Thursday, December 31, 2015

Of Cabbages and Kings: a 2015 cultural diary

The Historical Dilettante
Yup, that's me.

When I was a kid back in the 1970s, I regularly read a column by long-time Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer Win Fanning entitled "Of Cabbages and Kings."  Mr. Fanning covered the television beat and his curiously-titled column was replete with TV trivia and programming notes. I was intrigued by the by-line sketch of the bespectacled author chomping on a cigar, and with impeccable kid-reasoning I decided I ought to become a journalist (if I didn't become an archaeologist or a nurse or a veterinarian instead) so I could create my own perplexingly-titled column fronted by an enigmatic, cool self-portrait.

My career aspirations didn't quite turn out the way I planned. But I do maintain this oddly-titled blog, and I do have access to photography filters. No cigar or shades, though.

I ain't got nothing on Win. I know that.

Anyway, when I was older I realized that Fanning had titled his television errata column after a line in Lewis Carroll's poem The Walrus and the Carpenter. It's a dark poem recited by Tweedledum and Tweedledee to Alice, and features the aforementioned Walrus and Carpenter blithely chatting up some oysters before devouring them. Walrus leads off the discussion by announcing to his buddy and the listening oysters:
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."
(Illustration by John Tenniel)
Carroll knew, of course, that life was filled with non-sequiturs and perplexing riddles to challenge both adults and little kids contemplating quirky TV columns. I wasn't raised in a literary or even very literate family. It was a surprise to my working-class parents that I was bookish, and I am grateful they recognized this as a (mostly) good thing and nurtured my interests as best they could. But no one I knew could put the likes of cabbages and kings in context, so I spent a lot of my youth with brow furrowed, wondering what such obscure references meant. Sometimes I'd stumble upon an answer, but a lot of the time I faked knowing things and hoped the answers would be revealed before I embarrassed myself.

As a grown-ass, educated woman I'm certainly now far better equipped (with Mr. Google by my side) to understand literary references and to even make my own. But I've never lost my cultural curiosity (pop or highbrow, depending upon my mood). I'm forever wanting to experience and know things, and to tap into the experiences of others.

With that as prologue, here's my point: it's the end of the year and all the cool kids are making their best-of lists. I've never been good at ranking but I still can't resist the lure of list-making. This, then, is my year-end hodgepodge. It's less "best-of" and more a partial recounting of the cabbages and kings that made my synapses fire and inspired me to learn this past year.

And so the time has come, the blogger said, to talk of many things....

Let's talk theater first. The year 2015 was a good one for seeing plays that made me think. Take, for example, My Fair Lady at Pittsburgh Public Theater. I took my daughter to see this production in January, not because it's a favorite of mine, but because she'd read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in school and we thought it'd be fun to see the derivative musical. I'd not have gone on my own, despite (or maybe because of) having watched the movie many times as a kid when it came around annually on one the networks (When I try to explain to my kids that we had three choices for screen entertainment back in the day, they stare at me with compassion and pity). My Fair Lady features vivid characterizations, witty lines and catchy tunes...but damn, this show makes me twitch. Time Magazine declared in a 2014 article about the 50th anniversary of the film that My Fair Lady "isn’t misogynistic—it’s about misogyny.” My teen agreed that this was true because she felt the show wasn't about a guy changing a girl, but rather about a girl struggling to maintain her personal integrity and sense of self in spite of the manipulations of a controlling guy. It's a fine but important distinction. When you back up and view it from that perspective, My Fair Lady becomes way more than a quaint period piece. Its themes reflect and transcend attitudes from many time periods, and its satire of class prejudices resonate with contemplative modern audiences who recognize their own social attitudes.

But with that said, we drew the line at revisionist theory proposing Eliza as a feminist archetype. True, she espoused choices and articulated what she would and wouldn't stand for. But we still found her limits cringe-worthy since she ultimately allowed herself to remain with a guy who consistently treated her badly. Neither my daughter nor I lust for vengeance, so we (regretfully) rejected the urge to imagine Eliza flinging those slippers at Higgins' head as the curtain fell. But we both dared hope that if Eliza really felt the boor was worthy of her time that she'd embark on a campaign of sensitivity training to rival Higgins' transformative efforts on her...and that she'd walk out the door for good if it wasn't successful.

Heady stuff for a musical, to be sure, but our post-mortem discussion enhanced the show for me. I learned that sometimes twitching in one's seat at a musical can be good for a soul (if you can sit still long enough to figure out what's so unnerving).

And then there were original productions, like Grist for the Mill, produced by Dog and Pony Show Theatricals. I get out to see live theater far less than during my pre-parenthood days, back when I actually worked in the seedy Pittsburgh drama underworld. I'm usually supportive if a friend is performing, but even then I must admit that part of my watching brain is distracted by assessing production values and another part of me is preoccupied with vague wishes that I was still walking the boards. But during this performance of a short story written and performed by local theater phenom Lissa Brennan, I was wholly present and riveted to her words and performance. Despite having known the playwright over many years, this was the first time I'd had the opportunity hear her voice as a dramatic writer. I loved the concept and execution of this piece. The fun Lissa had as writer/performer with language and storytelling was evident and energizing.

Maria Kolivaska Minnaji
The town of Braddock had been the literal and dramatic setting for Lissa's play. Having gathered enough intellectual grist for the mental mill, I wandered around the actual mill town afterwards and wondered about my own family history in the Westinghouse Valley. For a time, my great-grandmother ran a boarding house in East Pittsburgh for men working those insane shifts in the mills. I'm haunted by what I don't know about their lives. Details are forever lost. Not only were they busy surviving versus documenting, but my family makes a twisted virtue out of keeping personal history private. I came away resolved to continue pursuing my genealogical research.

I was drawn to other productions for different reasons. Back when I worked as a psychotherapist, I felt it crucial to maintain a supportive foundation by willingly bearing witness to my patients' painful histories. Psychologist Alice Miller has eloquently written about the empowering nature of what she termed an 'enlightened witness' in the lives of the abused. An enlightened witness supports a victim in the transition to becoming a survivor by sitting with the stories, and that in turn helps to mitigate powerlessness, preserve and pursue hope, and break the cycle of perpetual abuse. I can vouch for the value of sustained active listening, however 'New Age' that may sound, because I saw firsthand how it facilitated healing. Although I no longer work as a therapist, my cultural choices are often guided by a conscious decision to bear witness to mankind's internalized inhumanity through readings and presentations related to slavery and the Holocaust. I feel a moral responsibility to do this because it's crucial for me to understand the worst of history in order to combat modern-day injustices. Plus as a parent, I feel it's part of my job description to be informed enough to connect the dots with my kids.

And so I went to see For the Tree to Drop, produced by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. This was the world premiere of a play also written by the talented and hard-working Lissa Brennan (Okay, seriously, not a stalker fan-girl...personal connections will tear me from the vast suburban cultural wasteland every time). Inspired by Antigone but set in the antebellum/early war-torn South, this play's focus on maintaining dignity and grace in the face of slavery's dehumanization echoed my long-held beliefs about the power of an enlightened witness.

