Category

celebrities

Frank Sinatra’s Paintings

I read recently that the Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini reminded Tony Bennett so much of Frank Sinatra that Tony once gave Frank a copy of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini as a birthday gift. I scoffed and chuckled a little bit when learning this, since Cellini had a flair for extreme drama. However, Tony said that he admired how “Benvenuto would draw his sword and battle every hypocrite and phony who stood in the way of truth,” and it is this aspect of Cellini that reminded him of Sinatra.And although Tony Bennett wrote that he was thinking of Frank Sinatra’s character when he made this gift, this anecdote made me wonder if Frank had more direct connections to the world of visual art. And he does!

The title of this post actually has dual meaning, since Frank Sinatra had a collection of paintings and also was a painter himself! I haven’t been able to find information on his personal art collection (or identify the painters/paintings shown in the Getty photograph linked above), so unfortunately I can’t explore his connection to art as a collector. If anyone knows information about Sinatra’s collection or his collecting habits, please share!

Frank Sinatra in his studio, n.d.

Frank Sinatra in his studio with granddaughter Amanda (left, n.d.), display of Frank Sinatra’s art at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles (right)

What I have been able to learn, however, is more about Frank Sinatra’s personal interest in oil painting; this was a hobby that he maintained for more than forty years! Some of Frank Sinatra’s paintings and memorabilia are available for sale on a website that is maintained by a collector, and other paintings are on public display at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles (shown in the image above). I also came across a Telegraph article from 2009 which explains how one of Frank’s paintings is believed to have been painted in 1957, during the artist’s difficult divorce from the actress Ava Gardner. The painting is a self-portrait of the artist as a melancholic clown (see below), and it was a subject that he painted again and again and again (and these links are just a few examples!).

Clown painting by Frank Sinatra, c. 1957. Oil on canvas

Clown painting by Frank Sinatra, c. 1957. Oil on canvas

No doubt when Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 song “Send In the Clowns” was covered by Frank that same year, this song must have had very special meaning for Frank due to his relationship with Ava and also his clown paintings from the previous decade and a half. In fact, Frank once prefaced his performance of this song with an explanation that this is a breakup song between two adults, and I can’t help but think that Frank pulled from his own experiences with breakups to convey the sentiment of the song. I have a feeling that he thought about his self-portraits as a clown while he sang.

Frank didn’t just create representational art, however. In fact, most of his paintings were heavily, heavily influenced by painters of the mid-20th century, especially the Abstract Expressionists. I recently came across the book A Man and His Art: Frank Sinatra with a forward written by his daughter Tina Sinatra. The book mostly includes color plates of Frank’s paintings, and it’s fun to play a guessing game and figure out what artist and/or painting might have served as inspiration for Frank’s art. For example, easy to see how this painting below is reminiscent of Ellsworth Kelly’s art, for example. The different gradients of opacity and transparency of the pigment remind me a little bit of Mark Rothko.

Frank Sinatra, "Summer Wind," c. 1980s.

Frank Sinatra, “Summer Wind,” c. 1980s.

And this bold painting of a geometric shape, which I quite like, reminds me of Frank Stella:

Frank SInatra, Untitled, 1989. 57" x 47", the Desert Hospital, Palm Springs, California

Frank SInatra, Untitled, 1989. 57″ x 47″, the Desert Hospital, Palm Springs, California

When flipping through A Man and His Art, I also notice paintings that reminded me of Josef Albers, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Klein. I also read a short online article that Robert Mangold’s art also served as an inspiration for Sinatra. And while, like Sinatra, I admire all of these 20th-century artists, I don’t think that Sinatra’s art rivaled these other painters. I think some of his paintings are quite terrible, actually, not because it is derivative of another source but that the colors seem muddied and the brushwork is sloppy.

Some of Frank’s art seems more unique to me (although it could just be that I am not familiar with the original source!). Even though I don’t think that Frank was a fabulous painter, but I do really like this one, especially because of the dynamic shapes and lines used to create the stems and leaves of the flowers:

Frank Sinatra, Untitled, 1989. 38" x 42", collection of Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra, Untitled, 1989. 38″ x 42″, collection of Frank Sinatra

So looking at these paintings by Frank Sinatra, many of which are clearly derivative of other painters’ styles, makes me reflect back on Tony Bennett’s quote about how he thinks of Frank Sinatra as someone who “would…battle every hypocrite and phony who stood in the way of truth.” I don’t think that Frank saw himself as a “phony” when he heavily took inspiration from other artists, both in painting and also in singing. Tina Sinatra makes an interesting point that her dad “was the first to admit that he mimics what he’s seen, but, just as with music, it becomes Frank Sinatra’s because he stylizes it.”

