From the Curator's Desk

Mythology of The Bull

Rusty Freeman - Friday, September 25, 2020

We celebrate the return of John Kearney’s Bull from conservation restoration with an esoteric collage from the History of the Bull.   

Picasso is well known for his adoption of the Bull as his alter-ego or avatar.  As a young boy, his first drawings were of bulls and bullfights.  Bullfighting in Spain is over 2,000 years old and may have had religious beginnings. Today, it still symbolizes the most sublime confrontation of man versus nature.  Hemmingway may have put it best, “it is the only true sport, all others are merely games.”  Regarding symbolism, Picasso said, “It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words. The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.”  

Picasso, Minotaure dans une barque sauvant une femme, 1937.  Private collection, Photo Courtesy Gagosian; © 2017 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.  

Nicknamed the “Dumb Ox” because of his taciturn speaking, Thomas Aquinas created history with his reconciliations of Christianity with Aristotelian philosophy.  Seen here holding a church and his Summa Theologica written in 1265. His book melded faith with reason and it remains a doctrinal basis for the Roman Catholic Church.  Aquinas is also studied today for his literary exegesis of allegorical interpretation.  Carlo Crivelli, St. Thomas Aquinas, 1476, tempera, 61x41cm, courtesy The National Gallery, London. 

Abstract stars and constellations conjured tales of life on planet Earth.  Greek mythology regarded the Bull as Zeus who became the bull to win the heart, or just seduce, Europa.  Taurus is Latin for Bull.  Art by John Flamsteed, drawn in 1776, published in Atlas Celeste. Ed. J. Fortin. Paris, 1776, image courtesy of Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, Missouri.  

Goya, like Picasso, regarded bullfighting as a seminal part of his country’s and his identity.  On the one hand, the Tauromaquia etchings celebrated the ferocity in facing abject terror and perhaps prevailing.  But on the other, Goya faced the contradiction and in his Bulls of Bordeaux lithographs also delineated the abuses of man over animal.  A 1969 Dover book, image courtesy of Abe Books, Victoria, British Columbia.  

The City of Fargo, North Dakota in 1978 commissioned Luis Jimenez to create a work of art that would capture the values of the Midwest.  After months of research, Jimenez landed on depicting a farmer hand-plowing difficult fields with two oxen, titled Sodbuster.  Jimenez’s genius was twofold; first, to depict the farmer and his animals as if they were from Mount Olympus, as Herculean man and beast. Second, to present the public outdoor sculpture, not in marble or bronze, but in the mainstream technology of molded fiberglass, brightly colored, capable of supreme details.  Jimenez created a postmodern work of art that is both true to values of the traditional Midwest and true to the period in history using late-modern technologies.  Photo courtesy of City of Fargo.  

Picasso’s Bull’s Head, 1942 from a child’s handlebars and bike seat is the definition of transmogrification, the magical transformation of one material into a vision where the originating material is forever altered.  Image courtesy of KP Cyclery, Denmark.  

The story of Laotzu and the Tao te Ching is widely known, but the Ox relationship to Laotzu perhaps less so.  Here, in this 16th-century pen and ink from the Ming dynasty presents Laotzu on his journey riding an Ox.  Throughout Asia, the Ox is venerated as the symbol of undisciplined power, but that with training can become extremely valuable.  Thus, the Ox has become the symbol of the disciplined sage who with contemplative practice and learning can become one with his own true nature.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia and the National Palace Museum, Taiwan.  

Science and astronomy have done nothing to diminish the mythological power of the stars and their constellations.  In fact, science has probably only intensified the sublime majesty of the stars.  Here, the Taurus constellation has been mapped showing the 14th brightest star Aldebaran, the star cluster known as the Hyades whose triangular formation forms the face of the Bull, and whose long horns reach to the Crab Nebula.  The Pleiades ride the back of the Bull and are also known as the Seven Sisters.  Image courtesy of Trevor Jones, AstroBackyard. 

Vlad Zhitomirsky and Mikhail Matveyev of VMD Sculpting have finished their restoration of Bull.  Rust free (for a while), surface meticulously refurbished, inside and out, and sealed with a protectant, Bull is ready for many more seasons in the outdoors. Photo courtesy of Vlad Zhitomirsky.  

The Triumphant Bull standing tall.  Gleaming from head to toe, it looks magnificent.  The new concrete pad by Bevis Construction further enhances the Bull’s aesthetic appeal.  Photo: R. Freeman.  