Later in the year, we took our teen and tween to see The Diary of Anne Frank at Pittsburgh Public Theater so they could also bear witness. Anne Frank's diary tops the list of a half dozen formative books from my adolescence. I've visited Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam and I think I've probably read every biography and analysis of her life and history that's been published. This was the second production of the play that I've seen, and while I have some personal issues with how Anne is written, I am pleased that her story continues to be told.

In addition to these and other local productions, I got to take in some theater while traveling. I am not much for the overblown emotionality of musicals, although I do appreciate the talent on display. But Gershwin is my man, so I was thrilled to take in a preview of An American in Paris on Broadway last spring in NYC. This is a far more morally ambitious production compared to the movie, thereby allowing a layering of modern sensibilities and circa-1951 post-war perspectives that I appreciated.

Cardinal Wolsey's and Henry VIII's Hampton Court Palace
I also spent a day enjoying Wolf Hall I and II produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company on Broadway, and even got to meet author Dame Hilary Mantel. I enjoyed the BBC production later in the year for its performances and production values, but I preferred the more stripped-down theatrical version because it laid bare the bones of the story. And the story is really the thing, not the scenery (or chewing thereof). Mantel crafted an entertaining story with historical precision that was accessible to even non-Tudor history buffs, but her genius was in telling a familiar tale from the perspective of an ordinary man who experienced an extraordinary rise to power. I enjoyed her writing and felt encouraged about the popularity of the stage and broadcast productions because I think they proved that with an engaging presentation, accurate history can intrigue and even entertain non-historians. (Plus I got to meet the author during intermission).

A different imaging of Tudor life was at the core of texts&beheadings/ElizabethR, a play I saw at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I went in thinking it would be a straightforward portrayal of Elizabeth's life through an examination of her writing, but I couldn't have been more wrong...or more pleased to be wrong! It circled around and reflected back on itself, initially disconcerting but always intriguing. The framing 'game' structure didn't work for me personally; the concept was interesting but I thought the execution clumsy and a bit too obvious. But even with that distraction, I'm still thinking about this show months later. The actresses mesmerized with their recitations and characters, but we weren't allowed to forget that they were acting when they switched to narrative formats, using modern language in asides. I found those switches distancing and jarring but I'll own that my historical pedantry and knowledge of the subject matter sometimes interfered with my being entertained. We never got close to really 'knowing' Elizabeth I in this play, but then no one ever really did in life, either. The score by Gina Leishman was sublime, as were the performances, and in those moments the production floated out of time and space. I hope a recording will be forthcoming. This was one production that challenged me out my comfort zone, and I was glad of it and left wanting more.

I don't tend to see a lot of movies but I took in a few this year. The 1942 classic Casablanca was live-scored by the Pittsburgh Symphony and I do so love that film, so off we went. In addition to the characters we've come to know and love, Casablanca, famously featured Morocco and Paris (albeit both created on a soundstage); WWII not just as the setting but as a cultural phenomenon; and the nobility and moral conflicts of La Résistance française even as such were playing out in real life in France. All of that outweighs the romantic schlock that drives the plot -- which is a good thing because otherwise I'd not be able to stand it! Plus there's the witty and infinitely quotable dialogue. And let's face it, Ingrid's costumes are fabulous.

I was worried that live scoring might prove distracting. Pittsburgh Symphony played along with the score, with the orchestra situated onstage directly beneath the projection screen and Guest Conductor Emil de Cou following the film on a monitor. It was impossible for the musicians to play throughout the entire film as they would have interfered with some key dramatic moments, so the original score dominated in certain scenes. Because of that, at times it didn't seem as though this was the best use of a full orchestra. As it turned out, the symphony didn't distract since our attention was thoroughly riveted by the film. My family thought the best moment was when the small Rick's Cafe band was augmented by the full PSO swelling into patriotic majesty during La Marseillaise.

This is an iconic film and always enjoyable as such, but the magic was enhanced for me by watching this film in the very movie house where Pittsburghers first saw it back in the day. What we now call Heinz Hall was built as Loew's Penn Theatre movie palace in the late 1920s. Casablanca premiered in the same building in Pittsburgh on January 23, 1943!

I like when things come full circle. Here’s looking at you, kid.

Trafalgar Square, National Gallery in background
A few of my alternate 427 careers have to do with museum curation, so I was hooked on the subject matter of National Gallery before ever seeing it. A New York Times review describes the documentary as being "....about art and process, money and mystery, and all the many, many people gazing and gawping..." which I guess pretty much sums it up. I loved this film for its behind-the-scenes peeks at conservation efforts; for the examples of people trying to use words to describe their reactions to art (including a group of visually impaired patrons who experienced embossed reproductions of artworks); and for the meta-conversations about making curation relevant to the public. But mostly I loved it for the long still shots of people looking at art. You wouldn't think (or at least I didn't) that looking at people looking at art would be fascinating, but it is. After I saw this movie, I resolved to spend some more time when in galleries not just soaking in art, but watching the people soak it in as well. Once I've reached a personal saturation point at a museum, I find myself trying to clear my visual palette by staring blankly at a wall. Now I also people-watch...and frankly, watching people looking at art is more interesting than looking at a blank wall.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Gustave Klimt
I also saw Mr. Turner and The Woman in Gold Based based, respectively, on the lives of painter Joseph William Mallard Turner and Maria Altman (whose family won a seven year battle against the Republic of Austria for the return of Gustav Klimt's iconic painting of her aunt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I). I enjoyed both films but my inner-historical pedant felt that while the portrayals rang true to the essence of what I'd read about each person, there were too many fabricated scenes and embroidered bits aimed at ratcheting up the drama quotient. Real lives that are compelling enough to get movies made about them ought to be portrayed as close to the facts as possible. I was particularly annoyed at how badly The Imitation Game altered the story of Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing for "dramatic purposes." I understand the argument that an entertaining if not entirely factual portrayal can serve to stimulate  interest and exploration. But I don't believe that's a strong enough argument when weighed against the need to respect and honor an individual and the historical record. (And this is why I've never been invited to work in Hollywood!)

I'm nothing if not contrary so therefore it shouldn't shock that I am intrigued by revisionist Shakespeare productions. The play's the thing so don't mess with the man's words, but I'm fine with innovative productions. Purist period reproductions, deconstructed, whatever -- go for it. But damn it, your staging and costuming choices need to make cohesive, consistent and internal sense. A local production of Othello was well-acted and staged but I felt it abandoned that thread of production continuity with random costuming choices. National Theatre Live's filming of Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet was dramatically impressive (and he redeemed himself in my eyes for his overwrought pseudo-Khan with this performance). But the costuming and some staging left me puzzled. The play's the thing! In related news, I'm now a third of the way through my goal of seeing all of Shakespeare's plays performed live (What? I'm totally counting that Hamlet).