I like this idea, because I like to think about how Frank Sinatra learned about the potential of crooning and singing softly into a microphone from his slightly-older predecessor Bing Crosby. And Frank took those basic aspects of family-man Crosby’s singing approach and then turned crooning into something sultry. Similarly, since Frank picked up Abstract Expressionism later on in life (especially in the 1980s, after the height of Abstract Expressionism ), he looked to visual art “predecessors” to explore the potential of visual expression. Although I still prefer the Abstract Expressionists over the paintings made by Frank Sinatra (I’m glad you didn’t quit your day job, Frank!), I can see how his work (like by combining the aesthetic of Ellsworth Kelly and Mark Rothko in a single painting) creates something new.

What do you think of Frank Sinatra’s art? Does his art remind you of his music?

1 Tony Bennett, “Sinatra” in Sinatra at 100 in LIFE special edition by Robert Sullivan and editors of LIFE, vol. 15, no. 18, November 27, 2015, p. 9. 

2 Tina Sinatra, A Man and His Art: Frank Sinatra (New York: Random House, Inc., 1991), ix.

Comments Off

Mr. Rockwell Goes to Hollywood

Norman Rockwell, "Portrait of Bing Crosby," 1966

Norman Rockwell, “Portrait of Bing Crosby,” 1966

I’m starting to wrap up the celebrities project that I’ve been working on for the past year – which means that my posts will likely not revolve around Hollywood quite so much! In trying to learn more about Bing Crosby’s interest in art, I stumbled across a portrait of Bing Crosby by Norman Rockwell. This was made in 1966, when Norman Rockwell painted a series of character portraits for the Twentieth Century Fox production of Stagecoach. The Norman Rockwell Museum explains that Bing Crosby’s character in the film, Doc Boone, is a drunken doctor. When sitting for the portrait, Bing Crosby picked up a bottle and caressed it, which gave Rockwell the “hook” needed to create a convincing sense of the character.

My other favorite portrait from this series is of Ann-Margret as the character “Dallas.” The color combination of the green costume with her red hair is very striking.

Norman Rockwell, "Portrait of Ann-Margaret," 1966

Norman Rockwell, “Portrait of Ann-Margaret,” 1966

The portraits were used for the end credits of the film, as well as on promotional material for the film like posters. Rockwell also painted a large, eight-foot mural of the set, which was used for promotional material as well.

Poster for "Stagecoach," 1966

Poster for “Stagecoach,” 1966

Interestingly, though, Norman Rockwell’s participation with Stagecoach didn’t end there. He also ended up participating on the set of the film too! At seventy-two years old, Rockwell was placed in the role of “Busted Flush” Rockwell. The Norman Rockwell Museum website explains that a Look magazine article discussed Rockwell’s character as “a mangy old gambler in cowboy costume, with a bad-guy black hat and high-heeled boots that hurt his feet.” Norman Rockwell is shown in the opening sequence of the show, seated at the gambling table (see 6:11 of this video of the film).

I like some of the photographs of Rockwell that were taken in his costume, including this one and this one (the expression of the latter image reminds me very much of his similarly-raised eyebrows in Triple Self-Portrait, 1959). Below is another photograph of Rockwell as “Busted Flush”:

Norman Rockwell as "Busted Flush" from Stagecoach (1966)

Norman Rockwell as “Busted Flush” from Stagecoach (1966)

Do you know of any other artists that had a role in both creating promotional material for a Hollywood film and also participating within the film too?

— 2 Comments

Marilyn Monroe and Art

Marilyn Monroe looking at a statue of Edgar Degas' "Little Dancer of Fourteen Years." Photo taken at William Goetz's house, 1956

Marilyn Monroe looking at a statue of Edgar Degas’ “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.” Photo taken at William Goetz’s house, 1956

For those who follow my blog, you may have noticed that I have been researching stars and celebrities of the mid-20th century over the past several months. Out of all of the people that I have studied thus far, Marilyn Monroe stands out as one of the people who is most interested in the Western artistic tradition. I was surprised to make this connection, because it never occurred to me that Marilyn would be interested in visual art.

As an art historian and educator, I especially enjoyed reading about Marilyn’s experience in taking an art appreciation class (one biographer writes that Marilyn’s class was at UCLA, but her autobiography says that the course was at the University of Southern California). In her autobiography, Marilyn shared her opinion of her art appreciation teacher and the course:

She was one of the most exciting human beings I had ever met. She talked about the Renaissance and made it sound ten times more important than the Studio’s biggest epic. I drank in everything she said. I met Michelangelo and Raphael and Tintoretto. There was a new genius to hear about every day.

At night I lay in bed at night wishing I could have lived in the Renaissance. Of course I would be dead now. But it seemed almost worth it.1

I was so touched to learn about the great impact that this teacher had on Marilyn Monroe. I can only hope to be as inspiring of an art instructor! After the course, Marilyn continued to learn about art, and I was especially amused at an anecdote about how she read a disappointing book about Goya (which, fortunately, didn’t hinder her enthusiasm for Goya’s art).