The Life of Thomas Eakins

Rusty Freeman - Friday, September 18, 2020

We explore in this post, the family, friends, education, and art of Thomas Eakins in relationship to his social contexts and highlight key events and paintings.  As many readers know, Cedarhurst cares for four paintings by Eakins — Samuel Murray, 1889; Professor Barker, 1886 (and the excised canvas fragment of Barker’s hand turned into a separate painting); and Eakins’ beloved sister Margaret, 1871.  

Thomas Eakins, Margaret, 1871, oil, 18x15", Gift of John R. and Eleanor R. Mitchell, 1973.1.17

Today, Eakins stands with America’s best painters of the 19th century who was also the century’s best art teacher.  Eakins is highly regarded for his ability to capture in paint the psychology of both men and women.  Rembrandt and Velázquez had this ability.  

Known today for his portraits, he sold very few paintings in his lifetime.  It is said that all his paintings are portraits in some form or another.  Also praised for his outdoor scenes, especially his rowing depictions.  His colors (blacks, browns, and tans) were a problem for some, not colorful enough, and his paintings not “modern” enough.  Eakins had no interest in the contemporary art of his times (Courbet, Manet, or Impressionism).  In 1864, Manet had just debuted Olympia and was the talk of the town. Though Eakins was in Paris in 1865, he remained an iconoclast interested only in painting what he saw in real life. He cared next to nothing for the smooth neoclassical style or the bombastic romantic style.  Thomas Eakins danced to a different beat.  

Eakins was smart, wealthy, single-minded, with no political or social ambitions.  An excellent student, he excelled at art and science.  Eakins may have been bipolar; fought depression every day of his life.  Sexual identity ambiguity and family tragedy (deaths of mother and sister Margaret; suicide of a niece) also haunted his life.  

Nonetheless, young Tom and his father, Benjamin hunted together, sailed, and bicycled.  Tom loved rowing.  The elder Eakins had amassed a fortune that would keep Eakins and his wife Susan Macdowell Eakins in good stead the rest of their lives.  

Married to Susan Macdowell for 32 years.  She was a former student and they cared deeply for each other.  After Eakins died, Susan worked tirelessly to see that her husband was recognized by the major museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

Supremely gifted, Eakins always knew he wanted to be an artist, and unconventionally, his father supported and encouraged his son in this pursuit.  

Young Eakins attended one of the leading schools in the country, Philadelphia’s Central High School where only 1% of potential grammar school graduates were accepted.  He was interested in painting, anatomy, medicine, physics, and sports.  Eakins had a lifelong fascination with science. He gave the scientific address at graduation in 1861. 

Eakins developed fluency in French and six more languages—Italian, Spanish, German, Greek, Latin, English.  Also knew sign language.  His command of French allowed him to navigate past the bureaucracy guarding admittance to Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  

Eakins sailed the Atlantic to Paris in 1866 to pursue his dream to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with the most celebrated art teacher of the time, Jean-Léon Gérôme.  Mary Cassatt also studied with Gérôme.  In France, Eakins kept a journal in French and returning home, for a time, wrote letters to friends in French.  While in Paris, Eakins also studied with Léon Bonnat, a portrait painter.  Bonnat advised Eakins to visit Spain and especially the Prado, where Eakins fell in love with paintings by Diego Velázquez.  The Prado and Velázquez had a tremendously positive effect on Eakins’ thinking as to what painting could be.

During Eakins’ lifetime, the Second Industrial Revolution nicknamed the Gilded Age began to thrive.  The last decades of the 19th century and the first two of the 20th century were times of great economic achievement for the United States. It rapidly became the most industrious and wealthiest nation in the world.  

The pace of the world was noticeably accelerating with the inventions of trains, the automobile, the airplane, telegraph, telephone, the camera, light bulb, movies, typewriter, cash register, and time clock. Eakins was one of the first painters to use a camera in making art.  Eakins met motion photographer Eadweard Muybridge at the University of Pennsylvania.  Eakins was an integral part of the University’s grand experiments, serving on committees, and there he perfected his own photographic invention—the wheel camera—that photographed human movement with one camera.  

Significantly, the Gilded Age saw the rise of the professional class, especially in the science and medical professions.  Sports were becoming popular as a middle class way to relax.  In 1871 Eakins painted Max Schmitt in a Single Shell.  In 1875, Eakins painted The (Dr. Samuel) Gross Clinic considered by many to be his greatest painting.  At the time, surgical teams still wore business suits.  People despised the painting considering it to have too much blood and shock value.  

Eakins’ late 19th century world was quickly becoming modernized and his paintings responded to social and cultural innovations.  

