Thomas Nast’s ‘Central Park in Winter’

Two scenes, showing skating and sleighing in Central Park. The top panel includes drawings of James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley
For the January 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast drew a many-paneled illustration of Central Park in winter.  Like many of his works, this one featured a large central drawing, surrounded by smaller vignettes in round and elliptical frames.  The main drawing shows New Yorkers ice-skating on Central Park’s Pond.  (The Park was then only a few years old.)  Below that is a rather wild sleighing scene, in which genteel New Yorkers ride through a desolate terrain, as urchins throw snowballs or rocks at them.

The opening of Central Park coincided with ice-skating’s growing popularity, which took hold in earnest in the 1850s.  The Park was most heavily visited in winter, when its pond became crowded with thousands of skaters, whose activities Nast captures here in wonderful detail.  (Note the woman in the skating chair.)

Perhaps inevitably, Nast’s wonderland contains some politics, too.  Two months earlier, President Lincoln had been reelected as an inconclusive Civil War dragged on, inflicting terrible casualties.  New York, being a commercial center, had always viewed the war with ambivalence.  The conflict was contrary to the city’s interests, disrupting a lucrative trade with the South on which New York’s economy relied.  While many New Yorkers were ardent Unionists and Republicans, the city also had a large Democratic constituency, including a politically active immigrant population, which resented the war, the federal government, and the fuss about slaves.  Many, wishing a return to peace, had lately voted for Lincoln’s challenger, Democrat George McClellan.

Anger over the federal government’s war policies had boiled into violence the previous July.  New York became the scene of bloody draft riots, in which rioters lynched at least 11 blacks and 120 people were killed in street fighting between protesters and the police.  Poor whites were inflamed against a draft bill that Congress had recently passed: while ostensibly requiring all fit men to serve in the Union military, it contained a loophole that wealthier Northerners would use to evade the draft: arranging for a replacement by paying a bounty.

In the foreground of his skating scene, Nast (who ardently supported Lincoln and the war) highlights several figures, including a military man at the far left wearing a kepi—a reminder of high-minded Northerners voluntarily leading the Union effort as officers.  At right are two prominent New York newspaper editors, James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley, who have run into trouble on proverbially thin ice.  Greeley is teetering, while Bennett has fallen, both near a hole signifying treachery.  Bennett had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln and proponent of McClellan, whereas Greeley, while fitfully supportive of the war, had recently embarrassed the Lincoln administration by engaging in bogus ‘peace negotiations’ with some Confederate representatives who turned out to be fakes.

Both editors, though overwhelmingly influential, earned Nast’s scorn because they were feckless peace-mongers.  To have ended the Civil War through a settlement at that juncture would have rendered the suffering of the soldiers in vain.

Their presence heightens the allegorical meaning of the left side of the tableau, where three figures guard the safety of the family and society.  Besides the Union officer, who holds a small boy in his arms, Nast’s own editor Fletcher Harper (with mutton-chop whiskers) stands over a young girl protectively, while a third man (unidentified, but probably a prominent editor, too) deferentially greets a woman standing at the edge of the ice.  Nast depicts these figures as both benevolent and patriotic.  Harper gave Nast a venue for his pro-Union and radically egalitarian views.

So what at first glance passes for an innocuous pleasure scene is a comment on specific editors, and a paean to the value of virtuous editors in a conflict-ridden time.

Image from this source.


The Neapolitan Crèche

The Neopolitan Creche at the Art Institute
There is something particularly wonderful about gazing on the Nativity as presented in the Art Institute’s Neapolitan Crèche.  Housed in a small, darkened gallery on the museum’s second floor, the crèche is displayed in a way that heightens its inherent magic and mystery.  The effect owes something to the dramatic glass case that contains the nativity scene and the splendid cornice above it: their beaming draws viewers near to inspect the fantastic spectacle framed within their proscenium.  Before this gigantic dollhouse of a crèche, adults stand and stare as if they were kids.

Detail showing the variety of mortal and heavenly beings the creche displays.
The urge to represent Jesus’s birth in a ‘living way,’ whether through tableaux vivants, Christmas pageants, or three-dimensional crèches has spanned more than a millennium.  While two-dimensional depictions of the nativity date from within several centuries of Jesus’s death, the history of the crèche is associated with the work of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Legend has it that, around 1223, he originated the custom of re-enacting the story of Jesus’s birth using human actors along with live oxen and ass.  This tradition of pageantry grew and became intertwined with the custom of creating of lasting sculptural representations of the Holy Family’s arrival in Bethlehem and the unlikely birth of Jesus in a stable, an event whose significance was apprehended, according to Gospel, only by angels, shepherds, and three wise men.

