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Arts & Letters American Artists Features

Madama Butterfly

Maria Callas was of Greek decent, born in New York in December 1923. Just one year later, in 1924, Giacomo Puccini, who was from the small town of Lucca in Italy, died. They never met. They never even knew each other, and yet their lives will be forever entwined.

Maria Callas, of course, would come to know Puccini intimately through the miraculous beauty of his work. But it seems almost a tragedy that Giacomo Puccini would never know the woman, or hear the phenomenal voice, that would give such flight to his work.

It is almost inconceivable that Maria Callas, one of the most renowned and influential sopranos of the 20th century, detested her own voice. She thought it too nasal! The first time she listened to a recording of one of her performances, she broke down in tears. She had wanted to give up singing entirely. Though she later said she was able to accept her voice and be objective about it, it seems impossible that she might well have been the only person on earth left unmoved by the fluid power, that lilting delicacy and startling expression of authentic emotion, that brought audiences to their knees.

Given her tumultuous childhood, perhaps the very thing that gave her access to such raw emotion, it seems understandable that she might have viewed herself with a sense of remote disconnection. She commented often that “Callas,” the woman who went up on stage, was another person.

While the tone or quality of her voice might have been subjective—and there were detractors—through her style and phrasing, her voice came to be revered as the most telling, the most expressive and true voice of her time. With the fiery passion and theatricality she brought to each performance, she captured the hearts of audiences the world over.

But more: Victor de Sabata, the acclaimed conductor and composer, noted, “If the public could only understand, as we do, how deeply and utterly musical Callas is, they would be stunned.” Tullio Serafin, another conducting giant of the time, considered her musicality “extraordinary, almost frightening.” And indeed, Callas viewed herself foremost as a musician, the first instrument of the orchestra, though she never thought of herself as “good enough.”

Thirty-five years after her death, she was still one of classical music’s best-selling artists. While the press named her the first “diva” of the opera and concentrated on the drama and spectacle of her private life, those who actually listened to her voice were transported to another world: a world where each moment caught your breath, where each phrase, in the best tradition of opera, was love—life or death.

Maria Callas’ first performance in a leading role was that of Tosca, written, of course, by Giacomo Puccini. Callas went on to sing the arias from every one of Puccini’s most popular operas.

Maria Callas’ first leading role was in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. Cover of the libretto for Tosca, 1899, by Alfredo Montalti. (Public Domain)

Puccini came from a lineage of musicians who were well established in Italy. While they were certainly not wealthy, Puccini’s grandfather, after whom he was named, was the organ player and chief conductor at the Cathedral of St. Martin in Lucca. Members of the Puccini family had occupied that position going back to 1740!

After the death of his father, the family fell on difficult times. Giacomo was said to have been an unruly child, often playing truant from school, and at one point being accused of stealing the lead pipes from the church organ to buy cigarettes! Later on, he would actually elope to marry his wife, so it is clear he was not exactly a shrinking violet. There was a vibrancy to his personality, and it showed in the myriad colors of his work.

Composer Giacomo Puccini in a studio photograph. (US-PD)

At age 17, he literally walked from Lucca to Pisa to see a performance of Verdi’s latest opera, “Aida.” At that point, Verdi was the rock star of Italian opera. Apparently, Puccini had no money and no ticket, but that did not stop him. It would not be long before Verdi’s ardent fan would equal his fame.

It was expected that Giacomo would follow in the family’s musical tradition. He was sent to study at the Conservatory of Milan, where he lived the bohemian life of the starving artist. His adventures there would inspire his later opera,

Set Design for Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” 2010, by Reginald gray.

Apparently, apart from enjoying the nightlife of Milan, his schooling bored him to tears. But the Conservatory required he compose a piece as part of his thesis. Puccini responded with a composition for full orchestra entitled “Capriccio Sinfonico.” Writing for full orchestra, with just pen and paper, is an unfathomable skill. But Puccini’s remarkable symphonic talent and style were immediately clear.

It might have been expected that a man from such a background would become an excellent composer, but that doesn’t explain the incomparable genius that gave the world the operas “La Bohème,” “Tosca,” “Madama Butterfly,” and “Turandot.” It is an unparalleled contribution of such magnificence that words simply fail. To this day, these works still thrill audiences around the world.

Later in life. “Una fotografia del” compositore of Giacomo Puccini. (Public Domain)

As a musical dramatist, he was unequaled. As a writer of the most memorable arias, with melodies such as the impassioned “Nessun Dorma,” which became the theme for the 1990 soccer World Cup, he broke through the elitist notions of opera, bringing that magical world of imagination to the common people.

But neither Giacomo Puccini nor Maria Callas were common people. They may have grown up on the same streets as the common people, but the miracle of their uncommon gift was to distill everything of the human experience, from our highest ideals to our lowest cravings—the fears and secrets hidden in the corners of our hearts, desires, heartbreaks, the sacred and the profane—and reflect every one of us back upon ourselves.

It is a rare gift—so rare, in fact, that we still know the names of those few who have been able to do it. Their lives and their work enrich us all with a greater sense of the meaning, the depth and width, of our existence.

Giacomo Puccini and Maria Callas were not alike in terms of their personalities, but in their work, they appear as almost the same person. Their brilliance, of both sheer technical skill and deep, human, expressive passion, is truly as one. It is as if Callas was born specifically to bring ultimate expression to Puccini’s work.

