Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Brief History of Portraiture

Cover of Eye To I exhibition catalog, © Katonah Museum of Art
To help us prepare to lead tours and discuss the artwork, the Katonah Museum of Art prepared extensive materials for the docents to read and learn.  One item included in the packet was a brief history of portraiture which I was asked to write.  I am sharing the essay here.

Most art historians agree that the history of portraiture does not begin with prehistoric cave paintings.  These paintings are believed to be either part of a hunting ritual or a storytelling process, and animals figure prominently in the works.   Instead, the history of portraiture began when the human figure became the central focus of the artwork.

The ancient Egyptians are credited with the start of portraiture as they carved and painted images of deities and the pharaohs, who were accepted as living gods.  For centuries, gods and deified leaders were the only acceptable subjects for portraiture. During medieval times, organized religion in both Europe and Asia gained power and financial wealth.  Portraiture boomed under the patronage of Western and Eastern religious leadership, leading artists to create images of God, Buddha, and faith-based stories in as many mediums as possible, from paintings and sculpture, to stained-glass windows and temple adornments.

During the European Renaissance the aristocracy began its patronage of the arts and with that, a wider range of subjects became acceptable for artists.  In addition to pursuing the perfection of the human form (as opposed to the perfection of divinity), the development of oil-based paints enabled artists to experiment with color, light and shadow.  Brush strokes and the use of perspective expanded artists’ personal style; placing subjects in natural and home settings allowed for even more expansive methods of expression.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, portraiture became a favorite in Colonial America.  Early American artists focused on life in the new world, painting American subjects and leaders.  Those unable to afford a large personal work either commissioned a miniature portrait or a silhouette, a profile picture created with light and shadow.  In Europe, artists were influenced either by Romanticism or Neoclassicism.   Neoclassicists continued to celebrate the human form, but simplified the backgrounds in an attempt to create an unembellished view of the person or event.  Romantics, on the other hand, venerated the “Romantic Hero” -- a character or subject elevated to the status of epic hero – and placed their subjects in more evocative settings with more saturated colors.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, artists were no longer restricted on subject matter.  Artists placed their chosen subjects in whatever settings and poses suited them, enabling artists to explore light, color, brush stroke, the perceived psyche of their subject, mediums, and style.  Self-portraits became more common and flaws were not disguised or hidden.  By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, portraiture had reached a point in which the artist’s style became more important than the subject of the painting.  Artists came to be seen as interpreters, both of the subject matter and of the world at large. 

Portraiture experienced a lull as abstraction and conceptual art became the rage. However, portraiture re-emerged as pop-art artists made use of cultural references in their work, enabling viewers to further interpret the art based on their own biases and experiences.  Today, with the opportunity to explore any subject in any setting, artists have endless inspiration for portraiture.  Portraiture is accessible and created by the masses with an abundance of “selfies” circulating the Internet, proving that portraiture remains a beguiling and robust means of artistic expression.
© Vivien Zepf

Because the museum's education department wanted the summary to fit on one page, I couldn't be as expansive about some art movements as I would have liked.  I also wasn't able to cover everything; a notable absence here is tribal artwork from areas such as Africa or the Arctic Inuit culture.  However, the research I did to prepare for and write this essay was very helpful to my own knowledge base, and I am thrilled they chose to share it with all the docents.  

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Political Statements

I'm pleased and honored to announce that A Show of Hands was juried into The Linus Galleries' on-line exhibition, Political Statements.  You can see all the artwork selected for the on-line exhibition here.

A Show of Hands, 2012, 18" x 96"
A Show of Hands is my eight foot tall totem about voting.  It has the verbiage of most of the amendments concerning voting stamped across the surface, along with a compelling statement by Dwight D. Eisenhower, "The future of this Republic is in the hands of the American voter".  In addition to the language, I thread sketched outlines of hands as homage to our earliest method of voting: by a show of hands.

Detail, A Show of Hands, 2012
I am so pleased that this piece has found a place to be seen outside of my studio.  I'm equally thrilled that my textile piece was selected; it appears to have been the only fiber art juried into the 47 piece on-line show. Even if it doesn't make it into the brick and mortar exhibition scheduled for February, I'm honored to have been included.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Art without My Studio

This last week was filled with art, even though I never made it into my studio.  I took an endless number of pictures of my garden that somehow is still full of showy blossoms this late in October.  I took pictures with colors that aren't retouched and also played with filters on my camera:

Orange Sombrero echinacea

Lovely Red Rose

Black and white Geranium Heart

Sepia Rose

I went to the Met with my eldest daughter who was home on Fall break:

Unknown school girl looking elegant in a toga

I discovered Francesco Guardi, The Grand Canal Above Rialto, ca. 1760
He was an master painter of "views" and his name translates to "You see"

I also discovered a bit of humor in the Temple of Dendur: the artist was (it is assumed) supposed to create mirror reliefs, but in this image, he had one of the birds bite the wrist of the man holding it.