In an infamous incident, in 1886, Eakins was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art where he taught.  During a figure drawing class, he removed the loincloth from the male model in order to further a point on musculature.   Immediately afterwards, 54 students petitioned to have him reinstated.  Within ten days Eakins’ dismissal, 30 of his students set up, on their own, an Art Students League with Eakins as the sole instructor.  

Thomas Eakins, Professor Barker's Hand, 1886, oil, 15x12" (reduced), Gift of Mr. and Mrs. S. Alden Perrine, 1973.6.1
Thomas Eakins, Professor George F. Barker, 1886, oil, 24x20" (reduced from original 60x40"), Gift of Mr. and Mrs. S. Alden Perrine, 1973.6.1

Professor George F. Barker was painted the year of the dismissal.  A well-regarded physicist and chemist, Barker was a friend and colleague of Thomas Edison.  Originally, Eakins painted his dear friend Barker as a three-quarter body-length portrait, not the head-only portrait we exhibit today.  Remarking on the psychological identity of the hand, Eakins said, “a hand takes as long to paint as a head; and a man’s hand looks no more like another man’s hand than a head looks like another’s.”  

In 1885, Samuel Murray was an art student of Eakins at the Art Student League.  Eakins painted the Cedarhurst Samuel Murray in 1889.  Murray was 25 years Eakins’ junior and they were inseparable in the 1890s. They went to boxing matches, rode bikes together, and made pilgrimages to Walt Whitman.  Murray was at his friend’s bedside when Eakins died in 1916.  

Thomas Eakins, Thomas Murray, 1889, oil, 24x20", Gift of John R. and Eleanor R, Mitchell, 1973.1.16 

Since his death, Thomas Eakins has been favorably compared to his contemporaries Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.  These American thinkers contributed enduring principles towards Eakins’ own philosophical outlook.  

Whitman (1819-1892) asserted in his poetry the beauty of the human body, physical health, and sexuality.   Whitman’s poetry broke new ground as it moved away from traditional verse to everyday cadence.  Whitman was world-famous as people from all over the world visited him in Camden, New Jersey. Eakins met Walt Whitman in 1887.  They became friends and enjoyed many talks together.  Eakins was a Whitman pallbearer, and he and Samuel Murray made the death mask of their friend.  

Thoreau (1817-1862) was an exponent of Transcendentalism which espoused the essential unity of all creation, the innate goodness of humankind, and trusted insight and experience over logic.  America’s Hudson River School painters owed a debt to this worldview.  

Thoreau’s Walden is considered a philosophical treatise on labor, leisure, self-reliance, individualism, and our connection to nature.  Thoreau’s themes—the value in the beauty of the human body, the unity of creation, self-reliance, and individualism suffused the values of Thomas Eakins who lived from 1844 to 1916.

Thomas Eakins and his legacy had a tremendous impact on Robert Henri and his Ashcan painters.  George Bellows with fellow members of the Ashcan School started an American Revolution freeing artists to paint what they wished, much beyond what the Academy sanctioned.  They—and in many ways following Eakins—chose Everyday Life.  

George Bellows observed: Eakins’ 1917 Metropolitan retrospective “proves him to be one of the best of all the world’s masters. The greatest one man show I’ve seen and some of the very greatest pictures.”  

Museums Study History Through Art

Rusty Freeman - Friday, September 11, 2020

Museums, and perhaps most particularly art museums, have roles to play in connecting the lives of their visitors with the history of their communities and their country.

History becomes illuminating when it’s tied to the present. Museums can, for their audiences, facilitate this connecting work of history to the world today.

Art museums themselves have to be current and as connected to the present as they are about studying the past.

Museums endeavor to be relevant in the traditional sense but also in new ways that challenge old school ways.The Innovation & Tradition in American Art permanent collection traces American history from late 19th century to the postmodern.  Photo: R.Freeman 

SRO at the February 2018 opening of the “Savage” Happening at Cedarhurst. Photo: R.Freeman

Museums endeavor to present History as critically important for understanding our current moment.

Reading objects in historical contexts that speak to today is what art museums specialize in.

Everyone reads cultural objects through the many languages they are born into and those they cultivate.  All the arts — books, painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, movies, music, dance, theatre — play fundamental roles in signposting what is significant in culture today. Museums have tools to share on how to read objects in context. The tools are offered to visitors to determine what is relevant.

William Glackens, Summer Day, Bellport, Long Island, 1913, Oil; Julien Weir, The Feather Boa, 1890, Oil; Collection of Cedarhurst, Photo: R. Freeman

Form, Mood, Function, Social Values, and Historical Contexts are my main themes when considering what goes into and comes out of cultural objects. Just the study of Form alone expands into the artwork’s material connotations, the influence of style, and semiotics.