Screen set on Madame Butterfly. “Collina presso Nagasaki,” 1906, by Alexandre Bailly and Marcel Jambon. (Storico Ricordi, Collezione Digitale Ricordi, ICON000079 – Restoration. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I mentioned that they never actually met. Puccini was leaving this world just as Callas was coming into it. But there is a song, “Un Bel Dì, Vedremo” (one fine day we will see). It is an aria for soprano from the second act of Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly.” If you never listen to another piece of opera in your life, just read the outline to the story of Cio Cio San, and then listen to Maria Callas perform it. It is a piece of such searing drama and delicate beauty that it leaves me speechless each time I hear it. And each time I hear it, I am more convinced that Giacomo Puccini must be standing right there in the wings, listening.

Pete McGrain is a professional writer, director, and composer best known for the film “Ethos,” which stars Woody Harrelson. Currently living in Los Angeles, Pete hails from Dublin, Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College.

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American Artists Arts & Letters

Norman Rockwell’s America

“I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
—Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell’s career spanned six decades, and he is certainly one of America’s best-known 20th century artists. Many of us love him. Many dismiss him as a romanticist and kitschy caricaturist, but a showing of his works gives a much deeper appreciation for “America’s Best Loved Artist.”

“Triple Self-Portrait,” cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, Feb. 13, 1960. (Norman Rockwell Museum Collection)

When the show came to the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, we went to see it with anticipation. “Will it have any original paintings in it?” my wife asked. “I certainly hope so,” I replied. Yes, I would have enjoyed a selection of Saturday Evening Post covers, but I really wanted to see brushstrokes! I was not to be disappointed!

Rockwell began painting professionally at a young age. At 21, he was painting covers for the Saturday Evening Post. He was a disciplined and masterful painter and achieved solid success very early. While most of us are familiar with the oft-reproduced Saturday Evening Post illustrations, few are aware of other masterful works that appear early in his career. These paintings show a keen sense of observation and composition, and a genuine knowledge of the techniques of the old masters.

“Young Valedictorian” by Norman Rockwell, circa 1922.

She stands erect before an audience, lit from above and behind, in a style reminiscent of the works of Degas or Rembrandt. The light is accentuated by a touch of impasto and skilled brushwork. The subject is a serious one. “The Young Valedictorian,” painted in 1922, captures a young girl standing before her school in a white dress at graduation. The interior behind her is meticulously detailed. In the shadows, a row of seated faculty members listens. A globe on stage reflects a spot of light in highlight on its varnished surface. A clock on the wall, to the upper right of the speaker, marks time.

All eyes are on the face of the young speaker. Rockwell’s lighting and masterful composition see to that. Here are the brush strokes of a genius! Amazingly enough, this work was never published. Few people are aware of it, and if it were on a wall by itself, perhaps few would attribute it to Norman Rockwell. There is no irony, no humor, and no caricature. It is a beautiful capture of a poignant moment. It reveals a Norman Rockwell I want to know.

“After The Party” by Norman Rockwell, circa. 1922

“After the Party” is another painting by Rockwell from the same year. It was painted as an advertisement for Edison Mazda (later to become General Electric). In a masterful bit of chiaroscuro, Rockwell captures a conversation between a young woman and an elderly lady. A single electric lamp backlights the two figures—presumably talking late in the evening after an important social event. The composition creates the conversation. Again, it shows Rockwell’s mastery of his art, as well as his observational skills.

In “Two Children Praying,” painted much later in his career—in 1954—Rockwell captures an America still in touch with its core values. This painting was done for a billboard advertisement for Longchamps Restaurant, Union Square, New York. The background is a night sky illuminated by a bright star, and its light falls across the faces of a young boy and girl as they pray. Rockwell’s detailed pencil study for the work shows the artist’s commitment to excellence in a work like this. The sketch is reminiscent of those that Leonardo da Vinci did leading up to painting “The Last Supper.” When one remembers that Leonardo took a commission for a rather common refectory scene and added the drama of the betrayal—rendered in the relatively new medium of oil paint—one can begin to appreciate that Rockwell stepped up to the easel of an illustrator and brought to it the drama that his artistic skills made possible.

Both da Vinci and Rockwell could capture the fine nuance of personality. Though Rockwell would often push it to the limit in his magazine covers, he could pursue subtlety. In a painting entitled “Norman Rockwell Visits a Country School,” painted in 1946, Rockwell depicts a loving teacher in a small (perhaps one-room) schoolhouse reading to a rapt group of students hanging on her every word—all but one! There, on the other side of the wood stove that heats the room, sits a girl lost in her own book. The painting tells its own story. Here I must tell you, Rockwell’s interiors are gorgeous! If I wanted to recreate a country schoolhouse, this painting is the template, rendered down to the minutest detail. Even the children’s art on the walls is amazingly realistic. Norman Rockwell was witness to an America in transition.

The body of his work is no less than a historical record. His work spans the Roaring ‘20s, the Great Depression, and the Great War. Read the headlines of the Saturday Evening Post covers, and you discover an America whose journalists were not afraid to call out the evils of Communism. Rockwell may indeed have romanticized some of his work, but he had a sense of the life and struggle of ordinary Americans.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a series of posters he designed for a commission from the government: “The Four Freedoms.” The paintings are based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address. The president laid out four “fundamental freedoms” in that speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two, taken directly from the First Amendment of our Constitution, reiterate freedoms unique to people living under a system of limited government—freedoms that belong to the people. In the painting “Freedom of Speech,” a man in a worn work jacket stands to address a meeting of local government. The image resonates with all of us who are now standing up at school board meetings to protect the interests of our families.