I attended several adult education classes at Carnegie Museum of Art this year: Picturing Across the Atlantic: The Beginnings of American Art with art historian Isaac King; John White Alexander's Murals for Mr. Carnegie's Museum and Their Survival in the Smoky City with Curator of Education Lucy Stewart and Chief Conservator Ellen Baxter; and Lasting Impressions: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Fin-de-siecle Paris with art historian Clarisse Fava-Piz. I know better, but I still feel like CMOA was spying on my art history interests when choosing subject matter for its adult education programs this year!

I'm fascinated by the emergence of art and culture in the fledgling United States and how such coincided with the creation of our founding stories, particularly narratives attached to George Washington. Dr. King wove all these factors into a fascinating tapestry.

Thomas Hart Benton's America Today
Thomas Hart Benton's America Today
The mural lecture was of particular interest since I'd spent some time gazing at Alexander's staircase mural at the Carnegie last year when I wrote about Andrew Carnegie (I still like to think that's him up there). I enjoyed getting to know more about the artist and this work within the context of American Muralist tradition. Learning more about that tradition helped me better appreciate seeing Thomas Hart Benton's America Today mural, simultaneously on exhibit at The Met.

The Impressionist lecture series provided a great foundation for several art appreciation pilgrimages that I took later in the year. Since I usually avoid what's trendy, it's a little embarrassing that I claim among my favorite genres and artists one who'd also among the best-loved in popular culture. The world's obsession with Van Gogh has as much to do with gossiping about his dramatic life as it does with appreciating his actual art. There's a corresponding apologist attitude in art historian circles that tries to ward off speculation about Van Gogh's 'madness' in favor of solely focusing on the art. Good luck with that, I say, because I don't believe we do our collective understanding justice when we divorce any artist from his art, circumstances or times. That's not to say that every discussion about Van Gogh should begin and end with absinthe, ears and asylums! But a discerning study of his foreshortened life illuminates many of his artistic choices. My background as a psychotherapist specializing for a time in the treatment and research of bipolar disorder compels me to believe that Vincent Van Gogh's concurrent psychiatric and medical illnesses were pervasive and episodically dominating. He could function well enough for long periods and was not completely divorced from reality, but that reality was always filtered through the need to manage his episodes and symptoms. 

This particular lecture coincided with the Carnegie's Visiting Van Gogh: Still Life, Basket of Apples exhibit, and it also served as a nice primer prior to my family's summer trip to Paris and Auvers-sur-Oise.
La Mairie d'Auvers and The Town Hall at Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh

Auvers field and Wheat Fields near Auvers by Vincent Can Gogh

Église Notre-Dame d'Auvers

L'église d'Auvers-sur-Oise, vue du chevet by Vincent Van Gogh

My personal appreciation of art has its foundations not in artistic theory or personal attempts at creating, but in an understanding of art as an expression of personal interests and influences; as a manifestation of social, religious and cultural influences; and as a method of historical record-keeping. The lesser-known figures of the Impressionist era are as interesting to me as the big names, so I was delighted to visit Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting at Philadelphia Museum of Art and Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye at National Gallery. Caillebotte's collection formed the core of the Musée d'Orsay, which I visited later in the summer. If he's widely known for anything it's for his patronage of the Impressionist movement, but Caillebotte was a precise, meticulous painter of dramatic perspectives. It was a joy to see so much of his work in one exhibit. Durand-Ruel was a shrewd businessman whose commitment to the Impressionist movement nearly bankrupted him, but retrospectively seems a stroke of genius. His approach to selling art (literally and figuratively) influences the market to this day. It was awe-inspiring to see the assembled collection and realize how many different artists and visions he brokered.

Audubon's Aviary: The Final Flight (Part III of The Complete Flock) at New York Historical Society was a different kind of visual treat. The Historical Society owns Audubon's original bird watercolors and illustrations, and this particular exhibit showcased preparatory watercolors for the double-elephant-folio print edition of his The Birds of America. It was thrilling to see the great naturalist-artist's work up close and view some of his techniques. The images were displayed in the order in which they were engraved, thereby allowing us to view them sequentially in the order Audubon created them -- just as the original subscribers would have done. The University of Pittsburgh owns one of the 120 complete double elephant folios of John James Audubon’s Birds of America known to exist, and I like to stop in at Hillman Library to ogle whatever image is on display when I'm there. (You can peruse the online images HERE).

Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
With Angels and Archangels: Spotlight on Angelic Images at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine was a tour led by Senior Cathedral Guide Tom Fedorek. I first become aware of St. John the Divine when I read Madeline L'Engle's adult novels A Small Rain and A Severed Wasp. Those books, with their themes of compassion, acceptance, and moving forward in spite of our imperfections, have long resonated with me. That the modern-day Gothic cathedral-in-progress which served as the setting really existed seemed too good to be true! Visiting it over the years has been a pilgrimage of grace for me, even though work has stopped on the building. I'm always intrigued by the stories I imagine are embedded in stone and glass and this thematic tour was, well, divine.

There have been other plays and movies and art,  wondrous travels that I'm still sorting through, a renewed if intermittent interest in poetry, and above all books and music (both listened to and performed). All of these things have been the embodiment of antidotes when exposed to bottomless social media rage...what I've used to fill myself when drained by a world gone mad with extremist rhetoric. This embarrassment of cultural riches is something I feel so very, very lucky to have experienced, and that privilege has prompted me to think about what I can give back to the world. I'll finish up my cabbaging and kinging by mentioning one last event that is also serving as a personal beginning.

The We Can Do It! exhibit at Heinz History Center examined the Pittsburgh homefront during WWII with a particular focus on this city's industrial output. It offered detailed perspectives on a particular time and place, and I hope some of the pieces will remain on permanent exhibit. 

My kids and father, We Can Do it, Heinz History Center
I'd volunteered at the museum beginning in 2011 but haven't been connected much following the untimely death this year of Volunteer Coordinator Sandra Baker, a fellow later-in-life historian whom I considered a friend and mentor. The program she nurtured has changed in a way that excludes me, and I need to redirect my historical energies. My late mother-in-law left behind a collection of letters written by her 17 year old self and her parents to one of her brothers serving in the Army Air Force during World War II. All four brothers served in the military in some capacity during that war, two in active combat in the European theater. The letters are a unique record of one family's experiences, but I think they are universally appealing. Inspired by the We Can Do It! exhibit, I'm hoping to transcribe these letters, perhaps with a goal toward publication.

I'm looking forward to the coming year. Perhaps I'll finally learn why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings. Bonne santé!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pittsburgh for Pittsburghers Gift List

Got a list? Checking it twice? Fortunately, you're spoilt for choice when it comes to finding unique and creative gifts by Pittsburgh artists and authors; sports team-themed stock; or tacky tchotchkes for Yinzers and jagoffs. And let's face it: gifting memberships to our fabulous museums, certificates to local restaurants, and subscriptions to regional performing arts organizations is almost too easy (but still, do it anyway). 