The audience turns as guest artist Margaret Keller (podium, far right) makes a point about her watercolors.  At the Leaning on Nature exhibition, February 23, 2020.  Photo: R. Freeman

Dominant themes in American art are established in the works of the Ashcan School and Paul Strand. Each in their own ways looked to represent people and aspects of American life that were often overlooked. Their art and photography became the recognition of people from everyday life. Typically, back in their era, only prominent people and events were portrayed in oil or made into statues. Later, Pop Art continued the recognition of everyday life. Postmodernism looked closer at the social values in everyday life.

Marilyn Boysen, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, all works 1995-2003, bird feathers, exotic woods, various media.  Roberta Elliot, themed seasons stands for masks, 2009, hand-wrought metal.  All Permanent Collection of Cedarhurst.  Photo: R. Freeman 

Museums and its curators are challenged with how to make collections accessible and relevant to a wide range of people. Curatorial work begins in scholarship.

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch said, “Scholarship should shape what you do in part because it gives you credibility.... You can be stopped if your scholarship isn’t sound.”

Museums are not only for experts. The very scholarship that attracts experts can also be conveyed to diverse spectrums of people. Curators are the liaisons.

Art Museums can be at the center of their communities helping to understand the social and democratic challenges in a world where lives are dominated by the risks of economic collapse, ecological catastrophes, rise of totalitarianism, and warfare.

A museum’s raison d’être begins introspectively improving the institution itself.

Cedarhurst has always reviewed its past adjusting to ensure that it is relevant to its community, a welcoming space for all people.

The Mount Vernon Township High School Future Farmers of America exhibit May - July 2018.  Photo: R.Freeman

Being inclusive is a day-to-day commitment; a transformative commitment. Diversity is another name for democracy. Diversity embraces tradition and innovation. It’s what we strive for at Cedarhurst.

Bruno Moser discussed his collection in The Beauty of Function exhibition October 2015. Photo: R. Freeman 

I have a sense that museums have long functioned as micro-forums of democracy who gather diverse audiences to discuss the representations of culture.

Museums, though not perfect, continue to shift towards the needs of their audiences becoming more involved as social agents of change.

Artists in our collections, like myself, believe in the power of representation.

Representations can bestow meaning, authority, and prestige on the person, object, or idea being depicted. Visual artists, musicians, and poets reconfigure “our lived lives” into art.

The Cedarhurst artists who historically recognized the contradictions of those who had been under-represented are: Robert Henri, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, Paul Strand, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, and George Bellows.

William Edmondson

Rusty Freeman - Friday, September 04, 2020

In my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee there lived a man who became one of the most well known artists in the art world, if not the world-at-large, his name is William Edmondson.  

Born in 1874 to parents who were once slaves in the American South. Edmondson grew up in the Southern historical context of the racist and dehumanizing Jim Crow era. When Edmondson died in 1951, he was not known as famously as he would become later, but his stone sculptures of memorials for friends, numerous animals from life and mythology, and people from his neighborhood, were known and collected by some.  

Edmondson at home in Nashville. The three birds were carved by him; a tombstone for a neighbor. Note the echo of the bird’s head in the cloud. Photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe 1937. All photos courtesy of Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN and The Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents.   

During his lifetime, three well known photographers came to Nashville specifically to meet him and see his sculptures. They were Edward Weston who visited in 1941, Louise Dahl-Wolfe in 1937, and Consuelo Kanaga in 1950. First Dahl-Wolfe visited and through her connections, Edmondson became the first African American artist to have a one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937.  

Edmondson’s astonishing number of hand-carved stone sculptures in his backyard. Photo by Consuelo Kanaga 1950. 

Alfred Barr, the first director of MoMA sanctioned this event. Modern artists from the beginning were following artists who were “folk” or “self-taught.” Self-taught artists had no formal training in school for the arts. The “modern” artists admired the self-taught artists for their spontaneity, creativity, and most of all, the uninhibited forms of their artworks.  

A page from The Art of William Edmondson.  Note the sideways use of hammer on customized railroad spike.  Dahl-Wolfe photos of Edmondson’s backyard filled with magnificent sculptures.  

During the tumultuous beginnings of postmodernism, the now defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC organized Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980 which definitively brought black voices into the art world conversation. Two superstars emerged from the exhibition — Bill Traylor and William Edmondson. Now, Edmondson was clearly on the national art stage and remains there today.  

In the late 1990s, I curated for Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN, a large traveling retrospective and exhibition catalog. On the cover, Edmondson posed sitting next to his Noah’s Ark.  Photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe.