Martin Johnson Heade, Gremlin in the Studio I, 1871-1875, and Gremlin in the Studio II, 1865-1875, A Certain Kind of Reality

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Martin Johnson Heade, Gremlin in the Studio I, ca. 1865-75, the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT. Photograph by Author. 

Unpacking meaning from Martin Johnson Heade’s Gremlin in the Studio I, 1871-1875, and II, 1865-1875, presents a comical challenge which lends itself toward studies on trompe l’oeil, American Transcendentalism, Idealism, and the humorous personality of the artist. The works are multivalent as representations of trompe l’oeil and landscape exist within the same scenes. Throughout Heade’s career we see his amazing ability to depict reality through his renderings of nature. His skill in portraying the subject is best seen in his flower studies, hummingbird works, and landscapes. The Gremlin in the Studio works present a shift away from this method of constructing paintings. Evident in these works is Heade’s self awareness of the inherent idealism within the composition of landscape paintings during the late nineteenth century. Heade makes an impactful statement by combining Transcendental principles with a humorous depiction in order to suggest an awareness concerning the over idealization of the American landscape.

Martin Johnson Heade is a particularly challenging artist because his works can only tangentially be described as Hudson River School. The specific pieces in his oeuvre which can be lightly categorized in this way are his haystack scenes. These classifications tie into the notion that the Gremlin in the Studio paintings are a reflective comment on the hyper reality other artists in the movement were notorious for depicting. In Albert Bierstadt’s, Rocky Mountain Lander’s Peak, 1863, it is obvious the artist took liberties with the illustration of landscape. There is a sense of accuracy in the minutiae while the overall scene lends itself toward imaginative artistic license. By including the gremlin below the typical haystack scene, there is an amusing acknowledgement that these works are, in fact, paintings and not pictures of actual landscapes. The sawhorses and gremlin achieve a literal representation of impossibility which makes light of the idealism inherent in the works of other prominent Hudson River School artists.

The Transcendental views of Ralph Waldo Emerson were fundamental to American philosophy in the late nineteenth century. The importance self reliance is an imperative aspect of this concept and is well reflected when Emerson writes, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” Heade’s physical painting of the gremlin allows for his own self awareness to enter into the discussion of these works and connects nicely to Emerson’s statement. By illustrating this figure, the painting becomes infused with Heade’s views.  His own thoughts on the imagery of landscape are reflected through his conscious choice to paint these gremlins. This is indicative of his own Transcendental genius. Through Heade’s own original vision, the painting becomes reliant on his perceptions. This is substantiated through the implications exemplified through the gremlins relationships to their above haystack landscapes. In these associations, the awareness of the artist as an active participant in the creation of these scenes comes to the forefront of the conversation and promotes the intellect of Heade’s artistic truths.

Transcendentalism and idealism are fostered through Heade’s use of trompe l’oeil in his Gremlin in the Studio I, 1871-1875, and II, 1865-1875. These paintings are indicative of an artistic understanding in nineteenth century American philosophies. The historical context of this period makes for a pragmatic comparison between Heade’s knowledge of the philosophical make up of American society and the dramatizations inherent in Hudson River School painting. Through the comical gremlin depictions, artistic genius flourishes and presents a wonderful presentation of the inimitability characteristic to the work of Martin Johnson Heade.

Bibliography:

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Brooks Atkinson. “Self Reliance,” The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Modern Library, 1940.

Kornhauser, Elizabeth Mankin, Amy Ellis, and Maureen Miesmer. Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. New Haven: London, 2003.

Mastai, Marie-Louise D’Otrange. Illusion in Art: Trompe L’oeil: A History of Pictorial Illusionism. New York: Abaris Books, 1975.

Stebbins, Theodore E., Martin Johnson Heade, Janet L. Comey, and Karen E. Quinn. The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade: A Critical Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

American Women and Arts and Crafts Pottery

Assuming women did not play a role in the production of American decorative arts is not only ignorant but inaccurate. While many believe serious and academic art can only be the byproduct of masculine endeavors, there is a flaw in the logic which ignores that many male designers would not have achieved their successes without help from the opposite sex. This concept endures throughout the artistic narrative of the nineteenth century and continues to the present day. To focus, one can localize this theory to Arts and Crafts pottery.

The Arts and Crafts movement embodied a spirit of profound intellectualism which attempted to heighten the moral and intrinsic value of objects. It took art away from the fervent mass production of the mid-nineteenth-century. Promoting honest construction and truth in materials, and influenced by English intellectuals, William Morris (1834-1896) and John Ruskin (1819-1900), the movement encouraged handicraft and felt that industrialization dehumanized decorative arts. Through utopian ideals, advocates found a stronghold for their beliefs in ceramics production.

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Goose Bowl, August 1914, Boston, Massachusetts, Paul Revere Pottery of the Saturday Evening Girls Club (1907-1942), Decorated by Albina Mangini, Glazed Earthenware, from the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, Photograph by author.

Paul Revere Pottery (1908-1942) relied heavily on the designs of women to achieve their Arts and Crafts style. With origins in the Boston area, the company was founded as the “Saturday Evening Girls.” The group started as a means to educate immigrant girls in the North End. From their amateurism, trained designers and decorators of ceramic wares emerged. Sara Galner (1894-1982) became incredibly skilled and was responsible for some of the most intricate designs. Her work highlighted the beauty of these functional objects. While Paul Revere Pottery was managed by men, the fundamental relationship between women and art remained paramount, as one could not have existed without the other.

Bibliography:

Clancy, Jonathan, and Martin P. Eidelberg. Beauty in Common Things: American Arts & Crafts Pottery from the Two Red Roses Foundation. St. Petersburg: Two Red Roses Foundation, 2008.

Gadsden, Nonie. Art & Reform: Sara Galner, the Saturday Evening Girls, and the Paul Revere Pottery. Boston: MFA Publications, 2006.

Up, Up, and Away: The Art Deco Designs of Paul T. Frankl (1886-1958)

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Desk and Bookcase with Side Chair and Blotter, ca. 1927, designed by Paul T. Frankl (American, born Austria, 1886-1958) from the Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition, The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s. Photograph by author.

Paul Frankl’s impact on American design was substantial, as his creations embodied the spirit of the 1920’s and have become synonymous with the Art Deco style. His pieces were emblematic of the attitude of New York City. Rising buildings took center stage upon the skyline of Manhattan, impacting furniture construction and encouraging a uniquely American aesthetic. The intertwinement of architecture and decorative arts heavily influenced this period. Building construction and certain forms were visually enunciated through decorative arts designs. This concept is best promoted through Frankl’s “Skyscraper” furniture. The feeling from each piece in the series is one that draws the eye upward and emphasizes height, channeling both idealism and modernism.

This desk and bookcase with side chair highlights this idea. Each tier brings an architectural level and encourages a comparison between urban structures and the desk. A lack of intellectualism often defines the Art Deco style because of its obsession with vanity and mass production. Despite this stereotype, Frankl’s desk tells a different story. The glamour propagated by the piece exudes high style materials while mimicking the stacked forms of buildings. Frankl’s work was incredibly popular and advanced not only furniture but a way of life for many Americans toward modernist designs. He accenutated the horizontal and advocated that angles made pieces modern. These clean lines drew from Japanese influences, bringing globalism in American aesthetics to the forefront of the conversation. As Frankl was Austrian by birth, these characteristics promote that American design relied on the cross-cultural merging of ideas. This desk and bookcase with side chair exists as no exception.

Bibliography:

Frankl, Paul T. Form and Re-form; a Practical Handbook of Modern Interiors. New York: Harper, 1930.

Long, Christopher. Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.