To broaden your choices, here are my personal gift suggestions for lovers of Pittsburgh history, architecture and culture.
Pittsburgh's Mansions, Melanie Linn Gutowski
1. Pittsburgh's Mansions by Melanie Linn Gutowski. I really love this accessible, portable history of the grand homes of Pittsburgh's past. Published by Arcadia Press in 2013, local writer Gutowski hits all the marks for presenting fascinating potted histories and drool-worthy archival photos of houses you wish were still around and ones that are but won't let the likes of you through the front door. Retails online but do a good turn and shop local; you can find this at your local bookstore or museum gift shop. Pair it with a promise to do one of Pittsburgh's many grand house tours together.

Pittsburgh: a coloring book, Rick Antolic

2. This Pittsburgh-themed Adult Coloring Book. The mania for coloring books for adults (as opposed to adult coloring books) was bound to hit The Burgh at some point before it peaked. Pittsburgh artist Rick Antolic has done the city proud with Pittsburgh: a coloring book filled with his 27 clearly rendered detailed illustrations. Buy one to color and one to keep clean--oh, right, buy some to gift, too. Check your local bookstore or buy directly. You'll of course want to add fancy colored pencils and crayons (Be creative and go easy on the black and gold)!

Macaroni Boy, Katherine Ayres
3. I keep meaning to write about the Pittsburgh Banana Company explosion of December 1936. Maybe I'll get around to doing so later this week (or next December, more like) to celebrate its anniversary, but I'll guarantee that Pittsburgh-based author Katherine Ayres' version of the story is way better than anything I'll write. It's featured in her 2004 middle grade novel, Macaroni Boy. Don't be put off by this being a kid's book. It's a mystery nestled within a realistic look at Strip District life during the Great Depression, as much fun to read for a 40 year old as for a 4th grader. Find your copy at a local bookseller and present it in a fancy banana dish filled with macaroni, or something (Because the banana split was invented in the Westmoreland County town of Latrobe, duh!).

August Wilson Century Cycle
4. Nothing compares to seeing a production of one of August Wilson's plays. But if you can't take them all in, reading the August Wilson Century Cycle which includes all ten of his amazing decade-by-decade stories of African-American life is the next best thing. Hell, it might even be better, since you can read it all on your own time. The set is incredibly spendy, but seriously, what a gift! Engage your discount-searching engines for this one, or see if one of our used bookstores can find it for you.

A related gift that will cost you nothing is a link to recordings of staged readings of the Century Cycle done in Fall 2013 by notable actors and actresses. Performed at The Green Space at WNYC in New York City, the audio was available for free listening online for several months in 2015 but is no longer available on the site. However, Open Culture preserved links HERE to Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

I could easily fill this entry with lists of Pittsburgh-related books, but I suppose a bit of variety is called for. If you haven't the time to hit up local craft markets, hie thee hence to Etsy, that fabulous online shopping center and time-suck. Let me make it easier for you: the following shops offer some fun Pittsburgh history-related items.

PghShirtCo's Igloo Tee

5. PghShirtCo Igloo Tee features a cool architectural rendering of the late lamented Civic Arena (or Mellon Arena, depending upon your corporate allegiance). Give your Igloo-lover this shirt along with a link to my blog article, Things That Aren't There Any More: Civic Arena and Lower Hill, for context. Available through the Etsy shop.

6. My fellow mapheads will enjoy resting their weary cartography-filled heads on these Pittsburgh map pillows, available in ivory or black from Etsy shop Jazzberry Blue.

7. Also map-themed are these aluminum cuff bracelets created using vintage Pittsburgh maps from Etsy shop decembermoondesign.

8. Pittsburgh-based photographer and historic preservation advocate Chris Litherland inspires me daily on his Facebook page with his gorgeous shots showcasing the architectural beauty of Pittsburgh and surrounding region. You can purchase prints of his gorgeous works from his website.

Chris Litherland Photography

Pittsburgh Bridges Poster, Joseph Boquiren
9. The Internet will tell you that Pittsburgh rivals Venice for the most number of bridges within the city limits: 446 to 443. Granted, some of ours aren't as picturesque (or sturdy) as their Venetian counterparts. But you can show off your civic pride and pay homage to our infrastructure with this 17 x 37 Pittsburgh Bridges Poster designed by Joseph Boquiren. It's one of my all-time favorites, and you can get your own by searching online or hitting up the Heinz History Center shop.

10. Quick, name a Pittsburgh artist.

No, not him.

Seriously, if you or someone on your gift list thinks that Pittsburgh art began and ended with Andy Warhol, it's time to expand artistic perspective.

John Kane (1860-1934) was the first contemporary American folk artist to be recognized by a museum. A Scotland-born itinerant laborer who spent his hard-knocks adult life in Pittsburgh, the mostly self-taught Kane became a sensation at age 67 when his painting Scene in the Scottish Highlands was accepted by the prestigious Carnegie International. The reception for Kane's work paved the way for the widespread popularity of other, better-known outsider art and folk artists like Grandma Moses and Clementine Hunter. His work is especially appealing to Pittsburghers because he created so many vibrant scenes of our industrial landscape which still resonate today. Take, for example, Turtle Creek Valley. This is a scan of my print from the 1939 book Modern American Painting.

John Kane, Turtle Creek Valley

Intrigued? Cultivate a shared interest in Pittsburgh artist John Kane!
First of all, there are some books to share. John Kane, Painter by Leon Anthony Arkus is the main reference, published in 1971. It contains Kane's autobiography as told by him, plus a catalogue rasionne of his paintings. John Kane: Modern America's First Folk Painter was published in 1984 by Galerie St. Etienne in New York to coincide with an exhibition hosted there and at the Carnegie. This is a much smaller but lovingly presented biography containing mostly black-and white reproductions of his works.

After you've both read the book/s, plan a visit with the art-lover on your list to the Carnegie Museum of Art to take in the largest collection of Kane's paintings, 17 in all. Then go on a field trip to Greensburg's newly-remodeled Westmoreland Museum of American Art, where five Kanes donated by the late Richard Scaife recently assumed pride of place with a sixth owned by the museum.

There are only around 130 known Kane paintings (although there may be some hundred year-old railroad cars graced with his work under layers of paint, dating from his time painting cars in a McKees Rocks rail yard!). Kane is well-represented locally at CMOA and WMAA but his paintings can be found as far afield as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Hirshhorn Museum, Barnes and Phillips Collections, et cetera. You could bond over months of Kane pilgrimages!

BONUS SUGGESTION: give the gift of local music.There are so many fabulous artists performing in and around Pittsburgh, and many have recordings to be purchased. No links from me because I'd be here all night listing them all. Just follow your bliss, do a search, and purchase tickets to shows or buy recordings directly from artist sites to show your support.

OH BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE! The Pittsburgh history-steampunk-cartography fan on your list will adore this Alternate Histories Pittsburgh and Allegheny International Spaceport print!

A birds-eye view lithograph entitled Pittsburgh, Allegheny & Birmingham published by Otto Krebs in the 1870s has been cleverly altered to show the truth of Pittsburgh's role in old-timey space exploration  include a spaceport hovering above the Monongahela House Hotel and a rocket blasting off toward the West End. I may have to include this image if I ever finish my book on the Monongahela House. This 11x17 inch print can adorn your loved one's wall...or yours. There are a lot of other clever altered images on the Alternate Histories site, but since many include Pittsburgh-zombie references, I had to pass them by (zombies ranking high on my list of aversions, right up there with crows, clowns, vampires and Neil Diamond).