The second painting, “Freedom of Worship,” shows a rich composition of diverse faces—the faces of the devout. This resonates with all of us whose ancestors came here for freedom to practice our faith’s dictates. But here, the freedoms take a turn from freedom to “do” something to freedom “from” something.

Freedom from want and freedom from fear are not in the Constitution. They are rather a statement of some of FDR’s New Deal ideals. They would play out in the work of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, near Washington, D.C., where much work was done to create our modern, chemically dependent agriculture. Located next to Beltsville is Greenbelt, Maryland, originally an example of Eleanor Roosevelt’s idea of a centrally planned city, intended to replace the squalor of depression America. Here, the government proposed that it could eliminate want and fear. That was a new idea. All one had to do was “democratically assent to central planning.”

In 1963, Rockwell left the Saturday Evening Post, and worked for Look magazine. Here he was given more creative latitude, and he freely pursued his passion for civil rights and space exploration. He painted right up to his death in 1978 at the age of 84, leaving an unfinished work on his easel.

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American Artists Arts & Letters

Paintings in Glass

Tiffany is a name that’s synonymous with the enchanting and sublimely beautiful glassware of the Art Nouveau movement in the United States.

With a career spanning from the 1870s through the 1920s, Louis Comfort Tiffany embraced virtually every artistic medium: leaded-glass windows, mosaics, lamps, glass, pottery, jewelry, and furniture. Of all Tiffany’s artistic accomplishments, it was his innovation in leaded glass that brought him the most recognition. Tiffany was among the first U.S. designers to be acclaimed abroad. His techniques in glass and the union of his craft with American arts set him apart as the most innovative designer at the turn of the century.

“I have always striven to fix beauty in wood or stone or glass or pottery, in oil or watercolor, by using whatever seemed fittest for the expression of beauty.”

—Louis C. Tiffany

Louis C. Tiffany was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the successful and influential silver and jewelry firm Tiffany & Co. In lieu of working for his father’s business, Louis C. Tiffany chose to pursue his own artistic interests. The young Tiffany began his career as a painter, working and studying under the tutelage of American landscape artist George Inness. Inness is reputed to have remarked of Tiffany: “The more I teach him the less he knows, and the older he grows the farther he is from what he ought to be.”

Electrolier, c. 1904. Black-eyed Susan design. Leaded glass. Photo by Raymond Martinot. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

Tiffany’s fervor for the arts led him to France, where he studied with Léon Belly in Paris. It was Belly’s exhibition of Islamic genre scenes and landscapes that initially opened Tiffany’s eyes to a bright world of patterns and colors—which became Tiffany’s signature trademark for his leaded glass. In spring 1869, he met artist Samuel Colman, cofounder and first president of the American Watercolor Society. Colman taught Tiffany the value of watercolors for sketching, and together they traveled to Spain and North Africa in search of exotic subjects. Tiffany spent his time in North Africa collecting photographs, glassware, and objects that helped further formulate new ideas and theories about color.

“When first I had a chance to travel in the Near East and to paint where the people and the buildings are also clad in beautiful hues, the pre-eminence of color in the world was brought forcibly to my attention. I returned to New York wondering why we made so little use of our eyes, why we refrained so obstinately from taking advantage of color in our architecture and our clothing when Nature indicates its mastership.”

—Louis C. Tiffany

The Gilded Age

The term “Gilded Age” was coined by writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner to represent the era of American opulence. The reconstruction of the United States following the Civil War was a time of unprecedented economic development. Manufacturing production boomed and railways grew across the United States, attracting millions of migrants to the nation. The economic wealth financed the growth of the luxury goods market, and wealthy art patrons sought extravagance as a way of displaying status. The Gilded Age set the stage for the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States.

Large Memorial window, Education commissioned by Simeon B. Chittenden was made for the window of new library at Yale University. The window, 30 feet long and 5 feet high, was installed in time for commencement week 1890.

The Arts and Crafts movement had already gained popularity in Victorian England during the second half of the 19th century. The return to traditional styles of artisan design was a direct revolt against the Industrial Revolution and what was felt to be the “soulless industrialization of craft.” British artist, designer, and philosopher William Morris led the movement and believed production by machinery to be “altogether evil.” He also advocated for the union of all arts within the field of interior design, emphasizing nature and simplicity of form. The theme of nature remained a powerful iconography throughout the Arts and Crafts movement—especially in the works of Tiffany and in the aesthetics of Art Nouveau.

A Wooded Landscape in Three Panels c. 1905. Leaded Glass. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Transom, c. 1910–20. Wisteria Leaded glass. Tiffany Studios, New York City. (Photo by Raymond Martinot. Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

In 1876, Tiffany was first exposed to the lure of the movement when he exhibited his paintings at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. It was then that he became attracted to the decorative arts and began to think about moving his artistry into the field of design, remarking to a fellow exhibitor: “I believe there is more in it than painting pictures.”

Tiffany embarked on a design career in 1879, opening the interior design firm Louis Comfort Tiffany and Associated American Artists, together with Candace Wheeler, Lockwood de Forest, and Colman. In the company’s four short years of existence, it fulfilled numerous interior design commissions, including contracts to design home interiors for wealthy clients such as writer Mark Twain, actor and inventor James Steele MacKaye, and President Chester Alan Arthur.

The Rise of Tiffany Glass

In the early 1870s, Tiffany’s passion for glass blossomed and he began experimenting with different techniques and materials. Between 1880 and 1881, Tiffany filed three patents for his glass-making process. One patent was for the creation of iridescent glass tesserae (small square tiles used in mosaics). Traditional mosaics were made with squares of uniform color. Tiffany’s innovations in glass-making technique, however, allowed for the creation of mosaics with shimmering tiles that were both iridescent and luminous.