I had another docent training session for the upcoming portraiture exhibition opening this week at the Katonah Museum of Art.  More on that in the next few days, but suffice it to say that I am getting more and more excited about this exhibition.

I also marveled in Mother Nature's gorgeous Fall display, taking more pictures, of course.

On the trail during an early morning hike

By the side of a parking lot

The Hudson and the Palisades

Complementary colors

Red Oak

Ahh, a great week...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Almost Wordless Wednesday

Pumpkin doors -- not enhanced or retouched...

Thursday, October 17, 2013

When Art and Science Collide

At our first docent training session for the upcoming portraiture exhibition, one of the KMA curators mentioned that she read Eric R. Kandel's book, The Age of Insight, as part of her research.  Mr. Kandel is a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is University Professor and Kavli Professor at Columbia University and a Senior Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  He is also founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.

What does all this have to do with art?  Well, Mr. Kandel's book discusses how the burgeoning science of the mind influenced art in Vienna from 1890 to 1918.  In addition, "The dialogue and the ongoing research in brain science and art continue to this day. They have given us an initial understanding of the processes at work in the brain of the beholder -- the viewer -- as he or she looks at a work of art."  (p. xiv)

In Vienna at the start of the twentieth century, the onset of the field of psychology influenced the Viennese modernists to concern themselves more with the psyche of their subjects than rendering a realistic representation of their subject.  This new path was facilitated because artists, intellectuals, and medical professionals met, discussed, and debated new movements in each of their fields. 

"In the 1930s scholars at the Vienna School of Art History were instrumental in in advancing the modernist agenda of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele.  They emphasized that the function of the modern artist was not to convey beauty, but to convey new truths.  In addition, the Vienna School of Art History, influenced in part by Sigmund Freud's psychological work, began to develop a science-based psychology of art that was initially focused on the beholder."  (p. xvi)

I've learned all this in just the preface to the 515 page book.  I'm so intrigued that I ordered my own copy of the book so I can write in the margins and take my time absorbing all it all.  Next up: Part 1 -- A Psychoanalytic Psychology and Art of Unconscious Emotion.

I don't know what that means, but I'll let you know when I do.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Describing Art

Image from Orange County Register Arts Blog, 2007

In addition to learning how to be a docent, and learning all there is to know about the upcoming portraiture exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art, I've also done a bit of writing for them.

One of the assignments was targeted at school groups.  My job was to describe a particular work of art so students could draw their own version at school, based on what I'd written.  The students would try to find that piece when they arrived at the museum.  From there, the students, teachers, and docents could discuss if the artwork was what the students expected;  if they felt all the relevant details were present;  if, upon seeing the artwork, they would have written the description differently.

I discovered that this was a great exercise in seeing.  Carefully looking at a piece of artwork is a helpful process whether you're describing it to someone else or not.  Discerning what makes it unique is invaluable in appreciating an artist's style and understanding what makes the art special.  It's also a great way learn about composition, line, and detail.

I encourage you to try your own version of this exercise the next time you go to an exhibition with a friend.  Select a piece of art, one that your friend hasn't already seen.  Describe it and then ask your friend to turn around and view the art.  See if the picture they formed in their mind, the perception they have of the art, matches up with the reality before them.  You might discover some insight into how you see and what details you feel are critical to the essence of a work.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thinking of Lisa Quintana

In memory of Lisa Quintana, who loved flowers as much as art

Promise me you'll always remember: you're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.  -- A. A. Milne

Lisa was inspired by this quote during her last battle with cancer.  Today is her funeral and I'm thinking of her, thankful that I had a chance to know her.

I think there are two saying which come to mind and I didn’t know about them until this go-around… One is from A. A. Milne in Winnie the Pooh: “Promise me you’ll always remember: you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” - See more at: think there are two saying which come to mind and I didn’t know about them until this go-around… One is from A. A. Milne in Winnie the Pooh: “Promise me you’ll always remember: you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” - See more at: is from A. A. Milne in Winnie the Pooh: “Promise me you’ll always remember: you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” - See more at: is from A. A. Milne in Winnie the Pooh: “Promise me you’ll always remember: you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” - See more at: is from A. A. Milne in Winnie the Pooh: “Promise me you’ll always remember: you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” - See more at:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Chagall and Matisse Close to Home

Yesterday I took my mother-in-law who is visiting from Ohio to the Union Church of Pocantico Hills to see the stained glass windows.  I've wanted to go for years, but never made the time.   The church's literature says "the windows represent the last completed work of Henri Matisse and the only cycle of Chagall church windows in America."  Wow...