Anyway, happy shopping and happy holidays!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Forgotten History: Pittsburgh's First Museum

Given the predominance of the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History in Pittsburgh's cultural scene, we can perhaps be forgiven for thinking they were the first museums to grace our fair city. But Pittsburgh had a museum founded by a hometown boy named James Reid Lambdin a decade before Andrew Carnegie was even a gleam in his father's Scottish eye.

James Reid Lambdin
James Reid Lambdin, c. 1845, miniature self-portrait
National Portrait Gallery
James Reid Lambdin was born in Pittsburgh on May 10, 1807, the middle of three sons born to James and Prudence Harrison Lambdin. His carpenter father died in 1812, and James left school a few years later to help support his family at age 12 by working in a local bookstore. James was inspired to become an artist at the tender age of 7 after seeing a reproduction of the legendary Gilbert Stuart's portraits of George Washington. He took advantage of access to art instruction books at the shop where he worked. In 1822 at age 15 he moved to Philadelphia to further his artistic ambitions.

Artist Thomas Sully, who had studied under Stuart and Benjamin West, agreed to take James on as an apprentice. But before doing so, he insisted that James complete six months of training with artist Edward Miles. Miles' miniatures and portraits were renowned throughout Russia and England, and in his youth he had studied with famed British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. James Reid Lambdin absorbed all he could from these impressive influences, and within two years of arriving in Philadelphia exhibited a portrait at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He was fortunate enough to have his own likeness painted by Sully, and during that process he would have benefited from seeing the master at work close at hand. James made the most of his time in Philadelphia, joining The Painters Club and attending its weekly meetings.

James Reid Lambdin returned to Pittsburgh in July 1824. Once back in the city of his birth, he began to advertise his services as a drawing instructor and portrait painter. Unfortunately, there was only so much work to be had in 1820s Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Gazette
Life as a portrait painter in early America meant traveling to wherever people of means who might want their portraits painted lived. Lambdin therefore left Pittsburgh once again to peddle his talents in various cities via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He was an artist of considerable skill and impressive training and was able to steadily built his artistic reputation and portfolio. He even managed to snag a wife during this period, having met Mary O'Hara Cochran as a pupil in one of his Pittsburgh drawing classes. They became engaged in May 1826.

Peale Museum, New York City, c. 1825.
Museum of the City of New York
The couple had an extended betrothal. Pittsburgh Judge William Wilkins offered in early 1827 to financially sponsor James for two years of European travel and study. That kind of sponsorship and patronage was an artist's dream come true. This was an era before full color art reproductions, and nothing could beat studying the great artistic masterworks of Europe in person.

Unfortunately for James Lambdin, financial setbacks caused Wilkins to rescind his offer. Although James painted his way to his planned departure in New York City, he could not set sail. While he cooled his heels in New York, he visited the museum of his friend Rubens Peale, a son of famed American portraitist Charles Willson Peale. Due to poor eyesight Rubens had not pursued an artistic career like his father and brothers, and was instead making his way as a museum director. Rubens first served as director of his father's Philadelphia Museum (aka Peale's American Museum), then as co-founder and director with his artist-brother Rembrandt at the Baltimore Peale Museum, and finally as founder and director of the Peale Museum in New York City. James had come to know the flagship Philadelphia Peale museum situated in Philadelphia's Independence Hall from his time in that city. He would have recalled it as the prototype for Rubens' New York establishment. Encouraged by Rubens, it didn't take long for James to decide to capitalize on his connections and open his own museum establishment back in Pittsburgh. In making this move, James was likely hoping for a steadier income from the museum business and hoping to comfortably settle into domestic life.

The Lambdin Museum Collection
And so it was that James Reid Lambdin opened the first museum west of the Allegheny Mountains on September 8, 1828. He married Mary O'Hara Cochran three days later on September 11, 1828 at Pittsburgh's Trinity Cathedral.

Mary O'Hara Cochran, c. 1850, by James Reid Lambdin.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Pittsburgh Museum of Natural History and Gallery of Fine Art was situated at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Market Street downtown. The museum solicited subscribers who maintained memberships, but it was also open to the general public with admission of 25¢ for adults and 12 1/2¢ for children. It should be noted that these were hardly bargain prices for working class Pittsburghers, since a tailor in 1830 might earn 25¢ for a pair of pantaloons that took him 15 hours to sew!

The Lambdin collection consisted of an eclectic assortment of natural history, archaeological and artistic specimens and reflected the philosophy of Charles Willson Peale, who thought such museums should be made available for education "to both the unlearned and the unwise."

American museums of the day were not that far removed from the individual "curiosity cabinets" which collectors maintained to try to categorize and tell stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world. Whether in an actual cabinet, room, or museum space, specimens were displayed in both logical and idiosyncratic organization, and collecting itself was a haphazard affair governed by subjective tastes for beauty, oddities and marvels. A combination of natural history and art was typical of such collections, given the era's philosophical and scholarly interrelationship of art and science.
Pittsburgh Gazette, May 1830

Pittsburgh was fortunate to have a representative assortment of early American and European artwork in its museum, made possible by James Lambdin's profession and contacts. Like the Peale museums, the Lambdin Museum's art collection would have included original pieces as well as copies of old and contemporary famous works. James displayed his own art and that of Charles Willson Peale, copies of Gilbert Stuart's works, and work by his teacher Thomas Sully. He hosted visiting expeditions, too, including the 18x14 foot Calvary or The Moment Before the Crucifixion by one-eyed painter, author and playwright William Dunlap. That monumental painting, which Dunlap considered his masterpiece, was sent on national tour in 1828 and thus made its way to Pittsburgh (the current location of the painting, if it even still exists, is unknown).

James Lambdin's apprentice Russell Smith claimed that there were about 60 paintings at the museum, some of which had belonged to a German count (possibly a member of the near-by Harmonite community, or the Baron Muller mentioned in Thomas Cushing's History of Allegheny County). 

The following letter from notable Pittsburgher William Croghan, father of Mary Croghan Schenley, was written when he was preparing to sell off his own collection in January 1831. It gives us an idea of the quality of artwork that may have been showcased in Lambdin's Museum:
...I expect soon to leave here & know now whether I shall again go to keeping house, I am therefore anxious to dispose of those I offered and others--Those I offered you were 1st Oedipus, Antigone & Polyneus, from a story in the Greek mythology) by Biloq a French artist--This painting was purchased in Paris, in 1824, by W. Lee, (a connoisseur)formerly our consul at Bardran & late 4th auditor of account, & for which he then paid as he spared me, 1500 francs
2nd Is a head (doubtless an original) by Rembrandt, purchased at the same time & by the same person for 500 francs
3. The Head of a Miser said by VanDyke (doubtful) certainly of fine execution.
4. St. Peter, by Tiepolo an Italian artist
5 & 6. Concert & Feast--Muller   
6 & 7. Freebooters--&Money changers--these are two splendid paintings & universally admired--by Vos
8 "Blessings before meals." Has the appearance of being once a fine painting, it is much injured by age--
For those paintings I am willing to take Three Hundred Dollars (300) I think, they would be an acquisition to any gallery--the motives that induce me to sell are what I had stated--Respectfully
Yr oh Sr
I leave here about 1s February next                                                                   WiCroghan
Just as curators do today, James Reid Lambdin worked at keeping his exhibits fresh and exciting in order to entice the public through his doors. Unlike modern-day museum curators, Lambdin's natural history offerings were, well, really fresh. At one, in addition to taxidermied representations specimens from the avian world, Lambdin's Museum was home to two live white crows.