Another patented technique utilized metallic oxides to create iridescent window glass. While Tiffany wasn’t the first to invent iridescent glass, he’s the most recognized for popularizing it on the market. Prior to 1880, iridescence in modern glassmaking was used in Venice, Italy, and earlier by Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster, who experimented with iridescent patina.

The third patent involved inducing opalescence by layering stained-glass panels. Tiffany and his early rival John La Farge, another prominent glassmaker, had both been granted similar opalescent glass patents by 1881. Opalescence revolutionized the look of stained glass, which had remained essentially unchanged since Medieval times. Early stained glasswork used flat panes of white and colored glasses, and details were painted atop with glass paints before firing. However, the paint reduced light transmission.

Tiffany sought to find natural ways to allow for gradations of depth, lines, and color—particularly in order to depict the tone and texture of human flesh without losing luminosity. The opalescent effect was so highly sought after because it enabled form to be defined by the glass itself, without paint.

Woman in a Pergola with Wisteria, ca. 1915. Leaded glass. (Courtesy of Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA.)

“By the aid of studies in chemistry and through years of experiments, I have found means to avoid the use of paints, etching, or burning, or otherwise treating the surface of the glass, so that now it is possible to produce figures in glass of which even the flesh tones are not superficially treated, but built up of what I call ‘genuine glass’ because there are no tricks of the glass-maker needed to express flesh.”

—Louis C. Tiffany

Tiffany’s newfound obsession with glass developed and proliferated after the Associated Artists disbanded in 1883. Tiffany continued as an interior designer for many years, but with a new focus on purely decorating, using glass and light. One of his most ambitious interiors was the Tiffany Chapel, exhibited in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition (the Chicago World’s Fair), which was notable for being the first world’s fair to feature electrical exhibitions. A total of 27 million visitors from all around the world came to enjoy the event.

View of the chapel interior designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

Light filtered in through 12 leaded windows and a 1,000-pound cruciform-shaped chandelier covered in sparkling jewels and pieces of glass. Created in the Byzantine-Romanesque style, Tiffany Chapel also included 16 mosaic columns and a mosaic altar of marble and white glass. The chapel’s visual impact was undeniable, bringing Tiffany international recognition. It was reported from Wilhelm von Bode, director of the Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery) in Berlin, Germany, that the opalescent windows received more attention from visitors than any other industrial art project in the United States. Tiffany Chapel became a symbol of American ingenuity, which could rival and even surpass anything created abroad at the time.

Baptistery and Field of Lilies leaded-glass window from the Tiffany chapel interior at the Morse Museum. Photo by Raymond Martinot. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)
Closeup of glass mosaic with Peacocks in Tiffany Chapel c. 1893. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

Art for Beauty’s Sake

Tiffany’s aesthetics were based on the belief that the most beautiful and perfect design was present in the natural world and that world should therefore be the primary inspiration for art. He had an extensive horticultural library and a collection of plant photography that he commonly used for source material. His youngest daughter, Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham, recalled of her father: “He knew every plant and flower. … To watch the flowers grow from bud to full bloom was his greatest pleasure.”

The fascination with nature and extending the capabilities of glass to replicate the subtle shading and lush palettes found in flowers and plants led Tiffany to explore another technique—Favrile. The term is derived from the Old English word fabrile, meaning handmade. Favrile glass is different from other iridescent glasses because the color doesn’t sit solely on the surface; it’s actually embedded within the glass.

In 1893, Tiffany hired expert glassblowers, some of whom came from the not-long-defunct Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, and established his own glass furnaces in the neighborhood of Corona, in New York’s Queens borough. From there, large quantities of his Favrile blown-glass vases and bowls could be sent to museums worldwide. In 1896, Tiffany took his new products to market, holding the first public Favrile glass exhibition at his Fourth Avenue studio in New York.

Flower-Form Vase, ca. 1899–1900. Blown glass. (Courtesy of Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA.)

After 1900, the name Tiffany became associated with art glass, lamps, and decorative objects, more so than the formerly acclaimed stained-glass windows and mosaics. Among the items made at the time were desk sets, ash trays, enamel boxes, and jewelry. It was Tiffany’s passion that beautiful art and objects be made available to the widest audience of American homeowners. He set out to provide everyday items that he felt would enrich people’s lives with beauty and justified shifting the focus of art from public displays to household objects with the reasoning that items such as lamps, flower vases, and toilet accessories reach wider audiences than a painting might. Tiffany looked to artisans as “educators of people in the truest sense” and as masters of art appealing to emotion and the senses, thus “rousing enthusiasm for beauty in one’s environment.”

Necklace, c. 1903–6. Exhibited at the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français, Paris, 1905 or 1906. Peacock and flamingo. Enamel, opal, amethyst, ruby, sapphire, demantoid garnet, emerald, chrysoberyl, pearl, gold. (Photo by Raymond)

He consistently held to a traditional criterion of beauty similar to that of the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke in his treatise “On the Sublime and Beautiful,” positing that man’s concepts of beauty arise from the passion of love, the senses, the calming of nerves, and the divine providence of God. An article written by Tiffany for Country Life in America titled, “The Gospel of Good Taste” publicly shares his aesthetic views, hoping to educate and inspire a surge of beautiful art in America: “It is all a matter of education, and we shall never have good art in our homes until the people learn to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly. … We should study classic art, and learn that the simplest things are the best.”

