidon, 2005), 43.


Fragonard’s “The Swing” and a Little Dog

Jean Honoré Fragonard, "The Swing," 1767

The first art history paper I ever wrote in college was on Fragonard’s The Swing (shown above). I remember writing about the Rococo style and the rise of the French aristocracy in the 18th century. I also remember discussing how this scene represents a young woman who is being pushed on a swing by an older man (shown in the background on the right). This older suitor or husband seems unaware, however, that a younger suitor is hiding in the bushes (on the left). To put it mildly, this younger suitor is getting a very privileged viewpoint of his beloved on the swing: he can look up her dress!1 She, in turn, kicks off her shoe (a symbol of sexuality) in the direction of the young suitor. I think that the shoe also seems to fly in the air as a defiant gesture toward the cupid figure on the right, who holds a cautionary finger to his lips (seen by some as a symbol of discretion).2

I remember feeling so sure of myself when I submitted my final draft of this paper, which I think was no more than 6-8 pages in length. As a naive little student, I felt like I had mastered that painting and knew everything that there was to know about it. Boy, was I wrong about that!

Since writing that paper several years ago, I have learned several new things about this painting by Fragonard. I even have spotted some new details after watching a Smarthistory video clip on the painting. I really like this short clip, and I actually am assigning some of my art history students to watch this video as part of a homework assignment.

One of the things mentioned in this video, which I had never spotted previously, is the inclusion of a little tiny dog in the bottom right corner of the painting, not too far from the feet of the older suitor. The dog is standing on its hind legs and appears to be yapping. It’s easy for the viewer to miss this little detail at first glance; the bouncy curls in the dog’s coat look similar to the surrounding flower petals and leaves.

Detail of Fragonard's "The Swing," 1767

So why is the dog included in this scene? The Smarthistory video raises the issue that the dog, which normally appears in art as a symbol of fidelity, obviously is inappropriate in this context. But, considering that the dog seems agitated and upset, perhaps the symbol still is appropriate. Does anyone have any thoughts? Now that I have noticed the dog, I think that there might even be some interaction between the discretionary cupid figure (with its finger toward its lips) and the yapping dog. The cupid might be trying to get the dog to quiet down while the lovers enjoy a rather, ahem, intimate moment.

There is one thing in the Smarthistory video that I think it interesting, but I’m not sure that I accept. The video suggests that in the background of the scene, the two cupid figures might be sitting next to a beehive (which could be seen as a symbol for the “sting of love”). This is an interesting idea, but I’ve always thought that the figures were sitting next to a large fish. The fish is looking toward the viewer with a large eye, a gaping mouth, and thick lips (see below). I obviously am not alone in my interpretation, since other commenters on the Smarthistory page mentioned the same thing. (By the way, you should check out the comments. They are absolutely fascinating.)

Detail for Fragonard's "The Swing," 1767

It makes sense that a fish would be depicted here for a few reasons: first of all fish (and more specifically, dolphins) were associated with the imagery for Venus, the goddess of love. According to some mythological accounts, Venus was born out of the sea. Fish also would be appropriate for French Rococo imagery, which often includes motifs of plants, rocks, shells, foam, etc. Fish were even included as decorative features during this period, as can be seen on some fish-shaped vases.

Do you see a fish or a beehive in this painting? What do you think about the inclusion of the dog? Any other thoughts about this painting?

1This privileged view and “happy accident” for the young suitor was quite intentional subject matter on part of the patron, Baron de Saint-Julien. Saint-Julien specified the details of the painting and wanted his mistress to be depicted as the woman in the scene. The baron also wanted to include a clever pun with his chosen theme, since he served as the government representative who collected taxes paid by the Church. His government title was “Receiver of the general goods offered by the clergy” (Receveur général des biens du clergé). Saint-Julien originally requested that the older gentleman be represented as a bishop, but it appears that Fragonard omitted a such an impudent reference to the Church. Nonetheless, the older suitor (who may be clergyman or a husband) is delivering “goods” to be seen by the young suitor. See David A. Wilkins, “Art Past Art Present,” 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 408.

2 Along the lines of discretion, some feel that the cupid “enjoins [the young suitor] to keep the secret of what he has seen.” See Wilkins, 408.


Kauffmann and Female Empowerment

This afternoon I’ve been thinking about Angelica Kauffmann’s painting, Self-Portrait Hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting (1791, shown left). I can relate to this painting quite well: during my first year and a half as an undergraduate, I couldn’t decide whether to major in music or art history. I play the piano and studied classical voice for several years. At the beginning of college I continually felt compelled to study vocal performance, music education or choral conducting. In some ways, I still wish that I had kept up with my classical singing, especially when I listen to singers like Renée Fleming or Patricia Petibon (the latter is a recent discovery – she’s fantastic!).

In the end, though, I decided to major in art history and minor in music. With only a minor in music, I felt like I could still learn and refine my singing skills but remain somewhat distant from the discipline. I’ve found that my enjoyment of music lessens if I focus on theory and technique too much; I end up overanalyzing musical scores and critiquing performances instead of just listening. However, my enjoyment and love for art (and art history!) doesn’t ever seem to go away, despite how much I learn or how critically I think. So, in the end, I art history was the best choice for me.

Kauffmann was an accomplished musician; she played the zither and clavichord. She also was said to have an extremely beautiful, agile singing voice. Kauffmann had to choose between music and art as a career, and she depicts this decision in her painting. Obviously, Painting won her over. It appears that Kauffmann’s career choice was influenced (at least in part) by a priest who convinced Kauffmann and her father that an operatic career on the stage would lead to a faithless, debased lifestyle.1 (On a side note, I wonder what Painting is pointing at in the distance, beyond the canvas of Kauffman’s painting. Great heights? Achievement? Music seems much more passive of a figure, being seated on the left.)

Not only do I love this painting because I relate to Kauffmann’s interest in music and art, but I also love the idea behind the painting’s composition. Here, Kauffmann is shown in an empowering position between the two arts: she has the ability to choose either career path. Instead of the many depictions in art that show women in helpless or subordinate positions, Kauffmann advertises “publicly her ability as an individual to choose.”2 Another painting by Kauffmann also hints at this same topic of female choice and empowerment: Venus Induces Helen to Fall in Love with Paris (1790, shown right) shows Helen contemplating the decision to fall in love. For Helen, love seems to be a conscientious choice and she has the ability to make that choice. What a dramatic departure this is from depictions of swooning women in art (see here and here and here), who are rendered as helpless subjects!

Do you know of other examples in art where a female figure is represented with agency or ability to choose? Or, do you know of any other examples of swooning and/or helpless women?

1 Frances A. Gerard, Angelica Kauffmann: A Biography (London: Ward and Downey, 1893), 18-21. Available online here. Gerard relates that a handsome, promising (male) musician was one of the individuals who actively tried to convince Kauffmann to study music. It is related that Kauffmann’s depiction of Orpheus in Orpheus Leading Eurydice out of Hades (located in a private collection) is a portrait of the handsome musician.

2 David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 406.


"Watson and the Shark" by Copley

I want to write a blog post on Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778, shown left) for my friend “e.” She has been a long-time reader of this blog, and due to some significant changes in her life, she won’t be able to get online and read blogs for some time. She particularly likes this painting, so I thought this post would be a fitting tribute to her.

This painting is interesting to me for several reasons. First of all, this painting is interesting because Copley probably had never seen a shark when he painted this scene!1 In fact, at least one contemporary critic sensed there was some inaccuracy in the way the shark was depicted, saying that the shark “bore no resemblance to any creature on earth.”2 I wouldn’t go that far (!) – but I don’t think that the shark is perfectly realistic.

In addition, the I think subject matter of this painting is interesting since it is based on an actual historical event. In 1749, a fourteen year old boy named Brook Watson was attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana Harbor. The shark struck twice, consuming Watson’s right foot and flesh from his right calf (notice in the painting that Watson’s right leg eerily disappears at the bottom of the canvas). Copley depicts the moment where Watson was saved by rescuers, just as the shark was rearing for a third strike. Watson’s leg was amputated just above the knee.

Watson managed with a wooden leg (as can be seen an etching of Watson created by Robert Dighton in 1803). He eventually became a successful merchant, and it is likely that he commissioned Copley to paint this scene for him, since Watson owned the painting at the time of his death.3 Honestly, I’m quite surprised that Watson wanted a have a painting which depicted such a traumatic event in his life! If I was ever attacked by a shark, I don’t know if I would want the event immortalized in oil and canvas!

This painting holds some significance art historically, since it depicts a real-life event in the tradition of “history paintings.” Typically, history paintings (which were considered to be the most important type of painting by artistic academies) consisted of biblical or mythological scenes. Copley breaks from the traditional representations of history paintings by depicting an obscure event from recent history.4 He even elevates this obscure event by depicting it on a grand-scale: the large canvas is approximately 5′ 7″ x 7′ 6″ (182.1 cm × 229.7 cm).

If you’re interested in learning a little bit more about Watson and the Shark, check out this mini-site that is maintained by the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC).

1 For more examples of art that was created without the artist having seen the animal beforehand, see my prior post, “The artist had never seen a [insert animal] before.”

2 Louis P. Masur, “Reading Watson and the Shark,” in The New England Quarterly 67, no. 3 (Sept. 1994): 437.

3 Ibid., 434.

4 Ibid., 436-37.


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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.