Marilyn Monroe posing with hairdresser Sidney Guilaroff's statue of the Discobolus ("Discus Thrower"). Photo by Milton Greene, 1956

Marilyn Monroe posing with hairdresser Sidney Guilaroff’s statue of the Discobolus (“Discus Thrower”). Photo by Milton Greene, 1956

To further her knowledge and experiences with art, Marilyn attended art exhibitions. She particularly liked the sculptor Rodin, and attended the 1955 exhibition of Rodin’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was recorded that she was particularly drawn to Pygmalion and Galatea and The Hand of God.2

rodin-the-hand-of-god-alternate

Auguste Rodin, "The Hand of God," modeled 1898, cast 1925, Rodin Museum

Auguste Rodin, “The Hand of God,” modeled 1898, cast 1925, Rodin Museum

In fact, Marilyn liked The Hand of God so much that she bought a bronze sculpture of in 1962 (similar to the one shown above), for more than one thousand dollars. This was the last year of Marilyn’s life, and her emotional well-being was already unraveling. She promptly brought the statue to her psychiatrist and engaged in a bizarre and troubling conversation in which she kept asking the doctor to tell her what he thought the work of art meant. I think it’s very interesting that Marilyn felt an affinity with this particular sculpture near the end of her difficult life: the Rodin Museum says that this hand was used as a study for Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais,” in which the hand gestures express farewell and despair.

Marilyn collected other art, too. I’m particularly intrigued that in July 1955, she purchased a bust of Queen Nefertiti for her Waldorf-Astoria apartment in New York (although I can’t find information as to whether this was an authentic bust or a copy of the famous bust located in the Neues Museum in Berlin). As a well-established symbol of feminine beauty, it is intriguing to me that she would be drawn to an idealized image of Egyptian beauty.

Does anyone know what becaome of Marilyn’s art collection? Was it dispersed along with other parts of her estate?

1 Marilyn Monroe and Ben Hecht, My Story (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield) p. 139-140. Available online at: https://books.google.com/books?id=VbOIqnTRumIC&lpg=PP1&dq=marilyn%20monroe%20my%20story&pg=PA139#v=onepage&q&f=false

2 Anthony Summers, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. Available online at: https://books.google.com/books?id=g8gJZltbC2MC&lpg=PP1&dq=goddess%20marilyn%20monroe&pg=PT242#v=onepage&q&f=false

Comments Off

Oskar Kokoschka and Adele Astaire

Fred and Adele Astaire, 1929

Fred and Adele Astaire, 1929

Lately I’ve been reading The Astaires: Fred and Adele by Kathleen Riley. I knew a little about Fred Astaire’s career with Ginger Rogers before starting this book, but I didn’t really know anything about his successful stage career with his older sister, Adele. In many respects, it seems like the critics really considered Adele to be the true star of the duo, not Fred.

Adele attracted many admirers and fans, including the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. While visiting London, Kokoschka met Adele backstage and asked if he could paint her portrait. She agreed and twice a week, for two months, Adele went to Kokoschka’s studio for sittings. However, the painter and the dancer did not get along well. Adele “disliked Kokoschka’s lascivious manner and resented his refusal to let her see the work in progress.”1 She disliked the finished portrait (which she finally saw years later!), and frankly, with the disproportion of the figure’s facial features and head, I can see why. The balloony head lacks the intensity and immediacy that is found in some of Kokoschka’s other portraits.

Kokoschka, "Adele Astaire," 1926.

Oskar Kokoschka, “Adele Astaire,” 1926.

Open sheet music and a piano are located on the left side of the painting, next to Adele.She also is flanked by her Aberdeen Scottish terrier on the right and an image of Leda and the Swan on the left. I can’t find out why Kokoschka specifically would have included Leda within this image: perhaps this was a way to suggest Adele as a desirable, or perhaps Kokoschka liked this subject matter (since his does return to it at least one other time in his career).

The painting was discussed in a TIME article which was dedicated to Kokoschka (5 May 1958). Adele was interviewed for the article and expressed her dislike of the painting. And three weeks after the article was published, Fred Astaire wrote a letter to the editor of TIME magazine to express his opinion of the painting:

Sir:

With your permission, I’d like to give my opinion of the Kokoschka picture of my sister (mentioned in the May 5th Art section). I think it’s a hideous mess. As great an artist as this man may be today, he certainly goofed in 1926. My sister is a very pretty girl.

Fred Astaire, BEVERLY HILLS3

I haven’t been able to come across much information about Fred’s thoughts on visual art, so I think that this letter is especially precious. And I can’t agree more: I think Adele’s portrait is “a hideous mess” too. I like to imagine that Adele might have humorously made this type of gesture when she finally was able to see Kokoschka’s portrait:

Adele Astaire Thumbing Nose, n.d.

Adele Astaire Thumbing Nose, n.d.

1 For more description and discussion of this painting, see Kathleen Riley, The Astaires: Fred and Adele, p. 110. Available online HERE.

2 Ibid.

3 Fred Astaire, “She Was Framed,” TIME, 26 May 1958.

— 5 Comments

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.

— 4 Comments

Email Subscription

An email notification will be sent whenever a new post appears on this site.
Name
Email *

Archives

About

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.