A Dream Realized

The unification of the arts and the culmination of Tiffany’s artistic and aesthetic endeavors were embodied by the final house he designed in its entirety—his own estate. Laurelton Hall was erected in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1905. The 84-room property sat on 580 acres of land, 60 acres of which were devoted to the design of picturesque gardens and woodlands containing ponds, tennis courts, and a bathing beach.

View of Laurelton Hall. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)
Living Room at Laurelton Hall. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

The estate housed his collection of unique art gathered from around the world, as well as numerous relics designed by Tiffany Studios: furniture, lamps, windows, vases, and more. The architecture, both interior and exterior, was ornamented with glass mosaics and carved wood, inspired by art and designs from Asia and the Middle East.

Dining room from Laurelton Hall, c. 1925. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

The décor included wisteria-bordered long glass panels that lit up the dining room. In a sheltered alcove of the living room, Tiffany displayed several of his stained-glass windows, including “The Four Seasons,” which he cut into separate panels—the window had previously been awarded a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition and inspired the French government to appoint Tiffany a Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion of Honour.

“God has given us our talents, not to copy the talents of others, but rather to use our brains and our imagination in order to obtain the revelation of True Beauty.”
—Louis C. Tiffany

Spring panel from Four Seasons window, c. 1899–1900. Exhibited: Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900. Leaded glass. Photo by Raymond Martinot. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

Tiffany wanted to create a school of rational art (as he referred to it), where students would be shown specimens of good artwork collected from various periods and countries, fostering education in the simple, true, and beautiful. His plan for a special “museum school” was denied by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but reimagined through the transformation of his own estate, Laurelton Hall, into an artists’ retreat. In 1918, a gift of 62 acres (with several structures included) was granted to the newly established Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation. The stables were converted into dormitories and the gatehouse into an art gallery to accommodate students eager to learn the aesthetics of Tiffany’s doctrine of beauty.

Capital, c. 1915 Daffodil Terrace, Laurelton Hall, Long Island, New York. Cast and cut glass, concrete Tiffany Studios, New York City. (Photography by Joseph Coscia Jr. Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park)

Tiffany’s Legacy

Tiffany’s work and ethics resolved the conflicting ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, making an assorted range of products available to consumers of every economic level. While Arts and Crafts influencer Morris once said, “What business have we with art at all unless all can share it,” in reality, most companies couldn’t produce high-quality art at affordable prices. Tiffany, however, successfully created an art industry for all classes of people, in part because his personal wealth allowed him to sacrifice profits in the interest of advancing his artistic philosophy.

With the modernization of the United States, Tiffany’s art had fallen out of favor by the 1920s. However, after several decades of neglect the Art Nouveau movement was revived through interior design, publications, and museum exhibitions—a common aphorism is that we often scoff the arts of our parents and revive those of our grandparents. Since the turn of the century, the United States has seen the design of public buildings enhanced by ornamentation and mosaics, and many artists have begun to work in glass—glassblowing, as an art form, is more appreciated now than ever before.

Tiffany’s legacy lives on through the careful preservation of relics obtained and collected after his death in 1933. Following a fire that ravaged the abandoned Laurelton Hall in 1957, Hugh F. McKean, former artist in residence at Laurelton Hall, and wife Jeannette Genius McKean, founder of the Morse Museum, purchased what they could of the intact remains. Today, the Morse Museum’s collection of Laurelton Hall relics is the largest single collection of surviving materials from Tiffany’s turn-of-the-century estate and will likely remain a visual masterpiece of influence and inspiration for generations of artists to come.

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American Artists Arts & Letters Features

Artful Stories of Historic New England

Historic New England is the largest regional heritage organization in America today. Founded in 1910, it was the earliest organization of its type with a focus on the preservation and continued use of properties of historic significance. Historic New England aims to educate the public on their archives and collections and engage in public outreach by establishing house museums—working with homeowners and communities to protect buildings and landscapes.

With a collection of over a million records of photographs, homes, paintings, objects, sculptures, and documents, Historic New England has been able to tell the most complete story of how New Englanders lived from the 17th century to today. There are over 6,500 works of fine art housed across the New England states. Recognizing the importance of their collection, and to engage with the public, “Artful Stories” has brought together works from ten different house museums as well as a number of works from Historic New England’s storage.

The exhibition is held at the historic Eustis Estate in Milton, Massachusetts—a jewel of late-19th-century American architecture built in 1878. The estate was designed by William Ralph Emerson, prominent American architect and cousin of transcendentalist American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Not only was Emerson of the eponymous family, he was a close friend of leading Boston painter William Morris Hunt, and he collaborated with American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. It was a time of cultural renaissance in America, when bronze foundries produced full-scale works on American soil for the first time, and the cities were filling with Neoclassical architecture.

Eustis Estate, Milton, Mass. Public Domain.

Curated by Nancy Carlisle (Historic New England’s Senior Curator of Collections) and Peter Trippi (European art historian and editor-in-chief at Fine Art Connoisseur), “Artful Stories” explores regional stories told through art. Rather than simply showcasing Historic New England’s best paintings and sculptures, the curators selectively chose artists, portraits, and settings to give the artwork and theme a larger sense of context. As Carlisle noted, the experience of curating a show like this reveals new information every time you scratch at the surface of history.