By the 18th century, when most of the Art Institute’s crèche was made, the artists of Naples had pushed the art form of crèche-making to unprecedented heights.  Patrons commissioned the artists to make crèches for palaces and cathedrals, encouraging the growth of a genre that became ever more elaborate and expansive.  The Art Institute’s crèche includes some 250 figures—an amazing array of mortal and heavenly beings, all shaped, painted, and outfitted in lifelike detail.

Detail, Neapolitan creche (early 18th century)Significantly, the crèche integrates the transformative moment of Jesus’s birth with the ongoing drama of human society.  Naples was cosmopolitan, and the crèche includes people of many sorts and nationalities.  As a host of angels and cherubs flutters down out of a hand-painted sky, and as Mary and Joseph beam on their newborn son, the surrounding human family parties on.  The crèche’s conflation of past and present, its melding of spiritual joy with the worldly, is very much in keeping with the transcendent possibilities told of in Christmas’s original, earthy story.

The crèche is a relatively new acquisition of the Art Institute.
It can be seen in Gallery 209 through January 8, 2017.
Click here for more information.

Maidens Speed-Skate, 1809

Women racing on ice skates in 1809.
‘At a women’s skating race in Leeuwarden [the Netherlands] in 1809, the crowd watched sixty-four unmarried women vie for a gold cap-brooch. The winner was Houkje Gerrits Bouma. For greater ease, many had thrown off their cloaks. Baur painted the finalists with bare arms, a jettisoned cloak on the ice. It left little to men’s imagination and caused an outcry; therefore it was the last women’s race for many years.’


Image: Nicolaas Baur (Dutch, 1767-1820)
‘Women’s Skating Competition on the Stadsgracht in Leeuwarden, 21 January 1809’
Rijks Museum via Wikimedia Commons

This is the ninth in an occasional series of posts on ice-skating.
Click here to go to the first post.

February 12–Lincoln’s Birthday

Thomas Fogarty's "February 12--Lincoln's Birthday," 1901 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).
Drawing by Thomas Fogarty, originally published in Collier’s on February 9, 1901.

Fogarty (1873-1938) imagines a group of female well-wishers paying Lincoln their respects on his birthday.  Girls and a fashionable lady cluster affectionately about the president, who holds a beaming child on his arm.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Click here to learn more.


Sisterhood on ice

A circle of girls and young women on the ice.
As ice-skating became a leading pastime in the 1860s, pictures of ice-skating and ice-skaters proliferated in the popular press, recording its impact on society.  Looking at such pictures, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that skating represented something special in the lives of women, while also violating existing norms.  If skating let women escape a certain social confinement, it rendered them more vulnerable, too.  Ice-skating, though fun and bold, exposed women to certain perils, among them a mixing of classes and sexes that nineteenth-century society was set up to avoid.

This print by Winslow Homer (1836-1910) encapsulates such strains.  Continue reading

Philadelphia on ice

Colorful lithograph showing skaters crowding the ice near the Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1856.
The winter of 1856 was one of the coldest in the nineteenth century.  It was so cold that the Ohio River froze solid from bank to bank, creating a path for southern slaves to escape, just as Harriet Beecher Stove had envisioned in Uncle Tom’s Cabin two years before.  Elsewhere, the long stretches of cold weather created favorable conditions for Americans’ new favorite pastime, ice-skating, then enjoying great burst of popularity.

This scene, of city-dwellers crowding the ice on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, furnishes a gauge of the strength of the trend.  For though ice skating had been practiced for centuries, until 1850, skate blades were crafted only of wood or bone.  A Philadelphia businessman, Edward W Bushnell, is credited with revolutionizing the sport of skating, by being the first to manufacture a blade of steel.  Strapped and clamped to the bottoms of shoes, the sharp metal blades gave skaters unprecedented speed and control.

The excitement was considerable as the innovation took hold.  The Quakers of Philadelphia had always carried on their hereditary skating traditions, but steel skates led to many novelties.  By the time lithographer James Fuller Queen captured this scene, many men and boys had paid up for the new skates, which were very expensive at $30 a pair.  Most of the ladies and townspeople pictured are spectators only, standing still as bold skaters thread their way through the crowd.

According to John Frederick Lewis, author of Skating and the Philadelphia Skating Club (1895), a Miss Van Dyke, daughter of James C Van Dyke, US attorney for Philadelphia, was the first woman in Philadelphia to appear on skates; she “rapidly became skillful and expert” in 1854.  Other ladies followed her lead, making skating fashionable, once concerns about safety and possible harassment from ruffians had been cleared away.

Image: from this source.
Click on the image for a much larger view.

This is the third in an occasional series on ice-skating.  Click here to go to the first post.

Jamaica Pond ice-skaters, 1859

A crowd of men, women, and children skate under a cloudy sky.