Pittsburgh Gazette

Pittsburgh Gazette
The museum also featured a novelty of the day: gas lighting. Although gas lighting was commonly in use in Europe and other US cities, in 1829 Lambdin's Museum was "brilliantly illuminated" and was one of the first public spaces in the city of Pittsburgh to experiment with this technology. The city itself would not be lit with gas until April 1837.

Aside from using the novelty lighting of his day, James Lambdin also sought to impress and drum up business by displaying curiosities, much as P.T. Barnum would do a decade later. Lambdin supplemented his regular collection with traveling exhibits of Egyptian mummies, artificial fireworks, armless musicians, and dioramas on subjects ranging from the Great Fire of Russia to the Battle of Waterloo.

There was also a visiting mermaid. She was apparently quite a hit in 1831 -- or at least her ad copy claimed so, stating that even the most "sceptical persons expressed a satisfaction on beholding it."

Not everyone was impressed with Lambdin's Museum. German naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied passed through Pittsburgh in October 1832 and had this to say:
In the local museum, I had seen several interesting animals native to this region, and had ordered them from a fisherman at the fish market. Dr. Harlan of Philadelphia had also given me a letter to the owner of the museum, a portrait painter, Mr Lambdin; and through this I had been able to familiarize myself with those interesting animals. Otherwise the museum is scarcely worth seeing and does not deserve mention.
Apparently not a fan of American portraiture, that Prince Maximilian. Too bad he didn't get to see the mermaid.

Despite such criticism, James persevered with gathering specimens. Existing letters detail shipments of shells and birds and mention his friendship with John James Audubon. The museum received a positive review, with homage paid to the extensive avian collection, from Mrs. Anne Newport Royall. She is considered by some to be America's first professional female journalist, and she described the museum in an 1829 travel book entitled Mrs. Royall's Pennsylvania. Her description of the museum gives us a singular tantalizing glimpse of the variety of the exhibits and the way some specimens were displayed:
Lamdbin's Museum and Gallery of Paintings was established 8th September, 1828, and now contains a valuable collection of paintings from ancient as well as modern masters. Fine landscapes, by Doughty, Birch, Lawrence, &c. Pictures from the collection of Baron Basse Muller. Portraits of distinguished characters, by Stewart, Sally, Peale, and Lambdin.

The Museum contains about two hundred foreign birds, among which are the birds of Paradise; twenty quadrupeds; five hundred minerals; three hundred fossils, amongst which are many bones of the Mammoth; three hundred marine shells; twelve hundred impressions of medals; one hundred ancient coins; a handsome collection of articles from the South seas; marine productions; Indian articles; &c. &c. 

I would suppose Mr. Lambdin to be man of great taste himself, from the neatness and skill displayed in the arrangement of the articles displayed in his Museum--all the articles being put up in neater and better order than any Museum I have met with. The shelves are white, neat, and so regular that they are a show of themselves; and the whole enlosed (sic) with glass. Here I, for the first time, saw flowers of all sorts, pinks, roses, &c. &c. made out of seashells, the most extraordinary of labor and ingenuity I ever saw, excepting the wooden globe in Salem Museum.  These flowers are of all sizes and colors, and are said to be the work of  Mrs. Peale, of Philadelphia.  

Mr. Lambdin is himself an Artist, quite a genteel and amiable man.  It is hoped that he may receive the favor and patronage of travellers and enlightened strangers who pass through Pittsburg, it being the only specimen of taste or amusement in the city--no library, no atheneum, no gardens, no theater...
It is unclear from from Mrs. Royall's description whether she actually met the "genteel and amiable" James Lambdin. Although the museum bore his name and regularly advertised its collection, he was in fact largely an absentee curator, inconsistently present in Pittsburgh due to continued travels seeking portrait commissions. James and Mary and their newborn son George stayed for extended periods of time from the 1830s on with friends in Ohio and Mississippi. It was Lambdin's painting apprentice, a 16 year old painter christened William Thompson Russell Smith but known as Russell Smith, who maintained the Lambdin Museum when the boss was away. Russell Smith recalled in his memoirs:
Portrait of Russell Smith by James Reid Lambdin, 1838

In the agreement with Mr. Lambdin I was to aid him in any way I could in his painting as a return for his instruction; but as he was about to open the "Pittsburgh Museum"--a partial off-shoot of Peale's in Philadelphia, he had little time to paint or give instruction and I gradually drifted into helping in the stuffing of birds and beasts, arranging minerals, antiquities and Indian costumes--of which there was a most extensive collection given by General Clarke (Lewis' companion)--and hanging the pictures etc; and finally keeping accounts and managing when Mr. Lambdin was off in the South for five months at a time reaping a harvest with his brush to help pay the rent and other expenses of the Museum, which did not pay its own way.

The museum functioned as a cultural center and atheneum and was home to the Philosophical Society and Pittsburgh Reading Club. Nineteenth century author Samuel Young recalled:
Well do we remember Lambdin's Museum at the corner of Fourth and Market streets. Here night after night a dozen or so of youngsters, who sought to be Forrests or Booths, used to gather and perform upon the stage. The only pay Lambdin ever gave his performers of this class was a hot lunch, and Englishman-like, a big pitcher of hot punch. There was not enough of this latter to "make drunk come," but it put all in a good humor. Our position in this galaxy of genius was that of a singer of Irish songs, and we were able to "bring down the house" on occasions.

The museum was also the site of scholarly lectures such as these on Chemistry. 

Pittsburgh Gazette, March 1832

Pittsburgh Gazette, September 1829

Whither, Lambdin Museum?
Pittsburgh Gazette
Despite its prominence in Pittsburgh's cultural scene, the Lambdin Museum was not a resounding financial success. James' passion was for painting, not museum administration. He would later describe his curatorial efforts as "years of trouble, vexation, and pecuniary loss." At least through January 1833 James was still showing his work at a gallery in Pittsburgh, but he and Mary and their son moved to Louisville Kentucky in 1832. He transferred the contents of his Pittsburgh museum to a rented building on Main Street in Louisville, and a board of trustees incorporated the Louisville Museum Company in February 1835. The museum was rechartered in 1838 as the Harlan Museum Company, but little is known about its subsequent fate. By that point James Lambdin and his family had permanently moved to Philadelphia. He and Mary raised seven surviving of nine children, and their oldest son George Cochran Lambdin achieved considerable success as a still-life flower painter.