The exhibition was well planned, but just as society had to contend with the pandemic lockdowns, so did “Artful Stories.” They quickly pivoted to online programming and immersive 360-degree videos. Karla Rosenstein, the site manager of the Eustis Estate, shared that “from the beginning, we had planned to utilize the interactive touchscreens to add extra multimedia materials to ‘Artful Stories,’ so we luckily had already been developing some online content for the exhibition.” As it became clear that they would not be able to open up as scheduled, they wanted to provide an online preview that was a full version of the exhibition. “While working from home, we created a far more robust version than we had initially planned” added Rosenstein.

“Homeward Bound” by John George Brown, New York, 1878. Oil on canvas. Gift of Ralph May.

The curators chose to present the works in a variety of themes across four galleries. The first gallery, “Land & Sea,” is a survey of the historical geography of New England. The second gallery, “At Home in New England,” showcases how and why the people of New England came to settle there, while the third gallery, “New England’s People,” reveals the cast of characters involved. The fourth gallery, “Wide World,” is about how the New Englanders interacted with people and places outside their region.

Unlike other exhibitions that would source works from outside their collection, Rosenstein noted, “it was very fortunate that this show was entirely from Historic New England’s collection as we did not need to negotiate date changes with other institutions.” The gallery was open to in-person visits in October 2020 and welcomed small groups of visitors to enjoy the exhibit. “We had a good number of members eager to attend it and get back into our museums,” added Rosenstein. “We also found ways to pivot our planned programming online and hosted a series of conversations between the curators and scholars, artists, and other curators that was attended by far more people than we would have expected in person.”

The show is full of interesting distinctions—a striking, perfect copy of Vigée LeBrun’s self portrait was a surprise for Carlisle. “The copy of Vigée’s portrait was by Elizabeth Adams, an artist about whom we knew nothing. During our research, we discovered who she was and the lengths she went to receive professional training.”

Copy of “Self-Portrait of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun” by Elizabeth Adams, Florence, Italy, 1865–74. Oil on canvas. Gift of the artist’s nephew, Boylston Adams Beal.

As our collective American [MISSING NOUN] shifted so much throughout 2020, this allowed the curators to examine some of the asymmetries of the past, confronting the history of race and social class through the lens of today. Two such landscape paintings are hung in the first gallery, “Land & Sea.” One painting is a tight, Hudson-River-School-influenced panorama by the son of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, while the other is a pure Barbizon, Romantic landscape by an African-American barber who had to strive for his training as a painter. On these two paintings, Peter Trippi noted “the contrast between the landscapes painted by Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow and his neighbor (on the wall), Edward Mitchell Bannister—what different life journeys they had, but they both ended up being talented painters flourishing in New England at the same time!” Truly, one of the most important aspects of representational painting is its ability to transcend setting and social class and rely on truth, skill, and beauty.

Left: “View of Boston Across the Flats” by Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow, Boston, 1876. Oil on canvas. Gift of D. Codman. Right: “Woman Reading Under a Tree” by Edward Mitchell Bannister, probably R.I., 1880–85. Oil on canvas.

Throughout the show, there are a number of thoughtful arrangements and connections made that came to light through their research. In gallery four, “Wide World,” there is a wall which showcases not only the talent and skill of the artists, but the ingenuity and distinction of the American art patrons during the late 19th century. One is a portrait painting of Richard Norton by Italian artist Antonio Mancini. Hanging next to it is Edward Burne-Jones’ portrait of Sara Norton, Richard’s sister. These two paintings couldn’t be more stylistically distinct; Edward Burne-Jones was a Pre-Raphaelite, a classicist in the truest sense of the word, and Mancini an innovator, regarded by American artist John Singer Sargent as the greatest living painter of the time.

Left: “Richard Norton” by Antonio Mancini, Rome, c. 1905. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Susan Norton, the sitter’s daughter. Right: “Sara Norton” by Edward Burne-Jones, London, 1884. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Susan Norton, the sitter’s niece.

The simple fact that these two now hang side-by-side in contrast to each other displays the power of patronage—allowing the artists to fully express their vision of the subject, rather than attempting to impose their own aesthetics onto their likeness. This is further driven home by their accompanying painting on the wall, “St. Servan Harbor” by Edward Darley Boit. Best remembered as the patron who commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint his four daughters (housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), Boit was also an accomplished painter in his own right.

“St. Servan Harbor” by Edward Darley Boit, Dinard, Brittany, France, 1882. Oil on canvas. Gift of Dorothy S. F. M. Codman.

Throughout the exhibition, there are multimedia opportunities to learn more about the various artists and subjects. For those residing outside of New England, the website offers one of the most complete possible viewing experiences online. “Artful Stories” is both a truthful retelling of the Northeast’s history and an important chapter in cultural preservation, which Historic New England continues to champion. The exhibit has been extended until October 17th, 2021.

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American Artists Arts & Letters

A Time for the ‘Adagio’

As a teenager, I had little time for classical music. Opera just about made my hair stand on end. Choirs would send me running for the door. Orchestral music, in general, had been written for fuddy-duddies or nerds, I thought. It might not be too much of a generalization to say that most teenagers are drawn more toward hot dogs, fizzy drinks, and loud music than fine wine, nicely aged cheddar, and a prelude, but I have often wondered why. Is it perhaps simply a matter of waiting until we have matured and developed a more sophisticated sense of taste?

However, a dear friend of mine, an older composer, assured me it was otherwise. “One has to have suffered the slings and arrows of life, got some bangs and bruises, suffered unrequited love, lost a loved one or suffered a few failures, to appreciate the beauty of the finer arts,” he assured me. “Fine arts are a salve for the wounds, chicken soup for the soul. Teenagers have little use for salves. They are, after all, immortal, are they not?”