In the 1850s, a rage for dancing and ice-skating swept America.  Both the ball room and the surface of an icy pond offered antebellum northerners a way to escape the stiff conventionality of everyday society and discover different ways of moving and being.

This beautiful old print, a 1859 view of skaters on Jamaica Pond outside Boston, captures this well.  Look closely and you may see a lady with a hockey stick.

The hazards of the ice justified the suspension of some proprieties.  Top hats flew as gentlemen lost their dignity.  Beneath the ladies’ long, voluminous skirts, their calves and ankles were plainly showing.  Shocking!

While some women in the picture are wearing the floor-length skirts typical of the time, others are wearing shorter skating skirts which were more novel, freer and more daring.

Image: from this source.  Click to enlarge.

This is the first in an occasional series on ice skating.  Click forward to see the others.

‘Summertime 1944’

Frederick Boulton's watercolor "Summertime 1944) shows the back yard of a home on Chicago's north shore.

We saw this beautiful watercolor in an antique store and were immediately drawn to its vibrant color and technique.  Bob liked it because it was a ‘happy’ picture.  Its subject, the lush backyard of a suburban home in summer, was familiar.  The back yard turns out to have been on Chicago’s North Shore—perhaps in Lake Forest or Highland Park, where the water-colorist, Frederick William Boulton, lived for several decades.

Boulton (1904-1969) was born in Mishawaka, Indiana, the son of a Lutheran minister.  He came to Chicago to study at the Art Institute and the American Academy of Art, completing his studies in Paris at the esteemed Académie Julian.  Returning to Chicago, he embarked in 1923 on a career as a commercial artist with J Walter Thompson, the ad agency.

Boulton was successful, becoming an art director and vice president at JWT, while continuing to paint in his spare time.  He founded the Art Directors’ Club of Chicago and was honored as art director of the year by the National Society of Art Directors in 1955.  According to the Highland Park Public Library, which owns one of his paintings, he lived in the Braeside area of Highland Park from 1938 until the late 1950s.


‘Summertime 1944′ has a signed inscription—’As George remembers it.  And fondly dedicated to him’— that adds interest and charm to what we see.  The house and garden, if lifeless, are perfect.  The grass is manicured, the landscape and patio glowing with order and beauty.  Whether painted in the summer of 1944 or later, this elegant depiction of a place ‘George’ knew well may well have been intended to make him smile or laugh.

Does ‘Summertime 1944’ faithfully represent a place and a moment, or is it an idealized souvenir of a past that never was, or was no longer, as tranquil and perfect as memory deemed?  Whatever the case, its paean to the joys of home still sings.

American Scenes

1839 Engraving of Northampton, Massachusetts, based on a drawing by W. H. Bartlett (photo: Susan Barsy)

While I was out of town over Thanksgiving, I bought this hand-colored engraving in an antique shop in Milwaukee.  I’m not even sure why.  Partly because the print is so old—1839—and was made at a time when printed pictures were still something of a rarity.  This picture is a steel-engraved print to which color was added by hand after its printing.  It shows the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, a place that I see through this print for the first time.

Back when the print was made, ‘media,’ as we call it now, was at a simpler stage.  There were newspapers (without illustrations).  There were letters (which circulated privately).  Photographs were just coming into being, but they were laborious to make and couldn’t be reproduced—every photographic image was unique and singular, bound to metal or glass of some kind.  So this type of engraving, which was becoming increasingly viable as a ‘mass medium,’ was a spectacular technological breakthrough, enabling printers and artists to share visual information with a broad audience for the first time.  Short of traveling, looking at an engraving or lithograph was about the only way a person could glimpse a place far away.

This picture of Northampton was printed in London by George C. Virtue (1794-1868), whose publishing company specialized in such scenes.  He worked with the artist, William Henry Bartlett (1809-1854), also English, who traveled widely, depicting the sights, landscapes, and peoples of America, Europe, and the Middle East.  Various engravers then had the job of rendering Bartlett’s drawings; in the case of the Northampton print, the engraver credited was one “R. Sands.”  Virtue published black-and-white versions of the etchings in books, the most famous of these being the 1840 volume, American Scenery.  The engravings were exotic in that they depicted places most viewers had never seen.  Bartlett’s subjects included large American cities and the most famous US buildings (such as the White House and the Capitol), as well as many small towns and other spots of scenic interest.

How soothing yet tantalizing such limited glimpses would be!  Imagine if this were the whole of my knowledge of Northampton: a prosperous place, with decent buildings—a wide verandah to lounge on, a steeple to contemplate, birds fluttering on the baluster, noble trees like something out of a Longfellow poem.  A pink house gleaming at the end of the green.

Click on image to enlarge.