James Reid Lambdin went on to a stellar career as a painter of some of America's most prominent citizens of the day. Every American president from John Quincy Adams to James Garfield sat for him. He was a prolific artist and his paintings can be found in museums and collections around the country. Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art possesses two of his portraits.

Benjamin Darlington by James Reid Lambdin
Carnegie Museum of Art
Henry Clay by James Reid Lambdin
Carnegie Museum of Art

Lambdin's assistant Russell Smith went on to achieve great acclaim as a landscape artist. Poor Smith didn't get much painting done under his apprenticeship with James Lambdin but he didn't seem to mind, later noting:
....I did very little painting until I was twentyone; but I never blamed Mr. Lambdin; he could not help it; and I believe, in my various duties, I learned much that was of great use to me in after life, when my pursuit of painting took an entirely different turn. Mr. Lambdin also had a good collection of books on Art and these I used much to my advantage especially "Edwards' Perspective," and, in order to put its' rules into practice, I drew many buildings and views in and about Pittsburg, which have since the destruction of the Great Fire, a value....
Russell Smith's paintings of Pittsburgh are indeed valuable treasures that preserve a visual record of the city from the early 1830s, and James Lambdin's portraits allow us to visualize the men and women of their day. But the museum that they maintained is long gone, the building likely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1845. The site is today occupied by the PPG Plaza/Ice Rink/Tomb of the Unknown Bowler.

Selected Sources and Suggested Reading
Crutcher, Lawrence M. George Keats of Kentucky: A Life. University Press of Kentucky, 2012.
Cushing, Thomas. History of Allegheny County. Chicago: A. Warner & Company, 1889.
Kelly, George Edward. Allegheny County, a sesqui-centennial review. Pittsburgh, PA: Allegheny County Sesqui-Centenntial Committee, 1938.
Lambdin, James R. Journal of James R. Lambdin. Division of Archives and Manuscripts, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, PA.
Lewis, Virginia E. Russell Smith Romantic Realist. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1956.
Martin, Scott C. Killing Time: Leisure and Culture in Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1800-1850.
University of Pittsburgh Press, Nov 1, 1995.
O'Connor, John Jr.  Reviving a Forgotten Artist: A Sketch of James Reid Lambdin, The Pittsburgh Painter of American Statesmen. Carnegie Magazine 12 (September 1938): 115–18
Sargent, Elizabeth Kennedy. Lambdin’s Pittsburgh Museum of Natural History and Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1828–1832.  Tutorial research paper, Chatham College, 1984.
Swetnam, George. Pittsburgh's Early Painters. The Pittsburgh Press. Sunday August 6, 1967. United States, Bureau of Labor Statistics. History of Wages in the United States from Colonial Times to 1928: Revision of Bulletin No. 499 with Supplement, 1929-1933. Gale Research Company, 1966.
Weidner, Ruth Irwin. The Lambdin Family Collection of Paintings by James Reid Lambdin and George Cochran Lambdin. Philadelphia: Schwarz Fine Paintings, 2002.
Witte, Stephen S. Witte and Marsha V. Gallagher. The North American Journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied: May 1832-April 1833, Volume 1. University of Oklahoma Press, Apr 9, 2014.
Young, Samuel. The history of my life; being a biographical outline of the events of a long and busy life.  Pittsburgh: Herald Print. Co.,1890.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Hating on Renoir-hating (only, not really)

When Pierre-Auguste Renoir showed up in Argenteuil and crashed a painting idyll between Édouard Manet and Claude Monet, an irritated Manet snapped "He has no talent, that boy. Since he’s your friend, you should tell him to give up painting!”

The Garden in the Rue Cortot, Montmartre
One of four Renoir paintings from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art collection

Some folks in Boston wish Monet had taken his advice and steered Renoir in a different direction. Weary of curatorial foci on this prolific Impressionist, a group of self-proclaimed Renoir-haters staged what has been termed a "playful protest" outside the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on 5 October 2015 (LINK). The small group reportedly bemused on-lookers with its chants for Gauguin and placards bearing sayings such as "God Hates Renoir" (Who knew God took aesthetic positions?) and "We're not Iconoclasts, Renoir Just SUCKS at Painting." (My personal favorite for the helpful qualification). 

Hating on Renoir, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo credit: Boston Globe

There's a lot to unpack here, but I'll say at the outset that I love the protest! Not because I think Renoir outright sucks, or because I think that individual protesters' tastes ought to dominate museum galleries.

I love it because it's gotten people thinking about art, museums, and the nature of protest.

Well, some people, anyway. Plenty don't get it. The social media commentary that I've read in response to this story largely seems to condemn the protesters as sophomoric for wallowing in "first world problems" and seeking their 15 minutes of fame on such trivial issues. There were many comments about how the crew should "get a job" and stop wasting time. The gist of more considered criticism complained that such a trivial protest precluded caring about other pressing social problems, and/or that press coverage of the ReNOir gang/RSAP demeaned more important concerns.

I call BS on all of that. With the very nature of news reporting being reconstructed and redistributed across many varied digital venues, we're spoilt for choice when it comes to what news we want to read. The fact that this protest received press coverage doesn't take away from stories about the on-going Syrian immigrant crisis, concerns about law enforcement biases toward black Americans in the United States, stories related to Mental Health Week, dithering about the American presidential campaign, or updates on the devastating floods in South Carolina (all things I read and cared about today in addition to articles about this demonstration). 

Seriously, let's acknowledge that caring about art doesn't mean one doesn't care about other things. 

If anything, caring about art has the ability to enhance how much we care about global concerns. Witness the overwhelmingly positive response to the work of the men and women involved in The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program during World War II. The work of these Monuments Men has only received its positive due in the last decade, but the belated respect is enhanced by the  realization of how much cultural identity could have been lost had these people NOT cared about art.

Given that historical context, current assaults on cultural heritage and its protectors in Syria become that much more poignant and pressing.

Frankly, I see the general backlash to this protest as akin to valuing reductionistic thinking over holistic reasoning without recognizing that there's a time and place for both perspectives. It's also a larger commentary on how art is valued in today's world. For most of us, visiting an art museum is a weekend distraction, a luxury afforded to those who have the time and means to indulge. It's ever been thus; see my ramblings about that HERE.

Fortunately, there are good folks out there who understand the power that harnessing creativity has to affect change, and who create programs like Pittsburgh's Love Front Porch.

But for too many others, taking art seriously is seen as self-indulgent and naive (and apparently rage-inducing for some  vitriolic social media commentators). Even President Obama, who usually 'gets' the Big Picture (so to speak), took a gratuitous swipe at art history majors in 2014 when he said:
"....folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don't want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I'm just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need."
(For the record, I got his larger point. And he responded graciously to the inevitable "emails from everybody" mad about that art history dis. But, still, he singled out the particular field to compare it with other admittedly more financially lucrative ones, thereby assigning it a hierarchical position according to a set of standards that represented perceived value).

So to me, the backlash to this playful protest reflects in many ways what we value as a culture. What to think about Renoir's alleged suckage, though?