I couldn’t disagree. Indeed, in moments of doubt, I have clung to the arts, keeping my attention on the higher expressions of life and humanity, if only to maintain hope.

This last year has been difficult for us all, no doubt. Few have escaped unscathed, and yet somehow we seem to have made it through the slings and arrows. There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, but I wonder how people have managed.

During my most difficult days, I had quite a few good friends I could turn to. Most of them died a hundred years ago or more, but their music is still very much with us. One of them left us just forty years ago, and yet his contribution stands with the greats of all time. His name is Samuel Osmond Barber II.

Barber was born in Pennsylvania in 1910. Music critic Donal Henahan said of him, “Probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent and such long-lasting acclaim,” and yet, while I can almost guarantee you will at least have heard one of his compositions somewhere, few know his name.

You may have heard this particular piece in several movies, from David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” to Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning “Platoon.” There is even an electronic dance music cover by the famed DJ Tiësto, which, though it veers drastically from the original, is actually pretty great!

The composition I am referring to comes from the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet, Opus 11, the iconic “Adagio for Strings.” It is a composition of such lilting and yet uneasy and suspenseful beauty that most composers would wait an entire lifetime for such a piece to come from their pen, and yet Barber was just 26 years old when he wrote it.

Author Alexander J. Morin said of the piece, “It was so full of passion and pathos that it seldom left a dry eye.” Right from its first gentle refrain, the mournful yet delicate strings begin an ascending melody that is passed like a holy grail from yearning cellos to violas and violins. With the end of each passage, the orchestra seems almost to pause for breath, or even to sigh, before continuing the melody’s upward progress, as if searching desperately for daylight through the clouds. Rising and falling in an arch-shaped progression, the ascent leads to a searing, breathtaking crescendo that could pierce the stoniest of hearts.

At a time when many composers had begun experimenting with curious scales and discordant musical arrangements—“modernism,” they called it—Barber shunned the trends, focusing on a lyrical use of classic tonal harmony that gave his work a singular and remarkable charm and beauty, catapulting it into the spotlight.

In 1938, Barber sent a copy of the orchestration for the “Adagio” to famed conductor Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini was one of the most acclaimed and influential musicians of the 20th century, renowned for his ear for orchestral detail and his notoriously fierce perfectionism. When Toscanini returned the pages without comment, Barber was understandably quite upset. But Toscanini sent word that he had returned the pages simply because he had already memorized the entire opus! It seems the maestro was impressed.

In November of 1938, Toscanini conducted the piece for radio broadcast from Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center in New York. Apparently, Toscanini hadn’t had to look at the music until the day before the performance! The rest, as they say, is history.

Barber went on to win two Pulitzers, with many of his compositions being adopted as part of the canon of orchestral performance. He earned a permanent place in the concert repertory, with all of the renowned orchestras around the world performing his works.

The “Adagio for Strings” was later adapted for choir and titled “Agnus Dei,” meaning Lamb of God, referring to Christ in the liturgical text. It is beyond sublime and equals, if not surpasses, the heartrending orchestral version. While Barber’s mother was an accomplished pianist, his maternal aunt, Louise Homer, was a leading contralto at the Metropolitan Opera. She is known to have influenced his interest in voice, and some of Barber’s most beloved pieces are written for choir. While it seems natural that the “Adagio” would be adapted, the result is almost too beautiful to bear.

It is often difficult to reconcile the worst expressions of the human race when one witnesses the finest. After all, one need only read the news to fall into despair. However, the great writers, poets, painters and composers not only reflect how incredible we actually are as a species, but they continue to both salve our wounds and point the way to our higher ideals. Perhaps it is right that we pay attention to world events, but that is all the more reason to pay attention to the miraculous beauty that surrounds us, too. And so, dear reader, in this time of healing, after having suffered the slings and arrows of this past year, I heartily recommend you take solace in Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”


Pete McGrain is a professional writer/director/composer best known for the film “Ethos,” which stars Woody Harrelson. Currently living in Los Angeles, Pete hails from Dublin, Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College.

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American Artists Arts & Letters Features

‘The Voyage of Life’

America’s first great landscape painter, Thomas Cole, was a pivotal figure in the development of a distinctly American artistic identity in the early 19th century. Cole’s masterful landscapes range from picturesque compositions of America’s pristine wilderness to imaginative historical and allegorical scenes. The revered artist’s devotion to seeking the presence of God in nature inspired him to create depictions of divinity within the world and the human experience.

A prime example of this undertaking, and one of Cole’s most renowned series, “The Voyage of Life,” is a group of four paintings that illustrate the major stages in a man’s life: “Childhood,” “Youth,” “Manhood,” and “Old Age.”

The series was commissioned by wealthy banker Samuel Ward for his private residence. Ward, a religious man, hired Cole to portray the faith-based view of a man’s allegorical path through life ending in salvation. Ward died shortly after the commission commenced, but Cole continued work on the series with the new intention of showing them to the public. In his later years, Cole was an increasingly religious man, to which this series is a testament. Regardless of your faith, “The Voyage of Life” captures a journey through different seasons, challenges, and the varying mental, emotional, and physical states we experience as we ride the river of life.

‘Childhood’

“The Voyage of Life: Childhood” by Thomas Cole circa 1842. National Gallery of Art.
Detail of Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Childhood.