On Getty’s Mountain

Visiting the Getty Center in Los Angeles was one of the high points of the season now ending.  Although I’d read a lot about this museum and its architecture over the years, still I was unprepared for the aesthetic vision it embodies.

I’d never been to a museum where the building and setting so overwhelmed the art that it housed.  We all know that the Getty Center is a relatively recent creation of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and that the Trust, with an endowment of some $6.2 billion, is the world’s wealthiest visual arts institution.  The Getty Center is the younger sibling of the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades—the classical pavilion that J. Paul Getty had built in the 1960s to house his personal collection of art and antiquities.  The Getty Center, nestled atop a mountain near Bel Air, opened its doors in 1997, by which time Getty had been dead some 20 years.

The buildings of the Getty campus rise above Interstate 405.
Wealth frees the Getty Center from many of the constraints and worries that plague other museums.  Transportation via tram up the hill to the museum, admission to the galleries, even audio tours are all free.  The Getty makes no effort to merchandise its art (its gift shop is minuscule) and has set up an ‘open content program‘ facilitating the sharing and circulation of digital copies of works in its collections deemed to be in the public domain or to which the Getty itself holds the rights.  In short, its art is not treated as property.

Visitors to the Getty Center in the tram pavilion.
For these and other reasons, a trip to the top of Getty’s mountain has the character of an elevating journey.  An unlikely one, too, for the visit begins in an unceremonious way, with cabs and cars circling an underground depot built into the bottom of a hill, where they disgorge passengers, as guards bark directions and urge them to keep moving.  A growing crowd mills around a severely plain open-air pavilion, looking for someone to pay, and filing into line when docents tell them they are to wait for a train.

The Getty Center's lower tram station, © 2014 Susan Barsy
The tram line and the gardens around it are elegant and spiffy.  There is a perfectly straight row of blooming crepe myrtle trees outside.  Metal gleams gold out in a sculpture garden that most of us are too excited and distracted to study.

Passengers board the Getty Center tram.
The train—a sleek pilotless funicular—arrives, and we all pile on.  We ascend, snaking quietly up the steep side of a manicured mountain, as the adjacent highway and bland everyday world fall away.

Getty tram plaza, © 2014 Susan Barsy
On foot now, visitors climb the broad stairs to the campus of monumental buildings.  An oddly communal feeling prevails as fellow-travelers disperse to explore the grounds, galleries, and terraces of what architect Richard Meier seems to have conceived of as a modern temple complex.  The museum, temporary exhibitions, Getty Research Institute, and the Trust’s administrative offices occupy several interlocking buildings that give onto courtyards, gardens, and walkways.  Everywhere are striking views of the landscape, gardens, ocean, and city.

Looking down onto the cafe and the vista beyond.

People looking out from the Getty, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Looking west from a terrace at the Getty, © 2014 Susan Barsy
Often, these views are peopled with, well, people looking, which is chiefly what makes the experience so charming.  It isn’t just the beauty of nature, or the splendor of the Getty itself, but the spectacle of humans instinctively engaged in a cultural quest.  A spirit of exploration and enjoyment prevails.

Inside the Getty, © 2014 Susan Barsy
Inside, the Getty is like any other museum.  My priority was to see the painting collection, which is arranged chronologically in a chain of second-floor galleries.  Since its inception, the Getty Trust has had a reputation for building its collections by being the top bidder for masterpieces, acquiring many gems to fill out the collections its founding patron bequeathed.  The collection still has a thin institutional feel.  It doesn’t convey the intimate thrill one gets from viewing the Phillips Collection in DC; nor does it offer the quirky bricolage of the best larger museums, where the passions of many individual collectors have given the collections distinctive shapes and strengths over time.

    Detail, "The Deposition," by a follower of Rogier van der Weyden (circa 1490), The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Photograph by Susan Barsy.

Detail, “The Deposition,” by a follower of Rogier van der Weyden (circa 1490), The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Photograph by Susan Barsy.

That said, the Getty’s holdings reward careful looking.  Many of the paintings are glorious—the religious paintings, old Dutch and Flemish works, and some of the French paintings, particularly.

Detail of Jacques-Louis David's "The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte," at The Getty Center Los Angeles.

Detail of Jacques-Louis David’s “The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte,” at The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Photograph by Susan Barsy.

The painting collection is strictly European and ends abruptly around 1870—just when art and society got interestingly messy.  It is strange to see the story of painting told without anything modern or American.  As it is, the permanent collection comports with the Center’s larger identity as a steward of an idealized world of order and beauty.  Meanwhile, out in the garden, life goes on.

Kids playing on the Getty grounds.

Bougainvillea arbors by the Getty's Central Garden, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Human journey, © 2014 Susan Barsy