The windows were commissioned by members of the Rockefeller family and they are just glorious.  The large window at the back of the church was inspired by the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan and was meant as a tribute to the life of John D. Rockefeller, Jr by his children.  Seen from the outside, you only get a hint of the fabulous work inside.

Chagall's stained glass window at the Union Church in Pocantico Hills.  The glass is protected from the elements, flying storm debris and human error (such as the neighborhood boy who once shot a BB gun pellet through the window) by an extra protective glass

The Good Samaritan, Marc Chagall, 1964
Seen from within, the glass is absolutely beautiful. I was just itching to take a picture, but photos weren't allowed.  Instead, I have this scan of a postcard of the large window, which I don't believe adequately shows the glow of the late afternoon fall sunlight.

The windows along the sanctuary are all Chagall's interpretations of select Biblical verses illustrating the lives of prophets.  I particularly liked the window depicting the prophet Jeremiah, not so much for the verse (Lamentations 3:1-9), but for the colors and the emotion I felt it conveyed.

Jeremiah, Marc Chagall, 1966
The elderly gentleman who was giving a tour of the church said that he liked to think that this window showed a world all upside down, with the sky below and the earth above.  I hadn't noticed that to start, but I like to think that he's right.  We'll never really know, however, because Chagall is quoted as saying, "Let people see in them [the windows] whatever hidden meaning they imagine."

Chagall created all the windows in the Atelier Jacques Simon in Reims, France. He first drew a life-size rendering of each window and then artisans fabricated the glass according to this drawing.  At the end of the process, Chagall painted the images onto the glass.  Once complete, the windows were dismantled and reassembled in the church.

The Rose Window, Henri Matisse
Matisse's window is above the altar.  He utilized his technique of paper cut-out shapes to create the design.  In the absence of pictures, I'm sharing the image from the brochure which I think shows the depth of the glass pretty well.  At the time, Matisse wrote this was an enjoyable challenge, "to express myself in a defined and limited space and to harmonize my composition, not only with the actual framework, but also with the atmosphere of the chapel."  Matisse's window was fabricated by the Atelier Hebert-Stevens, Paul Bony in Paris. 

This little side trip reminds me of all the opportunities to see art that I have access to in the area.  Art trips don't need to be time-consuming to be wonderful and worthwhile.  I just need to go.  What would be best would be to make plans and write them in my calendar.  I'll have no excuse then.   Do you regularly schedule time for art trips?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Name Calling

What did you just call me?

There's another kerfuffle on the SAQA internet group.  Along with changes to the website and membership category benefits, the SAQA Board changed the name of one of the membership levels to "supporting member".

By the nature of their emails, I could envision angry members yelling at their computers and standing in protest over the new title.   Complaints flew fast and furious.  The new title was "demeaning" and "insulting".


I read about the changes, I read the new title, and I didn't even pause.  I was more interested in seeing how the restructuring might affect my membership.  Even after the name change was really called to my attention, I still couldn't muster up an objection to it.

I really don't care what I'm called as a member. Well, that's not entirely true.  I would feel demeaned if I was put in the "poop group", relegated there because someone felt my artwork was crap.  Yep, that would trigger on my sensitivity meter.  "Supporting member" .... nope, not a blip.

I didn't join SAQA so that I could feel better about whatever title the organization gave me according to my donation status.  I don't understand how "supporting member" is more demeaning than the old title, "active member".  I can understand how some members believe "artist" should be somewhere in the name but since it wasn't there before, I really can't get too excited.

Perhaps I have a thick skin and it takes a lot more than being called "supporting" to get my ire up.  My family was the first immigrant family in the neighborhood when I was growing up.  My parents had accents and I came to school with funny food.  My clothes were clearly hand-me-downs.  The names flung at me then were cruel and hurtful.  I know in my bones what's insulting and demeaning and there's always malicious intent behind it.  "Supporting member" doesn't make the cut for me.

I understand that folks want recognition for their accomplishments.  I know folks want credit for their hard work.  However, I don't think that being called a "supporting member" diminishes any of that.  Why is it so important?

I welcome feedback to help me understand why this change is so much worse than the old name, "active member".  I just don't get it.  I know insulting and demeaning, and this time doesn't qualify in my mind.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Eye of the Quilter

I'm pleased to report that three of my photographs will be part of the Flora and Fauna, Eye of the Quilter exhibition at the International Quilt Festival in Houston next month.  If you're going, please be on the lookout for

Dragonfly by the Shore

Poppy Head in the Rain

and, Poppy