Cole originally worked on “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” when he was in his late 30s in 1839–40. This first landscape of the series symbolizes man’s birth into the world. A baby whom Cole called “the Voyager” is the passenger on a boat being guided down a river by an angelic figure. The front of the boat has an hourglass that is held by one of many angelic carvings whom Cole called “the Hours.” A shadowy cavern at the base of a massive rocky mountain, whose precipice is lost in clouds, gives the viewer the sense that the child has been delivered into this world of time from a mystery beyond it. The rosy light of sunrise casts an inviting glow on a vast and verdant landscape. Lush foliage and vibrant flowers greet the child on the banks of the calmly flowing river.

The child holds his arms outstretched joyously clenching flowers as he sits on a lush green bed of foliage that fills the boat. His guiding angel looks down lovingly while navigating the child into this colorful and wondrous new world. The painting symbolizes the optimism and mystery of childhood. Everything is fresh and filled with amazement. It is the dawn of existence for Cole’s voyager that is symbolized by the glow of morning light and the abundant natural flourishing of spring.

‘Youth’

“The romantic beauty of youthful imaginings, when the mind elevates the Mean and Common into the Magnificent, before experience teaches what is the Real.” – Thomas Cole

“The Voyage of Life: Youth” by Thomas Cole circa 1842. National Gallery of Art.
Detail of Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Youth.

Cole completed “The Voyage of Life: Youth” along with the rest of the series in 1840. In this second painting, the landscape has opened up to reveal the course of the river through lofty trees and distant hills that elevate into soaring mountains. The voyager has now confidently taken the helm of the boat and looks longingly forward, pointing toward a glowing palace of clouds in the sky. For Cole, this symbolized “the daydreams of youth, its aspirations after glory and fame.” The young man seems to rush toward his lofty goals unconscious that he seems to have left his angelic guide behind him on the shore.

The landscape of “Youth” is enticingly gorgeous and teeming with life. The many flowers of childhood have been replaced with the ambition of mighty trees. A spirit of adventure and lust for the glories of life are pervasive in the painting. The boy charts a course for the palace in his mind without noticing that the river makes a sharp turn in the distance. It flows toward the right side of the painting where rocky cliffs await the voyager foreshadowing the third painting in the series. The naiveté and optimism of youth are going to be challenged by the realities of manhood. Cole seems to imply that wisdom and humility are the result of tempering the beautiful, yet inexperienced, visions of youth.

‘Manhood’

“The Voyage of Life: Manhood ” by Thomas Cole circa 1842. National Gallery of Art.
Detail of Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Manhood.

“The Voyage of Life: Manhood” is a very dramatic shift in tone and content from “Youth.” The now middle-aged voyager finds himself in a dark and dreary landscape rushing down a treacherous part of the river. Rocks jut out of rapids that are mere seconds ahead of him. Looking forlorn, the helm of the boat is gone and his hands are clasped together in desperate prayer. The angels on the boat look concerned as time in the hourglass seems to be running out. Cole, who himself had bouts of melancholy, seems to be outlining his sobering and blunt view of middle age. In his words, “Trouble is characteristic of the period of manhood.” Above the voyager in the clouds are ghostly apparitions. The man seems haunted by “demons’ and the place to which he has been delivered by the ignorance of his youth.

The viewer is left with a feeling of uncertainty as to what will happen to the voyager. Out of the bewildered man’s sight, behind him in the clouds, light shines down into the unpleasant scene from where the angel continues to watch over him. This offers the insight that life’s difficulties may not be as serious or lasting as they may seem during the experience. Adulthood is a challenging part of the voyager’s journey that he is navigating with his faith. Even when all seems lost, it is not, and a higher power is watching over him. The flowers and superficial beauty of youth are behind him but what lies ahead is a more meaningful truth.

“The upward and imploring look of the voyager shows his dependence on a Superior Power; and that faith saves him from the destruction that seems inevitable.” – Thomas Cole

‘Old Age’

“The Voyage of Life: Old Age” by Thomas Cole circa 1842. National Gallery of Art.
Detail of Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Old Age.

In “The Voyage of Life: Old Age,” the river has reached the mouth of a calm ocean symbolizing the end of the voyager’s experience in this world. The boat’s hourglass has broken off and there isn’t much left in the landscape. The angel appears before him now, pointing his gaze toward the heavens, which appear to be opening up to him in a gesture of invitation beyond this world.

“The chains of corporeal existence are falling away; and already the mind has glimpses of Immortal Life,” described Cole. It is here that the Christian doctrine of salvation in the afterlife is most prominent allegorically. The voyager had his time on the wildly changing river of life and now looks in hopeful wonder toward the faith-based promise to which Cole and his patron subscribed.

“The Voyage of Life” was well received by the public and critics alike. The poet William Cullen Bryant remarked that “the conception of the series is a perfect poem … set before us are the different stages of human life under images which every beholder admits the beauty and deep significance.” The paintings form a powerful allegory for human life and the hope of salvation in the mystery beyond it. Cole was hugely influential in establishing America’s artistic reputation and his works went on to inspire many other American artists. His attempt to instill the divine into his landscapes played an important part in forming the beauty, soul, and allure of America.

In 1842, after the initial success of the series, Cole made the impressive and somewhat shocking decision to laboriously paint all four paintings a second time in order to be able to further display them publicly. The first series was privately owned by Ward’s family and thus no longer under his control. For this reason, two slightly different yet essentially similar sets of “The Voyage of Life” exist at two different American galleries. The first set (1839–40) is at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, and the second set (1842 and pictured in this article) is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.


Jeff Perkin is a graphic artist and an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach available at WholySelf.com.