Well, I don't think Renoir sucks, but I do think he's over-rated.

His work never impressed me with the consistently innovative and exciting qualities and vision that characterized other Impressionist masters. I guess Manet would agree with me--although Manet was a notorious crank, so consider the source there. OTOH, a lot of these guys weren't particularly warm and cuddly (including Renoir). They were men of their age, and reading about their lives and personalities informs my personal understanding of their art and the times they lived in.

I think Renoir is rather the Thomas Kinkade of the Impressionists, the guy whose work today would grace 21st century hotel lobby starving artist sales and end up on your suburban living room wall. I'm not saying Renoir didn't have his moments of grace and genius, despite what Manet and the Boston protesters might say. Having taken in the Durand-Ruel exhbit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this summer, I had the opportunity to view Renoir's three full-length paintings (unusual for him) hung together: Dance in the Country, Dance in the City, and Dance at Bougival. I came away smiling, and bought postcards in a vain attempt to hold onto the feels I experienced while looking at these three works.

To be honest, part of my joy in seeing these paintings was remembering when a massive bronze sculpture inspired by the couple in Renior's 1883 Bal à Bougival was brought to Pittsburgh last summer by the Laurel Foundation. My husband and I used Seward Johnson’s “A Turn of the Century” 20 foot tall, 14000+ pound sculpture as an impromptu photo backdrop one summer evening after dinner...and I'm sure many others did as well. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with art in a fun way.

Seward Johnson’s “A Turn of the Century" in Pittsburgh 2014

Renior's Bal à Bougival recently returned to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and it's the kind of feel-good Renoir that these protesters would like to see taken off the walls. (The other two dance paintings live at the Musée d'Orsay but that doesn't mean they're off-limits to the group's criticisms. The ReNOir/RSAP gang are taking their show on the road, if a subsequent hilarious protest on October 17 at The  Metropolitan Museum of Art is any indication).

Bal du molin de la Galette, 1876
I am not fond of Renoir's later classically-inspired works, which I find meander all over the canvas and aspire to something greater than they achieve. His earlier crowd-pleasing crowd at the Dance at the Moulin de la Galette is more to my liking for its well-composed snapshot of everyday life, as is Luncheon of the Boating Party. Renoir would no doubt say that artists don't 'compose' per se when portraying real life, but I beg to differ with that level of nuance. An artist needs to first seek and recognize a compelling image, then portray it to its best advantage with his or her technical virtuosity. 

The eye comes first, and with that said, Renoir's vision, to me, wasn't reliable.  
Le déjeuner des canotiers, 1881

Other criticisms? Renoir's landscapes are so deeply saturated; I shudder to think what he'd do with today's Instagram filters. There is a childlike snub-nosed quality that pervades his group facial features, which I understand relates to his indistinct sketchwork and composition. It's not as noticeable in his many individual portraits, which provided the mainstay of his income, but his fluffy nudes are another story. Oh, those nudes! Let's just say that the old 'flesh' crayon that Crayola manufactured doesn't even come close to Renoir's portrayal of skin pigmentation. One contemporary Impressionist critic helpfully suggested that someone might  "Try to explain to M. Renoir that a woman's torso is not a head of decomposing flesh covered with green and purple patches, which are the sign of advanced putrefaction in a corpse."  (I'm still waiting for that to show up as a ReNOir/RSAP protest slogan).

A big criticism of Renoir (and of Impressionism in general) is that it's all just TOO pretty, with no intellectual depth and a reliance on trifling subject matter. I happen to think there's a place for simple beauty in this world. And Renoir, who was born in Limoges France and started his career as an apprentice to a porcelain painter, so it's not surprising to me that the decorative was so prominent in his work. 

For what it's worth, Renoir sometimes seemed to recognize his limitations. In a letter to dealer and Impressionist promoter extraordinaire Paul Durand-Ruel, Renoir wrote:
I am still going through an experimental stage. I’m not happy, and I keep scrubbing out and scrubbing out again. I hope this mania will pass…I’m like the children at school; the clean page has to be filled with good writing, and splash – a mess! I’m still making messes and I’m forty years old.

He lived to be 78 and made messes to the very end, even when someone had to fit a paintbrush in his withered hand.

So, okay, Renoir is admittedly a bit much for my tastes. And there's just SO much Renoir out there. The Impressionists were a prolific bunch, especially the longer-lived ones like Monet and Renoir, but I think our man takes the prize for most thousands of paintings. Enough paintings, anyway, to fill the Barnes Collection...and for nearly every major museum to have at least one, or two, or more. Renoir saturates the market like he did color to his canvases.

Because he was so prolific, I think Renoir has become over-represented in Impressionist art collections. That makes him an easy mark to criticize, to be sure.

And I know there are those who'd argue that Impressionism itself is way over-represented in museum collections in general, and doesn't deserve its resounding popularity. We do so love our Impressionists but are so used to the works of that oeuvre that we have a hard time imagining how ill-received these artists' perceptions, styles, and subject matter were during their own era. I think recent exhibits like the Durand-Ruel in Philly and the Caillebotte at the National Gallery in Washington DC, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, have done a wonderful job of putting art from this period into historical perspective. Learning about the social context of artwork enriches the experience just as learning about the artist does, allowing me as a non-artist to appreciate the works so much more. Truth is, I used to be embarrassed by how much I liked the work of this period, fearful of being labeled a fan of escapist pap. But with maturity and age comes, if not wisdom, then a satisfying disregard for what others think about what I think. So, now, I don't particularly care if my artistic tastes are mocked.

I wouldn't presume to inflict my tastes on others, though, so I couldn't seriously stand in front of a museum and call for the eradication of a particular artist's oeuvre. And I take to heart a message that is a bit more nuanced than what is being spun from the ReNOir/RSAP hating demonstrations, with their Westboro-extremist satire. Let's face the fact that there's a lot of Renoir out there, and maybe too much. But let's not get into destroying art we don't like; that's a bit too Nazi-esque Entartete Kunst. 

The demonstrators' meta-message is one I embrace: museums need to collectively evaluate how and what they present. If a particular artist like Renoir is over-represented, then more shows that explore over-arching thematic presentations should be called for to offset that. With only a small fraction of the collection in a particular museum on display at any one time, let's encourage cultural institutions to find time and space for the lesser-seen pieces. Let's encourage more private collectors to allow their paintings to go on display; it increases the value of their paintings, after all. And let's encourage museums to poll their patrons to learn what works they most enjoy in a collection...not to relegate museum collections to utter populism, but to at least include popular tastes. Lastly, let's recognize and act on our own individual responsibilities to seek out variety when exploring our cultural heritage. There's a hell of a lot to chose from, and a digital smorgasbord to present it to us if we can't get to a museum in person.

I'm truly not espousing a wholly populist curatorial approach here, but I think there's merit to take popular tastes in holistic context with other practical and scholarly concerns.

But for sure, I'm not hating on Renoir. I'm not hatin' on the RSAP/ReNOir haters, either. They've got something valuable to say about encouraging us to see the big picture.